Interview: Weasel Walter
Weasel Walter has been on my to-interview list since I started Heavy Metal Be-Bop, which is now in its second year of interviews with musicians who help bridge the gap between jazz and heavy metal. Not only is Weasel Walter a voracious, articulate, and exceedingly well-informed champion of both free-jazz and extreme metal—you need his blog in your life—he's made important contributions to each field as a player and composer, first with the late, great Flying Luttenbachers and more recently as an accomplished improviser and the drummer for Behold… the Arctopus (featuring Colin Marston of Krallice/Dysrhythmia).
Weasel and I met last December for a lengthy chat about jazz, metal, and the intersections between these styles. Below you'll find an abridged version of the Q&A, which focuses on metal-centric topics. Visit my blog, heavymetalbebop.com for a much (much!) longer, more jazz-oriented cut of the interview.
. . .
I was trying to pinpoint when blast beats came in to your playing, and it seems like the Luttenbachers record Revenge was one of the first times when I heard you use that technique. It sounds very native; you sound natural playing that. It seems to me there must have been a time when you heard death metal and consciously said, "I want to learn blast beats." What was the process of assimilating that style like?
When I was a teenager I had no inclination towards heavy metal as a subculture. I was more interested in the punk aesthetic. Punk was a great way for me to get into non-mainstream music, and I think a lot of people from my generation entered the same way. However, I quickly got into No Wave and free jazz and all this other crazy stuff and heavy metal, in the '80s, just seemed kind of laughable to me, because most of the mainstream metal I was exposed to didn't have the amphetamine edge I was looking for in the music I liked. It always seemed like everything was kind of half-time and a little lazy and swollen and bombastic in a way that didn't really resonate with me. I was never really interested in heavy metal.
The turning point was probably around 1993 when I was living in Chicago, and I was hanging out a lot with the guitar player Kevin Drumm. We would hang out at his apartment and shoot the shit. He was getting into free jazz and I was laying stuff on him. By the same token, one day he was sort of sitting there, talking about metal and I was kind of like, "Metal? That's just a bunch of guys in spandex, singing falsetto. Who cares? Lame." He was like, "You gotta be kidding me! You never heard Deicide?" I was like, "No, I've never heard Deicide." He walks over, and he turns on the second Deicide album, Legion, and immediately it just clicked with me. It was everything that I wanted. It was dissonant; it was fractured; the drums were incredibly fast to my ears at the time. It was basically, like, some next-level shit that I had been waiting for but didn't have access to because I didn't really hang out with metalheads. I had some brushes with it in the late '80s, but nothing that made me really want to pursue it. Something about the second Deicide album really clicked with me because it was so "prog"; it was kind of catchy and everything about it was really bombastic, but in an adrenalized way, where it just sounded like these guys were playing as fast as they could and that clicked with me immediately. That's what I liked about hard-core free jazz: the sound of a bunch of guys playing as fast as they possibly could. (Laughs) That was the appeal of listening to Archie Shepp's Three for a Quarter, One for a Dime; it's just a half hour of flipping the fuck out!
So I hear this Deicide record, and that was it. I was done. I basically started scouring Chicago budget bins for dollar death metal CDs. I was buying everything. Of course, I heard these blast beats in this music and I thought, "This is the ultimate in density." As far as being a drummer, playing a blast beat like this is like a machine gun. It's like spraying the listener with as much incremental mass as you can possibly cram in. It's total momentum. I would say around 1994, I started experimenting with trying to play blast beats. The first composition I ever wrote which incorporated blast beats was the first song on the album Revenge of the Flying Luttenbachers, which is a song called "Storm of Shit", which I wrote in late 1994. I have a demo of it, playing by myself, and that song is really based off a Blasphemy song called "Blasphemous Attack". It's basically the same fucking song. I mean, it's got some extra stuff in it, but I heard Blasphemy on a compilation tape of this sort of fly-by-night label JL America, and there was something about how crude it was and how the blast beat was just a static wall of momentum that really appealed to me. So I wrote this song sort of trying to figure out how I could utilize this kind of momentum.
