Paying Back The Debt
Interview with Udi Koomran - Sound Designer
In 1974, Udi Koomran stumbled upon an Israeli radio show dedicated to prog-rock. That Show changed his life. Since then, by years of hard work, he's trying to repay the musicians who created it, and help this genre survive and live, even in the 21st century
At a certain stage in the band "Yes"'s career, the musicians treated their studio engineer, Eddie Offord, as a band member, no less. His picture, showing on the cover of the "Close to the Edge" classic album, represents a revolutionary period in music, where the engineer, usually an unimportant person in the creative process, was a full partner to the artistic innovations of the prog-rock genre. Udi Koomran, today, is the Israeli version of Eddie Offord. And who's to blame? The media, of course.
"In September 1974 I turned on the radio and found a program called "who's afraid of progressive pop?" in the national radio. It aired once a week, for 3 hours. The first broadcast that I listened to was devoted to King Crimson. These were the days of the album 'Red' so they made a special retrospective for the band. As time went by, I became addicted to this program, and that's how I got to the music I still adore today. I was only 12 at the time".
"It was an interesting time. The Israeli public radio had about 3 programs devoted to prog-rock, and so did the Israeli Army Radio (called 'Galatz' in Hebrew slang), making it perhaps the only military prog-radio in History. One of the broadcasters who hosted a show about progressive music [Oded Ben-Ami] became the IDF spokesman...well, this is Israel for you".
On the age of 13, Udi saw his first rock show ever: The Israeli progressive rock band 'Zingale', in Tel Aviv. "I was shocked. I couldn't believe there was such a good band in Israel. The album they issued years later was inferior to their live shows". This album has been reissued in 1993, for the Israeli and European market, in CD format. It received good reviews in prog circuits, notably the GEPR.
Udi, born on 1962, spent four years of his life (7-11) in Germany, and was a passive listener in his youth. Today he has a collection of 1500 CDs and some 100's of LPs. Among his influences he names Henry Cow, Magma, Robert Wyatt, Davied Allen, Gong, King Crimson, Captain Beefheart, Pink Floyd, Univers Zero, Art Zoyd, The Science Group, Norma, Ground Zero and Faust. After his release from Army service, he planned a trip to Norway with a friend. It was canceled abruptly: his mate started working in a sound studio. Koomran decided to check things out.
"My uncle knew the studio manager. I got inside and spent the whole day there. I witnessed the creative process, and the music taking shape: from only a draft in the morning, they got it ready in the evening. I used to think that recording was a simple process: you come, you record, you go home. That day I knew what I wanted to do in life".
He had no background. He wasn't a tech-guy nor a musician. The only experience he had was listening to progressive music. "I realized very fast that Israel was not a place to learn how about studio engineering. I flew to London, spent four years there: Two years of studies and 2.5 of studio work".
The combination of theory and practice proved successful in his part. "I went to an institute called SAE, short for School of Audio Engineering, and worked in Wave Studios. One day before I was planning to do a project with Brian Eno I got fired. I was very depressed that day".
Udi returned to Israel in 1987 with his diploma. "It was hard adjusting to what was happening in Israel that time. I worked in Sigma studios with some well-known musicians, but it wasn't meaningful. I did not become a sound engineer for this. That's what I thought".
The Turning Point
The band "Gong" celebrated 25 years of existence in 1994, at the heart of London. "I was very low at that time, in all respects. But I felt I couldn't miss this thing. I flew there and met Avi Balleli, the leader of the Israeli rock band "The Tractor's Revenge". The event was great, but the important thing was the bond between us two. We felt alike. A year and a half later, he offered me to work with him. We recorded one album with them, and he pushed me to do live stage engineering, which was a new thing for me".
