In May of 2014 I conducted an extensive interview with David Torn in Brooklyn. I finally got it transcribed and posted in January of 2015. People have since wondered what happened to Part II.
In June of 2015, I went to the Baltimore/Washington DC area to catch two shows of David’s 2015 solo tour. On a day off between shows we met in his Baltimore hotel room for another marathon interview. I finally had it transcribed in September of 2015. Reading the transcription, I felt honored that David was comfortable enough to be extremely candid about many aspects of his life and career, but I worried that he might regret some of his more intimate revelations and opinions. Over the next year and a half I tried to figure out a way to let him edit out anything that made him uncomfortable, but a busy schedule seemed to preclude this. Ultimately, I used my own judgment in deciding what to remove and what to leave in. The result includes great stories, information about his process, gear, and the health issues that he has made public—plus a bonanza of newly posted video, including some of him playing with talented his son Elijah B. Enjoy.
What are the controls on your Ronin?
There are three buttons. The third button, the interrupter, the one that cuts the signal out, was never finished. The Saul Koll guitar has not only an output jack, but also an input jack. If something is plugged into the input jack, it interrupts the output of the guitar’s pickups with whatever is being presented at the input. Whatever it is will pass through the guitar amp. I started that concept in 1996 or 1997 when I used to carry this little Indian drum machine, the Riyaz Master Pro, around with me. I’d pull the guitar jack out and plug it in to the Riyaz Master Pro. You could do impossible tempos, from the slowest thing you’ve ever heard to the fastest. There was a pitch changer on it as well. It was great for going through the guitar amp for an additional kind of looping.
All this started in 1990-something when I had seen the Japanese artist Toshimaru Nakamura, whose instrument was no-input mixer. I thought, “This is my world: feedback of all styles.” I did a bunch of my own very minor experiments with what he was doing with the mixer; how it worked, how different impedance interrupters in the circuit would affect the tone and timbre of the voice manipulated with the controls that were in the line. That’s how the feedback circuit works.
I played around with it enough to realize how enjoyable it was, and then thought, “While I’m doing this input, why don’t I make a feedback loop with the guitar amp?” The first thing I did, when Saul built me the first Koll, was plug the line output of the amplifier back in to the input of the guitar, to see how far I could take that. When the interruption occurs, it occurs in the same playback source as the original signal—the guitar amplifier, so they are fully capable of interrupting each other.
It doesn’t work that great depending on the level and impedances, because as soon as you plug the feedback circuit in, there’s no way it can’t leak back. I couldn’t isolate the signal to actually have it not be a feedback loop, even when the effect was off. I didn’t completely bail on the idea of doing it. I still play with those things, but never have it plugged in at a gig. I occasionally played with another kind of feedback, where you’re actually bringing the pickups close into the output transformer of the amp. You could get and control pitches by proximity and the angle of incidence of the pickups to the output transformer, but it’s too subtle and too hard to control on gigs.
As opposed the feedback you get from the speakers?
It’s a completely different type of feedback. You’re feeding back at a way different point in the circuit. If you come really close to the speaker cone with your pickup, you start to get that kind of feedback as well. But it’s not quite as pronounced as when you’re right up against the output transformer. I spent a couple of weeks once in the late ’90s or early 2000’s practicing playing simple scales—like a Theremin. How much can I control this? How useful would it be? My point of decision-making is always, “Will I be able to integrate this to the point where I can not think about it?” If it’s not integrated, if it’s suddenly an outside force, you are never going to internalize it the same way you do an instrument. With an instrument, you go to sleep and hear and see a vision of a chord you’re playing and visualize what you’re playing on the neck of the instrument—that is being an instrumentalist. Your body becomes the instrument because you’ve got so much visualization going on. That’s natural. You don’t have to study it; you just do it. You can just hear things, like an original melody when you’re in the shower. It’s that kind of internalization. So, I had to define what’s useful and is capable of integrating fully without being a trick or added attraction.
How do you decide? You obviously have to put a certain amount of work into whatever it is to get it to that point. How do you know when you’ve reached point where this is never going to be internalized to where I can use it?
It’s completely based on your current desire. Maybe there’s something I’m not seeing yet, but I get to the point of, “This is everything I can see now. I’m not going to work on this anymore.” It’s the same as the day I stopped playing pedal steel guitar; not because I don’t love the instrument, but because there was a moment where I thought I could be a country pedal steel guitar player and discovered I wasn’t.
You’ve seen how much more time it’s going to take to do this, and would rather to devote that time to something else.
