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

Paul Olson By

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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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