David Torn: A Lifetime of Improvisation in Non-Improvisational Settings

Paul Olson By

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I have come to understand that what my personality needs is to not worry about idiom or pigeonholes or labels. To really, really not worry about it, and just try to pursue a voice. There are rock players, and there are jazz players--and I
David Torn has done work in so many capacities in such a variety of musical projects that it's somewhat daunting to try to state just what exactly he is.

Certainly Torn's a guitarist of humbling technique—but he's always been more interested in texture and sound than the kind of electric shredding beloved in guitar-hero-worshiping circles. Torn studied composition with Leonard Bernstein and guitar with John Abercrombie and Pat Martino. It was during his tenure as guitarist with the New York-based Everyman Band—a group originally formed to support rock artist Lou Reed—that Torn's unusual, processed electric textures and highly original approach began to get noticed—and this attention only grew with the releases of two ECM recordings under his own name, Best Laid Plans (1985) and Cloud About Mercury (1987).

Torn parted ways with ECM, but has continued to release excellent records such as the 1996 solo CD What Means Solid, Traveller? (CMP) and the electronics-saturated 2000 release under his Splattercell moniker, OAH. But other activities have come to fill his time. He's worked as a session musician for countless artists such as David Bowie, Tori Amos, John Legend and David Sylvian; he's played on many film soundtracks as well. Currently a large part of his time is spent actually composing for motion pictures, which he calls his true love and ambition.

One can't fail to mention Torn's simultaneous career as a recording producer, mixer and writer. His fascinating, rich mixing has deeply enhanced such modern jazz classics as Drew Gress's 2005 CD 7 Black Butterflies and Dave Douglas' Keystone (also from 2005). He has done invaluable post-recording work for his great friend and collaborator altoist/composer Tim Berne—there are so many Berne recordings that, as a result of Torn's meticulous mixing, sound great despite their hardscrabble recorded origins. Oh, and he's written a big hit for Madonna.

But it was at Berne's insistence that Torn returned to live performance. His new CD on ECM, Prezens, is an amazing recording that sounds like nothing else out there and stands up to dozens of listenings. I telephoned Torn at his Pasadena home and we spoke about, well, everything.

Pasadena, the Film World and Being Itinerant

David Torn: I wish I had my cats here. I'm currently extremely bachelorized and working really, really long hours every day for the last nine weeks.

All About Jazz: What are you working on?

DT: I'm working on a film. I've been bouncing back and forth from New York to California with no quarter on either end of the stick. I fly to New York in a hurry to do something and get back to California as fast as I can. Then, when I go back to New York, I have to be there as soon as possible, and all this gear has to move, and it's pretty daunting. And I don't have my animals here, not to mention family, which is a whole other story. But not having the animals around when you're alone is really rough, I think. I told my wife I'm going to get a big stuffed dog to put in the house [laughing].

AAJ: Right. You don't need flesh and blood; you just need fuzziness.

DT: In any case, there is a camaraderie that exists between humans and animals that is irreplaceable. I miss my animals. But I am going to go home for a day, just 24 hours, because I need to. I need warm human beings and animals around.

AAJ: Where are you now?

DT: I'm in Pasadena. I live in Pasadena now. It is a huge difference from L.A. There are very few Hollywood people out here—it's green; there are neighborhoods. My neighborhood is a walking neighborhood—you can walk around, walk to the store. And yet I can get to the studios in 15 minutes tops, and it might take me 50 minutes to get all the way to the West Side where [laughing] all the shit is happenin'!

For the people that live and work in L.A., if you say "Pasadena, you might as well say "another planet. People have very strange attitudes of place here. I have a lot of friends here, and there are a lot of people I dig here, but the whole of western Los Angeles County is colored by—I don't know what it's colored by. It's just weird. And some people really think that if you moved to Pasadena, you must not want to work anymore. But it's really close!

AAJ: Do people really think that way when it comes to hiring talent? Just how close they are?

DT: I have to say that access to meetings is, in fact, why I'm here. For years, I've been saying to this film agent or whoever, "Hey, I have a busy schedule, but if you get me a meeting with a director who is definitely worth meeting, I'll be there. Give me three to six hours notice, and I'll get on a plane and I'll be there as soon as the plane arrives. I can be there that same day or the following morning.

And it never frickin' worked. Ever! So at the end of last year, I decided I'd figure out how to do this bicoastal thing. So we moved to this place in Pasadena in March, and it all changed. I would never have gotten this meeting had I not been here, for the film I'm currently working on—which is currently driving me crazy, but that's the way the game goes. They never would have done it. "Can you meet tomorrow? "Yes. Where? "Santa Monica. 9:00 in the morning. "Yes, I'll be there. Had I been in New York, I could have easily done the same thing, so I don't know why it is—but I wouldn't have gotten the meeting. It's very strange. This film thing is a very strange business.

AAJ: And it's not like you can reason with them. You just had to move.

DT: Yes. I had to show something—my willingness to be in it. Of course, it seems that when you move to one place, you end up getting some job on the other part of the world. I think no matter what you do in music, it seems like there is bound to be some kind of strong focus on itinerancy. You will be itinerant at some point in your life, having made the commitment to be a musician, whether as a performer, a composer, whatever. You're going to be moving around a lot.

I guess I've always struggled with that, and now I have a place—my real home out East—that I will never, ever sell, unless I'm destitute or the world falls apart. And as much as I am loath to admit it, that's my home. It's hard for musicians to admit that they have a place, a geographical location. "Where are you from? "I'm from New York.

AAJ: Just having a shack somewhere that you can go and get drunk in once a year is very, very important. And the absence of that rootedness can make you crazy.

