How working remotely brought Fuubutsushi together | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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How working remotely brought Fuubutsushi together

An online collaboration by four musicians in four states has parlayed pandemic necessity into new forms of creativity—and some tight long-distance friendships.

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Matthew Sage in his Portage Park home studio, with out-of-state bandmates Chris Jusell, Patrick Shiroishi, and Chaz Prymek on the computer, clockwise from upper left - JACK GARLAND FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Jack Garland for Chicago Reader
  • Matthew Sage in his Portage Park home studio, with out-of-state bandmates Chris Jusell, Patrick Shiroishi, and Chaz Prymek on the computer, clockwise from upper left

The pandemic immediately cut off Patrick Shiroishi from public performance, and even in private it was nearly impossible for the Los Angeles avant-garde musician to perform with other people. This wore him down so much that by summer 2020 he was barely playing his saxophone. "I was really bummed out," he says. "I didn't touch my horn for two to three months."

That changed in August, when he received an unexpected message from Chicago experimental artist Matthew Sage. He'd gotten to know Sage a couple years before, when Sage's old label, Patient Sounds, held one of its occasional open calls. Shiroishi had submitted a live recording by his nonet Danketsu 9—a layered, long-form drone piece occasionally tinged with acid jazz—and in March 2019, Patient Sounds released it on CD as Towards a Walk in the Sun. Sage's note didn't come out of nowhere, but it turned out to be even better news than Shiroishi imagined.

Sage was putting a new offer on the table, and Shiroishi had liked working with him enough to take him up on it. The idea was that Sage and Shiroishi would remotely record a collaborative album with two other musicians, violinist Chris Jusell and multi-instrumentalist Chaz Prymek. All four live in different states—Prymek is in Missouri, Jusell in Pennsylvania (where he moved from Colorado last June). Everyone in the quartet would record their own parts and upload them to a shared Dropbox. All four were accustomed to traditional modes of collaboration, where players share a space and feed off the group's collective energy, but Sage's new ensemble couldn't even draw on the memory of such symbiosis—the members had never assembled in one place before.

"None of us have ever been in the same room as Patrick, ever," Sage says. "Chaz and Chris had met each other in passing—they sort of knew each other, and they have a lot of mutual friends, but they weren't ever friends-friends. They were all aware of each other. I picked three of my favorite musicians that I knew, and was like, 'Hey, we should all be friends, and work on something together.'"

The quartet completed an album, titled Fuubutsushi (風物詩), with impressive speed: the recording was done within two weeks, and Sage released it in late September. On that first release, Prymek plays guitar, Jusell plays violin, Sage plays keyboard and percussion, and Shiroishi plays alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet, flute, glockenspiel, and samples; Prymek and Sage are both credited with field recordings, and everyone but Jusell adds "voice" (though there's almost no singing—just wordless intoning here and there and a few words in Japanese on the final track). The gently rustling music explores the space between jazz-influenced instrumentals and ambient improvisations, and feels much like the performers are playing off one another on a stage.

Sage released Fuubutsushi on his new label, Cached Media, which he'd established about six months before. He pressed 100 CDs, and they all sold out within a week. Because Cached is a one-person operation whose PR apparatus consists entirely of its e-mail newsletter (Sage has a day job as an instructor in the Communication, Media, and Theatre Department at Northeastern Illinois University), those sales surely came mostly via word of mouth. Two months later, in early December, Pitchfork ran a glowing review of the album.

By that point, the quartet was already working on a follow-up. "I think for all four of us, it just felt really good—the process of working on it felt really good, and it was good to be in each other's company in a text chain and meet on Zoom calls and stuff," Sage says. "I had a lot of friends during quarantine who got into Dungeons & Dragons—they're playing D&D online together, and I sort of feel like that was what happened for us. We started this game, and then we didn't want to stop playing. So we just expanded the campaign."

