Fate is not completely decided
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1995 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
David Torn knows a thing or two about drama. In 1992, the avant-guitarist was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor. It required intricate surgery that left him deaf in the right ear and burdened by many other health obstacles. It was a shocking turn of events for the renowned musician that has quietly, yet dramatically expanded the lexicon of electric guitar.
But Torn is a resilient creature. After much soul searching, he came to terms with the aftermath of the operation. He uncovered hidden positives and benefits derived from the experience. And the combination of the new perspectives that emerged with his razor-sharp faculties has resulted in some truly engaging worldviews we can all benefit from.
Some of the most involved and intricate music of his career emerged too. The first major release following his recovery was 1994’s Polytown, a heady power-trio effort featuring bassist Mick Karn and drummer Terry Bozzio. The memorable album was a largely volatile and charged affair not unlike Torn’s personal relationships with his bandmates.
Next up was 1995’s Tripping Over God, Torn’s most ambitious solo project to date. Its flowing, stream-of-consciousness vibe incorporated Eastern rhythms, ambient washes, stormy power chords and surreal, buried vocals. Its dark and brooding undercurrents mirror the circumstances preceding its creation.
Just prior to his physical ordeal, Torn released a record on the Windham Hill label titled Door X. The 1990 disc attempted to merge his eclectic instrumental leanings with concise, singer-songwriter material aimed at a mainstream audience. It was a radical departure from 1987’s Cloud About Mercury, his previous release on ECM. Cloud was one of the boundary-breaking albums of the ‘80s. The record featured the inspired line-up of Torn, drummer Bill Bruford, bassist Tony Levin and trumpet player Mark Isham. Together, the group shifted seamlessly through idioms and intensities as if its members were operating as a collective hive.
When Torn’s not creating his own music, he can often be found producing other artists. Recent projects include Andy Rinehart, Wes Martin and Bill Bruford’s Earthworks. He’s also regularly heard on feature film soundtracks such as Kalifornia, Love at Large, Kiss The Girls and many others.
In this unique and in-depth interview, Torn goes into great detail about the harrowing emotional and physical situation he faced. It also features an intriguing, behind-the-scenes look at the making of Polytown and Tripping Over God.
Everyone was deeply concerned about your well-being when they heard about the diagnosis. Describe the situation you faced.
I had an acoustic neuroma and had to have a full craniotomy. An acoustic neuroma is a non-cancerous tumor. In my case, it was due to a genetic defect which allows for the growth of neural fibroma. It's one version of neural fibromatosis. Obviously, until 1992, I had no idea that I had such a thing. The story side of it is that I was on tour in Germany at the time. I was very depressed. I had been in a real state of decline from 1990 until 1992 from a psychological, emotional and physical standpoint. I was kind of on this incredible downhill run. In hindsight, I can say that there was a two or three year period in which my emotional state started to take serious precedence over my ability to reason. It might be overstating the case a bit, but I would say that my emotional state was increasingly negative. I didn't recognize it at the time of course. So, 1992 rolls around, and I'm with Windham Hill, a record company that is not supporting me at all. I'm off on tour solo, with Alex De Grassi and Michael Manring. It wasn’t the greatest musical match. It was a pretty harrowing little tour. The promoters booked it as "Windham Hill Guitars" which meant that none of my previous fans had any idea that I was part of it. [laughs]
So, I was in kind of a funky state. I was out on the road in February in Germany and I had a single day off from the tour. I took the opportunity to take a train away from the tour to visit my friend Ulli at CMP records in Germany. I had been producing some records for them at the time. Ulli and I had a nice day and went out for a two-mile walk to get to a restaurant for dinner. Within 30-40 seconds of walking down this road, I suddenly got a real strange remote feeling in my head. About a minute later, I was on the ground. I had lost my balance completely. I couldn't see properly out of my right eye. All of the muscles out of the right side of my face had gone into some kind of a spasm. And my hearing stopped on that side of my head.
It hit me all at once. It was all so sudden. But I got up and made it to the restaurant. We sat down. It didn't go away. We went back to the apartment at the CMP office. I stayed the night. I went to sleep thinking "Oh God, I've got some sort of terrible infection here—something really wacky." I woke up in the morning and it was just as bad, if not worse. So I called a taxi to get to the train station in order to go back to the tour. The taxi comes, picks me up, and about three minutes away from the office on the way to the train station we were broadsided by another car at about 50 miles an hour. This was a great day, I have to tell you! [laughs] Then I did something that is totally unacceptable in Germany. I left the scene of the accident because I was desperate to get back to the tour. I hated the fact that I would hang up the other guys on the tour. People were hurt and there was blood. I was not desperately hurt, although it gave me a really bad headache. The driver was basically okay. But it was ugly. I got to the train just in time.
Given your physical state, why were you compelled to get back to the tour so quickly?
That really terrible cliche "The show must go on." There are very few excuses for a gig not to happen. I'm pretty stubborn, so I thought "gotta get to the gig." There's a responsibility towards to at least making the effort. But I discovered in my head on the way down there that I started feeling worse and worse. I realized on the train that there was something seriously wrong with me. If there was an infection, it was incredibly bad. I started thinking "Why would an infection come on so fast?" Anyway, I got down there, told the guys that there was something really fucked up happening to me. I had no idea what it was. I went off to an ear doctor, who said "There's really nothing wrong with you at all. I can't see anything. There's no infection. I think that you should go to the hospital and check it out." And I, still stubborn, said "Well, I'm going to get a second opinion." I played the gig that night under extreme duress.
It was pretty strange singing and doing everything with one ear, having never experienced anything like this before. I went the next day to another specialist in what I believe to be Karsruhe. He said "There is something real wrong with you. I think that you have this thing that we call ‘ear stress.’ You should go to the hospital." The next day we were in Frankfurt. I went to the research hospital right away, first thing in the morning. They said "You need to check in. You're going to be here for a few days." I said "I'm going to have to think about this."
What is ear stress?
