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


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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)
About David Torn
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