[What follows is a continuation of this week's music feature, a Q&A with sometime-Portlander and ex-Ohm owner Dan Reed. Some answers are more fleshed out than those in the print story. Some questions and answers are brand new! -Ed.]
WW: It sounds like you've been through a lot of changes since you left town.
After Portland, after Ohm, I decided to go to India for a year and clear my head from the nightclub experience—I got into drinking and substance abuse pretty heavily, lost my head, lost my direction. After my father passed away, I sold my shares in the club and did construction work in Portland, which I loved. Then I went to India, spent 4 1/2 months in a Tibetan monastery and seriously considered becoming a monk. But in meditation, and learning throat singing, I felt myself drawn back to music.
How long were you in Israel? Why did you go?
I was there for two and a half years. I met a lot of Israelis traveling through India, and I'd always been curious about the Palestinian-Israeli situation, so I decided to see for myself. I studied in a yeshiva [Jewish religious school] for nine months, making the connection between Judaism and Buddhism, and just started writing. I'd take my notebook to the Old City, the Kotel [Western Wall] or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and write lyrics, and they all came to be about the same [spiritual] thing.
Do you have any sort of a Jewish background?
No. But my mother is adopted, and doesn't really know her roots. I know I'm one-quarter German, and there's been talk of tracing our family roots, to see if there's some spiritual reason I was drawn to Israel. Several rabbis I met seemed to think I must have Jewish roots that had called me back there.
When I got to Tel Aviv, I cried, and the guy sitting next to me asked me what was wrong. I said, after a lifetime reading about, learning, seeing films about the suffering of Jews throughout the centuries, to come to this land that's supposed to be a safe haven for them, yet is surrounded by so much animosity and hatred.... It felt like the dream was not yet fully realized. And a lot of that goes back to how it was formed, which is unfortunate. But Israel fought tooth and nail to exist. I mean, the Europeans sure took care of the natives to make America—and I'm a quarter Native American, so I'm sensitive to that—but life moves on, and you have to respect those who were displaced, but that's how countries are formed, you know?
What did your spiritual experiences in India and Israel bring about in your new songs?
When I was in India, in the monastery, I made a kind of mission statement to myself about this album. I wanted it to be full of love songs, to my parents, to my friends, my acquaintances, and to God, or that energy in the universe, whatever you want to call it. But mostly, I wanted them to be love songs to myself, forgiving myself for mistakes I'd made, and looking forward to the future. So I kept that mission statement in my head, recorded five or six songs, and this record company in Florida got really excited about them. And now I find myself working with Derek Schulman again, who signed me to my first deal on Polygram, back in New York twenty years later, full circle.
Derek has an apartment in Israel too, and he told me, you'll find it really difficult to launch this record from Jerusalem, and I figured he was right, so I'm going to do this show in Portland, then come back here [to NYC] and get to work. I love living in Israel and would like to go back again. But I'm getting a band together, we're shooting 3 or 4 music videos for this album here in New York, so I have to be here now.
What's the new record called, and will it be ready in time for your Aladdin show?
The record's called Coming Up For Air
. It won' be released until early July, but I was coming to Portland anyway, and my friends Blake Sakamoto, Dan Reed Network's keyboardist, and Terry Finley, our old road manager, suggested I play, and I said,"Yes!" I've never done a show like this before, just me, naked, strumming. I'll have some other musicians there, Keith Shriner from Auditory Sculpture playing some ambient keys, and Ben Rader, who's a Portland singer-songwriter, and Rob Daiker playing some electronic effects stuff on guitar, and a guy named Mike Collins playing percussion, not drum set. I'm doing three Network tunes I've acoustically revamped, for the people who still love that music and got to know me through it, but it'll mostly be the new songs.
What about the songs on your last EP [Sharp Turns, available on iTunes]. Were those from the Ohm period?
Yes, those tracks were all done during that time, and there's a rumor that Eon Records is going to release a full album of material I recorded in that period. For some reason, it didn't catch on at the time, but in hindsight, people seem to like it.
But your music now has gone even further in an explicitly spiritual direction.
At Ohm nightclub, I would have been the first to say I don't believe in any God, but maybe the Buddhist God, which is ourselves, and our conscious mind that has a sense of right and wrong. But after studying I really feel that... well, I'm going to start sounding a little crazy here, but...
That's OK with me, sound as crazy as you want.
Well, the energy that creates the sun... without the sun in the solar system, organic life here on earth would not be possible. And what science says about the origin of that energy is of stars and galaxies coming out of these black holes in the universe. And to me, that's really close to the Buddhist conception of God as this Nothingness. I think when people started writing down the word of God in the Bible, saying "He" or "Him," that they conjured this being with arms and legs, looking like us, and that was our biggest mistake. Because God is an energy; [as one of my teachers explained to me], God is protons, neutrons, electrons.
Will the track "The Great Dictator" [available on Reed's MySpace, which is based on samples from the passionate, humanist speech that closes Charlie Chaplin's Hitler-spoofing film of the same name] be on the new record?
Yes, it will. As a matter of fact, we just shot a video for it last week, with me in front of a green screen, and we're going to put me into the footage, since we just got all the rights to use it, the sound as well as the image. We want to do something really special with it, and make it available for free, because that seems to be in the spirit of those sentiments he's talking about.
Is the style of the rest of the new material similar to that track, sample-based and blending acoustic guitar and electronic tracks?
That's the only sample on the record, but the rest is similar production to what's on that song. Which you won't hear at the Aladdin, of course. But throughout the record we tried to bring in Middle Eastern instruments, and this incredible Palestinian woman came in to sing on this song that's called "Promised Land."
