Weasel Walter: Revolt


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A lot of musicians are having trouble paying rent, and how at 60 years old do you deal with being obsolete? There's no market for your job or your art anymore. I know the world doesn't owe me a living, but I'll be damned if I'm not going to fight for my p
Weasel WalterThere aren't too many musicians who bring intensity to the music like drummer Weasel Walter, who has consistently been releasing extreme, vicious and dense free improvisation as a leader since the middle of the decade, mostly on his own ugExplode label. But Walter's history is a lot more varied than free jazz, as he was the fulcrum of the no wave/punk/experimental/free-form band the Flying Luttenbachers from 1992-2005. Since moving to Oakland, California from Chicago in 2003, he's split his time between improvised music and art rock bands like Burmese. The last couple of years in particular have seen the constantly touring and recording Walter seem almost manic in terms of his release schedule, with several albums released in 2009.

Chapter Index

  1. The Unforked Path
  2. Defined Storms
  3. Victimless Influence
  4. Chicago or Bust
  5. The Industry Stomp

The Unforked Path

All About Jazz: You don't really have a working group now, or do you?

Weasel Walter: Well, I do. The crux of the last three years for me has been trying to figure out what format and people I should be working with as a regular group. Given that a lot of players don't live in my town, which makes it harder to have a working band, the last few years have been research and development oriented. I have a stable quintet right now, and we've been working toward compositional strategies—the sort of high-energy free jazz stuff I've been releasing under my own name for the last few years. There's a whole dichotomy of doing composition with improvisers and issues of commitment—it's a different milieu than getting a bunch of rock people together and batting away at a concept until it's hardened. It continues to be a struggle, and the fact that there seems to be potential is what keeps me going. I would call the group with [guitarist] Mary Halvorson and [trumpeter] Peter Evans a regular group to some degree, even though it's sporadic—I see that as a long term project and we've talked about incorporating some compositions. I still think I'm at the foot of the mountain.

AAJ: Would the group with Peter Evans and [bassist] Damon Smith be another group?

WW: The way I work is that I keep contact with musicians that I like and who impress me musically, and who are willing to push things further than what's comfortable. I have a pretty large pool of players and to some degree a lot of these ad hoc things are pretty interchangeable. I've been lucky enough to work with such high caliber players in the last year; it's worked really well and there hasn't been any discussion or downtime needed. These are groups that came together because the opportunity was there and the people were available—if I can get the people and the situation, it's a group. It may not happen again that we play together, but I tend to pursue things that click.

AAJ: An affinity seems to have developed between you and brass players.

WW: This is just luck. My entire career has consisted of me stumbling through the dark looking for light switches, knocking things off of shelves a lot of the time. My current brass-heavy agenda has very little to do with any affinity for brass, and more to do with the interesting brass players I've found lately—in particular trumpeters. I never really set out to play with so many trumpeters, but there are so many good trumpet players right now, and I know a lot of them and take advantage of that. Any group I've ever had has been a result of who's around and good, not necessarily goals of instrumentation.

Particularly with the Luttenbachers—it was all about who was available to play. The instrument is secondary to whether the player is interesting and any good—the methodology being that there is no methodology. The End of the Trail (ugExplode, 2009) has two trumpeters on it, and it just happened that when I was in Boston, Greg Forbes and Greg Kelley were around—two trumpets, sax and drums became the lineup. It works that way a lot, really.

AAJ: As per the density of the music, could something like Firestorm (ugExplode, 2007) even be compared to End of the Trail? To set woodwind-heavy music next to brass, the way in which sound displaces itself is totally different.

Weasel WalterWW: Sure—that's the joy of these different combinations; you get pretty radically different results from different personalities. That's one reason I feel that I can put out a lot of releases in a short time—I don't feel like I'm repeating myself much. On a certain level, I guess my aesthetic for improvisation is momentum at all costs. I like to play with speed and velocity, and I don't really care that much about volume and density. I'm more interested in action and movement, and my credo at this point is to take players and push them a little further as far as performance level than maybe they're used to. I keep putting these records out where people say, "Wow, that's the most intense playing I've heard by ____." I'm starting to pride myself in being able to push some established musicians to extremes that maybe they haven't been at for a while.

AAJ: Hearing Greg Kelley in that context is pretty wild—he usually plays in much more "micro" contexts, such as with [saxophonist] Bhob Rainey.

WW: Sure. I mean, that's definitely part of the goal. I hope that having me in an ensemble pushes it over the edge. Musicality is important to me, of course, but I want it to be at a different level. It's not that I don't want space either, but there has to be momentum, speed and velocity for me. I have a record out with [guitarist] Henry Kaiser and Damon Smith [Plane Crash, ugExplode, 2009], and that's easily the most extreme thing Kaiser's done in years. It's ridiculous. And I think some people have counted him out as an extreme guitarist. I don't think it's that he's mellowed out, it's just that there hasn't been the right context for it in a long time. I'm glad to make a context for these players to do something more ridiculous—that's what I like to listen to. I don't hear a lot of people making music at that level, so I do it for myself.

