Claire Cross on the ‘Surface’ project: “Let’s call it a drama”

Composer, bassist, genre-bending sound explorer, Claire Cross is the leading force behind Surface, an electric jazz-rock outfit that modernizes the fusion tradition, adding to it elements of folk and electronica. As the band is about to launch their debut album, ‘Next’, she tells the story of the project, offering insight on the daunting task of being a band-leader, sexism and competition in the jazz community – and the widespread crimes of condiment overuse.

AustralianJazzNet: What is the ‘SURFACE’ project?

Claire Cross: The SURFACE project started off about two years ago and came together at a bit of a juncture. It was a combination of meeting some great people (who are now some of my best friends), finishing my undergraduate degree and taking some time off to go overseas and finding the space whilst traveling to compose some new music. In the lead up to this, a lot of us in the soon-to-be-band had been lucky to experience some very inspiring music together at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, and that definitely set a few of us on a new musical course to end up where we are now.

The SURFACE Project started off as an opportunity for me to compose and get experience running and leading a band, but it has grown over the past years into a little family and more and more various band members are contributing both their own compositions as well as ideas and concepts and direction. Because we are all good friends, this is sort of a natural progression as well, I think, as we all share music together and see gigs together and that kind of thing.

AJN: How would you describe your music to someone who has never listened to it?

CC: I always really struggle with this question because I feel like I’m not particularly objective! We definitely have a sound that draws from heavy rock music and certain aspects from ambient music too. A lot of the pieces on the album have their own characteristic and mood about them; some are definitely more folk sounding, whilst others can be very raw and aggressive, and then others have a sort of ‘chamber ensemble’ sound about them. It’s not a straight-ahead jazz group by any means, but we all have a background in performing as improvisers and exploring various types of jazz that interest us, so this feeds into everything very directly too. We are continuously attempting to keep the music fresh for ourselves by finding new ways to improvise within some fairly heavily arranged material – so it’s a constant challenge. I definitely also think that as the band continues to grow that we are leaning more and more towards a ‘raw aggressive’ sound with new compositions than previously.

AJN: If ‘Next’ was a film soundtrack, what kind of film would that be?

CC: This is an amazing question. I think ‘Next’ definitely has a certain arc about it. The album starts off quite triumphantly and optimistic and then goes through some interesting turns and twists that might touch on some darker issues, then ends in quite an epic fashion. I guess that is most formulaic movies right? Everything starts off good and fine, something terrible happens or a challenge is posed and then the problem is solved and everyone goes home happy. Let’s call it a drama.

AJN: Why ‘Next’?

CC: The title ‘Next’ represents a few things for me and I’d also say for the rest of the band too. The process of pre-production, recording, mixing, mastering, organizing a launch, plus all the other little things you often don’t even think of – all of those things are incredibly rewarding, but I am a pretty impatient person. I’ve felt at times that I really just want to put the album out into the world as soon as possible, so that I can bookend and document all of the experiences that we’ve had as a group up until now and continue to look forward to together. So, in that respect, it pays tribute to the creative process for me as well as the personal need to constantly be seeking new information, people, ideas and gaining more experiences to keep growing as a musician and human. There’s something remarkable about looking back on a tangible piece of work of any kind and considering it with fresh eyes and ears, and wondering how you might do things differently next time around, now that you’ve learnt so much from the experience.

AJN: One of my favorite tracks is ‘Mayonnaise Warrior’ and I can’t help asking: what is a “Mayonnaise” warrior?
CC: I ask myself this every day. Our drummer, Cameron Sexton, wrote this piece and I’ve never been able to get a straight answer out of him that satisfies my curiosity. I’m going to suggest that this title has a bit of a “choose your own adventure” vibe. That’s how I think about it anyway – for all I know, he could secretly be lobbying against the widespread crimes of condiment-over-use. And I’m kind of fine with that, too.

AJN: What are your influences?

CC: I grew up listening to my Dad’s pretty decent-sized CD collection; he had (what I consider) pretty good taste in music that spanned a couple of decades. This was usually a mix of some pretty classic and awesome pop music and heavier rock/psychedelic type albums from the ’60s and ’70s.Β It’s undeniable that that has shaped me over the years.

As an adult, my transition towards jazz happened through checking out prog-rock and a little bit of metal and I was eventually lead to fusion (the first time I heard Weather Report I was mind-blown), which lead to Pat Metheny (with whom I have been ridiculously obsessed since the first listen) and then the list expands rapidly throughout the jazz tradition. I’ve been highly influenced by the music and artistry of Skuli Sverrisson for quite some time now and other artists that I have had on high rotation for the past couple of years that I consider to be of significant influence include Kneebody, David Binney, Brian Blade Fellowship, Joni Mitchell, Ambrose Akinmusire, The Bad Plus, Christopher Hale/Gian Slater, Bjork, Nir Felder, Wayne Krantz and Eyvind Kang.

