With longtime bandleader Ben Jaffe at the helm, Preservation Hall Jazz Band made their first appearance at LouFest this weekend. Although they've performed several times at area venues in the past, including The Sheldon and Powell Symphony Hall, there's a special sound they've been adapting for the festival circuit. The seven-piece jazz band, comprised of several stellar players over the years, has been in full, New Orleans swing since the 1960s, when Jaffe's parents created the Preservation Hall in the French Quarter. Of the current lineup, 84-year-old saxophonist Charlie Gabriel is the senior member and a seventh generation musician. The band's set offered a string of original, NOLA style tunes and ended with a tuba-centered medley of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. Afterward, Jaffe, who plays bass and tuba, had a chance to sit down to talk about the festival sound and the band's purpose as a gateway to a world of jazz for a newer generation.
KK: How long have you guys been doing the festival circuit now?
BJ: It's interesting. The first time I got the band into this environment was when we played Bonnaroo in 2006. That got us starting to penetrate some of these unorthodox festivals with jazz. Normally, they might present something esoteric, where Herbie Hancock might jam with Phish or something, but Bonnaroo was the first time we started getting in there and meeting people and becoming a part of this community. We're kind of like gypsies traveling the festival circuit.
KK: You guys have really gotten into it over the last few years. How have the crowds reacted?
BJ: You start seeing the same people, same bands, and we just hit the scene at a time when music was transitions from CDs to digital -- electronic music was starting to headline these things. I remember the first time I heard Skrillex at Austin City Limits, we were backstage and you could just sense that something was about to go down -- the energy was starting to move towards this one area, and we went up on the stage and looked out on the crowd and the energy was like nothing I'd ever seen before. I mean, I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers play when they were still a punk band and it was like that -- the energy was wild and the crowd was swaying and then this guy comes out and rips it up. Completely out of left field for me. And it was really cool that the promoters were putting us on the same bill with these artists and kids were getting to hear all of us at the same festival.
KK: Are there many jazz acts who get in on the festival scene or do you find that you guys are kind of loners out here?
BJ: We're probably one of the few who makes an effort to do it. A lot of bands maybe wait to get a call and it's very hard for them. We've made a real effort to discover our sound in a festival environment, that's something a lot of artists in jazz don't do because they're used to playing small clubs and concert halls and it's a completely different level of knowledge. Just because you're a great musician doesn't make you a great recording artist and vice versa. For me, it was important to learn how to record with headphones and tracking and to think about building on the Preservation Hall experience, but I realized early on you can't replicate that, so don't try to, or you're just gonna fail. That's what a lot of jazz bands try to do -- they try to replicate a concert hall experience in an amphitheater environment and that's not what you're there to do. You're there to throw sound out into the audience. It's taken us years to find how best to do that because you have to find the right engineer to work with acoustic instruments -- it's finding all the things that work with the band. None of us grew up performing with mics so that process of playing and having a balance on stage with a big audience, it's taken us time but I think we've finally found our stride.
KK: And that experience has really helped the band find a signature sound.
BJ: Right before we recorded That's It, we went on tour with My Morning Jacket and we decided that if we were going to play in this environment, we had to learn the language of monitors, production value, microphones, stage volumes -- night after night, we had that opportunity to practice that. Up until then, we would hit a festival and hope and pray. That touring experience gave us a lot of practice. But we're not trying to recreate that Preservation Hall sound of New Orleans jazz, which shouldn't be confused with modern forms. I think of what we're doing with our sound as part of New Orleans modern jazz, because we're all from jazz families. And when I think of modern, I'm not necessarily thinking Coltrane, I'm thinking of the next evolution of a tradition, so we're like the next evolution of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which in turn was the evolution of Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver, so we just keep moving it down the line.
KK: What do you think the next evolution looks like for the band after today?
BJ: I think you heard some of it today! It's definitely tuned into the way people experience music now, very tuned into dance music -- because New Orleans jazz is dance music. Dance music isn't new, it's been around a long time. So in some ways, dance music is our tradition.
KK: Are you surprised at the number of younger crowds who love your shows? What do you think they're getting from it?
BJ: I think we're introducing them to something really important. We're a portal into a whole genre of music. Several generations of music-lovers learned about Coltrane and bluegrass from Jerry Garcia for example -- he was the portal through which a lot of people entered this universe. If you tackle Preservation Hall and start digging, you're gonna uncover The Meters, Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas, and eventually, the rhythmic root and soul of all of this is going to bring you back to West Africa. But everybody needs an entry point and that's what distinguishes the band to me -- I hope we're that portal for them.
