Spotlight: Bill Horist

Still getting the format together here at Guitar Moderne. I Spotlighted Bill Horist earlier, before I came up with the “Introducing ” concept. Through the magic of the Interwebs, I have gone back and changed that post to Introducing and here Spotlight this amazing improvising guitarist, complete with a full, no holds or opinions barred interview. The included video is a textbook of extended techniques employed in a highly personal, emotive way by a modern guitar master.

What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?

That’s a bit difficult to answer.  I grew up with an ethos that rubbed wrong with any form of authority, so basically I’m self-taught.  I started playing rock guitar in Michigan.  I was a terrible singer in the Eighties, fronting a band that sounded too much like Joy Division.  Our guitarist quit to become a monk (later he stole a monastery van and disappeared in California).  I picked up the slack and, as time when on, I realized I liked playing more than singing; a good thing because, as I say, I was a TERRIBLE singer!

Later, I developed tastes that leaned more toward avant-garde, experimental, improv or all around “out” music.  It was via these agencies that I developed my take on prepared guitar; which means to take objects and use them to manipulate or radically change the timbral properties of the instrument. I am, by no means the first to do this. Instrument preparation as a practice has its roots in John Cage and others of the modern classical ilk.  Folks like Fred Frith, Keith Rowe, and later, Jim O’Rourke were all working with guitars in this area. To be fair though, I must say that the first person I saw doing this was Danny Ash from Bauhaus—he was doing all sorts of manic stuff with drumsticks etc.  That said, even though there was a very small cadre of folks doing this, it still is such a wide open territory that terms like proficiency are tough to wrestle with. The approach is still so rarified that the tenets of proficiency are really about individual style as opposed to some monolithic pedagogy.

Since then, however, I have developed other, more conventional styles of guitar on electric and acoustic that are easier to measure, much of which has happened in the last couple years—orthodox abilities or what I call “transferrable skills.”  So after 20 plus years doing it my own way (for better and worse), I think I got proficient by playing fingerstyle oldies in the last year.

What led you to create experimental (non-mainstream) music?

It was the initial state of anti-authority that imbues almost all my actions to this day. I like to do things backwards for some reason, so I approach Hegel’s dialectic “antithesis” first.  I also honestly liked, and still like, working in an arcane area of art, one where the epiphany of a new listener or audience can still be witnessed. This is something that happens a little less as conventional music fans grow up.  It seems most mainstream music, and here I do include a hefty dose of the current underground rock offerings, vacillate between reality show consensus and the rote exhumation of bygone decades where these epiphanies were happening for real. I like the openness of possibilities in sound, which tends to get a little more airtime in more experimental art forms.

At the same time, I am not a cheerleader for experimental music. No matter what anyone says, it has all the trappings of commercial music. There are certainly enough practitioners of the recondite arts that actually believe it’s not only superior aesthetically, but also socially and politically. But after the lofty words have been spoken, human behavior is human behavior and it exists to the nines under every revolutionary rock.

You also run into a danger when you’re an unabashed advocate of all things experimental on that merit alone. The name of the game is that it still needs to be moving and/or evocative, and, like conventional music, most of it is not. I can’t say how many times I’ve seen an advocate trying to convince a potential initiate that a show was awesome when it just wasn’t.  The potential initiate walks away thinking, so that’s experimental music?  No thank you!  Of course this is a very subjective thing and just about every musical discourse/debate is boiled down to personal opinion, but when someone claims that everything in some ilk is good I bristle.

Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.

Well this list could go on for a long time.  I was born too late to say Elvis and Muddy Waters inspire me.  I’m moved in different ways by different artists and, of the sum total in the history of the sentient world, I like one to three percent, okay maybe five percent in special circumstances. Doesn’t sound like much but given the surfeit of music out there, this gives me room to love a lot of it.

How did you get better at your current style?

I tend toward more convoluted ideas. I do this in just about every facet of my cognitive life. This has been a key component of my musical output. Over time I realized it might not always be the best way to go. I’ve improved by letting my music breathe a little more, give it more space, let it suggest itself through a sense of absence. This has helped me psychologically as well and keeps me more relaxed in performance situations.