They devised a plan to record an album every season. The winter full-length, Setsubun (節分), came out in February, and the spring release, Yamawarau (山笑う), arrived May 7. All three albums are credited to "Jusell, Prymek, Sage, Shiroishi," but in a Cached newsletter announcing Yamawarau, Sage proposed an alternative: fans could refer to the group as Fuubutsushi, a Japanese word that more or less means "evoking nostalgia for a season," like cherry blossoms in spring. It's a fitting term for a group whose music echoes the subtle shifts of natural processes. On the Yamawarau track "Kodama," Shiroishi's soft, seraphic singing seems to summon a gradually intensifying instrumental interplay—gently arpeggiating guitars, pitter-pattering percussion, duvet-plush horns and violins—that's suggestive of a field of lilies coming into bloom.

Fuubutsushi are working on their summer album, with plans to wrap it up in June. Sage and his wife, Lynette, are also expecting their first child at the end of June, and he plans to pause all Cached activities when the baby arrives. I suspect that doesn't include communicating with the rest of Fuubutsushi, though. "We talk every day in a group chat," Sage says. "We've become best friends through this, which is so weird and cool."

Chris Jusell - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the artist
  • Chris Jusell

In 2009, Sage launched Patient Sounds, his first label, while living in Fort Collins, Colorado. He met Jusell shortly thereafter, when they both worked at a coffee shop called the Bean Cycle. "I played with a folk band in Colorado, but nothing more experimental, like what Matt was doing," Jusell says. "I guess near the end of when he was living there, I started recording on some of his stuff just now and then—a couple of tracks on some of his albums." He's since played on all but one of Sage's solo albums (released under the name M. Sage), and once Sage moved to Chicago in 2014, Jusell often traveled here to record.

In September 2013, Jusell backed Sage at Denver's experimental Goldrush Music Festival. The fest is also how Prymek met Sage—that year it had booked Lake Mary & the Ranch Family Band, an expanded version of Prymek's long-running fingerstyle guitar project, Lake Mary. "He came up to me after my band played, threatening to put me out on vinyl," Prymek says. "Shortly after that, we kept talking and somehow convinced each other that we should play music together. We started a friendship like that. I would take the bus or hitchhike out to his house—it was a couple hours from me—and we'd record all day."

By the time Sage moved here, his reputation in the experimental-music scene preceded him. Colin Blanton, who records as Brin, was working at the Reckless location in the Loop when Sage dropped by on label business in 2014. "He came in to put some tapes on consignment for his previous label, Patient Sounds," Blanton says. "I was like, 'Oh, are you Matt Sage?' And we just talked." Blanton soon moved to Portland, but in 2019 Patient Sounds released the Brin EP Hug Sway.

Patient Sounds amassed more than 130 releases in its ten years, mostly on cassette. Aside from his own solo material and music by Shiroishi, Prymek, and Blanton, Sage put out recordings by the likes of local drone auteur Cinchel, Hausu Mountain cofounder Mukqs, Cleveland IDM artist Tiger Village, and out-of-this-world Yokohama footwork experimentalist Foodman. In Patient Sounds' final years, he noticed that much of the music he received when he made open calls came from solo artists.

"I think sometimes the amount of gravity that people imbue into those kinds of projects is a thing that's a lot for me to deal with as a single person running a label," Sage says. "It was like, 'This is a thing I've been working on for two and a half years, and it's the best thing I've ever made, and I'm gonna give it to you to put out on your cassette label, and you're gonna make 100 and everyone's gonna know my tape by the end of the summer.' And that was a lot of pressure."

Sage bid farewell to Patient Sounds with an August 2019 show at the Hideout. Prymek opened with Lake Mary, and Sage put together a backing band for his headlining set with Jusell; after the show, Prymek gave Jusell a ride to the airport. Sage chose to end the label to give himself a break and a new start. He wasn't finished running labels, but he wanted to experiment and take more chances, to break from what he'd been doing with Patient Sounds. "When I noticed this pattern of 'everything is just solo,' I was like, 'Huh, I wonder if there's a way I can try something different,'" he says.

