This interview dates from September 2001 and originally appeared in three parts in London Calling
that autumn. Here is the interview in its entirety, interspersed with occasional commentary, some of which has been updated.
Although he lives in Hackney (as exciting and vibrant a part of London as you could hope to find), Derek Bailey plays relatively rarely in the capital these days. He is a world citizen, more likely to appear in Europe, Japan or New York than in Stoke Newington or Highgate. This year , he will have played maybe six gigs in London, a lot for him. Despite this, he casts a giant shadow over improvised music here, being treated with huge respect and affection by several generations of free improvisers. It is virtually impossible to imagine what this music would be like without the influence he has exerted over the past 35 years. [In 2005, these remarks now seem bitter sweet; in late 2003, Derek Bailey moved to Barcelona.]
The day I interviewed him (23-Sept-2001), he had read my review of Company in Marseilles (Incus) in which I pondered the question "What makes Company Company?" He started off by offering his answer to the question.
DB: There's nothing I can clarify about what Company is. Playing music is not really susceptible to theory much. Circumstances affect it so much. It is partly just what is possible. Since I gave up doing Company Weeks - which I did for seventeen years, which seemed to me long enough for anything - I just take whatever opportunities there are to do Company. And the opportunities are never perfect, that's for sure. For instance, the Marseilles gig was some sort of celebration of this organisation's 200th birthday, and they asked me to play solo; over a period of negotiation I turned it into a five-piece for two nights rather than a solo for one night, which I thought was more appropriate for what they are supposed to be about. And so that was that.
For instance, I have a Company in Los Angeles next month, which again is for two nights; I might get three nights squeezed in. There will be ten people on that, and I don't know any of them. They are all LA or San Francisco musicians. But that methodology where players are pitted against other unfamiliar players has been so widely adapted now that anybody plays with everybody. So it doesn't work in the same way now. I don't know any of these guys and they might not know each other (I'm sure some will know each other) but actually it doesn't matter now; it's not a problem for people to play with each other in the way it was 25 years ago. In fact it's quite gratifying for me to see some of the people who really objected to this method of working now being quite so profligate in their use of it. So that's nice but it doesn't work the same way. The Company in New York earlier this year was for three nights (it would have been great to have had another night), but getting more than three nights now is difficult. No-one offers me a Company thing, I turn things into Company. This LA thing, they wanted me to play in duos or trios each night at the club and I talked them into this Company thing.
AAJ: Who is selecting the musicians for LA?
DB: A saxophonist - what's his name? - one of the musicians who was setting this stuff up anyway. I was there in LA for a different gig - All Tomorrow's Parties, which is kind of a fringe rock thing, and for reasons of their own they invited me to play on this thing. That's at UCLA. I'm there for that; that gets me there. And because I was in the area, I was approached to do these other things, which is actually more interesting to me as it happens. Theories don't always work, but theoretically it's more interesting.
For me, Company is still the best way for me to work. It has always meant that, "in company" as opposed to solo, just with other people, really. The only thing I could say about Company is that it is not solo. I always thought the name was anonymous enough not to mean anything. So it started from scratch. Those five guys on Company in Marseilles were all on the New York [Company] thing and that attracted me to try and get them over there. They were very co-operative, because it was no great profitable do for them. The downtown people in New York all know each other, so I thought that starting with five Britishers (if you include Will Gaines in that) and five downtowners would be good. The same contrast that you get between Will and IST, which is what appealed to me about that. There is a thing about Will. He is a great tap dancer and he is quite remarkable to play with. There is something else about him that makes him virtually unique in the free playing area, and that is his relationship with the audience. Will is show business. And you could say IST are definitely not show business. They are as far away from that. They always give the impression that whether the audience is there or not is not a serious matter to them. I'm not saying that is the case, but their music gives that impression sometimes. Will always knows what you are doing but he has a large focus on the audience. And I thought that it would be nice to put them together, and I found it very enjoyable. Well Will and those guys had a similar sort of contrast with the downtown people. They can be more audience-conscious, that's for sure, but not like Will. The thing that really threw them the first night was Will's attempt to seduce the audience regularly. It was a very good first night for Company. It is always promising if it is a rotten first night, if there are problems raised, because then there is somewhere to go. The problems came up because they couldn't handle Will at all. They didn't know what he was doing, if he was just pissing all over them or what. And by the last night they were all in love with him. Everybody wanted to play with Will, which was great. So it is quite productive to have people who are a bit disturbing to other people, at least initially. But it is getting much harder to do because players are much more blasé about playing with each other. Anybody will play with everybody. So that method has become universal. It is much more difficult to make it confrontational.
