The David Torn Interview: Part 1

Guitarist David Torn has earned his place on the Guitar Moderne Pioneer banner through years of pursuing the outer reaches of the instrument’s sonic possibilities, through releases like Best Laid Plans, What Means Solid Traveller, Splattercell, and Prezens as well as collaborations with the likes of David Bowie, David Sylvian, and Meshell Ndegeocello. He has parlayed his talent for evocative textures into soundtrack work on films like Friday Night Lights, The Big Lebowski, Traffic, and Three Kings, as well as his Grammy-nominated score for The Order.

In honor of Torn’s new, completely solo record Only Sky [ECM] and the ensuing tour (see dates below) here is Part 1 of an epic, sprawling interview I began in Brooklyn last year and plan to continue in Baltimore this June. Also, look for my Guitar Player interview coming in June or July. Part 1 is highly edited but, I hope, still reflects Torn’s free-range approach to relating the details of his life in music.

David Torn Open Sky Tour Dates (Confirm before attending)

May 8 – New York, NY at Subculture

May 10 – Hamden, CT at The Ballroom at The Outer Space

May 11 – Marlboro, NY at The Falcon

May 12 – Dunellen, NJ at NJ Proghouse @ Roxy & Dukes

May 13 – Cambridge, MA at Regattabar

May 14 – Philadelphia, PA at Philadelphia Art Alliance

May 16 – Portland, OR at Holocene

May 17-18 – Seattle, WA at Storyville (Pike Place)

May 19 – San Francisco, CA at Slim’s

May 20 – Sacramento, CA at Gold Lion Arts

May 21 – Los Angeles, CA at Blue Whale

May 22 – Denver, CO at Walnut Room

May 26 – Minneapolis, MN at Cedar Cultural Center

May 27 – Milwaukee, WI at The Jazz Estate

May 29 – Chicago, IL at Constellation

May 30 – Cincinnati, OH at The Monastery

May 31 – Pittsburgh, PA  at  Club Café

June 1 – Washington DC at Union Arts

June 3 – Baltimore, MD at The Windup Space

June 4 – Carrboro, NC at Cat’s Cradle

June 6 – Asheville, NC at Streamside Concerts

June 7 – Atlanta, GA at Red Light Café

What do you use to record?

I use Logic most of the time, Pro Tools sometimes—it doesn’t really matter. But, there was a point where I decided not to upgrade to a 64-bit system because my plugin collection is massive, which is okay until you change over from a 32-bit system to a 64-bit system and nothing was ready. It took a year, and in some cases longer, before the 64-bit shit was ready for all of the plugins I use, so I said fuck it. Then I realized Logic was incapable of printing a QuickTime video with new audio in it in the 64-bit systems until version 10. It’s would take me a week to do the update, and then do I really want to chuck my hardware and move to the new Pro Tools? I’ve got so much tied up in the Pro Tools hardware. I’ve got two Aurora 16s with HD cards in them—a considerable investment. With the cards and everything that’s probably $7000 worth of hardware for the interfaces, not including the $25 or $35,000 in plugins I’ve got. (Laughs)

Unfortunately, now it’s really late and I need to update. Some things that are working in Logic now are way better than before—the same with Pro Tools—and I’m going to have to update all of it, which is going to take me days and cost me money. If I don’t plan that well, I could get screwed; I can never do it in the middle of a project. I’d have to move to an older system, a backup system, run that separately while the new system was being updated. I’m just some dude; this is not Hans Zimmer-land. I had an assistant, but he did not follow me from California to New York.

Why did you choose guitar as opposed to say, flute?

I didn’t really choose it. My dad worked designing stereo tube systems for Harmon Kardon, so we had a lot of music around the house. I was playing piano and drums. Mom decided one day I might be more interested in studying, something the kids were into, which was the guitar.

Drums didn’t qualify?

No, one day she plopped together a bunch of S&H Green Stamps she got when shopping at the supermarket; you’d collect these stamps and put them in a book. She got me a Kay acoustic nylon string guitar with Green Stamps and said, “Here’s a present, tell me if you like it.” I loved it, this mystery thing that was mine, no one else in the house had one. I had never touched one before. It had a little chord book that came with it, so I learned how to finger two or three chords and fell in love with it immediately. They put me into lessons, because that’s who my parents were—that’s what you do.

Did you start learning classical, or “Mary Had a Little Lamb?”

I started with Flamenco because they thought that was a good idea, and it probably was. [Laughs] But at that level of interest, I couldn’t really take the discipline for very long. I had a very good/cruel teacher. He was a harsh taskmaster and I was a kid whose mother handed him a guitar.

