Gutbucket: Cascades and Collisions

Gordon Marshall By

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Over its 12-year career, Gutbucket has resituated its various musical parts like the pieces of a Rubik's cube. The elements of that cube, the sonic strains, have remained similar—an amalgam of fuzz rock, jumpy jazz, post-serial classicism—but its panoply of shifting color has been redeployed in unique ways on each of the Brooklyn-based quartet's five CDs, starting with an emphasis on improvisation but gradually incorporating greater degrees of composing.

It is not that it never arrives at a satisfying formula. Each effort has opened up new paths of aural adventure for its followers. But Gutbucket is about more than art for art's sake. For its four members, the way they explore the properties of their instruments, and the modes of communication that reveal themselves as they interrelate while playing them, point to new ways of forging social interaction on a larger scale, toppling old orders and shaking things up.

Guitarist Ty Citerman spoke with All About Jazz about this search and aim, as well as Representing, by proxy, the band's three other members: Adam Gold (drums), Eric Rockwin (bass) and Ken Thomson (reeds). Speaking in slow, measured tones and choosing his words carefully, he reflected the methodical conscientiousness that goes into the process of making Gutbucket's music—scientific but very listener-conscious as well; and, to be sure, belying the apparent chaos of its promiscuous genre crossing, which on closer study has an order along the lines of an atomic orbit cascading through space with its colliding electrons.

All About Jazz: You have mentioned that you want to end global capitalism... I would like to know how politics plays through your music. Are you the leader of Gutbucket?

Ty Citerman: All good questions. I play a leadership role in the group, but the band is a collective. And I don't want that to sound like a cop out. We actually do function as a collective, which doesn't mean that everyone does the same thing. We all share writing duties, we all write music in the group, so there's the composer collective aspect, and then the actual functioning of the band, from scheduling rehearsals, running rehearsals, booking tours, or organizing the details around what our booking agent does for us—we do different stuff in that regard. Our saxophonist, Ken, and I do all the booking that's not done by our agent. So, back to your question: yeah, I play a leadership role but I'm not the leader.

And yes, I was serious about wanting to end global capitalism. Although that's a debate we have within the band. It's not a mission statement of Gutbucket. But I do think our music is political, both in its aesthetic and in how it falls outside of the mainstream. And I do think that human beings can come up with a better system than capitalism.

AAJ: You always seem to be searching, jutting from one style to another—cut- and-paste. Does the mix-and-match style of your music say something in itself, politically?

TC: I think our music has actually gotten less mix-and-matchy or cut-and-pasty over the last couple of years. And that I think varies from one writer in the band to another. Our bassist Eric, I think he was very much into the jump cut sound and structure for a while, but I think less so now, although his music still might hint at that. I think my music in the band tends to be more singular in terms of digging into one thing.

AAJ: You seem to be the rock link in the band. Ken is a very jazzy saxophone player.

TC: In some ways, although Ken wants me to play power chords a lot of the time. He gets excited about that. I think "Murakami" [Flock, Cuneiform (2011)] in some ways sounds more like a lot of free jazz in terms of pastiche and texture, and real thick, dense tones that are then covered by an improvised drum solo throughout the first three quarters of the song. So that's new terrain and more unified than a lot of other stuff.

It's interesting, what does it mean for a music to be political. Any time you get people together where the goal is to create something interesting and compelling—that by nature is political. And I guess it's political for people to sit down and say, "I want to write a hit song in order to make money..."

AAJ: Do you feel you are successful?

TC: I'm pleased with what we've done, and with what we're continuing to do. I think we're high profile in a certain music community. In a larger scheme of things we're not as high profile as a lot of equally compelling, interesting bands.

AAJ: England's Led Bib comes to mind.

TC: Yes. I think they're great... That stuff, it's funny. It's hard to measure. We can go to one city and have a very appreciative audience and then be relatively anonymous in another.

AAJ: The Honey Ear Trio has a similar approach, but with a swing and bebop base.

TC: With Allison Miller on drums... Her other group played at our CD release party. She's great.

AAJ: Two touchstones that occur to me for your band are John Zorn's Naked City and George Cartright's Curlew. How do you relate to them?