AAJ: But it was always about putting very disparate elements together, wasn't it? Company always encompassed something bigger than people from the improvising scene.
DB: After the first two or three years, it was necessary to do that, starting with the Company before Epiphany, starting in 1981. The first Company concert was a single concert with a quartet who all knew each other, although they didn't play together regularly. It wasn't easy to get one of the musicians to play with the other two. It wouldn't be their choice, which was OK. In the early stages, they were all single concerts but there was always some sort of overarching agenda to it, which culminated in the first Company Week. And the first two or three years, I only ever intended doing one Company Week. But the funding body was insistent. It took me so long to get the money for this kind of thing; the struggle to get it was ridiculous. It would be an interesting study of their attitudes in those days. It might still be the same; I don't know. That's one of the reasons for not doing it, so that I don't have to deal with those bastards any more. But I was quite persistent about getting the money for this purpose. It had to be. They would say, "Why don't you write a piece for them? It doesn't have to be anything, just some pieces. We can fund pieces." And I explained that I didn't want it for that, I wanted for free playing, which they eventually gave me. But having found out that the first week was successful, they didn't want me to stop it. I had no intention of doing more than the first week. And they were saying, "Well you'd better take this money; we don't know what else to do with it now." They didn't actually say that, but that seemed to me to be the case. I found after about two or three years that it was necessary to start looking around for other people, outside of the usual area of free improvised music, because at that time the main way of organizing improvised music was to set up regular groups, something I was already somewhat disenchanted with. I found that you couldn't use the same people anyway; there weren't that many people, so you'd be using the same ones over and over again.
I've always liked the effect of having somebody in there who hadn't the faintest idea what was going on. Nowadays, it would be much more difficult to do that, I suppose. It seems to me that the general scene that free improvisers work in now is a kind of goulash of different musics; it is much better. For instance, this All Tomorrow's Parties, which is quite a good gig, I can do on it what I like, except I'm supposed to play solo. I am getting an electronics guy in to play with, who I wanted to play with anyway. Gigs like that would never come up; you would always be working in the area of free improvised music, which was economically totally defunct - not defunct, it just never happened - or you were working on the fringes of jazz, which did not want to know about you, never did and doesn't now. So this is a big improvement, this goulash where you suddenly find yourself one amongst a whole bunch of fringe type activities. So, there were at least two players, I think, who claim not to improvise in this last Company in New York. Jennifer Choi, a brilliant violin player, said to me when I invited her that she didn't improvise. I said that was fine, by the second night she would be improvising. The thing is, now they all know about it; they know what it is. When I curated The Tonic last year, I thought that some of the most interesting groups weren't freely improvising but they were all playing in a way that assumed it existed. So, it was somehow built on that assumption. It is strange how this way of playing has become a basis of a lot of people relating to each other, as opposed to a strictly jazz way of relating or maybe even a rock way, although the rock thing is much more influential than it used to be. So, it is not a strange situation to them now, not like inviting Ursula Oppens to come and play [to Company Week, 1982]. Although she knew what it was, she'd never done that kind of thing before. And there were lots of people during that period, during the 80's, that I invited who I had to kind of introduce them to each other at the first gig. Well, that couldn't happen now; mainly the difference is that it's an accepted way of going on, so it's not something completely alien.
AAJ: So, even if they're not used to it, they know what to expect? They're not taken by surprise.
