by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2001 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
Composer and guitarist David Torn has long been known for defying categorization. Throughout a career stretching nearly 30 years, strict devotion to his muse has ensured singularly unique and diverse output. Whether it's edgy, world rhythm-infused jazz-rock, minimalist ambient explorations or cutting-edge electronica—all drenched with an innovative looping approach—Torn's work has quietly played a major role in shaping modern audio aesthetics.
It's the electronica realm that Torn explores and expands on in his latest CD OAH, released under the moniker SPLaTTeRCeLL. He assumed the alias in an attempt to distance himself from any preconceptions attached to a release under his own name. Though he's successfully established himself as a potent, inventive force, Torn remains lumbered by the industry notion that he's predominantly a jazz artist.
The fact is Torn emerged as a public entity via jazz-inflected work with Don Cherry, the Everyman Band and solo releases on the ECM and CMP labels. But while SPLaTTeRCeLL has some roots in the jazz realm by virtue of Torn's evolution—not to mention via contributions from drummers Zach Alford, Matt Chamberlain and Dean Sharp, and bassists Fima Ephrom and Abraham Laboriel—it's much more steeped in recombinant urban experimentation along the lines of Squarepusher, DJ Spooky and Autechre. But OAH differs significantly from those acts with its organic grooves and a human touch that overcome any sterility associated with the scene.
"Most of the material on the record is built out of things that were originally improvised by me alone or by me with other people," explained Torn. "For instance, 'Chrysanthemum Bang' started with me, Zach and Fima playing live. But I fucked around with it. I went through the tapes, found stuff I liked and built a piece out of it. The root source of the material is the interaction with other players."
In addition to critical acclaim, SPLaTTeRCeLL has captured the attention of some high caliber peers. Many contributed to Remiksis:::AH, an EP featuring OAH interpretations by the likes Ryuichi Sakamoto, Nine Inch Nails' Charlie Clouser, Yoshihiro Hanno and Dan "The Automator" Nakamura. It also includes a track titled "Romance Refined" featuring No-Man's Tim Bowness on lead vocals.
SPLaTTeRCeLL's bent was likely informed by Torn's varied and voluminous work in the film soundtrack world over the last 20 years. Recent films graced by his textures, looping and guitar work include Traffic, The Chamber, The General's Daughter, Three Kings and Reversal of Fortune. Many directors and composers regularly seek out Torn's one-of-a-kind approach to atmospheres. And those who don't are known to routinely plunder his sample discs Tonal Textures, Pandora's Toolbox and Loops for Acid. The discs' content is used worldwide as the basis for a great deal of high profile television, film and commercial house work.
Torn discussed the inspiration and evolution of SPLaTTeRCeLL with Innerviews, as well as the emerging directions of his soundtrack career. Recent collaborations with Laurie Anderson, Will Calhoun, Robert Creeley, Donna Lewis, Me'Shell NdegéOcello and Douglas September also serve as conversation fodder.
Tell me where the name SPLaTTeRCeLL came from.
It makes sense in a fairly personal way. I've come to think of these little audio bits as cells that I'm splattering like paint across the landscape of my digital audio workstation. It's like I'm randomly throwing globs of paint at things.
When did you first think about using an alias to release music?
The first time I thought about it was back in the CMP days during the early '90s. I wanted to make a series of records for CMP that freed me from any kind of vision anyone might have of me. At the time, I had this character called Bob. Bob was going to put out a series of records. [laughs] The idea was that with Bob, I could do whatever I wanted to do. So, it's not a fresh thought for me. It's an outgrowth of something that started awhile ago. Once the new record neared completion, I thought "now is the time to change." I was encouraged by friends and my kids. Why not have an A.K.A.? Other people do it all the time. How successful it is in terms of identification with David Torn fans, anti-fans or the business remains to be seen.
