When Colin Stetson straps on his bass saxophone, he looks like he’s girding up for war. This is the bass saxophone we’re talking about, not the baritone; the bass saxophone is the musical instrument that most resembles a rocket launcher.
Stetson’s solo performances—which is what he does when he’s not performing with Arcade Fire, Laurie Anderson, Antibalas, or as a member of Bell Orchestre—can be an all-out assault, involving sheets of sound ripped from the bell of his sax, woven together with relentless arpeggios—all delivered via circular breathing.
Stetson, who grew up in Michigan and lived in Brooklyn and San Francisco before moving to Montreal, is not the kind of guy to stand on a street corner and serenade you with “Harlem Nocturne.” He’s less interested in melody than he is in every acoustical property possibly found on his saxophone: the percussive clicks and clacks; the non-notatable sounds of wind moving through it; the resonance of a room; the sound of his voice amplified through the saxophone, with or without the reed in play.
All of that makes him a skilled player, and anyone who witnessed an early solo show or heard his 2008 debut album, New History of Warfare Vol. 1, could attest. And his capacity for subtlety is part of the reason why the likes of Tom Waits (Alice), Bon Iver (the upcoming album), and TV on the Radio (Return to Cookie Mountain) have all enlisted him for studio recordings.
His new album, Judges: New History of Warfare Vol. 2, is a different beast entirely. Compositionally and sonically superior to its predecessor, Judges finds Stetson moving beyond the obvious—dare I say—gimmick of his solo show into the realm of emotionally engaging and enrapturing material.
He claims there’s an overarching narrative running through both albums, something about the societal structures of a group of shipwrecked sailors and blind horses rigged with automatic weapons. This will all one day make it into a graphic novel. Thankfully, he didn’t ask guest vocalists Anderson or Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) to provide explicit exposition; instead, they’re almost distractions from the pleasure of getting lost inside his very private soundworld. Stetson does everything else himself, and records it live: there are no loops, overdubs or other trickery, other than some strategic mic placement.
I didn’t feel like asking him about the sci-fi narrative; I think those things are best left to a listener’s imagination.
Judges was released on Tuesday by Montreal's Constellation Records. Stetson performs with Laurie Anderson on Jimmy Fallon tonight.
February 6, 2011
Locale: phone from his home in Montreal
In performance, there’s an aspect of it that’s very meditative, there are parts that are ominous, parts that are ecstatic, and part of it is an all-out assault at times. What do you hope people take away from it when they’re witnessing it?
That was pretty good, what you just said. For me, that sums up a lot of my process, my experience of it. There is the ecstatic, but there is also the element of physical suffering, which then gets into the mind, because there’s pain involved. There’s a weird balance you get when you’re in certain states and dealing with oxygen deprivation. It’s like running a marathon or some kind of physical feat, where there is a lot of satisfaction but a lot of mixed emotion. What I hope people get from it is any one of those things that they feel causes a reaction. I feel like music is there to tell stories and cause a reaction. If they are there and it affects them in any way—emotionally, physically or otherwise—then that’s good.
It’s very hard to ignore. It is a physical experience to witness it—though obviously not as physical as you actually doing it. It’s not music to chat at the bar over.
No, that’s not my intention.
But to play devil’s advocate: someone at the bar might say, ‘Why do I want to listen to a guy practice arpeggios and his breathing technique?’
If that’s all that people are seeing then I’d prefer that they all left. It’s not a geek show—although I understand that there’s an element of that, the spectacle of seeing a guy sweat and turn red and do freaky shit.
Like weightlifting, really.
But the point of it is the music. I’m not doing these things for the sake of doing these things, of saying ‘look what I can do.’ Those are the things I have to do to make that music, and I hope people are hearing and experiencing and being moved by that music. If they’re not engaged in it musically in any way, there’d be no reason for them to be at the bar still.
I’ve seen you perform twice, but I can’t recall if you ever actually explain what’s happening on stage, that there’s no pedals involved.
I rarely say anything about that. Sometimes people will yell out things or ask a question and I’ll say something about it. Mostly I find the only reason for doing that would be to let everyone know that I’m working hard up there. Musically, I don’t think it changes anything, so it would be an awkward thing to have to say. Sometimes people will go to the soundman and ask them about what pedals I was using. But even when people are told, they don’t believe me, so I don’t care anymore. It’s noted on the records, but there’s a certain lack of imagination, I think. I’ve had interviewers say, “Well, your record says there are no loops or overdubs, but really, what’s your process?” Why do you think I would lie about that?
It is so uncommon, especially with so many shortcuts available these days, for someone to invest in the physicality of such a thing. How much does mic placement play a role on stage?
It depends on the size of the show. I prefer to do acoustic shows, resonant spaces like churches, warehouses, concert halls, places that accept a lot of sound and actually enhance it. But that’s not often the case, and I’m usually playing through PAs. Then I use an extremely stripped-down pile of mics: an internal mic, which is key for getting the fundamental low end of the instruments; I use a clip-on external mic, which gives the overall shine of the bell; I sometimes use a throat contact mic and contact mic on the instrument for percussion.
