Thollem McDonas: The Beauty of Never Going Back Home
The sheer energy with which McDonas plays is equaled only by that with which he approaches his musical career. Possibly the most prolific improvising pianist to come down the pike since Satoko Fujii, McDonas has released approximately 30 full length albums since 2005. It's worth mentioning that most of these recordings are critically acclaimed, and that most of them are co-operative projects on small indie labels with musicians whose backgrounds span the worlds of classical, jazz, indie rock, experimental, and electronic music. Like Fujii, McDonas maintains several longstanding creative partnershipsthose with the Italian rock group Tsigoti, the Italian classical contrabassist Stefano Scodanibbio [now deceased], Deerhoof guitarist John Dieterich, and saxophonist Rent Romus stand outwhile constantly forming new alliances with musicians as diverse as singer-songwriter Jad Fair, guitarist Nels Cline, and bassist William Parker.
McDonas is also known for his rapturous solo piano work which, again, transgresses genre boundaries as much as it transcends them. And while his solo piano oeuvre is remarkable for its stylistic breadth and depth, McDonas has more pure technical ability than most musicians would know what to do with. Yet technique is not his focus: he sees it as a tool to extract ideas using his instrument of choice, the acoustic piano. Interestingly, McDonas has started experimenting with electronic keyboards of various sorts, primarilyas he points outto find "technological solutions to musical ideas that can't be solved using an acoustic instrument." The electronic work, in turn, informs the acoustic work, and so on.
A committed social activist, McDonas is, at this point in his life, in a state of perpetual travel. Possibly one of the hardest-working improvisational musicians around today, he is constantly in motion, playing solo concerts, concerts with various groupsboth established and ad hocand leading workshops and clinics. The sheer number of deep and lasting musical relationships he's formed over the past decade is mind-boggling, and the quality of music that emerges from these groups is stunning.
Thollem McDonas: OK, so tell me a little bit about yourself...
All About Jazz: [laughing]...you know far too much already! So, this is your first interview for All About Jazz, and I'd like to discuss your development as an artist and get a sense of your musical history, and how that intertwines with your personal history particularly the time you spent as a social activist; so, the first record you made came out in 2005. It is really great, yet I never knew about it.
TM: Few do... [laughing]
AAJ: The drummer, Rick Rivera, is great; and you were obviously already playing at an incredibly high level.
TM: Thanks; that was my first album that was officially released. And it got some press... all really good.
AAJ: It's beautifully crafted music... it's clearly not completely improvised.
TM: Yeah, those are all compositions of mine, specifically written for a piano and drums duo. I wrote the lyrics as well.
AAJ: Just out of curiosity: what is Rick Rivera doing now?
TM: He's primarily a straight-ahead jazz drummer, and we met in Pacifica, where I was living at the time. We became friends and he became interested in my musicit was a good challenge for him at the timeand we made that album, plus another. So there are two albums of Rick and I playing.
AAJ: You're from the Bay Area, and you started playing piano as a child...
TM: Well, my mother forced me to play the piano, actually [laughs]. I had to play the piano. It was required.
AAJ: So, she was a musicianwere both your parents musicians?
TM: Yeah, my mom was a piano teacher. And my dad played the piano; mostly in piano bars. My mother forced me to play up until I was about 13, and that's when I began to make the piano my own. And then I had this epiphany. I literally woke up and realized that I had all of these ideas, and a lot of technical ability, and a broad knowledge of the last 400 years or so of music history...
AAJ: Did that knowledge base include jazz? Or was it purely European classical music?
TM: I was studying purely classical music. But I did listen to a lot of jazz, and we lived pretty close to Kuumbwa [Jazz Center] in Santa Cruz. They had a tradition of Monday night concerts. Touring jazz musicians who played in San Francisco or Oakland or Berkeley on the weekends; they would play at Kuumbwa on Monday nights. It was just a tiny little place back then. It's much bigger now. It's still great, but it's way bigger these days, but back then, it seated maybe 35 people. And we all sat on these aluminum bleacher seats right up against the stage. You were so close to the artists... I literally got sweated on by these guys. I saw players like McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders there. So hearing that, and being in that environment, was incredibly important for me, even though I was exclusively studying classical at the time. I never studied jazz per se, though I listened to tons of it.