Singer, songwriter and pianist Lucas Jack just moved to St. Louis in July from San Antonio, Texas, where he developed quite a following. A modern throwback to the great piano rockers and pop artists of the 70s and early 80s such as Jackson Browne, Leon Russell, Elton John and Billy Joel, he'll celebrate the official release of his new album, Make it Beautiful on September 14 at Off Broadway (with opener Emily Wallace).
The new album, he says, "is a lot 'poppier' than my previous material, which had a more organic sound. This album has a lot more synthesizers and auxiliary percussion tracks, and a bit more production shine on it. In place of pedal steel, fiddles or horns, I have synthesizers and drum loops."
He recorded Make it Beautiful with his three-piece band, which includes Michael Gomez on drums and Justin Schneider on bass, with Lucas taking the lead on piano and vocals. They will perform with him at the album release show.
Growing up in Kalamazoo, Mich., Lucas says he can't even remember the first time he played the piano. "It's like asking, 'when is the first time you ate a banana or drew a picture with a pencil?' We always had a piano around, and I just always remember banging away at it. I started proper piano lessons when I was probably five years old and took them my whole life, even up through college."
As early as high school, Lucas was playing small shows in piano bars, as well as at church and weddings; but he never really allowed himself to consider it as a potential career path.
"I just knew it was something I wanted to do my whole life and that I'd always have a piano and be playing, because it's really cathartic and helps me process feelings that I have. It's a way that I cope with things that disappoint me and things that make me sad. It's an emotional experience for me," he says. "But I didn't have confidence in that it would matter to other people the way it matters to me, so I mostly just played for myself."
While performing in various bands and writing music, he also attended law school in Chicago and became an attorney. It wasn't until after met his wife at a St. Louis gig with one of those bands that being a full-time musician became a real possibility in his mind. "She was like, 'Oh, you're a musician,' and I thought, 'Yeah, I guess I am,'" he says.
They married in less than a year and suddenly found themselves moving to San Antonio, Texas, where she was set to show up for active duty in the Air Force. That's when Lucas got serious about taking the leap into music as a career.
"I decided when I moved there that I was just going to play music as a full-time career and make a go of it," he says. "I made that decision at a time of great upheaval in my life. I was leaving a career in Chicago, leaving all my friends, moving to Texas where I didn't know a single person. I wasn't very happy being a lawyer. So I became Lucas Jack the piano player and singer and songwriter, and I've just never looked back."
While he left his law career in the dust, Lucas says those skills have certainly come in handy as he navigates and learns more about the music business.
"I think the business acumen I bring has made me a better manager of my career and has helped me make better choices as far as what shows I play and people I hire and what albums I release," he says. "Having a law degree and an accounting degree certainly doesn't hurt you when it comes to those kinds of things."
Though he's played in St. Louis a few times before, the album release show at Off Broadway will mark Lucas' first performance here as an official resident. He's already throwing himself headfirst into the local music scene and has been quite pleased with what he's found.
"I see a real celebration of local music; a championing of the local scene here where people take a lot of pride in their own. I think that comes through in local publications and also on KDHX, which has been very supportive of my albums in the past," he says. "On top of that, there are so many clubs -- and not just big stadiums or hole-in-the-wall dumps -- but nice, mid-sized rooms where local bands can bring 50 to 200 people and have a really great show with good sound and great lights and get good press and promotion. It's been really refreshing to see how vibrant the music scene is here and how much everyone celebrates a real diversity of music. And people here go out to see live music -- and see local music."
When he's not banging the keys, Lucas is happy spending time with his wife and two young children, as well as other family and friends that live here, and exploring all that his new home city has to offer.