It's some kind of damage to the nerve via some kind of virus caused by some kind of extreme mental anguish or stress. I actually had a friend in Germany who had this thing and was in the hospital to get treatment for it. So, I asked the doctor "What's the solution here? What do you do when I check in?" He said "The first thing we do is change over all of your blood." And I said "Explain." He said "We take out all of the old blood and give you a fresh blood supply." He explained that a fresh blood supply will relieve some kind of pressure. I said "Wow, that sounds pretty interesting." [laughs] "But let me ask you: Do you think that it's safe to fly like this?" He said "Yeah." And I said "Well, good. Because I'm going to go over to my gig right now. I'm going to think about this overnight. And if I can fly, I think I'm probably going to go back to the States." He said "Well, you should be safe for a few days. That should be no problem." I went over to the gig, I told everybody what was up, and they said "It sounds pretty weird. You better decide what you're going to do." That night I decided. I blew off the gig. I sat back in the office while these guys played the concert and was on the phone calling my wife, a doctor in New York, my booking agent, this person and that person. I decided to split and the next day I left right away.
This was the one time in my life where I came back home on an emergency ticket. I had a note from a doctor from the Frankfurt Research Institute, yet customs would not let me pass through in the United States. And I sat on the floor of customs at JFK in New York for four hours. They would not allow me to walk through with my instruments, which were in soft cases. I had Klein guitars, which were custom made in soft bags. I showed everybody the surgeon's note. I told them the story. I told them how ill I felt—how strange I felt. They wouldn't let me pass. So, I basically went on a little strike at customs. I said "I'm not going through customs until you let me through with my guitars. And you can get every fucking administrative official you want, but until I talk to the boss, I'm sitting on this floor." And they made me sit there for four hours. My wife's waiting. There's no phone. I can't even make a phone call. It was an unbelievable nightmare. Sometimes they want you to have these special forms, but I didn't have it for these guitars.
Anyway, so I went to an ear doctor here, who right away saw that there was something wrong beyond ear stress. He sent me for an MRI [magnetic resonance imaging]. Five days later I had a diagnosis and had the operation about two-and-a-half weeks later. And just to make the story even more complex—it turned out that Frankfurt Research Hospital at that time was one of the hospitals unknowingly giving out blood that was tainted by HIV. Just to put a melodramatic capper on the thing. The situation now is that tumor has been removed. I'm checked regularly about every six months for the re-growth of new tumors on the brain stem, which has not occurred, which is good.
What were the after-effects of the surgery?
I have a lot of residual effects from the craniotomy, which are extreme headaches. These started out for 18 months and were akin to seizures. I can't do things like I used to be able to do. I can't exercise nearly as hard or as much. I'm completely deaf on my right side. Basically, I'm legally deaf, which is kind of funny. The other ear seems okay. I have a hard time on the telephone. You learn to do things like lip-read, which is very hard to do when people are talking to me on the telephone and things are going on around me. Sometimes, I can't get a fix on what's happening out there. All in all, I'm doing pretty well.
How long did it take you to start recovering?
I thought that I would be working two-to-three weeks after the operation. But I went to work about six months later and under extreme duress. I had to warn everybody for about a year-and-a-half that I was subject to seizures. If I was doing a session, I did not have the type of concentration that would allow me to work for more than four hours at a time without either having to meditate or go into a dark room and just sit there—sometimes for as long as four or six hours. I would have to take a break. I would just sit in a chair. I still can't lie down for long periods of time. I can't get horizontal for more than a few hours at a time because there's still swelling around the site where they put the titanium plate.
Yeah, it's Titania-Boy! [laughs]
Are you able to sleep okay?
With difficulty. Lately, it's been pretty good. But I've gotten quite used to sleeping for a few hours, getting up, doing some work, meditating sitting straight up with an upright back, and then falling asleep sitting up. I'm great on planes, even though the pressure hurts me. I'm so used to sleeping in an upright position. But I've got a bunch of normal residual problems for this type of operation.
Have things improved since the operation?
They certainly have. When we were doing the Polytown record, I was still in really bad shape. I now keep my own hours completely. I used to live like a human being, but now, I work when I can. If I don't feel well, I sit down a lot. [laughs] It's kind of rough when you're traveling and touring.
The dedication to your art is truly impressive.
For all of the bullshit that it entails and all of the difficulties [the physical circumstances] have put me through, it also has given me a perspective on my life that I didn't have before. There are certain things that I have always been passionate about in my life and still, no matter how passionate you are about things, people and experiences you have in your life are things you can take for granted. Life kind of beats away at you. So, it gave me a perspective on music and my family that I wouldn't trade for anything.
Can you describe those perspectives?
The people one loves are often taken for granted. I can imagine that if I was alone in life through that experience, that I probably would have seriously considered suicide after the operation. I know myself well enough to know that without the kind of support and love that I got from my family and friends, I pretty much would have gotten rid of myself, because it was so much to bear. It was really pretty intense. And at the same time, I had to struggle to get back into music—to really sit down and learn how to hear again. Just the simple fact of hearing and getting through this period of incredible noise that occurred after the operation—and the deafening effect. And being confounded and confused by all the sounds and sights as well, because it affected my eyes. Visually and audio-wise, I could get confused incredibly easily—if things went by me physically too fast and my eyes moved too quickly and the sounds were coming from all over the place. When you only have one ear and you're so focused on your hearing, you no longer have the ability to locate a sound in space. If you talk to me in a room that I've never been in before and I don't see you, I don't know where you are. That's a very strange and frightening experience.
How did it affect your eyes?
Well in the beginning, I couldn't really move my head properly for about a year. It really affected me if I moved my eyes very quickly, like when I was in a city where a million things moved right by me, in addition to the sounds I couldn't locate. For instance, I went to a shopping mall with my wife and there was so much activity that I had a seizure in the middle of the shopping mall, and I had to sit down. I couldn't be moved. It was unbelievable—things you really never want to consider. I don't dislike talking about this. It's a difficult situation and I don't complain about it because I'm mostly through it and hopefully it won't happen again. It may be hard on the outside for people to see that I feel so positive about the experience. [laughs]
You don't sound bitter.
No, it makes me feel great about life in a certain way. That may sound a bit confused or maybe just a little sick. [laughs] I occasionally advise people who have a similar situation. It's a fairly rare disease—there are about 1,500 cases a year on this continent of this particular non-cancerous tumor.
Do you participate in a support group?