DT: Yes, and I think that modern culture sort of denies that. The amount of movement and the lack of, let's call it familial home in America, have been amplified to a greater degree than in any major civilization. If you look at the numbers of people who move for their jobs constantly and don't ever get that familial home—I know because I come from a family that never had homes. I come from itinerant stock.

My wife is a mixture of Native American peoples and some other stuff, but the Iroquois and Cherokee lines are very predominant, and she's very attached to geographical locations. I don't use the term "spiritual much, but there is something remarkably different about that. And it made me realize that there are people who actually become attached to place. It kind of blew my mind—it actually took something like 20 years of it perpetually blowing my mind before I realized that I want that too. But that's something very strange about post-European culture: We don't attach ourselves to, say, the lake we live next to.

Returning to Playing Live and to ECM

AAJ: You have a brand new recording under your own name, Prezens, which is your first on the ECM label since the 1980s. I think this is going to be my favorite record of the year, and I think it's your best album yet. This is your first since your Splattercell recording project in 2000, and the first under your own name since your solo record What Means Solid, Traveller? from 1996.

Before we talk about the music, tell me why you made your first record in many years, and how you ended up back on ECM. Was the music made for them, or did you just hand them a record you'd done and finished yourself?

DT: I made a record because [altoist/composer] Tim Berne has been busting my ass since 2000. And he and I are really, really good friends, and we spend a fair amount of working time together. We became incredibly good friends probably around '97 or '98. We don't live near each other, but we did a lot of work together and we got really tight. God bless him, he continues to bust my ass about not being a performer. For that Splattercell record [OAH, Cell Division, 2000]—when I made that record, I thought, "Okay, I'm going to try one more time to make a record that I like and see if I can maintain a relationship with a label and not get screwed.

And [laughing] it didn't really work. I didn't get as screwed as I had been in the past since I left ECM, but I have been just beleaguered by the recording, and live performing and touring things. I can't handle it. You put so much into this stuff, and touring is so hard, and I have other skills and other interests to pursue. Really, everything in America conspires against the musician, to make musicians not able to perform in their own country and not be able to sell records that are not of the mainstream—not without making sacrifices that I was no longer willing to make.

But there was Tim busting my ass, and it kind of coincided with something else that was happening a couple years into our relationship. I did a score—I'm going to cross subjects here. Around 2003, I did my first real studio picture, on my own, not as a session player, not helping somebody else out, not addending [sic] someone else's score, but doing my own. That was a film called The Order. And accidentally, [ECM label head/producer] Manfred Eicher, or someone at ECM, heard the score before the film was released. I don't know how that occurred, but it was a good several months before the film came out.

So I got a call from ECM saying Manfred had heard the score from The Order and wanted to know whom to contact to put the score out. That was a mixture of a small orchestra with some strange instruments, voices, some of my instrumentation, and electronics. He wanted to put it out as a record, but he was incapable of getting it from 20th Century-Fox, who owned the materials once they had paid for the score.

AAJ: And who probably had no intention of releasing the music themselves.

DT: No, they did. I had told the vice president of music at Fox, "Don't make a deal without talking to me, because I know a lot of people in the record industry. And Manfred was a little bit late in coming to them, and they—without telling me, because they don't need to—had already made a deal to release the music. It was released, and it's still in release.

So Manfred couldn't get that score, and he was frustrated. So he had someone at ECM call me and say, "Do you want to talk to Manfred? So we spoke, and the conversations with Manny were very, very pleasant; it was like all bygones were bygones, and here we were in the present, and let's do something together.

So I told him, "What I'd really like to do is be able to continue the movement of writing for mixed orchestras, something for the ECM New Series [the label's series concentrating on serious composition, both early and contemporary]. And he was like, "Oh, definitely. We can definitely do this. He wanted some more material, anything I'd recorded. I said, "Well, I only have demos of orchestra material, and if I send you notation, you can't read it. But he was really positive.

Now, at this time, I was working a lot with Tim, and Tim and I had begun playing these improvised gigs. At his insistence. I did a gig with him and [drummer] Bobby Previte. I'd also begun to work with Tim in the studio on a pretty regular basis. He makes a lot of records, and Tim's records are often truly records in that they are live performances that sound terrible, and it was always my job to make them sound good.

AAJ: That is a job at which you have succeeded.

DT: Thank you, sir. Now a conversation with Manfred Eicher is something that goes on for some period of time. It's not like we make a decision in one hour that on August 22nd, 2005, we will do a recording. It's not like that; it's a process and people's schedules change and you have to be flexible. And in the middle of this waiting period with Manfred, Tim and I—again, at Tim's insistence—began playing a lot together.

And I was having an absolute fucking blast. I only had one rule: I only wanted to do pure improvisation in front of an audience. I didn't want to do tunes. I sat in front of a computer all day rewriting other people's tunes, writing my own pieces of music, organizing things. I just wanted to play with people who wanted to play.

And this group began to slowly grow out of Tim's group [drummer Tim Rainey, keyboardist Craig Taborn, and Berne work together as Berne's band Hard Cell]. So here I was talking about this orchestral record and how daunting that would be. So I thought, "Hey, why don't I make a record that's like what we're doing? I think there was some point where this band got together, played a gig or two, and it was just unbelievably fun. And besides being fun, it felt amazing. We played at the 55 Bar.

AAJ: Oh, the world's best club.

DT: No, the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn is the world's best club.

AAJ: Well, world's second-best, then.

DT: Well, yeah. And there's a great place in Montreal, too. So we played this gig, and I listened to the live recordings, and Tim and I starting talking, and I said, "I'm going to try to shift this recording project over to a band. So I got back to Manfred and said, "Why don't we hold off on this stuff? I've got this band, and you should definitely hear it.

