Throughout the month of May, KEXP is joining the national celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM) in partnership with the Seattle Asian Art Museum. In conjunction, we’re spotlighting API artists as well as artists from Asian and Pacific Islander countries. Find out more here.
There’s not another drummer in Seattle quite like Christopher Icasiano.
An experimentalist and improvisational jazz musician by trade, Icasiano has been crafting mind-bending rhythms as a touring musician for more than 15 years. He’s one half of the sax-drum duo Bad Luck and recently took up drumming duties with Portland pop-act Pure Bathing Culture. He’s a fierce collaborator, extending his work with even more local artists like Tomo Nakayama and Ings, among others. He’s a key player and co-founder of Cafe Racer’s Racer Sessions – a weekly open improvisational jam centered on jazz, experimental, and new music in the U-District.
Icasiano’s free-spirited, impressively technical style tends to elevate whatever ensemble he’s performing or improvising alongside. But earlier this year he took a step you rarely hear drummers doing – he made a solo album.
Not just a solo album, but a solo album built around the drums – along with some light synthesizer work. Title Provinces, Icasiano’s debut work exemplifies not just his technical prowess but how he uses percussion to convey the intangible. The fierce tapping of opener “Provinces: I” builds and builds on tension, before dissolving into resolute, scattered and disparate clamor on the following movement. Throughout the album you hear his masterful jazz drumming and his willingness to venture off into the abstract with remarkable physicality.
There’s more to Provinces than just being highlight reel to showcase his drumming, though. The record was inspired by Icasiano’s first ancestral trip to the Philippines. While most of the drumming was recorded before he left, traveling to visit his family and see where his parents grew up had a profound impact on Icasiano. More than just the personal history, it was a moment for Icasiano to explore and try to understand his own identity as a Filipino American. Adding in field recordings of his family dinners and chatter from the streets of the provinces, Icasiano uses Provinces as an abstract exploration of his sense of self and where he comes from. It also offered a moment of redefinition.
“Part of making this album was like making that statement as well of being like, you know, I'm a Filipino-American artist and that is how I'm going to choose to identify myself because it's really meaningful to me as part of my art, as part of my identity,” Icasiano tells KEXP in a phone call earlier this month. “Just claiming space that I feel like I haven't had access to or haven't been able to carve out for myself.”
We caught up with Icasiano to dig into his love of improvisational jazz, the thoughts and feelings going through his head as returned to the places his parents grew up, and how his love of Filipino food continues to connect him with Filipino culture. Read our conversation below.
KEXP: Let's start at the beginning. What did you first start playing the drums?
Chris Icasiano: I started playing the drums when I was, I think, eight or nine years old. Pretty young. My parents were willing to get me a drumset and get me started on drum lessons at a pretty young age. I had it as a kid and continued with it through the rest of my life [laughs].
Was music pretty big in your house? I think I read that your mom made New Age piano music.
Yeah, she did. Yeah. Music was always really big in our house. There's always something playing, ranging from the Beatles and Led Zeppelin to a lot of jazz. So I was always exposed to a lot of stuff from my parents. But I was big into like 90s R&B and hip hop. That was kind of like my wheelhouse. Well, still is basically [laughs]. But yeah, I always just had a lot of stuff going on in the house.
And what drew you to jazz specifically?
You know, I'm not entirely sure how I came to jazz. I mean, I remember when I was young and starting to just hear different kinds of music... Well, I guess it was probably partially in drum lessons because I was learning like how to play jazz on the drums but hadn't really dug into the music. And at the time I was, you know, 10 years old or something.
I remember just being at like Circuit City or something and hearing a jazz record in one of their music listening stations and I put it on and it was a piano trio and I just kind of fell in love with the sound. I didn't really have much context for it. It was just like, "I really like the way the sounds. It makes me feel very sophisticated" [laughs]. It made me think of the city. And also when I was young, my parents would always take my brother and I out to concerts. So we would go to shows at Jazz Alley a lot and we would go hear the symphony. So I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music and that was probably definitely one of the ways that I was really starting to get into jazz.
That's an amazing way to enter jazz, through Circuit City.
[laughs] Yeah, I don't quite know what drew me to it, aside from just the sound and me liking the sound. A lot of it I didn't, you know, didn't quite understand or it was kind of going over my head, but I just kind of drawn to it. Actually, come to think of it, I'll bet a lot of it came from like playing those like SimCity games or like the Sims games because they always had pretty cool instrumental soundtracks and a lot of like jazz. And I think that was maybe when I got a lot of that influence from [laughs].
