When modern guitarist and 1K Records mogul, Tim Motzer gets together with modern jazz guitar legend Kurt Rosenwinkel and drummer Gintas Janusonis to perform as Bandit65, there is no written music, no songs, no plan. The three musicians jump off a cliff and create music from nothing as they fall. Except that they don’t fall. Working without a safety net, they float gently on currents of magical music, composed in the moment. Tim and Kurt were kind enough to talk to Guitar Moderne about their process and gear.
How did you meet Kurt and decide to do this?
Tim: We met in Zurich, Switzerland in 2008 while I was on tour with poet Ursula Rucker. As I was going through the crowd to the dressing room Kurt stopped me to tell me he dug what I was doing, and we had a bit of a hang afterwards. I suggested that we play sometime, and Kurt agreed. About a year later we improvised at my studio in Philadelphia and there was instant chemistry. Eventually we went into a recording studio in Brooklyn and recorded six hours of improvisations. The best of that session came out much later in 2014 as our debut album, Bandit65, on 1k Recordings. We didn’t discuss direction at all, we just played. Later on, we decided to improvise all of our live shows. We made that what we do— exploring the unknown, finding new forms and music. As for our band name, Kurt suggested Bandit65. The Peavey Bandit 65 was his first guitar amplifier, and in fact, many beginning guitarists used the Bandit 65. We just thought it was a great idea and it stuck.
Kurt: Yeah when I heard those guys I was really impressed by how they played so great as Ursula’s band. Tim was such a powerful player with a wonderful imagination and amazing sonic palette, and Gintas doing some heavy lifting on the drums and also talking care of the shape of the songs. We hung a bit then and as Tim said we jammed at Tim’s over the holidays. It was instant chemistry and we had a great time. We did the same thing in the studio and also it was such a cool connection and it was amazing the areas we found musically that I have never experienced before. We’ve never thought to play any songs because the music was just flowing out of us fully formed.
Was Gintas Janusonis involved from the beginning?
Tim: Gintas was there from the beginning, as he was part of the rhythm section for Ursula Rucker when Kurt heard us in Zurich. We were a duo essentially of drums and acoustic electric guitar/synth covering a whole lot of musical ground for just two people backing up Ursula. Gintas and I locked together and had a connection the first time we played. I think Kurt liked our chemistry and how we worked together, and the fact that I was looping and building layers in the music. Not many people were doing this at that time.
Why did you choose not to have a bassist?
Tim: I thought it was a chance to explore new sonic territories, we can both use pedals to cover bass sounds, and trade off on duties as needed, but it also broke the norm, which always interests me—pushing the envelope. I think it allowed us to have more space in the music, and led us to explore new possibilities.
Kurt: Having control over the bass makes it much more potent because we can have it all folded into what we are doing in the upper registers and it’s like Tim and I are both guitarists and bassists at the same time. It’s so cool when we switch off the bass playing quickly back and forth, forming a bass line that neither of us could predict. We are so deeply concentrating on everything that’s going on in the music and so busy making thousands of micro-decisions at all times that we don’t even get the chance to hear what the music sounds like as a listener until after the shows. When we listen back to the live recording, we often just marvel at what actually happened.
Why a live record, rather than a studio recording?
Tim: Starting with our 2016 tours, we decided to record all of our shows multitrack; I believe we have about 40 shows recorded. The new album, Searching the Continuum, was culled from the best of some of those recordings in Philly, LA, Stockholm, Madrid, Berlin, and Vienna. I also think playing live in front of an audience with a full PA, leads us to something more visceral than working in a more serene recording studio environment. That said, I would welcome a studio recording session sometime in the future too!
Kurt: The live shows are really where it’s at for us because it’s the same as being in the studio in terms of our process, but we get the added energy of the audience. if we went into the studio we’d be doing the same thing.
Do you discuss anything before an improv (key?), or is it all by ear?
