There 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.
- The Unforked Path
- Defined Storms
- Victimless Influence
- Chicago or Bust
- 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 strategiesthe 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 commitmentit'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 sporadicI 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 availableif 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 latelyin 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 Luttenbachersit was all about who was available to play. The instrument is secondary to whether the player is interesting and any goodthe 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 aroundtwo 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.
WW: Surethat'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 timeI 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 wildhe 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 ridiculousthat'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 musica 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 giantsI 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 aestheticI 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 styleit'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.
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 Smithwithout 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 supportbuying 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.
WW: 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. Refinementobviously 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 groupI'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 wallI'll run full speed towards it, and when I hit it, I'll deal with it then. That's always been part of my playingI 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 pointif 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 pointI 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 wellwho 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 momentumit 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 allnot 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 ofwhat 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.
WW: [laughs] Well, I've been playing musicand only experimental musicfor 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 instrumentmost 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 wrongI'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 situationsthat 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 hereI'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.
AAJ: Are there any meetings with players that you haven't documented on record?
WW: I take it upon myself to record everything I do, pretty much, so everything is a potential release. As long as everyone is fine with the musiccertain combinations of people feel right. I'm not interested in the resume; everybody's got one and it doesn't mean shit. I'm not trying to play with everyone in the scene and I've been fortunate enough to play with people of different statures. People show up, we shake hands, play and it's a killerit's not a matter of discussion. You know when it's really coherent. I've been fortunate to play with pretty high-caliber musicians, and they've held their own against my hyperactivity [laughs]. That's my criterion.
Some people would have no interest in playing with me, and that's fineI've had the experience of playing with musicians whom I thought were interesting, but the results didn't fit with their personal vision. I tend to try and turn everything into what I want it to beit's not about domination or subversion, it's just that I see improvisation in terms of balance, counterpoint and equilibrium. I am interested in the intersection of voice, language and vision. That's what I doshow up and play with whoever's there.
AAJ: Could you shed some light on composition?
WW: I'm interested in complexity and a certain level of discrete dissonance and asymmetry. There does come a point where composition becomes a springboard for longer forms with more focus. Free improvisation has a pretty bad reputation with the general public, and I understand where that comes from because there's a lot of bad free improvisation out there. I think that the part of me that's never satisfied looks at it with an eye toward improvement. I've been struggling with my ideas toward both composition and improvisation because a lot of the time they seem at odds with one another. With a lot of the rock people I work with, they can't often handle music of that complexity, whereas the improvisers I work with often can't commit to the level of rehearsal that a long-form composition would require. The struggle is how to rectify this; I haven't figured it out, and I keep trying but it comes up a little short for me. This is one of my main concerns in lifeI haven't solved the problem. Writing is not the problem, but getting it played right is very hard.
AAJ: When you're convening a group, how much discussion happens before you hit?
WW: That depends on who the people are and whether there's an implicit goal. Some people, there's nothing to discuss. Others might have a specific idea or gestalt they want to touch on, and I'm pretty open to both ways of doing it. I can show up and hit with somebody I've just met and generally make something coherent out of it, or someone can hand me some music and I'll play it. I'm less reluctant to play others' written music sometimes than play with improvisersI've been a sideman and worked on tons of projects. I've been the bassist in a glam rock bandBobby Conn's bandand the whole concept was pretty copacetic. The songs were interesting and the subtext was interesting, so I had no problem with it and I would be in that situation again if it were to happen. I'm a flexible musician in many regards, but everything I find myself doing has to somehow fit into my body of work. Luckily, there are a lot of people I can relate to musically and I've been lucky to play with a lot of them.
AAJ: We've talked a lot about your percussion setup previously. Could you talk a bit about the evolution of your kit in light of how your music has changed. Even on Luttenbachers recordings like Trauma, you approached the bass drum sound rather differently from most improvised or rock music.
WW: At that phase, I was using a kit of very small drumsroto toms, bongos, no snare drum and mostly broken cymbals. The reason for this was to more closely match the reeds and bass in dynamics and to have mostly staccato sounds with little decay in order to leave more space for the other instruments. I was beginning to use a 16-inch floor tom as a kick drum, something I still do to this day. At the time of mixing, I was dissatisfied with the recording of the kick; it sounded too mushy and indistinct to me. I was very much used to hearing piercingly clean, triggered kick drums in a death metal context and wanted that kind of clarity, so we simply ran the original kick drum signal through co-producer Robert Wilkus' modular synthesizer bank and created new voices for the kick sound. The sounds themselves are slightly different on every piece, and basically the sound of the kick drum was electronically filtered.