AAJ: And this ties into one of your new releases on the Wild Silence label, Dear Future. It's an archival release comprised mostly of recordings from when you were a teenager. Were some of them from cassettes?
TM: It's all from cassette tapes...
AAJ: I was amazed to hear experimenting with prepared piano. It seems you were familiar with people like John Cage very early on. Was your early awareness of the avant-garde also from your mother's influence?
TM: Yeah, through my mom. And while Cage wasn't at the forefront of my musical education, he was in there. I had a really well-rounded musical education, from the Renaissance and everything up to and including the 20th Century. So Cage was in there, and as soon as I understood that there was 20th Century music, which was different from 19th Century music, which was different from 18th Century music, and so on... I was fascinated.
I had always played around with the inside of the piano, long before I'd even heard of prepared piano or John Cage. And people ask me "When did you start composing?" or "When did you start improvising?" and the answer is: "I never stopped." Some of my earliest memories were crawling up into the piano...
AAJ:...or sitting beneath the piano. Every kid wants to be down there.
TM: Oh yeahthat's totally where I want to be. Listening to the piano underneath is like nothing else. And getting those different perspectives, hearing the piano from different vantage points, was really exciting to me.
So, these recordings are from when I was in high school and college. I had some really incredible teachers; Allen Strange and Dwight Cannon, both at San Jose State University. Dwight Cannon founded the first Jazz Studies program on the West Coast, and Allen Strange started the first Electro-Acoustics program on the West Coast. Allen was my composition teacher. Lou Harrison taught there, and my mother took a lot of classes from him when I was just a child. I knew Lou Harrison when I was a six-year old kid! My mom used to take me along to his classes, and I'd see him all the time; I still get chills just thinking about that. But I went there in order to study with Aiko Onishi, who was a great, great piano teacher. She could have been teaching at any conservatory in the world, but San Jose was where she wanted to live.
Aiko had a very different perspective on music than Allen Strange did, for instance, but now I see a lot of parallels between them. Both of them lived exactly the way they wanted to live. That was really inspiring to me. I'm equally as inspired by the way a particular musician lived as I am by the actual music they created. Seeing how they dealt with being a musician in the context of their day-to-day life is interesting to me; especially in terms of my day-to-day life as a musician.
AAJ: That ties really well into some of the decisions that led to your becoming a human rights activist. You seem to have integrated your social activism and your music pretty thoroughly...
TM: It's pretty well-integrated now, but it wasn't so well-integrated in the past. I really struggled with this. I quit college during the Persian Gulf War in order to protest, and I never returned to the classical performance trajectory. When I look back on it, though, that was never really my nature: being cooped up for hours a day in a practice room playing someone else's music, wearing a suit and tie to partake in an athletic event. It's so absurd! It just wasn't my nature. I wasn't interested in piano competitions, and that's a significant part of what you have to do if you want to succeed in that world. And I'm not putting concert pianists down or anythingI have tremendous respect for those who have chosen that path. It's just that the classical piano performance world itself is not my natural world.
So I quit everything during the buildup to the Gulf War, in 1989. I had started an animal rights group at the university a year earlier, and we actually accomplished some things, which was great. I was also involved in the environmental movement on campus, and I was interested in grassroots organizing and had started to organize protests. And during the build-up to the Persian Gulf War, I decided that I didn't want to partake in society anymore, at least not in the normal ways. I decided that I didn't want to participate in the circulation of money anymore. I didn't pay rent, so I was basically homeless for several years. I didn't work a job; the way I saw it, my job was activism. I got a government grant in the form of food stamps [laughs] and I basically lived out of a backpack, traveling up and down the coast, protesting.
