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.