AJN: Could you describe your relationship to the electric bass?

CC: I came to the electric bass by chance, I guess. I started music life primarily as a brass and woodwind player throughout school, with a bit of your standard childhood piano lessons thrown in there. When I moved into doing my final high school exams, years ago, I had to choose an instrument to specialize on and the bass looked cool and no one else in my year level played it, really. I found it a very physically challenging instrument at first, as I was very used to playing an instrument that focused a lot on breath control and the fingers all kind of stayed in the one place to make notes happen, whereas bass obviously requires a lot of moving around and position shifting and perhaps an unnatural (at first) technique. Despite this, I guess I fell in love with it and keep on falling in love with it and there are still so many things I find challenging about it as an instrument and the role that you are often required to play in any ensemble. To me, the bass can be a very flexible and versatile instrument with a range of sonic options available to it that are very unique to the instrument and I really enjoy seeing players who are exploring and pushing these boundaries whilst still fulfilling their role of (usually) being the foundation for any given ensemble.

AJN: When did you decide that music is your calling?

CC: I’ve always played music since childhood and really loved it, so I guess it’s one of the only things I ‘know’ how to do, so to speak. When I got part way through my music degree I realized what other musicians around me were doing and it opened my eyes to the possibilities (and challenges) of what being a full time musician could be. I haven’t really looked back ever since that time.

AJN: If you could ask any artist to come and join the band, who would you choose?

CC: Far out. I don’t even know where to begin – there are too many names that come to mind. Anyone who is of influence to me would be amazing, really. Replace me with Kaveh Rastegar or Linda Oh, maybe – that would be pretty fun to watch.

AJN: What has been the most unexpected difficulty you have had to face, as a bandleader?

CC: One of the most unexpected difficulties I have had to deal with is managing other people’s expectations alongside my own – as well as constantly trying to strike a good balance of knowing when to put the foot down or be open to change. I place a great deal of personal appreciation into the efforts other band members go to, in taking ownership of the part they are playing in the music and the group – because whatever comes out when people play together will always be 100 times better than anything I could have imagined on my own. Finding ways to help people feel like they have some ownership and are entitled to it, is a real challenge but a very rewarding one to constantly be thinking about, because then it is a sharing experience rather than a dictatorship or something like that. I think all bandleaders probably experience this too, but trying to negotiate six people’s very busy schedules is always a bit of a gauntlet.

AJN: What has been the most enjoyable part?

CC: When we all get together in the same room, it’s usually a lot of fun, irrespective of what we’re doing – and that’s amazing to have. The guys in this group are really special and just being able to spend time with them regularly, play music and grow together is something I am very grateful for.

AJN: As a woman bandleader, do you find the jazz world being sexist?

CC: I have and still experience sexism on a daily basis in a variety of ways, but in terms of jazz being sexist… that’s a big question. I have seen a lot of really positive conversations take place in Melbourne in the past year surrounding this topic, which is very encouraging. The issue with sexism (or any form of discrimination) is that it’s not always blatant and there is so much subtlety in people’s behavior and the psychology behind it. As a woman, I feel a lot of ingrained pressure to be really good and go above and beyond to prove that I am “good despite being a woman” or that “women can play music too”.

I’ve had friends (who are guys) in the past that say that they feel the same pressure to be as good as possible (in a negative, self-destructive kind of way) or to be a specific type of musician and we have talked about the various psychological traps we fall into based on our insecurities. From this they have sometimes tried to dismiss the sexism issue as if the insecurities surrounding performance and the sometimes competitive nature of being a musician apply to everyone the same. But my perspective on this is that they probably feel various pressures (that are quite valid) but for very different reasons and that, if they are male and heterosexual, then it is quite likely that their gender or sexuality has very little to do with their mindset in the choices they are making as musicians.

Having said all of that, most of the men I know and associate with in the scene are really wonderful people who are very interested in this topic and engaged with it. I guess with these very big and often daunting issues, everyone really needs to be constantly asking themselves what role they are playing directly or indirectly in the scene and how they can contribute positively, so that it’s an inclusive environment – rather than it being an ‘us and them’ situation.

AJN: How do you imagine yourself in ten years?

CC: Probably more of the same. Producing work, playing music, being a part of the community. But I would love to think that there will be some more consistency. Maybe I’m dreaming.

AJN: What song best describes your current state of mind?

CC: Get to Work – Sylent Running

get to work from sylent running on Myspace.

SURFACE will launch their album, “Next” with a performance at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club, on Friday 6 November. They will also play at the Paris Cat Jazz Club, on Thursday 19 November.