I protested a couple of times at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site on Shoshone land, where I also performed with my band, The Hundredth Monkey Generation. We were a post-Frank Zappa protest band, of sorts. We never took any money for a performance, and we never promoted ourselves. This is not something I'd recommend to people considering a career in music [laughter]. That was just our choice at the time. We didn't want to have anything to do with money, whatsoever. We saw our music purely as a form of protest, so we played demonstrations and riots, and also at fundraising events. One memorable gig was a two- day series of concerts before a five day-long walk starting at Red Rock, Nevada, to the Test Site. [Singer- songwriter] Richie Havens also performed, and we opened for him. We were the dinner band each night after each day's walk, out in the middle of the desert.
So, music was still part of my life. But I had to cut the umbilical cord, so to speak, from my past musical life, and was trying to do something different with music. I never stopped composing or improvising, but the whole idea of making a career out of it just didn't make any sense to me, once I was off that classical performance trajectory. So, I had started doing a lot of ecological work: restoration, urban farming, guerrilla farming. I stayed with that for a number of years, and eventually started accepting jobs as a piano accompanist; ballet, opera, musical theater, and for different types of soloists. I'm a very good accompanist. I'm good sight-reader and a good coach. But I really, really did not want to be in that world again. So, it was strange for me. I had this very specific skill, and I was really good at it, but I wanted nothing to do with it.
AAJ: I hear precision in your music. It's precise in the best possible way, because it still has this tremendous forward motion. You sound like a man on a mission when you're playing, and it's refreshing to listen to someone who has identified as an improvising musician who isn't trying to hide that super-rigorous classical background. There's an honesty there that's really inspiring. So, there were clearly a lot of aspects of the classical world that were just utterly stifling you as an artist...
TM: ...and many others that opened me up. The discipline it took to learn the standard classical repertoire... I'm really grateful for that. My immersion in Western music history really gave me a deeper perspective into the history of Western thought and philosophy. Music was a part of that, and a reflection of that. All of that remains important to me now, as a musician. And I see myself in that lineage; we're all part of that, whether we realize it or not. So I definitely don't discount that.
AAJ: There are others who've integrated a rigorous classical background into their music; guys like Fred Van Hove, Misha Mengelberg, and Alexander von Schlippenbach. The jazz aspect of their work seems to be more informed by Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill, and Thelonious Monk, whereas you are coming at it from a different angle. Do you feel like you stand apart, somehow, from the mainstream in improvised music? Not that there's such a thing as 'mainstream improvised music...'
TM: [laughing] Yeah, I'm definitely not a mainstream improvisor. As far as pianists go, I'm just not as familiar with them. The instrumentalists I do know are the ones I play with regularly, and most of them aren't pianists. I don't have the time to really listen to other pianists. I'd go so far as to say that I'm not terribly curious about other pianists. I don't want to know too much because I don't want to be influenced by thempositively or negatively. I don't know if I'm right in this because I do know that most other people have the completely opposite viewpoint: they want to study and listen to other pianists and somehow answer the questions that they raise. But that's not where I'm at.
By the same token, if I share a concert with von Schlippenbach, for instance, that would be great. I'd love to be there hearing what he does in the moment. In that moment. And that's what's compelling to me: being present in the music in that moment. We could respond to each other in a live setting. That's interesting to me. But I can't see myself sitting there listening to a recording of von Schlippenbach; not that it wouldn't be rewarding or interesting to me, but it's just not that compelling.
I spend most of my time working on my own recordings, and I don't sit around listening to them once they're finished. I'd rather be outdoors listening to the birds and the wind and things like that when I'm not working on my own music.
AAJ: So, that ties into another topic: the multiplicity of directions your music has taken over the years. Not only are you prolific, you're prolific across several really disparate genres. Even you seem to have a hard time placing yourself in any sort of stylistic continuum. You refer to one of your bands, Tsigoti, as a punk band, but I feel that some wouldn't agree. That said, I can see where you're coming from, especially in terms of the music's energy...