AAJ: It's interesting you mention a setup that gives more space to the reeds and bass, because so much sounds like it has been filled in, at least with respect to improvised music as it's usually presented. Please tell us how you define "space" in this context.
WW: That was very dense music, but from the perspective of the drumming, it had to do with pure incremental mass, not just building up layers of sustaining sounds. It's not that complex; what I've done over the last two decades is develop a system that allows me to play in as many contexts as possible with the least amount of gear possible, with the widest dynamic range. That's all that's happenedI've grouped together random instruments that allow me to participate with a range of settings, from duets with [oboist] Kyle Bruckmann to playing in a death metal group. I travel with my percussion setup, so it's got to be small and light and it's got to cut through any band but be transparent enough that I can play with any instrumentation. Most of the pieces in my kit have no sustain whatsoever; they're very staccato and short.
AAJ: People talk about clarity, but it's quite fascinating to hear in your playing every note and this rotating satellite relationship with very few daubs or wispy things.
WW: That's what I've been working towards. I think people misconstrue that my music is all bile and violence and hatred. Of course, I talk a good game, but what I'm really interested in is the precise articulation of artistic violence. I like a certain amount of tension and upheaval in my music. That is paramount, and the way the drum kit sounds is the most eloquent statement of chaos and disorder I can find. I'm working very hard to produce all those notes, so I want people to be able to hear them. I don't want to obscure it all by playing on a loud, mushy kitanybody can buy a big amp and make a bunch of noise. A lot of my drumming has to do with this approach of different orbits or clusters of things happening at the same timeas you said, satellites. One of the things that appeals to me as an image is a shower of broken glasssomebody said that about Sunny Murray.
AAJ: Robert Levin, "The Continuous Cracking of Glass." (Jazz & Pop, April/May 1969)
WW: Right, that's where I'm coming from. If I were to talk about specific influences in free jazz, the first thing I heard that was a jumping-off point was Rashied Ali's drumming on [Coltrane's] Interstellar Space (Impulse, 1967). It was an almost static approach to amorphous, massive cyclical units of sound. I don't play like him, but there was a lesson learned there. I feel like I have a personal sound at this point, and it's pretty easy to hear when I'm playing the drums. I listen to a lot of my own stuff because I'm always mixing, mastering and editing the music. It's interestingI have a wide approach but my intent is the recognizable thing. It's not as much about "style."
AAJ: Continuing with the subject of clarity, at times listening to your work gives an illusion of multiple drummers present, because with most players you don't hear that level of clarity.
WW: One of the people I try to work with regularly is Marc Edwards, the drummer from New York who played on Cecil Taylor's Dark to Themselves LP (Enja, 1978). Marc's a really singular guyhis approach and musicianship are really staggering and he doesn't get a lot of credit for what he does. In fact, I think a lot of people are really scared of what he does. To me, it's likefuck, that's who I want to be playing with! He kicks my ass all over the stage and I want to learn from that. But the thing is that we have a group with two drummers who are very fast and powerful; that clarity is there because he's always thought about the same thing.
It's important to say something meaningful, and we're in a post-noise era where noise has been maxed out and isn't really special anymore. Noise for its own sake is what I'm referring to, and it doesn't accomplish anything anymore. With a good idea in 1990, you could do it and there weren't a lot of indistinguishable releases out there. Noise is a good thing, but what do you do with it? That's the challenge of free improvisation as I see itit's not just to make noise, but to make something out of it, order from chaos. It's dense music and not easily understood the first time you hear it; maybe there's something about it that makes you want to listen more than once. Maybe not a lot of people think that way about music; some of the stuff I've done I've worked hard, and you're not necessarily going to get it on the first try. It puts the onus on the listener, and the only way you're going to "get" it is by spending time with it.
I hope that the intensity draws people in, and that maybe they'll try to understand it, though I don't have any illusions that people are going to "get" it at this point. I hope there's something there that attracts people, though. I ultimately make the music that I want to listen to.
AAJ: It's the musicians one doesn't understand who are often most interesting.
WW: I think there are different kinds of people; some are only interested in what they're familiar with and others only with what they're not familiar with. I'm part of the latter group, and I only want to listen to things I don't understand. Late John Coltrane was like that, as well as Magma and SparksI didn't get any of that music on the first listen.
AAJ: You've mentioned Charles Noyes (of the Toy Killers) as an influence before. What is he even doing and how does it fit into your work?
