Chuppers Come Out and Play
 Alibi V.28 No.50 • Dec 12-18, 2019 

Music Interview

Chuppers Come Out and Play

Hanging with Manny Rettinger

Manny Rettinger
Manny Rettinger
photo by August March

On Tuesday, Dec. 10, August March spent the morning talking shop with legendary local recordist, guitarist and musical miracle worker Manny Rettinger.

In case you want to know, March prefaced his introduction, Rettinger was one of the parties responsible for engendering, launching and growing the folk and punk music scenes here in Albuquerque in the late ’70s and continuing through the present day, when his recordings of local bands like 5 Star Motelles (featuring a stellar line-up of this town’s best women rockers) and work with experimental instruments that he call “chuppers” gained the attention of music mavens all over the world.

For the past 22 years, Rettinger has been the sound engineer at the Department of Music at the University of New Mexico. In that position, he made live concert recordings of some of the most famous names in art music and chamber performance. He plans to retire at the end of this year.

But his first love has always been that type of music governed by stark and intensely dissonant innovators like Miles Davis and Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. Rettinger told Weekly Alibi that he practically gave up playing the guitar while working in the world of classical music. But now that he’s about to finish with that, he’s more than ready to re-enter the rock and jazz arenas.

Rettinger played in super-important and influential end of ’70s bands here in Albuquerque, at a time when young locals like him were working overtime to displace and deconstruct the plethora of cover bands that dominated with a new and untamed sound.

Bands like Bill’s Friends, Martian Funk Ensemble and Animal Opera come to mind as the forces behind this none to friendly takeover that soon gave rise to more punk bands and an emphasis on the music being made in the UNM and Downtown areas. Jerry’s Kidz and Cracks in the Sidewalk soon followed in Rettinger’s footsteps.

With all that local cred, he went on to form Ubik Sound, one of the first local record labels dedicated to folk and punk rock from New Mexico. Recordings from Cleofes Ortiz, Arroyo Seco, The Ant Farmers, Cracks in the Sidewalk and Allucaneat followed.

In 1997, Rettinger moved to UNM, where he came up with the idea for Chuppers, musical contraptions made from discarded instruments and electronics that are both sculptural and musical. The sound engineer created symphonies and improvisational concerts for these amazing sound devices, which he named after a type of genetic throwback found in the pages of a Philip K. Dick short story.

In 2016, Rettinger suffered a life-threatening subdural hematoma in his skull and had to have brain surgery to correct the problem. He is no worse for wear and tear though, and wears his 68 years well, with a rosy complextion and curious demeanor that suggests much more to come from one of Burque’s OG music masters.

As Mr. March previously mentioned, Weekly Alibi had the honor of chatting with Rettinger over coffee. Here are some of the things he told us about music and art and life.

Weekly Alibi: Manny, who are you really?

Manny Rettinger: I’ve been the sound engineer at the Music Department for about 22 years. But I also taught a lot of classes. I taught a class on the Chuppers, my electronic ensemble. Oh, and I was in some local bands, too.

Tell me more about the Chuppers, please.

I’m still really into the Chuppers now. I’m building all these weird instruments out of junk. For instance, I’m using the old horns from ancient turntables and record players to send sound to other sources for processing and it’s all improvised. The students of these instruments learn music and electronics as part of the process. They put it together; what it is is more like improvising with sound, you can’t really play [exact] notes. It’s not really like noise music. It’s really related to a lot of what one might hear on Bitches Brew [by Miles Davis]. I was really surprised because a lot of my students hadn’t even heard of that work. I’m also putting the Martian Funk Ensemble back together, where I play guitar. We have people like me playing while the chuppers provide accompaniment. What that really is, is like a totally free form of improvisation. Each player plays their instrument and they also have a Chupper.

Refresh my memory. Martian Funk Ensemble is a band you formed back in the late ’70s, que no?

It was more like the ’80s. Carl Petersen was in that band, everyone was in that band. Zimbabwe Nkenya a noted jazz musician who made his home in Albuquerque, Tom Guralnick, Tim Shellenbaum, they were all in that band.

Shellenbaum and others went on to have big city careers, if I remember correctly. Tim went to New York and worked with people like Glenn Branca. Wasn’t Ray Abeyta—who became a notable painter—part of that group?

That was Bill’s Friends, a band that Robert Masterson and Judson Frondorf worked with. We all worked together and we worked on the Conceptions Southwest [UNM’s literary magazine] performance project. Since Tim passed away this summer, I’ve been going through all these cassettes that we recorded, I found a bunch of them. Peggy Hessing [from KUNM and the City of Albuquerque] helped me with them. I’m transferring them to a digital format as part of his memorial. But the thing that really shocked me was that many of those entire concerts were broadcast live on KUNM. They don’t do that anymore.

There are a couple of shows that feature live performances.

But they don’t broadcast concerts anymore. I was the music editor for Conceptions Southwest. We started a performance series in 1981.

On a side note, I was looking for a picture of Patti Pierson, a local flautist who died in an auto accident near Eldorado, N.M., in 1992 and I found it in a story about the CSW performance series, next to an article by Robert Masterson on a KISS concert he attended!

The Conceptions Southwest series was really a big deal. Also the Albuquerque United Artists show at Meridian Gallery, they held 3 week festivals up and down Central back in the day. Those were memorable. There were a lot of outlets for avant-garde visual arts and musical arts back then. That’s not so much the case now.

How has the arts and music scene changed in 40 years?

I think a lot of the people that were doing it back then left. But that’s when that stuff ended, the first phase ended when people like Tim and Ray left. Dwight Loop was doing a lot of electronic music and then he left for years.

So is your plan to revitalize the sort of art and music movement that you engendered here in The Duke City?

To me, what I’m doing is just bringing back all the stuff I was working on. What I want to do is play more guitar. The stuff that Martian Funk did way back in the day could be done with Chuppers. There aren’t that many players in my generation who are still that active. Pedro Hernandez from Caribe is going to be playing with the group, for instance. We’re all going to play on Jan. 26 at Keller Hall. Dwight is coming down from Santa Fe to play. Ray Gutierrez from Allucaneat is going to be there, too. A bunch of my past students will be joining us onstage, too. I taught that class for 10 years.

Some say the UNM Music Department has deep roots in the experimental work of people like John Donald Robb and Manny Rettinger. Discuss.

I have Dean Robb’s Moog synthesizer sitting in my office studio. I renovated that Moog.

What would you tell our readers who may want to pursue a life in music, much like yourself?

For one thing, I would tell them that you are going to grow old. I always wanted to be old. I thought, the older I am, the more I’d be able to practice. But when I started the job at UNM, I stopped playing the guitar for 16 years. I didn’t even pick it up. I didn’t start again until after the Chuppers came into existence. I slowly realized that I want to do this and I did it. I’ve got hours’ worth of stuff on the Chuppers’ Bandcamp page. It’s really meditative and it was all recorded live. When I got out of the hospital, I spent six months recuperating and listening to this Chupper stuff. That got my brain back on track and now I’m ready for the next movement.

The Last Chuppers, a performance by Manny Rettinger
Keller Recital Hall, UNM Fine Arts Center
Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020 • 4pm • Free
thechuppersmartianfunkensemble.bandcamp.com