TM: We call ourselves punk because that's our attitude. I really think of punk as an attitude, not as a specific outcome. We composed, played and recorded each of the Tsigoti albums in three daysthere's four of them starting with The Brutal Reality Of Modern Brutalitywhich came out under a different band name, War Is Terror, Terror Is Warand there's a rawness and energy there that just doesn't give a shit about polishing things. All of the music comes from spur-of-the-moment ideas. Our first album, I had a bunch of pages of words about war. The words are all about the conflict between Lebanon and Israel that happened in 2006. I was in Prague at the time and just wrote and wrote about this conflict without intending to turn the words into songs. It was all I could do in that moment: write and drink beer [laughs]. I mean, people are dying out there, and here I am drinking beer in a bar in Prague, writing about it [laughs]. But that's gotta be done. It's my way of living in the world and contributing to the world, and I've gotta trust that. So when we decided to make our first album I had those words which I made into lyrics, and we went into the studio with this shitty piano and we all just banged it out.
AAJ: Tsigoti is similar in sound and spirit to the music created by the Rock In Opposition movement; bands like Zero Pop, The Ex, Unrest Work & Play... combining super-sharp social awareness with relentless musical experimentalism. Listening to Tsigoti's music, it's hard to believe your CDs were each written and recorded from start to finish in three days...
TM: Yep. Three days from start to finish.
AAJ: So, you are constantly coming up with new projects. You always seem to be doing solo piano concerts, and there's the new album with Jad Fair and the drummer from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Brian Chase. You guys have the best band name...
TM: ...The Whistling Joy Jumpers [laughs]. That is a great name.
AAJ: So, you have a new album out, as well, Surprising Wooden Clocks (Thick Syrup Records, 2013). Is this a one-off collaboration, or is it an ongoing project?
TM: Well, it's basically a one-off, or it could be an ongoing thing. Jad and I have worked together before, primarily with Martha Colburn, a filmmaker in New York/Amsterdam. We've done some performances together with her films, and we talked about doing a musical project as a duo pretty much from the outset. So, the next time I was down in Austin, TX, where he lives, we got together and dedicated two days to making a recording at his house. And, later on, I asked Brian if he'd like to contribute, so he overdubbed the percussion. But our approach is totally 100% improvised. It's improvised songwriting. Jad had the words written on sheets of notebook paper and we did everything in one or two takes. Every single thing on there. I literally had no idea what his words were gonna be, at all. And he had no idea what I was going to play, at all. And Jad's a really great improvisor. I listen to it and I'm fooled myself.
AAJ: It sounds so worked out.
TM: It sounds very worked out. But there is nothing worked out about it at all. Not at all. It was totally spontaneous or on the edge of totally spontaneous. Jad was great to work with. He had this big packet of words, and when we were ready to start recording I asked: "Well, would you like to tell me what this is about?" And he said "No." So I asked: "Well, how about the title?" He said something that I don't remember and immediately started counting the song in: "One... Two... Three... Four..." just like that, and we were playing it. And when that one was finished, he'd rip that page off, toss it aside and start right into the next one... "One... Two... Three... Four..." and we were into the next one. And all the while I was scrambling madly to find different sounds on the keyboard and messing around with the pedalssome of which were mine and some that were hisso that each song would sound a little different. I mean, it was as improvised as you can get!
AAJ: So, it's not free jazz, but it is totally improvised. Only it's improvised songs.
TM: Exactly. That's exactly what it is. It's improvised songs. And I love that about it. In his liner notes to the album, Clifford Allen also makes that point. Here's this huge canon of improvised music from the last 50 years or so, and then there's this; and this is improvised music. And where does this music fit in with all of that? I love that about this album. And with Brian- -I asked him specifically not to listen to the songs before recording his parts. And I suggested which sorts of sounds to use on which tracks, using items he had from his apartmentkitchen implements, for example. I also requested that he record his parts very simply, just in his own apartment. Because that's the way Jad and I made the recording: at Jad's home, very simply. And Brian came up with some great sounds that way. It was perfect, really. The guys who mixed and mastered the CD volunteered to do it for free, because they really just wanted to be a part of it. It was so great for [recording and mastering engineers] Marcus Lawyer and James Talambas to do that. And [label owner] Travis McElroy from Thick Syrup was way into it! It all just came together so easily...
