Heavy Metal Be-Bop #3: Interview with Trevor Dunn
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I'd been playing in the insanely complicated Fantômas with the strikingly talented Trevor Dunn since 1998, and I knew if he could pull off playing those nightmarish songs, he could handle learning the Houdini record with practically no rehearsal. It was perfect. Trevor's a charming cat, besides, we felt sorry for the little fella because he's really only been involved in the drowsy, headache-inducing, goose-honking New York 'jazz' scene.— Buzz Osborne of Melvins, liner notes to Houdini Live: 2005
Here at the dawn of the 21st century, the idea of being an 'eclectic' musician is old news. Fusions of all kinds, genre-shifting, and layering have been with us, at this point, far too long to calculate. Today, as a member of the audience, I'm not sure I could even hold a conversation with someone who hasn't spent time listening to Slayer and Webern and Mingus… As a professional musician, I am expected to reference nearly any style conceivable, whether than means appropriating a 'latin feel', differentiating between grindcore and speed metal, or knowing the changes to 'Stella' .— Trevor Dunn, Arcana II: Musicians on Music (2007)
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Make Venn diagrams of the jazz and metal worlds, and study the overlap: that's pretty much where Trevor Dunn lives. The bassist made his name working with intergenre visionaries Mike Patton (first in the loopy avant-rock outfit Mr. Bungle, and then in the more extreme Fantômas alongside Buzz Osborne and Dave Lombardo) and John Zorn (in bands such as Electric Masada and Moonchild, another Patton-fronted project). As a composer, Dunn shares Patton and Zorn's interest in stylistic hybrids - his Trio-Convulsant gives fusion a refreshing overhaul - but what sets him apart from those willfully fringey artists is his extensive experience playing jazz and metal in more or less their natural states.
Dunn's recent work tends to focus on one style at a time. Over the past few years, he has immersed himself in the progressive wing of the Brooklyn jazz community, working with trombonist Curtis Hasselbring's New Mellow Edwards; the collective quartet Endangered Blood; his own Ornette Coleman tribute band, PROOFReaders; and a bunch of other groups. At the same time, Dunn has guest-starred frequently with Melvins. No one would call any of these various gigs straightforward, but what they have in common is that they're not - like, say, Mr. Bungle - predicated on zipping between genres. Dunn's latest bandleading venture, the dramatic alternative-rock group MadLove, follows the same principle. As he put it in an earlier interview, it's a band that's "congruous to itself".
In short, Trevor Dunn knows better than most what it's like to play honest-to-god rock and metal as well as honest-to-god jazz. Thus, he was a no-brainer choice for a Heavy Metal Be-Bop chat. We met in March to discuss his varied career, what it was like to study composition and play in Mr. Bungle simultaneously, trying to get Buzz Osborne into Herbie Hancock, letting go of technique when necessary, and much more. Afterward, we listened to a few records.
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When did jazz and metal come into your life?
I was learning about them both at the same time, basically - in high school. Once I started playing electric bass, my older brother was playing guitar, and he was getting me into rock music. But then in the '80s, I was taking private lessons and I had teachers turning me on to all these great bass players - a lot of fusion guys, mostly. But at the same time, I was in high school from '82 to '86, and I was totally riding the crest of metal the whole time, following the progression of it. I mean, that movie Heavy Metal had an influence on me, the animated film, and getting the soundtrack for it and hearing about all these bands. And going from rock music slowly into heavier and heavier music, and then Metallica came out, and then Slayer, and pretty soon, it was all about how fast a drummer could play double bass. And by the time I graduated in '86, Reign in Blood came out, and that was the pinnacle.
In the meantime, my friend was working at this record store, and he'd get a bunch of records and bring them over to my house after work, and I'd tape them all - all these obscure European metal bands. Some [were] more obscure than others. I was really into Mercyful Fate and Exodus, these bands that were doing, I thought, really interesting things. But at the same time, I was learning to play Charlie Parker tunes on electric bass like Jaco [Pastorius] and listening to my first Miles Davis record. So I guess I had my friends in high school, and we were listening to metal together, and then I'd go home and practice and check out jazz. But for me, it was all just music.
Since you had such a level playing field re: metal and jazz, do you remember drawing parallels between the genres at the time?