AAJ: Many musicians find a safety within the idea of improvised music—a group fulfilling an expected role. Conditioned response happens a lot in contemporary improvisation. That's the bread and butter, what's available to the public, and for whatever reason, it seems to predominate. It may have something to do with reigning in what people had felt was too far out.

WW: Not far enough, in my opinion.

AAJ: With your music, what is refreshing is the fact that it's unapologetically intense and "out."

WW: Well, thanks. The music I do in terms of improvisation is built on the shoulders of giants—I want to continue the strain that came before me. When I grew up, I was listening to people like [pianist-composer] Cecil Taylor, [saxophonists] Albert Ayler, Peter Brötzmann, [guitarist] Takayanagi, and I've always been attracted to extremity in music. I started listening to free jazz at the same time I was listening to punk and no wave in the '80s. I put them on a somewhat even keel, and although they were different idioms, I felt they were saying similar things. That's really the core of my aesthetic—I want music to be wet with bodily fluids, a certain bloody-mindedness that's part of my music and attitude. I want to see sweat and blood, a little pain and struggle in music. This is not a style—it's an abstract idea applied to music, and I'm more interested in those essences. Improvisation is working for me right now and I'm not going to over-analyze it.

AAJ: And you've done very rigorously through-composed music.

WW: Yeah, totally.

Weasel Walter

AAJ: It seems like toward the end of the Luttenbachers, it was sort of archly-composed.

WW: Yeah, well, the Flying Luttenbachers' brand of composition had basically hit a ceiling in terms of ambition. That was a situation where I felt pressure from the few fans we had, and myself, to keep topping ourselves every time. When that becomes the modus operandi, it can never be met, and whatever recognition or money or feedback I was getting was so out of whack with the time and effort put into it, so I hit a wall and it was untenable. I could do more music like that, but not with the lack of support I've had from the public.

At the end of the Luttenbachers in 2006-2007, I had started getting back into the improvised music scene after a long hiatus, and I was fortunate enough to meet some really good people. That door was opened by Damon Smith—without his moxie, I wouldn't be playing with one third of the people I'm playing with. He opened a lot of doors for me.

To me, the whole thing is that I'm into weird music, and it's generally not what a lot of people like or relate to. It's much less disappointing to play to fifteen or twenty people and improvise a set, whereas it is disappointing to keep going out there year after year playing rigorous, hyper-composed music to twenty people. So, that's reflective of the current cultural milieu where music is really taken for granted because there's so much of it. Music is stolen for free and has no value at this point; the well's been poisoned and people don't understand that things that are more advanced will dry up and go away without public support—buying CDs, going to shows and showing support. If anybody wants to complain about my not doing the Luttenbachers anymore, well, that's what happened. The car ran out of gas.

AAJ: Firstly, with respect to your current work and groups, and antithetical to the idea of topping oneself with every release, is the idea of refinement. It's all on a similar axis, but it seems like one thing is shored up here, another refitted there, almost imperceptibly. With this stack of records, it seems like a refining of a clear aesthetic vision. Counter to that, with the Luttenbachers, is how hard it was to approach that music and how it seems perhaps less serious compared to free jazz. It seems like such a divergent approach.

Weasel WalterWW: I've always felt I was five minutes ahead or behind the times, I'm not sure which. I never have clicked with contemporary scenes too well and I'm not interested in others' formalism, categories, and stuff like that. Refinement—obviously I'm aiming toward something I haven't reached in the last 20 years [laughs], and I'm trying every day to make what I'm doing more of what I want it to be.

The fact is that when you deal with other people, you have to deal with more variables than your own singular aesthetic desires, needs, or whatever, and negotiate with others' interests. The thing that keeps me going is the fact that I've never had a perfect group—I'm restless, and I suppose I envision some kind of musical platonic ideal. The fact that I do so much stuff is due to not finding one format that encompasses everything. I try to go where the most energy is, and there isn't enough energy on the planet to do something like the Luttenbachers, so rather than being a martyr of some kind, I chose to do other things. I don't want to make it seem like my goal is to max out playing in free jazz, because my interests go a lot further than that.

I'm not so worried about hitting the wall—I'll run full speed towards it, and when I hit it, I'll deal with it then. That's always been part of my playing—I don't give a fuck about restrictions and I hope that when I get to the wall, I'll break through it. I could be dead in five minutes and I've only got one chance to do this stuff, so I do it like there's no tomorrow and take advantage of any positive situation I can get into. This whole music thing is a construct that I feel I can work inside of in order to express what I can do in life. I struggle a lot with the whole idea of recognition, but it's kind of beside the point—if I can keep going and document my work without starving to death, I figure that's a good goal. I see so much potential in what can be done artistically that I don't worry about its practicality.