Of all the instruments to pick, what specifically brought you to the drums?
I think I was always just kind of drawn to rhythm and percussion as a kid. It was just another one of those things, kind of a bit of an anomaly where I was always kind of like banging on things as a kid and kind of just drawn to it. So I think my parents definitely recognized that in me and were eager actually to get me started on some lessons.
You've done a lot of awesome projects, working with Bad Luck, Pure Bathing Culture, working with Ings and Tomo Nakayama. And you've also been a huge part in Seattle's experimental and an improvisational scene. You co-founded Tables and Chairs and the Racer Sessions. What appeals to you about improvisational music and collaboration?
Improvising is such a major component of jazz and when I really started getting in to do jazz and being serious about it, one of the most exciting parts of it was improvising with people. I just was so addicted to being in the moment and playing with people and having a musical conversation through the shared language of jazz.
When it came to starting the Racer Sessions and getting more into experimental and avant-garde music and free improvisation, it was a bit of an extension of that. It was thinking about learning jazz vocabulary and adapting it to my own voice and something that was really deeply meaningful and personal to like my own musical expression. I found that with free improvisation because I was able to like synthesize like all of my favorite musical styles and genres into improvising.
When I was really exploring it, I felt like I was developing my own language and my own way of self-expression through the drums. Playing became more than just being able to play different styles and genres. It was like, this is me showing to you, the listener, or whoever wants to take this in, this is a part of myself. Something that I can't really express in words or in any other way. It kind of just comes out in the drums and improvising.
It's more like a visceral response than verbal.
Yeah. I mean so much of it is... Because when you're improvising, you're reacting to whatever is happening on the spot, it becomes like a very, very direct gateway to what I'm thinking or what I'm feeling in the moment. And there were so many times when I would be going through like hard things in my life that I was able to just get out all those feelings and emotions through banging on the drums. And especially improvising with people, because you then get to share that with the people you're playing with.
For those who aren't familiar, could you talk about the Racer Sessions and Table and Chairs and what those are all about?
So the Race Sessions, miraculously enough, has been around for over 10 years, which blows my mind every time I think about it. We started it and this was a group of friends that I went to school with at the University of Washington and other people that were in the jazz and experimental music community. But we started a music series at Cafe Racer up in the U-District on Sunday nights that was a performance series that was focused mainly on new and experimental music. And then we would open it up to a free improvisational jam session. So we would invite anyone who wanted to come play with whatever instrument, with whatever ability, level, and experience to come and just join in with other people and improvise together.
And what was great about it is it's not genre-specific. And it doesn't require that you have years of institutional training on your instrument or knowledge of music. It's more about coming and collaborating with people and letting go of ego and just participating in the moment to make the best music possible.
We've been able to, you know, keep it alive for more than ten years through thick and thin, really. Cafe Racer has gone through so many trials and tribulations. It's been amazing that the community has stuck by and been supportive throughout. And even in our global pandemic, we're able to organize and maintain it through all of this. It's really great to be able to have that community still very vibrant.
On your website you mentioned your commitment to anti-racist and anti-sexist organizing in Seattle DIY. I'm curious how that might relate to the Racer Sessions and what some of that work looks like.
You know, it's complicated. What we're dealing with is systemic issues of oppression, which is insidious in the music business. And I guess the main focus of that was trying to address how we as an organization who has a voice in the community, has access, is able to curate and produce a music series that is open to the public. What is our responsibility in doing anti-racism and anti-sexism work? It took a lot of time and it took a lot of time to figure out what our approach is and what our values are and how we want to reflect that in the way we organize the work.
What we were running up against is when you're dealing with jazz, especially now with jazz and new music being very institutionalized, the demographic of musicians that exist in those worlds are largely male, largely white. And we realize that that reflected in the way we had curated the racer sessions for so many years, unintentionally. But that was the reality. It was like, okay, if we're going to get experimental musicians into like play music here, the pool that we have to choose from is largely going to be male and is largely going to be white.
So having an understanding of that, our goal was to challenge ourselves a little bit to think about the curation of performers in a way that was more inclusive, that was making safer spaces for marginalized people to come and participate. It's an ongoing battle that we're having to assess and reassess all the time. With as much work as we do, we still have a lot of blind spots. And we're always getting feedback and trying to figure out ways that we can do it better.
One of the big things that we continue to need to do is to make sure that the people that we want to see as part of the Racer community, just in terms of cultural identity, gender identity, we need to have way more diversity in our leadership positions – the people that are making decisions about programming and whatnot. It's a thing that we're still working on and we're pretty committed doing it even though it's challenging, but it's important work to do.