A little bit, yeah, because I was writing. I was playing some guitar then, too, and in the early days of Mr. Bungle, we were a metal band, so I was writing songs on guitar and trying to explore harmony and composition to whatever degree that I understood it at that point. But [I was] definitely learning about jazz harmony and somehow applying that in my writing. I mean, I wasn't trying to make, like, heavy jazz, but I was [thinking], "Oh wow, man, flat 9, that's a cool, dissonant interval, that can work in metal" - even though, to this day, harmony is something that's not really explored that much in metal. I mean, [it has been] more so in the past 10 or 15 years.
I was also influenced by classical music, hearing Stravinsky's Rite of Spring or this American composer Vincent Persichetti, who wrote a lot of music for high school bands and stuff, but it was kind of atonal or pan-tonal, and I remember learning bass parts on that at school and thinking, "Oh man, that could be a cool metal riff". So it was all harmony and rhythm to me. I guess having a band was the way to express that. It's not like I could write an orchestral piece in high school and get it played. And that was the great thing about Bungle, was that we just did whatever the hell we wanted, and we all took influences from all over the place.
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So that band started when you were in high school?
Yeah, I was a senior in high school, and we just started getting together and playing. I met Trey [Spruance], the guitar player, and we had a music theory class in high school, which was pretty unheard of (laughs), and he and I were like, "Man, we've got to play music together", and I was already playing with [Mike] Patton and some other metal cover band. So, yeah, we immediately started playing metal covers and slowly started writing stuff. And you know, Trey had a theory background too, so yeah, [we were] definitely applying some of that stuff. Even in college, I would learn something in theory class, some weird cadence, and I'd be like, "Oh wow, maybe I could apply that to a metal riff, even it's it's obscured somehow".
So you guys were playing metal straightforwardly at that time?
Yeah, I remember the first time me and Trey and the original [Mr. Bungle] drummer got together, I think we played a Slayer song, Metallica, Anthrax - the Big Four (laughs). And I mean that's right when those records were out, and we were just devouring them. And it's funny - thinking back on it now, it reminds me of the way jazz musicians get together: "We all know these standard tunes". And this is just a bunch of high school kids being like, "Oh yeah, I know 'Whiplash' by Metallica. Let's play that". So that's how that started, and then immediately, yeah, we started writing and trying to explore different stuff.
And did you have experience playing straight-ahead jazz at that time?
Well, in high school, I was in a stage band. It was like a big band, basically. That's where I learned how to read changes and how to play walking bass lines. It wasn't really formal jazz training, but on the other hand, I was taking private lessons for bass and getting my technique together with that. And I also took some guitar lessons, trying to learn jazz harmony. So, yeah, all this was kind of happening at the same time. And there was a jazz vocal group in high school, and sometimes they'd ask me to accompany them on bass.
You mentioned Jaco [Pastorius] before, and I'm curious about your interest in fusion at that time. Were you checking out bands like Mahavishnu [Orchestra]?
Yeah, yeah. My first two private bass teachers were really great, and they turned me on to these Carol Kaye method books, and I had this one teacher who made me a mixtape, and it was just a bunch of excerpts of bass stuff - nothing was listed on the tape, so I never knew what it was until years later. But it turns out a lot of it was Sly Stone, and there was definitely some Jaco stuff and Stanley Clarke and maybe some Parliament or something. But Stanley Clarke and Return to Forever were some of the first things that I listened to. I think hearing fusion, it was like jazz presented in a rock format, sort of. It was loud, and Stanley Clarke's, like, playing fifths on the bass. I think somehow that made the transition into jazz proper easier for me, coming from a rock background. It's like, "Oh, this is kind of like rock". But I was also interested in technique and trying to play fast, trying to learn scales and stuff like that, and [with] Jaco and Stanley Clarke and all those guys, it was like, "Oh man, cool - these guys are shredding. I want to do that".
Then at the same time, I was listening to Rush. And I was trying to think of some things to play before you came over, and I was listening to Return to Forever, and it kind of reminded me of Rush, and it makes sense. I mean, Rush is how I learned to play in 7. And I remember hearing that Lenny White, the drummer in Return to Forever, didn't read music. I don't know if that's true or not, but that's kind of insane, considering that music (laughs).
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Mr. Bungle - "Carry Stress in the Jaw"
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Obviously in Mr. Bungle, there was a collage thing going on, fusing different styles, but later you were involved in stuff that was more self-consciously fusing jazz and metal, with John Zorn and things like that. And I'm wondering when this idea of shoving those two things together came on your radar.