What did you do?

I studied until I asked my mother if I could play some other kind of guitar. She took me to a friend of theirs, a jazz guitar player named Frank Basil. He was the first teacher I bonded with over chord melodies, and stuff. He said, “Learn this Jobim song, and this Beatles tune, because I know you kids like the Beatles.” I did the Mel Bay books and stuff; it wasn’t really my choice. It was my mom who thought I had something going on musically.

So when you first became kind of proficient on it what was the first kind of music that you played?

It was with Frank: chord melody stuff, whatever was in the Mel Bay book. At the time my dad had Wes Montgomery records: Wes with Jimmy Smith, Wes’s Beatles record, also Django Reinhardt, show tunes, and Leonard Bernstein, who I’d already done a course with.

Leonard Bernstein?

This goes back before the guitar; my mom thought something was going on with me musically, so she enrolled me in the Music for Young Composers series at Lincoln Center in New York.

Were you picking up stuff by ear from all the music around the house?

Yeah, and I could read; I didn’t know you could play without reading except for the improvising stuff I learned about early on. My dad said to me one day, “Why don’t you get a couple records of your own?” I just randomly bought a bunch of records based on the covers; I had no idea. It was Jimi Hendrix Axis Bold as Love, a Doors record, maybe Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper’s Super Session, a Led Zeppelin record, which I didn’t love, but I knew my friends appeared to love, a Grateful Dead record, a live Johnny Winter record, and Shuggie Otis. [Laughs] Totally random—I had no clue.

It was hard to go wrong in those days.

We didn’t have the Wes’ Day in the Life, but I knew his name, so I bought that record because he was someone my dad already had, and it was a Beatles thing.

When did you start the acoustic, how old were you?

I must have been somewhere between eleven and thirteen. I was in sixth grade, still playing drums in the school band, and still studying piano.

When did you first start playing with bands, with other people?

Pre-high school. I was in sixth grade when I was invited to a jam session. My dad thought I should get an electric, and was doing pretty well at that time, so he took me to a shop and I picked the red one [laughter]—it was a Fender Mustang. My dad got the cheapest tube amp he could: he looked in the back, like a good tube designer, and picked the Fender Champ without reverb.

My percussionist friend Geoff Gordon, who passed away two years ago, asked me to come over and play with him. He was the drummer in elementary school band before me. He heard I had been playing guitar. He had to convince me to play, because I said, “What are we going to do?” He said, “We’ll jam.” I said, “What do you mean,” and he said, “Well, we can play some of these songs.” He said something about Cream, so I bought a Cream record. I don’t even know what we played.

But had you already learned the chord melodies?

I moved fast, I moved through the Mel Bay books quickly. I didn’t really have anything else I was interested in. I was not an outgoing kid by any stretch of the imagination. I was very sort of isolated in school and socially, in a lot of ways.

What was your first serious band? Was that before the Everyman Band, or…?

It was this band with Geoff Gordon, we had a sort of psychedelic band called Groundling Heath, but before that I was playing with kids in my neighborhood and we did Battles of the Band type-things.

Were you in Long Island at this time?

I was in Wantagh, right above Jones Beach. There was a real serious musician, younger than me, a couple of towns away who said, “We’re having a Battle of the Bands. Can you join our band?” I started hanging out at his house and staying there a lot, I couldn’t have been more than fourteen. That was Robbie Kaplan, who is now the head of the Music for Dance program at the University of Arizona, still a really good friend of mine, and we started the Zobo Funn Band, which became something very popular in a different format ten years after that.

From there, did you end up in Ithaca or upstate?

Zobo Funn Band was happening and I was also in another “psychedelic” band at the time. I was also playing with these guys were much older than me in a pop band, where I was the lead singer. I kind of freaked out around fifteen and a half or so; I loved playing, but hated the social aspect of it. I couldn’t handle the people looking at me all the time, or needing to interact with people in a social way.  It was amplified by my introduction to every drug known to middle-class America.

This was not the way I wanted to deal with music and nothing was musically interesting to me. It’s not so much I didn’t like it, as I couldn’t interact with people in any kind of normal way. It scared the shit out of me, and yet here I was playing with these guys ten years older than me and into way heavier drugs than I wanted to be. I bailed out; I decided—you’re fifteen and a half, you better get your shit together [Laughs].

My home life was not really great during my teenage years for a variety of reasons. I loved my mother and love my dad, but there were some very difficult things that were hard to deal with as a kid. At around fifteen and a half I kept playing, but stopped playing in public or gigs. By the time I was sixteen, I only played with friends, jammed once in a while, played for myself, and was constantly looking for music I thought was interesting. I started to discover a little more of the jazz side of things. I decided to take another path and get my head together.