Anarchist and leftist punks have long sought to raise awareness about various forms of oppression and exploitation by offering first-person caricatures of the enemy, whether corporate bosses, suburban drones, college preppies, skinheads, or the cult of dumb. It was in this tradition of critique that Ben Wallers started the Country Teasers in mid-'90s Scotland and began releasing albums that prod listeners by holding a mirror up to bigotry of all kinds, especially bigotry that's been culturally sanctioned because of positions of privilege, i.e. the correlation between climate change denial and being a wealthy white male. Often taunting listeners (or readers in this case) to hold on to such positions of privilege in the face of their underlying violence, Wallers set the Country Teasers in the vein of the Dead Kennedys and Butthole Surfers through albums that both take aim at and inspiration from American culture. (The Teasers second album Satan is Real Again, for example, is a nod to the 1959 Louvin Brothers album in which the country duo truly seemed to want their listeners to feel the flames of hell licking at their heels.) From the ashes of the Teasers, Wallers has now emerged as The Rebel, having continued to release albums that take on various forms of patriarchy, cultural exceptionalism, and the self-destructive elements of contemporary humankind. He plays at Off-Broadway, Thursday, August 18 with Spray Paint, Old Scratch's Burn Pile, and DemonLover. In advance of the show, he answered some questions over email about Nashville, William S. Burroughs, satire, modern appliances, Star Wars, as well as some of the heavier facts of contemporary American politics.
Q: I see a lot of similarities between your lyricism in songs like "Anytime, Cowboy" and the satirical style of a young Randy Newman. Who are some satirists that have influenced your voice, and can satire hold up as a weapon against the growing threat of fascism?
BW: Satire ought really to get stronger and funnier as things get worse in the Non-Funny world (Syria; Ukraine; Congo) but I'm too out of touch to really say. Oh, except comedian Stewart Lee, he's keeping it up over here in England. Lenny Bruce, William Burroughs, Jonathan Swift, viz. See my take on humour is that unless it's attacking something evil or referring to something utterly bleak, I don't really find it all that funny. Although my niece told me this knock knock joke and it's adooooooooorable: "Knock knock." Who's there? "Butcher." Butcher who? "Butcher lil' arms aroun' me!"
Q: Speaking of, would you like to see the grave of William Burroughs while you're in St. Louis?
BW: Oh god I would LOVE that! I just read Barry Miles's recent Life of Burroughs and it was huge and unputdownable. I totally fell in love with him all over again and this time properly, accepting him also as a human, not just a godly writer. So, yes please.
Q: In a previous interview you said that what country music is like an allegory for American culture going off the deep end...
BW: I must have been high when I said that; or else my neurons got tangled up with the wires that my fingers dangle from in my mouth. I probably just meant "Off a cliff, into the deep end." Really deep, where your feet can't touch the bottom and you panic and ask the guy on the side to help you by maybe passing you the pole and the guy says, "Wait a minute buddy: where did you say you were from?" And you say, "Oh I... I don't think I did say! In fact in all this excitement I can't remember!" So you look down and see your face in the water, and suddenly you remember. That guy on the side is Donald Trump, your new president. You voted for him, but he doesn't pass you the pole. You drown. On the bottom of the pool are a thousand million rotting undead corpses. That's America.
Q: Do you think Tammy Wynette was murdered and, if so, what parallels does the cover-up of her death have with the decline of Nashville?
BW: Nashville IS Decline! I mean what drew me to Nashville's country music was the sense of decaying White culture. The last breath of a threatened, paranoid empire: WHITEY. And Tammy I loved because she sounded like she was trapped, like all our sisters are. Trapped under a man's superior muscle strength. (I am confident that Patriarchy will be overthrown, btw; it's happening).
Q: Is it true the Jon Wayne LP Texas Funeral had an influence on the Country Teasers? And how did it feel to record an album of your own in Texas, were you able to draw from the bottomless well of Texas country?
BW: Yes, I love Jon Wayne and so does the whole band. Monty Buckles sorted it out in 2006 that we supported them in LA and it was really something, like a dream really, i don't think it's even sunk in yet! He was playing a crudely spray-painted vox Phantom... I'm not sure how much influence he had on my Schtick, because I didn't hear about him until we were playing a gig in Edinburgh and this big lad comes up - this must have been 1994 -- and says "You must be fans of Jon Wayne" and I was all like "Wha...? " so he gave me a tape and i couldn't believe it. But thereafter I think the main thing was that David Vaught's production was like totally wow. So maybe it opened us up or something? Not sure.
Q: If you were a domestic appliance what would it be?
BW: I'd be an old typewriter. I dislike the white goods you have in your bourgeois kitchens. Fridges, washing machines and PARTICULARLY dishwashers. Never let me see you putting tea-spoons in a dishwasher please! In fact let's get that thing in the car right now and drive to the Dump ready! Fucking dishwashers! Breeders of deadly virus! Symbol and embodiment of fucked-up, dying, self-hating, hurrying Whitey culture! Push them over the fucking cliff! Down, down, down! Crash!
Q: What is the wackiest "instrument" you have used on a track (i.e. an oven for percussion, a slinky for texture, etc., etc.)?