Looking at the bigger picture, there's no defining point in the renaming of the self. This is just part of what I hope is an evolutionary flow of writing and producing music. Perhaps the only defining point is when I built my studio in '93—when I was first capable of having a sequencer on a computer that would sequence audio, rather than MIDI information. Tripping Over God  is part of any defining point, as is when I started working with cells, loops, textures and repeating motifs. I first started working with looping devices back in 1976. So, somewhere along the line I morphed into a dude named SPLaTTeRCeLL . [laughs]
I assume the renaming was also designed to allow you to escape the "David Torn: guitar player" pigeonhole.
I don't want to be the same as I was two years ago. I want to be considered a conceiver of music and not merely a guitar player—which I pretty much never really was and don't think I was that good at to begin with. I certainly do not in any way want to use guitar to play really hot solos in order for people to enjoy the music. That's certainly the most minimal part of how I think about my music. The guitar is an integral part of it, but I think of myself as a composer. That may be high-minded and wrong, but that's how I consider myself. Hence, SPLaTTeRCeLL .
The old school guys that want a hot guitar solo can buy the new Jeff Beck record. There are other hot guitar records coming out from [John] Scofield and [Bill] Frisell too. Those records might be interesting to them. Even though these guys talk about me like I'm a really good guitar player, I don't think it's my strength. My strength is recasting the guitar. So, why can't I have a public personality to recast myself into as well? One of the great reasons for not putting this record out as David Torn was because it might have gone into the jazz or new age bins where my name has J-cards. My records would get returned because there is no jazz listener scouring the jazz bins looking to pick up SPLaTTeRCeLL . Ken Burns' jazz? Wynton Marsalis' jazz? What is SPLaTTeRCeLL then? Maybe SPLaTTeRCeLL will work for the more adventurous people into Matt Garrison, Nils Petter Molvær and Don Byron. But SPLaTTeRCeLL is a pretty fucking long stretch into the jazz scene. There may be some influences there harmonically, sensibility-wise or form-wise. But if the SPLaTTeRCeLL record were to end up in the David Torn bin means I might as well not even bother putting it out.
Was there any trepidation about how your earlier fusion-oriented crowd might perceive the record?
If there was, it was really, really brief. I admit to being extremely irritated when people ask me to explain to them what I've done. I guess I've come to look at this as an extremely narrow-minded audience—the one that demands an explanation for why such a thing would occur, or even worse, one that wants to corner the music into an extremely polarized idea of selling out. That's one of the most ridiculous things I've heard. I characterize these folks as kind of being unable to move along. I'm fine with talking to people about music, but having to explain myself to somebody actually saying "I liked Door X  better" or "I loved the tone of your guitar when you used the Pierce amp, why did you change?" is irritating. Hey dude, why did your wife leave you? [laughs] Don't ask me these things. It's phenomenally short-sighted.
It took awhile for SPLaTTeRCeLL to get released after completion.
It came out 18 months after it was done. I feel well beyond it. It was a very good reason to put a remix of my own on the remix disc. It was more up to date. The piece with Tim Bowness is closer to where I'm at currently. The business of trying to get SPLaTTeRCeLL out has been a little frustrating—no more so than for any independent artist though. The good news is, regardless of what goes right or wrong with this record company [75 Ark], I’m not tied to them for any particular time. I own SPLaTTeRCeLL, including the masters of the record and remixes. It's not in anyone else's court but mine. I don't feel boxed into a corner with a five record deal wondering if they're gonna let me do my next record or if they're gonna promote it. It's a distribution deal, not a record deal. It they don't, well fuck 'em, I’m just going to move on.
Describe the process of trying to get this music out there.
I went to every label I thought reasonable—most of the electronica ones. I still hold a grudge against some of them because of some really odd reactions. But I tried to take these things with a grain of salt and not burn any bridges. I think it could have been very well marketed by some of them. There was a long series of disappointments and then I ran into two or three labels that said they'd do it and put it out. I chose 75 Ark because it had the best looking marketing plan, which of course was never followed through on. [laughs] It was 75 Ark that suggested we do a remix record, which I really thought was a great idea both creatively and marketing-wise. It let me get my material updated in the hands of some very creative friends and people I hadn't met before like Charlie [Clouser] and Dan ["The Automator" Nakamura].
