He thinks big, real big: L.A.-based multi-instrumentalist Tim Conley is the man behind Mast (stylized as MAST), whose second album, Love and War, is just out on Alpha Pup.
An ambitiously massive undertaking structured like a three-act play, the record’s 17 songs are interlaced with recurring musical themes serving as characters in a sometimes painful, often vicious and always beautifully detailed story of finding love, losing love, letting go and rising above. Love and War is musically deep stuff, comprising largely instrumental pieces made via electronic means (synths, software) interfaced with electric guitar, keyboards, bass and drums.
The Philadelphia-area native Conley was trained as a jazz musician and comes from heavy immersion in that city’s improvisational jazz scene, notably as a member of the righteous 10-piece Fresh Cut Orchestra, who feature on Love and War's "She's Chasing the Dragon." His introduction to the potentialities of an electronic-jazz hybrid came from numerous nights spent at Philly legend King Britt’s weekly DJ/jazz band jam sessions.
“In Philly, there’s a great community of musicians that come from a lot of different backgrounds, and King Britt was a big part of that,” he says. “In the ‘80s and ‘90s, he held sessions where you’d have DJs and guest musicians and everybody would play together. It was really groundbreaking, and that opened a lot of possibilities for collaborizing between electronics and live instruments.”
About five years ago, Conley moved to L.A., where he met a few like-minded thinkers at the city's many electronic music laboratories, particularly Low End Theory.
“I would go to Low End Theory and stand in the back and just be a sponge,” he says. “It was really outside of my box, but I wanted to understand it. I was blown away by how creative those guys are being with electronics. It’s like they’re jazz musicians in a very different way, and that was something very appealing to me.”
His meeting with Low End Theory main man Daddy Kev (who mixed and mastered Love and War) led to a deal with Kev’s Alpha Pup label. The resulting MAST albums have found Conley yanking himself out of his preconceived jazzhead comfort zones for his own damn good.
“The MAST project started with me just starting to make beats,” he says, “but I was thinking, 'How would a jazz musician approach this thing?' A lot of electronic artists come from a DJ perspective first, and then start making/producing beats and things like that. But I’d never really DJed before, and it was an experiment, just seeing what would happen and challenging myself to go in a different direction.”
For Love and War, Conley brought in a raft of chops-heavy progressives including Flying Lotus keyboardist/producer Taylor McFerrin and super-drummers Makaya McCraven, Fresh Cut Orchestra’s Anwar Marshall and Knower’s Louis Cole. Bassist Tim Lefebvre, lately heard on David Bowie’s Blackstar album, joined in the fray, along with the Fresh Cut crew and vocals by singer Andrée Belle and rapper The Koreatown Oddity.
As the electronic/DJ people so fruitfully colored Conley’s own jazz sensibility, he's hoping his MAST activities open up a few crusty old jazz heads as well.
“Yeah, unfortunately jazz musicians can tend to be purist in some forms,” he says. “There’s a lot of beauty in that, but sometimes it can be really limiting. Art is just so boundless. When we all look for those places that maybe are uncomfortable, artists can push boundaries to something totally new.”
So what exactly is new about Love and War? Here's where Conley's coming from:
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“I try to listen to John Coltrane every day,” he says. “This record, there’s definitely some Sun Ra and Pink Floyd in there, and a lot of the Low End/Brainfeeder approach of using abstract sounds and beats, like Flying Lotus, and a bit of hip-hop like Madlib.
“It’s different compositionally. I’m not gonna sit and compose songs on sheet music, with melodic four-part harmonies. I’ll start with an idea; it might be a drum loop, bass line or chord progression, and I’ll record that, then sculpt sonic elements and colors around it; when I’ve got 30 or 40 tracks of sounds, I’ll carve things out until I can get it as simplified and precise as possible.”
Ultimately, Love and War isn't just Conley's most experimental project; it's also his most personal. “I am kind of nervous, because I’ve never done something that’s been this … open,” he says. “I’ve made a lot of music that’s had personal meaning to me, but it hasn’t been that obvious to other people, so I do feel a little vulnerable about it. Whatever the case," he adds with a laugh, "it was great therapy.”