So I sent him some tracks. I mastered the really terrible-sounding live tracks from the first and second gigs we played. I picked nine or ten contiguous minutes, four or five of those ten-minute sections from four or five different sets, and didn't do any doctoring of the material at all. And Manfred said, "Absolutely. Yeah, go ahead.

I said, "I'd like to do the record here, either live in a club or maybe in the studio. He said, "However you want to do it. Why don't you just make the record? Just start making it, and as you're making it, send me a piece or two. Which I did. So, as they say in Hollywood, it had been "green-lighted [laughing], and it just proceeded from there. It took a few years to kind of figure it out—I was just really fishing.

And Manfred and I would talk on the phone: "It's kind of amazing that we're getting back together after 20 years. It felt really natural to me. Here's a guy who, whatever his output has been since, absolutely earned my undying respect in 1973 or 1974. Whenever. And he's still putting out records that blow my mind—especially the New Series for me. Have you heard the Tigran Mansurian string quartets? Unbelievable stuff.

So it felt really natural and, yes, I ended up making the record myself. For Manfred and for the band and for myself, I took my time with the material. We recorded everything on the record—all the band material—in two-and-a-half days in a studio in upstate New York. It was great fun, although a very different vibe from the band live, because there's no audience to interact with, and the energy and environment are different. It's not a live improviser's environment. It's a studio. You don't feel people; you don't feel a room.

I had chosen a room, for myself, that had some amount of separation, but was a big room so that I would be able to ditz around with some of the material in the studio a little more easily, if I wanted to do that. So it was a different environment, but we got an incredible amount of material. I think we recorded something like ten hours of material, and it was the dauntingest task of all time to go through this material and decide what I was going to choose from it to work on.

I did three pieces, including one piece that was completely live. I think I did some overdubs myself at the end of it from a club date that we had done. So I sent those three pieces, handed them to the band, and said, "Tell me what you think. Two were the band, and the other became track two of this record ["Rest & Unrest ]. I married the pieces together, kind of made a little movie, made it float together well. And the band loved it, and Eicher loved it. And then I just finished the record—again, in a very long time, because of the choosing of the material.

Prezens Is a Real-Time Recording, Mostly

AAJ: This CD is ostensibly a quartet set, but quartet or not, I think we can agree that this is not Cloud About Mercury, part two. Like that 1987 ECM record of yours, this a very guitar-driven record—even when the guitar doesn't sound like a guitar—but it probably has the most in common with recent stuff you've done like Splattercell or your solo stuff, although I think it's really its own animal.

I hear live performances in here—lots of Tim, plenty of Tom, maybe less Craig—but anything seems cut up, rearranged, and sonically altered; there's not a completely natural ambience to anything on this record. Yet I assume there was plenty of the group playing together at the same time. Certainly I hear what sounds like a group improv in the middle of "Neck Deep in the Harrow.

DT: Well, all of "Neck Deep in the Harrow is a group improv. And this is something that I've had a very hard time explaining to people, and I don't know why this is. But the bulk of the material that is the band is not really altered very much beyond what we did [laughing]. There are places in it where I would choose to do a little overdub myself, but most of it is just the band playing together.

Oh, but just to step backward one step—Craig played relatively shyly in the studio, for some reason. And that is kind of the nature of improvisation: You just never know who's going to take the fore. I played a lot less guitar in the improvisations than often happens on the live gigs, for exactly the same reasons—the environment was different.

But I can tell you off the bat that on "AK and "Structural Functions of Prezens, the improvs have absolute integrity with what was played in the studio. There's much more integrity to the stuff than you may have thought.

The thing that's beautiful about this band is that it's four improvisers who share a very similar kind of—I won't say "nonidiomatic but I would say "a-idiomatic —preferences. We share resonances because of these preferences, and we have the ability to communicate and develop a vocabulary of communication. And everyone is capable of doing improvs that are, in fact, compositional.

And that's why I wanted to record the band doing improv, because there is this remarkable ability in this band to kind of turn on a stylistic dime and make those transitions with a grace and naturalness that is unlike any other improvising band I'd ever been in. Maybe it seems so unlike anything else because I find it so compositionally pleasing. And I'm not guiding the improvs in any way other than being a member of the band.

This is a tough thing to explain about this record, because there are pure improvs where I've done some overdubs. And I've definitely altered things sonically. But I also do that live! A part of the improv setting is that I'm sampling people while they're playing; that's part of my schtick, as it were. I have a setup where I'm not only playing guitar, but I'm also heavily processing Tim. And in the studio, I set it up so I could process everybody in real time—and print the results to separate tracks.

AAJ: Oh, I see. So everyone is perfectly separated—or much more separated than it could have been.

DT: More than in a club, anyway. I always have it set up so I have a little mixer, and that mixer feeds the same sampling devices that my guitar goes into, so I can mix samples together. For example, I can make a guitar loop and then grab one note from Tim—or five notes, or ten notes—then throw them into the mixer, and they all spit out of these guitar amplifiers.

And so the sound of this record is the sound of the band! "AK, "Structural Functions of Prezens, "Sink, "Neck Deep in the Harrow and "Transmit Regardless are really pure band tracks. "Ever More Other is me, Tom and Craig, but I did add a bunch to that, so that's different.

And I did fuck around with shit in the studio. But that's what I do as a producer! But I am trying to put across that I'm not altering the integrity of what the band played. That is something I'm pretty sensitive to. Every once in a while, in the middle of a purely improvised piece, something sounds maybe a little "studio-ized. And that might have been the case, or it might have been something I did live.