Backing up for a minute, when you were studying the guitar were you studying improvisation, or was it just learning tunes?

I knew something about theory and harmony. Not huge amounts, but enough to know what was what. My next big wow moment, was hearing things that electrified me from a sonic and a musical perspective.

In the jam bands, were you basically just doing the one chord jam thing?

Yeah, pretty much just using that as an excuse to explore. I put a lot into thinking into how enjoyable improv was from a piano perspective, way early on, because I started studying piano at six or seven. I found the materials I studied boring. My mom was a pretty good player so I had to have ways to trick her into thinking that I was actually practicing lessons. I found a way to practice the etudes that I had, and then figured out how to work that into an improvisation that was smooth enough that she didn’t realize I was off the book and was just having fun exploring.

I was developing this discipline to do something, but as soon as I saw I could do it—not that I was great at it—I immediately became bored. That set a pattern in my study—except for with Frank Basil who was very strict about making sure that my lessons were adhered to. He was one of the teachers who commanded my respect. He called me on my bullshit.

 So now you’re sixteen and you’re retired from music.

I decided to look at other things that interested me. I decided to leave home and came and went a couple of times. I couldn’t stay in school; I went to a couple different high schools, but I’m an avid reader. I was interested in philosophy and philosophy of religion. It didn’t separate me from playing music at all, but that’s what I was pursuing for a couple of years. I didn’t really play in bands too much until I was about nineteen or twenty.

I’ve always had relatively strange and intense health problems, starting very early in my life, like shingles on my head when I was fifteen. I had hepatitis, which is why I moved back into my parent’s house. They were glad to have me back. I finished high school from the sick bed. I got a GED; otherwise I wouldn’t have had a high school diploma, which would have made my parents feel pretty bad.

I spent this period of time studying philosophy of religion and religion in general. I pursued a couple of specific paths for myself that required a lot of discipline, until I was about twenty. When I was at home, my grandmother, who was somewhat mysterious to me, left me a couple of thousand dollars. In 1971 that seemed like a fortune. My dad said, “You’re kind of weird and don’t really seem together. I’m not sure about this drug stuff, but there’s this money that came from my mother and I’d like you to go to college with it. You’re getting a GED, you could probably go somewhere.” I said, “I don’t want to, but I do want to go to the north of India to see these teachers.” He said, “First pick a school,” so we picked Berkelee. He said, “You can take, five hundred bucks out of this two thousand. If you can get to India and back God bless you.” [Laughs].

I ended up staying overseas for pretty close to a year and then came back and went to Berklee. I took two semesters and didn’t do very well. Not because I couldn’t handle the material, but because I was late every day to every class—every single day. My best teachers said, “Testing-wise you’re doing fine, but you can’t do this. I don’t care how good your grades are, what you’re writing or whatever.” And I’d say, “I’m trying, but I have all this stuff I have to do every morning, and it takes time.”

Was this the religious stuff?

It wasn’t really religious at that point; it was more about meditation practices, and study. I wanted to continue it. It took hours in the morning. And basically I was your twisted fuckup. I ended up getting a lot done, not really enjoying the social aspect again—I didn’t enjoy being around all these musicians. It was really competitive.

Who was there around that time?

It was just pre-Frisell, or we crossed over with each other. All the guitar players were a drag as far as I was concerned, except one guitar player, Jeff Richmond, who I loved. He lives and teaches in LA. He’s a really, really sweet guy. Other than him, it was all about what you’re transcribing and how well you can spit back “Donna Lee” or how fast can you play “Giant Steps.” All that bullshit macho shit that ended up the only real bad part of the challenge of the pop and post-pop era. Beautiful things occurred and then it became academicized when middle class white America took it the wrong way. [Laughs]

I think about this stuff a lot. I might have an opportunity for a university spot, and if I do, even if it’s just for a composer’s residency, I think I’m going to do it. I’ve influenced a lot of people who will never speak about the actual concrete musical influence that I’ve had on them, either technically or conceptually. There are other people who are pissed at me for not mentioning Robert Fripp in looping. I always enjoyed his looping stuff, but Terry Riley is where I’m coming from. I would be nothing without these guys like this. I feel like this lack of educational specifics in communication with musicians damages the tradition of music. It is an oral tradition—we tell stories. Tell the fucking truth about who you are, where you came from, whom you studied from, why, what it was about? None of us are going to be big rock stars. Do you want a couple of million dollars to throw in the bank, power, and adulation? For what? Don’t you want to make music? Tell the truth and lay it out there. I really feel like this is tied into the nature of what’s happening in the culture as the result of the way we communicate or don’t over the Internet. I feel like there’s been this huge push to kind of equalize everything.