From left: Eric Rockwin, Ty Citerman, Ken Thomson, Adam Gold

TC: I don't actually know Curlew's music (though I know of them). Naked City is a group we argue about. There's a lot of push-and-pull where we debate and dissect a lot. We have an appreciation for Naked City, and certainly for John Zorn and all of his work, and for all the players in Naked City, who are incredible. We played at a jazz festival in Warsaw in 2003, and Naked City was performing, with guest vocalist Mike Patton. I seemed to be the one who liked it, and Ken and Eric, for sure, were not that excited about it. But I think Naked City has done some amazing things, especially in their heyday.

AAJ: Do you have any other bands that you admire and use as reference points?

TC: We're a group of music lovers. We're all people who have some relationship to playing rock, some relationship to playing jazz and some relationship to playing some kind of classical... I think as musicians we all have some relation to playing each of those three strains of music, and where we have more or less experience or interest varies from one to the other, but I think when we were starting out the band, I at least felt we were coming out of a jazz place that was kind of pushed in a certain direction by the nature of our instrumentation: when you have an electric guitar and an electric upright bass, that kind of defines your sound, in a way—just like if you have a saxophone, an acoustic bass and a piano, it defines your sound.

And we wanted to make music that had tunes and had improvising. I think that was our framework. We want songs, and we want improvising, and we want it to be performable. The idea of recording it actually came—it was in our heads—but I think what we are as a live band has evolved as we've let our imaginations run with our compositions. Really, a striking document of how we've developed as a recording band is what's happened from one CD to the next, and how that's evolved.

AAJ: You really strike me as a jazz band, and I think that's a good thing.

TC: I think there was a time we weren't sure perhaps, because the jazz scene wasn't having us, and the rock scene wasn't having us. But I think we've come to embrace playing a role in the jazz community. It struck me recently because I've been reading the Robin Kelley biography of Thelonious Monk [Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Free Press (2009)], about how in the early years, in the '40s and early '50s, how Monk was both this pioneer and this kind of outsider—how he felt he was received by the press and some of his peers at times... We are part of the jazz world, even if we're not at the center: we occupy some space in the jazz world. It's not the same as Thelonious Monk's either.

AAJ: T.S. Eliot wrote that great poets steal. You do a lot of stealing, in that sense. But what to you feel you are giving, or contributing to the music?

TC: I think by nature the fact that we are the people we are, what we write won't be like what Vijay Iyer or what Jason Moran writes. But I think there's a really wonderful way we use the instrumentation. We have to create this kind of synergistic quality to the music. We've always prided ourselves on having a big sound, and one of the compliments I've looked to is when people after hearing us say, "I didn't understand how so much sound or how such a powerful sound could come from just four musicians." I think there's that quality to our music, and I think there's a really wonderful interplay between me and Ken as melodic voices, but I think beyond that, we also don't hold to the rigid definitions of the roles that our instruments play. There's a lot of counterpoint between all four of us, or there are a lot of passages where the drum is the primary melodic voice and the rest of us are supporting that. I think there's a fluidity that a lot of good bands have, and I think we really treasure that.

But what is our mark in history? I don't know! I don't think the jump cutting, attention deficit disorder thing is the key to what we do, but I do think there is forcefulness and a ferocity to what we do. And at the same time an ability to be very tender and delicate, so in that sense, not necessarily from one measure to a next, but that broad reach is something we pride ourselves on.

AAJ: How old were you when you started playing guitar?

TC: I think I was eight. I played violin for a couple of years, played recorder; then I switched to guitar.

AAJ: This would have been...

TC: 1982.

AAJ: The Prince-Madonna era.

TC: I was a big fan of Prince, not so much of Madonna, though I've come to appreciate what she does. I was a big fan of Prince and his multi-instrumentals and his guitar playing, his groove. I was really into Led Zeppelin. That was probably my first big guitar love. Van Halen, in the David Lee Roth era, especially, although I did see them in concert on the O U 8 1 2 tour. I grew up in St. Louis, which is big classic rock country, so Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix were the guys.

From left: Adam Gold, Eric Rockwin, Ken Thomson, Ty Citerman
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