I felt very nervous before the record came out about this very point—because reviewers who don't do their homework, or don't talk to me, are going to get a wrong impression about the band. And the fact that I actually inserted other pieces made from the same materials on the same record is because the record was coming out under my own name, and I wanted a little something else.

Like "Them Buried Standing —that piece, that's guitar, keyboards and drums, that little fake jazz piece. I did that after the fact with some drums that Tom played in the studio during a warm-up session. I felt, after the fact of the recording, that there was never a point where the guitar was playing a kind of featured melodic role—so I wrote a piece of music. I did this little improv, I really liked it, and then I found these drums of Tom's from the session, just him warming up, and put that piece together myself.

Then I began to really doubt myself, doubt that I did such a thing, because I don't want people to misperceive anything. The remixing, the Fripperies, the tricks are not quite what a lot of reviewers have made them out to be. When you see this band live, it's much more powerful than this record is [laughing]. It really is an unbelievably strange experience!

AAJ: Well, I want to see the band badly, but don't anticipate seeing you in Chicago immediately.

DT: Well, we'll see. Because all of a sudden, we're getting all these offers to play. And I'm taking them, regardless of the fact that my schedule is completely out of control.

AAJ: Well, I feel like a big dummy, thinking there was more manipulation of the tracks after the fact than there was.

DT: There's always manipulation in my case. But the only thing I can really say is there's manipulation going on live in the room. The stress point for me is that when I did manipulate it, I still completely respected the integrity of what the band played and when it occurred. So there's not a lot of Teo Macero-style cutting going on. I'm not cutting sections into other sections.

I did make it so that there's one piece where it's obvious that I've cut something that the band played: "Bulbs. And you can hear exactly what the band played, and in retrospect, I think that if you know anything about studio technologies and sampling technologies, you'll probably realize that I did, in fact, make the loop out of the whole band playing that thing. It's the whole band and it's what we played, but I ended up making a tune out of a loop because it sounded cool to me—for no other reason. And then the piece morphs into something that I wrote in the studio later. And again, I used Tom's warm-up drum kit [laughing] to play the drums at the end.

But I could never stop doubting myself that I did this, rather than just make a live document of the band—which exists. There is a finished live record. I was tearing my hair out, thinking I was just going to send Manfred the live record. But I felt I had to serve my own purposes just a little bit more, and show a music that is not a live band per se. Recordings are different these days, and Tim makes an awful lot of live records. And Tim himself said to me, "Nah, nah, we'll do the live record later. "But it's finished already, Tim, and I could work a lot less hard!

Tim Berne is Really Great

AAJ: Everyone needs to listen to Tim Berne because that guy embodies common sense.

DT: It's more than that. It's aesthetics and persistence—and aesthetic persistence. Without sounding like we're secretly lovers—which we're not—I could not say enough good things about Tim and the effect he's had on me and my life these last ten years. I think as a composer, as a guy with a vision, I very, very rarely run into someone like this, who's just got this unassailable fucking integrity. And I've been accused of having integrity in my life, and I'm looking at Tim and thinking, "I've never met anybody like this, with the balls he has to do what he has continued to do and pursue on his own. In a commercially prohibitive environment, what he does and achieves—really, I have never met anybody like Tim. I hate to sound like I'm going too far, waxing too poetic, but it's true.

AAJ: You don't have to worry about going too far, because I am at this very moment wearing a Screwgun Records [Berne's label] t-shirt.

DT: Oh [laughing], okay. There is no one like him in the world. Not only that, but Tim has had more effect on music than people will realize for quite some time. Which is really sad. Look, his band is my band. It's different. And how many other people share that band? How many other people have shared his other bands? Let's take it back to Miniature [Berne's cooperative 1980's trio with drummer Joey Baron and cellist Hank Roberts] or before that. This is a guy who committed himself a long time ago to the things he believes in and never dropped the commitment. Regardless of the fact that he, once upon a time, made the mistake [laughing] of signing to a major label.

AAJ: Well, he may not be as appreciated as he should be. And I've only spoken to him once, when I interviewed him, but if anyone should be sad about him not being fully appreciated, it should be Tim Berne—and I've never gotten the impression that he feels badly at all about any of that.

DT: I kind of think that—and this is always true about people with integrity—the only thing you can hold on to is your integrity. And I'm not using the word "integrity lightly; I mean it in a life sense, in the sense that it requires an internal commitment that must express itself externally. And I think that that, and all those moments of music, are what makes a guy like Tim able to hold on to it and just proceed. The motherfucker just proceeds. Remember that stupid phrase, "Keep on keepin' on?

AAJ: "The dude abides, like in The Big Lebowski.

DT: That's it exactly—the dude abides. I couldn't say enough about the effect that having a relationship and a friendship with Tim has had on me and what it's meant to me. And it came out of the blue. We were working in very, very disparate worlds, although we had a connection, because I have so pursued the art of improvisation in non-improvisational settings for my entire life.

AAJ: Well, you know who told me about you?

DT: No.

AAJ: Tim Berne. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I didn't know your work and hadn't heard of it. So when I interviewed Tim over a year ago, I just asked about you as a person who had done sonic work on his records. And Tim said, "Don't you know he's made records of his own? He was on ECM. He encouraged me to check you out.

DT: I made at least one good record for ECM. And see, there's another good example of Tim Berne showing up. He had an effect on you, and you checked out the material. And who else in that world would really care about me? I can't say I was ever rejected by the jazz world, because I definitely danced with it. Well, that's a bad word, because Tim is not really a jazz musician.

AAJ: Well, he plays an alto. He improvises.