AAJ: ...and you've also launched a project that emphasizes a different aspect of your improvised songcraft ethic. A series of duets titled Thollem Electric [note: this project has subsequently been re-titled KeyngDrum Overdrive] which pits your electric keyboards versus different drummers. Is it just going to be you with different drummers?
TM: Yeah, for the time being it's gonna be me and different drummers, for a long time. And I'm really excited about this.
AAJ: So are those drummers!
TM: [laughing] I've got three drum/keyboard duets so far: with you in Santa Fe, with Csaba Csendes, in Budapest, and with Andre Custodio, in San Francisco. There are obviously some commonalities between the three sets, but each drummer has a very different approach which, in turn, brings out different aspects of my playing.
AAJ: Do you have plans to attempt the same thing with different instrumentsguitarists, for example? Or in trio formats?
TM: It depends on what happens along the course of this series with drummers. What's gonna emerge from that? I really don't know...
AAJ: It was frankly quite surprising to me that you were involved at all with electric keyboards. What's your history with electronics, or electric keyboards?
TM: There's not much of one, really. It's been less than a year for me. I've messed around with other people's effects pedals on occasion, but never owned my own. Now that's all different. I have my own pedals and have gone through a variety of synthesizers and Rhodes, and I'm figuring it out as I go. It's a radically different jumping-off point for me. I've stayed disciplined to the acoustic piano all of my life for a reason, and it's paid off. I really believe in applying technological solutions to musical ideas that can't be solved using an acoustic instrument. To me, that's what technology is for. That's my firm stand on this issue. Otherwise, I feel like I'm taking shortcuts. At this point in my life, and at this point in my development as a musician, it's time to jump into electronics. It's informing me in a way that is beneficial to my acoustic playing. It's new, and it's really different.
AAJ: I really enjoyed the way you just jumped right into it. You're turning on all these effects, twisting dials, stomping on pedals; and there's joy there.
TM: Well, it's the beginner's mind, really. When you try something out for the first time, there are no expectations. I'm not a master of this stuff. I can either get out the instruction book and read it thoroughly and examine it systematically, or I can just start flipping switches and turning knobs, and see what happens. Me, I'm gonna jump right into it, you know? That's the fun of it. And that's a form of improvisation. The difference is, for me, when I press a key on a piano, I know what's gonna come out; if you give me a new effects pedal, I don't necessarily know.
AAJ: You mentioned fun, and that's really interesting to me because many people see improvised music as a very serious pursuit. Yet, there's a whimsy, humor, and human warmth to your playing; is that something you are consciously projecting when you're playing?
TM: I'm glad you get that sense of warmth, but not really. I'm not joking around when I play and I don't try to deliberately bring humor into my music. By the same token, there's a lot of heaviness in life. And if you're awake to the suffering of other people and other species, and if you're aware of politics, and you know where our food and our clothes come from... there's a lot of heavy shit to think about there. It's just so much to deal with psychologically. It takes a toll. And for me, one way to deal with that is humor. And yet, I have to look straight at the horrors in the world. I have to look at them because otherwise I feel that I am living a lie. So, there's gotta be the truth of looking at the face of reality, while at the same time finding some lightness in the world. Otherwise, I can't live. I think that's what you might be hearing in my music. Because for me, improvisation is very serious. I see improvisation as a serious endeavor. A meditation. A practice that has implications and consequences on all planes of existence. So it is serious to me, and when I'm playing, I'm completely focused.
