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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.

I was on four of David's records starting with Heathen. So we went from Heathen to Reality, 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 2013—the 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 play—I 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 example—finally did another film after two years of no films at all—and 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.

On the bigger scale, I think in the blockbuster scale it's been affected a lot. And I don't know about the automation, but the lack of individuality...I mean scores are being finished by music editors not by composers. Composers delivering less and less music, and music editors are putting scores together out of what they've delivered, whole scores. So there's something weird about that, I know it's effective like business-wise for a blockbuster but I don't give a shit about blockbuster films anyway, I never wanted to work on one. I only wanted to work on stuff that I thought I could do that felt like something to me. I mean I like blockbusters as entertainment. I did an arrangement of the final song [on The Lord of the Rings]—the Annie Lennox song—that didn't get used, but I have a rough mix.

I like a healthy amount of time to work so you have time to actually come up with a concept: it used to be that it was important to have a concept. And now they just want it to sound like this here and like that there and like this score there...yeah, I did a temp score with all those pieces of music just do something like that: that's real boring.

I mean Kubrick could pull it off with real pieces of music but when you ask an original composer to not have an idea about filmmaking then they're no longer a filmmaker. An original composer for film is a filmmaker, you're involved in the story—it's not about the provision of music to fill a space, it's about the provision of music to make the film better. Make it feel more, or whatever its effect is meant to be. So it's like, it's a weird world and right now it's as dicey as the record industry is for composers. Back in 2007 I just couldn't stop going. I did like it when I was doing four or five films a year, and I liked them, even the indie ones, the little ones. The score to La Linea (The Line), it's a great score, electronic score. It's a beautiful score.

Asked about the original plan to do an orchestral project for ECM, and other recording plans:

I've done the thing [the orchestral project]. I've done it, and I haven't finished putting it together. It needed some patching together: edits, a lot of material. Mike Baggetta, who was here tonight from Knoxville, was one of the players in the string section. It's a six-piece string section, two of the string players are playing guitar with volume pedals. And me and [saxophonist] Tim Berne, Craig Taborn on grand piano and synthesizers, and Ches Smith playing drums, vibraphone, timpani, and I think he plays some Haitian percussion on it. It will be finished this year, it will be delivered this year, I can't tell you when it will come out for sure. I don't think that's going to be on New Series, I think that's going to be an ECM record.

It doesn't have a title: the working project title is "Spartan," even though it's nothing like that. It's a combination of fully composed material that leads into fully improvisational material. Most of that improvisational material is without the string players. The written material follows my version of a Romantic bent; most of the improvs came from feelings engendered by the pieces that the improvs came from. And then there's some completely free improvs that we did at the end, for a day and a half. I brought some things I might consider more typically emotional from my film writing over to a band context which made it so kind of difficult for me to get these two worlds to work together. I will be mixing it fairly soon, and that's the final decider, when I mix.

The problem is we just did a Sun of Goldfinger record which is my ongoing band since 2010 and we finally made a record. The band is me, Tim Berne, and Ches Smith. Ches Smith is playing drums, synthesizers and yeah, that's all he's playing in the band; drums and electronics, a little bit of looping. I'm back to going to Europe a lot to play, Sun of Goldfinger has been doing a lot of gigs you know even though there's no record out, we keep doing more gigs. There was a need to name the band before the first gig. And Tim [Berne] said "you name it this time." There was really no meaning to it at all, except I was thinking of "Sun of" something. My friend Reinhold was designing an amp called the Goldfinger, and I went "that's cool" so we went with that, and it just stayed that way. There was no meaning to it at all—it's as meaningless as could be—except it felt right at the moment.

And so that's going to take precedence over my solo project. Those two records are going to come from ECM. My guess is that Sun of Goldfinger is going to be the next ECM release, pretty sure. I'm going to finish it in November and deliver it to them and, but I don't know when it will be released. 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. But there's a shit ton of back catalogue stuff that has never come out.

For example, I have a Soundcloud page that I have let people listen to for years now that's just wild stuff that I just do, some film scores that I own I'll put up I'll put up a track here or there once in awhile. It's mostly like fuzzy solo guitar in mono, but there's some really good material in there and you know there are probably 150 pieces on Soundcloud at least. I just let people listen for free all the time. And then there's the rest of the Splattercell record that never came out which is primarily electronic, there is a duet with [Living Colour drummer] Will Calhoun called lovebubble, a trio with Will Calhoun and [bassist] MeShell NdegeOcello called plane. There's a group I've finished recording with [drummer] Ben Perosky, [bassist] Fima Ephron that's really cool, that's a great recording done that's never come out—these are all finished recordings except for the Meshell one.

There are at least three film scores that I own maybe four, maybe five that have never been released: scores that I really liked and should be put out. And there was a rumor, that someone was going to offer me to do a box set of my choice of that material, best of that material for four CDs, four pieces of vinyl being different than the CDs. I might do that afterwards but it's too much work making your own records, can't make a living making your own records.

I'm still making records, I mean I'm working on two records right now, working on singer Lana Cencic's record which I'm just about finished—it's a very unique record—and then I do the Swiss band Sonar's record and [pianist] Matt Mitchell's new record I produced and mixed. Matt Mitchell's previous new record which is an incredible solo piano record I produced and mixed, the new Tim Berne record I've produced and mixed (and play on a little bit) [Incidentals on ECM], I am still doing a lot of production, I'm hopefully going to do another [Brooklyn guitarist] Dustin Carlson record no one knows who he is, he's fucking genius, new music/singer-songwriter. Plenty of stuff bubbling, I'm just not sure I want to make any more records for a while. I'm historically always taking breaks for three to five years you know, sometimes longer. Splattercell too, Prezens was seven years, seven and a half years.

Splattercell, that could be re-released, I could put that in a package. Because I own it, I could just redo it, remaster it and put it into a package because it's not available anywhere. That's probably one of my best records, it is one of my best records. It was the clincher at the end of the trilogy, the trilogy was Tripping Over God, What Means Solid Traveler and Splattercell-OAH (and Splattercell-AH which was the remix record). That was a group of records that all, they all were part of a period of time and the Splattercell stuff is the apex of it for me. It was on 75 Ark, Dan The Automator's label, it was on a hip-hop label basically, a hip-hop label, electronica label. If you haven't heard it, it's definitely worth hearing, and it's one of my favorites. I know it broke some ground so it makes me feel good.

Photo Credit: Mark Sullivan

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