At the end of 2019, Sage invited two Chicago experimental synth artists, Gianni Andreatta and Zander Raymond, to his house for a recording session. Several months later, it would result in an understated album of ambient textures called Seymour. "I was like, 'I think I might want to do this collaborative thing in the future—you guys should come over and record.' And we recorded all that and sort of sat on it forever," Sage says. "I always had a feeling that that's what Cached was gonna do, was this collaborative thing, so that when the label launched I was like, 'We have this release that's the three of us. Maybe we should just start there and see where it goes.'" Cached released Seymour, credited to Andreatta, Raymond, Sage, in April 2020.

By the time Seymour came out, live music had been under COVID lockdown for more than a month. For Shiroishi, Prymek, Jusell, and Sage, that meant being isolated from their local and regional scenes. Jusell's income had also taken a big hit; he's part of the live band backing Denver singer-songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff, who'd kicked off a tour roughly a week before the pandemic hit the fan.

Sage had a feeling Shiroishi, Prymek, and Jusell might be up for working together, and he figured he could gel with them too—in fall 2019, he'd recruited all three to contribute to the latest M. Sage album, The Wind of Things (released in April 2021 by Geographic North).

Shiroishi and Prymek had already worked together when Sage reached out—and Prymek had been into Shiroishi's music for even longer. "I fanboy Patrick real hard," he says. "My tape deck that holds all my tapes in my car, there's four rows and three of them are Patrick Shiroishi tapes."

Prymek had e-mailed Shiroishi cold a few years ago, and they'd struck up a correspondence. In June 2020 he sent Shiroishi a track he'd been working on.

"I thought it was an invitation to play on it," Shiroishi says. "It was a 20-minute song, so I ended up adding all sorts of things on top of that track. I sent it back, and then I realized that I misinterpreted the message. I was super embarrassed, like, 'Oh my God, how would I feel if someone just played over my track that I thought was finished?' But he really liked it." In September 2020, Prymek released that collaborative track, "Slow Grass," to raise funds for a friend's recently incarcerated brother.

Jusell wasn't convinced at first that he belonged in the company of the other players, though he's one of Sage's longest-running collaborators. But once he came aboard, he validated Sage's hunch. "I think Matt was feeling sorry for me, maybe, and already had this plan to record with Chaz—Lake Mary—and Patrick Shiroishi, and just asked really casually if I'd like to participate," Jusell says. "I was intimidated, but said yes, and then it just ended up feeling incredibly easy and fun."

Chaz Prymek - PHOTO BY SABRINA GARCIA-RUBIO
  • Photo by Sabrina Garcia-Rubio
  • Chaz Prymek

Of course, the question of how the Fuubutsushi crew came together is entirely separate from the question of how they manage to make their elegant, richly layered music via Dropbox. "It's one of those things where it's absolutely mysterious to us too," Sage says. "We don't know how it works. We don't know how we get the energy that we get on the songs. I think that's part of the magic, and that's the part that we try not to poke at too much. We just know how it works for us."

The musicians do have a basic guiding process. Each album begins with one member uploading several recordings of a single musical element—a few melodic piano sketches, for instance, or a series of bass tracks—to a shared folder. Those recordings tend to become the nuclei of songs, and the members can all upload new parts for each one in its respective subfolder whenever they like. "Matt will upload six foundation tracks in a day, and then suddenly Chaz has added to them on the same exact day," Jusell says. "Chaz and Patrick and Matt all have jobs and significant others and houses. They have things going on—it's not like they're just waiting in a void to do stuff."