Yeah, in the case of things like the feedback, you look at the amount of work it might entail to get to the point of integration. I spent two weeks playing with this, and hurt my ears quite a few times figuring out how to control the volume of the amplifier. It really had to depend on attenuators, which I wasn’t doing when I first started. I thought, “There could be something there, but I’m not seeing it now so I should be happy with the shit I have, like regular feedback, fuzzes, and all these other things.”
It might not be something you would pull out on stage but might use in the studio.
I still play with it in the studio because there are times where you suddenly just want something that’s really different. I wish we had an amp here, I could show it to you. It’s something you’ve done or has happened to you, but you didn’t try to control it.
Could we try to pick up more or less where we left off last time? I think we left off with Everyman Band. You had already done the record with Geoffrey Gordon for ECM. What was the next ECM record after Everyman Band?
There was the first Everyman Band: the gray, black, and red cover.
Did the bass player hurt himself after the first one?
No, it was before the first one. He was back. We did a bunch of gigs in Europe, including an exciting bunch of festivals in Holland, Copenhagen, and Norway. There was a second ECM Everyman Band record, Without Warning. Manfred produced it, but Hans Wendl came to the sessions. We did it in Bearsville with Mark McKenna engineering. We toured again playing that material. We were always playing gigs in upstate New York.
What year are we talking about now?
We must be in the early ’80s; the first Everyman record came out in ’81. The second one must have come out in the end of ’82 or ’83, something like that. And then, I did Best Laid Plans in ’83 or ’84.
Was Best Laid Plans with ECM?
Yeah. I joined the Jan Garbarek band after Bill Frisell left. I did only one record with Jan, It’s Okay To Listen To the Gray Voice. It was very different than the live band, which confused me a little at the time.
In what way was it different?
It was much less aggressive.
I saw the live band at the Great American Music Hall. You had a guy playing cocktail drums.
It was Kurt Wortman on electronic cocktail drums.
Eberhard Weber was playing bass.
He was always in the band. I know that record is important to some people and I like it, but it was very different from the way the band improvised live. More aggressive may be overstating it, but it was certainly less reserved. The record was a bit more careful, which confused me. I was in that band for two, maybe three years, but we only did the one record.
The last time we spoke, you said that it was in that band you started live looping.
I was definitely like letting it show more. On Best Laid Plans, I’m using very long delays. At the time, equipment-wise, I was thinking like a jazz player, where you can’t travel with anything of your own. I thought it was a bad idea to travel with your amp or your rack effects; I would only bring pedals. So, for Best Laid Plans and both of the Everyman Band records I’d use backlines. It wasn’t until after Best Laid Plans that I thought I should start working looping into live thing. I was using some very long delay lines as if they were loopers.
By the time Manfred was ready for me to do my next solo record, I knew I was set for it. We recorded in ’86, which means I started planning for it in ’84 or ’85. I decided to write all the material using the looper. I didn’t have a recording studio; I didn’t want a four-track cassette machine. It seemed like klugey technology and who the fuck wants to record on a cassette. I didn’t want to be involved in engineering. I would just use the cassette recorder to record all these loops I had done, and then listen to them and start writing over them and trying to repeat the loops.
At that point it became an interesting device because I was capable of repeating a loop harmonically and even, to some degree, rhythmically. I started writing the melody, or a bass line, or whatever. On Cloud About Mercury everything came about using a looping device, including the ambient things. Most of it was done before I started rehearsing with Bill Bruford because I needed to know what the drum was tuning to.
The looping thing came into focus when I got the first, the PCM42, not the one I have with me, but the primary one that I only stopped traveling with a couple of years ago. That’s the first one that was modified. It was around 1981.
Were you using that on the Jan Garbarek tour?
Yeah, I realized on Jan’s tour that I could bring stuff. I ended up putting together a rack that had a PCM42, and an Ibanez HD 1500 delay. Part of the preparation for the writing for Cloud About Mercury, involved an Ibanez HD 1500, which had a feedback circuit in its pitch changer. The pitch shifting was automatically delayed, but you could choose to delay it further, and there was a feedback circuit inside the pitch shifter so if you were playing an octave, a second, or a third, it would keep going up. It had three presets to it.
Yeah—a separate little pedal controlled them. I was thinking about buying one, just to have one for the future. Eventually, Lexicon finished the PCM70 and I programmed stuff into it. I had the first production prototype of the PCM70 in my rack. It’s still in my rack. It’s been on the road all these years.
Do you have someone who can maintain them?