I think that I'm better at playing blast beats now than I was 15 years ago. There is a science to it, and at that point there wasn't really a technical doctrine of how to do this. I think now it is being taught because it's something that a lot more people want to do. At the time, I don't really know if people knew what to think of it. Death metal and extreme metal had no cachet in the experimental music realm. Beyond Kevin Drumm, I knew almost no one who liked this stuff. You couldn't give it away. I spent most of the '90s buying dollar CDs of everything: all the Roadrunner stuff, all the Osmose stuff, all that crap out of the budget bin because nobody in Chicago wanted it. It was not cool. But to me it was so obvious. It was like, "You fucking idiots!" The same way you couldn't give away classic free-jazz records in the '80s, you couldn't give away death metal records in the '90s. So, I was just cherry-picking this stuff and to me it was just, "Ah, you fools! You have no clue!"
I always have to credit Kevin Drumm. Kevin Drumm had the good taste. He lived in the shitkicker Chicago suburbs, and he grew up listening to metal. That was his thing. Now he has quite a reputation as one of the great avant-garde conceptualists of our generation, and I still know all he listens to is extreme metal. (Laughs) I mean, every time I hang out with the guy, it turns into, like, a drinking party with whatever NSBM vinyl he's acquired, and it's just hilarious.
In terms of the blast beats, were there periods where you had to work on it like you would drum rudiments or something?
As far as playing blast beats go, there's a number of approaches that people take. I tend to play with two feet instead of one, which is seen as some kind of faux pas to certain people who are interested in the technique, but that's the way I do it. It didn't always sound good. It's something that I had to figure out how to do successfully. One of the problems with playing extreme metal drums is that often onstage it's almost impossible to hear what you're doing with your feet. (Laughs) I had to learn over the years how to make sure that my feet were where they needed to be, lest it just turn into a wall of garbage. I certainly know of and have tapes of shows I played, with Hatewave or the Flying Luttenbachers, where the blast beats just sound like they're out of control—like, it sounds like somebody just shoved a dryer down a flight of stairs, you know? (Laughs) So, obviously I've had many years to refine my approach and I definitely have it down. It is just like any technique. It is just like a rudiment, because if you want to master it, you have to understand it from more than just an obligatory angle.
To go back into your idea of metal technique, I, for a long time, have had some issues with my foot technique to the point where six years ago I was actually crippling myself when I was playing. I had to correct it and this is an ongoing struggle of, "Okay, I can do exactly what I want with my hands, and I can't do exactly what I want with my feet. Am I going to deal with this or not deal with this?" I had a meeting with a local drummer. He was a guy who I thought might be able to illuminate me to what I needed to correct about my foot technique, and it got to the point where it was basically like, "Well, you know what I would recommend? You gotta do this Derek Roddy exercise video". I had seen the video before and I was like, "Awww . . ." He was like, "Look, if you do this fucking thing a half hour a day, it will clean up your technique." The same way that Derek Roddy on the video says "Do this a half hour a day and it'll clean up your technique", and sure as shit, it did. I did it for a month with a metronome and I was like, "Oh, this is helping". It's the kind of exercise that's extremely simple, but if you do it, and you do it at a measured pace every day, you watch everything get cleaned up. The cleanness of the sort of "grid" that a blast beat creates, all of a sudden becomes less muddy. Everything needs to be exactly where it is.
Because I'm in the band Behold…the Arctopus, which is basically trying to play almost unplayable compositions, I'm expected to play like a drum machine. I'm expected to play like a MIDI program. I've spent two years rehearsing about 25 minutes of material at this point and I have had to correct and expand my technique as a drum-set player. I don't want to say there's such a thing as "unplayable music", because I believe there's a way to play all music. It's whether or not you want to put in the extreme amount of time and frustration figuring out how to do it. (Laughs) But I got to the point where I had to work on my drum technique or I wasn't going to be able to play the music, and I'm a "can-do" kind of guy when it comes to music. I think there's a way to do anything you can imagine. You just have to commit to it. In the past two years, I've had to work on my technique in a way that I've never worked on it before, and I'm a much better drummer now. My goal was always to excel at what I'm doing. Not necessarily excel by everyone else's standards, but to constantly push forward my agenda and now that I play in Behold…the Arctopus, that was a real challenge. There's no composition that I can sleepwalk my way through; it's always "on" all the time. I've had to look to death metal drummers for technical advice and guidance because it was necessary.
