Guitarist to Guitarist: Nick Millevoi interviews Sun Ra Arkestra's DM Hotep

In advance of the Sun Ra Arkestra's annual Halloween performance, Ars Nova Workshop asked guitarist Nick Millevoi to interview Arkestra guitarist DM Hotep. These two Philadelphia-bassed axe-slingers discussed Hotep's time in the Arkestra and how that has shaped his musical life. 

The Sun Ra Arkestra performs at Johnny Brenda's this Monday, Halloween, at 8 pm. Millevoi's band, Desertion Trio, will be featured on the Ars Nova calendar later in the season, performing alongside Nels Cline/Larry Ochs/Gerald Cleaver, also at Johnny Brenda's, on December 11.

Guitarist DM Hotep has been a member of the Sun Ra Arkestra as long as I've been going to see the band play. As a guitar player myself, I've always been intrigued by his unique approach. Using his guitar as a MIDI controller with a stereo amp setup, Hotep seems capable of conjuring any sort of sound out of his guitar from one moment to the next. In a band full of horns, he's an understated presence, often near the back of the bandstand, humbly ripping a hole in the cosmos and contributing doses of sci-fi sonics to the ensemble.

We recently started collaborating in visual artist Erik Ruin's band, Ominous Cloud, and I continue to be enthralled by Hoteps ability to channel the unexpected. We had yet to have a good hang where we talked 
about the Arkestra and his experience with the group, so I decided to document the conversation. -Nick Millevoi

How did you end up being the guitarist in the Sun Ra Arkestra?

It was the right person at the right moment at the right space and the right time, you know? It was pretty much that kind of situation.

I got to know the avant garde musicians in Philadelphia through [vibraphonist] Khan Jamal. Khan Jamal, like in the mid-90s/late-90s, he had an organization called Jazz Composer's Forum and it was a big group of musicians who were a little on the avant garde side just looking to workshop their pieces for large ensembles.

I guess I got to know Tyrone Hill [through the Jazz Composer's Forum]. Tyrone Hill was in it and I auditioned for the string section for the Arkestra's big new millennium concert at the Painted Bride. I wasn't initially gonna audition because they were looking for a string section. My girlfriend was like, “You play strings,” and I was like, “Guitar doesn't really count,” and she was like, “It's strings right?” So I ended up getting in the rhythm section and the guys became aware of me. Then, a couple of years later, they needed a guitarist in the band. Charlie Ellerbee was there and I guess he decided he was gonna go in a different direction and they needed an emergency guitarist and called me.

So when you played the Millennium Concert, that was just a one-off gig? Did you start going to rehearsals after that?

No, not right away. I wasn't a member of the band, that was just sort of a one-off thing. I think [saxophonist] Knoel Scott remembered me and he said “ Yeah, you should come to a rehearsal sometime,” and I was like, “Ah... no...let me think about it.” I was, like, a little nervous about it so I didn't follow-up on that until I sort of got to know the guys a little better and then they were like, “Yeah we need a guitarist, do you have a passport?” 

I was sort of an emergency hire, but you know, once I did the first couple gigs I was like, “This is perfect!” It was truly kismet because I was in the midst of doing stuff that was like smooth jazz-y and I really wasn't digging the direction that was taking me. I was like, “There's gotta be something else going on that could pique my interests,” and I didn't know what it was. I get the call from Knoel to say, “Look, you know, can you come in and do a gig or two with us?” I had all this music thrown to me and after I got to see what that would really entail and I was like, “This is exactly what I couldn't imagine that I wanted to do.”

That turned into the reason I ended up studying with these guys and them beating me over the head with all the stuff I thought I knew. They wanted me to play the stuff I didn't know and forget the right way and play it the wrong way... It was like going through boot camp, you know? They broke me down to build me back up again.

The body of Sun Ra's work is so large and it sounds like playing in the Arkestra must have really changed the way you approach the guitar. How did you process all of that information?

It was Marshall [Allen]. I think that it's no accident that the universe kept Marshall in place to help perpetuate the performance of the Arkestra into the 21st century, because Marshall was sort of the main guy that Sun Ra relied on to teach new guys coming in how to play his music.

Marshall took it upon himself to reinvigorate the new cadre of musicians into an Arkestral force. To not only to recite the lines but to actually play the music, to actually perform it, to actually create this cosmo-drama. Any musician who came out of college could just play the notes on the page but it's so much more than that... the notes are just the beginning.

The first year, maybe year and a half, my rehearsals, if it wasn't  with the guys who were in the house at the time just coming down in the living room and going over the tunes, it was going upstairs in Marshall's room. Sometimes it'd just be me and Marshall or me, Marshall, and Dave [Davis], the trombone player, because he was one of the newer younger guys, and we'd be writing parts to create our book.

Marshall's sort of like Sun Ra - he senses when people are sincere about being true to the music or wanting to learn the music, not for money, fame, or ego, which is one of the things Sun Ra tried to perceive in people, so when he sees that he's very generous with saying, “Come here I'm gonna show you how to do this.”

Did you ever have a chance to meet Sun Ra?

No, I had never met Sun Ra.

What's it like being in Sun Ra's band, but not coming into it until after he left the planet with all these guys who were close to him? Do you see yourself as part of a kind of musical continuum?