There’s no history anymore.

We just let the history go.

What are we recycling right now? Last week? The roots don’t go back any farther than a year ago.

As a kid we all identify with music as a part of our social life more than a part of our inner life. We use it as a social identifier. When Elijah [Torn’s son] was young, we used to have this talk all the time. We would talk about where that person came from. If they can’t tell you, find out for yourself. You want to know where the root of something is, where did this guy come from; no one arrives in music in a vacuum. It’s a community tradition.

I’ve been very careful about making sure that I mention people I stole from. I wouldn’t exist in any way without so many of them. I can’t count them. Who’s your favorite guitarist? How can I have a favorite guitarist when I stole from everybody?

Moving along the time line, you’re back into music now, where did the Everyman Band start?

At Berkelee, I fucked up, I didn’t get credit for my double semester; I took all my finals and did very well, but none of them were credited because I was chronically late for everything. This is not a good example for anyone.

I was invited to rejoin the Zobo Funn Band back in New York, with a different setup. It was Robbie, Geoff Gordon, Michael Wellen playing drums, and me. Robbie Kaplan was playing keyboards, who was one of the prime movers in pushing me towards the art side of music all throughout my youth—the original Zobo Funn band guy.

I met my future wife right before I left the country. When I came back we started getting together, she moved in with me at Berklee. I got the call from Geoff while I was at Berkelee to come back to New York. We found a cheap apartment in somebody’s house—it wasn’t even a separate entrance—and I started rehearsing with the band. We decided within a couple of weeks it was really great, and everybody liked each other.

Somebody said we’d better go up to Ithaca where we can afford to develop this. The singer, Jeremy Worbin, who passed away ten or twelve years ago, went to Ithaca College. It’s a great town, lots of students, lot of music, alternative culture, and all kinds of art stuff. Four of us, including my wife, drove up to Ithaca and looked at houses. A couple of days later we moved to this place in the country, as if that were okay. [Laughter]

How would you describe that music? Avant-pop?

It was a fusion band in a very pure sense. There were influences from everywhere: art music, jazz, and really adventurous rock. Michael Wellen was studying at the University of Buffalo and was in one of the first percussion groups to play Terry Riley. There was the pop singer-songwriter Jeremy, who was pure intuition and had amazingly open ears.

The band apparently became an excuse for me to take solos, which I only learned from them a year ago and it hurt my feelings a little bit. I felt like I did something wrong, but I got to explore a lot and we made great music. We had a lot of dealings with the big record industry because we had a huge following. It was a real mélange of very different approaches to music.

I was in Ithaca for six and a half years, also playing with country bands, doing pedal steel sessions, and playing jazz. I would spend Tuesday nights playing bop, and then the Zobo Funn would play once or twice a week, crazy insane gigs with hundreds and hundreds of people.

So you got a lot of cursory attention from major labels but nobody was ready to go for it?

Well, people were ready. We actually got money from a series of people. My dad had another period of making money and I borrowed money from him to make these demos. He had a friend who was in the business and they actually invested. It wasn’t much, but they put a record date together for us. We had development money from at least one label based on the demos that were made.

One day, towards the end of the Zobo Funn Band, near the birth of my first son, my wife felt we’d better get out of this town. She loved the band but wondered how could I do this for the rest of my life? She felt if I was that good I had to do something with it or else die here. I’d been making all the money. She looked at me and said, “You’re a depressed, and this is not going well. What are you doing washing dishes at five, six o’clock in the morning at a breakfast diner when you’re playing all of these gigs? We’re not making enough money to live and you’re going to end up killing yourself. You’ve got to do something.”

In the middle of this, a cocky guy comes up to me at a gig and says he plays with Lou Reed and Don Cherry. Later, I get a phone call from him saying, “Don Cherry wants you to play with us, can you come over and jam? We’ve got this ten week tour and the keyboard player can’t make it for the first two or three weeks.” I went, “Sure, I’ll come out.”

Come out to where?

It was way out in the sticks in upstate New York. I go up there, jam, and they say, “Let’s play a gig.” We play the gig and I was free to roam. It was Ornette’s book and Don Cherry’s book mostly, and some original material that was challenging. There was this friction in the band that was a drag, but people said it was cool and I liked that. Then one day he said, “Don Cherry wants you to come on tour, can you get your passport together in a week?” And I went for it.

Initially, you were playing with these guys but Don Cherry wasn’t there?

