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David Torn: Making Records, Film Composition, and Working With David Bowie

Mark Sullivan By

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And then I'm probably going to take a break from making my own records and if it’s seven years or I never make another record again, it'll be one of those two things.
Experimental guitarist, looper, songwriter, improviser, session guitarist, film composer, record producer, mixer...David Torn is all of those things. He is constantly on the move, looking forward to the next thing. He was last interviewed for All About Jazz in 2007 ("David Torn: A Lifetime Of Improvisation In Non-Improvisational Settings"). Our conversation mostly ranged over his many activities in the ten years since then.

Asked about researching his playing history, and the Wikipedia article in particular:

The one thing you need to know about looking up my history is that the website that's in my name hasn't been touched since around 2008. Other people, like some promoters, have pulled information from there recently and it makes me look like I haven't worked in 20 years. I haven't been reading [the Wikipedia article] at all, although I know every once in awhile my daughter-in-law goes," Do you know, you've played on all these video games?" and I go like "which ones?," and she'll list them and I'll go," I guess I did do that...." So every once in awhile Jessica goes in there and changes something, she keeps adding stuff that I never told anybody about.

I don't even know what's not in there, because there's a lot of stuff you know. I don't think The Manhattan Transfer is listed, or the records I played on with Cheryl Bentyne, Tanita Tikaram, Jeremy Toback...there is this list of people that I have done records with and they're all written down somewhere. I probably have all the records somewhere, but it's like too much to remember—and the films too—it's too much. So I don't get it right, so my daughter-in-law likes to stay sharp with this stuff and keep adding things in so there's a record of it somewhere. I don't like looking at myself either, to be honest: just keep working, keep making records.

About his recordings with David Bowie:

It was pretty simple. I got a phone call or an email from someone in his office—I can't remember who—that said would you be willing to take a phone call from David Bowie. There had been some movement earlier: I know he was given a bunch of my recordings, and I was told to expect a call from him, which never came. In the meantime my Splattercell album had come out, and a friend of mine in Bowie's band played it on the tour bus. A couple of years after that I did a film with my friend Carter Burwell (A Knight's Tale, Heath Ledger's breakout movie). There was a dance sequence using a David Bowie song, and Carter asked me to make music to bridge from the score to the song and back. David Bowie visited the studio, and Carter played a mock up using loops from another project to show how it would be done. David said, "who is this?" and Carter said, "that's my friend David Torn." Bowie said, "I love that guy! He's the Yo-Yo Ma of the electric guitar!" Carter called me and said, "you seem to have a fan in Mr. David Bowie." It was about a year later that David called me.

So he called the day they said to expect it, and I was working in the studio, and my phone rings with an unknown number. I didn't pick it up, but then it rings again a little later, and I thought it might be one of my friends from England on some weird line somewhere, I'll just pick up the phone. It was David, and we had a nice chat. About a month later I met him for dinner in New York. He wanted to talk about the nature of what Heathen would be, and what his working process was like. Really I think he just wanted to meet and see if I was OK to hang around with. So we had that dinner with just me and him and [producer] Tony Visconti. That was it, then we went in and did Heathen.

We had a lot of discussions about touring during the course of that record, and a lot of other things, over the course of the next 14, 15 years. It was a good relationship: good for me, and I really loved him. I never did a live show with him. Initially it was thought that because Heathen was so different from other things David had done; it was a bit of a sea change. He thought the tour needed to be "asses in seats" to satisfy the record company, which meant mainly older material. He had a live band that was like a family. I thought "I'd like to do it, but I really have a bunch of other stuff going on." There was a thought to do a secondary small theater tour with only the new material. I said I was totally in for that, but it just never happened.

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