DB: Personally, I've found one of the more stimulating ways of playing in recent times has been to kind of move outside the free improvised area and work with people who are probably improvisers but they have a particular way of working. For instance, one of the people in this Company is a woman I've worked with occasionally, a Chinese pi'pa player called Min Xiao-Fen. I asked her to do it, and she is very eager to do it; again, she claims she doesn't improvise but I think she's always improvising; she's a Chinese classical player and her performances are usually in that type of context although she sometimes works in Western classical situations; people write pieces for her. Before I played with her, she had worked in situations where she'd been required to improvise for a certain period; in somebody's piece there was a space and she'd do something in it. But she'd never been expected to improvise all night and so she was a bit daunted, but she's a very good musician. So you can see there are two or three out of this bunch who are not primarily improvisers. Now, I don't think it matters in the way it would have done twenty years ago.
AAJ: With you saying that the LA Company will be a completely different bunch of musicians, it has answered some of the questions I was raising about the New York Company. For instance, on Mark Wastell's website is a list of groups of which he is a member, including Company. It seemed as if Company was becoming you plus IST plus Will, maybe plus other additions.
DB: Oh no. None of those guys are in the LA Company. I don't know who's in it. I don't actually know any of them. I can't remember any names of them.
AAJ: So Company isn't moving towards becoming a nucleus of musicians, an identifiable entity?
DB No, no. It was more like that when I started.
AAJ: Even though Marseilles and then New York used the same nucleus...
DB: I've kind of done that before, kind of got a set thing and used it again. That's what I did in New York, with these five guys against five people from New York. And that worked fine actually. But I always used to invite most people in pairs so they had somebody familiar to start with. Sometimes I'd invite somebody and ask them to invite somebody, so they'd got some structure in the early stages. Now it doesn't matter. Even if none of these guys in LA know each other, it just doesn't matter because they'll know what it's all about.
But no, there is no set...There are certain people that I think of as Company type players. The one who stands out for me is Tristan Honsinger, who was in the first Company Week here, and the last one and one or two in between. He is a certain type of player. If there was no such thing as free improvisation, you'd have to invent it so that he could do something; he couldn't do it any other way. Although, he is very interested in dance and theatre. I think that for most players, it suits them during a certain period. Like George Lewis might have found Company to be his best way of working for two or three years. He played in Company for two or three years. But then they go off on something of their own but are still available for this thing.
I don't think it is any different from what it was, except that the method is now familiar so you can't set up some internal shock situation. Like Will is very good to throw in because of his totally different relationship with the audience, but they are very hard to find now. Personally, I've found that the kind of thing that I like is going into somebody else's area and not playing their music but doing whatever I do in their area.
AAJ: Looking at your vast discography, there are very few people who you have had regular recordings with. You are very diverse in who you record with. You are always seeking out new situations.
DB: I wouldn't want to be ideological about it but I think of it as being the best way to approach this kind of playing. I don't think it works in other music, other kinds of playing. But for freely improvised music that approach seems to suit it. And now everybody does it anyway. Everybody did it initially because there isn't any other way of getting into this music other than playing with people you don't know, playing with anybody. So it was always a basic thing about this music. But for some years it got "regular-groupitis".
AAJ: But even within those parameters, the people you have played with are from a far wider spectrum than anyone else I can think of - drum'n'bass with DJ Ninj, Japanese rock with The Ruins, and then the pi'pa at the other extreme.
DB: I do find it stimulating to work like that, particularly over the last few years, because of this mutual acceptance in freely improvised music. It has settled down. There are still some great players and people to play with; probably the best thing is to play with another free improviser, but with this other stuff, you actually learn something or I feel I learn something, but I have vast reservoirs of ignorance to chip away at! For instance, to work with Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston was really revealing to me. They are such good musicians to start with, and they are so sharp and reactive. They weren't going to be thrown by what I did. Jamaal knew what I did but Calvin didn't necessarily. I did a gig playing duo with Calvin that was very nice. But they've got a particular area; for years they have worked as this free funk rhythm section with all kinds of people.
The only person I have played with regularly in recent times is Susie Ibarra, who I've played with ... I wouldn't say regularly, but maybe twice a year over the last three or four years. I've played with her twice so far this year and we should play again in December. Playing three times in a year, I've not done that with anyone for years. But I do get a lot of enjoyment out of playing with her, I must say. Unfamiliar other people are vital as far as I'm concerned. It just seems to make sense if you are going to work in this area of music.