But I rarely use all that; it’s too many wires to deal with. When the show is acoustic, all those things are in play: you’ll hear the percussion, you’ll hear the vocalization. The only reason I do more miking for large shows is the further away people are, the more the PA is giving off the sound, and I want more things to be represented. A lot of things are lost when you only have one tiny microphone providing a snapshot of the overall instrument. But there’s never a way to capture things the way I want to during the recording process.
Part of what makes this record come alive compared to the first one is the mix, the sense of space.
Everything was bigger with this record. The first one was my first attempt at this notion of multi-miking and creating a surrealist reality within the context of the recording medium. The room was much smaller; we only used hover mics, no contact mics or internal mics. The Hotel 2 Tango [Constellation’s in-house studio, where the new album was made] is a massive space, so there were a lot of things that could be miked.
When did you decide to devote yourself to solo performance rather than forming your own band?
I’ve been doing occasional solo performances since my mid-20s, but they were more in the genre of free jazz and improv. I was dealing with some of these themes and techniques, but in much more of a stream of consciousness, improvised way. The shows resembled some of the things I was doing now, but over the years they developed into through composed pieces.
It was probably around 2005 that I started to focus on the solo pieces, I think because I was really busy in New York, playing with tons of bands, and having a hard time feeling like I had a focus. Me and my best friend Stuart Bogie [of Antibalas], who is an amazing sax player in New York City, his advice was to strip things down and start from a place with just a couple of projects. So I quit a bunch of things and stopped the hustle, and started focusing on the solo project and just a couple of key projects.
When did circular breathing become an essential part of what you do?
I’ve been doing that since I was 15. When I was in high school, I was a classical player primarily. My teacher at the time, Christopher Creviston, he was a phenomenal classical player and the big inspiration for me getting more involved in music. One of the things he taught me right away was circular breathing. His reasoning was that a lot of the pieces we played were transcriptions of string pieces. String players don’t need to breathe, so they don’t have to make the same choices we do because of breath. He used it as a means to overcome that. Also, in the teenage classical scene when you’re playing competitions, it’s flashy and it’s impressive and it wins you shit! ‘Use this and you’ll win.’ It totally worked. I got a scholarship to college because of that.
Forgive my ignorance, but is it something anybody can learn, or do some people have a natural capacity for it?
No, it’s very easy to do. The actual act of doing it is very simple. It’s like riding a bike. As soon as your brain overcomes the natural unwillingness to allow your body to do it, when you do it once, then you have it. The process of breathing in while breathing out is simple. What is hard is doing it while doing other shit—the muscle control of everything while you’re doing the intake/outtake.
And then there’s the amount of breath required to play a bass saxophone, too.
You need to send up a lot of air up that instrument. When you’re doing the intake/outtake, you have to keep an enormous amount of pressure on there to keep up the volume you want. You use a lot of diaphragm and face muscle. The technique itself is really secondary. The only thing that has come into play for me is that now I have the ability to breathe in and out through my nose while breathing out through my mouth, which allows me to play softly and with more nuance. It’s an ongoing process, like anything else physical. People in yoga or running talk about this, how it’s this path you get on and you never stop learning.
The bass saxophone itself, there’s an inherent physicality to it whether you’re circular breathing or not. What drew you to it? Where did you find one?
I’d wanted to play it since I was in college. We had one in university that nobody ever played, and I occasionally took it out for a spin. I played a lot of baritone in college, and always loved the low end of things more. I appreciated the depth and breadth of overtone that you can obtain, and the power.
But it’s hard to find good bass saxophones, and when you do, they’re really expensive. I found one on eBay in 2005, out of the blue. It was a beautiful 100-year-old instrument going for a really low price. I couldn’t figure out what could be wrong with it, and neither could my repairman. So I was playing this ridiculous show called the Jammies—which is like the Grammys for jam-band music—in the most awesome band ever, which was Medeski Martin and Wood as the rhythm section, with Antibalas horn section, and Burning Spear and Sinead O’Connor singing. It was so amazing, so out there…
See, I saw all those people on your resumé, but I didn’t realize that was all at just one gig.
I know, that’s where you cheat with your resumé! So that night we were just about to go on and my eBay auction was coming up, and my friend and I just sat there hitting refresh. And we won; I got it a few weeks later. That was one of those dark moments when you finally get the thing you’ve wanted your whole life, and then you open it up and you start playing it and you realize that it’s fucking hard and you sound like shit on it. I always assumed it was just the same but a bit bigger—but it’s a lot bigger.
It’s about twice the size of a baritone, isn’t it?
Yeah, by the sheer size of the pipe and the width of it, yeah. It took a lot of training to get to a place where I could start making music with it.
After first seeing you live several years ago, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to buy the record. It was months later that I did. Hearing this new one, it’s obvious that there’s more composition and emotional resonance than something experienced only in the moment live. When I was watching it I wondered if it was something that only existed in the moment; the new CD answers that question for me.