BW: I used a slinky to make star wars laser gun noises and reverb; believe it or not the sound of hair, skin & bone rubbing against the wooden edge of a desk is the only thing I can think of sounds-unusual-wise; I like to use lots of different little keyboards; musical boxes; hmmm... Mind's gone blank.
Q: Is it true the Jon Wayne LP 'Texas Funeral' had an influence on the Country Teasers? And how did it feel to record an album of your own in Texas [which?], were you able to draw from the bottomless well of Texas country?
BW: Yes, I love Jon Wayne and so does the whole band. Monty Buckles sorted it out in 2006 that we supported them in LA and it was really something, like a dream really, I don't think it's even sunk in yet! He was playing a crudely spray-painted vox Phantom... I'm not sure how much influence he had on my Schtick, because I didn't hear about him until we were playing a gig in Edinburgh and this big lad comes up -- this must have been 1994 -- and says "You must be fans of Jon Wayne" and I was all like "Wha...?" so he gave me a tape and I couldn't believe it. But thereafter I think the main thing was that David Vaught's production was like totally wow. So maybe it opened us up or something? Not sure.
Q: What is your animal totem?
BW: I never used to like cats, despite my hero Burroughs' addiction to them, until we got a cat ourselves, little Tammy, who had run away from a cattery in Somerset as a kitten. Now I love cats. It's great being on the internet all day watching videos of cats. Omg they're HILARIOUS lol? :))))) I love Tammy, she is on my lap as we speak. Other animals I dig are sharks, spiders, centipedes, cockroaches, woodlice, ants. Dogs are a fucking bore, yawn yawn yawn (sorry, no offence meant). I really like sharks, did I mention that? Terrified that's how I'm gonna go. Aaarrrrrgggggh! First human shark-attack death in British waters, that'll be me. Off the Cornish coast. Still, I've had a good innings.
Q: In the latest Star Wars film what was Luke Skywalker doing on that island, how did he even get there? Do you have a new hope for the new Star Wars Films?
BW: I know, what the Fuck, Ireland?! The Jedi started in Ireland, on EARTH of all planets?! Wild! I'm not a good person to ask about Star Wars because i blindly follow it wholesale like a zombie (except the crap 3 from the 90s obvs). I totally, totally, TOTALLY loved The Force Awakens when it came out and went to see it -- in secret -- 4 times, or maybe 5, I lost count. Not 6 though. Cried a lot; different cinemas produced different emotions, all good; felt that viewing 2 was much better than viewing 1; loved it when Han shouts "Ben!" of course; think we should all shout "Ben!" whenever wotsisname the actor from Girls who played Kylo Ren appears in a trailer before a film at the cinema; "BEN!" Ha ha ha! That'd be hilARIOus!!!! So you know I got the dvd and I watch it a lot, mainly to block out the misery of my home life, but I turn the sound off now because the script is SO BAD and the plot so fragile. But I live in the Force and its ways! So I am DEFINITELY 100% confident that the next one will be even better.
Q: Who would play Ben Wallers in the made for TV biopic?
BW: Ryan Gosling would play me; I don't really LIKE him per se, I just think we are very much alike, he and I. Similar ages and so forth. Outlook.
Q: Wot wud U do with a million pounds?
BW: With a million pounds I would buy a nice studio set up somewhere I could play drums again. I'd get someone to build me a Fostex X-30 four track which wouldn't break down. I'd retire from my job for a year and try to knock out the really great album I think might be in there somewhere under all the frustration. Also I'd get like 1,000 Reese's cups, I mean 3,000, because it'd be 1,000 packs of 3.
Q: According to a 1983 interview in Smash Hits, Simon Le Bon from Duran Duran was once electrocuted while swimming. If he had died, how would your career have been different?
BW: I guess Simon's lyrics and delivery, which are unique, would have left a big hole in frontman-ship; could there have been a Morrissey for instance, without Simon Le Bon going before and lighting the way? If anyone can get hold of "Blue Silver," the documentary of their USA tour around the time of Seven and the Ragged Tiger, I'll give you a collectible badge and a used plectrum if I can spare it.
Q: In the same interview, John Taylor of Duran Duran said, "Our fans don't believe pop stars have bowels." What do you think about celebrity culture and is it wielded as a tool for oppression? Furthermore, do you think John Taylor from Duran Duran had bowels?