Yeah, well, it's funny, in college - at Humboldt State, in Northern California - I was playing in the big band. I was doing a bunch of stuff in college: playing in the orchestra, playing in the jazz band, and also Mr. Bungle was active at that time. And Trey and Danny [Heifetz], the drummer in Bungle, also played in the big band in college. We all played together in that band. And Bungle used to drive up on campus after hours and rehearse in the big band room (laughs). And we were all, by day, reading big-band charts and at night, we'd work on Bungle stuff. And I think naturally there was some crossover with that stuff. Trey actually was playing trumpet in the big band, not guitar, and Danny actually also played trumpet as a secondary instrument. I was also trying to write jazz tunes and writing for Bungle and learning about orchestration. So somehow it all just got thrown in the blender. There's a tune on the second Mr. Bungle record, "Carry Stress in the Jaw", where I had this idea about merging speed metal and bebop-style fast swing, just like a fast-tempo thing. And actually in that same tune, there's a section that's sort of a blatant nod to Tim Berne, because I was really into his record Fractured Fairy Tales .
I remember actually the first time I heard that music, I was living at home, and I turned on the TV and David Sanborn's Night Music was on, and Herb Robertson's there with the plunger mute going nuts, and I was like, "What the fuck?" because I mean, I lived in Eureka. I never saw music like that. Luckily, the show repeated the next week, and I found out who it was, and I remember asking my jazz professors, "Who's this guy Tim Berne?" And of course, nobody knew. And finally I had to go to San Francisco, which I had to do to buy records I was interested in, and I remember finding it at Tower, and I bought it on vinyl. So his music, especially his sextet records, they're really dense, and I just like that in general about music, and there's a lot of aggression. [Is not] not necessarily aggression, but to me, that sort of intensity, whether it's jazz or rock is always interesting.
I think when I was writing that Bungle stuff, I was certainly conscious of that: "Okay, I'm merging styles here". And, of course, the first Naked City record - that was one of those records that all of us in Bungle were like, "Wow, somebody understands! Someone's gonna understand our music". That was one of those records that we all appreciated at the same time. Because with that band, we didn't always all listen to the same stuff, but there were several things that we all latched onto together.
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So John Zorn produced the first Mr. Bungle record?
Yeah, basically we were bouncing around ideas for producers and, actually - it's funny - one of the two guys we thought of was Frank Zappa. None of us were actually really Zappa fans, but we just thought he would "get" us. But we contacted him, and he was too busy. And we thought about Thomas Dolby, just because we liked the sound of his records, and he was insanely expensive. And then the Naked City record came out, and we basically just introduced ourselves to Zorn in San Francisco.
We'd written and recorded everything before he got there. And then he came in and sort of actually put the reins on us a little bit, kept us from going crazy, because it was our first record, and we were like, "How many tracks…?" We always did that, like (nerdy voice), "Look, there's two minutes of space in the middle of the percussion track! We've gotta jam something in there. Let's put a sample of a pinball machine or something like that". And Zorn helped us to keep from going overboard in that respect. I mean, we were all in our early twenties then, so you just don't know, you know? That's how we met him, and immediately he started hiring some of us for his gigs, which was cool.
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I'm curious about your exposure to not just Naked City but also, say, Painkiller and Last Exit. because that was a different thing. I read another interview with you where you talked about the cut-and-paste aesthetic you might hear in Naked City versus a more integrated fusion concept like you might hear in Painkiller, a more holistic thing. I'm wondering if Painkiller had any impression on you in that respect.
Not really. I kind of came on to them later, I guess. It's funny - the cut-and-paste thing personally never really resonated that much with me in my own writing. It's not the way I like to write. I mean, I can appreciate it, and those Naked City records, especially Torture Garden - to me those records are hilarious. I laugh out loud when I listen to that stuff. But in terms of my own writing, it's not really my style. But I don't know if I can really say why.
After peaking with metal in '86, I kind of stopped listening to it for a while, and that's when I was really getting into composition and studying 20th-century composers, and I guess that kind of style of writing is more integrated, dealing with themes throughout an entire piece. And I utilized those concepts in Mr. Bungle, too. I wrote a piece that had a 12-tone row for Bungle too - "Phlegmatics" - because I was, like, "Man, I want to write a 12-tone row in a rock band", and trying to use theme-and-variation and those kinds of techniques as opposed to traditional rock song forms or cut-and-paste, this would be another way that appealed to me.