AAJ: The first time I saw you play, you were tremendously focused and aware. It was a workshop with a large, potentially chaotic assemblage of playersfrom first-timers to guys who've been on the scene here for decadesand you drew some truly incredible moments out of it. People were talking about that workshop for weeks! Is that something you do a lot as you travel around?
TM: [laughs] I'd like to do more than I am. I started teaching music when I was 13, and it's important to me. Even though large ensemble free improvisation can be really challenging... and I'm sure you guys thought there was too much talking in the beginning, but the way it turned out, it was all pretty necessary in the end. Large ensemble free improvisation can get really frustrating and boring unless you agree on a certain type of focus.
AAJ: You were leading; but the whole process seemed really democratic...
TM: Well, I think that's one of the truly beautiful things about improvisation. It is democratic; or, maybe, anarchistic. I see myself, in ideal terms, as an anarchist. And to me that means taking on a sense of personal responsibility to the table, as well as a sense of mutual respect. And you have to realize that not everyone is going to have the same skill set, or the same skill level. But everybody has an equally valid perspective, and if you ignore someone's perspective, you're missing out on that perspective. And you miss out on the potential benefit of that person's contribution. And ultimately, the entire ensemble misses out on that benefit. That's the way I see it. That's much of what free improvisation is all about for me, that element of mutual respect and listening. We have to listen in order to respond to and support each other...
AAJ: I hear a lot of that exact sort of interaction on an album you recorded recently with Nels Cline and William Parker, The Gowanus Sessions (Porter Records, 2012). There's some absolutely amazing interplay there. Tell us how that session came about.
TM: I'd heard Nels' recording with Thurston Moore [Pillow Wand (Little Brother Records, 1997)], and then I heard Nels and Thurston, play live at the Wilco Festival two years ago. Nels had found out I was in the area and he invited me to the festival, and I was really inspired by that performance. Not just by the playing, which was amazing, but also by the opportunity to hear their screaming music played over a powerful sound system in a large concert setting. This was... so... huge.
I've known Nels for a few years. He'd written a composition for the Estamos Ensemble, which is half Mexican musicians and half US musicians. I'd started that project because I wanted to facilitate more cross-border collaboration between Mexican and American musicians; both improvisors and composers. William Parker also wrote a piece for us, as did [composer] Pauline Oliveros and Joan Jeanrenaud from the Kronos Quartet, and Vinny Golia. From Mexico, the composers were Ana Lara, Juan Felipe Waller, and Jorge Torres. The double-disc album was released on Edgetone a few years ago. So now, a subset of the Estamos Ensemble, the Estamos Trio, is releasing a CD for Relative Pitch Recordsa new label out of New Yorkwhich is coming out this summer. The trio is me plus two Mexican members of the large Ensemble, [vocalist] Carmina Escobar and [percussionist] Milo Tamez.
So, getting back to The Gowanus Session: I was working on this concept of hyper-tremolos to energize the piano to get the overtones to pop out, kind of like Tuvan throat singing. Under the right conditions I can produce the same sorts of effects on the piano, but it takes a lot of stamina and physical strength to make it happen, and I don't know how much longer I'll be able to do it to the level that I want! It's an athletic endeavor. So, the original idea I thought of, for Nels, was to have him improvise melodically using feedback based on the overtones and harmonics that he was hearing from the piano. He was totally into the idea!
People often ask me why I chose this person or that person for a particular project. And the answer is that the people I work with are the ones that inspired the ideas in the first place. My work with Nels is a good example of that sort of collaboration. Then I had this epiphany one day to ask William to participate in this project with us, and he was totally into it too. His role was to act as a conduit between Nels and I by playing both roles in his own way. I think Nels and William were really excited to play together, and I love that I was responsible for them meeting and playing for the first time. And it was very well recorded.
AAJ: This is a truly amazing triosuch an awesome combination of playersthough somewhat unlikely, perhaps...
