Graham Costello's STRATA: Under the Influence

Ahead of the release of STRATA's sophomore record OBELISK, Graham Costello talks us through the unexpected music that has influenced his sound as a musician

Feature by Graham Costello | 05 Feb 2019
  • Graham Costello

I often find it very hard to describe my band. Is it jazz? Is it fusion? Is it noise or classically influenced? It’s all those things and more I’d say. I can only write music that’s genuine to me and my influences, and if I tried to deliberately write within a certain style, the music and its integrity would suffer. I’m not trying to write Dilla grooves, or a modern take on blues or rhythm changes. I love that, but it’s not quite me. Here’s a list of songs from artists that have helped influence the sound-world I’m going for. Warning: I may be a 'jazz' musician, but most of this stuff is very much not jazz.

Lightning Bolt – Nation of Boar
[Earthly Delights, 2009]
A very integral part of STRATA is the fusing of post-punk/noise energy with jazz improvisation. At times, the music on the album sounds like it’s coming apart at the hinges and about to burst. I owe a lot of that direction to Lightning Bolt. A two-piece noise rock band that set up huge amps, sing through a distorted telephone microphone being held on by a mask, and play IN THE CROWD?! Sign me up. Drummer Brian Chippendale’s style is a huge influence on my own. His flow around the instrument is exceptional. The standout track for me is Nation of Boar from 2009 album Earthly Delights. It really encapsulates the crazy forward momentum in their music, and it’s all go from the first note until the last.

Steve Reich – Octet (also known as Eight Lines)

The first time I heard Steve Reich’s music was a pretty seismic moment for me. I could list a bunch of music theory rhetoric that makes me sound smart to give reasons why, but ultimately Reich’s music has stuck with me for a more simple reason... I just get it. Some people are not into minimalism. They’re not into constant repeated patterns, static harmony etc etc, and that is totally fine, but I totally connect with it. Reich is my all time favourite composer, my biggest compositional influence, and this is my favourite piece.

The Mars Volta – Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt
[De-Loused in the Comatorium, 2003]
The Mars Volta's De-Loused in the Comatorium. What an album. Ask any fan of the band and chances are they’ll cite this debut album as their standout favourite, and for good reason. From start to finish it immerses you in their unique progressive rock-meets-experimental psychedelic vibe. And when Omar Rodríguez-López has written a fairly crazy rhythmic section, Jon Theodore’s modern Bonham-inspired drumming always makes it groove unbelievably – it’s not just a bunch of chops. If you listen to the introductory two tracks of Son et lumière into Inertiatic ESP, the initiated are most certainly air-drumming that opening. However, I chose Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt. Having such a strong tune so far into the album shows the amazing depth of this record.

John Coltrane – Acknowledgement
[A Love Supreme, 1965]
Here's an experiment – gather a bunch of jazz musicians/fans in a room, put this tune on and watch what happens. The first note (or should I say gong strike) is enough for them to know. It’s Coltrane. It’s A Love Supreme. It’s one of the greatest jazz albums ever recorded by one of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century. I implore you: if you’re not into jazz or haven’t explored it yet, please just take 33 minutes out of your day and listen to this album. This man and his quartet transcended the genre moreso than anyone else, and he was always moving forward, always trying to better himself until the very end.

Nik Bärtsch – Modul 38_17
[Stoa, 2006]
In the realms of minimal music you have Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but for me Nik Bärtsch is just as important. Further progressing ideas the previous guys pioneered, the Swiss pianist and composer explores the concept of minimal groove with his band RONIN; combining slow developing figures with funk-inspired groove and meditative flow, his band are the tightest I’ve ever heard. Full stop. I’ve got a very small list of things I still need to see live. I want to see Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians in concert, and I NEED to see Nik Bärtsch live.

Zach Hill – Green Bricks
[Face Tat, 2010]
Zach Hill [best known as Death Grips' drummer and co-producer] is my greatest drumming influence. A bit weird to hear from a jazz musician, right? For me, he changed the way the instrument can be played, and the fact that this guy isn’t a household name among drummers is just astonishing. I compare Zach Hill’s noise drumming to the wall of sound effect that saxophonist John Coltrane was searching for. You see him playing and you just can’t quite believe it. His own music is futuristic, sometimes lo-fi punk, and very much formed around his incredibly unique and innovative drumming style.

The Thing – India (John Coltrane)
[Boot!, 2013]
This band are a force to be reckoned with. Mats Gustafsson’s baritone saxophone just echoes through your whole being and this cover of John Coltrane’s India is unbelievable. Listen to the original and then compare it to this: you’ll immediately get what The Thing are all about. Organic, free flowing, intense, heavy-as-fuck free jazz. The sections in STRATA’s new album where myself and saxophonist Harry Weir improvise together is definitely influenced by these guys.

Philip Glass – Vessels
[Koyaanisqatsi, 1983]
Another minimalist composer, but one I feel is very different to the previous mentioned. The music on our new album experiments a lot with energy ranging from fiery, noise-inspired sections to more mediative, minimal moments, and I feel the same range of energy when listening to Philip Glass, from his solo piano etudes to his work on this amazing score Koyaanisqatsi. His music can be so delicate and serene at times but there is always such an undercurrent of intense potential energy that propels his music forward.

Zu – Chthonian
[Carboniferous, 2009]
Riffs. Noise. Doom. This Italian trio needs to be on your radar if they aren’t already and this album has some of the best riffs you’ll ever hear. Their sound as a band is so incredibly dense and full, and this tune in particular is so goddamn heavy. Also notably it's the last album with drummer Jacopo Battaglia – one of my greatest influences behind the kit. I always have these guys in the back of my mind whenever my music hits a section where it’s all about the riff.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – Free for All
[Free for All, 1964]
My favourite tune from one of my favourite drummers on one of my favourite albums. This is arguably one of the strongest iterations of the Jazz Messengers line-up, and the way Art Blakey interacts and drives the band forward on Free for All is so prevalent. You may have noticed a recurring theme in a lot of my picks – I’m really into how a band/artist manipulates and controls energy. Blakey’s never afraid to be messy when pushing the musicians to their utmost limit, and this album is a total triumph of band chemistry at its best.

OBELISK is out now via bpqd Records
Graham Costello's STRATA play St Bride's Centre, Edinburgh, 8 Feb; Tolbooth, Stirling, 9 Feb; CCA, Glasgow, 10 Feb

If you want to check out all of Graham Costello's greatest influences, check out this handy playlist below featuring all of the above tracks.