Making Progress

Dave Kerman thinks prog rock is good business.

Despite the defeat, Kerman continued to eschew musical simplicity. By his teen years, he was heavily into art rock and prog, a pair of related formats that hit their respective peaks of popularity in the '70s, via groups like King Crimson. At age seventeen, Kerman and some of his pals paid homage to the genres by assembling a group with one of the worst monikers in rock history: Farmer Fred Genuflects to A-440. "We thought we sounded like Gentle Giant, but subsequent listenings show that we sounded like really bad Blodwyn Pig," Kerman says, referencing combos that only kindred spirits are likely to recall. "I was making homemade instruments, like zithers made out of old drums and old guitar strings, and I had a telescoping trombone wind machine that was made out of the cases of old metal fire extinguishers."

From these bizarre beginnings came the 5uu's, and by the mid-'80s, the outfit's music was strong enough to attract the attention of Chris Cutler, a veteran of Gong and Henry Cow, as well as the founder of Recommended Records. With Cutler as his role model, Kerman embarked on a labyrinthine journey through neo-prog, forming associations with a gaggle of groups that quickly got into crossbreeding.

During the '80s, for instance, Kerman was asked to join Present (pronounced pre-zahnt), a sprawling Belgian ensemble led by Roger Trigaux that's made eight albums since 1981. Employing a flurry of terminology, Kerman describes Present as a "dark, gothic, trance-inducing heavy-metal band with melodic overtones." He also hooked up with Blast, a group from Holland that makes "half free-improv, half avant-garde jazz, which is some of the more demanding music I've ever had to play," he says. "At one point, we didn't have much time to rehearse, so the band was actually reading charts on stage. Since I don't read or write music, I was forced to listen to demo tapes constantly on airplanes and tour buses to learn this stuff by rote.

He plays guitar, too: ReR's Dave Kerman.
James Glader
He plays guitar, too: ReR's Dave Kerman.

Details

Featuring Chris Cutler, Thomas Dimuzio, Hamster Theatre and Janet Feder, 8 p.m. Friday, April 16, Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom, 2637 Welton Street, $20, 303-297-1772

"That was one of the rare cases where not being able to read music was detrimental," he allows. "In most cases, I was able to introduce my own style and improvised thinking by not following the charts."

The rewards for Kerman's experimentalism have been modest. During prog's golden era, the biggest groups could fill arenas or even stadiums, but crowds have dwindled over the past decade, making it difficult to travel to the far-flung cities, many of them in Europe, where the music retains a foothold. As for album sales, they seldom rise to a level that would impress Billboard statisticians. "Someone like Fred Frith can sell thousands of units," Kerman says, "whereas something newer, like Science Group [a collaboration between Cutler, Drake, Johnson and Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer] might sell one or two thousand. That's not enough to generate the revenues you need to tour the world in a stylish fashion, but if you're willing to endure some hard knocks for a while, there are possibilities."

With that in mind, Kerman is pulling together the Boy Howdy Rio Show, an April 16 concert to showcase the type of music that ReR USA plans to make more widely available; Cutler is flying to Denver in order to headline the event. Kerman's just as eager to prove that the prog audience can grow if given the proper encouragement. He's confident more Americans will come knocking once they know what's waiting behind the ReR website's door. "I think someone with business perspicacity who can work with real purchase orders, real ads and real salespeople might be able to make this a little more visible to the general public," he says.

Not that Kerman's willing to soften the music to make it happen. "Over the years, there have been some interesting groups who've been told, 'You need a more commercial sound. Do this to keep your contract and your swimming pool and the braces on your children's teeth.' But we want to do things differently. We're trying to find a middle ground between real business principles and the art we're trying to promote.

"For guys like myself and Chris Cutler, the art behind the music has always been the bottom line," he adds. "He's in his fifties and I'm in my forties, and we haven't sold out yet -- so I can't see that happening."

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