There’s a guy in Nashville. I replaced the PCM70 with the 80 because the 80 had pitch shifting in it. I wouldn’t need the HD1500 anymore. I started out with a credit card-sized remote MIDI-controller, with four sensing resistors that went on top of the guitar so I could switch programs. I started using it with the Yamaha MCS2 MIDI control station, and then the Lexicon MIDI-controller. I could use the sensing resistors on my guitar to change the reverb length, or put it into the PCM70’s freeze mode. Guitar players believe Electro-Harmonix invented frozen reverb three years ago with their Freeze pedal. It actually comes from the Klark Teknik DNS780 Reverb, which I first used on the second Everyman Band record in 1982. It was a reverb Mark McKenna had in the studio. He said, “David, this thing has this weird freeze button like that looping stuff you do.” I went, “We have to use that,” and it’s on that record.
In this video you can see the controller for the Ibanez pitchshifter and the Yamaha MIDI controller.
Somewhere in that period I really realized I had a separate life of looping that didn’t show up on the gigs. I would do stuff in the studio and at home. It was like I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t take it to the gig just to find out what would happen. Then I decided to incorporate it or else I’d go insane, because it was a great thing I’d been working on for quite a few years.
It was getting too schizophrenic?
Yeah, too schizy. I decided the thing to do was to write the music with the loops, and that’s what I did for Cloud About Mercury.
Did you ever tour that record with Bruford?
We did. The very first gig we ever played has been on the Internet for about a year and a half.
Wasn’t Mark Isham in the touring band also?
Mark Isham played. It was the band that I originally intended to be on the record with Mick Karn playing bass. He bailed right before the recording sessions, and Tony Levin replaced him. Tony’s one of the great bassist of all time and one of the most amazing musicians ever. He’s a spectacular, warm, character.
Didn’t Mick end up doing the tour?
He did. He apologized for what happened during the recording period, where he just failed to show up for rehearsals. I said, “Do you want to do the tour?” He said, “Do you think I can handle it? I don’t know how to improvise.” I said, “You already improvise.”
The very first gig was great. When we were about to tour the states, Isham had a film he had to do, so I got Michael White from Toronto because he was the only other looping trumpet player I knew besides Jon Hassell, who I didn’t want to ask. We probably did 15 cities in the states in ’88, maybe a few more. We played The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, Chicago, Philly, and New York more than once. We played in L.A. and San Diego. We did a couple of overseas gigs as well.
Didn’t you end up doing a record with Michael White?
I produced Lonely Universe for CMP with Michael White and Michel Lambert. I asked Michael if we could have a bass player, and he said, “Mick?” And I said, “Yeah.”
You play on the record as well.
That was in the days when I thought it was a good idea for me to play on records I produced. I lost that feeling later. It got to the point where I thought, “If I do anything, I’ll do it at the last minute, because I’m the only one there, and the arrangement needs something.” I quickly came to realize that forcing yourself on other peoples’ records just because you think you have the best idea or whatever is not a great way to stamp your mark on the universe. It’s a better idea to look around and go, “Adam Widoff is a better guitar player for this than I am.” I could pick a million other people.
A problem with producing and playing can be that when you listen back, all you are listening to is your own guitar playing. It is hard to focus on the larger picture.
You can train yourself out of that. Have you heard Donna Lewis’ record? The one with the guys from The Bad Plus?
I don’t think I heard the most recent one.
I do a little bit of playing on that. I wasn’t even sure I should credit myself, because all I was doing was patching little things into an arrangement that I came up with to begin with. Looking at it from the mixing point of view I might think, “This needs a little fix here.” I didn’t want to touch anything they did in a substantial way because it was a live record, so I just put in little bits. I thought, “Should I take the credit for this, because it’s bullshit? I’m playing one note with a shit-ton of reverb on it, but nobody even knows what instrument it is.” If I’m producing a record and [Gillian Welsh guitarist] David Rawlings is playing, if I want to add something, it’s only because it’s something completely different than anything David would do.
What was the next step after Cloud About Mercury?
Next was getting involved in film with Mark Isham. He kept saying, “You sound so cinematic.” He had just had his first success in films when we met; he was right on the cusp of becoming one of the important dudes. He kept saying, “You should come out and play on film scores with me.” I went out to L.A. and worked on a documentary. It started out as being a track with a lot of different players and ended up being just me and Mark. I think Kurt Wortman came in and played some percussion at the end. And then there was another, and another. I was meeting people in the film industry and was in L.A. quite a bit.
During that time I said, “Can’t we just document these loops? It would be useful to have them in another source, either a Sampler or on tape, if we want to move them around and pop them somewhere else.” Mark is a guy who can do beautiful things with loops himself. That’s one of the reasons I invited him to join my band: he played trumpet and could loop; if I asked him to do it in certain ways, he knew what I was talking about. I could say, “Not short Jon Hassell rhythmic loops. Big long, sweeping things with harmonies that grow.”
We started documenting them and he built this library of my loops in his studio. He had an engineer there, and I would come up with long, evolving loops. It was some kind of developed improv technique with long, delay-based looping devices at that point.