BW: Obviously Duran Duran were übermenschen in ways we teens would never need to understand. Things like going to the bathroom, shagging, getting angry with each were all totally irrelevant. It's all music! You can't see music! And yes, the capitalist system uses it to make money and like patriarchy I feel its days are numbered. Revolution will come and the next thing will take over until humans destroy themselves and the Earth can carry on with the insects and so forth. Who gives a shit!
In a perfect world, the Rival Sons would already be an instantly recognizable name among rock music fans here in their native United States. However, for reasons seemingly rather mysterious and unknown, the Long Beach, California quartet (who tour as a quintet, with the addition of a keyboardist), have earned the bulk of their substantially-sized success outside of their home country. Receiving high, near-the-top billing on festivals and stadium shows all across Europe and Canada for the past few years, Rival Sons, now in their eighth year of existence, finally appear poised to potentially achieving a well-deserved similar status here in America.
Even without a very large American fanbase, many critics here in the States have been aware of and given praise to Rival Sons since the start of their career back in 2008. Respectable media sources like the Huffington Post and Classic Rock Magazine have referred to the band as "America's next great rock and roll band" and "the band to watch," and those who are fortunate enough to already be American fans have given Rival Sons' live shows absolutely stellar online reviews; many stating that they are the best band (or one of the best) they have ever seen in concert.
Alongside better-known bands like Queens of the Stone Age, Wolfmother, and The Black Crowes, Rival Sons are primarily influenced by heavy, blues-steeped British groups from the 1970's like Cream, Bad Company, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page is a huge fan of the band). Their sonic style also has enough meaty, soulful swagger to have rightfully earned Rival Sons comparisons to bands such as the Cult, and the Doors, and Aerosmith (with whom the band toured in 2014).
Rival Sons are currently supporting their recently (June) released fifth album entitled Hollow Bones (Earache) on a monster-sized, 52-date global tour spanning seven months. This tour contains the most U.S. dates of any of their previous world tours, and their Pageant appearance will be only the second time that the band has ever graced a St. Louis stage. Drummer Michael Miley has said that the band's firmly committed to giving 110% to each and every audience they play for. If any of the several high-quality live Rival Sons performances available online are any indication, that statement should be proven true time and time again throughout this tour.
Growing up in Bhutan, guitarist Tashi Dorji absorbed any and all music available. With limited access to Western music or media, his musical education came in the form of bootleg classic rock and hair-metal cassettes from India. Upon moving to Asheville, North Carolina as a foreign exchange student, Dorji discovered local DIY punk rock. Punk's immediacy and disregard for technical concerns put the possibility of performing squarely in focus. During this same period, Dorji encountered the music of John Zorn's Naked City, piquing an interest in free jazz and improvisation. This budding interest cemented after a subsequent move to Portland, Maine, where attending free improv shows at outsider hot spot Strange Maine inspired Dorji to make his debut as a performer. Over the last seven years, Dorji has recorded a myriad of solo tapes and LPs for various experimental-minded imprints, including this year's LP Expecting, a collaboration with Shane Parish of Ahleuchatistas.
Dorji's improvisations capture the sound of a guitarist possessing the technical chops of the metal he adored in his adolescence, filtered through the amorphous realm of the "out" music he later discovered. The prevalence of non-western tonalities and tunings displays the subliminal influence of Bhutan's monastic music in the development of Dorji's musical language. While Derek Bailey is a common comparison (and indeed an inspiration), Dorji's music never relies solely on the aurally obtuse. Instead, hints of melody and guttural noise blur together as waves of haunting lyrical lines endlessly tumble over atonal textures.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Tashi Dorji in advance of his performance at KDHX's Magnolia Cafe on Tuesday, August 9. We discussed his musical upbringing, formative experiences with punk and free jazz, and his many upcoming collaborative projects.
AC: When most guitarists, or instrumentalists of any kind, first learn their instrument, they don't instantly jump into extended techniques or experimenting with atonal textures. What kind of music were you hoping to learn when you first started playing, how old were you when you first started playing, and when was the first time that these more experimental sounds or techniques first clicked for you, either as a listener or a player?
TD: When I first started playing guitar – I'm from Bhutan, I grew up there, my family lives there – I think it was middle school, probably around fourteen. I learned a few chords, I saw some friends and other kids playing music. A few people played guitar around. I was fascinated so I started hanging out and learning some chords and some songs and finally bought a nylon string guitar from this Swiss ex-pat who was our neighbor. I think I just wanted to learn songs. The first I learned was "Heart of Gold" by Neil Young or the Doors' "Roadhouse Blues" or something like that. I just wanted to learn. After that I just played whatever I could from whatever I could get ahold of in Bhutan.