Getting the record out was a struggle. I felt like I was being treated like a kid who had never put out a record before. Granted, some of my records have not sold very well for very different reasons. But there is a fan base and I felt strongly that someone should be able to capitalize on that and take it a bit further—especially with this music which has deeper connections to electronica and progressive hip-hop. It was a struggle I was not prepared for. I thought it was going to be a lot easier. But hey dude, I'm 47 years-old, although I'd suspect that I'm pretty aware of what's happening adventurously on a musical level. However, on a daily or weekly basis, I'm not some kid playing raves, doing big parties or working with Madonna.
Did you perceive an ageist mentality working against you?
I suspect there's an element of that. But I think it's probably got more to do with the fact that the music I make sounds different from other kinds of music. One record company offered a response as rhetorical questions that went "Well, what do you expect if you're going to make music that doesn't sound like anything else? How do you expect us to release and market it?" If I was making noise at raves and in the dance world, it might have been a bit easier. I think in that world, the fact that I'm a guitar player weighs against me too.
Do you feel you exist outside of the music industry these days?
As much as any other artist who is independent I'd say. Musically, I am definitely doing what I want to do. In that way, I'm on the boundaries. It's not that I think the music is avant-garde. I don't. I don't think it's particularly experimental either. Maybe I have an inside view, but I think it's pretty fucking catchy. But I thought that about Cloud About Mercury  and What Means Solid, Traveler?  too.
Page Hamilton from Helmet is one of my biggest supporters. He went absolutely nuts over this record. And he's a very critical listener. He's not afraid to tell you what he thinks is wrong. He said "Dude, this is your most well-formed work yet. You're figuring out a way to structure yourself into an almost song form. It feels like tunes even though they may not be particularly linear." So, that's the take of a critical friend I respect. I think I'm working on the outside edges, but I don't think it's that out there—especially when I listen to stuff like Squarepusher, Boards of Canada, Amon Tobin or the bulk of DJ Spooky's output.
Yes, SPLaTTeRCeLL is idiosyncratic—I would hope it is. People like Page, [David] Bowie, Carter [Burwell] and others in the film industry have been unbelievably supportive of whatever I'm doing. The other thing that kept me going through this period of struggle was this crowd of kids in New York that I have a lot of respect for. My oldest son has a really huge crew of very culturally active kids. They were so phenomenally supportive. When you get to be my age, you can easily determine if someone is kissing ass or has an agenda. This Brooklyn and downtown New York City crowd of 19-to-23 year-olds helped me not give up. At Virgin and Tower in New York City, they had to restock the record every two-or-three days for the first few weeks after release and that was partially because of this gang. My son loves me and has a lot of respect for me, but his friends didn't need to do that. They don't owe me. It was genuine and really kept me feeling that if these kids dig this stuff like they're putting across, there's a reason to keep going regardless of what the labels say. It sounds like strange motivation, but when you're me, you look for support where you can get it.
Describe the overall approach you took to putting the new record together.
Most of the material on the record is built out of things that were originally improvised by me alone or by me with other people. For instance, "Chrysanthemum Bang" started with me, Zach [Alford] and Fima [Ephron] playing live. But I fucked around with it. I went through the tapes, found stuff I liked and built a piece out of it. The root source of the material is the interaction with other players. In a very worst case scenario, the material is turned into cells that I build my bits out of. This is particularly the case for stuff that was once guitars. The energy of self-referencing creativity is the first impulse of SPLaTTeRCeLL . It's this thing we started loosely calling "Organica" a while ago—the idea of using sources that are played by a bunch of cool musicians jamming in a room, of whom I may be the least cool. [laughs] But I'm one of those guys and there is something valuable to say.
As a composer, I'm a guy with a digital audio workstation. I'm going to use those tools to rethink what was played. I'm not fixing what was played, but I'm taking the best of it that appeals to me in the same way that a guy writing a hip-hop tune bases things on samples of other people. But I'm going back through my library, taking samples of myself playing with other people like Matt Chamberlain, Dean Sharp, Zach, Fima or Will Calhoun. Another example is the Plane stuff [improv trio featuring Me'Shell NdegéOcello, Calhoun and Torn]. Maybe the Plane record will be a document of a live recording or maybe I'll fuck around with it. There's still some really strong force that wants to take the initial improvisatory impulse and use it as somebody who's writing with it after the fact. That initiative hasn't stopped. It started a long time ago. Its first birth was Tripping Over God. Now, it's about tripping into the future. I'm continuing with this on new material, though I'm also using sounds that are purely created on the computer as the root source of things.