What are you trying convey with your music?

This is where I become another listener. Technology is really changing so much about our nature; yeah, spoons and the written word also affected our nature but I don’t know if it is to the same degrees that things do now. Even through the twentieth century, interacting with technology required different physical approaches. Painting a mural, operating a moving vehicle, playing bassoon, writing a book, or taking photographs all required different actions. Today, everything is done seated at a computer with a keyboard and mouse, or some variant. That is going to have massive ramifications in mind/body relations and probably with regard to the body itself, should some semblance of humanity eek it out long enough.

I sometimes see my music as a metaphor for this. I play the most ubiquitous instrument in the world. By the very nature of my work, I’ve developed ways to play guitar, not only with my hands but also with my whole body: legs, elbows, mouth etc. My body’s relationship to the guitar and objects represents some aspect of nature, a randomness that I intentionally try not to control, but to which I react. The physics of tension, mass and material dictate the sounds, augmented by the ways I coax movement from it. All of this very human and uncontrolled sound then runs right into the modern era, which is represented by a slew of pedals that confine, quantize, loop, and relegate these sounds, as they would any sounds run through them. Thus a digital order is foisted upon these random human amblings—much like the world today.  It’s like my interaction with the guitar is the death spasm of archaic physical imperatives that will be, ineluctably, funneled into the new universal relationship with technology.  Figure out at least a few more ways to play the instrument before it’s all online.

Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?

With most of my solo work it’s the same set-up. I use an old Teisco guitar. No info on it so it might be a Teisco era Silvertone too. I love that I can turn pickups on and off individually on those guitars, as opposed to having some pickup select toggle.

From the guitar, the signal visits a lot of stompboxes, leading me to sometimes refer to my music as “Heavy Pedal.”  The standard signal path is a Boss TU-2 tuner to a Digitech Whammy Pedal. I use the reissue—the dial selector is key, screw that foot scrolling BS. It then goes into a Dwarfcraft Dream Mangler (greatest name ever!). The Dream Mangler is two awesome fuzzes in one with LFO and Theremin madness and a JOYSTICK. It was designed by Devi Ever and licensed to Dwarfcraft. Next comes a Vox wah, modded with a gain dial so it doesn’t disappear in the filter sweep like they usually do. That goes into a Rat II, the first pedal I ever had and I love it! Following that is an Ernie Ball Jr Volume Pedal into a Moogerfooger Ring-Mod. I don’t use the Ring-Mod a lot, as my aim is to let the idiosyncrasy of the prepared guitar sounds carry the day. Next is an Electro Harmonix 16 second delay, inspired by Bill Frisell, Nels Cline and Uchihashi Kazuhisa; and finally, a Line 6 DL4, used with the EH delay for looping and related activities.

Typically, this salad gets tossed in a 100-watt, ’90s Fender “Custom” Vibrasonic amp.  This amp is incredible if a clean signal with a TON of low end is your cup; which in my case is the key in the tea.  It’s basically designed to handle the broad bandwidth of a pedal steel.

[When using a Fender Bassman, Horist employs an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail for reverb.]

Products aside, my sound comes from nails [the hardware kind], hemostats, sheet metal, business card holders, cymbals, magnets and all sorts of other industrial detritus.

Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?

I enjoy both. I don’t see them as an either or; they are simply two different activities that thrive on different relationships. There is nothing like playing live and receiving real-time feedback. For all the numerous pains in the ass, I love touring and entertaining. I thrive on it. Recording is a totally different practice; it feels more introspective to me. Plus the approach is different because you have to construct something that compels without the musician being onstage in front of a listener. The physical presence of live musicians is a huge part of listening to music. Hearing it at home, without a live band/artist is a massive reduction. That is why I don’t have any issue with augmenting a recording with overdubs and any other studio trickery to create something that might not be able to be done live. Both products, differently approached, have value.