Sometimes a member will send a message to the Fuubutsushi group chat to update everyone on his progress. And they all tend to use this text chain for much more than their collaboration. "Everyone really roots for each other," Shiroishi says. "In the group chat, Matt was showing us [The Wind of Things] before everything was posted about his record. Chaz was telling us about his label that he was starting and his collaboration and his plans. Chris was on a Tiny Desk concert [with Nathaniel Rateliff], and he linked us in. Everyone was just being really stoked for each other."

Fuubutsushi began with keyboard recordings Sage had been tinkering with for months. "I got really into Harold Budd albums and Bill Evans albums, and I've been trying for a long time to learn jazz piano," he says. He uploaded enough piano recordings to give the other members foundations for a handful of tunes. "Then they started layering on those piano songs, and they sent them back to me," Sage says. "That's when I started adding the drums. Then all of a sudden we had the first one done. It was super fast."

The freedom for the musicians to contribute at their own pace has a lot of benefits. "It's the sort of thing where you leave a fight, or you leave a conversation with somebody, and you're like, 'Oh, that would've been the perfect thing to say'—you have those few extra seconds to really refine your wording or something. It feels really similar with the Dropbox music," Jusell says. "Often what I do with these tracks is record myself going through it five or six or seven times, and then I go through and chop it up based on where the silences are, and then I just pick my favorite parts."

Once everyone finishes adding to the Dropbox, Sage assembles a rough version they can sit with for a spell before hopping on a Zoom call together for a mixing session. "We all spend some time—usually a week—listening to them and coming up with notes and stuff," Prymek says. "Our Zooms are epically long. They're four or more hours of us, and half of it is ridiculous goofery—watching each other cook or eat food. Then we all have our notes, and Matt sets it up so that we can listen to it all together. We all go through, and he very patiently tries to fit in all our notes."

The way their first album turned out took Prymek by surprise. "I thought it was gonna be more ambient," he says. "I didn't expect us to get so jazzy and so ECM directed. I thought it was going to be more like this whimsical fluttering of acoustic stuff." That airy, jazzy sound also established a foundation for the group's future efforts. "The first album was kind of getting to know each other and how we play," Prymek says. "With the second one, we had a good basis, like, 'I can now imagine more that this will happen—I can imagine more that this will happen.' I think we all gave each other a little bit of extra space and went for it a little bit harder."

Jusell thinks he was the first person to suggest creating seasonal albums—he was making a reference to Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. "I do think it was my group-chat text that was, 'Let's do the Four Seasons of jazz,'" he says. He also hid an Easter egg on the winter album, Setsubun, by playing an upside-down twist on Debussy's "Footprints in the Snow"—a reference to his ongoing conversation with Shiroishi about the relative merits of Debussy and Ravel.

The seasonal schedule provided Jusell with an unexpected benefit too, during a period when many people lost track of the passage of days. "It's also a strange thing to have recorded these seasonal albums, and to have such strong markers of time during COVID," he says. "And to feel like I have strong memories of each time."

Participating in Fuubutsushi has helped these four musicians weather an unpredictable and difficult year. "It brought me a ton of joy and gave me an excuse to sit down and play music, and gave me three new very, very good friends," Prymek says. "Especially at this time where I've been losing friends left and right, and isolated, it's a little like a warm fire to come to."

As the musicians began to get more comfortable with one another and with the Dropbox approach, they gave themselves more room to experiment. "I've really gotten to explore with different instruments that I wouldn't have in any other setting," Shiroishi says. "I play a lot of glockenspiel." On Yamawarau, he plays tenor and alto sax, of course, but also trombone and guitar. He sings too, and more than the brief, unobtrusive textures on the first two Fuubutsushi albums—his vocals on Yamawarau are still lullaby-soft, but they're foregrounded crisp and clear.

"It makes me feel comfortable, you know, that I could try something like that," he says. "Some collaborations you can kind of tell from the person that you're making music with, like, 'All right, it's gonna go this way.' Or, 'These are the parameters that I'm gonna be working with.' But I think even going from the fall to the winter record, everyone kind of took chances, and that made me feel comfortable, like, 'Oh, I could try to sing.'"

