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Derek Bailey Interview: September 2001

John Eyles By

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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.

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