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Escape Velocity

The Little Battle Of The Big Horn: Colin Stetson Interviewed
John Doran , July 15th, 2011 06:18

John Doran talks to Colin Stetson - the sax-wielding creator of New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, one of our albums of the year so far - about copping flak from the jazz community and apocalyptic feelings

Colin Stetson is a very inventive saxophonist for hire. The Canadian has played with a long list of collaborators including Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, David Byrne, LCD Soundsystem and Anthony Braxton. And this list (bar Braxton) is exactly why his own solo material is something which appeals to a fairly limited audience. He's probably too far out and abstract for a general indie audience and simply tainted by that genre for most who are into the avant-garde. For anyone willing to set aside prejudices or willing to entertain the notion that it is still possible to use the saxophone for things other than free improv however his latest album New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges is a fine thing indeed. (It was at number 15 in our recent chart of the albums of the year so far.) While using many of the same extended-techniques as the rightly revered Evan Parker (such as circular breathing), the comparison doesn't hold much water, and is kind of like comparing Derek Bailey to Mark McGuire - useful only to demonstrate aloofness, given the difference in what they are doing and the fields they are working in. It seems that, in the case of the saxophone at least, that the relative low density of the field (compared to guitar or keys, say) actually makes it feel more crowded for some reason.

Using a century-old bass sax, Stetson plays relatively simple riffs that share more in common musically with the tonal minimalism of Steve Reich or the repetitive lines of Detroit techno than they do with the complex (and sometimes difficult) improvisations of a horn player like Mats Gustafsson. He records tracks live in single takes with no overdubs through a series of small contact mics attached to him, his instrument and arranged around the room, manipulating these different 'feeds' later in the mix to create not just polyphony (again nothing new) but a breathtaking wall of sound, including rhythms created by his fingers clicking on the keys and the strange ambience created by his 'growling' or singing as well as his playing. The overall effect of the technique is very impressive but that isn't the be all and end all. He (along with vocal turns from Laurie Anderson and Shara Worden) simply creates a beautifully affecting album with modest but unique means.

My phone line to Canada was pretty bad and there was some miscommunication, however the general information I wanted from him is still here...

So, have I got it right that, bar the small inclusion of a multi-tracked French horn on the track 'All The Days I've Missed You (IILAIJ I)' and two guest vocalists, this is essentially a solo saxophone album recorded live in single takes?

Colin Stetson: Yeah, everything is recorded live except for the vocal overdubs. On the track you mentioned I've overdubbed myself multiple times playing French horn but everything else is a solo, single-take piece.

The surprising thing about this album bearing this in mind is that there is a great deal going on sonically. And you achieve these myriad effects by how your instrument, your body and the room is mic'd up. Where are all these microphones placed?

CS: The saxophone is one of the things that leads me to write and perform this way because the instrument can generate an enormous amount of separate sounds and ultimately an enormous amount of independent lines all at the same time. Acoustically it has a lot of potential. So all these sounds are happening live all the time but are usually unmic'd and unrecorded. So when I went to record the first album, Vol. 1, the idea was that I was going to try and capture as many of these separate ideas as possible and then separate them from one another and really play with them and make something new in the mix process. The fact is, we're getting a serious look at the three dimensional space [of the recording]. I guess the idea then was that we'd have something specific in the recording rather than just trying to imitate the live version. So for Vol. 2 the microphones were placed all around the saxophone, taped to the side of the instrument, on my neck, and another ten were placed round the room at various points, picking up different reflective surfaces, such as the floor. And some in other rooms entirely.

Colin Stetson | Awake on Foreign Shores & Judges | A Take Away Show from La Blogotheque on Vimeo.

So the mix was essential...

CS: Well, yeah, the mix is always essential. Initially we did a performance and then we did a capture of that performance and then we had to see what sounds we came away with from the performance. And for each song we would have about 20 feeds and, depending on the song, some feeds were more important than others. So I could choose to enhance certain things, bringing certain mics up and certain mics down depending on what I wanted the finished product to sound like.

When you use old techniques such as 'growling' or singing through the saxophone or playing rhythms on the keys of the saxophone, aren't you doing things that would normally be considered anathema to fans of the avant-garde and progressive forms of jazz?

CS: Only if they stopped listening to jazz in 1960. For anybody who still listens to jazz and considers Ornette and Coltrane and Albert Ayler to be part of the tradition, then no. I think that the way that I'm doing it in terms of the songs, I guess that's where it's unique but in terms of techniques themselves, they've been going on since the 1930s or 1940s. You had guys like King Curtis at the beginning of R&B, screaming or singing into their sax. The circular breathing style has been going on for decades and Evan Parker is well known for that. The polyphonic playing style is not new either. I think all of those things I have heard in one way or another as part of the jazz tradition. So no. Only if you think Charlie Parker is jazz but Pharoah Sanders is not.

No, I meant have you had any flak from the jazz community for using what they might consider 'retro' stylings?

CS: I would imagine that from within that community [free jazz/improv purists] the bigger problem would be with the fact that I'm playing compositions and that those compositions are rhythmic, repetitive, and melodic. I haven't heard any such criticism, nor have I heard anyone speak of my use of techniques as being old-fashioned, but who knows? A lot of people say a lot of crazy shit.

Aside from the techniques though, this isn't really jazz is it? The actual music sounds more like tonal minimalism or an acoustic representation of techno than it does like jazz.