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Along those lines, I'm interested in this idea of genres. You were talking about the idea of each song being more "congruous" to itself, the idea of being OK with the rules of a genre. And it's interesting that you started off in Mr. Bungle, a band that collided genres off one another and then progressed later to, "OK, I just want to be in this one place and be okay with it." I think it's the opposite of how a lot of people would move.
The first Miles record I had was Nefertiti, which is a really weird record. There's not a lot of actual blowing in it; it's just kind of these songs. And it's pretty open harmonically. It's not Kind of Blue (laughs). Also, I was really into Scott LaFaro. He was one of the first bass players I was into, and he's totally not a traditional, walking kind of guy. He's playing all over the bass the whole time. And Anthony Braxton was one of the first guys I got into early, and then I went from there almost backwards; I started getting into Coltrane, early Miles, and bebop and stuff. And, still: I just got into Lennie Tristano recently. So yeah, I definitely have a backwards approach, I guess.
And Mr. Bungle was, I think, consciously sort of a reactionary band. We were not interested in being rock stars. We were sort of making fun of the concept of a rock star - a guy onstage with his shirt open and long hair - which is part of why we wore masks, just to kind of make fun of it. And also, we wanted to write rock music that was not traditional. That was a conscious decision on our part. At the same time, we were watching MTV in the early '90s, and we were influenced by all that stuff and enjoying some of it but also reacting to it in the music we came up with, so it was sometimes like a direct parody of traditional rock forms. And also I think metal had an influence on us, too, in that way, because metal forms are so through-composed, like riff after riff. And we wrote songs like that all the time, where the form is ABCDEFG, like nothing ever repeats. Definitely as I've gotten older, I'm more interested in writing a simple song that's good, or writing a melody. Maybe that's a typical sentiment, being older.
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I'm interested in talking about Trio-Convulsant, because there the effect is different than the multi-genre thing of something like Mr. Bungle or Naked City. It's putting these two different styles together, but not necessarily as this surprise or shock thing, but more as tools of composition. Where is that music coming from?
Part of it was listening to jazz and being frustrated that it wasn't heavy or abrasive enough, and then listening to rock music and being dissatisfied it wasn't harmonically adventurous enough. So [it was] basically trying to combine those things. I think of that band as just a combination of two things: jazz and rock, which is kind of what fusion is, but I also don't want it to be a fusion band. I want it to be more like old jazz and new rock. The idea of playing jazz chords - they're some of the most dissonant chords in music, aside from Xenakis or Penderecki or stuff like that. But in terms of having a band, why not play some crazy jazz chord loud and distorted? It's just gonna make it that much more in-your-face and effective.
You're a musician who in the past has been known for using genre juxtaposition, with Mr. Bungle, and you're bringing that into Trio-Convulsant. How do you keep it surprising if it's known in advance that you're coming from that sensibility?
When I write music, I just try to basically entertain myself, like write what I would want to hear. If I'm sick of doing one thing for too much, I'll stop and do something else. So, that's one of the reasons that Trio-Convulsant hasn't played in a while, because I just got burned out on that book of songs and didn't want to play them anymore. And I'm actually starting to think about a new concept for that band, and really that's just about the influences I've had since the last time we played.
I never want to make the same record twice, ultimately, which a lot of bands - especially rock bands - do. I feel like, OK, I've written that kind of song or that kind of record, and now I want to evolve and grow. So I don't necessarily think about how can I keep people interested or surprised. It's more about what's going to keep me interested, keep me writing. I don't know if that really answers your question, but I like the idea of doing something really simple, and maybe people aren't expecting that. But of course, I could come after that with something else that's completely insane. They're all possibilities for me, really.
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Going back to what you were saying about how jazz wasn't heavy enough and rock wasn't harmonically complex enough, it makes me think about the difficulties of finding people to play with when you're doing a project like Trio-Convulsant. I know you've worked in both these worlds so much. How do you find the right people to work on this fusion kind of concept with?
That's a good question. Part of it is just discovering people as you go through life, meeting musicians and playing with them. For instance, when I met Mary [Halvorson] and heard her play, I thought, "Oh man, I love what she's doing guitarwise - I feel like that would work in my trio. It's so what I'm hearing". And that's how that came about. And Fantômas, which isn't my band, but Patton's - when he first put that band together, he was trying to decide who was gonna play drums and guitar, and he said he just looked at his record collection and thought of his favorite players and his favorite bands, and he thought, "Fuck it, I'm just gonna call Dave Lombardo and Buzz Osbourne and give it a shot". And they were both into it. So actually that move in itself was inspiring to me, like, "Wow, you can just do that! You can call your heroes and jam with them".