You just put out your first solo record, 'Provinces,' which was inspired by your first ancestral trip to the Philippines. I'm curious what spurred this trip? Was it the album that sent you there or was the album a product of the trip?
You know, it's a multi-faceted story [laughs]. The root of it was me trying to connect with and understand my own cultural identity. But why that journey specifically was challenging for me is because I'm Filipino-American and I grew up in a Filipino household. Where I grew up and the schools that I went to and the communities that I was largely in were all very white. I didn't really often see people that looked like me in any kind of media. I didn't really have any other Filipino friends. I barely had any other Asian friends. I think I came to a point where I was realizing that I so often felt like an outsider, even in my own community.
And not only did I feel like an outsider, I felt like I was often having to prove myself or always be doing more work or standing out in ways that most of my white male peers didn't have to. I felt like I was often disappearing into the background if I wasn't the star of the show or like running the organization, being in a leadership role. And that was hard for me. There are a lot of ways that I internalized my experience with racism. It felt like I was less than.
So the record is kind of about coming to terms with that. Understanding the different power dynamics set that go into that experience and really trying to reclaim it. And part of that was really about connecting with my cultural identity more. I wanted to feel more connected to my Filipino identity, even though I am Filipino and my family is like... The majority of my experience with Filipino culture was just in my family, but I wanted that to be more holistic and more universal in my experience.
I was trying to understand that. And at the same time, I was starting to really think about some music that I wanted to write. I had always had this dream of like going to the Philippines, which is a bit of a challenging issue for me because a lot of my family doesn't travel back to the Philippines now. So it didn't really feel like an option that was open to me, at least not without a lot of work. It was kind of an intersection of all of these things: finding identity, trying to start to establish myself as a composer and as a solo performer.
Then it all kind of came to a head when I had decided that I'm just going to make this trip happen with my partner and then some family members that were also thinking about going. I knew that I was gonna be a really amazing, enlightning trip, also very challenging and really intense. I took a lot of inspiration from what I learned about myself there and was able to infuse it into the music I wrote for 'Provinces.'
You grew up in a Filipino home, you are Filipino, so you were exposed to so much Filipino culture, but I'm curious, what was it like actually being there for the first time? Is there anything that struck you or hit you in a different way about the culture you'd experienced in through Filipino culture in America?
Yeah, absolutely. It was amazing in that I would look around and everyone would look like me [laughs]. It was amazing in that I could go to a clothing store and I could buy a pair of pants and a shirt and it was already my size. I didn't have to struggle with finding clothes that fit me. It was amazing seeing and eating food on a daily basis that reminded me of home and family and to have that just be normal.
What was also striking, though, was that like it was also very clear that I was a foreigner and that I didn't entirely fit in. That's part of the challenge of the immigrant diaspora is that, you know, I'm very American. So there's still always this feeling of like, you know, there are ways that I don't fit in with my community here in Seattle. And then when I go to the Philippines, there's still a lot of ways that I don't fit in there. It's kind of a challenging reality to be faced with – always feeling like you don't belong.
After going through that and really struggling through a lot of things after I got back was coming to the conclusion that the experience of the Filipino diaspora is really diverse and really varied. I kind of allowed myself just trust that I am part of the Filipino community in Seattle. I don't have to try to fit in because I am it, I'm living it. I just needed to trust that. It's hard and I'm still working toward that. Just trusting that I am part of the lineage. I am adding to the culture by doing what I do.
And part of making this album was like making that statement as well of being like, you know, I'm a Filipino-American artist and that is how I'm going to choose to identify myself because it's really meaningful to me as part of my art, as part of my identity. Just claiming space that I feel like I haven't had access to or haven't been able to carve out for myself.
When you took this trip, was there anything you were intentionally trying to seek out and experience while you were there that was helping you process these emotions? Where were you traveling to? Were you moving around or were you staying in one place with family?
We were mostly staying in one place in the provinces where my family lives. I went into the trip with not really having any laid out any expectations. I just wanted to be able to see family that I had not seen in a long time or had never met before and just kind of take it all in and just be okay with whatever emotions came up. That was really the point of it.
I think that there was an understanding too that I would be able to find... I don't know, something that was really grounding. What happened was my partner and I, we flew out to Manila and were in Manila for a couple of days waiting for my uncle and cousin to arrive because we were gonna travel with them to the provinces to see my family.