When we parted ways at the end of 1990, there was this huge library of loops. At some point, I thought, “Well, I have copies of most of that stuff,” but the originals were at Mark’s place and they got used after I was gone. I got a check for 200 bucks or something for the use of a loop in a film. I suspected there were more being used than were actually documented and paid for. These things happen; copyright or ownership is an interesting issue.
I thought, “I’ve got all this stuff, and I can do ten of these a day.” I got to the point where I could edit them on the computer. I collected the ones I had that were not in my own music and made Tonal Textures for Q Up Arts—the first guitar sample record. You could buy the disc for $450 and license the material so long as you respected the license. The discs have thirty, one and a half to five-minute loops. They are textures I thought would be of use to somebody in the same way I use them, which is popping them into something, altering it to suit your purposes, cutting them together, or layering them on top of each other to make a bed for other music, That is much more interesting than using flat electronics.
There was a limited license that said you could you use it for anything as long as it wasn’t the primary feature of the music.
If you wanted to composed music over it, the license covered that?
Yes, as long as there was some reasonable attempt to make original music with it. It had to be integrated into other writing. It couldn’t be used as your writing, which got me in to all kinds of trouble later because nobody respected it. Within a year and a half it started getting stolen.
Since it was the first one of its kind, my library proliferated. People started to do similar things, like the company in Southern California that made their version of with Pete Maunu, a friend of mine, doing bizarre guitars.
He was in a band with Mark Isham called Group 87.
Pete and I were friends. I produced this Warren Zevon song for an Alan Rudolph film and hired Pete to play guitar because I couldn’t do what I knew was the correct thing to do.
I was contracted to do two more for Q Up. I did them and then bailed out because the music was getting stolen. At the time I bailed out, there was a meeting at NAMM where they said the theft of sample discs to sales was at least a ratio of 10:1. I had a number of issues with people using the samples as if it were a cue in a film that they wrote, with nothing else, or just a hand drum.
Once you realized your loops were being widely used, did you then get, start to get hired to do original scores?
That’s exactly what happened. Even before that, when I split with Mark, I came back to New York and didn’t know if I really wanted to be involved in this business. It gets so emotional around ownership and money. This is not what I wanted for my life. I wanted to be focused on music and art and doing things the world needed. I thought musicians were supposed bring communities together; give a community something it didn’t have already, point to things that aren’t in our daily lives. I still think that.
Back to New York, I thought, “Wow, the world is so much harsher than I thought it was.” I had already been through 15 years in the music industry at that point. My idealism was a little bit broken.
But you got back into it.
Geoff Gordon was working with the film composer Carter Burwell in New York and said, “Would you talk to Carter if he called you?” One day Carter called me and said, “I know about your work. Are you interested in working with me in New York?” I said, “Absolutely.”
We started working together, and I have done 20-30 films with Carter, starting out as a guy with nothing on the page, going to a little bit more written on the page for me, then going back to having a little bit written on the page, but a lot of open space in which to do things. Howard Shore called me; Ryuchi Sakamoto called me. I started working on a lot of other peoples’ films until somebody offered me my own.
Still, if Carter or Howard Shore call and with something they want me to work on and I can do it, I do it, even though it’s their composition.
What was the first movie that was totally yours as a composer?
The first one was actually an independent film, The Order of Things, in 1990, a Shelley Winters film that disappeared completely. It’s actually a pretty good score. And then I did of couple of things for PBS. I did a beautiful film documentary called Theme: Murder with a woman named Martha Swetzoff, about the murder of her father who was secretly gay. I did In The Blood with George Butler.
I did a whole bunch on my own starting around ’91 or so, just here and there. The first time a big studio, a big director, and a big writer hired me was definitely Brian Helgeland’s film, The Order, in 2003. The Order is the first score where I was 100% responsible for every note, and had to be written for a full orchestra and with a real recording budget.
Were you writing out the parts?
No, I did that later. In the beginning, I would write in MIDI—it was just handier. There were some pieces where I gave the orchestra the charts, but I needed an orchestrator. I chose the orchestrator very carefully because I wanted to learn as I was going. I didn’t want to be a jerk about it musically; I know there are things about orchestration I had never studied and I needed people to tell me. I hired a great orchestrator for The Order, and he hired a copyist. Did I write everything out note for note? Yes, including percussion parts. Did I do it by hand? No, because that would be more time for me.
So, were you playing in to the computer and then printing it out?