Tell me about the new SPLaTTeRCeLL material in the works.
I now have several pieces ready to complete for the next SPLaTTeRCeLL release. Some of the newer material is much more rhythmic than the first SPLaTTeRCeLL disc. The rhythms and the sounds of the rhythms are much more unusual this time around. I don't know how to describe them except to say that I've been building a lot of drum-type sounds out of found materials and synthesizing them very purely on the computer. I'm taking drum sounds and building new sounds from them that are very unlike drums. Over the course of the last couple of years, I've found myself listening to more and more electronic music. I can't deny that it has an influence on me. I also now have a huge penchant for sampling the great jazz drummers and finding little riffs and bits that I can really twist. It lets me have the feeling of those guys that changed popular music in the last century.
Your work has been very influential in the film and television soundtrack realms, yet you've received very little public acknowledgement for it. What are your thoughts on that situation?
I think it's because most of the good work I do in the film world goes historically uncredited. It's only recently that I'm even getting credit. I get hired for a lot of film scores, but what I get hired for is not usually to play something somebody else wrote for me. For instance, with Carter Burwell, sometimes he'll write 50 percent of what he expects me to play and then the other 50 percent is completely creative on my part. In the case of Blair Witch 2, there was little-to-nothing written for me. I was asked to create sounds, textures and provide a creative impulse for his score. I've done that stuff for a lot of films. Somehow, the film Traffic has turned things around for me. Suddenly, people are calling and saying "I recognize that a good portion of Traffic is based on you. Did you do that score or were you sampled?" I would never disrespect Cliff Martinez for that score, but there's an awful lot of me in it. Same with Blair Witch 2—a movie none of us will see. [laughs] But Traffic is something most of us will see. It's got a lot of notice both publicly and in Hollywood. People kinda finally went "I recognize that sound—that's Torn." Although it says music composed by Cliff Martinez, at the end of the credits you'll see "SPLaTTeRCeLL /dt: textures and guitars."
I kind of occupy a really unusual position in the world of film music in that I'm asked to come in and be me for somebody else's score. There are some arguments that say "Well, you're actually writing part of the score." And well, indeed, I am writing my parts quite often—maybe during a larger percent of the time. I'm making up all these textures and also playing a few written things here and there. It's kind of a tough one, but I’m finally getting credit. The fact is I'm on many more television shows, films and advertisements than I actually am paid on because of the amount of sampling of my work that's being done here in America, as well as England and Japan. It's nothing short of phenomenal. The first two sample discs have sold very well [Tonal Textures and Pandora's Toolbox]. They're really in a lot of composer's sample toolkits. The discs are very good at helping out with visuals. It's a strange world that I live in because I get an immense amount of respect in some quarters, but the old guitar player fans don't know shit about this stuff. They don't know it's me they're hearing in some film or on TV. Sussan Deyhim recently said she thinks I'm the most sampled living musician on the planet outside of James Brown. [laughs]
Why haven't you helmed a feature film soundtrack of your own yet?
I'm working on it. I've been recommended for quite a few good ones by Carter [Burwell]. None of them happened for political reasons, but I'm convinced it will occur. Hollywood is a strange place. It has a catch-22 built into it which is "So, you want to score this film?" I'd say "Yes, I do." The response is "Let me see something you've scored." Next up, I say "Well, I haven't scored a big film." Their reaction is "When you do, send it to me and I'll consider you for one of my films." It doesn't seem to matter to a lot of directors that I've done all the textures for movies like Three Kings, Velvet Goldmine, The Chamber, Reversal of Fortune, Traffic, Blair Witch 2, General's Daughter and a bunch of others that have been critically or commercially successful—or both.