We got to Manila... it was amazing to be in the Philippines, but it didn't really hit me until we landed in the provinces where my family is from. And that was like the moment where it kind of hit me. I was so far away from where I grew up. Like any experience that I knew and was on this island in the Philippines, but knowing that like my blood is like so connected to this place.
We got off the plane and I was just kind of like overwhelmed with this feeling, like, 'Oh okay, this is where my or my family comes from.' And I never expected to, like, ever get to set foot in that place. It was just this feeling of like, I can't believe that this is so connected to this place. And it's so far removed from my experience. It was it really grounding moment. I didn't discover anything or like see anything that was at that moment that was like monumental. It was just like, "this is the place." And that felt really huge.
I was also able to on that trip, I was singing and text contact with my family and I was able to send my mom photos of places where she grew up as a little girl. My grandfather, who we were traveling with, was taking us to all these places, so I was sending photos back. And my mom was responding in real-time at like, you know, must've been like, you know, 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, Seattle time [laughs]. But she was just really excited that I was here. And she was like telling me about all these experiences that she had, like at elementary school or at this apartment where they all used to live. It was just really profound to get to share that.
So the album's completely instrumental, very experimental, focusing primarily on the drums, obviously, with some keys and other instrumentation. But kind of going off of what we talked about before about how you express yourself through improvisational music and the drums, something still feels very personal about the record. I'm curious how you're using sounds and rhythms on this record to try and relate your experience and what types of emotions you're trying to exude through the music.
The process was really interesting, actually, and it kind of came in different segments. For several years I've been doing solo drum performances around Seattle and have been spending a bunch of time just developing concepts around solo drum performances. And one of the main things that I've been interested in is this idea of drone and how things that stay static for a long time start to inherently have melodic or harmonic qualities that the ear wouldn't tend to pick up on in the initial like hearing of and that is only when you sit with one repetitive thing for a long time that your ear acclimates to the kind of nuance of the sound.
And that was kind of the foundation for a lot of what I wrote because if you listen to the record, there's a lot of repetitive drum patterns that change very slowly over time. And what I really loved is that when you allow yourself to sit with it and get into it, the sound of a really simple repeated pattern becomes so rich and there's so much information that you can gain from it. Then when there's a change, it feels like something that's really monumental, even though it might be really slight.
So that's kind of how it all came about. I ended up writing the harmonic and melodic material separately that I composed on the piano and I was able to synthesize them together in a way that... I wanted to be able to magnify each of the elements so I was really wanting the harmonic elements to dry out what's happening in the rhythm and vise versa.
That was how it all came about. In terms of like specific emotions or specific things that I wanted to convey, like there. There wasn't really any of that. It was more just about... When I'm playing the drums, this is a part of me that that only exists here. That to me is inherently emotional and really vulnerable. I really kind of fell in love with the pairing of the drum, repetitive drones with the synthesizer than the harmonic elements and melodic elements.
It all just feels really powerful to me and really, really genuine and honest. I listen back to it and there's all sorts of little mistakes and like human elements that at first for me, when I recorded, I was like, "Oh, gosh, I wish I could get that perfectly." But as I listen back, it's like, OK. I mean, it's human. It's real. I'm not a robot. I make mistakes. It is what it is, but it doesn't detract from the performance.
So actually, I wrote and recorded all the music before going to the Philippines. In the Philippines, my partner had an idea of getting some field recordings to be able to incorporate into the record. And it felt like such a beautiful idea of being able to take a sonic artifact from the trip, whether it be sounds of nature or the city or the sounds of just my family sitting down to eat a meal and to be able to incorporate those into the recording felt like such a special way to draw it all together and to make it cohesive.
How were you placing the field recordings into the record? Were you trying to weave any sort of narrative together? I know the record's split into two parts (‘Provinces’ and ‘Taho’).
Yeah. A narrative? I mean, no, not really. I don't want there to be a story – like a linear kind of story that I was telling. I also wanted it to be personal but not so personal, that it was like alienating for the listener. I feel like there's some music that when you get so deeply personal with it feels kind of like as a listener you're listening to something that you shouldn't be listening to [laughs].
I mean, I think of like that of the Mount Eerie ['A Crow Looked At Me'] record and how it was just so deeply personal about death and loss. It was amazing and I listened to it multiple times, but it also felt like, whoa, this is like really peering deep into someone's torment and soul and it's beautiful and scary. But for this record, I really wanted people to be able to take from it whatever they were able to interpret.