They are two completely different experiences. When you present live music, all the things that are in play make a unique experience: you’re physically there, the sound is in the air and is touching your body. You’re experiencing it with your physiology, with your understanding, and with everyone else who is there. When you’re listening to a record, none of those things are in play. I don’t think you should approach it the same way. That’s why I try to make a unique experience out of this medium, so that it is not in any way trying to emulate the live experience, because you’ll always fall flat if you try to do that. I want to create something equally moving and informative. I come back to Haruki Murakami, who is my favourite writer, who achieves something I try to do with these records, which is to present this world as fact. I try to make a record like a Haruki Murakami novel.
Could you elaborate? What do you mean, creating a world with accepted parameters with an understanding of what happens within that world?
He’s not writing science fiction, but he’s not writing in this reality. His reality is his own, and you just accept it as you read along. You don’t accept it in a way that you’re envisioning another world or a different time or whatever. It’s just: this is the story, and this is its reality. There is a matter-of-factness that he demands and creates in a reader. It was the most impressive thing for me, so I’ve always wanted to achieve the same thing with these records, with this music. I’ve even ripped off some titles from his writing.
Maybe you should get him to appear on your next one. Why get Laurie Anderson or Shara Worden on this record? What role do their voices play on this record?
I always wanted to have human speech as an element; it’s the one thing the music is lacking. I wanted there to be some kind of abstract narrative, not in any way literal or having a vocalist for all these pieces.
With the first record, it was done quickly and in a haphazard way. We ended up using samples of talks by Buckminster Fuller. When I was first thinking about making these records, the recording process was the idea of the geodesic dome. We were going to take the three-dimensional sound, the reality of what’s happening in the studio, and capture it with as many mics as we can. We’d call that the dome, and then unfold it and fold it up again in a new way, creating a new reality from all the snapshots that we took. I grabbed some things that he said that I thought were creating this abstract narrative.
I had been working with Laurie for a little while, for the whole course of writing this new record, and I asked her if she wanted to do something. Her words and her voice are magic; there’s really nobody with her ability to, again, with one sentence can draw you into her world, something all of her creation. So I jumped at the opportunity for her to contribute, to be that voice. Shara I had been working with in The Long Count, and we’d talked about doing something together anyway. This record is inspired by a lot of American pre-war gospel music, and a lot of the writing was based on work songs, to have that inherent sadness and transcendence. I found a song that I thought would be perfect for the two of us to do in this way.
What was it you said you worked with her on? The Long Count?
Yes, Aaron and Bryce Dessner from the National teamed up with the Deal sisters and wrote this thing based on the Mayan calendar and its creation myth. It was a whole thing about twins. I was part of the group that played the music for it, and did some of my solo stuff in the context of it, and Shara was the main voice in it. She has this otherworldly haunting voice. Having her voice represent this part of this record helped create this element of a lost space, a lost people hunting, that was isolated geographically and through time and evolved in its own way, unfettered by outside power.
Laurie Anderson’s words here—was that a text she had lying around, or did you ask her to write something on the theme of the record?
I gave her very little to go on, and what I ended up giving her was that the album was about isolation, with themes of fear and transcendence. She just went ahead and riffed. The second to last song on the record, with both Shara and Laurie on it, was something that I had asked them both to do simultaneously, independent of one another, and I got both of theirs back on the same day. I pressed play on them both at the same time and I freaked out. They seemed to read each other’s minds, which was awesome.
What else is on your plate now? I know you were performing new works with Laurie Anderson in the fall, post-Homeland. What was she doing?
All last year we were doing her stage show Delusions. I think we’re done with that at this point, and she wants to do smaller musical projects. The two of us are talking about collaborating on some more stuff. I think we’re playing on Jimmy Fallon in a couple of weeks. [Tonight, actually, Thursday, February 24.]
Is she recording Delusions?
I don’t think so. Some of the stuff from Delusions was on Homeland, so that would be somewhat redundant. But I wouldn’t rule it out. So I’ll be working with her, I’ll be doing solo stuff, I might be playing again with Sway Machinery, which is a band I’ve been in for years. And come June I start to rehearse with Bon Iver and we’re going to hit the road in July for that new release.
What’s the lineup of that band?
It’s the original four, and then the four of us who orchestrated this new record, and one other, and that’s the touring band.
Anything happening with Bell Orchestre in the near future? Are you still a part of it?
Yeah, whenever it happens. I’m sure it will, but I’ve had no word yet. It’s a thing that’s very difficult to function when Arcade Fire is so busy. So when they finish in September or something—I’m not sure when they’re done—I’m sure Bell Orchestre will do something.
Will you be in Toronto any time soon?
Yeah, I’m playing the jazz festival. I forget the venue, but it’s on June 28.
I understand you just got back from Europe with Godspeed.
Yes, and then a solo show in New York and a show in Quebec City with Tim Hecker.
I just had a baby two months ago and Tim Hecker is perfect baby-whisperer music. Whereas your album, on the other hand, he likes to cry along with.
I’ve heard that before, actually. Old friends of mine brought their newborn to a San Francisco show a couple of years ago, and the baby liked to cry along in tune.