DT: Right. He connects to that world, at least on the face of it, a little more than I do. I've probably [laughing] played a lot more changes in my life than Tim has! Because I don't think he really enjoys that world, and I spent quite a few years attempting to do that.

AAJ: It's interesting that you say you danced with the jazz world. I think if you'd wanted to, you would be one of those guys. You were on ECM. You played on a Jan Garbarek record. You were starting to work with those people—not that the ECM musicians are by any means traditional jazz players.

DT: No, most of the old guard of ECM were precisely not that. They were connected to it, but not of it. Conference of the Birds [the 1973 ECM Dave Holland Quartet recording]—was that a jazz record? I don't know.

But I danced with that world like I danced with every idiomatic world, and it never, ever works. When I've tried really hard to connect with only one world, I end up fucking it up somehow. I have come to understand that what my personality needs is to not worry about idiom or pigeonholes or labels—to really, really not worry about it and just try to pursue a voice. And when I say "danced with the jazz world, I'm not isolating that. I danced with the rock world too, and yet I'm not a rock player. And the only reason I bring it up is that there are rock players, and there are jazz players—and I'm not one of them [laughing]. I cannot achieve a particular idiomatic style with any sense of professionalism.

Bruford Levin Upper Extremities

AAJ: Well, you can do it for a month or two, can't you? You were on tour with Bruford Levin Upper Extremities not too many years ago [the quartet with drummer Bill Bruford, bassist/Chapman Stick player Tony Levin, and trumpeter Chris Botti]. That was an idiom of sorts. You did the shows.

DT: Well, did you hear what I did with them? It was an interesting band. That was like Cloud About Mercury [Torn's 1987 ECM recording with Bruford, Levin and trumpeter Mark Isham ] for me, only with Chris playing trumpet—the live shows especially. Not so much that first studio record [Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, Papa Bear Records, 1998]. I don't not like that record, but the band live was really a beast.

AAJ: I like the live record [Blue Nights/Live, Discipline Global Media, 2000].

DT: Me too. I prefer the live record. But anyway, what was happening in there? I don't know. Was I playing rock or jazz? I definitely wasn't playing fusion! I wasn't sampling anybody else except me and some tape recorders I had on stage. That was more about a really intense rhythm section. And there was always one moment of pure improv every night, and it was fantastic. I thought, "This is the beginning of something that I like a lot. I loved that moment of getting up on a stage in front of people and being forced into a situation of having to trust your friends, the other musicians, and to trust the moment and your own instincts. And damn the torpedoes—whatever happens happens.

There were strong elements in the band that did not really respond to that as a crowd-pleasing event [laughing].

AAJ: Was that band burdened by the audience's expectations? Were there people yelling out for King Crimson or Yes tunes? Were they willing to listen to improvs?

DT: The audience was pretty open. As the guitarist in that band, it was tiresome to talk to everybody after the show. First of all, the audience was all boys. There's something wrong with that, I have to say. For this band now, the Prezens band, the only gig we've had where the audience was predominantly male was this big gig we did in New York at Joe's Pub, because we were out of our element in a bigger club, and there was a lot of press. The guys from Guitar Player came out, so it was kind of weird. There's something very unnatural—and I've had a lot of this in my life—about looking out at an audience and knowing that not only is there a predominance of males there, which looks really strange, but that more than half of them are not listening, because they're paying attention to the details of what you're doing.

AAJ: Right. "Dude, check out that hammer-on.

DT: Or, "How did he do that? Or in my case, it's usually, "Why did he do that? Or, "Man, I just wish he would play some fuckin' guitar!

But the Bruford Levin band had a remarkable success and should, by all natural means, have stayed alive. The band was getting looser and looser, and boy, was I enjoying that. And the crowds did not diminish; they were only growing. I can tell you, I've never seen a success like that in the States with a small touring band. We were actually moving around the country and the shows were sold out everywhere, or close to everywhere. We were a band that actually had merchandise to sell, and we sold it.

And I did not want it to end. I was not one of those who thought that it should stop. In fact, I didn't understand at all when it stopped, precisely because I thought, "Wow, this is getting to be really fun! And we're making a decent living, and it's pretty easy to travel with your friends. Although I guess that, cameraderie-wise, Chris was coming from a different place and thinking about having this very successful smooth jazz career at the same time he was doing the B.L.U.E. band— which he went on to do, of course. He's got a very successful smooth jazz career. And yet he really never wanted this band to end, because it was his chance to play—to just blow and be in a really strange musical environment.

Anyway, I was actually quite shocked when that band ended. All I could think was, "Why? Why aren't we continuing?

AAJ: So—why?

DT: Well, one day in Japan on a very successful Japanese tour with King Crimson—talk about boys in the audience, my God—we were walking down the street, and Bill said, "I've got to tell you that I don't want to do this. I don't want to continue doing this. I want my own band. This has turned into a cooperative. Which Tony made happen very quickly after we made that studio record—he came to us and said, "We're going to keep the name of the band, but this is going to be a cooperative from here on out. It feels like a band to me.

And Bill, I think, wanted to be the bandleader after having been in a million cooperative bands for a million years. At the same time, he said, "I don't really want to be in an electric band that's a cooperative. I want to be the leader of my own jazz band.

I said, "Do you have to pursue one versus the other? Can't you find a way to do both? And he said, "This is just really not where I want to be right now. It really messed up my head a little bit. And since then, of course, Chris went crazy trying to continuously put the band back together. And about eight months later, Bill said to me and Tony, "There are some dates we could do in Europe this coming summer. We could do two weeks in Europe.