So, yeah, it seems like more musicians these days - they don't put as many restrictions on themselves as they used to. When I was in high school, there was a great divide between even metal and punk. I remember going to a party once with a couple of my friends, and it was a bunch of punks. We were clearly metalheads; we had long hair. And somebody put on Suicidal Tendencies, and we were like, "Oh, we love this record - this is great!" And these punks were like, "What?!? You like this?" I was also into bands like COC and DRI, these kind of crossover bands. I sort of looked up to punks, whereas the actual metalheads, the stoner guys, hated the punks. There was just this cultural divide for no reason at all other than fear, basically. But to me it was like, "Man, the music…" That why I started liking punk, because it was kind of like metal.
So now you've got people like Craig Taborn, who's a jazz pianist that goes to metal shows. And Zorn was a guy like that. I remember hanging out with him when he was working on the first Bungle record and being really surprised that this guy knew so much about all kinds of stuff. So it's really just a matter of personalities attracting each other really. That's how you find people to play weird music.
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When you're working in the jazz setting, I'm guessing there are a lot of situations where people you're playing with don't have that background in metal. Is there ever a communication divide, or are you just putting on a different hat?
Yeah, it's more like putting on a different hat. It goes both ways. Some of the rock guys I play with, they like to give me shit about playing jazz - "Oh man, you playing the Jazz Hole again?" Which is a Simpsons reference, I think. Or "goose-honking" - "You playing that goose-honking music again?" But, actually, I have to say: I play in a lot of different bands, and they're always a different world, whether I'm doing some stuff with Zorn or Chris Speed or the Melvins or whoever, it's always kind of a different hat; it's a different culture in a way. There's a whole different language going on. But I think musically, it's just a matter of me going into that world. I don't really consider myself a jazz bass player or a rock bass player. I guess I started with rock music, electric bass, but I don't have any formal jazz training, so there's a lot of bass players out there that I consider way more versed in jazz than I am. But I still love to do it and still have my own approach to it, I think. And I think that just has something to do with the path that I've taken in life.
When I graduated from high school, I was considering going to Berklee College of Music. And in retrospect, I'm glad I didn't, because I probably would've just become a fusion bass player. And not going to Berklee and instead going to this small state college, having Bungle going and learning about 20th-century music and cutting my teeth in jazz, it all kind of informed who I am. I feel like I've always had these different hats on, so that for me is kind of natural.
Yeah, it's funny you mentioned that "goose-honking" thing, because I was actually going to read you that passage that Buzz wrote inside the Houdini Live CD [see above]. And I know that obviously he tends to go over the top with sarcasm, but I'm curious (a) if you can think of any other examples of people on either side of the jazz/metal divide giving you shit for your involvement in the other style, or (b) if you have any kind of response to it. Like, would you ever try to convince Buzz that he should listen to, say, Albert Ayler?
It's funny, because of course when I say, "They give me shit," it's all out of love. But I have actually bought Herbie Hancock's Sextant record for Buzz, because I thought he would dig it. And I know he's talked about listening to On the Corner, the Miles [Davis] record - he likes that record. And I played with Nels Cline a month or so ago in LA, and [Buzz] came to the show. So he's a pretty open-minded guy in terms of music. And I've taken Oscar Noriega to see the Melvins, which he loved. He'd never seen them before. He was totally into Dale: "Man, what a fuckin' amazing drummer!" A lot of times when I'm hanging out with jazz guys, they start talking about records I've never listened to and what date they were made, total geeking out on who solos when and what was going on in their lives at the time. I'm grateful to be able to enter these different worlds, and I'm still learning about all of them. And hopefully I've turned people on to different stuff, as they have me. It definitely goes all ways.
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We were talking about musicians like Mary [Halvorson] and Ches [Smith], and it seems like there's a category of musician that exists now, where they're sort of at the fringe of all these different genres, like the middle of a Venn diagram. Rather than being with jazz musicians, per se, or metal musicians, would you say that you feel most comfortable with those kind of fringe type players?
I guess so, yeah. I'm not really involved in the traditional jazz scene in New York at all. A lot of those of guys might not like my playing, because it is a fringey kind of jazz that I play. I mean, just on a technical and theoretical level, I don't like playing jazz riffs in my solos. But I don't want to do that. I don't want to play this traditional role and regurgitate something that's already been done a million times better than I could ever do it anyway. Which is why I feel like what's important is people's individuality or uniqueness and embracing that in whatever way.
