The Dire Straits influence on 75 Dollar Bill’s freeform desert jazz is, to be fair, subtle at best. “Mark Knopfler is in every guitar player’s top five in Mauritania,” guitarist Che Chen told Tom Pinnock during the second of End Of The Road’s Uncut Q&A sessions at the Talking Heads stage, considering the lessons he learned in the West African country during his eleven days under the Moorish guitar tutorage of Jheich Ould Chighaly in 2013.
“I got a crash course in the Moorish modal system,” he explained. “Ten years later I’m still digesting the things that I saw and learned there. It’s an important touchstone for the way I play guitar.”
His percussionist bandmate Rick Brown was keen to stress that the band’s influences stretched far beyond Mauritanian styles, let alone the “Money For Nothing” riff. “The minimalist composers of the ‘70s, free jazz musicians, soul jazz musicians and Afro-Caribbean rhythms,” he said, “all of those things are important to one of both of us.” And so it would prove, as the pair wove liquid guitar and exotic polyrhythm into dream-like extended passages during their early evening Boat Stage set.
The duo arrived at the Q&A – delayed but unflustered – fresh from two nights at Dalston’s Café Oto, one of which, by chance, saw them play with baritone saxophonist Cheryl Kingan, who had appeared on 2019’s I Was Real album. Having played there as a duo after US shows as a ten-piece band (best exemplified by 2020’s Live At Tubby’s release, Brown argued), discussion naturally turned to their formation on the New York underground scene of 2012, where Brown became a regular at Chen’s shows with his experimental band True Primes. “People didn’t like us,” Chen joked, “so if you turned up repeatedly at our gigs you were pretty conspicuous.”
Brown immediately saw in Chen a musician with the skill and vision worthy of accompanying a crate he’d found in the street. “I’d found this five-pieces-of-plywood crate on the street in New York years before,” he said. “I didn’t play it very much but I knew when I hit it with my fist it made this nice ‘boom’ sound that I liked and it was open in the back so I could put stuff in it and it didn’t take up too much space. [Chen] heard it and thought ‘these ideas I have with guitar might work with that thing’.”
The box, Brown explained, has “mutated along the decades. The one I’m playing tonight has bits of wood from Italy, Norway and some of the original stuff. It’s all hybridised.” And Brown himself has done some mutating too. Pinnock steered him towards a few choice reminiscences of moving to NYC at the height of the CBGBs punk period, diving into the no wave scene inspired by Pere Ubu and running into a young Sonic Youth.
“I played in a band at the Speed Trials,” he explained. “It was a few-day festival in downtown New York, The Fall were a part of that, Swans and some other bands including Sonic Youth.” You need to write a book, Pinnock urged. “I’m a very slow writer – I’m working on it,” Brown grinned, then corrected himself. “I’m planning on working on it.”
Catch up with all of Uncut’s coverage of End Of The Road 2023 here.