Iris Garrelfs and myself, Jude Cowan Montague, recently performed our first absurd DJ set at SKRONK. It was a crazy, brilliant thing to do! We played records, duelled, danced, commented on society and music and experimented. It was SKRONK that allowed us this chance to develop our occasional duo into this new area for us, drawing on physical comedy, stand-up, DJ skills (or non-skills), commentary as well as musical improvisation.
For SKRONK #65 some great artists taking place in the improvisation open sessions, curated by Rick, who called up musicians like a caller of a country dance. Performing were Nuno Veiga, John Eyles, Stephan Barrett, Alice Karveli, Paul Millernas, Luckasz Trynka, Dave Fowler, Andrada, David McKenna, Sebastian Sterkowicz, Martin Lau, Tom Spurling, Emily Hand and Hywel Jones. I was was particularly taken with the vocals and flute work of Alice, Emily and Martin on this evening, but there were many captivating moments.
Taking part in the craziness of this communal music-making event led me to a long-desired interview with SKRONK organiser, musician, writer, person who makes unusual and mighty things happen, Rick Jensen.
TST: What is Skronk? Where? How? Who? What versions of Skronk are in the world and what was the first?
RJ: SKRONK was started in May 2016, I had performed at New River Studios and asked the manager Thomas Blackburn if he would like an acoustic open mic improv night, he loved the idea and we booked it in. The first night ended up being loud, electric and full of diverse artists. It continued with twice monthly improv nights, we’re up to number 66 so far. These nights allow any performer to come and create spontaneous live performances with others who I choose. SKRONK also includes SKRONKTRONIC nights which anyone can perform at but aren’t open mic, they have 5 or 6 20 minute sets of any type of electronic music. We also have SKRONKDANCE which is based around physical performance and these happen a few times a year and have had 3 SKRONKSPEAK events of experimental spoken word with music, these are currently on hold as I’m too busy and occasionally we run SKRONK Presents gigs, which really are just anything I want to put on that doesn’t fit the other nights. SKRONK also operates as a label of sorts and we release all of the open mic sessions on Bandcamp and sometimes other groups from SKRONK, but this is a secondary element to the live shows. With the exception of SKRONKFEST (annual all dayer) all gigs are free and anyone is welcome to come, the sense of community is an important aspect of SKRONK.
TST: I can see that Skronk is very much your work. It’s your personality and expertise that makes it work and carries it forward. Your energy, generosity and punk approach fill it with power. What ambitions do you have for it going forward.?
RJ: Over the three and a bit years I have had many people help me with SKRONK, the staff at New River Studios really do, plus often people will volunteer to do live sound or filming and so forth. I’ve never managed to find a regular collaborator for SKRONK. I have accepted it is mine and probably won’t exist if I don’t do it. It exists purely because performers and audience want it and enjoy it. I have been running up to 5 shows per month and it is highly labour intensive, I do the booking, planning, communications and promotions so it is a great deal of work and honestly I am tired of it. I do have personal plans to go away for some time in 2020 and I don’t know yet whether it will continue with others or just take a break while I’m not around. I do hope it continues indefinitely. Additionally, I now get many requests from artists from around the world who want to perform, but I can’t pay them so that creates some limitations, some don’t mind. It would be great to get funding to pay performers but I also feel like commercialising it would change things negatively. I have an entirely separate career so I can’t run SKRONK to the level I have indefinitely.
TST: There are recordings of each Skronk open session that are available to listen and buy. What are your highlights – some of them of sets?
RJ: Genuinely couldn’t choose, there have been nearly 300 individuals who have joined the open sessions over the years and many of those have created magnificent and surprising things. SKRONKDANCE events have often presented the most interesting work but personal favourite feature artists would have to be the Blanc Sceol set at SKRONKFEST 2018 and percussionist Maurizio Ravalico from SKRONK #41, but there have been too many to select.
TST: Iris Garrelfs and myself played as the feature act at Skronk #65 which was exciting for us. You gave us the opportunity to experiment and produce a set of absurd DJ performance with found vinyl. I want to thank you for making that possibly. You support many artists to realise new forms of expression, to stretch themselves in ways they didn’t know they could. Is there anything particular you’d like to do to stretch yourself further that we could all try and make happen?
RJ: The pleasure was all mine. One of the principals of SKRONK and I suppose my own creative improvising values is newness is valuable. I like to experiment and I love that SKRONK is a forum for artists to play for the first time, or do something different or discover something different. I perform in many different projects and have plenty of opportunity to go in all kinds of directions with my own music. In an ideal world I would have more time to run more events and I would create new types of SKRONK, many ideas have been floated SKRONKSONGS is one I’d like, another was a film based SKRONK event. These will happen in time but not until my sabbatical is over. Several people have offered to help maintain SKRONK during my absence, but I’m yet to work out how this would happen.
TST: Skronk is a great opportunity for composers to get close up to expert instrumentalists and discover ways in which expressive players can use their instruments that can be incorporated into compositions. It’s a learning and development experience for those of us who write music. What instrumentalists have performed that have stuck in your mind for their particular performances and unusual instruments?
RJ: Absolutely, and many very experienced and talented musicians have found it intimidating, maybe because of the high level of creativity or maybe because it’s just new to them. Maurizio’s set I mentioned stands out, John Russell performed an early SKRONK and many people found his set eye opening. Alan Wilkinson has performed a few and always shows people how to entertain while being super expressive and untamed. One of my all time favourites was a duo of Gina Southgate and Marta Sainz Serrano, I genuinely can say I’ve never seen anything like it and everyone agreed.
TST: Finally, the New River Studios is the perfect supportive environment for the artistic ambitions of Skronk from my perspective as an occasional contributor. It feels, wild, lively, artistic, a place where anything can happen. The live music room is well kitted out to support diverse performances. And the dark, bar room ambience gives a sense of supportive anarchy. How do you think the venue supports Skronk and how much of what Skronk is because of the helpful environment of New River Studios.
RJ: New River is everything for SKRONK, the team here have been amazing to me and I have carte blanche to do whatever I like, they never question content. They have given me a forum to unleash many amazing artists and the venue does this for many performers and promoters. I also live locally and it is my home for real and fun as well as SKRONK. Thomas set things up and Marion Andrau has given me more help than is reasonable since Thomas left. It is a community oriented venue which suits my own ethos, it’s a creative community rather than a venue. I have become personal friends with many of the staff and joined projects with them. Since being here it has been the most productive and satisfying creative period of my life and this is significantly due to NRS being so wonderful. To find these same conditions in another venue would be difficult and I will keep SKRONK here as long as they want me to and would only leave should the venue close.