AAJ: Dealing with categories and how one wants to be perceived, how has this work been received, especially in the greater scheme of the free jazz public?

WW: I would say the idiom I'm working in is not very popular, and again it doesn't concern me because I know I'm doing the work for myself. That's why I don't complain about it as much anymore, and I've had to question my own motivations for doing this work. My attitude is that I don't know who the general public are, I don't care who they are, and I can't relate to that mode of thinking, so why would I consider what they want? It's inconsequential to me at this point—I have a growing amount of peer approval that's rewarding to me, but the quality of the music and who I'm playing with is what's important. I almost feel as though I don't need outside feedback anymore.

Culturally, we're in a pretty bad state and there's very little support for the arts. Coupling that with anti-intellectualism, it's a very weird time where the world has gotten so full of information that we are jaded and desensitized, where interests are indulged to the nth degree. Everyone's so overstimulated (and I'm guilty of that as well—who isn't?), and there's so much stuff available that it makes individual tastes obsolete. A lot of musicians are having trouble paying rent, and how at 60 years old do you deal with being obsolete? There's no market for your job or your art anymore. I know the world doesn't owe me a living, but I'll be damned if I'm not going to fight for my place. I have to do it myself because I'm not going to wait to be handed an opportunity, and in my experience if you wait, you'll be waiting around a long time.

AAJ: It's fascinating that you seem extraordinarily proactive in setting up tours. Most musicians in improvised music don't seem to be going out on their own setting up gigs and performing with local musicians. It seems very important to your work.

WW: It's difficult and it's an attempt to maintain momentum—it reflects on my roots in the DIY rock scene, where the attitude has always been, "We've got something to say, and we're saying it. We're going to go out and do it." There's more than a little Black Flag in my blood, and you gotta be bold enough to go out and blaze a trail. I'm not saying I'm at the vanguard of doing this at all—not by any means. I've been touring for almost twenty years, and I'm tired of sleeping on people's floors. From the standpoint of physical and mental comfort, it's hard to take, and I've paid a lot of dues in that regard. I try to put myself in the best situations possible, and I feel like I've met a lot of people who are disciplined and helpful. When I go out on tour, I don't consider what the "circuit" for free jazz is; it's more about where I can make the most impact. I avoid the places where I'm not wanted, and hopefully where I go is a very "wet" environment where people are receptive and can relate to what I do. Going to places and convincing them of the vitality of this music hopefully opens up new doors here and there. It's just a matter of—what I do is not an insular or effete, abstract dry thing that sits on a shelf. It's like punk rock, and my attitude is going out and proving that is very important.

AAJ: Well, despite the fact that it's been done elsewhere before, your tack is quite visible.

Weasel WalterWW: [laughs] Well, I've been playing music—and only experimental music—for twenty years, and to keep going I have to open doors where otherwise they seem to be closing, which doesn't bode well for musicians in general. It's not easy, and it can be pretty stressful. I spend a lot more time doing logistics than playing an instrument—most of the reason I'm doing this is by having the nerve to create situations where I can prove my worth and carve out a niche.

AAJ: In the liner notes to Trauma (ugExplode, 2001/2008) it seems like the record is titled after the trauma of going on tour and trying to live as a working musician on this planet, not so much the inducing of trauma by the music...

WW: I've been in some pretty extreme situations trying to play this music, and I don't think I'm exemplary in the amount of bullshit I put up with. One person's heaven is another person's hell. Sometimes I'm right and sometimes I'm wrong—I've made some bad decisions about what I'm doing. The analogy about stumbling around in the dark looking for a light switch is pretty accurate.

AAJ: It seems also that traveling has been almost a laboratory for creative situations—that it's as much about playing with new musicians as proselytizing the art.

WW: Sure, absolutely. I'm a student and I have a lot to learn from people who have done it longer than me, and I'm building on that. There's no doubt in my mind that I can do something meaningful as long as there are good players. When I meet up with people like [saxophonists] Marshall Allen and Evan Parker, it's a chance to put my money where my mouth is creatively. I'm my own worst critic, and I'm playing the hated music here—I'm not arrogant about it, and I'm getting a chance to do what I want to do as well as add my own two cents, as it were, to the stream of creative music. The people I look up to persisted and had some longevity because they were sure of what they wanted to do. I'm just heading down whatever path it is I'm heading down.

AAJ: How did you meet up with [reedman] Mario Rechtern?

WW: He's one of the crucially underdocumented saxophone players, and is among the top tier of people I want to play with, in my mind. Meeting him was fortuitous to me.

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