AAJ: Are there future collaborations that you are looking towards? Are you proactive or reactive?
DB: I am reactive. One of the people who has really been helpful in recent years is Zorn. The Ruins was suggested by Zorn. And Min Xiao-Fen was Zorn's idea. The first time we played together was when we made that duo record. She was terrified of making a freely improvised record; she didn't think it was possible. So sometimes I suggest things to people or I put them together when I've got a chance to invite people. This electronics guy I'm playing with in LA, Casey Rice, I like what he does. I'm not much into current electronic stuff, what I think of as lounge electronics, mumbling electronics. He's not quite like that. I don't know what Casey is. I've yet to find out exactly. He's not a performer. He's the sound-man for Tortoise. That's his job. But I made a record, at somebody's invitation, for a label called Bingo, which is called Playbacks and the idea of this was that the guy who set it up invited different people to send in tracks and I played with them. It was ostensibly, I suppose, a drum'n'bass record. It didn't turn out like that, although there was some drum'n'bass. Groups sent in tracks; there was a very nice group called Tied and Tickled - have you ever heard of that group? - I think they are a German group. So this guy drummed up a dozen pieces from different people. I liked all of it. It doesn't matter; I just played with whatever they sent in. But there was a track from this guy Casey Rice who lives in Chicago, and I liked it very much, so I have tried to engineer it to play with him. When I get a gig that is more in his area, I invite him. Sometimes he can't make it, this one he can make. We'll see what happens.
AAJ: Going into a situation like that, how much would you research what he is about?
DB: I don't research anything. I just know that we have played together before; we have done one gig, which is interesting because he doesn't perform. He won't sit on the stage, he sits out of sight somewhere and he also treats my stuff. That is interesting because as far as the audience is concerned, they think I'm doing it all. But in recent times, a lot of it comes through Zorn; he suggested Jamaal and Calvin, for instance. But I have suggested things when people have asked me, and they are not that keen, actually. Some of the records I make are just people approaching me about making a record; for instance, there is a whole bunch of electronic guys in Vienna who produce this whispering, and one of the trumpet players, Franz Hausinger, asked me to make a record with him, which I did. That was an unusual playing experience. Someone in New York asked me about making a record, and I said I thought it might be interesting to play with Wynton Marsalis's rhythm section. (Laughs) I don't know how far they tried to take this, but it didn't get anywhere.
AAJ: Where you surprised?!
DB: No, but I thought it might be interesting just to poke that area and see what came out of it. I just meant the bassist and the drummer. You never know. If the guy had got some money, they might just want to do it. Usually the things I suggest don't get very far, I have to admit.
I'm quite happy working here actually. I have been here most of the summer since July, I think, putting out these CD-R's; putting them together.
In Bailey's hallway and elsewhere throughout his home, there are stacks of boxes containing CDs ready to be mailed out if required. Like many independent labels, Incus Records has run as a cottage industry for decades. Recently, this aspect of the operation was emphasised by the release of two CD-Rs, Chats and The Appleyard File, available only from Incus. Both feature lo-fi, home taped pieces that mix guitar and speech from Bailey, often recorded as audio letters to friends and associates.
AAJ: What prompted you to release these CD-Rs?
DB: I've been doing these for decades. I've done hundreds of them. But I don't have copies of most of them. I enjoy doing it, and it gets me playing. I find playing and talking has got a certain interest for me. It doesn't matter what I'm talking about, that is more or less irrelevant, for instance, the Fred Frith thing [on Chats ] about the rain. As a means of communication, I just like to do them. Most of the things on Chats started off as one-of-one CD-Rs. Before that technology, I used to record on DAT and then make a cassette copy and send it. That is how I come to have copies. Before that, I used to record onto a cassette and send it, so I didn't have a copy. I've got copies of one or two, or sometimes I'd make two versions.
