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 rememberand the films tooit'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 officeI can't remember whothat 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.
I was on four of David's records starting with Heathen
. So we went from Heathen
, to The Next Day
which was a very different project even from Reality
. For The Next Day
he used like three different bands. I played on 21 finished tracks. I don't know where they all are; I'm sure they'll all show up at some point in time. It was the first time I played live in the studio with the band, which was super fun, but it kind of threw me a little bit. On the other projects it was always like David would be there awhile, we'd talk for awhile, then they'd leave me alone with the material. I'd just do my thing, make my own arrangements, show it to David when he came to the studio, which I really liked. On The Next Day
I wound up playing in the control room a lot, which I don't really like: I was taking a hit for the band. I would have liked to play in the same room where I could take the headphones off and hear the whole band, but the room was too small!
There was one more we were going to do and he took a side trip with Black Star
. He sent me a note saying there was something else we were going to do before he really knew that he was going to pass away. The Next Day
for him was also part of a series I think. I really like Heathen
, I think it's a really good record. The Next Day
was an outgrowth of a good working relationship, you know it really was good. It was a really good thing. In 1992, Torn was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor. It required intricate surgery that left him deaf in his right ear. Torn gave a performance and talk for TEDx Caltech 2013the theme was "The Brain"examining his brain tumor diagnosis and recovery.
They just called me and said, "would you be interested in; do you care about, would you mind talking about your problems with your brain?," Did I mind? No, and Joe Lima, who's the one who called me for Dr. Michael Roukes, who is the chief research scientist, head of that Caltech Tedx, they weren't aware that I had already done one, in '96 or something like that. I did a pretty big 20-minute-long NPR piece that was focused on me talking about coming back from not being able to hear anything and having all these problems with my brain, and doing more work than I had ever done before, you know. I was thrilled to do that, it got a little messed up at the end because I played and spoke but when I got on stage to playI don't know if you know this but on the TED talk how much time you use is very important to everyone, because everybody's time has to be fixed.
I got on and so there are clocks everywhere on the stage and they count down from your allotted time to zero, right. I got out on the stage and in the middle of the second or third note, I glanced up and realized that the clocks had stopped, they just had frozen and there's like three or four of them on stage around me. I'm going "Uh-oh," then went "fuck it, I'll get the timing right." So I thought I just buried myself in the music, I went maybe a little longer with the music then I should have, but not much: maybe a minute or something like that, minute and a half, I'm guessing. Got up to do the speech part and was building up to the big emotional ending thing, and building up and feeling more and more and more emotional and I know what my ending was because it's part of the story, and I was really looking forward to getting there and wanting very much for the audience to be moved by this as I was.
And suddenly the clock starts counting down, I can't remember if it started counting down from 90 seconds to go or 60 seconds to go from not moving for 14 or 15 minutes, it suddenly started and I totally panicked, totally panicked. And I went, what can we, how can I just get to the end, just gottta jump right to the end forget about the big build-up and I just went "and blah-da blah had happened and he looked at me and said blah blah..." And I'm looking at Michael Roukes, on the side of the stage, and he's going "uh oh, you better get off soon," and I'm like "and then that's what happened." [mimics sound of cheers and applause] And I walked off. I was so bummed out, I had like this whole thing and I couldn't believe it got fucked over but it did. It was like skipping the last solo you know; "I don't have time to do the solo?" Asked if he was still living in Los Angeles to be close to Hollywood, Torn replied that he had moved back to the East Coast and had not done a film recently. On film composing:
It is not about me not being out there, it is about how the business has changed, I knew it when we left L.A., I didn't know how we were going to be affected. I did a film for examplefinally did another film after two years of no films at alland then a film at the end of last year. It premiered at South by Southwest, and won the festival. It hasn't come out yet but I haven't been offered anything by anybody, so it's kind of a rough time for me. It's not a bad thing in one way, I hate missing it but I do miss it. I would really like to do something with a little more resources or beef to it than the last film although I loved doing this one that that won this award. But you know I'm working on so many records that I love that, can I complain? A little bit, you know I'm pretty good at the film composing thing. It might be that maybe somebody thinks I'm a pain in the ass, but I generally think I'm a pretty nice guy: I have a sense of humor.