Yeah, we played two or three gigs together and a couple of jam sessions. There was a pause, and suddenly it’s we’ll meet you in London. It was amazing, hanging around with that crew of people, all these punk groups in England in 1979: the Slits, Prince Hammer, Creation, Ian Drury, and playing with Don for punk audiences in a loud electric band. Don was encouraging me to do things I’ve been doing anyway, saying, “This is your shit, you’re not really a guitar player, don’t worry about the guitar, just make these sounds, do whatever you need to do.”

So had you already been getting into effects and sounds at that point?

Oh yeah, way earlier: ’72, ’73. My reintroduction to wanting to play music again was hearing John McLaughlin play on Jack Johnson, and then Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Take me through the sonic evolution: after your Mustang, what was next?

I did a little bit of teaching when I was fifteen, and this kid lent me a guitar he never wanted back, a lightweight Stratocaster. I also had a little acoustic and a lap steel. After Berkelee, I still had his Stratocaster and I had my old, totally hollow, Gibson ES350T, the second guitar that I ever bought, which I still own.

What were some of the first effects that you got into?

Everything. [Laughter]  Feedback, at first, also I was transposing stuff with the whammy bar around ’73, ’74. I had a friend in Ithaca at that time, an incredible guitar player, Chad McLaughlin. It was conversations with him that drove me back to my house one day to go what happens when I do this? What happens if I let the vibrato bridge tip forward a little bit, what happens if we route something out from the back so I can pull the thing up a little bit further?

I figured out all the transpositions for a 25″ scale guitar and realized the best thing would be for the B string to go up a little more than minor third. There’s a certain extremity that you get beyond the typical method where the B string goes up a half step and the G goes up a whole step and you get that one bend. If I took the bend further—you have to route out the guitar for that to occur—I could get a series of parallel transpositions that allowed me to stop playing pedal steel guitar. Getting those effects around ’74 was the big deal for me.

Which effects did you start getting after feedback?

Early in high school, somebody gave me a fuzzbox or something, for playing Iron Butterfly or something like that. It could have been a Guild Foxey Lady.

By the time you’re with the Everyman Band and Don Cherry what kind of stuff were you doing?

I got into a gearhead thing, where I would see something I might be able to be doing sonically, and I would do everything I could to get whatever I needed to do that. I bought the first ARP Avatar because Bob Moog was my next-door neighbor in Trumansberg, near Ithaca. He came to see my band quite a lot. Chris Swanson, one of the great Moog guys, lived on the corner. Bob had mentioned something about the ARP and there was a thing in a magazine about a special showing of this box in New York City. I drove six and a half hours by myself to this store to see this thing. I said to the guy, “I want one of those.”

Was that the one where you plugged in the guitar?

Yeah, you put the special pickup on.

Were you using that with Don Cherry?

No, within a year and a half I had stopped using it.

So you were using it in the Zobo Funn Band?

Yeah, I kept trying. I did a recording with a friend of mine who was into electronic music, Andrew Schlesinger. We used it a lot on the material that we did together.

That was monophonic?

That was a monophonic instrument, except when you used the hex pickup fuzz, which was really interesting. You could process it through the filter and the envelopes. It was the beginning of fifteen years of frustration, thinking synth guitar might be the way forward. There was a certain point where I made a tremendous realization that it was exactly the opposite of what I want.

In what sense?

I was frustrated, although it was a lot of fun and I did go back to it many times with the Stepp guitar and the Yamaha G10. I was trying to play violin parts for somebody on onstage and it’s kind of like, dude, I’m a fucking guitar player. For me it’s about doing shit wrong; not about doing shit right. There’s something really beautiful about the horrific nature of the guitar, how dirty it is, how we came to love it even more when things were going wrong with it, and the techniques you develop to work with that. Some things you do on the guitar to get your personality through are secret; they can be so idiosyncratic. I’m really deeply influenced by Bob Moog’s ideas about the problems of electronic music. The problem of the development of the human input into electronic music, and the nuance that can be translated from one world to another, especially where you’re narrowing the creative formula to get to something that’s supposed to end up being broader.

Do you play keyboards?

I’m more interesting harmonically as a guitar player than as a pianist by a long shot. I’ve actually been slowly starting to transcribe things I write on guitar, trying to find ways to get the voicings into instruments other than guitar. So I transcribe, play it on the keyboard to see how I can make it work on piano, It would be a hell of a lot faster for me, playing it in on guitar.

What kind of stuff were you using on the Don Cherry gig?

I had a couple pedals. I don’t think I had much.

Was it more your guitar techniques that interested him?