I've never got around to putting them out before apart from an occasional one on record. Martin Davidson [of Emanem] put out a CD of audio letters I sent to him when he was in Australia in the 1970s. On Playbacks there is a chat piece, but that is different because I don't play on it, just talk. The first chat piece I put out was in 1973 on a solo record called Lot 74 that has been out of print for years. They were never intended to be put together. There are lots out there. I still send them out and don't keep copies. I do about one a week, so there are hundreds of the buggers out there. I've sent three in the last month, and two I don't have copies of, because I recorded them straight onto cassette. When I put Chats together, there were 21 of them, which I thought was a bit too much. [The final version has 13 tracks.]
I have always been attracted to the cottage industry side of this business. To make it work economically is not easy. But I can start upstairs [in his studio] and record it, then come down here [to his computer] and put it on a CD-R. I can sometimes get [his partner] Karen to do a little package, because she does the artwork, and then I send it to somebody. I take great satisfaction from it; and it has nothing to do with the whole music wrapping thing. I've always enjoyed that. I've done a lot of it this summer.
The other one, the whole Charlie Appleyard thing is just personal stuff. You'd have to hear it. There are about ten people in the world who know who Charlie Appleyard is. There is no Charlie Appleyard but I've used it as a - what's the word - an alter ego. I don't know; sometimes it's other people. Charlie Appleyard can be anybody; but I've used him sometimes in chat pieces, and these are all chat pieces about the history of Charlie Appleyard. It is made up of one-of-ones that I have sent to other people; I didn't record them to make this record. I just thought I'd bring them all together. But it was satisfying doing those things.
I also get to record quite a bit here [at home]. People come to visit, partly because of Karen's cooking which is widely admired. For instance, J D Perran, the New York flute and saxophonist, who was part of the St Louis equivalent of the Chicago AACM, he's a friend of George Lewis. He was in London recently and he wanted to come over for a chat, and I said, "Yes, come up but bring something, an instrument." Then we would just record ten or twenty minutes, longer if it's going OK. I've got lots of those, I thought I might make a CD out of that, if they all agreed and didn't want huge fees. But I like working here. I worked in London a lot this year, usually depping for someone else. I've done three deps in the last couple of months, which is a bit odd because I would work on average about once a year in London. For me, I either work here [at home] or I go to the airport. I don't like travelling, but I do most of my playing in other places. I'll go somewhere if there is the chance of staying for a week or two and doing some playing. That's why New York is very attractive to me, because that's a town where you can do that, go and work for a couple of weeks without having to shoot off somewhere doing overnight gigs, which has become really unattractive.
AAJ: You're keeping the CD-Rs very low key, very cottage industry.
DB: We couldn't handle it otherwise. If a distributor said that they wanted fifty, I'd have to sit at this fucking computer burning fifty of them individually, and Karen would have to do the covers. It is OK because we get a dribble, more or less every day somebody from somewhere seems to want one, by e-mail, and I knock one off. I think it will die down. The first time I did anything like that, again in the early 70s, was when I put out these reel-to-reel tapes in little boxes. I used to make them and sell them for 60p. There was a bit of interest, and that was done just on word of mouth. That was OK, that was how it was supposed to be, but then it died away and disappeared. Then I did the same thing with cassettes some years later, at the beginning of the 80s. It is funny how they rear their heads later. For instance, Taps, the reel-to-reel tapes have come out on a CD from Cortical Foundation.
AAJ: And on vinyl as well.
DB: So at the same time I'm doing these CD-Rs, this box of hugely expensive vinyl turns up. In the shops they are selling for about £25. It's heavy vinyl, very posh. But they have reproduced the original artwork so it still says "60p" on the front. It seems ironic that at the same time as I'm knocking out these CD-Rs, there is a bunch of super produced expensive things that derive from the same kind of thing twenty or thirty years ago.
[ There are now eleven CD-R's available, including Chats and The Appleyard File. They are rarely reviewed and are only available directly from Incus Records, 14, Downs Road, Hackney, London E5 8DS, UK, for £10/$15 each. Details at the Incus website ]
AAJ: So, in twenty years, will Chats be on 200 gram vinyl? Funny old world, isn't it.
DB: It's like the empire strikes back, isn't it? You think you can fucking get away with this? Well you can't! When the guy who put out Taps first rang me up and said he'd like to put out these things, I said that would be nice, because he was waving quite a lot of dollars around. I hadn't listened to them for decades. But I said I didn't have the masters of them. And he said that he had them. You get these enthusiasts here and there.