In my case there is a slight lean toward live performance because a huge part of the show is getting to see everyday household objects and how they’re used to cull these otherworldly tones and textures from this everyday instrument. No number of overdubs is going to reconcile that! I sometimes wonder if there’s a point to trying to make records of this aspect of my work.

How have you built up an audience for your music?

Not really sure I have! I do the normal things: make records, tour, create accounts on social networking sites (the only reason, I assure you!). Lately I’ve been trying to post more stuff on YouTube and the like. Another aspect of these modern times is, as the Internet is radically democratizing the world, it is taking away the ability of artists to control their own content. I realized some months ago, that anyone who wants to learn about my work starts at YouTube. I realized that there were a slew of clips of my stuff posted their by others—terrible audio, bad video, one minute shots of undecipherable noise (which is cool when I want it to be that), not to mention that most of it, in my opinion as the generator of the work, SUCKED!  I wouldn’t play these excerpts to anyone at all!  I’m flattered that people have posted these things but these clips are now my introduction to bookers, press and potential fans. If you’re of the mind to memorialize your life and the events you attend online, please take a minute to contact any artists you’re posting and make sure they feel good about what you’re uploading—it’ll make the world a much better place!

With whom would you like to collaborate and why?

I have been really lucky to collaborate with the folks I have; and there are many more. I’m going to shoot way over my pay grade and say Scott Walker. I am a huge fan of his entire career, from the dark pop crooning of the Walker Brothers and Scotts 1-4, through Nite Flights, and his departure into a very dark uninhabitable land with subsequent records.  A bandmate turned me onto him years ago on a UK tour and I’ve been a devotee ever since. There is a great documentary about him called “30 Century Man.” It’s a great primer for the uninitiated.

I like to think that we could work well together, not just because I’m a knock-kneed fan, but also because he makes a very personal, idiosyncratic art; work that veers toward the individual psyche, the darkness therein, but also the beauty inside the confusion and dissonance—the hidden flowers in a dense copse. I relate to that and find it very interesting and refreshing, especially in a time where things like ego and individual have been duly eschewed and castigated by a majority of the arts for more collective ideals.

What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?

As a fellow with a short attention span, I like to have a few things going on. I just did a solo set for KEXP’s Sonarchy Radio in Seattle. It’s archived and available as a podcast at  However, as I discussed the importance of seeing what I do (and the need to control my online content), the session was shot on HD video and the entire show, two 26-minute sets is on YouTube. Consider this my free online solo album for 2012!

I’m also working on two collaboration records that will hopefully see the light of day next year. One is with drummer Tatsuya Nakatani who is one of the most amazingly inventive drummers I’ve ever seen and another with bassist Darin Gray, a master of all low-end string things.  He has been creating amazing work for years in many genres with folks like Jim O’Rourke, Dazzling Killmen, Akira Sakata and members of Wilco to name a few. We met over a year ago and played a duo, me doing prepared guitar and him doing prepared electric bass. It was magic, so we reconvened last summer to record and do a handful of shows in the Midwest, which were very well-received. I’m also working with the conventional guitar, working up a new acoustic record with pieces inspired by Mississippi John Hurt, John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Dusan Bogdonavich, and Ali Farka Toure mixed with inspiration from my travels in Asia.

I have a couple bands that are working in Seattle right now.  One is getting renamed as we speak but it is my long-standing “free-shred” improv collaboration with the amazing alto sax player Wally Shoup and wildly varied Mark Ostrowski on drums. Currently working up material with bassist extraordinaire Keith Lowe and expansive percussionist Paul Kikuchi (with whom I work in his group Portable Sanctuary).

The Spring will see me back in Calgary working with M-Body Dance Company and choreographer Davida Monk; with whom I worked at the Banff Centre years ago to create Lyric.  My album, Lyric/Suite [Accretions Records] was born of that collaboration. I’ll be creating a score to a follow-up of Lyric.  Lastly I’m just finishing demos for an electro-acoustic prog rock project that is a follow-up to the more chamberesque Covalent Lodge (North Pole Records).  Stylistically, it is radically different but it follows a thread of making records that deal with specific experiences and environments in my life in a more narrative, albeit oblique way.





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