Yeah—I had already begun doing the microtonal stuff with the pick, the bowing effects. I was sticking things between the strings, and to be honest I didn’t know that people were doing these things. A lot of people developed the same things in parallel—I didn’t know about Derek Bailey. I had heard Sonny Sharrock. It didn’t really come into focus for me that the prepared stuff was a thing until we came back into New York City in ’80, and I saw Fred Frith play with a bunch of treated instruments.

With Don I had begun tapping. As soon as I heard Harvey Mandel do it, I learned that technique. A guy in Rochester played me Mandel’s Shangrenade and I went, “What the hell is he doing? I’m going to learn that.” I might have been doing the tapping thing a little bit in ’79. I had this terrible Allan Holdsworth boner [laughs]; him and McLaughlin were so far advanced to me, conceptually, beyond anybody else. Allan’s thing stuck with me because of the vibrato, and I needed to make this whammy bar work for me. I love the fluid, legato large intervallic leaps Allan does. I copied that for a while, and it was hard to break away from it.

One of the hardest things is to feel you’ve broken away enough so that person is now an influence—you’re not trying to be them. That’s so fucking difficult. It’s almost masochistic how much it can hurt to do that, because you never can then be good enough for yourself.

You mean you can’t if you’re trying to be them?

When you realize that you can’t be them and shouldn’t be them, there is something else you can be, but you don’t know what it is. That “self-breaking” was probably the boldest thing, the hardest thing I have ever done, and still do. Not because I think it’s better, but because I think it’s more satisfying, musically, when moments are achieved where I’m just relaxed, being me, bad or good. I’m going to do my best, but it could be bad.

I’m fascinated by that. I’m writing a whole book about this, about developing your own voice and all the issues that are around it.

I think it’s a question of knowing whoever comes after you, whoever’s influenced by you, there’s going to be a declension or an ascension from it into something else—there’s progression. There’s evolution because music is a traditionalist continuum, no matter how new your shit is or isn’t. Most people who do develop their own voice are never satisfied, because there’s always something you think you can do better.

I think that’s an artist thing in general. A true artist is never satisfied. It’s all about becoming, not being.

You can respect things, and you can even love them sometimes but you can’t become attached to them as anything other than something that occurred in the past [Laughs]. The boldest thing I ever did was when I admitted okay, that’s too much of this guy. What do you need from it? Now push this element—do you want to keep using it or drop it? Or morph it into something that makes sense to your own body language? The combination of your body language and whatever it is you’re hearing in your head. I don’t think I ever did anything brave with music that didn’t include making me feel like I wasn’t good enough. I had to include knowing that I wasn’t good enough.

 Well, at that point aren’t you the only arbiter? When you’re playing like someone else then you’re pre-approved. Everybody loves Allan Holdsworth so if you sound like Allan Holdsworth you know you’re good enough because everybody loves Allan Holdsworth. But if it’s you, you don’t know.

I guess that’s the egotism thing. It’s kind of like this weird double-edged sword and it’s like the ultimate act of ego, at the same time as an act of ego it’s pointless. I think for me it’s pointless because I don’t believe I’m ever really going to be the good that I could have been. [Laughs]

It’s always the point in the distance.

It’s over there—and I prefer it in a way because it means I might do something great one day, and maybe I won’t ever find that out. Maybe I’ll find out after I’m dead [Laughs].

But then again if you got there, then what?

It feels so good when there are those musical moments that can occur, like everything else in life, from struggle. There’s no feeling like that feeling of creation: at the same time you’re fully responsible for it, you also feel like there’s something that is in fact greater than you. It’s a force, it’s not God or something holy or whatever, it’s just something that bonds you to the universe and takes the outside edge of the ego for a second and dissipates it—then you’re back to wherever you were. I don’t think there’s anything like that and I don’t think there’s a bolder move.

Guitar is a popular instrument, it was a folk instrument and it was revolutionized in the Twentieth century. It was a long-term folk instrument that somehow ended up being altered forever by electricity.

Talking about a voice on the instrument, I think about the revolution in the ’70s, around the time you were at Berkelee or a little after. Abercrombie was probably there, around the time you were there?

He must have been just leaving. He was the guy I went to, having gone through a whole bunch of really great teachers in my 20s, knowing I wasn’t good enough, knowing I needed more, to learn more. John was the guy I went to and said please give me lessons. He said, “What do you need to know?” I said, “A lot.” [Laughter]

If you take that period—Abercrombie, Frisell, Scofield, Stern, Metheny, and you—that’s six of the great guitar players of all time coming out of roughly the same six, seven-year period, and they all sound entirely different. And they all sound exactly like themselves.