And Tony and I talked and it seemed like neither of us really wanted to be in that band on a let's-do-some- festivals-together basis. There was no new record; none of it made any sense. It wasn't moving forward, so why just go play a couple of gigs?

AAJ: You would have to stop playing right when it started getting really good again.

DT: Yeah. It just didn't make any sense to us. I couldn't see making a commitment to being on the road for a couple of weeks for something that was dead-ending. And I know Tony felt very similarly. I suspect that, although Tony never articulated this, there must have been a severe sense of letdown, since he had started the thing, and we were getting very successful.

I really have to pursue things that last over periods of time. That's how I am. So that was pretty much the deal there, from my perspective.

Production and Mixing Work

AAJ: I'm interested in your production and mixing work, so tell me how you approach that. You did Jeff Beck's Jeff a few years ago, and of course you've done lots of mixing of Berne's stuff. I still revere the work you did on bassist/composer Drew Gress's 2005 CD 7 Black Butterflies—"Rhinoceros is a sonic masterpiece.

DT: I've got another Drew Gress record that has been put off by my film schedule, unfortunately. I need to call Drew. The record is in the can, written and recorded, and it's sitting there waiting for me. It's quite beautiful.

AAJ: Same band?

DT: Yes, [trumpeter Ralph] Alessi, Tim, Craig and Tom. And Drew, of course.

AAJ: Do you have any philosophy or approach to mixing or studio work? Tim has told me you'll mix something for months if he'll let you.

DT: Well now, because of my writing schedule which takes precedence for me at the moment, I've become even more picky about what I'm mixing. It's a scheduling thing. I require that nobody expects me to mix something in three days—and that was why I got into this stuff: Because my friends could never afford to have their records mixed in a way that might be considered in line with the fact that most of them are not really writing or playing jazz music.

And yet the budgets and time constraints that are forced on them continuously have them making records that sound like they're jazz records. In other words, they sound like they were done fast. So with Tim, with one of the first bands that he brought me—I can't remember which, but one of the groups with [guitarist] Marc Ducret—I said, "Dude, this is not a jazz tune. It's more like a Led Zeppelin tune, and I want to pursue what the personalities of the band, the performances, and the compositions are sonically. Not just a good-sounding live record. I want to make it sound like what the band would sound like if it had more time and development, more recording budget.

So that's kind of the driving aesthetic behind that stuff. I'm not a trained mixing engineer. I have become a relatively good mixing engineer, but I don't do things correctly, and I try really hard to only pursue what I think the sonic equivalent of the band is—what I hear it to be in my ear. As long as the artist is in agreement that it sounds good.

Now with the Jeff Beck material, it was quite different because I needed to rewrite all that material. They called me for the combination platter: "Rewrite this material, make it so we like it, and make it sound cool —which meant they wanted me to rewrite it and mix it. With Tim and with Drew and with Dave Douglas [Torn mixed the trumpeter/composer's 2006 Keystone record] or whomever, it's more like, "Do your thing. Tim and Drew fully understand that I'm not doing anything willy-nilly. I am really trying to think, "What should this band sound like? I spend an awful lot of time thinking about that in the first couple days, the first couple of mixes—and they take me forever because I'm thinking like a producer: How should these guys sound? Here's the music. It is what it is. I'm really not going to alter it. But sonics are really, really important, and they've become more important than ever.

The other side of that coin is that in terms of competition in the marketplace, there is of course a hardcore group of music fanatics who really like listening to live, bad-sounding material and hearing it that way, because it gives them a sense of, "Oh, I was in the club. It sounded terrible, but they were amazing and I'm part of the experience.

Now I'm not thinking about them when I say what I'm about to, which is that in music, in the sale of records, things have changed sonically over the course of the last 40 years quite drastically—sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. But there is a certain kind of level now, I think, of expectation. When one is expected to buy an entire CD—not one MP3— there is some sense of comparison, of competition. That guy who's listening to Tim Berne's music is pretty bloody likely to also have an early Soundgarden record. You don't know. Or he or she might be listening to Björk.

AAJ: I would hope so. Everyone should be, but that's not your point.

DT: Yeah. And music that is gripping should sound gripping. Music that is ethereal should sound ethereal, even if it's the same damn piece of music. And that cheap live recording thing— it's hard to get it to compare, except for those who desire to hear through that, and they are the rare few. So there was always the feeling, "Why don't these records sound good? Because we only had one day to mix!

For me, a lot of this thinking started from mastering records—from being handed records to master, where I was saying to friends, guys like Tim and Previte and some other people, "Yeah, I'll master your record, but don't make me do it in a day. Let me just try to figure this out. And I did some studying and a lot of experimentation.

I really focused on the Screwgun catalog, the stuff I was doing for Screwgun. I had to focus really hard because a lot of those materials would come in and they were really, really hard to listen to. One disaster is balance—and we're talking about stereo recordings here, 2.0 stereo, sometimes from a DVCAM. There'd be no bass; it'd be in there, but you couldn't hear it. Problems with the midrange or upper midrange stuff. Tim would be either buried or so loud that it was unbelievable. You could hear Tom's cymbals, but where was the rest of the kit?

So I spent a lot of time saying to Tim, "Listen, I've got the time—let's just see if we can make this sound better. And it was a service that I was providing, and to a large degree, it was for love, because no one I know from the world that I come from can afford to take these things to a great mastering engineer and spend three days tweaking it up. Not fucking it up, but tweaking it up to make it sound competitive!

And there was some self-serving stuff in there, which was, "How do I do this? I got something out of it big-time. Just thinking "is this possible? when a guy hands you a fucking two-track cassette tape that he made in 1981 and tells you, "The record company wants to release this, and I can't afford to go to Bob Ludwig or Greg Calbi or Howie Weinberg. I can't afford it. I could go and spend a few thousand dollars in a day, and I know it could sound better, but are you willing to look at this and see if you can turn it into something way better?