Nothing like that, but privately and through the 'net, I talk to people. I've advised a guy locally and a singer down in Miami. I've talked to people before their operations. This is like a replay of something that I experienced vicariously through my youth, because my father has MS [multiple sclerosis] and it didn't show up until he was about 40. His thing went into regression about four years after he was diagnosed and he had about a complete collapse as well. And he did pretty much the same thing. He still advises people who are in the prime of their careers and lives. It's not necessary to give up or pander to the possible bitterness that one might face. It's strange. I really disappeared for awhile there. I couldn't work. I was in real decline. Nobody was paying any real attention. The record sales weren't anything. In the real beginning, when I was just getting back and we were getting ready to do the Polytown thing, I went through the bitter thing. I read the magazines. There was an article in Musician magazine about musicians that came back from serious illness and I wasn't included. I got real pissed off. Steve Vai was on the cover and that pissed me off. [laughs] I guess at the time I thought that... [pauses]
People should have paid more attention to you?
Exactly. It's a more skewed kind of ego thing. Part of me says that people who listen to music should probably pay a little more attention to music—that's music, not necessarily entertainment or athletic music. It was a little less self-focused than that, but still that kind of ego shit, you know? I passed through it. It was pretty strange. It was my family, my friends and people who came out of the woodwork that helped me. I had no unemployment compensation in my insurance policy. And my wife is a painter, so there's no money there. I had a $100,000 headache, basically. [laughs] We're still managing it. I had people whom I hadn't spoken with forever come out and do benefit concerts for us. People like Kurt Wortman and one of my tech guys Rick Huber who’s a good friend, put together a benefit in L.A. for me. It included Mark Isham, Cheryl Bentyne from Manhattan Transfer and Suzanne Vega, who came out from hiding. David Sylvian was going to play, but couldn't get into the country. Andy Summers and Michael Shrieve offered support too. That really helped a lot—not only financially, but the expression of love and concern in itself was really uplifting.
The guy who owns and runs CMP records came out of the woodwork for me too and I wasn't even signed to the label at that time. We were still just friends. He did things for me financially that he refuses to speak about. It was just done. I had a problem and he helped me. He doesn't want to talk about it. You kind of find out who your friends are. Windham Hill on the other hand—there was no support at all. Well, that's not entirely true. There was one guy at Windham Hill, my A&R guy, who I was really friendly with. He helped out with the benefit. But you get the sensation that maybe if I had kicked it, [Windham Hill] would have put the record [the now-deleted Door X] into print, you know? [laughs] Sounds cold, but is quite reasonable to assume when you're an artist and record companies are just people who are doing business.
It seems you've become more philosophical as of late. Do you agree?
I would say that's come out. I think in the old days, anything I said philosophically about life or music was really aimed politically. I was so focused on the extremely sorry state of the music industry. I really didn't let any of the philosophical ramblings go past that. I've always had this in my nature. I've always been interested in the way things work, how things function, how to change things and especially how to change one's perceptions. But it is coming out a lot more. That’s because I sat on my ass for over a year.
Did you play guitar much during that year?
It took about three or four months before I could sit down and pick up the guitar without getting extremely upset. The first thing I did when I started getting back into music again was to practice listening. It was an extremely frustrating and very studied event. I would sit down with my older son's boom box, put on a CD and listen to things that I previously knew what they sounded like. It was really a terrible scene sometimes, because I would get really upset. I would grill my wife and say "Hey, no wait a minute. Are the cymbals too loud? I don't remember cymbals! Do you hear any saxophone? I can't hear any saxophone!" I got really frustrated. It took me months until I was comfortable hearing music, before I picked up the guitar.
The first project that I did as a player was in June of that year—Mark [Nauseef] and Miroslav's [Tadic] Snake Music. Thattotally freaked me out. I was so nervous. I had to fly to Germany. I had a seizure on the plane. I was basically frozen when I got to Germany. I had to sit in a chair for eight hours straight without talking to anybody or eating or anything, so that I could move my head without excruciating pain. Then I played this session. I had these special headphones made because the sensation of sound of going into the deaf ear—the physical feeling—drove me crazy. So, I made up these special adapters for headphones that would only allow sound into the good ear and it would combine the stereo signal into a properly phased mono signal. It was a wacko thing, standing in this room, playing my first session. I really enjoyed it and they seemed to really like it. [laughs]. I've listened to it a couple of times and there's some really cool stuff on that date. There's one thing I really like—the thing with Jack Bruce called "And the Wind Cries Mary." I also really like the tune "Walls of the Vortex." The guy who wrote the liner notes incorrectly attributes the ambient effects to the engineer. It was actually stuff that I played.
How has your guitar playing changed since the ordeal?
I changed my sound. I got a thicker, more full sound and really unfocused myself from that speedy kind of thing. Upon playing a guitar again since that period, I found an element in my musical voice that had been previously covered up. I don't know why, but there it was. It was a lot slower, a lot more lyrical. But at the same time, it was a lot more full and sometimes pretty nasty compared to how it had been previously. I think that I now feel even further from that fusion mentality of "faster, louder, higher" and much more into the slower, more stately, ambient side of me, which I continue to pursue. The funny thing is that I have a friend here named Matt Henderson who is a pretty amazing guitar player and probably one of the more technically proficient players that I have ever heard on the instrument. He doesn't do anything publicly. He's kind of a gearhead—a real fanatic for guitars, amplifiers and equipment in general. While I was home during this whole time, he kept bringing old amplifiers and guitars over. He would say "Try this. Try this one." There was this period of just putzing around with amplifiers. Then people just started giving me equipment. [laughs]
I went through this nutty little period. My wife got my very first electric guitar for me, which I had sold 15 years before to an ex-manager to pay the rent. She got me back the guitar I had played when I was, like 16 years old. Then she got me another one from the same period. So, I started being able to sit around my house and play and just listen to the sound of it. I'm practicing listening. I'm practicing getting my hands back on the instrument and getting some motor coordination back. For me, it was a personally important period, because I had all this time to sit and diddle with things, instead of being a professional musician and having to go out and play a gig. [laughs] In a way, that was very luxurious. [laughs] There was no money. We were struggling on that level, but I had a chance to woodshed again and in a much different way than I did when I was a youth. It was more about the tone of the guitar. It was "What do I like about the sound of the guitar? What can I change?" Steve Klein changed it around for me. He built me a special instrument and a couple of amplifier companies sent me their amplifiers to check out and keep if I wanted. I would say that at that period of time, something coalesced.