Have you checked out your old '80s videos on YouTube lately? How do you feel when you see images of yourself back then?
Maybe six or seven months ago, somebody told me, "Hey, your videos are on YouTube," so I sat down and watched a couple...well, little pieces of a couple of them, that's about all I could take of that. That whole period seems like some dream I had when I was in my 20s, in the '80s. It is what it is. I don't look at it as something I remember that well, and I wasn't drinking or doing drugs then, it was just where my head was at then, or maybe where it wasn't at, compared to now. I think that was an era where music was coming more from the groin, whereas now I'm trying to come more from the heart zone. Maybe next record I'll work up to the crown chakra. [Laughs]
Any embarrassment about that phase of your career?
I have a few regrets from that era, no embarrassment at all. It was something I was honored to be a part of and without that, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now. It's still part of my foundation.
What were the factors that made it a challenge to advance the [Dan Reed Network]'s career?
Well, it seemed we were always hitting this wall of trying to be defined. A lot of our frustration was from that. I mean, I remember all these discussions we had, asking ourselves, are we a rock band, are we a funk band, are we a soul band, and that was mostly seen as a necessity because of radio. I mean, they said we sounded too black for the white stations, and the black stations thought we rocked too much. I think in the last fifteen years or so those lines have been obliterated, and that whole impulse to divide audiences up like that is pretty much all gone now because of the internet.
What brought about your conversion to electronic music?
There were two things that happened... well, actually, three things. The first was when I heard the Future Sounds of London album Dead Cities
. And my reaction to that album was basically, "What the hell is this?" I mean, sonically, I couldn't even understand all these ambiences they were creating. It felt like music from some part of my imagination, but haunting, like some dark part of the imagination, but with lots of depth. After that, rock 'n' roll guitars were pretty much not an option for me anymore.
The second thing was when I went to my first rave, about three years before I took over the Ohm, at that old hall at, like, 21st and Powell, across from the school there [he's actually referring to the current SEIU union hall at 26th and Powell, across from Cleveland H.S.].
And [the third thing was] learning to dance. I had never danced before! I had been scared. I mean, when you're up there in front of a rock band, that's not dancing, that's fronting a band! But when it came to dancing, I was terrified. But starting at that first rave, I started learning, and I began to feel a connection to music I'd never felt before. And over the next few years, I got so far into it, learning to breakdance. At Ohm, we'd stay up and have these late night sessions, I mean from 4 until 6 or 7 in the morning, with these guys, like, 20 years old teaching stalls and liquid dancing to a white guy in his late 30s.
At that time, in Portland, there was, like, one all-ages [dance] club, and some things being done by guys like Menage and Brian Williamson, but there was no club that could be like a home base for the over 21 crowd, that every night would have electronic music. And we had rock bands at the beginning of the night, and then DJs after that. I was trying to introduce the rock 'n' roll crowd to electronic music, and vice versa, really. And the first couple of years, it worked like gangbusters. And eventually, when some clubs started to come along like the Doug Fir, and built on same kind of thing [eclectic booking] that we'd been doing, that was when I realized we kind of did our thing.
Were there personal reasons, too, why you felt like you'd reached the end of that phase?
The restaurant and alcohol business is so hard, I started getting so wasted, and fell into a deep depression, not doing music, instead, going to Costco to get plastic cups, you know? Not serving my talent, getting high a lot, being the crazy man at the nightclub. And my friends actually got quite concerned, and they stepped in, they intervened and suggested I take a break before I kill myself. In fact, Menage, who's a very influential person in the electronic scene there, threw a party to raise money to get me to India, just to get me out of there to save my life. He knew I wanted to go there, I had been there once before when I went to interview the Dalai Lama, but people donated to get me back there. So I'm coming back now to thank them with the music that I wrote in the meantime.
How did your interview with the Dalai Lama come about?
I had a bet with Bob Guccione, Jr., who at the time published Spin
magazine, and who I was friends with. We had connected over martial arts, we both had a strong interest in that. And it was around the time that Nirvana was coming out, and people started talking about punk rock again. And I told Bob, "You know what the real punk rock is? The Dalai Lama, that's the real punk rock, this guy who was raised from a child to be the best leader of his people, to be compassionate, wise and intellectual. And standing up for his people and his country for all these years against these powerful forces, actually losing his country because he refused to raise an army and fight a war because of his loyalty to his belief in pacifism." And he sort of made me a dare, saying, "OK, if you get an interview with him, I'll put him on the cover."
This was in 1993, and I wrote to the Dalai Lama's people, and requested an interview, and it didn't take too long, maybe about three weeks, before I heard back, and they said, "Yes, you have an audience with His Holiness on such and such a date." And Bob went to India with me for the interview, and it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Not just talking with the Dalai Lama, but even meeting his doctor, which was just as special. This was a guy who had lived for 12 years in a Tibetan monastery-turned-prison camp, and the entire time, did not eat any food to protest. He drank water, and he gnawed on this leather jacket he had. He didn't eat it, he just kind of gnawed on it. And I asked him, how is that possible? And he told me that if you're truly connected to spirit, to the level of soul levitation, you can actually turn the skin of an animal into its meat, and get some of the nutrition from it. I mean, this is on a very high spiritual level.
He talked about all these Western illnesses, breast cancer, AIDS...he pointed out America, where we have hundreds of millions of cases of breast cancer, compared to Tibet, which he said never had one documented case of breast cancer, ever, and he asked me, "Why do you think that is?" And I said, "Because American woman are always worried about their breasts?" And he said, "Exactly."
WW's music feature on Reed
Photo: taken by Bob Boon, taken from Reed's MySpace.