I remember seeing you play with the Luttenbachers 4 or 5 years ago, and you were playing some of that stuff with a death-metal drumming vocabulary, but it was on a kit where you had a floor tom turned into a bass drum—very unconventional. It wasn't like you were setting up two bass drums. It was kind of making do with what you had. I guess I'm wondering, when you're in these more conventional settings (Hatewave, 7000 Dying Rats, Behold… the Arctopus etc.), is it important to you to change up your gear or upgrade things so it sounds more "regular"?
Yes. That is a big conundrum for me, because after having played drums for 25 years, I've never owned a "real" drum kit, and the reason for that is lack of resources. Pure and simple. For example, also, I did several tours with Lair of the Minotaur as a drummer and that was a terribly straight-ahead metal band. I had to borrow a drum kit (Laughs) as I am right now with Behold…the Arctopus. In February, Behold…the Arctopus is playing our first shows in five years for the band, our first shows after two years of rehearsal. This is an issue because part of what Colin Marston said to me when we started playing together was, "I want you to write for the band, but if you write something, it has to be 'metal.' " You know what I mean? Colin has a great appreciation of what I've done compositionally with the Flying Luttenbachers and other projects and he made it clear he wanted me involved, but he made it clear that idiomatically Behold…the Arctopus is a metal band. As abstract as it gets, it should be metal, and I totally accept that. By the same token, it's appropriate for me to play on a good, big-sounding drumset. (Laughs) However, I don't have one and I don't have the funds so hopefully I'm looking to resort to this "Kickstarter" scenario – not Kickstarter per se, but a public-assistance approach to raising funds to get a real drum set for the first time in my life because it has to be there. I can't really show up playing these gigs with the Beverly Hillbillies Luttenbachers drum kit. (Laughs)
I was thinking about your discography and how my favorite records of yours are the ones that have pretty strict parameters, where there's not much "fusion" going on. For example, the Flying Luttenbachers' Cataclysm on the "brutal prog" side or Lichens (with Gianni Gebbia and Damon Smith) on the free-improv side. On some of the early Luttenbachers records, there's more of a hybridization of styles, and I'm not saying I dislike those records, but I'm curious: Do you think this tradition of fusing things, either in your work as a player/composer or as a fan, is ultimately helping anything?
I'm not very concerned with clever references to idioms. I'm not particularly fond of postmodernism as a concept. I'm catholic enough in my approach that I can play with Evan Parker and do that music, and I can play in a band like Hatewave and do that, and they don't really intersect in a stylistic manner, but they intersect in the approach maybe. It's an approach of intensity, speed, articulation, some kind of modernist aesthetic approach. I don't feel the need to combine these things blatantly because that's not a point I need to prove to anyone. I'm not interested in being the guy that puts heavy metal and free jazz together. I just don't really care about that.
When I compose, I'm trying to solve aesthetic issues that I have, or I'm trying to create composition to fulfill a certain need I have aesthetically and that's a very vague, abstract thing. I never sit down and say, "I am going to write a death metal song". (Laughs) I'm usually like, "I would like to write a composition that is fast . . ." The composition "The Elimination of Incompetence," which was on Infection and Decline, I said to myself, "I want to write a composition that takes some of the signifiers of death metal, but does everything wrong. I want the harmony to avoid the sort of 'root/fifth' power-chord sort of scheme. I want there to be constant harmonic counterpoint, and I want the counterpoint to shift constantly with the phrases, and I want there to be blast beats, but I want the relation of the blast beats to be abstractly related to the guitars". You know what I mean? When I wrote that song, I was trying to work on these aesthetic quandaries. That's how I wrote the song. I really didn't want to make any sort of fusion between such-and-such idiom.