Anyway, when this guy, Gary Todd, was putting Taps out, he said he would also like to organise a concert for the group Joseph Holbrooke that I used to play in with Gavin Bryars and Tony Oxley. I said that we hadn't played together for thirty-six years. I don't think Tony and Gavin had even spoken together in thirty-six years. Certainly the three of us had never been in the same place during that period. So I said I didn't know if it was possible. I gave him their addresses and he organised it. The concert was going to be in LA. We were meant to go out there, do a concert and make a recording. It was all set up and very handsomely rewarded. I was in New York, and I got sick. Gavin was in Hong Kong and got sick. So the only person who could go was Tony, who was with me in New York at the time. So Tony went and played with Fred Frith, out there. So that didn't work. But this guy has always had this ...I don't know if it is right to call it an obsession with Joseph Holbrooke. The name comes from an old English composer, late nineteenth, early twentieth century. When I first heard from this guy, Gary Todd, he said he'd got some records by Joseph Holbrooke. And I said there aren't any, we never made any. It turned out he was talking about the original Joseph Holbrooke. So it was all a bit weird. Then, because that LA thing fell through, we recorded over here for him and did actually get together. The idea was Gary's, but we got together for Tony Oxley's sixtieth birthday and did a concert in Cologne. So we'd actually done that. A strange reincarnation after thirty-eight years. It was kind of interesting play, I have to say. I guess that's the kind of thing you can only do once, have a thirty-eight year gap.
AAJ: I thought you'd said that the next time would be on your hundredth birthday.
DB: That's right, we're saving that. So shortly after that, Gary Todd came over here and we did three days recording for him. Two records. Now he has got that. But he has had a serious accident; fell out of a third storey window at 5-30am. I don't know who is handling it now. The guy has been advertising the records. There has always been something weird about trying to revive that group. One of the nights at Moat studio, we were having a sort of party and somebody let off a fire extinguisher. And in studios, the fire extinguishers are full of sand, so it was like being in a sandstorm. You couldn't see anything. We all got out of the studio. And when it settled down and we went back in, which took a hell of a long time, all the food and drink were covered in a layer of sand. It seems there is some... well let's not get into that oogly-boogly stuff. We did a concert earlier this year in Antwerp. That was recorded, but we can't get the tape. The guy keeps saying he'll give us the tape but won't.
AAJ: You did put out that single of the original Joseph Holbrooke from 1965, which was interesting because of how surprisingly conventional it sounded.
DB: I like it. Well that is the only recording from that time that I'm aware of. I've got a feeling there's another one that Tony has got, I'm not sure. But the only one I'm aware of is of that afternoon, it was a rehearsal and there is about an hour or so of music. But I thought that piece [on the single] was most revealing of how we were. All the other pieces are more like rehearsals. The other pieces are OK but they don't demonstrate what I think we were trying to get at as well as that does.
AAJ: Will the rest of it ever see the light of day?
DB: There is another tape where we are playing with Lee Konitz. People want to put that out, but it is terrible.
AAJ: Terrible in what sense?
DB: It was a Lee gig, just conventional jazz. This was the beginning of 1966. We were playing almost entirely free most of the time. I think it's terrible because I don't think the music is any good. But we did play some good gigs with Lee, because we did a little tour. But this one I don't think is any good. Mind you, I've not heard it in years. As I remember, the only good playing on it is from Tony. Lee doesn't play too well for him, and me and Gavin don't play anything at all. Well, I don't like my playing. There has been pressure from various quarters to put it out, but I don't find that interesting. Some of this other rehearsal stuff is musically better, but then there is not a lot of point in it.
AAJ: Of historical interest only?
DB: There is maybe one piece that has some musical interest. But people do ask about it. Zorn wanted to put some of it out. It would be easy enough to get it out, but I don't think there is any musical justification. There is a lot of old stuff that comes out, and it is kind of like gossip, musical gossip. There were very good reasons for not putting them out in the first place. If it was any good, you would have put it out.