This interview was originally published in London Calling in September 2002. Here it is reproduced in full.
On one of the hottest days of an indifferent London summer, I was one of about 20 people who sweltered in the basement of 323 in Highgate to hear John Butcher and Phil Minton play a short concert to launch their new CD release Apples of Gomorrah (GROB 429). Minton was as remarkable and disconcerting as ever, a constant magnet for the eyes and ears with his bodily and musical contortions. Butcher was less compelling visually, but his playing was a perfect foil for Minton's vocal pyrotechnics, employing a vast array of techniques, many pioneered by Butcher himself. The following day, August 18, I interviewed Butcher about that duo, as well as many other aspects of his career.
AAJ: As it's fresh in my mind from yesterday, can we start by talking about the duo with Phil Minton. That is quite an old recording, isn't it?
JB: It only came out two weeks ago, but we recorded it in 1999, I think. It took forever selecting the material. Phil's travelling a lot. I'm travelling more these days. We could never get together, so it just dragged on and on. Actually, I first played in a duo with Phil in the mid '80s. We have probably only done it about half a dozen times since then and he suggested doing this duo recording. What I'm involved in more with Phil is the quartet with Roger Turner and Veryan Weston. It mainly does this piece based around extracts from Finnegan's Wake; at one time it had some tunes attached to the different sections, which Phil will manipulate, go with, or not go with, and we improvise around that structure. That performs about five times a year.
It operates in the way I like, which is that you know the musicians very well, but you don't actually play together very often. So when you get together you are not just regurgitating things, formulae; it feels like quite fresh improvising, but you have all that background knowledge that you are working with as well. The trio I have with John Russell and Phil Durrant is a little like that. If it was lucky, it would probably play half a dozen times a year. But because it has a 15-year history, there is an awful lot of shared experience to play off of.
AAJ: So that is your favoured method of working '- long-standing groups who meet only occasionally.
JB: Usually, yes. I have maintained a lot of musical relationships over a long period of time. Like with Chris Burn, we go back to Surrey University in the mid '70s. And John Russell, Phil Durrant and I go back to the early '80s; we put in a lot of non-public work, playing round at John Russell's house for about a year before we went out and started doing gigs. Those kinds of backgrounds are what keep me in England. It is not a great place for working in this area of music, but there have always been musicians here whom I admire and want to work with. But because everything is happening in the cracks of musical life, in London, there is a lot of opportunity to experiment and operate in a less - how shall I put this? You don't feel that you have to "present your music; it is much more a "work in progress way of operating. If you play a festival in France or whatever, there is a tendency to put on more of a presentation, as it is a bigger event and maybe the only time that year that those people will hear you. In London, as you know, there is this community of enthusiasts who follow it and you do gigs where it might be the fifth or sixth time that someone has heard you that year. And you recognize people and that affects the playing; there can be a much more exploratory nature to the playing in London.
AAJ: So you take more risks?
JB: I notice it particularly with solo playing. If you recognize faces in the audience from a few months before, you owe it to them as well as to yourself to really try and find a few new directions, a few new corners, in that evening there. It keeps the thing developing, rather than playing more finished music.
AAJ: So, in solo playing, what is the balance between prepared stuff and improvised stuff?
JB: There is almost nothing that I prepare, expecting to play it in a particular concert. But because I have done a lot of solo playing, certain areas will suggest themselves in the course of the music, and sometimes I will allow them to move along in a way that I am familiar with and other times I will deliberately react against that and say "I know that this will work if I push it along that line but I will try and push it along this line instead.
AAJ: Can that reaction then take you down another well-trodden path?
JB: It's like having a pool of music that is your history of previous concerts, and you follow a line which means that at different points you will dip into that pool at different places, but the details of where you are going are unknown. I suppose what keeps it fresh is that it is a lot more than re-permutating material; it is a case of making new connections, if you can, in performance. Some of those connections will be with familiar material and others, hopefully, will be with new areas. Then again, if you are working on things that are technically quite at the edge of the instrument, in terms of control, there will always be things that don't quite go as you are intending and that is often a stimulus for heading off in a different direction. Like yesterday with Phil, the room was small and resonant, so it was hard to play in a way that allowed him some transparency for the voice. It was the kind of room where just breathing through the instrument could cover up what Phil was doing. So that throws you a lot of technical challenges. It is a mixture of responding to those and to the music of Phil, in that case. What he is doing creates how you operate then. And it was very, very hot, which affects how you play. The great strength of improvised music is that it responds to the situation, a situation the details of which will probably never be repeated. You try to make music that makes some sense of those situations. Sometimes you hear groups and you feel that they are just trying to implant their music into a space; this is what they do and they are going to do it in that space regardless of what the conditions of the space are like. It never feels a very comfortable experience like that in improvised music.