Can you think of an example of a person coming from the metal end of things who has surprised you with their deep knowledge of jazz, or vice versa?
No. (Laughs) I have turned jazz guys onto death metal. I can't say that I've done the inverse very much. There are a few people out there in the metal field who are interested in experimental music, and I correspond with some of these people. By and large metal fans tend to be primarily into metal. It's a subculture; there's a uniform; you can be part of it. It's something you can kind of rally behind.
I think with improvisers or jazz players, a lot of them tend to be interested in the scope of musical possibilities, even if they don't express it—even as listeners. I played the last Mayhem album, Ordo Ad Chao, for Peter Evans and he thought it was fucking great. I said, "Check this out! It's kind of like if Varèse wrote for rock band." We played it and he was like, "Wow. I love this!" He has no pretense of being a metal fan. He just thought it was interesting music and it was interesting enough that he pursued it. I think that if any of that comes out in Peter's music, it's not going to be an idiomatic thing like, "Man, I got this thing where I do trumpet over death metal!" (Laughs) It's really not going to turn out that way. To me, something like Ordo Ad Chao, that's just pure music; it's interesting modern composition. It goes beyond the clichés of black metal or death metal.
Ultimately, the composition matters. De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, Those are kind of like classic-rock songs—gothic classic-rock songs with blast beats on them. If you can hear past the blast beats, it's just like classic-rock songwriting with this sort of overt gothic/Wagnerian tinge.
Let me throw out some names and we'll try to have some mini-conversations about several "elephant in the room" type artists in this general area of inquiry. What are your thoughts on Last Exit?
Last Exit's first album came into my life probably around 1988. I bought it at a record store. The names looked good on the cover. I knew who everybody was and I failed to see how I could go wrong buying this record. Sure as shit, I didn't. I took it home and I was pleased as punch with what I heard. I was looking for, you know, more intersections of this kind of nihilist punk energy and crazy free playing. That record, especially at the time, perfectly typified getting it right.
Whereas, like Painkiller got it wrong or Naked City got it wrong, Last Exit got it right, for me. They were brutal. They were egotistical. They were macho. (Laughs) They were everything that I wanted out of it. I wanted superheroes. I wanted four swashbuckling pirates coming in, kicking everyone in the face and just blowing their brains out. That's exactly what Last Exit started out as. The concept kind of went astray later on, but what's important is that they made a couple really great albums.
What about Black Flag?
I would have to say as far as being a guitar player, Greg Ginn's approach to phrases as strings of intervals is still pretty pertinent to what I do as a guitar player. In the way that Ornette Coleman decided to make his early music guided by the contour of the melody as opposed to a set of harmonic changes, Greg Ginn by 1984, '85, was taking this direction with his guitar playing where anything went with the trajectory of the melody as long as where his fingers went . . . (Laughs)
I'm not really sure if there's a good explanation for this. Greg Ginn's guitar playing is almost analogous in a rock setting to what Ornette Coleman was doing in the late '50s because Greg Ginn wasn't necessarily that concerned about tonality. He was more concerned about intervallic relationships and generating material by moving his fingers in interesting ways and letting one event lead to the next, to the next, to the next. It almost had nothing to do with the harmony or anything behind it. I could sense that early on, the same way that in 1988 when I heard Reign in Blood, I heard Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman's solos and thought, "Ornette Coleman" immediately. "This is like fucking Ornette Coleman."
With death metal or extreme metal, there's a lot of harmolodic logic to a lot of the solos. Even further, some of the solos in metal are extremely expressionistic and extremely abstract. Tom G. Warrior from Celtic Frost—all of his guitar solos, they're shambolic to the point of being inept. It's like pure-sound playing. You can tell the guy has no clue how to play a proper solo if his life depended on it, but he's directing the sound in these very definitive ways. He's got this lexicon of things that he does and he arranges them in ways that seem interesting to him, but ultimately it's very abstract.