There was a real challenge in that for me, technologically and sonically. I felt compelled to respond [laughing]. For my own purposes.

AAJ: And for the good of the world. If there is such a thing as sonic karma, you've accumulated a lot of it. This is valuable work.

DT: Well, in certain cases—and for everything I did with Tim—it's been so rewarding to me that it ended up being incredibly self-serving. I found myself in a friendship that I never had before, an invaluable friendship.

And I have really learned a lot. As a mixing engineer, I think Drew's record was a major breakthrough for me. It was a major breakthrough that I could actually do what I was doing and not only maintain the openness of the music, but increase the quality of the openness of the music—how open it sounds. And that was a huge challenge for me. It took me, I think, three-and-a-half weeks to mix that record. "Okay, the piano sounds good. Can I make it sound beautiful? And there was no space; it was recorded in a bone-dry room, flat as a flatworm. It's very well-recorded and very warm, but not produced in any way. No ambient mikes, or very few. No big-room sound and no small-room sound.

So it was a tremendous challenge, and I got so much out of it. I would say that part of the reason I was capable of doing that was by actually focusing on my monitoring system in the studio and not just accepting what everybody told me was good for me. Up to that point, all of my mixes had been quite saturated. The stuff that I had been mixing was generally more intense and actually benefited from that kind of saturation. Then coincidentally around that time, I got myself a pair of very high-end hi-fi audiophile monitors—not studio monitors—and it completely changed the way I could approach mixing. I was capable of using both the old speakers that I knew quite well for that kind of midrange/lower-midrange saturation, and also these beautiful open speakers where I could really hear in detail what I was doing.

And I hate to say it, but boy, it altered my view. And it made me capable of doing something I still think of as a benchmark. That Drew record for me, as a mix, was a huge benchmark. Yeah—I love that record.

AAJ: Well, the first time I heard 7 Black Butterflies, I freaked out.

DT: And you're a Chicagoan—that was a Chicago label that put that out.

AAJ: Right. Mike Friedman's Premonition Records.

DT: Yes. And they were supportive, and it was a typical situation where I knew I was serving myself by doing it and I knew I was serving Drew. And you have to just look at it and say, "How can I figure out how to work on this for three-and-a-half months and not make the kind of money that I actually need [laughing] during that period?

AAJ: Well, I can't imagine how.

Playing Sessions and Not Being Purely Altruistic

DT: Well, I have my ways.

AAJ: Well, did you have a lemonade stand outside the place you were mixing with a bell so you could run outside when someone needed a cup?

DT: It's an unfortunate fact of life: I am not purely altruistic. I have a family I have supported for quite some years, but I have been really fortunate with some of my writing. Let's put it that way. And my session work, too, has been good. It's increased steadily for fifteen years around here, and I don't know why that is, and I am so thankful for it that I can't even tell you. But a lot comes from my writing—the insane fact that I actually co-wrote one of Madonna's hits has helped me!

AAJ: Hey, what song did you write on that Madonna Music album?

DT: "What It Feels Like For a Girl.

AAJ: I don't think they credited you.

DT: If you got an early copy of the record, you would not see a credit. You'll see a credit if you have a later copy of the record.

AAJ: So you're still available as a session guitarist despite your busy schedule. You're on that newest John Legend record, Once Again.

DT: Yeah! Again, you're really quite fortunate to get involved with things that kind of throw you.

AAJ: You know, I really like that guy. I think he's really good.

DT: Yeah, me too. I think he's remarkably talented. And that producer, Craig Street, and I go way back, and every once in a while, he'll call me for a bunch of projects in a row. And where I can do them- -where the schedule works, and they're interesting—I'll do them. And he generally comes up with interesting stuff: John Legend; I did k.d. lang with him some years ago; Meshell Ndegeocello. I did this John Popper/DJ Logic project from home last year, which was very weird.

AAJ: I didn't hear that one.

DT: It's pretty odd [laughing]. Now I reject most calls from other film composers, except for my friend Carter Burwell, who I really enjoy working with. But I made a decent living mostly working on films for a long time, and between you, me, and the wall, that's a royalty-bearing situation in most cases. And if not, then it pays very, very well, and it's very enjoyable.

Not Having Enough Time

And those are the kind of things that I think about when I'm sitting down going, "Okay, how can I do this mixing for three or four weeks and still pay my bills? And I feel like those moments happen fortuitously—those moments where I say, "Yes, I can take this on.

And then sometimes I fuck up. Like with this new Drew record—I can't afford to stop for three or four weeks right now, and we were meant to. And he knows that in advance, and he's got the decision to either wait or not wait, and it's a terrible situation—but I kind of have to say, "Drew, I've got this film. I didn't think I was going to get it. And what happened in his case was that I had two records to mix I hadn't gotten to, and then I got three films in a row. One of the guys whose record I was going to mix had been waiting for a really long time, and I just said to him, "I'm really sorry. If you don't want to wait any longer, I can't give you a schedule. If your record company's or your own needs are rough and tight, I can't be your guy.

In Drew's case, he's still hanging on. He really wants me to do this next record. But I feel terrible; I'm putting my friends off. But there are realities in life, and I love writing! It's my great love. And I love writing for pictures, and having the opportunity to write for pictures is—well, it's a very, very competitive field, and if it's a good picture, I can't reject it. I just can't do it. And it always comes up at the last minute, so it kind of creates a real psychosis for me.

AAJ: It's a difficult conflict. And if you reject too many films, you won't ever have to worry about being offered any.