How did your emotional and physical circumstances affect the direction of Polytown and Tripping Over God?
Polytown was a group Mick [Karn], Terry [Bozzio] and I had talked about since 1989. It really happened as a result of me not having it together enough that year to do a solo record for CMP. Kurt [Renker] really wanted me to do something on my own and stop producing other people's records for him. I said "I'm sorry Kurt. You've given me all this time to decide, but I just can't get it together. I just don't have the energy or motivation to do a solo record like we talked about on my own." The next day, Terry called. He was about 40 miles away in Dusseldorf and he said "Hey, let's do that record. Do you think Kurt would be interested?" [laughs] So Polytown was kind of an interim step, although it was really something I wanted to do and I love the music of that band.
So, it was a springboard that enabled you to refocus on your solo work?
Yeah, a springboard to get my energy back up to the place where I could find my own path again. By the time Tripping came around, I had so much motivation and confidence in being able to deliver something that I would be proud of, completely on my own. It was a long time building up to that one.
Tripping Over God is an intriguing title. Describe what it means to you.
I kind of left it one of those titles you could think of a couple of different ways. Probably the way that I thought about it was the one way nobody else did. I get a lot of "So yeah, you do a lot of acid when you think about God?" [laughs] Partially, it was my own fault because on that title track I buried the lyrics—purposefully. I thought it sounded okay like that. The concept was more like, we are constantly presented with impediments and catastrophes that are kind of like rocks on the path. You trip over them and curse them, and turn around and look at the thing and realize that it has got an element of—if I could be so pedantic—a life lesson. Or if you really took this far, you could say it’s "the voice of God." That rock you tripped over that caused you to ram your shoulder into a tree and caused you to rethink who you are completely from that point on. So, I was thinking "Was this thing a catastrophe or was it the best thing that ever happened in my life?" [laughs] Yeah, it was incredibly painful and yeah, I'm deaf in one ear. I've got all these problems now, but so do lots of people. I became so much more confident in my perceptions as a result of that unexpected little genetic anomaly. [laughs] I guess that's how I thought of it.
Are you a very spiritual person?
I wouldn't know how to judge that.
You do believe in God though.
Any God in particular?
No, got one? [laughs] I believe firmly that we people have a purpose on the planet. It is imperative for your eventual happiness that one looks for what one's purpose in life is. It doesn't need to be a grand purpose. It doesn't need to be something that other people validate as the most important thing they've ever seen, heard, smelled or tasted. But I believe it's important for the individual to come to grips with the fact that maybe there really is such a thing as the dharma and that fate is not completely decided. You do make your own reality. I guess in terms of spirituality, that's about as far as I go. I've studied a number of spiritual traditions with a number of different teachers. I know and have seen a number of different dogmas and religions. I practice some of them. I studied Tantric meditation intensively for about eight years. That's a long time ago. I also hung around a lot with a couple of people that would be considered to be Sufis. I met a number of what people consider to be gurus and teachers and pedagogues of a supposed spiritual tradition. And pretty much since I was about 14 or 15 years old. So, I don't really subscribe to anything now. [laughs] Maybe I should though. [laughs] I always think "Man, I would be so happy in life, if I could just read a book inside my head, like some people do."
Tripping could be interpreted as an audio representation of such a journey. It has a real stream of consciousness feel.
For me, this record was some kind of huge mediation. The fact that it was so well-received kind of freaked me out. I was just out here sitting in this room by myself for like 20 hours a day. I'm just out here by myself. I have no contact with the world. I'm living here in my little cave. [laughs] For whatever reason, it's kind of a struggle, but meditation is like that. Sometimes it's really hard to sit still—even if you think that you're going to get something out of it or give something from it. But I view that record as a real personal meditation. This new one I’m working on is too, but I think that it has a little better sense of humor. [laughs]
Tripping was pretty serious for me. I don't know if I would say dark, but it was certainly brooding. At that time, I was incapable of playing a note of music without thinking about how long my life was going to be. Even a year ago, I was thinking "Well you know Dave, we really don't have that long. And you of all people have even less than others—that's almost for sure. What if it's next month and that's it? What if this is your last shot at producing something that you really love?" You know, I could lose the hearing in my other ear and that part of my life would be over. I could be diagnosed with an unusually fast-growing tumor and then it's in decline no matter how you look at it. During Tripping, I couldn't escape that feeling. I would play one note and feel it intensely. I’d be standing at the window and light a cigarette and say "Whoa. That's the end of this life." [laughs]
Is your health still that volatile?
A year ago, it was much more volatile than it is now because it had been a year less of testing. I did not feel really great last year. I felt that something was really wrong. I've since been through two tests and the peak and the trough of feeling terrible and having—for all intents and purposes—psychosomatic symptoms. [laughs] The trough was only in August of this year. I really was psychologically wrecked too. I've been extra-tested this year, so I'm functionally in the clear for another six or eight months, then I have to test again. If I get through the next three years and test negative throughout, then they'll give me a clean bill of health. For this kind of medicine, they'll say "Okay. Now, you're cool." I've still got a few years of this kind of testing. It kind of makes you go up and down whether you want to or not, you know? Every time March comes around in particular, I get super anxious and very weird. I put off some testing that I didn't actually do until the end of August of this year, that I should have done earlier. I couldn't really face it. But I let it build up until I was ready to explode and had to find out if there was something wrong. It was merely the build up. It's a weird thing to have to contend with. It's not volatile like cancer is, but it's this weird-ass kind of surprise. It’s "Hey, you got one! Hey, you do! We see a little growth in there!" Oh great, thanks. [laughs] It's kind of strange. So during Tripping, I couldn't escape that feeling at all. I was nuts and pretty fatalistic.
Has your situation impeded many of your non-musical pursuits?