TM: People do seem to think it's a strange combination of players, and I guess I can see that, and at the same time I think, "What?" I mean, isn't that what we're really after, anyway? Figuring out the beauty of the strange, putting stuff together in ways unlike anyone else has done before? I'm not necessarily trying to be an innovator, but I'm intrigued with the whole question of: "What would happen if...?" In fact, I call my approach, "What if? Why not?" music. So, we were all able to meet in New York at the same timewhich itself verges on the miraculous [laughs]and we had four hours in the studio. And we made this album. We had a great time before, during and after playing and I think that spirit comes through in the music.
AAJ: I wish I had heard it sooner, because it certainly would've been in my Top 10 records of 2012.
TM: Yeah, that album flew a little under the radar as well, believe it or not. I don't know how that's possible [laughs]. Even with Nels and William playing together for the first time. It got great reviews, too. Even the reviewer from JazzTimes had some interesting things to say, which I particularly enjoyed [laughs]. It was fascinating because the first thing he said was along the lines of: "Well, they've deliberately made a record that is impossible to listen to..." And you can see during the course of the review writing process that he began to really grasp what this record is all about. There was this process of evolution going on, and by the end of the piece, he's saying: ..."and I can't stop listening to it." So, the pull quote for the publicity is "An intentionally unlistenable album that I can't stop listening to." [laughs]
AAJ: [laughs] Well, you've nailed the demographic with that quote, because when I see something like that in print, I'm thinking "I've gotta have that in my life!"
TM: I'm particularly proud of that record. I got Nels and William together, and set up the recording session, did the editing, and it sounds absolutely amazing. The disc was mastered by Bob Olhsson, who is a multi-Grammy Award-winning mastering engineer, and he did a great job. He started at Motown when they were still in Detroit. He goes way back. As we were working on the album, he was telling me about when Motown went from three-track to eight- track. They were the second studio in the world to get that capability, and then he and all of the other Motown engineers went to Abbey Road studios in 1968. It's an awesome story. He's based in Nashville now, and one of his true passions is experimental music.
AAJ: That is amazing. It helps to have friends in high places.
TM: Indeed it does. Bob and I will be working on a new solo album of mine I'm calling Thollem's Confluence: So Many Heavens, So Many Hells, in November. I'll be actively looking for a label for that album soon.
AAJ: I would also like to discuss your project with John Dieterich, the guitarist best known for his ongoing work with the experimental rock group Deerhoof. I take it you've worked with [drummer] Greg Saunier...
TM: I've been friends with Deerhoof for quite some time, and I have played a bunch with Greg in the past, here and there, including the Blue Note in NY. It was Martha Colburn's idea to get John and I together to do a live soundtrack for her films at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
AAJ: In The Valley Of The Cloudbuilder (Post-Consumer Records, 2013) is so different from the other things you've done, yet the sound is unmistakably yoursand John's. This collaboration is a free-standing aspect of your artistry; it's as if you both had this idea of what the record was going to sound like before you did it.
TM: Oh yes, John and I work really well together. It's a bit uncanny. When we are editing, without even thinking or looking at each other, we'd both say: "Cut there!" Very often. And this would happen again and again. We have a great time working together, we both love to collaborate, and we really trust one another. One thing we realized as we were putting the record together was that this music is not really based in any sort of cultural framework at all. In many ways, it's purely non-intentional music. We're not playing rock, we're not playing jazz or free jazz, we're not playing noise, or classical, or post-classical, or whatever [laughs]. It's completely genre-free! And it's not even intended to be genre-free. We had very, very specific ideas about how the music was going to be structured...
AAJ: ...and these related to the images and thematic content of Martha Colburn's film?
TM: No, actually, John and I did an album [All for Now (Dromos Records, 2012)], which we recorded the day after we performed the live soundtrack for Martha's film at SFMOMA. It's on a label called Dromos Records, based in Portugal. They do everything by hand, all in limited quantities.
AAJ: An artisanal record label!