DT: Yes. I mean, it could be. If I rejected a lot of films, maybe I'd be offered more [laughing]. I have no idea. But it's my primary focus, and it is not primarily the financial focus. A few years ago, I said, "I need to do this on my own. I need to be a score composer. I love stories—I read books every single day; I really love great movies. And I have been working really slowly since 1988 trying to get the movies that I thought would be correct, and failing sometimes, and taking a very slow path towards it. But now it's starting to happen.

Nobody is asking to make a choice of one or the other, but choices will naturally occur. So Drew's hanging on for this one, and so am I. I'm hoping it'll happen soon. It's looking good.

AAJ: Well, I hope you can do it.

DT: I have it here. First on my plate is a really cool Tim Berne live set that will only take three or four days. I already spent three or four days on it, and then all this film stuff came up.

AAJ: Which band?

DT Two different ones. One is with [bassist Michael] Formanek—oh, this one tune starts with this bass solo where, I swear to God, it sounds like he's playing the biggest kora you've ever heard in your life. That's a big record, and I've already put a bunch of days in it. It was very close to finished, but then Tim changed his mind about half of the material.

And it got caught up in this film thing. I did two small films for HBO back-to-back and never thought I was going to get the film I'm working on now—but for some reason I did. And I'm desperately trying to hold on to my job [laughing ruefully].

AAJ: Well, normally when I ask the final question to a musician, which is, "What are you going to do for the rest of the year? the person might say, "Well, the record is just out. I'm going to do some shows.

DT: I can say that! The record is out. ECM is still really excited about it, and we're doing some shows. Despite the fact that I'm out here in Pasadena, we're still doing our monthly show at the Tea Lounge in New York. We're doing the Montreal Jazz Festival, and we've got a European tour set up for early 2008. It looks possible that we'll do a couple more cities in the States. I don't know if we can mount a full-on tour, but I'm pretty sure we're going to play some more in the States. Offers started to come in—which is very strange for me.

And I'm working on this film now called Lars and the Real Girl. It's a really cool film starring Ryan Gosling and Patricia Clarkson. The screenplay was written by the woman who wrote the original screenplay for that HBO show Six Feet Under [Nancy Oliver]. That's really cool.

And I'm hoping to do a live show or two with David Bowie this year. He's not thinking about touring as such, but he did ask me to play a single show. He goes on and off the radar these days; I think his life became a little more about life than about performing.

AAJ: Well, he has little to prove. He's got endless cred.

DT: Yeah. I hope we do something. I'd really like to do some performance with him, because he's an amazing guy.

AAJ: You didn't tour with him on those albums you did with him, did you? [Torn played on Bowie's 2002 Heathen and 2003 Reality CD's.]

DT: No, never. I've never gigged with him. There was talk of it, but he's had this band for years to which he has a loyalty: [Guitarist] Gerry Leonard, [bassist] Gail Ann Dorsey, [drummer] Sterling Campbell, [guitarist] Earl Slick. It's a working band and like a family of its own.

When he did the Heathen tour, he and I talked about this quite a bit and came to a mutual conclusion that my touring with him wasn't really the greatest idea for either of us, unless it was a special tour where I could somehow insert myself. Because this band is really like a family; they're an existing unit and have been for years and years. One of the guitar players has changed in the last ten years—Reeves [Gabriel] left, but Gerry took his place, and Gerry's the musical director of the band.

I'm also not sure—and David and I talked about this, too—what it would be like for me to play in a band where you're playing the same tunes every night. I have done it; I did it with David Sylvian, but I was kind of a maverick there.

AAJ: So you'd be playing the same tunes every night, and with a band that was a band before you.

DT: That last part I don't mind so much. But also, I'm not like some big stage performer. I'm not a great-looking, exciting performer. I'm some guy with his head inside electronics at the same time he's playing a guitar, and I don't have that rock kind of showmanship thing at all. I never did.

AAJ: David, all you need are some colored contact lenses, and you'll be fine.

DT: Oh, good idea. I really like the red ones.

Selected Discography

David Torn, Prezens (ECM, 2007)
Drew Gress, 7 Black Butterflies (Premonition, 2005)
Hard Cell, Feign (Screwgun, 2005)
Dave Douglas, Keystone (Greenleaf, 2005)
David Bowie, Reality (Columbia, 2003)
Tim Berne, The Sublime and : Science Friction Live (Screwgun, 2003)
Jeff Beck, Jeff (Epic, 2003)
The Order: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Superb, 2003)
David Bowie, Heathen (ISO/Columbia, 2002)
Tim Berne, The Sevens (New World Records, 2002)
Tim Berne, Science Friction (Screwgun, 2002)
Tim Berne, The Shell Game (Thirsty Ear, 2001)
Splattercell, ReMiksis: AH (Cell Division, 2000)
Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, Blue Nights/Live (Discipline Global Media, 2000)
Splattercell, OAH (Cell Division, 2000) Madonna, Music (Maverick/Warner Bros., 2000)
Vernon Reid, Elliot Sharp and David Torn, Gtr Oblq (Knitting Factory, 1998)
Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, Bruford Levin Upper Extremities (Papa Bear, 1998)
David Torn, What Means Solid, Traveller? (CMP, 1996)
David Torn, Tripping Over God (CMP, 1995)
David Torn, Mick Karn, Terry Bozzio, Polytown (CMP, 1994)
David Torn, Door X (Windham Hill, 1990)
David Torn, Cloud About Mercury (ECM, 1987)
David Torn, Best Laid Plans (ECM, 1985)
Everyman Band, Everyman Band (ECM, 1982)


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