AAJ: Yes. Sometimes you can see a group over a period of months and get an action replay of the same performance each time.
JB: Every room has a different acoustic and atmosphere. I'm not saying that you always play different music everywhere, but it is very subtle. You make little changes that are brought on by the circumstances of the playing. It is no good going into an improvising situation with too fixed an agenda. Maybe in the early days when you are doing it you tend to do that because there are certain things that you want to get happening. But after a while that becomes a very uninteresting sort of approach to take. Satisfaction has to come from making new discoveries yourself, through the performance. Beginning playing without a thought in your head is, for me, one of the most creative ways you can start a concert. Then something takes over, which is from the years of experience being brought to bear on that situation.
AAJ: Do you literally start without a thought in your head?
JB: I try to.
AAJ: But if you try to think about nothing, don't you inevitably think about something?
AAJ And in a duo, if you are both doing that, what kick-starts the proceedings?
JB: It is curious, that. But once it starts then something else does take over. You are facing this psychologically very strange space. There is incredible concentration, but a lot of it isn't conscious concentration. A lot of it is weighing up what you are hearing with a decision-making process. You are a decision-making machine during it. I really don't know how that works, because it really is another world where your focus goes beyond that which you have in day-to-day experience. But you would be very hard put to try and recollect afterwards exactly what was making you make this decision and that decision. Some of it is experience. Some of it is reflexive. One of the dangers is falling into patterns; sometimes they are just physical patterns to do with how you play the instrument '- physically you have got used to the fact that you always follow this with that. Sometimes in playing, your conscious mind is actually trying to break those connections. You know that you have a tendency that if you play this note then you'll move there or give it that attack, and you try to break away from those things, those ingrained physical mannerisms. Then there are other things that you know work well from past experience and in one situation you might go with them again. Another time you might know that works well and it is too much like acting to pull it out again, so you try something else. There is a mixture of honesty and dishonesty, spontaneity and reflection; it can change within seconds somehow.
AAJ: On the technical side, you have a vast array of techniques that you use. Are you constantly pushing at the boundaries of those?
JB: There have been spells where I have worked quite intensively on the technical side of things. More and more these days, little things will suggest themselves in performance. I know enough about the instrument to be able to develop those things in performance. Then sometimes they will have a quality that makes me want to explore more when I get back home and do some practicing. It is a long time since I sat down and specifically worked through these explorations. There was a time when I was quite methodical, and was cataloguing multi-phonics and notating them, for instance. That was partly a response to wanting to control them, to be able to work with these materials like you can work with the conventional sounds of the instrument. These days, certain groups will make me want to explore certain areas in more detail. For instance, a group I work in with Austrian musicians, called Polwechsel, tends to work at very low dynamics, quite slowly evolving, not particularly expressive, in the expressionistic sense. Through playing with them I've come to explore more material that has those sorts of qualities, and the way the saxophone is so connected to breath and physical exertion means it doesn't lend itself that naturally to this sort of approach. The technical difficulties often stem from me playing in groups where the saxophone is a different instrument to the others. I often work with string players who can work very quietly and, in particular, produce sounds that overlap and sounds that decay. You can make the physical gesture of plucking a string and then allow that sound to decay before you have to make another physical gesture. If I stop the physical action then the sound stops. So, technically, I try to work on ways that can integrate themselves with those aspects of playing. The saxophone is very much an on- or-off instrument, but once you start thinking about that as a difficulty then you start finding solutions to it. Some are psycho-acoustical solutions because you can never really get that sense of sounds decaying, but you can get a sense of sounds that have some transparency, that change in their colour as they progress, which is not typical of the saxophone; which is this linear typewriter that punches out notes.