Yeah. Precisely that. I would go over the scores. When you first start looking at MIDI scores, you realize they make mistakes; a long time ago there were a lot of mistakes. As I did more scores, I learned that it’s better for me to have the score in my hands before it goes to an orchestrator, if and when I’m using one, so I can see where the mistakes are made and can clean them up myself, because I feel responsible for it. Also, if you don’t actually sight read, then it’s very easy to not realize what a pain in the ass your score can become for somebody who’s meant to not only read it, but interpret it on the spot.
If couldn’t go through everything myself, I would hire someone. I would say, “I went through the first two of these. Here are some of the mistakes I can see. Please circle yours and correct them, but look for mistakes like these in others.” I handed Ken Rosser four pieces at the end of Lars and The Real Girl to proofread because I didn’t have time to do it. These were multiple pianos, strings, and an additional upright bass part. I had an orchestrator, but I didn’t want to hand her a mess.
I know Ken through Facebook.
He’s a great guy. Occasionally, when I was Los Angeles and wanted a refresher in specifically right-hand stuff, I would have Ken come over. I’d feed him, give him a pedal, or whatever, and he would give me a refresher course in some technique I needed.
He does a lot of teaching.
He’s a great communicator and can show you everything.
He did a cool record with another guitar player a couple of years ago in a band called Regals. Do you remember that album?
Yeah, the one with Wayne Eagles and the two drummers. I mixed it.
How was your career progressing along with the scoring?
After Clouds About Mercury, I couldn’t get Manfred to make a commitment to make another record in the period of time that I was interested in. I had thought about singing. I don’t think that appealed to Manfred. We had a couple of frustrating conversations, and I started talking to other people. I signed to Windham Hill because the head AR person, Bob Duskis was a huge fan.
It didn’t go that great, and nobody knew at the time that I had this gigantic tumor growing in my head. 1990 was the beginning of what I thought was a nervous breakdown but turned out to be the brain tumor. I became a different person.
You made Door X in the middle of all of this?
I did and it was very intense. I never knew where I was musically; things were not going together. There were certain tracks I think are great. I’m not a control freak, but I know what’s good for me even when somebody else is the boss. In that period, I could act like I was making really decisive decisions, but it was all very wishy-washy, less about what I felt, which was really confusing, and more about what I thought I should be feeling. It increased in intensity until 1992, when I collapsed.
When were you diagnosed?
It was in ’92 when I fell over on a solo tour, co-billed with Michael Manring and Alex de Grassi in 1992. Michael and Alex are two musicians I have an immense amount of respect for and love as human beings.
We had a day off near Frankfurt. I took a train up to Aachen to visit a friend who was part of CMP Records. Kurt Renker was out of the country.
Had you done anything for CMP yet?
I had done at least two records with Mark Nauseef.
This is where you broke down?
We were in the CMP office, and then we took a walk down the street. I felt something funny in my face and lost muscular control over the whole side of my face and my ear. I lost my balance and I fell down. My friend said, “Your face looks funny.” I said, “I can’t close my eye.” He said, “Can you stand up?” I stood up, and he helped me walk. He said, “Do you want to go see a doctor?” I said, “No, I’ll just rest; maybe I’m just exhausted.” I tried to sleep and couldn’t; the whole world felt weird to me. I felt pressured to go back to the tour the next day.
I took a taxi the next morning to the train station and the driver almost got us killed. He ran a stop sign or a light and a woman went through as she was supposed to. He went into a skid and we landed in the trees. I said, “You’ve have to get me another taxi right now before the cops come here because I’ve have to be at this gig tonight.”
Meanwhile, I’m tripping out completely. I got a taxi to the train and got to the gig. I told the guys there was something wrong with me, and I thought I might have to go to a doctor, but was going to play the gig. I actually played the gig, and sang; I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t hear the tones. It was impossible. I ended up going to Frankfurt Research Hospital. They made a quick diagnosis, but I didn’t feel comfortable with it, which turned out to be a good idea. I said, “I would like to go back to America because if I’m going to have some kind of a surgical procedure, I’d like to be near my family. I don’t know that I can handle the airport. Can you give me a doctor’s note that says that there’s something very wrong with me, but it’s not contagious.” I called my wife.
The doctor gave me a great note; I was wheeled around the airport straight to the plane. They put me in a seat by myself. I got back to the United States, and they wouldn’t let me in the country with my guitar. I said, “I’m not leaving this guitar here.” They said, “Well, then you’re staying here.” I said, “You don’t understand. I’m an American citizen. This is my doctor’s note. There’s something wrong with me. I’m very sick. I come through this very immigration desk at least 10, 12 times a year with my passport.”
Why wouldn’t they let you through with the guitar?
They thought I was smuggling it in to the country because it looked foreign.’
What were you playing at the time?