  • Earlier in 2021, Patrick Shiroishi collaborated with drummer Dylan Fujioka. They had grandparents in the same U.S. concentration camp.

Much of Shiroishi's work—including his contributions to Fuubutsushi—explores his Japanese American heritage. He sings in Japanese, and he's made space on each Fuubutsushi album to include recordings of Japanese Americans in documentaries talking about their experience in U.S. concentration camps during World War II. His paternal grandparents were confined at the camp near Tule Lake, which he first visited in 2016. "It's something that as a musician I've been trying to express—the feelings that I have and that my family went through," he says. He addresses these themes even on solo releases that don't involve any voices at all. "Some of it is hard, just because a lot of that I don't really use vocals or have words. It's primarily all saxophone music. So the titles are the best that someone could interpret. I hope that that message gets through to people."

His Fuubutsushi bandmates have been receptive and encouraging. Fuubutsushi accompanied the release of Yamawarau with a run of merch—a couple T-shirts and a sweatshirt—whose proceeds benefit AAPI civil-rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Patrick Shiroishi - PHOTO BY AMBER NAVRAN
  • Photo by Amber Navran
  • Patrick Shiroishi

The Bandcamp page for Fuubutsushi describes it as the second Cached release in a series of albums made via socially distant or remote collaboration. Sage performed on the first, July's Birthmark, a duo with Tennessee experimentalist Frank Baugh. As Fuubutsushi attracted new listeners, Sage began to reach out to more friends to contribute to the remote collaborative series. "I just want people to have fun doing this stuff," he says. "Music is so serious—especially experimental music—so I want to goof off a little bit more and just have some fun."

In December, he pitched the idea to Colin "Brin" Blanton, which would result this spring in the third and most recent entry in the series (not counting the other two Fuubutsushi records). "That whole project definitely kept me occupied throughout the winter," Blanton says. "It helped a lot—it was very therapeutic."

Blanton reached out first to Texas experimental musician Mari Rubio, whose More Eaze project he'd heard through Chicago label Lillerne Tapes. "I instantly thought of her when the idea was presented," Blanton says. They put together a list of potential collaborators, and Rubio suggested Los Angeles experimental pop producer Jimmy Tamborello, better known as Dntel—his experience with remote collaboration dates back to his early-2000s stint as part of cult indie-pop band the Postal Service.

The collaboration began with Blanton, Rubio, and Tamborello on a Zoom call, and quickly took off from there. "For most of these songs, either Jimmy or myself provided the foundational sample, semifinished composition, or something with a lot of room in it, and then we would pass that around," Blanton says. "Usually it was just, like, 'All right, this is done.' But there are a few tracks that we sat on for a while—or would do a few passes, and kind of tweak the mixing a little bit. It was surprisingly easy; everyone seemed really laid-back with the whole thing. It flowed naturally."

Cached released the Brin, Dntel, More Eaze album Futurangelics in early April, and the trio is still working together. "We're all buttoning up some other projects at the moment, but we have an LP2 folder going," Blanton says. "It means a lot, 'cause now it's sparked this cool band and these friendships that I'll cherish."

The same month Sage put out Futurangelics, Prymek and Jusell traveled to Chicago for a weekend to record live-band renditions of Sage's The Wind of Things material. "They're the first people that we've had in our house since COVID started, and it was like having family over—it was really, really special," Sage says. "And so it really is the biggest silver lining on what's been a real turd of a year—doing this stuff with these guys."

They made sure to FaceTime with Shiroishi during the weekend. The four members of Fuubutsushi say they can't wait to all be in the same room—to spend time together and play music. "I've thought my closest friends and collaborators would be here, in LA, with me," Shiroishi says. "To have that in the middle of COVID, when the world was falling apart, to have this come out of that, and the camaraderie . . . I think that's really nice."  v

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