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toroddfuglesteg View Drop Down
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    Posted: November 11 2011 at 11:31

Motor Totemist Guild was formed in 1980 by composer James Grigsby and poet/singer Christine Clements. Throughout the 1970's Grigsby had been involved with the study and performance of electronic music, Renaissance polyphony, progressive rock, post-Webern serialism, Balinese gamelan and punk-jazz. Clements was active in the San Francisco poetry scene. In 1984, after a move to Los Angeles, they released their first project, Infra Dig, the inaugural LP release on Grigsby's private label, Rotary Totem Records. Six more albums followed.

I got in touch with the band and here are their story, told by   James Grigsby.


Your biography has been covered in your ProgArchives profile so let's bypass the biography details. But which bands were you influenced by and why did you name your band Motor Totemist Guild ?

The name was meant to signify a music with layers that could be developed independently, stacked vertically like the animal symbols in a Totem Pole. These thematic layers are linked by a rhythmic design that "motorizes" them.

I grew up in what would now be called the Classic Rock era, and I avidly followed all the musical changes, which were often brought about by technological innovations such as multi-track recording and synthesizers.  But the musical technology that most affected me during this era was the long playing album.

Groups like The Beatles and The Mothers of Invention took advantage of the album format to create stylistic hybrids broad enough to include references to avant-garde composers and jazz musicians.  I followed all these musical threads as far as they would lead me, so that by the time I was defining my own musical style I was deep in the study of Olivier Messiaen's "Technique of my Musical Language", Gamelan music from Bali, and Stockhausen's "Kurzwellen".

This is an archive based interview also intended for the fans you get well after both you and I have passed away so let's go straight to your releases. Please give us your views/some words on your releases, starting with.......

Infra Dig (1984)

The group at its inception was a duo with the poet and singer, Christine Clements.  We recorded with musicians from groups I had played with in the 1970s, a progressive-rock septet called "Mutapro" and a punk-jazz quartet called "See Spot". The music is an mix of styles and approaches, from satirical pop to structured noise, all with a DIY methodology.  I recorded this album at home using two four-track machines and a lot of track bouncing! Though I had some training in composition, I did not want to market this music as high-brow, or "serious".  The album title reflects this rejection of the idea that one style can be inherently superior to another.

Contact With Veils (1986)

The second MTG album begins a pattern: with each new album there would be a change of direction.  This incarnation of MTG was a performance ensemble, no longer a studio project. Our concerts were balance of instrumental compositions and improvisations, the later owing much to Lynn Johnston's outrageous woodwinds . This music was created for clubs and cabarets in Los Angeles, like Lhasa and Anti-Club.  During this period, there were many collaborations with musicians from the Independent Composers Association and California Outside Music Association, such as performances of Terry Riley's In C and Stockhausen's Aus Den Sieben Tagen, both works that influenced me greatly.

Shapuno Zoo (1988)

This album reflects the growth of the band, we were now a sextet with added percussion and Emily Hay's distinctive flute and vocals.  This meant we were able to combine the compositional discipline of "Contact with Veils" with the Dada-esque humor of "Infra Dig". We were also working with Curt Wilson, the recording engineer from 5UU's, the group that would begin to merge with MTG.  Shapuno Zoo was released by No Man's Land, the German spoke of the Recommended Records wheel.  No Man's Land was also responsible for bringing U Totem to Europe for the Frankfurt Art Rock Festival in 1989.

Elements (1988) - by 5 UU's

This album was recorded at the same time, in the same studio, with Shapuno Zoo.  Dave Kerman, the leader of 5 UU's, asked me to write some arrangements for this album, using the musicians from MTG. The result was so interesting to us that we decided to form a new group, U Totem, as a merger of the two. This album was released by Recommended Records UK,   This effectively put MTG and the 5 UU's projects on hold for a few years.

A Luigi Futi (1989)

While rehearsals were underway with the U Totem project, I assembled this album for Auf Dem Nil, aka Recommended Records Italy.  There are demos, studio outtakes, live recordings, and remixes of pieces that had been previously released on compilations. There are also excerpts from a collaborations with a chamber orchestra and musicians from Cambodia and Laos.   I approached the album as a collage, so nothing is presented in exactly its original form.

U Totem (1990) - by U Totem

The debut of the merger of 5 UU's and MTG.  This was also our first compact disc album, released on the Cuneiform label - all prior albums debuted on phonograph (vinyl) discs. Kerman's influence (and thrilling drumming) brought a more overt "Rock" sound.  This album remains my most popular release.  It also contains my "signature" composition, "One Nail Draws Another" - which was astutely analyzed (by Brandon Derfler) for an article in the Indiana Music Theory Review.  This piece melds and juxtaposes things that "shouldn't go together": 12-tone serialism, a Rock riff, a Renaissance motet, and a song.  