WW: [laughs] Well, listen to the track "Victimless Crime" (which is sort of the main Toy Killers track that anybody knew), the drumming on that, and if you think of where a sixteen year old drummer into weird music might be, you'd see how I thought "Oh, this guy is totally fucking everything up." He wasn't coming at music from a drummer's perspective; he wanted to make music and decided to play drums. He also liked Japanese Noh music and Korean music, not rock and roll, so what was he going to do with this instrument? I didn't have to know that to like itwhen I first heard no wave, it sounded exactly like I knew it would sound. It was like I had come home or something; not everything challenging is hard on you at first. I've done some pretty extreme music and I'm not surprised when it's not understood or even liked.
AAJ: Could we delve into your influences a bit more? We've talked about Noyes, and with Hiroshi Yamazaki's drumming, there's a similarity there. You've mentioned Rashied Ali, too, so could you talk about that a bit more?
WW: First off, I don't see myself as a drummer but as someone who plays the drums. My main interest is in execution of concepts, but I've had the most work as a drummer so I've concentrated on that. My influences go beyond the instrumentsI'm interested in great thinkers with great visions, people like [filmmaker] Alejandro Jodorowsky, [composer] Iannis Xenakis, Cecil Taylor or the Marx Brothers or [graphic artist] Jack Kirby. If I were to list my drum influences it would be a mile long because I like a lot of drummers and they were all in good contexts at some point. When I was young, I liked weird music, so I gravitated to as much weird stuff as was available. Keep in mind that there wasn't as much weird music then, so anything I could find had to be good. The playing field was small and difficult, so that kept it interesting.
One of the first things to appeal to me was punk rock, back in the early '80s. Punk led the way to no wave, the Residents, Ornette Coleman's electric bands, then into free jazz which led to modern classical music, Balinese gamelan and death metal. Stumbling around looking for the light switch is again a good analogy, and I've always had a voracious appetite for music. As far as my drum influences go, there are a lotI may have taken little parts from each drummer, rather than whole concepts. Punk drummers like Rat Scabies from the Damned, Jerry Nolan from Johnny Thunders' band, as well as free jazz drummers like Beaver Harris, Sunny Murray, and Andrew Cyrille.
The Europeans were harder to hear back then, but I really liked Jamie Muir from the Music Improvisation Companyit was the most fractured shit I'd heard. That whole European (especially English) approach that Derek Bailey and Evan Parker hadthe alien bug musicimagine hearing that as a sixteen year old; it was mind-blowing. To have coherence and power while making the most obtuse sounds possiblethat was incredible. In the early '90s, [guitarist] Kevin Drumm got me into death metal, and up to that point I was a snob who thought metal was all about spandex and big hair. I heard the second Deicide album and loved itthose drummers have really had a definite effect on my playing.
I'm a polymath in some regard, because some people focus on my free drumming as being implicitly derived from death metal; that's more of an assumption on the part of critics who think I've come from rock music into improvisation when that's not really the caseI've been doing both as long. I don't have any more recognition in the rock field; the levels of obscurity are on a pretty even keel. It's interesting that certain people assume I'm a dilettante rock guy trying to play free. It just happens to be that there was more work for me in the rock milieu, and I certainly still do that, but there is more given back in the free jazz milieu.
AAJ: The Luttenbachers' early stuff had [multi-instrumentalist] Hal Russell, which was the basis of the whole thing.
WW: That's the first serious recording that I did in 1992 (Live at WNUR, Coat-Tail Records), and nothing could be more free jazz than that record. I sort of hit the ground running; when I moved to Chicago, I wanted to play free jazz and kick ass, and I was an impetuous little bastard and things didn't quite work out the way I'd planned. I'd been playing that kind of stuff for years and I was ready to go. Meeting Hal Russell was very importantthat CD still sells for some reason, which I find fascinating.
Chicago or Bust
AAJ: Could you give some more insight into how meeting Hal Russell came about?
WW: That old tired story? Sure, I'll tell it again. [laughs] Well, given the exposition I've given you about my teenage years, I moved to Chicago ostensibly to go to school, but I wanted to become the star of some free jazz scene I imagined existed there. Keep in mind that in 1990, there wasn't onethis was pre-Ken Vandermark; there were some scattered remnants of the AACM and Hal Russell had his NRG Ensemble and Liof Munimula (Aluminum Foil, backwards), which was [drummer] Michael Zerang's thing. There was no scene, no audience, but I didn't care and I was there to do it.