There are some loose narrative things that are more about personal experiences and about family with some of field recordings. But I think it's the thing that's more like that. I want to keep to myself and keep to my family and let everyone else interpret it as they will.
The last three songs in the record are named Taho after the Filipino desert and some of the artwork in the merch you have for the album feature the sour soup Sinigang. You've also mentioned in others interviews your love for cooking Filipino food for your bandmates and friends. I'm curious what inspiration food may have on the record or, more broadly, you as a person?
That's a great question, because food was really... When I was really kind of going through the process of exploring cultural identity, food was one of the few things that I knew that I had a really good grasp on. As much as I felt outside in my communities or as much as I longed for having a connection to Filipino culture, food was like the one thing where I was like, "I know what that was tastes like because I know how my like my family has made it ever since I was a kid."
So there was a period of time where I was digging really deep – and I still am now – into cooking Filipino food and learning more about it. Just the techniques and the flavor profiles, specifically like how my family has always made it, how members of my family have always made it. Early on I when I was just practicing. I would invite all my friends over to my apartment and I would just make a ton of Filipino food. I'd probably do that once every few weeks and no one complained about it [laughs]. They were all pretty excited to be a part of my experiment. But it was a way for me to learn more about my culture through food, but then also be able to share it with people that I was close to.
When it came to the record, because of food being my one really concrete connection with Filipino culture, I think it was just intrinsically in there somewhere. There is one of the field recordings that I use is from a family dinner. I just set up a recorder and let it record when we were eating and just kind of wanted to pick up the nuances of the sound and what was happening.
A lot of pictures that I took in the Philippines were of all the food because it was just like incredible. The Sinigang t-shirt came about because I had taken this photo of Sinigang when I was there and I was like, "I want that to be my next tattoo!" And then it was like, "Oh, I want that to be a part of the record." And then when it came to the merch, I was like, how cool would it be to just have a piece of merch that has food on it that says what the food is called, have it be connected to the record, but not have it be like explicitly about the record.
Food has always been such an important part of my life and continues to be. Since we're all in quarantine and I have this kind of epic like text thread going with Tomo Nakayama and [Seattle violinest] Alina To that's basically just food that we've been making. They're both pretty amazing cooks and bakers and like we just really have a great time like taking pictures of our food and showing it to each other.
Being on tour with Pure Bathing Culture, whenever we'd have a place where we'd stop for a few days, I'd always make a big like Filipino feast for everyone or we would try to hit up the Filipino restaurants in California as we're passing through.
What about Taho specifically for the back half the record. Was anything specific about that dessert resonated with you?
]The story about that is based on it's based on a story that my dad would always tell about when he was a kid. And it's really not much of a story at all [laughs]. It's just about him having this memory of when he was a kid there would be Taho vendors that would come down the street and he would remember hearing them yell "Taho!" And then he would go and go and eat it. It always became kind of a joke in our family because he would always tell that "story," but it was really not much of a story [laughs].
So one of the ideas that I had when I was there and – I don't know why it didn't dawn on me before, but I was like, "Oh, I have to get a recording of a vendor yelling 'Taho' just like my dad had always described when he was a kid." That was kind of the moment where I was like, this is how all of these field recordings make sense. It is a snapshot and a moment in time that most people are not going to... Well, basically, anyone who listens is not going to have any context for it. But this is deeply meaningful for me to be able to bring that experience that I know my dad had as a kid and experience it for myself and then also be able to put that moment into the art that I make. So, you know, it is pretty, pretty heavy and like really deeply, deeply personal – that particular piece and having that field recording put in there.
You've kind of spoken to this broadly a few times already, but having gone to this trip and made this record you like, has your perception change at all with your identity as Filipino American or any sort of personal revelation that's come out of working on this piece?
It's allowed me to trust myself a little bit more. To trust that what I have to offer as a person, as an artist, is inherently valuable. I think that's always been an issue for me – believing that I'm good enough and believing that I have a place and being able to make this record that's so deeply connected to cultural identity and to have it really be a statement about who I am as an artist and composer and performer is so powerful to me and just like really empowering.
And I feel like it's a stepping stone for me to push it even a little bit further to see where I can take my music and my composition, to build off of this experience, continue connecting to the Filipino community in Seattle, which I'm doing more and more. It feels great to like to start to be a part of the community. And to also just have it be a thing that people in the music community, in the jazz community see in me. It's important that I'm also bringing this to my music communities that I've been involved with for so long. Because I want it to be a thing that defines me as an artist as well. That's really what it's been all about.
'Provinces' is out now and available for purchase on Bandcamp.
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