Scofield and Abercrombie were together, Frisell was my contemporary, and although I might in some ways be a little ahead of Bill’s curve age-wise, in terms of movement on the instrument, Stern, me, Frisell, we’re the same.

Yeah, you’re part of that continuum.

But John Abercrombie is a predecessor. He is, for me, one of the key guitar players of that period. What he was doing in those days said he knows who Holdsworth is; he knows what McLaughlin was doing. He’ done be-bop, but he wasn’t doing be-bop anymore. He was making original music. That Lookout Farm shit blew my mind: him, Dave Liebman, Richard Beirach, Jeff Williams, and those people really turned me around. There were these groups like Stone Alliance with Don Alias and Steve Grossman, The Paul Bley Electric with the record that he dismisses forever.

The live one at Sweet Basil’s with Abercrombie?

No, Paul Bley & Scorpio with Dave Holland playing upright bass with effects, and Barry Altschul playing drums. The records from that period—Miles, Ornette, and Dolphy. But there were guys on guitar in that period who were doing things where I knew they’d listened to Holdsworth, they knew who Wes, Django, Charlie Christian, and Van Epps were, but they were each doing their own thing. I thought that’s the shit, that’s who I have to study with. I went to Pat Martino for one long day of lessons with him, but John Abercrombie really was the guy for me.

Did you turn a corner into doing your own stuff with Don Cherry?

I think I had actually turned a part of that corner a long time before that, but you have to go through these periods where you’re copying the greats. You really have to copy something or other; it can be anything that strikes you. For me it was Allan’s fluidity and ability to move through a series of close harmonic structures, using a huge width, rather than thinking of it in a little box. I knew I had to make him go away.

I still go back and listen to Alvino Rey, who was one of my first early influences on guitar, before I started playing guitar, fucking Alvino on the Lawrence Welk Show.

The steel player?

With the talking steel, dude, it blew my mind. I remember being a kid and going, what the hell, is this a joke? What is that, how is he making that sound? You’ve got to go through those things, everybody does.

Did you actually play with Lou Reed at one point?

I never did, no. Everyman Band became a band of its own, with me in it, without the keyboard player. I did the two weeks in England and Scotland with Don, and a couple of days before the two weeks were over he asked if I could stay for the rest of the tour. I said, “My wife has a baby.” He said, “You can bring her along if you want to.” I did the rest of the tour, and along that way we actually did a live record in Paris that has never been seen nor released by anyone anywhere.

That’s too bad.

There’s one video of us playing somewhere in Paris that’s not that gig. People started getting excited about Don’s electric band. Trilok Gurtu was playing with us, Bengt Berger was playing with us, and Michael Sikorsky was playing with the band. When Michael wasn’t there it was either Trilok or Bengt so there was this connection to ECM.

I think the Everyman Band had a little more influence than its commercial lack of success would indicate. Someday somebody might notice that: I know a lot of guitar players that were influenced by that shit. The first time I met Tim Berne was with Bill Frisell, when we were playing in Seattle. Tim told me later that Frisell was standing in the back while were doing sound-check and he’s going, “What the f—how is he—what is that? How does he make that?”

So that was your first connection with ECM. And did that result in the solo record, the first one?

No, it resulted in the Everyman Band records. We did two records. It was agreed to very, very quickly, and then the bass player was in an elevator accident in which his hand was damaged. We decided to get a different bass player at first, but it was a personality-based band. How were we going to be the same band with a different person? We put it off for fourteen months or fifteen months.

Until he healed?

He went to the best hand therapist possible and got enough of his function back to come back and play. So we waited. It was unfortunate, because we were all so hot and young and ready to go. I had another gig at the time, working for my dad during the day, here in Queens, NY, and then started playing with Mick Ronson up in Woodstock around 1980 or so. That was fantastic, a totally different kind of musical experience, which I like.

You were doing a rock and roll thing with him?

I said, “Do you want me to play lead guitar?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, you play all the leads, man.” I said, “No, you’re Mick Ronson!” He goes, “No, no, you play the leads, man, it’s good.” So I joined this band, it was really fun.

Was it ever recorded?

It must be recorded. We didn’t go into the studio. We did maybe five gigs with Mick and twenty without him. Wells Kelly playing drums, Frank Campbell playing bass, I was replacing Shane Fontane.

Is that how you got up into the Woodstock area?

After we came back to New York, we ended up moving back into the country, for personal reasons and also because I was playing there and my wife liked it there.

Then you did the two Everyman Band records and toured with that?