When my balance was real—before I had to go through all of these cortisone treatments—and my weight was better, I was pretty deeply into bicycle racing. I can't do that anymore, but I still follow the sport. Now, it's pretty difficult to get on a bike and get into that position and maintain that. It puts pressure on my abdomen, which ends up in your shoulders and your head. I've had some releases lately, because I have been exercising. I bought one of these stupid Nordictrak machines that you put in your living room. [laughs] I'm so energetic tonight, because I did it just before dinner this evening for about a half-hour. I got all pumped up. My only outlets are music, the arts, reading, bicycle riding, the family—that's about it. I'm a big reader. And I really like old instruments. I also really like going to garage sales and finding crappy old things and collecting them. [laughs]
Let’s jump back to the tour with Manring and de Grassi discussed earlier. You mentioned that you were very depressed even prior to the physical scenario revealing itself. Why?
Working with those guys wasn't a problem. The problem was that the business of the tour was set up so poorly that I landed in Germany only to then find out that the whole tour was billed as "The Windham Hill Guitars." So, the label was more interested in pursuing their good name rather than the promoters being aware that I had an audience to play to. A lot of my audience couldn't possibly have been at those gigs based on the advertising. The people who did show up were kind of genre people who go to see the Windham Hill name. They're going to see some kind of laid back New Age or New Age-fusion kind of thing. That's not the correct place for me. And on top of that, I was already very depressed because I knew that something was going wrong. The tour was going to cost me money. I was in a terrible mood. And I decided in my bad mood—I was so pissed off—that I wasn't going to prepare anything. I decided that I was just going to improvise the entire tour. So, I got to the tour, and realized on the very first gig that I was playing for German New Age yuppies. But even then I wasn't so stupid or angry that I didn't realize that I'd better do something to try to sit with them. So, I spent the first 10 gigs trying to develop a set. It was solo. I wasn't playing with those guys. Everybody was doing their own thing. Alex started first, Michael played second and I played third. Loudest last. I think the whole thing was at the end of January of '92. I crashed somewhere between February 14th and 17th.
When did you start performing again after your surgery?
The first gig that I played was with The Snakes, later that year after I did the record. It was somewhere at the end of November at a festival in Hamburg. It was a total gas. Earthworks was on the same bill, so I got to see Bill [Bruford], Django [Bates] and Iain [Ballamy] at that gig. That was fun.
What went through your mind when you first got onstage?
I was freakin' out! It was a TV thing. I was still walking with a cane for my balance and depending on it pretty much. The gig was a real festival gig with a quick switch-over of bands. My super-sensitive weirdo gear was there and it was incredibly hot. Onstage, television the lights are so hot. I kind of freaked out when we got to the gig. I was a little nervous, but I was okay. I got to the gig and went to Mark and Steve, and said "I don't know man. I don't know what I'm going to do about these lights. What if, you know, it's going to trigger a seizure? I'm going to get all fucked up in the middle of a set." And Pete was saying "Don't worry about it. Wear your sunglasses. Just take it really slow. Take it at your own pace." As it turned out, I went onstage and it was all fine. I kinda got weird right before we played—physically weird too. So, we went to play and by the end of the set I felt great. It was a lot of stress, but it turned out fine.
What are some of the challenges facing you as a performer today?
These days, the biggest challenge for me is the exhaustion and fatigue of travel. This is tied to flying on airplanes, which I have to do. Flights for me are never less than a minimum of three to five hours somewhere from here. Often, they're overseas. So, you're talking about getting up super-early in the morning here, traveling to an international airport three hours away, hanging at the airport, then getting on a flight for six, seven or eight hours. I'm always destroyed. It usually takes me a couple of days to adjust, whether I'm going through time zones or not, because of changes in atmosphere pressure. It just takes me a while to come down from it. Usually, I'm fine the first day I arrive. But the second day, I have a real bad day with real bad headaches. I’m kinda whacked out and not really in place. That's pretty much my major tribulation for the physicality.
What about when you’re onstage? Are there any issues with dealing with the mix and monitors?
I use the stage monitors. I'm starting to have a problem because I have to be at a particular place on stage. I have to be fully stage right, otherwise I can't tell what's going on at all. Everything has to face my left ear. The monitors have to be completely set up on my left also. Everything's gotta come from the left side. It's real good if I'm standing kind of sideways so I can see the band. There are some weird things that happen. Most stages of the bigger clubs are not known for their high quality and clarity of sound. [laughs] And with the bands that I play with, where things are getting kind of loud, sometimes it's hard for me to make out the fundamental frequency of a bass. I sometimes think that it's half a step higher than it is. And it takes me awhile to adjust to that. I think "Oh my God, the guy's playing totally out of tune!" It happened in Mick's band. It happened in Polytown too—where I just couldn't make out one particular note that would stand out. I'd think "Man, the guy's like a fucking half-step high. What's up here?" Then I’d have some kind of perceptual shift and realize that actually the whole time it was in the right key. That happens to me anywhere where the sound gets kind of weird and there are strange phase relationships in the bass. You know, like a lot of rooms where there's a standing wave. That's when a room is not designed well for sounds at certain volumes or not even designed for sound at all. You get pockets in a room where a frequency will actually build in intensity or just be completely out of phase with another range of frequencies. A lot of times if you go to like a professional studio, for example, there's always some place behind the big monitors where you'll find a standing wave. If you listen to the music from there, you'll hear these low frequencies just kind of building and building up like a trap. And I seem to experience that certainly more than I ever did before. My sensitivity to it is kinda heightened. And that can be kinda weird. It's usually for a couple of minutes at a time, then it's over.
Let's talk about the initial seeds of Polytown.
Mick was originally in the Cloud About Mercury band, but he didn't record with it. He did tour with me though. The star of the show for me at the very beginning was Mick, because I had been just absolutely blown away with his playing in Japan—just knocked out. Harmonically, the lines he was playing inside of music that would be considered pop was so in tune with music that I was writing. So, I found these guys [Karn, Bill Bruford and Mark Isham] and paid them massive amounts of almost no money at all. [laughs] My relationship with Bill continues. We're really good friends. We played together in January at a NAMM show. It was me, Bill, Tony Levin and Chris Botti playing trumpet. We did four tunes and it was great fun. That got the record company all kind of weird about Polytown. They said "You've got to do this! This is the band!" [laughs] They thought it was Cloud About Mercury 2 or whatever. My relationship with Mick has turned into one of the great friendships of my life. I guess it was real obvious that there was great chemistry in that band. The original Cloud band with Mick, Bill, Mark and me had fantastic, fantastic chemistry. The other chemistry with Tony was pretty magical too.