AC: So basically just learning whatever was available?
TD: Yeah, whatever we thought was cool and we could get our hands on. Classic rock, mostly metal. Any kind of metal, from Metallica to hair metal [laughs].
AC: Was that the first guitar-based music that you were listening to?
TD: Well, we didn't have CD players. We didn't have TV, not because we couldn't afford it or anything like that, but because most people didn't have TVs back then. My parents ended up getting television and a VHS in 1996 or '97, but that was later. So visually and aurally, my access to music was very limited. A lot of bootleg cassettes. The ones we got had funny titles from India. "Soft Rock Collection" would be Tesla and Europe and Warrant.
AC: On the soft rock collection?
TD: Soft rock, yeah [laughs]. "Easy Listening Rock" or something. I kind of learned anything that kids were playing or knew how to play, classic rock, metal, hair metal. The Eagles were very popular back then, so I heard a lot of "Hotel California." I got into Nirvana when they came out and I think that changed the way I was playing. Bleach was angrier, dirtier, darker. I thought it was kind of wild music compared to the glamor and machismo of the kind of rock 'n' roll I'd been listening to with long solos and lyrics that were less strange and complex.
AC: It feels more accessible in terms of being able to play than something like hair metal.
TD: Yeah [laughs]. No crazy solos running up and down arpeggios.
AC: Was there any music outside of just what was available that you were seeking out or that you were wishing to hear at this time when you were just starting?
TD: I just didn't know anything but what people had. There was a lot of exchanging cassettes. It was pretty cool in a way. Just trading cassettes, mix tapes. A lot of the people I knew were playing were also playing older rock 'n' roll. The Beatles were huge. I remember Elvis and Chuck Berry were really big. I remember learning a lot of Chuck Berry licks and a lot of Beatles when I first started playing – also the Doors. The Doors were super popular.
AC: Were your parents into music? Did they play music in the house?
TD: Yeah, my cousin is actually a really famous Bhutanese folk singer and my mom is a storyteller and traditional flutist. My dad was a really good singer. So it was kind of around. My mom's father was a very important monk, a teacher. I think my mom says I got it from him. He was a lute player and developed a very influential style of traditional Bhutanese music.
Monastic music was very prevalent where I grew up. I'm sure that those tones and notes have been involuntarily internalized in a way. Monastic music happens pretty much everywhere. People have rituals at their houses and ceremonies all the time. The sounds of monks playing big horns and hand drums and cymbals. I didn't think of it musically until one day I remember I was listening to Metallica, I think ...And Justice For All, and my mom came in my room and said, "Why are you listening to this? You should just go monastery. They play the same thing." I still remember that so clearly.
AC: Did you ever directly play traditional music or was that just more around you?
TD: No, I never did. That's a very different realm. You have to study under a specific teacher as a monk. A "layman" will not just play monastic music. You have to know the scriptures and the rituals and perform them according to that discipline. But there is traditional folk music, ballads and lute, but to me it's always been the music of my ancestral past and I've never consciously brought it into my playing.
AC: Was guitar your first instrument?
TD: Yeah, the one and only. When I came to the U.S. I learned how to play old time banjo and fiddle. I also learned how to play a little bit of saxophone, but I'm self-taught.
AC: Talking about limitations in terms of what music was available in Bhutan, upon moving to the U.S. and having greater access to finding out about music and almost having everything at your fingertips, what were the first artists, albums or music in general that you sought out?
TD: I think the first thing that blew my mind was hearing punk music. I went to a small college here. I became friends with some of the kids. I was really into metal and just shredding. My freshman year I would sit on the porch and play guitar. Kids were like, "Oh, you should hang out with this punk kid, he's an amazing guitar player and drummer." So I guess I started hanging out with all these punk kids. They had band practices in their room and they had all these 7-inches of local bands from Richmond. Punk rock was the first platform that opened me up to the world of underground music and DIY. Kids started taking me to shows in town in Asheville. I didn't know what to think. It was crazy: a bunch of grumpy looking kids with leather jackets drinking beer and slamming and dancing. I was an international student too, so I didn't really get it all at first. I remember sticking out being all nicely dressed and at a punk show.
AC: So this was something completely new.