We did the two, and in the middle of that Manfred Eicher said I’d like you to do a solo project. I said, “There are people I’d really like to play with. I know this guy, Tony Levin; he plays in all these other bands. I’d really like to do something with him playing this thing called the Stick, maybe a little tuba or French horn, and bass synth. Could I ask Jack Dejohnette to play drums and have a trio?” Manfred said, “Yes, of course, that would be a great project, I’d love that.” I asked everybody, and they said yes.

Tony was in but Jack was difficult; he had agreed to do it, I thought. I talked to him when he was playing in a club with a lot of heavy guys and he was a little intimidating to me because he was such a great player. I get intimidated by great musicians. Everybody does.

He’s beyond great. He’s legendary.

Dude, to me he was gigantic. He was on so many records I had collected, so every time I talked to him I felt like a little kid. I went and talked to him and it seemed like he didn’t give a shit, like he didn’t remember talking to me. We went to a bar and he said, “We’ve talked about this?” I said, “Yeah, we’ve talked several times about doing this record with ECM.

I ended up calling Manfred and saying I’m going to do something else. He said, “Sure, whatever you want.” I called up my old friend Geoff Gordon, the first guy I ever played music with, and did my first record with him, Best Laid Plans. We had a history of doing all kinds of improv together. I had a trio with him while we were in Ithaca around ’74 called the Wheel Trio, which was a hundred percent improvised. It was me, Geoff and Carry Josephs playing upright bass. It was always a huge relief to me, with all the other stuff I was doing, to have this improv group. I knew we could suck on any given night, but we were going to die trying! [Laughter]

That’s the nature of the beast.

So then Best Laid Plans happened. Manfred really liked it and said, “Let’s do another one. I told him, “I’m not ready for that, but when I am I’ll tell you.” I called him around a year and a half later and said, “I’d really like to go back to the idea of a band playing music I’ve conceptualized out of the looping.” I had wondered why, if I’m doing all this looping all of the time, am I not writing stuff that uses it as a part of the music? Why am I treating it like it’s an effect? I put it in everything I play, but I’m not writing music with it.

Had you been doing it in Everyman Band?

I don’t think I looped too much with the Everyman Band. It was not part of my mindset.

Were you just doing it at home, or doing it as part of separate performances?

Yeah, and in these various studio things I would do, and with Jan Garbarek. I started in ’84, because I did almost three years with him. When Bill Frisell left, right after Paths, Prints was made.

You doing the looping with him so you finally decided you wanted to put it on the record?

I started the looping stuff actually in 1980-8, when Gary Hall built me that first PCM 42 with the expanded memory. He was the designer of the Lexicon JamMan, my friend, and a major supporter. He brought me into Lexicon to advise on all these different projects. I don’t remember using it in public until maybe Jan’s band.

End of Part I


16 thoughts on “The David Torn Interview: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Guitar Moderne Festival XIV | guitar moderne

  2. Pingback: The David Torn Interview: Part II | guitar moderne

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  4. This interview is absolutely fantastic, David is an incredible artist and musician. I lived in Ithaca for a few years and has the good fortune to meet David and chat on a couple of occasions, I remember the scene in Ithaca was SO vibrant! While living there I studied guitar with Chad McLoughlin, whom David mentions in this interview. I too remember Chad’s enthusiasm regarding the subtleties of the instrument and how a simple thing like bypassing a tone control could drastically alter the sound of the guitar.

    Looking forward to part II, Is it ready yet???

    How ’bout now???

  5. Dear Michael, Thanks a lot for a great and super interesting interview. I have been a big Torn fan for thirty years, looking forward to hear the new record, and also reading the second part of the interview.

  6. Great interview, can’t wait for the rest. Michael, when is your book coming out? Put me down for a copy, sounds very interesting!

  7. It is a wonderful thing to hear artists not only talk about their mature influences, but their childhood ones as well. So many interviewees only scratch the surface of what makes them who they are (choosing rather to only mention what’s trendy, cool, and current). But DT is a real human being, not a cardboard cut-out, and a true original. It was really a joy for me to hear (at some depth) about his early experiences with music and the guitar – and with a candid kind of humility you don’t get from other giants of the instrument. Thanks!

  8. Thanks for this great interview Michael and David, so much great insight in to the creative process, can’t wait to hear the new music and Im hoping to catch him on his west coast tour. DT has always been an enormously inspiring musician for me, and Im really looking forward to part 2.

  9. This is super. I got an advance of the new record, and it is just great, very much the record I’ve wanted him to record for awhile, catching up with the balancing act between his instrumental fluency and his interest in ambient texture.

  10. Whoah! This is by far the most detailed interview with Torn I’ve ever seen. I also started on an S&H green stamp guitar, but it was so terrible that’s where I stopped for a few years, too.

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