I had a Klein. It was a one-off. It looked like no other Klein, and the Klein already looked like no other guitar. I said, “This was a gift to me from the maker. I’m not leaving it here with you. I clearly own it. I have receipts.” I lost it completely. My head was exploding. What I was really thinking was there’s something wrong with me, and if I leave this guitar here, it may never go back to my family. Steve Klein gave it to me as a gift for my birthday, and it is not going to be left at a fucking American airport. I said, “I’m going to wait for a supervisor to show up.” I took all my stuff, including the guitar, planted myself in front of a supervisor’s office and waited for four and a half hours.
My wife had no idea what had happened to me. There was somebody waiting outside to get me. The supervisor finally came in and I explained the whole story to him and showed him the doctor’s note from Frankfurt Research Medical Center. He said, “There’s nothing I can do about this. The agents need to verify this was something that you owned prior to your trip.” I showed him the documents, took a breath and said, “Hang on a second.” I went outside and I sat down, because I couldn’t take it anymore.
I sat on the floor and my put my head in my hands. I looked up and who comes walking towards me but a fan, who happens to be a JFK customs agent for many years. He says, “David, what are you doing?” I said, “I’m so glad to see you.” I told him what was happening. He said, “You’re fucking joking.” He goes into his supervisor’s office, he’s a big guy, a real sweetheart, and he comes out and he says, “Take your guitar. Fuck these guys. The supervisor says it’s okay. I’m going to walk you through. Get out of here.” And I got out.
That is quite a story. Backing up for a minute, Windham Hill was known as a new age label. I was wondering what kind of reaction that record got. Certainly your fans don’t care what label it’s on, they’re going to know what they’re getting; but I wondered if anybody was surprised because it was a Windham Hill record.
I suspect that they were. I knew that there were things on the record that I didn’t like that were the result of me kind of not being able to find what I was trying to represent at that time. It was just all swimmy and weird like disappearing into some kind of shroud and fighting to maintain contact. I couldn’t relate to my own interactions with people.
As far as Windham Hill goes, it was disastrous. They didn’t like the record. We had a big record release party at the studio in Pasadena, of all places, where the final mixes were done. Everybody said, “Dude, this is your masterpiece. This is a great piece of work.” Then, a month later, “Man, the record is not doing too well. You should have done something a little more glued together.”
It sounds like the classic record label story: when it comes out, they’re behind it and as soon as they can’t sell it, the rats desert the ship.
People have romanticized ideas about success and what should be popular. You can romanticize all you want, but on this [2015 solo] tour every time there was an opportunity for me to play in a bigger room, I said no. I do not want to play for a half-empty room. I know who I am. This is not music for everybody. Let’s be realistic. Do I think that I could have a bigger audience? Yeah, but I’m not playing music for everybody. I’m playing the music I know how to play.
It was the same then. Did I believe for a minute that I might have one last shot at being a rock star? I think I bought into some vibe around me and there’s no one to blame for that but myself. But there was that thing that happens to people where I thought, “Well, maybe it’s not too late to be something like a rock star. Michael Hedges is brilliant, and he acts like a rock star and he has everything.” I thought, “Anything’s possible. I mean, David Sylvian is popular.” In my confusion, that became one of the things that floated around the pile of thoughts and emotions.
I always loved the solo piano piece on Door X called “The Others,” but I don’t like the arrangement. It made something “interesting” out of something that was more inherently beautiful when I wrote it. I thought it had to rock, had to have a backbeat, had to have an Eastern influenced bass line and some electric guitar on it, when I never conceived it that way when I wrote it. It would have made a great film piece. When I wrote it at Isham’s house, he walked in on my writing session and went, “What are you playing? That’s fucking awesome.” Here’s a guy that who knows how to write and arrange and orchestrate saying to me, “That’s a great piece of music.” On the record it’s a disappointment for me, more than for the person who likes it, which I understand.
You know what you meant to do, other people only know what you did. They can react to what you did and love it, but you know what you meant to do and if that wasn’t that, it can create disappointment.
I can accept those things. I like it when you can say to somebody, “I’m so glad that did something for you,” and just walk away. But there are other people who you may perceive correctly or incorrectly to be someone to whom you could say, “Yeah, it’s a really good piece, but I wish I had done something else. I failed myself there.” There are people that you can say that to. But it’s up to you as musician who is selling things to discern which people. And, as musicians, we are not famous for being particularly socially acute—much less accurate.
When you got back to the states, what did they have to do to fix you?
I went to the doctor the next day. I finally ended up with a really good, eye, ears, nose, and throat guy.
You already had a diagnosis from Frankfurt, right?
Yes, and it didn’t seem quite right.
You were going for a second opinion, not just a different treatment?