An agent would say my textures and guitar are part of the creative process—not just serving as a session musician. But the directors say "Oh, he's a guitar player. We don't need any guitar on this score" or "He sounds avant-garde." [laughs] Those are the predictable impediments. I think they will evaporate because I do believe I have something very valuable to offer to some director of some cool film as the principal composer, rather than having someone say "Let's hire Torn, he'll help."
It's funny. I know quite a few Hollywood composers including Hans Zimmer, Carter, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Howard Shore. None of these people actually tried to become a composer in Hollywood. They all met someone who was a fan of theirs and just became composers for film. I'm also quite fortunate in that I've worked with some of the greatest film composers now working. It's really great working with Carter. He can look at a good picture and really understand what it needs. When it's a good movie, he's the man.
The early '90s saw you overcome a life-threatening brain tumor that left you deaf in one ear. How does that affect your ability to work with surround sound?
I know sound is coming from all over the place, but I can't tell you why. [laughs] Carter and I once played in New York City in surround sound in which we had control over our individual sounds in the surround soundscape. It was really great. I really enjoyed it. It was a fantastic gig and I can tell it sounds cool and bigger. The fact is unless you're in a restaurant with me, nobody notices. I still envision a stereo soundfield in my head because I had a lot of experience producing records. I still see a soundspace in my head and still create according to that soundspace. Even if I'm just playing guitar and loops live, I still have a sense of what's going to work in a field of sound. So, that would never go against me in Hollywood. And that processing is held for the mixdown stage anyway. I can verify that I have something creative to say about how to use the soundfield. For instance, in The Corrupter, I was separated from the rest of the score. The electronic stuff was put in full surround and the rest of the stuff was inside.
How is your health these days?
In general, I'm doing really, really well. I actually can't tell you when the last, full-blown seizure even occurred. I've passed every MRI since the operation with flying colors.
You once told me the ordeal made you live your life on a day-by-day basis. Is that still the case?
I think I still do. The further and further away you get from a morbid experience, the more you lose some of that edge. [laughs] You start to become a little more comfortable in the illusion of your immortality. I'm sure I've got some of that. That period of life woke up a lot of new and old things in me. It definitely changed my perspective, but I've learned to attempt to stay out there in the best possible way—not in a morbid or fatalist way. I try to maintain that attitude, but it's a little rough sometimes when you get caught up in "Oh my God, I don't have a gig this week, but I have eight next week and nothing next month." I also have a fairly complex personal life which involves having been an immature provider for many years—in other words, a musician. [laughs]
Suddenly, you realize your kids are old enough to go to college and they want to go. For a musician, it's a fairly complex thing to come up with money for two kids in college in America. It's really tough being a professional musician in this country. It's very difficult to keep up with the Joneses. It's also difficult to keep up with the inequities in politics and civil rights. The thing that kept us going here [in Woodstock, NY] is that we wanted to give our kids a stable base to grow from. So, we never moved. We've had many opportunities to move to different countries which were very seriously considered. My youngest son is going to college soon and the picture is gonna open up again. We'll see what happens over the next couple of years.
You recently completed a new album for Douglas September featuring Robby Aceto. What drew you to his work?
He's very true—unusually true. It's hard to describe. Douglas just puts it out there. He has a lot of people comparing him to Bob Dylan, Tom Waits or Captain Beefheart, but he's just a naturally expressive, very, very funky dude. We've made a really cool record based on the live playing of Douglas and Robby. We threaded a studio document that was true to what they were performing live with some newer swampy stuff that I think is the single most true representation I've ever heard of him.
You're part of Robert Creeley's backing ensemble on his new CD Have We Told You All You'd Thought To Know? What can you tell me about that experience?
I loved the gig that record came from. What a genius. It was really fun playing with someone like Robert. He's an unbelievably erudite, poetic gentleman. I spent two days with him and we pulled it off. [Steve] Swallow was the glue, musically. It was great playing with Robert and responding to these pieces in real-time. I didn't know any of them. It was entirely improvised. Robert didn't know which piece was going to go where. It was that edgy fun in which you don't know what's going to happen. Everyone got along and respected each other. I enjoyed the process. Robert's one of the last beat poets. It was unusually enlightening—not just the work itself, but being around someone who helped birth a literary movement in America that's going to be of some long lasting value. It was pretty special.