"We visited Berlin, listened to RIO music [RIO stands for Rock in Opposition: a small movement headed by Chris Cutler in the late 70's against the power of record companies]. Bands like Art Zoyd, Magma, Univers Zero and Present. I think these bands are the most loyal to the original spirit of the musical revolution in the 70's. It's not easy listening. It's a matter of acquiring the taste: First you listen and can't understand anything. But this, to me, is the most progressive music. When you create music like this, you're taking a risk. However experimental, it's still rock, and that's the difference between plain avant-garde and progressive rock".
Since he got together with Balleli, things started to work out for Udi. One thing led to another. On March 1999 he got himself a job as a stage engineer for Davied Allen (for no fee whatsoever!), who came to Israel for a musical festival called "Next", in Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Part of that show was included on one of Allen's albums. Israeli promoter Shuki Weiss tried to bring Gong to Israel on 2001 but it didn't work, because of travel costs. Udi remains in contact with Allen even today.
An exciting project has been taking form: The Haifa Theatre was doing a modern version of Othello, and the Tractor's Revenge were doing the music live on stage. The guys felt that the material was good enough to be documented on a complete album. Yishay Amir of "Noise Studios", who owns the small label "LA4", volunteered to help. Koomran: "That year  I decided to start working on a home computer, and do the whole thing on it. What it meant was that we recorded the basic things on the album, and then mixed it at my flat. Instead of paying 30-40$ for every studio hour, we had all the time we needed to make the album as creative and thoughtful as possible".
A draft for the album was ready, and it started a surprising chain-reaction. A good friend of Koomran's, a prog collector called Meidad Zakaharia, who witnessed the creative process, was so ensusiastic with the result that he wanted to let Europe know about it. For over 10 years he represented "Musea", a well-known progressive French label. Meidad flew to Paris and met one of the company's managers in his office. During the meeting, the Belgian musician Roger Trigaux called. Trigaux, who left "Univers Zero" to form "Present", was the guy that Meidad decided he wanted to meet. He flew to Brussels, knocked on Trigaux's house door and said to the surprised man: "Hi, I'm from Israel. You've gotta listen to this music".
Meidad's stubbornness and determination proved themselves. Although since 1973 Trigaux did not choose to participate in any project that wasn't related directly to himself, this time he said "Yes". That same year (1999) he flew to Israel, in the first time in his life, of course. "I gave him my flat and went to stay at Avi Balleli's place, and slept on the living room floor. After a certain time I went back home and we shared the flat. We completed the album with him, using some of his ideas. Him and me had a click from the first day. After 2 days he asked me if I was willing to work with him on his music with the 'Present' band."
A beginning of a progressive friendship
The offer shocked Udi. Trigaux is considered to be one of modern prog-rock's leading figures. "It didn't make sense to me. He even said he wanted to work in Israel. I said I would gladly go to Belgium with him, but he insisted on working here. He liked the people and the atmosphere". So on May 1999 all seven members of "Present" came to record in the holy land. The flight was sponsored by the Belgian label "Carbon 7", and the musicians lived on a cheap motel in Tel Aviv. It took them two weeks to recorded the basic material of the "No. 6" album, and also 70 percent of the next album, called later "High Infidelity".
"What's interesting about working with Trigaux is the fact that he's a true composer, who makes all his music on the computer using notes. We managed to combine two different working environments: A musical software called Finale and my software called ProTools. That meant that I, a non-musician, could work on his composition easily. After the band left Israel, I could keep on working on the music with no problems, mostly on my own. The mixing was done using Email and sending CDRs on international mail. I would work on something, send a sample to Trigaux, and he would reply with accurate remarks on every note. All home made. Actually, the studio was used only for the playing, but the REAL work was at my place, which took three months."
Things started to gel. The "No. 6" album was out, getting excellent reviews everywhere. Koomran went to Europe to see a Magma show, and decided to offer his stage sound services to Trigaux. His proposal led to a special gig in a music festival in southern France, which was an artistic success. On this gig, the band included some reeds and grew to 8 members. Trigaux was so content, he decided that the band will be made of 9 members: Udi Koomran was now a full-time member of Present.