CS: Yeah, I don't think of it as jazz music. I get that a lot because of the instrument that I play and people assume that whatever I'm doing that doesn't sound like jazz is me on an excursion - like I'm taking a holiday from jazz but, in my art, I've never really inhabited one space. I'm a musician and I function in a number of ways and I play the music that's before me and I don't play it all as a jazz musician or a rock musician. I think those labels are unnecessary and ultimately detrimental to experiencing music. So I don't consider this to be genre-specific in any way.

The sections that Laurie Anderson narrates - did you tell her that there was a theme to the album or did she come up with these lyrics cold?

CS: We had talked about what the album was about. I gave her general over-arching themes and was a little bit specific about where the songs that she was going to be working on, where they were in terms of the path of the record. There was nothing too specific. Just the concept and the music and she just took that and went with it.

I guess if you take Laurie's words and the fact that you've worked with Efrim Menuck from Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and that the standard 'Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes' is on the record, there is a tangible apocalyptic feel to proceedings.

CS: Yeah, definitely. That's definitely something that people are taking away from it and whereas I wouldn't say that I was going specifically for those things, what I was going for was to create an intense feeling of isolation. I feel like when we talk about post-apocalyptic themes that's what we're really talking about. We're always returning to this sense of being alone in a strange new place where all is bleak and all is lost. And it is this sense of isolation that permeates the whole album. I wanted to go into the balance between fear and transcendence.

I think the sharp clarity of her spoken words contrasts nicely with the warmth and the grain of the saxophone.

CS: Oh, absolutely.

What can you tell me about Shara Worden, the second vocalist on the album?

CS: Shara Worden has been releasing records under the moniker My Brightest Diamond for the last few years and she's really well known in indie rock circles. I started working together with her on this project with Bryce and Aaron Dessner from The National. They wrote a stage show, song cycle, multi-media piece called The Long Count. So Shara was singing on it and I was playing and it was the first time we'd really worked together. During the course of that, I had been writing this record and we'd already been talking about collaborating. I'd been listening to a lot of pre-World War II gospel music and that is the source material and inspiration behind a lot of this album. And I was listening to 'Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes' one day and I thought that it would be this perfect moment, with her singing that at the point in the record when we're at our bleakest.

What did you take away from your experiences with Anthony Braxton, and did you see him as a kindred spirit?

CS: I only did one thing with Braxton and that was way back a few years ago. It was super fun. Playing his music was incredibly challenging but, at the same time, exhilarating. It's so kinetic and relentless. After the show we all went out and had some drinks and got loose. [laughs] Hanging out with Braxton is having a good time. He's a lovely dude and an absolute legend and powerhouse.

Colin Stetson | Red Horse (Judge II) & In love and in Justice | A Take Away Show from La Blogotheque on Vimeo.

When I was in school, I used to play the euphonium in a colliery-style brass band and I used to get sick of lugging that instrument around. Now, I've seen the size of your bass saxophone - you must resent having to carry it sometimes...

CS: Yeah, it's really heavy and it sucks to bring it everywhere but the thing I resent is how difficult everyone makes it for me. I don't resent it for its size. It's an amazing thing. It's 103 years old. It's a beautiful instrument and it's amazing that it's gotten to me in the condition that it's in. It's capable of so much so I tend to have more of a selfish, 'Just don't fuck with me' kind of attitude when I have it with me. When I'm checking it on to a plane I feel like people should actually be a bit more excited about how special it is and having it there rather than what they actually are like.

I'm guessing your bass sax is that old because that's when they made the really good instruments. If someone were to buy a new one, how much would they cost?

CS: They can cost anything from a few thousand to $18,000 if you get something made in China or the States. But personally I wouldn't play on a new one. At the turn of the last century you were talking about an instrument that had only been in production for 50 years or so and the bass saxophone was literally only just coming into being so there were very few modifications going on with the way they were made. So my instrument is stripped right down to the bare bones mechanics of what's actually on the resonating tube and so that makes it more resonant and freer. There are certain things you need to overcome as regards intonation but the metal it's made out of, the way that it's made and everything else about it makes for a much better and bigger sound. And as you get into the 20th century as they try and try to make things more ergonomic and more in tune, things get heavier and funkier. The metal that they use now is shit. It's all machine-made and not hand-made, so ultimately you're left with an instrument that's not sonically as rich.

Last time I spoke to Stephen O'Malley he told me that he'd been getting into the genealogy of his guitars, tracing them back through several owners to the 60s or 50s. Have you any idea what your horn's been up to for the last century?

CS: I was just thinking about this. I bought it from a guy in Illinois and he had been sitting on it for decades and just brought it out every once in a while just to go, 'Hey! Look at this!' So I know for the past 40-years it had just been in someone's den or basement. But I'd imagine that, for something built in 1908, initially it got around maybe in a marching band, but then maybe not because it's in such good condition, and then circulating round in a dance band or jazz band. But because of the way the scene went I'm guessing that between the 1950s and since I got it six years ago it was probably not being played. But since I've had it I've played it all over the place. I even played it in the Sahara Desert.

Colin Stetson will be performing New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges at the Jeff Mangum-curated ATP Nightmare Before Christmas festival in Minehead this December. He also releases a new EP, Those Who Didn't Run, on October 4. For more information, click here.