Born into an environment of rich musical appreciation, Zachary Mastoon, aka Caural, learned early on to embrace the limitless possibilities of sound. Starting as young as four, Caural has experimented with compositions by using everyday noises and melodies. By the time he finished college, he had found a thoughtful balance between his background as a trained jazz guitarist and the progressive creativity he picked up on while splitting time between Chicago and New York. The constant changing of scenery was an asset for him in terms of avoiding any one-dimensional loyalties toward a regional sound.
Like many experimental producers who share the same vision, Caural proudly cites luminaries like Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder (specifically their jazz-fusion eras) as sources of inspiration for his lush soundscapes. But what separates him from artists like Prefuse 73 and Flying Lotus is his ability to add a melodic, almost liquid-like motion to his arrangements. He's collaborated with a wide array of musicians and has released projects under some of the most cutting-edge electronic labels including Plug Research, Sound In Color, Chocolate Industries and, most recently, Mush Records. To say Caural is a connoisseur or musicologist is a bit misleading, so Centerstage caught up with him to hear about his personal musical theories and where they will take him next.
You have a very eclectic background in music. What were some of the experiences that stood out to you as instrumental in your development?
There were so many really; my parents' stereo system and record collection helping me to fall in love with music from before I can remember, my cousin Andy and I recording piano and toy duets on cassette beginning when I was four or five and then teaming up with my neighbor and surrogate older brother Stuart Bogie to do more tapes together when I was six. I think some of my earliest experiences with music - even recording songs from MTV onto my Fisher Price cassette recorder - brought me more in touch with sound and melody as a part of everyday life, and that's a connection one doesn't lose.
You studied music at Wesleyan. How does your education in school compare to the education you received on the road or on stage?
I don't think you can compare the two. For the most part, academia focuses on strengthening the mind. You learn how to "name" certain sounds and styles, and you build technique and hopefully a broad base of historical comprehension, but these are activities of the mind and the mind only. I think it was John Coltrane who said something to the effect of "we learn musical theory to forget it when we play," which of course is a butchered paraphrase and possibly a misquote to begin with, but it is true. The academic study separates you from the experience and creation of music, which I don't think is intellectual at all; rather, it is instinctual. So, if anything else, studying music history allows you to understand context and inspire you to take next steps forward, and music theory gives you the tools with which to do so, though - at least in my case - music theory helped me to better elucidate what was coming through me to begin with.
You have a background in jazz and I think that comes across particularly in how you use your samples. What are the similarities in jazz and hip-hop as far as composition goes?
Although I studied jazz guitar and improvisation, I find hip-hop from a producer's standpoint to have nothing to do with jazz, to be honest. An emcee or a graf writer or a dancer is better aligned with the spirit of jazz, which means being fully present in a moment, listening, and responding.
Listening is the most important part of being a good jazz player - not playing - and you can tell how aware a musician is by what he or she adds to the whole picture. Producing tracks, on the other hand, can often be a very methodical process. While it may cease to be after you have gathered all the sounds and you begin improvising with what you have, there is still always an element of dissociation from the moment because you are constantly revisiting how everything is coming together (i.e., is this really the snare I want, is this bass sound working, do I like this reverb, etc.). So, in short, producing allows you to stop time - or at least really slow it down - and carve out each moment individually, while jazz is all about now, and listening to what is coming through you and everyone around you.
I think people often call something "jazzy" either because someone samples piano, or upright, or a saxophone, but that doesn't make it jazz. Kenny G plays the saxophone, and his music is the farthest thing possible from jazz.
You cite Miles Davis as an influence. How did albums like Bitches Brew and On The Corner change things for you?
Miles Davis was perpetually reacting and growing, and he was one of the most monumentally important bandleaders in the jazz period. It's not that he was a phenomenal player - he really wasn't; what Miles Davis did was produce. He got the right people together, listened to what was happening outside of jazz and incorporated it into his sound to redefine what jazz itself sounded like again and again.
So, for me, I didn't and don't want to make beats - that is the most ridiculously boring and pointless shit possible. I am interested, however, in taking elements of what some consider to be hip-hop, or rock, or ambient, or noise, or whatever, and make songs, and evolve as an artist while hopefully offering something unique to music. The more people who discard these arbitrary boundaries and act on what they feel, the better art will we be. People who have made the same rap records over and over again because hip-hop is this exclusive culture, well, they are the reason that that art form is so completely dead and irrelevant nowadays.
I've read in an interview that you’re not part of any particular scene here in Chicago. What is it about the city that inspires your music?
I think that was a particularly old interview, but it's still true today. I had been living in NYC for the last ten years on and off, and just moved back here almost two years ago now. I don't think anything in particular about Chicago or New York directly influenced my stylistic choices per se; It's just how I react to the energy of a place that takes my sound in a new direction. I do think Chicago is a beautiful city, but as far as inspiration goes, it's pretty hard to pinpoint anything outside of me.
Can you give me a brief description of what a perfect day in Chicago is like for you?
Wake, practice yoga at Bikram College of India Chicago, meet friends for brunch outdoors, maybe take a bike ride on the lakefront or go to a street festival, have some wine, check out live music, try a restaurant I have never been to, and enjoy people-watching afterwards at a lounge somewhere. That's a hard question...there's always too much to do!
It seems that you're just as inspired by the visual as you are the audible. How did you link up with Cody Hudson and what were some of the things you worked on together?
I met Cody years ago through Seven at Chocolate Industries, and have always admired him and his work. Funnily enough, I did music for a documentary called "The Run Up," and my music was used in his section totally coincidentally!
A year ago, he approached me about doing a soundtrack of sorts to an installation he created out of tambourines, so I made a track out of all tambourine samples. The installation opened in LA originally but, when it came to the Andrew Rafacz Gallery here in Chicago, Cody added a video element to it as well, and it became this almost tribal, cult-like initiation piece - at least, that's how I experienced it! We have been talking about working on something else together, but time has so far prevented it.
Do you still work with Chocolate Industries? What projects are you working on now and do you have a release date for another solo album?
It has been years since I last worked with Chocolate. My last two albums were on Mush. Lately, I have been wrapping up a project called Boy King Islands, which is more or less shoegaze rock: zero samples. I have done a slew of remixes over the last couple of years which are still getting released slowly but surely, and an artist in the UK is doing a video of one of my newer songs for a DVD on Eat Concrete. I have been performing live with my old friend K-Kruz, and he and I will start work on a collaborative electronic project as well. Though, for now, I have been much more excited about picking up a guitar or beating on a drum set than pushing buttons...