On 1999, the "Error of the Moon", the Tractor's revenge album, was out. On Europe it was named "Othello", distributed on the Musea label. "Israeli critics didn't know how to listen to this album. It's very sad, but I got used to it. The important thing was that the band got offers to work on an opera in Europe". Balleli declared that this was one of hie best projects to date. He thought that this kind of dark and brave music was the band's essence.
Kerman makes Aliyah
At about the same time, an opportunity to help the American musician Dave Kerman was available. Kerman, a Jewish-American musician and an important member of many avant-prog bands like 5uu's, U-Totem, Blast, Hamster Theater and Thinking Plague, decided to leave the US for good. He chose Europe as his new home, but things didn't work and he felt a crisis coming. Udi met him when they spent time at Bob Drake's farm in France, on the French-Spanish border. Dave didn't know what to do. Udi offered him to come to Israel. Dave Agreed and settled in Tel Aviv.
"In two months, we started working on the next 5uu's album called Abandonship, at my place. This time, the whole thing was made on computer. This experiment made me think and work differently, using braver and harder ways of solving technical problems. Kerman played on the instruments himself. He's an amazing musician, with amazing talents. American singer Deborah Perry (who worked with Kerman on previous albums like Thinking Plague's "In Extremis") got her vocal parts by mail and sent us back her work on CDR from Seattle".
Some Israeli friends appeared on the work: Avi Balleli and Aviv Barak from the Tractor's Revenge, Yoram Fogel, Tzahi Patisch and Michal Ezrony. "Today, the artist must suffer the entire burden of production and finance. It's very difficult, and there are very few crazy people out there willing to invest time, money and energy to get the work done".
"The Internet is very helpful. Life changed dramatically since I got connected. I contacted lots of musicians worldwide, met new friends and was now able to send music and mixes easily. Personally, I don't feel alone anymore, because I'm connected to more prog lovers around the globe".
The Progressive Manifest
So how does Udi make ends meet? "I try to make it. I work on this music without earning a dime, but also make commercial work for TV ads by recording hits with new artists to help the networks save on Royalty payments. It's an underground industry of recording. I'm a bachelor, I don't lead a family life, I don't spend to much money on stuff. Three years ago I sold my car. It's more important to have a good sound system. Most of my vacations are gig-related. I pay the price, but do it with love. My priorities are not very common in Israel. It's unbelievable how much this music is on the verge of beingn science fiction, when you see how hard it is to produce it. It's hard work. There are not enough people in Israel loving it and not enough people willing to spend money on it, in order to make it financial".
"Generally speaking, I think there is very little music made today which is truly progressive. It's funny to see band calling themselves progressive, playing like other groups played 30 years ago. If there is a prog territory toady, it's where the RIO-related bands are working".
"I feel I got so much from the prog musicians. This music enriched my life. I built my fantasies using some of those magical moments. That's why I feel a need to help and return the love and energy I got, and help this music survive and live on in the rough world of today".
"I ask myself why do I do it, and that's the real reason. I get no respect, no reward, no money, no positive feedback from my social environment. The ability to give, to feel a part of something grander, it has to do with my childhood, and it's more important than other things. This is basically an ideology. To go on a road show with Present, to stop living for 6 weeks and go through physical difficulties, it's not easy. But I believe in this music, and the experience is worth this dog-life. That's why you need a special character. Today I feel the most focused, the most oriented and self-satisfied ever."
"The only thing I miss is that virginic feeling of listening to music, when I was a child. Today, when I'm older, everything I listen to reminds me of something else, and you can't avoid comparing. Your brain is loaded with previous data. That's why I'm searching for that magical feeling, when I was young, when everything I heard touched me in the deepest places."
Maybe one day I'll meet a woman who will be able to live with this thing, and then I'll build a family etc. That's possible. But I will not live by the standard Israeli bourgeois code: nice car, cellular phone, a weekend with the kids, slavery to mortgage".
(Interview: July 2001)
Some good reviews of Present's "No. 6" can be found here and also here