Cloud was certainly the seeding ground for everything that came afterwards. Mark started getting all of this filmwork—I was functionally spending half my time in L.A. working with him. Mark found himself a record deal and decided to put a band together. He had played with Terry [Bozzio] in the past with Group 87. He basically took me, Mick, Terry, Kurt Wortman and David Goldblattt and that was Mark's touring band. Those gigs with Mark involved a pretty controlled set of playing a lot of film music—and playing to the film crowd. But there were two or three spots in the set where Terry and I kind of exploded. [laughs] There were also a couple of spots that were functionally a trio—just me, Mick and Terry. And we started talking at that time and thinking "This is just fantastic! This needs to happen! This needs to be a band!" It just took many years before it came together.
Was there a concept or methodology behind creating Polytown’s music?
From my side, the concept going into the recording was "Okay. We’re in a remote location, separate from everybody's personal lives. Nobody knows anybody there. We have limited amounts of time in the studio—two weeks to record, one week to mix and nobody comes prepared." [laughs] That was my concept. No preparation at all. None whatsoever. It was "We write together. It's a real band. Everything is split evenly three ways. And that will be that."
Polytown’s album art was spectacular.
It was done by all of us, but I think that the focus for the work side of Polytown was me or me and Mick. The artwork was skewed more towards Mick because the artists were in London. But I came and went a couple of times. They're really great people. Mick and I wanted snake skins and maps. [laughs] We wanted something that at least appeared textural. And Stylorouge [the design studio behind the art] are really fantastic. They came up with 27 different packages. We sat at a table for the last time and rejected all of the packages, except for approving certain concepts. Then Rob [O'Connor]and Stuart [Mackenzie] at Stylorouge completed it. They worked real hard on the Tripping package too. But CMP basically changed the package without telling anyone at the last minute because they needed to get them out to the stores. They couldn't wait for the digipaks to come out. The digipak of Tripping was gorgeous. And it had two more pages of artwork. It was quite different, actually. But the manufacturer wasn't willing to deliver them on time. I doubt you’ll see it unless the record does so incredibly well that I can say "Hey guys? Now, let's put out 10,000 of the original thing that I approved of." [laughs]
Can you elaborate on what you meant by "the work side of Polytown was me or me and Mick?"
It's supposed to be a band. Functionally, you'll get different stories from different people. But if you talk to Kurt, the engineer or Mick, they'll tell you that I produced the record in every way. [laughs] When it comes to things like organizing the band, getting it together and getting it to be at a certain place at a certain time, it kind of falls to me. For instance, playing this Polytown gig we did in Germany—it was like being whipped constantly. Terry wanted to do it, then he didn’t want to do it. Either it wasn’t enough responsibility or it was too much responsibility. I kind of went fucking crazy. It was a big festival thing and we were interacting with a lot of different musicians over the course of it. Mick had trepidations about it. He has reservations about playing with educated or highly-skilled players.
What’s your take on why he has that tendency?
It’s background. It’s British schooling and the historical effect of being a star when you're young and unskilled. It's that sometimes very affected British musician attitude that goes "I don't need the skill. I just need the uniqueness." Whereas in America you get "I don't know what uniqueness is. I just need some heavy-duty skills, so I can compete." [laughs] So, when it comes to playing what he views as a formatted idiom like jazz in which people say things like "Okay, you've got four bars, Gm7#11, two bars of..." and have to read charts, he naturally backs down. It's a little bit scary to him. He's a real, honest, self-educated, totally unique player. And Terry was just like that too. I don't know if Terry was just scared to go and play with all of these people or what. So, it's a little bit difficult getting that band together. It's a bit on the hard side for me. There is some personality clash in that band that is really wonderful from a musical perspective. I often find myself in a mediator-type role in a lot of different situations. I think that's one of the reasons why I feel good as a producer of records. I tend to get a pretty good overview of what's going on socially and kind of help people get through it. I think that tension in Polytown is really kind of a cool thing. It doesn't detract from the fact that everybody in the band is quite good friends with one another. But sometimes you have conflicts with your friends. And in music, sometimes that can be really a great thing. It's that push-pull thing. I hope it continues. I would like to do something else with Polytown and not think that it was a one-off project. But it was a lot of work.
You've worked with every core member of Japan. What drew you to the band’s sound?
It was the band that first drew me to Mick [Karn]. I really loved the band. Jan Garbarek turned me on to the band with that pseudo-live record Oil on Canvas. Anyway, I couldn't believe that this guy was playing bass and that this was supposed to be some kind of rock band. It didn't sound like a bass to begin with. It sounded like a dream of some sound I had heard in my head like 20 years ago, you know? And the first tune I ever heard was called "Canton"—an instrumental tune—and I'm saying to Jan "What the hell's that sound man?" He goes "Well that's the bass player, he's really kind of strange." Yeah, he sure is! It sounds like if Bootsy was Moroccan. I thought "God, this is some fuckin' Middle-Eastern rubber band guy!" I couldn't get his sound out of my head. Our relationship kicked into first gear because David [Sylvian] was already a fan of the whole ECM thing. So, he invited me into his picture. And eventually I became real good friends with Steve [Jansen] and Rich [Barbieri]. In fact, you know, I was supposed to be in Rain Tree Crow. It was kind of a pretty big disappointment that I wasn't.
Mick is really one of my best friends, regardless of the distance. And Steve, Rich and I just kind of share something that's really nice. There's a really pleasing kind of mutual respect between us. We understand each other and that's kinda hard to come by. It's real hard to come by in the kind of jazz world that I've spent so much time in where people are striving for virtuosity. There tends to be that kind of athletic competitiveness that I react so negatively to. I just can't take it. And that doesn't happen in their world. When I'm hanging with those guys, we don't talk about music—unless it's a really deep discussion. We talk about other things in the world. We don't listen to music together either. Everybody's aware that they make music because it is an expression of the experiences of our actual lives. I think in that respect these guys are unusually mature. It doesn't mean that I like everything they do, nor do they like everything that I do, but there's a kind of a maturity there that I respond really well to. So, it's real nice having respect and knowing that you have real friends who are also musicians that you can turn to for emotional support. I have friends on the other side too where the friendships aren't so deep. They're just like musical acquaintances somehow. You're always finding out what this guy's doing and the other guy's doing and what kind of gear they're using. It's so boring, you know?