Are you a fan of Trey Azagthoth?
Yeah, sure! He's an incredible guitar player and his playing is very abstract. I'm assuming that a lot of his guitar solos are improvised, because I've never heard him play the same solo twice. That's the interesting point: Are Kerry King's guitar solos composed or improvised? I don't know, but they sound great. Same thing with Trey Azagthoth. I'm pretty sure a lot of them were improvised, but his improvisations are pretty . . . they're worthy of analysis. They're pretty incredible guitar solos tonally, from a harmonic perspective and rhythmic perspective.
I always thought it would be funny to get some ridiculous shredder like Michael Angelo Batio and have him shred over, like, fucking Rashied Ali, if he was still alive and in his prime. I always thought it would be hilarious just to hear what that sounded like but now I just booked Mick Barr and Marc Edwards. There you go.
Let's talk specifically about that Marc Edwards/Mick Barr thing. What did you want to do with that, putting those two guys together?
Well, I play with Marc all the time. For me to just book another gig with Marc Edwards is somewhat predictable. I was in a position in which I was asked to put a bill together, and I wanted to do my own group and at the same time I was like, "Gosh, wouldn't it be nice if Marc was on this gig or he could do something he wants to do away from me?" I sat there for a second and was like, "Well, who would I want to see Marc play with?" Since Marc is such a power player, a lot of people on the jazz scene can't deal with him. They literally cannot deal with his playing. They cannot hack it. A lot of these older guys, man, they don't want to fucking play with Marc. Marc is loud and balls-out, and they can't handle it. I'm not castigating these guys for getting old and losing power—that's just inevitable. But the guys in that scene, they don't want to deal with Marc because Marc is playing like he's 30 years old. He might be playing better now than he was before, which is a little scary! But, Marc is a unique person: one of the last people from his generation of drummers that can fucking bring it. He's one of the few that survived.
The whole thing was, shit, what am I gonna get? Who are you going to call? There's no hardcore free-jazz horn players in New York. So I was thinking, who should I have him play with? Duh. Fucking Mick. Mick and Marc are almost working with the same material. They work with this circular, flowing material—almost in a tempo. Mick always plays at the same tempo. He's not trying to play 4/4, but you could put a pulse through it and the same with Marc. Marc plays free drums but he's always playing in this pulse, this strata of pulse. He's not disruptive the way I am. He's more of a flowing drummer and it's [based in] rudiments. He's really into this one stroke, paradiddle-diddle—that is his main stroke, and that's what he does, and he does it a lot and he never stops.
So, I was just thinking, this makes perfect sense. They've never played together. Mick is interested in free music but he hasn't really had an entrée into the scene beyond a few people that we already know who they are. Mick was psyched about it because he likes Marc's playing; Marc was psyched about it because he likes Mick's playing. It was rather successful. They actually communicated. As monomaniacal as both of those players are in their concept, their concepts meshed exactly. I found that they were really playing with each other and it could actually progress. I don't think that was their pinnacle, their first gig. I think their languages intersect perfectly.
As a fan of the music it was nice to go, "I've got an idea, let's do this" and it worked exactly as it should have. I would like to be a catalyst. In some ways I have been a catalyst in certain scenes and to me that's part of trying to give back and not just trying to get acceptance and recognition. The better everybody does, the better everybody does. The more people that are doing this, the less I have to do it all. I'm a music fan. I would like to go see a kick-ass band. I don't always want to be in the band.
One last name I want to mention: J. Read, from Revenge.
Well, J.Read is what you want a metal drummer to be. He is powerful and fast and chaotic. He will be metal until he dies. He sort of typifies . . . there's a certain point where metal drumming became so fast and technical it ceased to rock, and I'm not interested in that. I'm not interested in these guys on YouTube, you know, tapping away, doing their gravity blasts and their ankle-twitch fucking kick drum from hell. It doesn't rock. A guy like J.Read is about rock & roll, but he's taking it to this next level of speed and power. You get him going and he just goes off.
Header photo by andy new.