TD: Yeah, so new. I mean, sound-wise I could hear it. I listened to Metallica and Judas Priest and Black Sabbath, but to hear it in a way that was all sloppy and DIY, no solos, just really fast power chords. "Whoa!" That was my initial reaction.
AC: Did you play in any punk bands?
TD: I did. I wasn't seriously in any bands for very long. I got into more "technical" stuff in one band that lasted a year or something. We just played at the college and maybe a couple of shows. It was super layered and arranged stuff. It was fun. It was around the time that I first heard John Zorn. I heard Dillinger Escape Plan and Mr. Bungle. "How do they play like that? I want to play like that!" But also, I was hearing a lot of crust bands like His Hero Is Gone and Tragedy and stuff like that.
AC: What was your first exposure to experimental music or things similar to what you're doing now? Was that all in the states?
TD: Yeah, it was all here in Asheville. One of my very close friends from college, Patrick, he listened to punk stuff back when he was in middle school, so he was very advanced as far as "eclectic" music. I clearly remember he had a bunch of Tzadik CDs that he had brought: Naked City, Masada, one collection that was "new Japanese noise." That was the first time I had heard anything crazy like that. But I had heard bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and A Silver Mt. Zion, bands that were more experimental, but not anything that was radical like Naked City. I think that Naked City was almost my first introduction to free jazz and everything else. That opened me up to listen to a lot of free jazz. Hearing Zorn's band play and knowing that they were influenced by Ornette Coleman and players like that just opened me up. I had wanted to play crazy improvised stuff, but I just wasn't sure what it all meant. There was immediacy and urgency in all these new sound but it took me a while before I started playing my own music. I think I was overwhelmed. I was in a band here and there, just a small project, where we would try things like that, but I didn't understand why or what the intentions and duration of this music meant. It took a while. It wasn't until 2006 or 2007 when I moved to Maine. There's a small record store/bookstore/venue called Strange Maine. It's right downtown in Portland, Maine. When I was in Maine I didn't know anybody, so I used to go there and check out free shows. They had an amazing array of avant-garde, outsider music. I was listening to a lot of Marc Ribot around that time. What changed everything was when I heard Derek Bailey's Standards album. I found that at a record store in a sales bin. It was a five dollar CD. I had heard of his name from somebody who had told me that I should listen to that if I was interested in free jazz guitar players. Listening to Bailey literally changed everything. Just one single record.
AC: That's really cool. That's a really good entry point to Derek Bailey. It's probably his most "lyrical" album if you could say that?
TD: Yeah, it is. A lot of his older stuff is completely radical. It is not easy to digest. "What is going on?!" I heard Standards and then Ballads after that. "Wow, what is this guy doing?"
AC: What bridged the gap from finally starting to improvise to playing in public? And what made you want to improvise solo when you started?
TD: Because I saw some of these people play at that small venue, all of these guitar players. Off and on, I would see them perform. I remember after I got that Derek Bailey album I looked him up online and watched a bunch of live performances. I thought, "Wow, this is so cool. It's possible to do a completely singular style of music and improvise it without any composition." I had always enjoyed playing without any structure. There was another influence actually, way before this. In Bhutan, I heard Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt's album A Meeting By the River. It's incredibly beautiful. It's Indian modified sitar, like a drone guitar. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt is an important teacher and he made this modified guitar and did this hour long improvised session with Ry Cooder. This guy who used to work at a radio station in Bhutan, he was very progressive minded as far as music goes, kind of a wild man, he gave me a cassette of this album and told me, "These guys are making things up and playing together." They're playing in an opening tuning. I remember tuning my guitar into an opening tuning and figuring out later that I could just play in this weird modal guitar style. That really helped me be okay with doing that stuff. It was such a singular style – sitar-style guitar and guitar – but there just wasn't really a chance for me to find someone to play stuff like that with yet.
AC: How does your approach or your headspace differ between playing solo and improvising in a group setting?
TD: I have a band with my friend Thom Nguyen called Manas. We do improvised guitar and drums. I'm mostly playing off him and we're both playing off each other and it's more aggressive. I really want to play improvised music so I can get closer to what those sax players like Albert Ayler played and feel that sense of cathartic achievement of beautiful noise and rhythm and melody. That's the difference. With solo, it's pretty singular and I have very little room to play off of someone else. With a duo setting it's more rhythmic. That's the most prominent signifier: it gets really rhythmic and it's louder.
AC: Do you mostly collaborate with drummers?