Tim: We walk to the stage with nothing in mind. It’s more about the vibe of the day, the city we are in, how we feel, the feel of the venue, and also the audience. We start feeding our imagination by creating abstract sounds, layers, and textures. As we are all playing, fragments of ideas begin to emerge. We are conscious of letting the music unfold as it will. Eventually, this may lead to a form, chord progression, melody, and rhythm, and we are off and flying. There are many ways that we find the music, or the music finds us. It’s magic.
Kurt: It’s all by ear and we start from nothing. Somehow music forms itself around our open minds and since we are very deeply meditating upon it while it is happening, we are able to lend ourselves fully to what it wants to do. It’s like conjuring, we create a space for the spirits to live, and they play around and make music.
What is the process of deciding who leads the harmony and who follows?
Tim: Through listening, the music tells us. Each of us may get a spark that suggests a way in. Sometimes we take on roles, other times we throw it back and forth. A rhythm from Gintas may start it off. There’s no set way. On “In Time (Los Angeles),” I played a particular harmony that suggested a chord progression, which I played, and Kurt had a melody in an instant, while Gintas was playing an 808 sound. L.A. had a particular vibe. We follow our instincts. It’s an immediate reaction or impulse. Kurt will lay down chord structures, or open a tune with his majestic chord soloing like on “Sagrada (Madrid),” and it leads to something. It’s always quite challenging, but it seems that when it’s time to play together something happens and our chemistry allows us to hear this music. There are surprises; quite often, I find myself playing in territories I’ve never played in before. It’s amazing that all of my bands, collaborations, when I work in contemporary dance, and even my solo stuff is improvisation. I’ve been doing this for years; I compose in real time. It’s something I enjoy for the reward of what can happen.
Kurt: It’s a constant state of listening very intensely and reacting to the music that’s happening. I might make something up on the spot like a chord sequence, and then we will build around it and it takes off, and its evolving the whole time. Maybe then Tim will take over and bring it to another section of the “song” and we go with that. It reminds me of the comedy improv by groups like Second City, where the motto is always “Yes, and.” I love it because I can go purely by feeling, not even knowing how it will sound. Trust and deep focus.
How do you know when an improv is over?
Tim: A good question. Usually the music tells us. We can feel the ending, or feel a coda. There’s no easy answer, but in the doing of it you find the answer or the implications. Sometimes we all look up at the same time and cue it. Most times, we just feel it—ESP.
Kurt: The endings that happen are one of my favorite things in this band, because the songs always seem to end themselves. It can be really surprising when that happens. I don’t think anyone decides, it just happens and our chemistry is such that we are always somehow right there with it. It’s pretty freaky actually.
How has the chemistry changed over the years of doing Bandit65?
Tim: We had a special chemistry from day one: we would play and the music would come out fully formed. We’ve toured on and off for four years now throughout Europe, USA, and Japan, and every time we come back together we have grown a bit more. On our recent tour in England, we all felt looser, still taking risks and reaching, but somehow more relaxed. Also, I find that every time we play together, the challenge increases somehow, but we continue to grow and evolve and get closer to the music. It’s very deep, and it’s a continuum. We are playing our best ever right now in the moment. It also feels like we are getting to the essence of it more quickly.
Kurt: It’s the same but different. We are more on top of our rigs and setup. Since we are a full spectrum improvising unit naturally we want to bring everything we can think of to use in the music, so in the beginning we were setting up huge laboratories onstage right up until the doors opened and each of us was sweating and cursing and having meltdown. [Laughs]. Some of our sound checks must have been insane to watch if you had no idea what was going on; there would be hardly any music, just noises and stuff, checking stuff out making sure things worked. But no matter what, when we walked out and started it is always pure music. Now we have it more streamlined and we have a lot more experience touring as a band so we’ve mastered the technical process and innovations in each of our rigs. It’s a challenge not to fall into safe spaces we have established. I know I can do certain things that will work, and it’s good to have some areas you know you can go, but I think we all want to explore the unknown—like Star Trek.
Tim, you favor acoustic guitar, why?