In Frankfurt, the doctor said that the most likely diagnosis was ear stress. I felt that no stress could cause this to occur in my head.
They hadn’t diagnosed the tumor?
They didn’t do an MRI; there was an X-ray. They said, “We believe this probably 90% ear stress, and we have a treatment here that they don’t have in the states. You would have to be here for two days while we change over your blood supply and then you could go back to work.”
Like Keith Richards?
I said, “Sounds like a bad idea to me.” And it was a very bad idea, because about a year and a half later, Frankfurt Research Hospital halted all activities using blood because they had passed HIV through on a number of occasions. That paranoia I hold in my head so often had turned out to be true.
Was it an AIDS paranoia?
It was just, “What do you mean you’re changing over all my blood, who’s blood is it?” I asked my wife, “What do you think of this?” She said, “Please, just come home.”
What did the ENT guy in the States say?
He said, “You don’t have an infection. There’s something else happening here.” The minute he got the MRI’s back, he said, “You have a tumor attached the acoustic nerve. It is pushing on your brain and looks like it might be infected. It is a specific type of brain tumor. I doubt it’s cancerous. We see this as a benign growth, but it can be repetitive. You really need to take care of this right away.”
We did as much research and called as many people as we could. I called Tony Levin who said, “I have the best ENT/otolaryngologist in the world. His name is Simon Parisier. I’m going to get you an appointment.” They did more testing, and he said, “It’s been growing for a long time, and you really should have it removed. Don’t wait more than two weeks. If you agree to an operation, they’re going to require you to sign a clause that says that you understand there’s a 50% chance that you won’t survive. They’re going to give you a choice of two or three different treatments.”
He recommended one of his students, Noel Cohen, who was the head of otolaryngology at the teaching hospital at NYU. His direct boss was Joe Ransohoff, head of neurosurgery at NYU, who is the guy the book Brain Surgeon was written about. He turned out to be an amazing, insane, 78 year old: four feet tall, cowboy boots, mouth like a fucking stevedore, chained smoked in his office, shaky hands—the whole thing. Nothing in the office except a full ashtray, a couple pieces of paper, and a picture of his yacht with a very young wife in a bikini.
You have to look at the stats and these guys had a great track record for this operation. I was focused on saving my hearing. I wanted to know how many operations have been done; how many in which the hearing been saved, how many people died. They showed us everything they would do in each of three options, and then, showed us everything about the one that I chose before I signed off on it. Every question was answered.
There was a 20% to 25% chance that, if I lived, I could have seizures, wicked headaches, seizures, and abnormal operation of the brain for five years, ten years, or the rest of my life. It turned out I am in the 20%, 25%. The seizures are almost gone now, but once a year I have these episodes that no one really understands. I’m doing better because it will be two years since I had my last annual weirdness. The bulk of the recovery process was maybe a five or six year period.
During that period, were you still playing and recording?
I tried to be active just a few months after my surgery when I could hold my head up straight. I did some sessions in New York where people would drive me and take care of me. There was one session where I knew something bad was going to happen. I had the aura that indicated a seizure. I had warned the composer, I said, “This might happen. If it does, don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. I won’t swallow my tongue, but I will need to know that there’s a dark room that I can sit in until it’s over.” “How long will it take to be over?,” he said. “I can’t predict that,” I said, “It could be an hour and a half. It could be three or four hours.”
Once you started getting back in to it, what was the next after Door X?
After Door X, I moved on to CMP. Eventually, I did a lot of records as a producer for CMP after the operation, like Andy Reinhart’s.
That’s a great record.
Three Pound Universe by Wes Martin is a also great record. I did Lonely Universe, two Mick Karn records, Marty Fogel’s Many Bobbing Heads, At Last.
Are any of those available?
They’re all online. When I finally thought it was time to do my own record again, I set up an interesting meeting with Kurt Renker, who was running CMP. I did Tripping Over God in ’94, and then Polytown—I think we recorded in ’95; it came out in ’96.
Let’s step back to Tripping Over God.
I thought that it was a good time for me to see what I would come up with when I was alone. I had been tracking the technology and using the highest technologies available for music as early and as often as I could, since the ’70s. I’ve always been interested in everything about music technology, including the instruments, the amplifiers, the pedals, etc. I started with computers very early; I was on an Apple II doing shell programming for my dad as a side job. I helped build an inventory database for his business.
It seemed like the right time to get myself a little Pro Tools rig. I wanted to use Logic, but it didn’t do audio at that time. I went to CMP and said, “I don’t want a standard record deal. I want to build a little studio and I’ll put together a budget. Let’s make a deal where I can make something on the back end, but I’m not building the studio on my own. I have to have financial help.” Kurt said, “That sounds like a great idea.” I built little Pro Tools studio and realized Pro Tools was great, but it acted just like a tape deck, which wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted something that was more flexible. Then Logic came out with the first version that treated audio as if it were a MIDI event, which is exactly what I wanted. It gave me the functionality of a sampler in a recording device. I found a way to buy an early basic E-MU thing I could afford. I also had a Roland sampler at some point.
