There's a scene in Ken Burns' PBS series "Jazz" that just kills Missoula musician Bryan Ramirez. It's when Branford Marsalis calls experimental pianist Cecil Taylor a hack. "He's totally dissing on Cecil, calling what he does bullshit," Ramirez says. "It was like getting kicked in the nuts. I couldn't believe he was saying that. I was heartbroken!"
It's that moment that sticks out for Ramirez almost more than any other part because it pours salt into an already big wound. Experimental artists, especially noise musicians like Ramirez, get that kind of dismissive reaction all the time. They're seen as pretentious or it's assumed they don't know how to play their instruments. "Experimental" is seen as inaccessible, like poetry. Say the word and people look ready to flee.
Ramirez might be one of the best ambassadors for experimental/noise projects because he's so disarming. He laughs easily and sometimes mischievously. He doesn't take himself so seriously, though he's serious about what he does. "I'm used to people not liking it," he says. 'That's fine. But for me, it's like the ultimate freedom."
Ramirez is best known for Ex-Cocaine, which he started with Minnesota-based musician Michael Casler. The duo's albums, Keep America Mellow and Esta Guerra, each sold several hundred copies to experimental-philes around the world. It helped that Ramirez had initial fans like Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and John Olson of Wolf Eyes, who helped get the word out about the music. (Olson and Ramirez also played together in Universal Indians back in the early 1990s.) But looking through reviews from obscure experimental fansites, it's clear that once the music was out there, listeners liked what they heard. The interest in Ex-Cocaine has steered fans to Ramirez's label, Killertree, and helped expose some of his other bands, including one called Poor School, which is composed of Ramirez on guitar, John Niekrasz on drums and Nathan Hoyme on sax.
Poor School knows how to put on a show. The musicians have played Missoula's Total Fest a couple times to awed crowds that normally wouldn't pay money for something described as "experimental." Niekrasz convulses on the drums like a possessed marionette and Ramirez on guitar sometimes tosses himself into the crowd to be tumbled around. In late 2006, Ex-Cocaine played the noise-infused No Fun Fest in Brooklyn, N. Y. Moore was in the crowd and Ramirez says that sometime in the haze of partying, they exchanged recordings. Moore got a hold of him a few weeks later to gush about Poor School, and he ended up putting out the band's 2008 album, The Holy Master, on his Ecstatic Peace label.
"And that's when people started taking me seriously around here," Ramirez says, laughing. "Everyone just thought I was messing around and being a jerk or something. But I hate being coherent—no, that's not it—it's just that I've been doing it for so long I can't be coherent."
Ramirez recently took his experimental sound into the film world. Freeload, a documentary about modern-day train hoppers made by Missoula filmmakers and University of Montana grads, makes its Montana premiere this week at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. The director, Daniel Skaggs, also happened to be an Ex-Cocaine and Poor School fan, and he asked Ramirez to do the soundtrack. Ramirez agreed, as long as he could do it his way. In a behind-the-scenes video about Freeload, Ramirez, with sunglasses on, drives in his car while talking about his vision for the documentary. At one point he turns to the camera and says with just a hint of defiance, "There's not going to be an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. I mean, all respects to Woody Guthrie but I'm not going to be playing one of his covers."
Still, if you know Ramirez's work, you might be surprised by the end result. Whereas Poor School and Ex-Cocaine shows force you into a relationship with the music, the Freeload score does what it's supposed to do by adding grit and tone without drowning out the story. The soundtrack includes new music from Poor School, Ex-Cocaine and Atrocity Singers, another band Ramirez started with Hoyme, a duet with musician Jeff Dunn, as well as some solo pieces from Ramirez. The reverb and drums give the passing of a train a grunge effect rather the nostalgia that a Guthrie song might. It's part of what makes the film feel less like a romantic take on hobo life and more like a realistic portrait.
Ramirez's experience with Freeload has piqued his interest in film scoring, and he's looking to head down that track if the opportunity arises. In the meantime, he's started a band called Chemical Lawns that he says sounds like Neil Young backed by Television. And he's slowly recording another Ex-Cocaine album to send out into the world for all the experimental enthusiasts, Branford Marsalis be damned.
"Experimental music is the most perfect form of expression without being bound to anything, without any expectancy," he says. "I love it because it's the ultimate high. It's religious. It really is."
Bryan Ramirez releases the Freeload soundtrack the week of Feb. 24. Visit killertree.com. The documentary screens at the Wilma Fri., Feb. 21, at 7:30 PM as part of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. Visit bigskyfilmfestival.org.