TD: So far, yes. I started playing with the Danish saxophone player Mette Rasmussen who plays with Chris Corsano a lot. I played with her in Stockholm last year. I had never played with a sax player before. She's pretty amazing. We were in Stockholm around the same time. I was touring with Godspeed You! Black Emperor and my tour ended there with them. She was there too and she was playing a festival. We just met up and played a smaller show somewhere in Stockholm. We met up again and we made a plan to record and tour Canada because she can come to Canada easily. We played last month at a festival in Montreal as a duo. I was also touring with my friend Tyler Damon, a percussionist. We have an LP coming out in a month or so on Family Vineyard. It's a great label. We were doing a duo tour from here to Canada and when we met up with Bette we did a duo show at the festival and then we did a trio. That was the first time I'd played in a trio in a more free improvised setting. I've played mostly with percussionists. I played a show with Greg Fox and Shahzad Ismaily. He was playing the bass. That was very different. He was one of the most lyrical bass players I'd ever met. I would have to be very restrained to hear him do all of this musical stuff. "Okay, I can't just noise over that." [laughs]
AC: I wanted to talk to you about recording. When you're recording solo, are you thinking in terms of the record as a whole or are you thinking of just making a document of each improvisation and going from there? How do you decide which improvisations to use when you listen back to everything?
TD: I think that really depends on where I'm recording and what kind of context that I'm doing it in. Sometimes I have an idea for the record as a whole but it always changes once you are recording. I just recorded for VDSQ for that new LP that came out [VDSQ Solo Acoustic Vol. 13]. It was just one session that was an hour. I had a lot of ideas, but I wanted to do a record where I have a lot of melodic moments and really short pieces. I think that was the form that I went in with, and it came out exactly as I had expected in a way.
When I play it's always different. It does its own thing. When I improvise and it's in a longer form I can cut it off and make it into songs. Most of the time I record [a piece] as a track. In practice, there's really no restriction. I just go in and do it and that's it.
AC: So really just dependent on how much time you have.
TD: How much time or how much money I have [laughs]. "Okay, I'll go in for an hour and then I'm out." So I get it done [laughs].
AC: What releases and collaborations do you planned for the future?
TD: I recorded with Mette Rasmussen. We have tons of recordings and once we get everything edited I'm sure it'll be out on LP or some form and some label will hopefully put it out. I have a split coming out on this label called Unrock out of Krefeld, Germany. I went to Krefeld and recorded live and it's going to be a split with a violinist, a very prolific musician named Eyvind Kang. He's on everyone's record. He plays with Sunn O))), John Zorn, Masada, and he plays a lot with Bill Frisell. He's a heavy hitter. I'm really shocked that they even asked me to play with him. It's going to be a 7-inch and a full LP split. I have a duo record with Tyler Damon coming out on Family Vineyard sometime. I'm recording with this artist from the UK. She's American. Her name is Ashley Paul. She's a sax player and a guitar player and she sings. She's pretty incredible. We're going to record sometime soon for a couple of days. Also, I might record with this percussionist, Ben Bennett. He has a very different style. He doesn't use a full kit. He only uses a snare drum and a lot of other things, like a hand drum. It's very outsider, very "out" stuff. I plan to record with Greg Fox sometime soon, hopefully when I get time. There are many. I talked to Chris Corsano about playing with him. A lot of drummers. Hopefully it will change once things move, shift. I also recorded with Michael Zerang and C Spencer Yeh. We recorded a year ago in Baltimore. We played the same festival and recorded. I'm sure once we get it all done, it will be out on LP or some form.
AC: So there's a lot of stuff to look forward to.
TD: There's a lot of stuff, yeah. I'm probably going to put less solo LPs and focus on more collaborative stuff.
AC: From when you first started playing to now, how have you seen your playing evolve and where do you think you're going?
TD: That's a hard question. When I first started, I was confident. I think that's an important factor in playing improvisational music and the duration aspects of it, how long you can play, that kind of stuff. I've realized recently that I can play longer, improvise longer without feeling like I should stop or that I'm sounding bad. The gaze of the audience is not hindering me or keeping me from being able to use my full potentiality in creating something that people would like or that is going to be "worth the time." I think that's something that has become more evolved. Playing wise, I'm starting to navigate the guitar more aggressively and try to figure out different sounds. Playing with a sax player opens up this whole other way of playing, a more radical approach to improvising. I think I've been starting to play more "punk." It's going into this cyclical thing where I'm going back to what I first heard and I'm trying to incorporate that into everything I do.