After about a year of being there and working at Southend Musicworks, an avant-garde performance space, I met Hal doing sound for one of his shows on a Tuesday night. I persisted and made myself known; we hit it off immediately and Hal said, "We should make a band together." After a while, my friend [saxophonist] Chad Organ insinuated himself into the group; we called ourselves the Flying Luttenbachers, based on Hal's given last name, and we thought it was funny. That shows you the level of humor that was going on at that time, though after a while the name had other connotations. I sort of revised it to reflect the whole Armageddon myth and I was on a crusade to prove that free jazz was punk rock, there was no difference, and we would go into a club playing free music and kick people's asses. There was a gung-ho youthful attitude, sort of a "you will love it" thing, that persisted.
AAJ: It's not an unhealthy attitude, in a way. It would be welcome.
WW: I'm not as dewy about it and I'm not as much of an idealist now, but I don't think there's a huge disconnect between what I do with free jazz and what good rock music does. I don't really care about it at this point, though; it doesn't need to be proven. I just want to play the music I want to play.
AAJ: That group in all of its various guises seemed to get a fair amount of traction in Chicago.
WW: All I chalk it up to is being in the right place at the right time.
AAJ: But through that you were able to intersect with a lot of people who were doing interesting things at the timeVandermark, Jim O'Rourke, people like that.
WW: I met Ken Vandermark in 1991 when we were both working in an Anthony Braxton workshop orchestra; there were a lot of hacks in the band who brought the music down. We recognized in each other that we were not part of that genus. So, at that point there weren't a lot of people to play with and we exchanged numbers. When Hal left the Luttenbachers very abruptly in the summer of 1992, I was ready to make a record, so I called Ken and invited him to the session. He sight-read the music and we made the Luttenbachers' first seven-inch. He was in the band for about two years; he didn't quite get it and was trying to play music and accept the challenge, but ultimately we were coming from different perspectives and he left to do his own thing.
I was antagonistic towards him because when I was younger, I thought the way to find out who I was, was to spend time bringing others down who weren't me. I burned a lot of bridges that way, talked a lot of shit and caused trouble. I thought it would make an impact, but I made a negative impact on my available opportunitiesI don't regret it because I felt it was the right thing to do. I was kind of a dick, but I figured some things out. I haven't mellowed out and compromised because I want to please people; I just don't need to define myself anymore and it's irrelevant to me if something is uninteresting or it sucks.
AAJ: The Luttenbachers did move to the Bay Area as a conceptwhen you left Chicago, you were ostensibly involved in that process.
WW: Well, it became obvious that the Luttenbachers was just meI was the only constant member. It was a solo vision and I would cooperate with other musicians who were appropriate to the time and place. When I came here, I was working on a solo album that was a reaction to how the previous band ended. It petered out because it was so intense it couldn't last; the album I made myself pushed it to an even higher level and set a tone for the final years of the band. When I moved to the West Coast, there was a pocket of energy. The noise-rock scene was happening; there were encouraging people and bands that I liked. In Chicago, I hated everybody and everything and stopped improvising because it felt like a drag. I had been ready to leave Chicago since 1999 but it took until 2003 to actually realize that leaving was a very healthy thing to do. I don't have the same issues with fighting my environment because it's more copacetic for me here.
AAJ: Did you know Damon Smith before you moved to the Bay Area?
WW: I knew of him before I came here; he was my logical counterpart because he was also busy destroying people who he thought were weak. Obviously we knew who each other were because we'd felt all our hot air blowing over the internet. When I moved here, I was involved with bands like XBXRX, Total Shutdown, and Burmese (which I'm still a member of). I was in Erase Errata for a week on tour, also Deerhoof and I knew John Dwyer from Pink & Brown and Coachwhips. There was a lot of energy when I got herethings were on the wane but still happening. I've been lucky to intersect with a lot of scenes over the past few decades.
In 2005 when the Luttenbachers had gone on our last European tour, we played at the Nickelsdorf Jazz Gallery in Austria and that shook something loose in me. The promoter's basement speakeasy where he invites musicians to play had stacks of rare private press free jazz records that I'd never seen, only heard of. I freaked out and DJ'ed for like four hours that night and realized I didn't hate improvised music, just my impasse with the scene in Chicago. When I went back to the US, I got really excited about playing free music. I called Damon and asked him who I should ask to make a group. That became the quartet that recorded Revolt Music (ugExplode, 2006), and it all blossomed from there.