Yeah, it's definitely a continuum. The spirit of Ra obviously lives on, not only through the music. The precepts and his ideas on how the music serves the precepts still live on in the performance of the music and the performance of the Arkestra. We keep the basic idea of the Arkestra - that music is an engine, it's a power, it's a force that can change your mental conception of your place in the universe - and we have a joyous time doing it.

I've perceived from rehearsing with all these guys - Marshall, Knoel, Tyrone, Yahya [Abdul-Majid], Michael Ray, Danny [Ray Thompson] - is that Sun Ra has... through his personal study, he developed a lot of precepts and codes and every person has their affinity to one particular or three particular codes or precepts that they like turning to and go, “I believe in that one, that one hits home with me right now.” So each of the guys has like one or two codes, unto themselves, and if one person's just teaching or trying to organize a rehearsal, they're gonna teach from that preceptual conception, you know, leaving out maybe the other ones. But when you're in a rehearsal with all the guys that would learn their codes, their precepts, straight from Sun Ra, you get a little bit of each of them from each and every one of the guys.  At one point in one of the rehearsals, that light bulb clicked on to me and I was like, wow, that's sort of the best way to transfer the oral traditions that Sun Ra taught these guys into the guys who are with the band now.

Before you joined the Arkestra, you mentioned you were playing smooth jazz, what else were you up to with your music?

I had my own band that I was playing in called Jazz Guardian with a local drummer, Kim Pedro, and we were doing political events and bars and stuff around Philadelphia, and it called for doing some jazz tunes and some smooth jazz tunes or some jazz versions of R&B tunes. I don't wanna put that down like it was a bad thing, but I was interested in learning more intricate outlets of harmony. I was really looking for something deeper in the harmony rather than ii-V-I, or two-chord groove changes and stuff like that and that led me to the avant garde aspect of music with Khan Jamal, and that led me to the thing with the Arkestra.

So when you joined the Arkestra, you found that deeper thing you were looking for. Did it transform your playing?

Oh yeah, definitely. Like anybody else that starts playing with the Arkestra, you were taught to think of “this” as how to play, like, a jazz tune, or “this” is how you play a blues tune, or “this” is how you play – like, outlining a square – and right in that square is how you play those types of tunes and there's so much outside the box that's available even if you're playing something in that genre, that you thought was wrong at first. The Arkestra's telling you, “No, that's not wrong.” You have the opportunity to be wrong. That's an artistic statement that you as an artist get to choose to do.

One of the first questions I asked Marshall was, “What key is that space chord in?” I'm in the box... Just the idea of the space chord, that throws you out the box right there, you know? Those guys gave me permission to think outside the box.

Maybe back in the 90s, if I was improvising on a one-chord groove, I would probably stay within that key, maybe just go up a half step to create a little different tension or something like that, but now the whole harmonic spectrum is open to me. I can think bilaterally, think multi-tonal, or bitonal. It's another strategy. Just like Ornette has a strategy, and Pat Martino has his strategy, Yusef Lateef had his strategy, John Coltrane has his strategy, this is like another strategy that's available to use. That concept has opened me up to not fearing sounding ugly. 

I've always thought that you have a really interesting sound that, in the context of the Arkestra and when we've played together, doesn't draw a lot of obvious guitar references, sonically or in your vocabulary. What are your biggest influences outside of the Arkestra?

There's aspects of a lot of different guitarists that I really enjoy and when I'm in a playing situation I'd like to be able to go, “What would George Benson play in this kind of situation?” and since I went through a George Benson period of reading transcriptions of his solos I might be able to play some of his licks and get that kind of feel. Or Wes [Montgomery]...

Being in the Arkestra, I really started to see the importance of learning Freddie Green techniques, so that started to become something that was important to go through.

Pat Metheny was a big influence on me. I think he was one of the first guys, like in the 80s, after  listening to George Benson and that whole 70s cadre of jazz that was coming out, that made me go “What was that?” It sounds just so different and I think at the time I was really starting to listen to  WXPN late at night, Star's End, and that kind of thing, so that was a big ear opener for me.

Part of what I ended up becoming as a guitarist or a musician now is not only those guitaristic influences, but also the sonic influences from people that I heard on Star's End - Steve Reich, and other composers - or just the necessity of being able to cut through a band full of horns.

Yeah – that's a really interesting position to be in that not a lot of us have to face!

To me it's a horn band, you know? I'm there to fill a particular role and that role doesn't entail me being like the front guy or the guy that gets noticed. I'm there having fun learning how to play the music. That's the accolades I need – that they didn't fire me! “Oh great, I get to go on the next gig too? Sure, yeah I'll be there!”

A lot of guys have said that Sun Ra wrote his left hand for the reeds and his right hand for the brass, so everything that is needed in a song is covered by the horns and so, is my role only to play chords during the solos? Well, Marshall's like, “No, once again, you gotta think outside the box, that's not good enough,” and so I had to find a way to cut through the horns when necessary or just create textures or what have you, and that's sort of the evolution of what's gotten me to this point

The whole range of the guitar is covered by the horns, so, you know, it's a challenge.

It's the instruments we chose!

It's the instrument we chose and it's the place we chose to be so you know, get over it and figure out how to get it done.