You're involved with two all-improv groups: Plane featuring Will Calhoun and Me'Shell NdegéOcello, and LoVEBuBBLE, a duo with Calhoun. Are there any plans for CD releases?
There were some absolutely incredible moments during the four Plane shows. I need to go through the tapes and determine what Will, Me'Shell and I could put out in some way or another. I have gone through the LoVEBuBBLE stuff and have put together a CD consisting mostly of one live gig and a piece or two from another live gig. It's a nice 60 minute disc that Will really wants to put out somehow—maybe by ourselves. I feel really good about that representation of what Will and I did in the context of a live gig. It sounds like a whole bunch of people playing onstage, but it's just the two of us. There's a very, very unique chemistry. I love going into New York City and having gigs that are just improvised—no tunes, no expectations. Most of the time, there's not very much advertising for the gig. You just go and play and get with some very like-minded musicians and trust the moment. Some unusually great things happen in those moments.
You're also working with Donna Lewis on some new vocal material. Tell me about that collaboration.
It's been going on for quite awhile now. I'm basically writing the material and Donna is choosing which of it she wants to sing to. She's also helping me organize and arrange that material, as well as writing melodies over it. The people I've played a really rough vocal track for are very excited by it. There's some kind of feeling that's similar to Lamb, but only more electronic. It's like a rougher and industrial Portishead, but with a girl who can really sing. It's not that I dislike Portishead, but Donna's a really accomplished singer. She's pretty big on the European dance scene, has done some duets with Van Morrison and a lot of music for films. It's really effective stuff. I'm very excited by it. I don't know what's gonna happen with it. It may come out under Donna's name or it may have a project name. My playing, programming, arranging and writing skills are pretty dirty-sounding. I'm into the dirt. [laughs] I like the funky sounds. Sonically, it's very adventurous I would say. I feel incredibly positive about it. I didn't think anyone would view these things as pop songs, but she walked in and said "That sounds good! I can write a melody for that. You're writing pop songs now." I'd say "No I'm not! I'm writing my shit but organizing it in verse-chorus-verse format sometimes." [laughs] Sometimes it's just an endless flow of energy like some of the SPLaTTeRCeLL stuff. I'm pretty gassed by it.
What's your take on Ken Burns' Jazz?
Ken Burns and his pseudo-documentary? [laughs] I think if his thing had been presented not as historical document—which is clearly isn't—but the filmmaker's limited view of jazz, then I think it would have been fine. I'm of two minds about it because it had a positive aspect, but what was actually presented was extremely negative. I thought it was positive in presenting jazz as an American art form to the American public—and indeed, as a truly valuable one. It also succeeded in depicting it as being rooted as an African-American art form. On the other hand, it was so incredibly myopic, narrow in scope and non-inclusive of musicians who developed jazz and grew it into something deeper than people like Branford and Wynton Marsalis, and Stanley Crouch would necessarily present. It was an incredible disservice.
The ignorance of the role of the drummer in jazz was particularly vexing. Then there's the exclusion of the importance of people like Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans and everything that Miles spawned. Not only the entirety of the best and brightest of that early period of fusion, but everything that came out of via ECM in Europe—which I see as an outgrowth of Miles, Coltrane and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It pissed me off deeply. It put the hurt on me. How about Cecil Taylor, who I know? The rudeness and disrespect Branford Marsalis treated Cecil with was phenomenally imbued with this horrible, nearly academic rubbish. I found a lot of it personally insulting. Then there's the exclusion of many of my friends who I believe are the current shapers of what I guess is still considered jazz music.
I know in 10 episodes you couldn't possibly cover such a broad spectrum. But I do believe more could have been done to make it more inclusive. It should have communicated the essence of what jazz is about instead of just focusing on cultural icons and lionizing certain elements of the jazz community. It could have depicted jazz as an art form that is very much the fuck alive in everything from hip-hop to Tortoise to the improvising electronic bands out there. These things are really studious oversights somebody must have decided on at some point.
