Tradition and Experiment: An Interview with Tashi Dorji
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.