That's the great thing about bands like the Melvins. I mean, Buzz doesn't know really know anything about music theoretically, and when I first met him, I was totally blown away by that. I'm like, "Are you kidding me?" Some of that stuff on those [records], especially like Ozma or a Melvins record like that. It took me a while to understand that. It's just punk rock; it's just somebody doing things their own way. It's kind of like outsider art or something, and that's what great and unique about it.
And, yeah, I think I'm definitely drawn towards those kind of people, those kind of artists. Even someone like Chris Speed, who can play the hell out of jazz, he's very open-minded in his approach to it, which is why I like this band Endangered Blood. It's kind of a jazz group, but it's kind of rough around the edges. I mean, Jim [Black] is a total precision drummer; he can play any polyrhythm ever. But then you throw me into the mix, and I'm kind of this rough-and-tumble bass player. So I think just the fact that they're open-minded enough to play with me (laughs) makes it work somehow.
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We were just talking about hanging out with these fringe players, but then on the other hand, there's that thing we were talking about before, how at a certain point, there's an impulse to play the genre straight or take it as it comes and try to operate according to preexisting rules. And MadLove is in that vein. It's not terribly conventional, but it's also a rock band, not throwing any major curveballs. I wanted to talk a little about that band, but also about whether you had any interest in doing the same thing on the jazz side.
Does that seem like an interesting challenge to you, trying to play straight-ahead jazz?
Well, it's interesting, there's this [Lennie] Tristano project I've been doing with Chris Speed and Oscar [Noriega] and Danny Weiss and Matt Mitchell. It's totally jazz, like bebop. We're just playing these Tristano tunes, which are actually all based on standards, like "How High the Moon" and "All the Things You Are", stuff like that. We just started doing it just for fun, because we all wanted to play jazz, and I don't get the chance to do it that much, to actually walk and play changes, and it's totally fun and challenging to do. Especially with a bunch of great musicians like Danny, a great drummer.
One of the reasons I wanted to start a rock band is that's also something I wasn't really doing. Mr. Bungle was this weird reactionary art band that was kind of reacting to other rock music. And then I was playing in Fantômas, which was a Patton thing but very cut-and-paste, and also, onstage it didn't really feel like a rock band; it felt like more of a compositional thing. And I just wanted to rock onstage, to play some bass lines to a beat and just feel that energy, but try to do it in my own personal way.
At the same time, I've had the idea of writing chamber music on my mind for years, and I've just slowly been starting to do that too, so that's probably going to satisfy that side of my brain, getting weird and compositional, or however you want to describe it - getting really heady with the writing process, as opposed to MadLove where I tried to be more intuitive with the writing, which is sort of the way rock music is meant to be.
I think it's interesting how you were talking about with Mr. Bungle making fun of the rock bands on MTV. But buried deep beneath that is maybe a desire to actually do it
Yeah, it's almost a guilty pleasure to play straight-up pop music or rock.
And I can see what you're saying about Fantômas. [John Zorn's] Moonchild project is similar in that it has these features of metal, but the experience of playing it, I would imagine, feels nothing like the experience of playing metal. There are charts for that project?
Yeah, and I mean that band, the only music we've played live is the first record. So everything else, there's like four or five [records] now, all of those have just been studio projects. So the concept of getting onstage and playing loud and aggressive for an hour, that's a whole experience unto itself, which is not the way Fantômas was. I mean, I never broke a sweat in that band. And in terms of bass, it's completely nontraditional. It's almost like I could be playing any instrument; I'm not playing bass lines, really.
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When I interviewed Craig Taborn, I asked him if he ever thought about metal when he was playing jazz. And he said that he sometimes felt like he wanted to take the music to a more aggressive and extreme place than his jazz collaborators really understood. He said he felt like there were these "performative" ways of being extreme in jazz, but he wanted to take it further.
When you're playing jazz or improvised music, do you ever feel like you're wanting to go past the genre, in a way?
Yeah, I think so. Sometimes it's hard with an acoustic instrument to do that, obviously. But harmonically you can do it. I mean, just for instance, using the example of playing a minor second with a bow, just really low, dissonant and muddy. Something like that doesn't even really happen in metal. I wouldn't say I think about metal when I'm improvising, but definitely going for this kind of tension: extreme tension, tension and release. Which again is this kind of general concept [in] any kind of music.