Don Cherry, who you worked with in the late '70s, is another important figure who barely got a mention.
Yeah, that was frighteningly brief for the guy who basically spawned the focus on world music and the interaction of indigenous musics with an American jazz improvisatory point of view. Who brought ethnic music into a jazz environment as much as Don did? Look at his association with Nana Vasconcelos to Collin Walcott to playing with John Lee Hooker in Paris to using Trilok Gurtu on tabla, who was in the band for a week, subbing for our drummer when we were in France in 1979. So, I clearly see Don as a progenitor of a very broad-based movement that is clearly an outgrowth of jazz.
Describe your relationship with Cherry during those years.
Don and I were friends. He was my first real professional mentor. He was the first musician I played with on an international stage who said "Oh yeah, you should obviously be doing this." [laughs] I really looked up to him a lot, both musically and personally. We roomed together for three or four weeks in a row. It was unbelievable to have this musical guide teaching me the Ornette book in a hotel room. At the same time, he said I shouldn't think of myself as a guitar player, but rather go with any sound I heard in my head at any moment. He constantly battered that into my head. For instance, he once said "Sounds like you're trying to sound like a sitar here. Follow that and go that way."
Did you record with Cherry?
Yeah. We made one studio record that was never released by Atlantic. We also made a live record at the Batalcan in Paris over two-to-four nights in 1979 or 1980 that wasn't released either.
There's a commonly held misconception that you worked with Lou Reed. From where did that idea emerge?
It's because the Everyman Band without me was Lou's band. And somebody at the press office at ECM misunderstood and whenever they talked about the Everyman Band, they always talked about me as being part of its history. It's kind of funny. I went to one of Laurie Anderson's parties—she and Lou have been together for years. I was hoping to bump into him and say "Funny thing Lou… check this out!" But he wasn't there. [laughs]
You're on Anderson's new album Life on a String. What was it like working with her?
It's daunting to work with someone who's so heroic. We were working to pretty blank slates. She didn't have much on tape. There were some click tracks and little bits of synthetic textures. It was very enjoyable. I have a deep, abiding respect for her. She's really an incredible artist and fun. She's a gem.
A live CD from the Zobo Funn Band—your first professional gig—is in the works. How do you feel about that?
It's very touching, but in an aesthetic kind of way it doesn't have that much meaning for me. It's not that I'm disloyal to my past, but I've done a lot of work since 1973. I don't see it as anything other than a bow to the past. It's something I did with a lot of commitment when I was a kid. That was 30 years ago. It can't be anything but nostalgia. It was a really good band for it's time. It was really the first time I was in an organized unit that said "Let's just do whatever we want. Let's bring every influence to bear on this." And we did. Some of it was really great. Other things were really terrible—certain lyric and singing things make me cringe when I hear them. Some other things I find really incredibly moving.
I went through some of this material when Jeremy Werbin passed away two years ago. He bequeathed me and Robby [Aceto] his library of tapes. Jeremy had advanced juvenile diabetes and was in a declining state for 10 years. The last three years were really rough. He passed away very young. He was the lead singer, main lyricist and songwriter. I sent David Arnay [pianist] a lot of the tapes that I had.
How do you look back on the original Zobo LP?
Making that record was a mistake. My dad put up the money for that, God bless him. My dad, much to his credit, said "An awful lot of people go see these kids play. Sure, I'll organize the money to get these kids in the studio." But not being familiar with the music business, my father got involved with a guy who was a real jerk in the music business who became his partner in that venture. They decided to bring in a producer who was just an idiot and did whatever he could to destroy what was good about the band. That's why I never sent that vinyl to anybody. I'd say to most people that want to hear what the Zobo Band was about to listen to the horrible live tapes out there. At least in that environment, you get to hear the band making all these amazing mistakes, taking all these bad chances and playing too many notes. [laughs] You can sort of sense the 500-600 people in the room acting much like the kids at a Phish concert today. You would never guess that from the over-slickified vinyl event.