How does being deaf in one ear affect your ability to produce records?
Well, you get used to it. I sit sideways to the console. I capture the picture in mono correctly. I listen in mono a lot. I conceptualize the stereo aspects in my head rather than experiment with it by ear. I have to try and guess and I presume. I check the meters and I go "I want this sound over here and I want this to pan like that." I have to have all those things kind of together in my head. The positive side of it is that only hearing with one ear allows me to hear phase cancellations better than anybody else can. Without putting the speakers in mono, I can look into the sound by sitting directly in the center with my ear facing the speakers. Then I can say to the professional engineer guy "Hey Bruce! You know what? When you put that sound in mono you're not going to hear any bass in the center at all." So he'll flip it into mono and he'll go "Oops!" Or I can say "Turn that fuckin' reverb down, because it's making this flanging sound with the other reverb when you put it in mono." So, he flips it into mono and goes "Oops!" [laughs] So there's this great kinda superiority game I can play with these guys.
I understand the hearing situation has made you very sensitive to over-production too.
Yeah, it's made me very sensitive to the use of multiple reverbs and delays. That’s why there's only one reverb on Tripping Over God. Although there's a lot of phase cancellation going on, most of it is fairly purposeful. That’s because that's the way I hear it. I can't do it any other way. The bad side is that when they want to say something funky behind my back all they gotta do is sit on the deaf side. [laughs] When Mick wants to get up your nose, he'll just sit on my bad side and say these things that I can barely hear. Then I turn to him and say "What?" and he'll go "Oh! Nothing. Nothing. No, nothing." [laughs]
Your production work for people like Andy Rinehart and Wes Martin—as well as the material on Door X—revealed a pop sensibility that surprised people steeped in your instrumental works. Do you anticipate further work within a singer-songwriter context in the future?
I like all kinds of music. As long as it captures my interest, stimulates my intellect and takes me somewhere, I have no regard for the idiom at all. I'm guilty of writing some very weird little songs myself—carefully-crafted pop songs from my past that will emerge one day. I’ve never said "I'm going to be a flamenco musician" or "I'm going to be a jazz musician" or "I'm going to be an avant garde musician" or "I'm going to be a classical musician" or "I'm going to be a dance musician." I’ve never said any of those things. I just knew that I wanted to be a musician. So, I never got attached to a team, you know? I’ve worked on stuff with people like Cheryl Bentyne. That's a pop-jazz record for Atlantic or something. I also worked on some stuff with Tanita Tikaram. And I've worked with David Sylvian—although that’s kind of far away from pop, it comes from that tradition. I've always wanted to play with Joni Mitchell. That’s a life-long dream.
Describe what you bring to the table when producing a pop artist.
It's just really fun to be challenged by somebody who comes in with a pop and says to you "Give me something that's unique for this song." It’s even better for me in that situation when somebody says "Help me craft this into something that is not meant for three-minute consumption." If they want me to work on their record, they're basically saying "Help me do something that I'll still like in ten years, not a three-minute pop tune that people cannot even digest before they spit it out." That's really incredibly edifying to work on.
Are you listening to much pop these days?
I listen to a broad range of music, but I have been listening to increasingly slower and slower music. I've been listening a lot of modern composed music by Takamitsu, Giaconcelli and John Adams. I've been listening to Bossa Nova music by Jobim and some of the psycho young bands Critters Buggin'. There’s also Jansen and Barbieri's new record, some older Brian Eno stuff and Astor Piazzola. The things that really last for me are things like music from French Algeria that Henry Kaiser sent me. On the other side, I still listen to Soundgarden. They really are one of the great bands of this last bunch of years—really fantastic musicians. I really enjoy hearing Primus too. They have this great sense of humor that I really enjoy.
The last time we did an interview, you were still deep in the midst of the Windham Hill Door X debacle. Let’s look at the making of that record through the rear view mirror.
The introduction to Windham Hill came via one of my managers who was previously married to Mark Isham. And the guy who was the rising star in the A&R department there was a tremendous fan. He was a guitar player and someone I became friends with. They purported to wanna really change the direction of the label and really make an effort to do so. They had the money to do it then.
I'll try to encapsulate the whole thing. First, I was incredibly sick while I was making that record and didn't know it. It was really at a very strange point in time for me. Secondly, they didn't know what they wanted. They thought they wanted to let me loose, but they never did. There was a lot of feedback about the record. The third point is they dropped the ball. Within two weeks of the release of the record—two weeks—it was gone. I will quote an executive who was at the playback party of final mixdown of the record. He took me aside and said "David, this is a masterpiece. This is your masterpiece. We're gonna do everything we can to get it out there." Two weeks later, I ask "Hey guys, is my record out?" He says "Well, you know, Dave, umm, it's not the best work you could have delivered."
Okay, so they dropped the record. But let’s move on and get into more serious stuff for the next one. Lemme do a band. Lemme do this or that. Then they say "Okay, umm, Dave? Uh, you know the way most of our Windham Hill artists make money is via our sampler records. So, we'd like you to submit music for these samplers." And then they summarily rejected almost everything I provided for the samplers as being too weird. There's a piece that's on Tripping that I submitted for their ambient sampler. I worked my ass off. I gave them three pieces to pick from and they picked one. They asked for some changes. I made the changes they asked for. Then they said "Can you remove the weird backwards harmonica thing in the center? It's really boring and it's like way too psychotronic for us." I said "no problem" and removed it from the piece. Then they rejected it. It was typical. That's Windham Hill.
That’s some serious musical tampering.
Fuck yeah. This is the kind of attitude that I hate in the music industry. Here are these guys. They're in business. They think the musicians are not in business. Therefore, they know the business. They may think the musicians know the music, but they don't believe the musicians understand how the music relates to the business. So, this incredibly dense psychological condescension goes on. Hey, I'm more intelligent than most A&R people. My IQ is well beyond the range of most A&R people. Plus I've got some understanding of the social mechanics of life. And I understand business. But when I talk to these guys, I'm like a 10-year-old kid to them. It’s not because I'm acting that way but because they wanna treat me that way. They have got to pump themselves into believing that they understand how music works in the industry and marketplace. I believe firmly that it has become pretty much a no-win situation attitudinally. Basically, it appears to me that the major corporate players have created the marketplace that they now control. They now do know the marketplace better than the musicians do. I think that the industry has created a self-fulfilling prophecy. It really has made itself through the David Geffens of the world.