I think playing metal and playing rock - it goes both ways. I think that's influenced my jazz playing, and my jazz playing has influenced what I do in a rock band, too, to some degree. Playing with the Melvins, when you're rehearsing that stuff, you want to be tight, but you also don't want to sound like, you know, Jaco playing with the Melvins. That wouldn't be cool (laughs). So sometimes you have to let go of a certain part of your brain or technique. And the same thing goes the other way, too: trying to squeeze some kind of aggression that's not going to work into the jazz setting. I guess that's one reason I'm less interested in cut-and-paste and genre-blending than I used to be. That tune I mentioned, that Bungle tune that has the fast swing and the metal thing, I look back on that tune now and just think, "Okay, that was an experiment that I'll never try again".
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When I singled out people like Craig Taborn, something that interested me about their work is that you could hear everything they'd ever done and never think to yourself, "This guy must be a metalhead". Some of the stuff he's done with Tim Berne is pretty aggressive, but still. And yet it's interesting when you do know that about him, if you bring that back and listen again. Not that you want to bring out stuff that's not there, but the idea that it can be under the surface without being a literal "I'm going to mash up jazz and metal" thing.
Yeah, it's funny, sometimes when I'm touring, depending on what band I'm with, I've found that often if I'm listening to music off the bandstand, it's usually something completely different that what I'm doing. Like if I'm touring with Fantômas, I'll put on Bill Evans, and if I'm doing a tour with Endangered Blood, I might listen to rock, The Pretenders or something. It's funny, I don't listen to metal that much anymore. I'm not really up on it.
I just recently discovered Map of Metal, which is pretty amazing. It's cool, too, because there's so many obscure bands and a lot that I remember from high school, so I'll click on that. But then there's all these subgenres which I've never even heard of. There's a few metal records that I put on once in a while, like Dillinger Escape Plan or that band Damaged from Australia.
Other than the obvious people who are very vocal about their tastes, have you ever run across someone in either the jazz or metal setting and been totally surprised by their knowledge of or interest in the other?
Well, Craig, actually. One of the first times I met him, I was like, "Whoa, this guy knows way more about metal than I do". This piano player Dred Scott, who I don't play with that much but I know him from the Bay Area, we were doing this weird John Adams rock opera once in Montreal, and Deicide happened to be in town, and I was like, "Man, let's go see Deicide". He's like, "Okay!" He wasn't familiar with them, but we went. Actually I took him and Ben Goldberg, the clarinet player, and we all went to see Deicide (laughs). And they were into it. But, yeah, I mean a lot of metal guys, they're also into fusion, people like Billy Cobham, Tony Williams Lifetime. Those guys can all appreciate that stuff.
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I have a particular curiosity about Dave Lombardo. What's his knowledge of or interest in things like that?
He's not the easiest guy to crack. I know that he was really young when Slayer started, and he was listening to a lot of punk rock, and apparently that record they did without him, all the punk covers - apparently that was his concept. He's the one who got those guys into that stuff. And he also told me that the idea of Slayer came about with them playing Judas Priest songs and speeding them up. But I don't know in terms of jazz what he checks out. One thing that's interesting about him that I noticed when I first played with him was, there's that famous beat, is it "Criminally Insane" (sings "Criminally Insane" intro beat)? With the fast ride cymbal, which a lot of metal guys try to do, and it's just stiff and terrible. But watching him actually play that - it actually swings, which I thought was interesting.
I was curious about your Ornette Coleman project, PROOFReaders, which I haven't heard yet. I know John Zorn had his Spy vs. Spy project, where he was basically turbocharging Ornette with hardcore. Are you coming at it at all like that, or is it more straightforward?
Yeah, it's pretty much an acoustic thing. Really it's just an excuse for me to play those songs. Years ago, that Atlantic box set came out and I just kind of went crazy and transcribed a lot of those melodies of his, and finally in the past couple years, I put a band together to play it. There's so many great tunes. There's a few that a lot of people know and play every once in a while, but there's just a ton of them, and they're all amazing and different. I just wanted to play them. I'm not trying to reinterpret it or anything. We basically try to play the heads as they're played on the records, and then we improvise, go into kind of a jazz thing, or not - sometimes it's totally free. So, yeah, I'm basically approaching that in a very traditional way. But, again, it's just something I wanted to do, whether that's having a rock band or playing bebop in this Tristano project or playing free jazz with the Ornette thing. It's just like, "What do I want to do right now?"
Darius Jones is in PROOFReaders, right?
