The story goes like this: In 2011, Jon Mueller was walking through the streets of New Orleans. The post-Katrina city was buzzing, full of life, optimistic—despite the fact that another hurricane was all but inevitable. The future surely held more destruction, but for now, the residents of New Orleans were going on with their lives and living in the moment. “A lot of people were talking about this impending doom,” Mueller says, “but not really saying anything about wanting to leave.”
Fast-forward four years, and Mueller’s leisurely stroll has led to Death Blues, an ambitious, multi-disciplinary rumination on “the inevitability of death as impetus to become more present in each moment.” It’s a project that has so far included live performances, four records (Death Blues; Here: An Advanced Study Of Death Blues; Non-Fiction; Ensemble), and a written manifesto. On Saturday, January 31, at Alverno College’s Pitman Theatre, the tireless drummer and percussionist (Volcano Choir, Pele) will present a one-night-only performance of the epic Ensemble, calling on musicians both near and far to recreate the album’s dense, exotic sounds and communicate its heady, life-affirming themes. It’s not exactly a finale, but more of a culmination of a project that began with more questions than answers.
“What is this whole Death Blues concept and this style of music that I want to do? How much do they work together? Is it just the name of a record or the name of a project, or is there more that can be done with it?” Mueller says he asked himself after returning from New Orleans. “I was very excited about the possibility of more being done with it. Instead of just being a guy who makes a record, titles it something, comes up with some image to put on the cover…can I make it more than that? I didn’t know.”
While Death Blues is undoubtedly Mueller’s own, the success of Ensemble (one of Milwaukee Record’s best Milwaukee albums of 2014) hinges on an unlikely collaboration with San Francisco-based film score composer William Ryan Fritch. After happening upon one of Fritch’s records in 2011 and being introduced via email, Mueller found an “enormously genuine and powerful spirit” and struck up a friendship. Soon, Fritch broached the idea of working together, and perhaps developing Mueller’s in-progress Death Blues. It seemed to be an incongruous meeting of Mueller’s stark, minimal post-rock and Fritch’s lush, organic compositions.
“He said, ‘What kind of record do you want to make? What do you want it to be?’” Mueller explains. “I said, ‘Well, I’m really interested in these things that are really old, that have ties and connections to a wide range of ancient culture systems, but yet also sound very much present-time and familiar.’ And he said, ‘Okay, let’s do that.’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’ He said, ‘How can we make that happen?’ I said, ‘Well, man, you brought it up, I didn’t.’”
Eventually, the duo found a place to start. “I like threads, and I like threads running through everything I do, especially in terms of what was happening with Death Blues,” Mueller says. “So I said [to Fritch], ‘I’m going to take all the original guitar tracks, which are these hammered acoustic guitar tracks, and I’m going to send them to you…Then you can just use those how you wish.’”
Following years of work and some drastic reworking from Fritch, Ensemble was born. It’s a towering achievement of an album that slyly enhances the musical themes of Mueller’s past work (Ensemble’s “Participant” is built from the skeleton of Death Blues’ “Impatience,” for example), while creating something new and altogether unexpected. Fritch will join Mueller for Saturday’s show, which will find Ensemble performed in its entirety. (Also performing: cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, harmonium player Jaime Fennelly, hammered-on acoustic guitarist Jim Warchol, vocalist Marielle Allschwang, and upright bass player Nathaniel Heuer.)
Another figure important to Ensemble and Death Blues as a whole is Alverno Presents’ Director David Ravel, who has shepherded the project from its earliest days. (In the linear notes for Death Blues, Mueller thanks Ravel, “who saw a spark, fanned it, and threw heaps of wood on the fire.”) Ravel presented the first Death Blues show for Alverno in 2012, and provided a devastating essay on the death of his father and wife for Ensemble’s deluxe vinyl edition. For him, much of the appeal of presenting Mueller’s work—and other work like it—has been the element of surprise.
“I was talking to some people at another presenting organization earlier this week about commissioned works,” Ravel says. “They were saying how much they don’t like doing commissions because they never know what they’re going to get. And that’s exactly the reason why I love doing commissioned work. I don’t think anybody needs me to bring them something that has already happened somewhere else.”
But back to that Death Blues origin story. It’s one that has been told time and time again, and one, according to Mueller, that perhaps shrouds the project’s biggest secret: simplicity. “We talk about big things like impermanence and the finiteness of our lives, and how much time we have left,” he says. “But I feel it’s much more simple than that. It’s less grand than that.” Hints of that simplicity can be found in the Death Blues manifesto. In it, Mueller writes that “immediate positive actions are the structural building blocks for things to come.” Small kindnesses, in other words, can lead to the fulfillment of our bigger dreams. Simple. Easy.
Likewise, the question of how to approach a show like Death Blues—a show that may perhaps seem daunting to someone not steeped in its background and weighty themes—is answered by Ravel in two simple words: show up.
“Concurrent with Jon’s idea for this project, I’ve always said that with [Alverno Presents], all you have to do is show up. Something’s going to happen. It’s so damn easy.”
Jon Mueller/Death Blues: Ensemble takes place Saturday, January 31 at Alverno College’s Pitman Theatre. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased online or at the Alverno box office. For an in-depth discussion with Mueller and Ravel, check back Friday for episode 4 of our weekly podcast, On The Record.