How do you look back at the album itself?
Tough record. Really difficult. I think it was one of the prime reasons that I backed out of doing my own records for a minute. I became kind of gun-shy because I was being pulled by so many external forces. The record company was playing record company games that I didn't have the strength to deal with and I was having some kind of an emotional breakdown in my personal life. It's one of the motivating factors for me building my own studio at home to work on my own. I always had the motivation to do that because I’m kind of technically and technologically inclined. But that situation really kicked it over. It was like, I don't wanna deal with engineers or producers if I don't have to—not by choice. And there were these record company people knocking at my door wanting to listen to demos. I don't wanna make demos for people! I may not be the greatest musician to have ever lived, but I feel I've got something valuable to say. I don't want to pass the raw wheat of my music through a sifter that can't actually contain it.
On the musical side of things, I don't think I played guitar really well. But there is a tune or two on that record that I really like. I think that the first song—the little tune thing—kind of could have been great. [laughs] But it isn't. It could've been fantastic had I been in a more focused framework 'cause the guitar playing on that one is really spot on for me. The second tune I think has really good writing—"Lion of Boaz." I think that number seven, "Brave Light of Sun," which is an instrumental, was a completely confused tune. It's not executed as well as I like and the guitar playing isn't on it for me, but the writing is where I wanted it to be. I think that "Diamond Mansions"—the little folk tune—is really well conceived and was written for a singer who was not me. And I would change some of the lyrics at this point in my life. I think that the last tune is really well-conceived, but compositionally and arrangement-wise was not very well executed by me. I've got demos of some of these tunes that actually sound more like music than the final tunes. I was functionally writing what I was feeling, but what I was feeling was so confusing and illogical that I couldn't really get it into a picture.
The sound of the record is not deep enough either. The actual sound of the whole record—the whole thing—feels really small to me. There’s not enough space, not enough impact. The truth is that if I have to check out tomorrow, I will look back on my work and say "No matter what it meant to anybody else, I have done a few of things that were really valuable to me: Tripping, Cloud and Best Laid Plans." But I don't think one album or one tune can ever be considered representative of an entire artist's scope of work.
How would you characterize your relationship with your current label CMP?
It's a great label. Just great. It's got all the diseases that small dysfunctional families have that are emotionally very close to each other, but live in very distant lands. [laughs]. So there's a lot of long-distance miscommunication that goes on. Kurt [Renker] always had some kind of a really personal vision to music that nobody else is presenting. There are certain people in the company that are always going to kind of frictionalize with each other though. But my relationship with CMP is quite good. They believe in backing me regardless of how difficult the records might be for the mass public, which is a really important thing for me.
Another recent project of yours is Tonal Textures, a CD of guitar loops aimed at the musician community. What made you decide to compile them?
Tonal Textures was a reaction to recognizing that my loops were being used in places that were either not authorized by me at all, or were semi-authorized but I was never paid for. There were some films and commercials on television. Patrick O'Hearn and Terry Bozzio said to me "You know, other people are doing these sample CDs. Maybe you should do that and actually make some money off of it. " As a guitar player, I have something to offer, but it's a very small part of the picture for me. I like to be able to draw these funny landscapes and have people use them.
You recently contributed an editorial to Musician magazine in which you said the best way to deal with and understand the media is to absorb its information and then ignore it. Expand on that idea.
I'm like an intellectual sponge. I like to read everything, see what people are saying and then decide for myself if there's anything there that applies to the way I live. When you're young and a musician, what they say in the magazines is kind of everything. And I can't deny that what you read in print or see on television has a certain authority to it—even when it's wrong or unhealthy or bad. On the other hand, there are a lot of incredible things that are being written about people and music. I think it's really important to develop a very discriminating mind and be able to decide for oneself about one's own opinions and what one's feelings and reactions are to things.
Some argue the media has reached a level of influence where it actively and purposefully acts as an impediment to independent thought.
I think that there is a really valid argument that says that is the case, but there also is the valid argument that nobody in John Doe's home has to turn that fucking TV on every night, right? I mean, John Doe has that moment of self-motivation where he turned the damn thing on and he watched mutely as this kind of non-information entered his head, which became conversation two days later over lunch with some office mates and then became reality. I think that anything that's presented as absolute fact without a discriminating eye can be viewed as non-information, especially when it's publicly and widely dispensed. I watched the O.J. Simpson trial. I thought it was fucking fascinating. It was unbelievable in every respect. It was pretty deep. I was more interested in the media play of the whole thing and the kind of public fascination with something that actually happened. There was this event—the murder of two people. But it just seemed like a show, you know? People were talking about the ratings of the TV stations and you're just thinking about why they are focusing on this. They're focusing on it because somebody's making fuck-wads of money off of it. That’s really what it was about.
The big shockers in America for me were seeing the Challenger blow up on TV and watching cameras in the fields in Vietnam. These things are really indelible. I look at all this stuff as all part of the same picture and culture. You know, watching the Bosnian war on television. What the hell is that? There's a separation of humans from the world that they live in. The gradual descent of the media into really blindly and aimlessly pursuing and aggravating the cult of personality beyond anything that ever happened in history before. To me this kind of stuff is just so stunning.
How does your media philosophy apply to the realm of music?
I've done some master classes and clinics. What I've tried to stress from my point of view is "Fuck the music business. Fuck the media. Fuck all that stuff. You wanna be a real musician? The music business and the music media must be ignored if you wanna develop something that you think is important to yourself. You must do it, otherwise you'll find yourself going down the whirlpool of pandering to what you think people's tastes are which can never be correct." On the other side of things, there is a music business and music media. There are real people in it as well and it's not flatly and grandly all bad. So, you know, it’s not a simple situation. All situations have a certain complexity to them. So, I say "Just look at it with a side-long glance. Take it in. Read this stuff. Listen to the music. Listen to what everybody's talking about. Turn MTV on every once in awhile. See what the top ten are and what those people are about." You have to let it affect you and not let it affect you at the same time. You have to look beyond.