When I've been thinking about this whole jazz/metal thing, Little Women is a band that keeps coming up, because that's a really tightly integrated fusion concept. It really does satisfy the parts of the brain that want to hear both jazz and metal.
They're one of my favorite bands, and I think partly because it's just so intense. I've actually laughed, almost out of nervousness, seeing them live, because it's just so overwhelming. It's great to see people doing that. I don't even know what kind of music that is (laughs).
It's always interesting to think about what people's native music is. It must be interesting for you, who have played "proper" metal, with jazz musicians who are interested in metal. Do you find that, coming at it from either side, there's something you can't get to unless it gets in your bloodstream when you're a teenager?
I know what you mean. There definitely is that idea of the jazz musician playing metal, and you can kind of tell that it's not teenage guys in the garage. I don't know what it is. It's a totally different energy, a different kind of source. And I kind of touched on it in that article for Arcana. There's something about technique involved. When your technique is at this high level, you're not going to be able to do the same kind of thing that [you'd do] without having that technique. And that's not a bad thing; it's just the way it is.
It's actually a good thing that some metal bands or rock bands aren't that technical. There's a beauty that comes out of that. I remember when I was really listening to Jaco a lot, trying to learn how to play fast, learn how to play scales, I remember listening to myself on a tape and thinking, "God, I'm starting to sound like a lame version of Jaco, just playing scales". And basically I realized I had to stop listening to Jaco, because it was just getting in my fingers too much. There's a fine line between being influenced by somebody and just copying their thing. Not that I ever could do what Jaco did, but there's a lot of people who still do that and it's kind of terrible. It would be way more interesting if you did something that came from your own weird background, because everyone's got a different channel.
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Besides Rush, were you into other prog-type stuff?
I remember one of the first drummers I played with let me borrow a couple of their records and I taped them. I was basically into three of their records: Hemispheres, Moving Pictures, and Permanent Waves. And I never really got into earlier stuff or even later stuff, really. But in terms of other prog, I don't think so. I kind of just lump them in with rock bands. I was listening to more Cheap Trick, one of the first rock bands I got into on my own. My older brother got me into KISS, which was my first concert when I was 11. My parents were really supportive of me playing music, and my dad took me and my brother and my cousin to see KISS at the Cow Palace. I was totally freaked out by the whole thing. It was the Dynasty tour with the original band. Still haven't seen a concert to match it (laughs).
I was thinking about what I could play with the jazz-and-metal concept in mind. I don't really have a lot of metal records anymore that I used to listen to. But it's funny, I have Reign in Blood on cassette in my car, and I played in Baltimore recently with Nels Cline and some other people, and he and I drove back from there and pulled it out and listened. I think it was the first time he heard it, maybe.
He'd never heard that record?
I don't think so. He didn't seem like it. It was funny. Certain things would happen, and he would just bust out laughing (laughs).
Yeah, sometimes I think if you weren't into metal when you were young, it seems sillier when you come to it later. Like Morbid Angel or something, with the artwork and the satanism and the overall presentation, you need to get that when you're 13.
Yeah, that record Reign in Blood, I remember Trey and Mike and I used to sit around and play air drums to the whole thing. We knew every drum fill. I just absorbed that record, took it very seriously. And we ended up playing, nothing from that record - but I remember we used to do "Chemical Warfare". Actually, I was trying to find some old metal that I listened to and I was listening to this Exodus song. I remember in the '80s, this was the Bay Area thrash scene, and I remember having their demo right before the record even came out. And that was a thing - you'd buy these demos on cassette.
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Exodus - "No Love"
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But this riff is really interesting. I was listening to it, and it's this totally weird, odd-meter thing. Well, first it's got a classical intro. Man, the singer in this band is terrible. It's like a bar of six, then a bar of four, then a bar of 7/8. Something like that. Then it straightens out. I think this is the band that Kirk Hammett played in. So that's "No Love". Really terrible lyrics: "Welcome to my sacrifice / Tonight there'll be no love" (laughs). But the guitar player's name was Gary Holt, and I remember just his sound and those riffs. I still write a lot of riffs on guitar in that kind of style. There's something also, when I was sitting here trying to learn it, it's one thing to count stuff like that, but then when you apply it to the riff, even though it's this weird, complex thing, it kind of just falls into place.
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Hank Shteamer writes for Time Out New York, blogs at Dark Forces Swing Blind Punches, drums for STATS, and wrote a book about Ween.
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