Eliot Klein talks sci-fi rocker opera Dreams in Cryogenic Fugue - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Dreams in Cryogenic Fugue | photo courtesy of the artist

In the Q&A below, MC Tonguedancer‘s Eliot Klein mentions “illustrated musical fiction.” It’s this realm between graphic novel and rock opera where the Philadelphia-based composer, musician and performer’s latest project Dreams In Cryogenic Fugue: A Journey on the Unisex Starship lives – a collaborative electro-psych / sci-fi album paired with a 32-page, LP-sized book of synched artwork hand-drawn by Chris Johnson.

Funded by a Kickstarter back in 2013 and therefore subject to the delays and unforeseen obstacles of doing everything yourself, the 16-part megalith of an album was finally released in November and is getting some more stage time at the Pharmacy this Thursday night. We spoke with Klein via email to find out what went into this three-year labor of love and what he’ll do next.

The Key: How did this project start?

Eliot Klein: The musical basis for Dreams In Cryogenic Fugue is live recordings of Unisex Starship from our 2010 U.S. tour. This is an improvisational electronic duo with Richie Morsberger, of Drums Like Machine Guns. We’ve been playing together for the last decade, sometimes with a larger ensemble. The idea had always been to make sci-fi music, and so in 2012, I wrote a story to be rapped over these edited live recordings.

These recordings were pretty low quality, a lot of digital noise, so I worked with co-producer Evan Cory Levine to re-record most of the arrangements in his West Philly basement studio, Hydrogen Peroxide. We also added bass and guitar (courtesy of Evan) and got Julius Masri to lay down some percussion. There are several singers who came by to contribute parts, including Megan Biscieglia of Bad Braids, Gwen Rooker of Tygaton and Acres of Diamonds, and Cecilia Ferneborg of the Perseverance Jazz Band. Megan’s improvised sections, especially, are a crucial part of the narrative, and her voice just sails. Evan and I were in the studio from spring 2013 until the fall of 2015, and we basically built the studio that now exists in order to finish the project.

TK: What were your inspirations and influences?

EK: One of the first concerts I attended after moving to Philly in 2005 was the band Need New Body with the Sun Ra Arkestra, led by Marshall Allen. This was really my first transcendent musical experience. Sun Ra introduced a world of ideas and sounds that feels like the most natural thing to me, alongside the modal jazz of John and Alice Coltrane and others from the 60s, as well as modernist African music like Konono No. 1 and Kasai All-Stars. Much of the hip-hop I’m inspired by is also of this realm: Afrika Bambaataa, Deltron, Wu Tang, Blackalicious, Shabazz Palaces. From here, we can jump to the landscape of progressive rock, especially Yes, Genesis, Soft Machine and Magma. I can say that Frank Zappa has influenced my vocal melody writing and the American minimalists (Terry Riley, Steve Reich) have given me much for soundscapes.

TK: Tell us about the artwork component.

EK: Chris Johnson did all the artwork and design for the album, 32 pages worth, a labor that took him a year and a half of steady work. I know his working hours (late into the dawn), because we were roommates for three years in the South Philly row house formally known as the Padlock Gallery. Although I gave the story to Chris complete, he developed the characters and their world and has also helped with many aspects of the performance, such as my costumes and the video projection. He’s recently moved to Portland, OR, but we will continue to work together on illustrated musical fiction.

"Black Hole" by Chris Johnson for Dreams in Cryogenic Future

“Black Hole” by Chris Johnson for Dreams in Cryogenic Future

TK: How did a science fiction narrative become the vehicle for the songs?

EK: I’m real into sci-fi in any artistic medium, especially of the more abstract sort – the promise of human liberation is the crux. The writer and former Temple professor Samuel Delany has been particularly inspirational in his future vision, along with [authors] Ursula LeGuin and Frank Herbert.  I can’t speak for Chris, but I know comics artist Jesse Moynihan has been a source of joy to us both.

TK: How do you feel now that this project is complete?

EK: I’ve been on a sort of ramble, searching for the trail I wish to take. Making this album consumed my life for three years, and in that time I learned every aspect of the production process, from composing and transcribing to the more arcane regions of mixing and mastering. I know Evan and Chris had a similar journey. Now I’m learning about the next steps, that is, the wary world of promotion.

TK: Where do you go from here?

EK: I’m very excited to be working on new music and visual art. Right now, I’m collecting compositions and fragments to put together a new story and album that ties these pieces together. Chris and I will be collaborating further, expanding the universe these characters inhabit and writing new stories. Dreams In Cryogenic Fugue is exactly that, a dream narrative, so the question is: What happens when they wake up? For now, I want to tour pretty much everywhere with this thing, perfecting the performance, and I’m planning an East Coast tour in May with Gavin Riley, who does a fantastic multimedia choose-your-own-adventure rap performance. I also like to hang with the free-improvisation crowd. Performing that way, especially with dancers, can be a fun and challenging game that opens up a space for truly unexpected and novel experiences.

You can see Klein and his “electro hip hop ensemble from space” perform at the Pharmacy on Thursday, February 18th. More information can be found here.

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