Strange Attractors (1993) - by U Totem

During this time, Dave Kerman was also recording with his newly reformed 5UU's with Bob Drake.  I had anticipated a second U Totem album with a mix of compositions from Kerman and myself, but as his new material was going to the 5UU's, I took on the writing for the entire album.  I started writing this music while working on a novella, which became the subject for the music. At one point, I thought that I would set all the words of the story directly to music - you can hear this approach in pieces like "Ginger Tea".  Later I decided to use various approaches, for example, creating an instrumental theme for a particular character, as in "Agent White Fox".  After we completed this album we went touring in Europe - Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland.  Soon after we returned home, Kerman moved from California, which ended the group.

Archive One & Two (1996)

This is a two volume collection of the first four MTG albums (minus a couple of tracks), presented in the compact disc format.  This series was released by No Man's Land in Germany.

City of Mirrors (1999)

Once again, it was time for something new.  I reformed MTG and expanded it to a thirteen piece band, including jazz players like Vinny Golia and Jeff Kaiser.  The music was inspired by the progressive wing of the Swing Era, Stan Kenton, who's music was recommended to me by the composer Louis Andreissen when I met him during U Totem's European tour.  In addition to studio recordings of through-composed pieces for the group, there is a live recording of a realization of a graphic score, "Bixby Slough" and an art-song with Curt Wilson guesting on vocals.

All America City (2000)

An intersection of two different approaches to composition and performance. Graphically notated pieces are played live in the studio, while traditionally notated compositions are played by a MIDI orchestra with human overdubs.  This album has some of my most sonically extreme moments. The music also relates to a movie, which hasn't been filmed yet.  I wrote the screenplay, called "Parachute Kids" aka "Yu Gakusei".  The music was written to underpin the moods and tensions of the story and relates directly to the screenplay, but since there is no film, it's not really a "soundtrack".  It functions much like the novella does in "Strange Attractors".

For those of us unknown with your music; how would you describe you music and which bands would you compare yourself with ?

Since we received some initial sponsorship from Recommended Records, we are sometimes compared with Henry Cow, Art Bears, and the multitude of groups that sprang from them and emulated them.  Indeed they were a big influence - in their leveling of the distinctions between high and low art, in their mix of styles and approaches, and in their determination to remain independent.  We don't really sound like them and are nowhere close to their cultic power, but I do believe that a fan of Henry Cow might enjoy Motor Totemist Guild as well.

The last Motor Totemist Guild album was All America City from 2000. What have you been up to since the release of this album ? Is there any plans to do anything more under this name ?

Yes, there has been a lot of activity, but only one release this decade.  That is, "Songs for Adults" (2005) by NIMBY (with Dave Kerman, Bob Drake, and Jerry Wheeler).  It is an album entirely of songs in familiar styles, like bossa nova or tango, set to satirical lyrics, and enhanced by Drake's unique production style.  It was a refreshing break from the compositional rigor that I had been engaged in since 2000: a series of instrumental pieces for Octet (Woodwind Quintet plus Piano Trio), using a polytonal system I developed incorporating pentatonic, diatonic, and dodecaphonic scales in a matrix associated with a deck of playing cards.

After the OCTET and NIMBY projects, I composed a new album for Motor Totemist Guild.  This is the completion of the "City" trilogy, called "City of Angles".  I formed a new version of MTG, this time a quintet, to rehearse and then perform the album live before recording it.  We started rehearsing and made some demos, but the musicians had other committments that made it impossible to schedule enough time to learn to play the music convincingly in concert.  Until I am able to regroup, that project is on hold.  So, most recently I have begun a new project, a book about art vandalism.  

To wrap up this interview, is there anything you want to add to this interview ?

Thank you to everyone who has listened to Motor Totemist Guild.  And of course, please visit our website:, and our video channel:

Thank you to the band for this interview

Their PA profile is here and their homepage is here

Edited by toroddfuglesteg - November 11 2011 at 11:38
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Mellotron Storm View Drop Down
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: November 11 2011 at 11:54
James Grigsby is bordering genius i swear. I have several of the albums he touched on yet i feel like i have barely scraped the surface on most of them especially "City Of Mirrors". Challenging music to say the least.
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: November 11 2011 at 22:31
Cool interview!
I hope the musicians involved with the new MTG piece are able to get together soon, as that is something I'm most interested in. (As well as that Octet)
Dig me...But don't...Bury me
I'm running still, I shall until, one day, I hope that I'll arrive
Warning: Listening to jazz excessively can cause a laxative effect.
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: November 12 2011 at 02:57


I didnt understand if the 'Rotary totem present' that presented in Grigsby's website, is the group that suppose to perform the 'city of angels', or is it another band.
Not enough patiant to wait for another Grigsby's project.
'Songs for adults' is great, and highly recommended for everyone, do not miss this album please.

Edited by ShW1 - November 12 2011 at 02:59
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: November 12 2011 at 09:18
Now this is an interview I've been looking forward to read, thank you!
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