Tim: I have a few solid body electrics (Strats, Teles, a Danelectro Baritone), but I always loved acoustic and classical guitars. I have a few nice ones. When I toured with Ursula Rucker (2001-2018), I used my acoustic-electric Takamine EF340SC. It gave me the versatility I needed for the material, and a unique sound for that project. As time went on, I found myself working more and more with contemporary dance, and the guitar became a vehicle for drumming, percussion, prepared guitar (utilizing clips on strings, bows, etc., all run through my pedalboard). I found this was in sync with what I was going for sonically. With looping, I could record rhythms, basslines, melodies, textural sounds, and chords. This all developed into a particular language for me. In my band, Orion Tango (on 1k Recordings), I use a Fender ’57 Strat, a Danelectro Baritone, and lots of fuzz and processing, so I still play electric solid bodies. Interestingly, because of working in the world of dance, I’ve developed a vocabulary on the electro-acoustic guitar with electronics that is probably closest to my voice. As a result I’ll play that guitar in a majority of musical settings. You can hear this on Searching the Continuum, and even more so on a few of my solo and duo records: Soak, Luminous; Convergence with Jeremy Carlstedt, and Rapture with Markus Reuter on 1k.
For this project you are using a thinner body acoustic electric with no sound hole. Which one and why?
Tim: For this band, the Godin Multiac steel string model seemed to be the best fit, since it also allows me to trigger the GR-33 guitar synthesizer. I’ve programmed new sounds and use it for strings, upright bass, and other more bizarre sounds I’ve created. It’s a great guitar, has a great sound, it plays like butter, and it’s a bit smaller for traveling and stowing in overheads of planes.
Which pitch shifter are you using for bass sounds?
Tim: I have a few different ways of getting bass sounds. One is through my Digitech Whammy pedal. Kurt suggested I add a Boss Super Octave, for chording so I have simultaneous octave-down bass and regular pitched notes. I really like that pedal. I used the EBS Octave pedal with Ursula Rucker. Finally, via the GR-33, I sometimes use an upright bass sound, or synth bass sounds, and double with my guitar sound.
What other processing do you use?
Tim: Bandit65 has loads of processing, even Gintas has a full pedal board. Aside from my GR-33 and Super Octave, I use three Eventide pedals: Space, PitchFactor, and H9. I use a Guyatone Overdrive, Paul Trombetta Burning Sensation Fuzz (a gift from David Torn), Red Panda Lab Tensor, Montreal Assembly Count to Five, Caitlinbread EcoRec, TC Electronics Ditto 2X, Pigtronix Infinity, a volume pedal, and sometimes a wah. My setup actually hasn’t changed much over the decades, just a few pedals here and there get swapped in and out.
Kurt, what is that guitar you are using in the videos? Which pickups are they?
Kurt: That is my signature series Westville Vanguard,guitar. The company is in Tokyo and I’ve been working with Masaki Nishimura for a number of years on it. The pickups are Kent Armstrong PAF’s. I love that guitar it’s so expressive and easy to play.
What are using for the synth-type sounds?
Kurt: I use the Fractal Audio Axe-FX 3, which I love so much! It’s got every effect known to man faithfully recreated inside the box and is a pleasure to use. I also use a Boss- OC-3 super octave for my bass sounds. I also use my ProCo RAT distortion.
Tim on playing with Kurt:
Kurt is a master musician who has left an undeniable mark on jazz guitar. He is an incredible soloist, harmonic genius, and brilliant composer. I think he is also one of the best comping guitarists in the world. I’ve never played with anyone better than him. His sense of harmony, chordal substitution and harmonic progressions, are totally his own; the way he sets up a soloist is at the highest level. I have the utmost respect for him, and don’t take it lightly. Every night I play with him, I feel I learn so much, and also how much work I need to do. On the other hand, I think our connection is amazingly profound, and in a sense, we are two sides of a circle. We are complete together, everything is covered. Each time we tour, I feel we evolve again musically. I am always trying to get into unknown territories for us to explore. It’s been a blast so far.