I did Tripping Over God at home, sometimes other people playing a little bit; sometimes not. Sometimes it would be a sample. I did What Means Solid, Traveller, at home, in 1996, while Polytown was being released. Then, I thought it was a good idea to take a break because a bigger, evil company bought CMP. Before that it was a labor of love. One of the unsung patrons of a lot of creative music during the ’80s and ’90s, Kurt was and still is an amazing human being. At some point he let somebody else buy the company. It turned out they were not great people. I tried to buy these records back three times, paying at least what they paid for them. They refused every offer.
I don’t understand that.
It’s the owner’s legacy to his children, his estate, empire, or whatever. That’s what it’s about. It certainly wasn’t a moneymaking thing. It’s ridiculous. They sat on the records. They bought the whole catalog and all they did was let a couple of compilations out.
Anyway, after What Means Solid, Traveller I took a break. Around ’98, I started recording Splattercell with the help of a good friend of mine, who underwrote the project. I released it l in 2000 on 75 Ark. The label was great people working for people who couldn’t give a shit. I decided not to make another of my own records, but I was always making records for other people. I made the B.L.U.E. records.
B.L.U.E. was really interesting: Chris Botti, Tony Levin, Bill Bruford and you.
A great band, and a truly successful band, but it blew up.
Is it something you want to talk about?
I don’t mind. There are some things I can’t really say because they’re about personal things Bill was going through that should be part of his own life and nobody else’s.
How did B.L.U.E. come about?
Tony said, “Me and Bill started a band, and we want you and Chris to play in it.”
How did Chris Botti, who is now known for “smooth jazz,” get involved with this?
Chris had hired Tony to play on something. Tony thought, “This guy is bad.” I produced three of the first demos Chris did for his own material, which was more influenced by Sylvian and Blue Nile. I introduced him to his manager, who introduced him to Paul Simon, Sting, etc. He had been a super fan of mine since 1987 or so. I didn’t know at the time that he was such a motherfucker on his instrument, which he is. He’s also a really nice guy. In fact, Chris played on Door X.
We went to do the B.L.U.E. session with no preparation at all and a bunch of written charts. We’d look at the charts, rehearse it down and then record it. It was super fun. After it was mixed, Tony said, “I feel this is a real band, four people playing and making music together. I know the band name is Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, but maybe we should just shift it over to B.L.U.E. I started it, it’s my label, I’m saying this is a band now.” It was at the point where we decided to play gigs and tour. That’s Tony, he takes a look at a situation and sees it for what it is.
You went on tour and had quite a bit of success.
We were very successful and went to Japan to do the first, and maybe the only Japanese tour. We were touring Japan with Robert Fripp’s King Crimson project. Robert was playing guitars as he does. Trey Gunn was playing stick, and Adrian Belew was playing drums. Robert decided that he would prefer to open for us, which was weird but exciting in a sick way. I was well aware the reason Robert wanted to play first was because he wanted to go to bed early. It makes sense: If you’re the last band then you have to wait through everything and you’re in bed later.
On the day before the first gig Bill told me he had decided to leave the band. We were walking back from a Starbucks or something and Chris and Tony were walking ahead of us. He had not informed Tony or anyone else yet. I said, “I don’t understand.” “I want to run my own jazz band.,” he said. “I’ve been in a million bands, a million projects that were equal.” I said, “Why are you telling me?” “Because you’re my friend, ” he said. “But, we’re doing so well,” I said. “The music is great.” “Yeah, but it’s going to a place that makes it more like a band,” he said. “I really just want to do my own thing.”
Didn’t he go from that to Earthworks, which was totally his band?
Yeah, for a minute. Chris was more upset than anyone and tried the hardest to keep him. Chris is dedicated to his goals in a way that is very unusual and intense. He already knew he was going to be successful.
A year later Bill said, “You know, there’s some openings at this festival. Maybe we could play a couple of one-off gigs.” Tony and I, independent of each other, said we don’t want to do a band that’s never going to play again.
Was there ever any talk of getting a replacement drummer?
Tony and I at least discussed it. We could ask Terry Bozzio to do it. We would have to change the name of the band, or it would just feel weird to know that the original B in the first letter of B.L.U.E stood for Bruford.”
It could it stand for Bozzio.
That’s true. I didn’t think of that.
End of Part II
Here’s hoping for a Part III