TM: Yes, totally artisanal. So this is our second recording together. And we had this very specific concept and very elaborate overall structure around the music. We were going to record a bunch of large pieces, and these were going to be surrounded by smaller, shorter pieces which were, in turn, going to be surrounded by even smaller shorter pieces. And the smaller pieces were going to be repeated throughout the album, but in different ways. We had it all mapped out. So we did the recordings, but then we lost the notes. And here we were with all of this music recorded, and no ideafor the life of usof how it was all supposed to be put together. It's funny, because what you're hearing was created by a process that, itself, cannot be reproduced! We created the music using a very fixed set of ideas that we essentially forgot, and created an entirely different album based on this disparate material.
AAJ: You're right, that is an interesting process... [laughs]
TM: [laughs] Yeah, really interesting. There's absolutely no way we could repeat this unless we somehow hit each other on the head simultaneously and got amnesia...
AAJ: ...so you'll continue collaborating [laughs].
TM: Oh yeah [laughs]. We're also working together in the Hand to Man Band, which is me, John, and former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt. Tim Barnes was the original drummer, but now we have Mike Guarino on drums. We just recorded our second album together.
AAJ: So, how many projects do you have running in parallel?
TM: There are so many I haven't mentioned yet. We've just touched on a few of them here. I've got a great trio, MAGIMC, in Italy with [saxophonist] Edoardo Marraffa - Tonino Miano and [percussionist] Stefano Giust, and another one called the Soar Trio with [saxophonist] Skeeter Shelton and [bassist] Joel Peterson that's based in Detroit. I'm working with [saxophonist] Rent Romus in the Bloom Project, which has several records out. There's Electric Nashville, with [guitarist] Ed Pettersen, [violinist] Tracy Silverman, [vocalist] Ryan Norris, and Dylan Simon on electronics. I'm continuing to collaborate with [bass clarinetist] Arrington de Dionyso on 10,000 Tigers. It's music that we describe as being relentlessly ecstatic, and it is, man! We performed at the Cecil Taylor festival last year at Issue Project Room.
I've got a quartet of incredible Italian string players in Daniele Roccato, Francesco Dillon and Marco Rogliano. We've got an album coming out on Setola Di Maiale. Stefano Scodanibbio put this group together not long before he died. Also a duo album with [percussionist] Gino Robair on the same label. I've got a duo album with Lukas Ligeti coming out on Leo Records and a duo album with [guitarist/vocalist] Sabrina Siegel as well. There's also a new project with The Stooges sax man Steve Mackay, some solo explorations and performing live to Martha's films in a full scale performance called Triumph Of The Wild. I've got a new band with Brian Chase and Todd Clouser called Hot Pursuit Of Happiness; we're recording in August. I'm also in Matthew Barney's newest film, which was shot in Detroit, and I've just started talking about making a feature length film as a collaboration between Postcommodity and the Estamos Project.
AAJ: It's just endless... how do you keep it all going?
TM: Well, Angela and I work a lot; pretty much relentlessly. We collaborate on the travel and documentation, and we're compulsively working on multiple projects; perpetually on the road, participating with a wide of array of artists and communities. It's also very difficult financially as an independent artist. We are really just barely breaking even financially, so we are always seeking new ways to expand our audience and this continually brings out new ideas. Actually, Angela and I have been thinking of spending a year in one place so we can compile and archive our accumulation of videos, recordings, photos, and interviews of musicians and artists in the various communities that we've participated in during the last 6 years of perpetual touring. We're also writing a book and considering an interactive installation that would, itself, eventually go on tour. This would be a real happening, both experiential and educational. We think our unique perspective and tons of documentation will be beneficial to many people!
AAJ: You are doing everything right, coming up with innovative ideas, still dreaming big, and yet you're barely breaking even.
TM: We are! We're doing everything right. I get consistently great reviews internationally, and I think people need to knowespecially people outside of the music worldhow difficult it really is for musicians and other artists just to get by, let alone make it, in today's world. They may not want to hear about it...
AAJ: And as the means for acquiring music and archiving music are changing, no one seems to think about how an artist is going to get paid for what they're producing.
TM: Yes, that's correct. And musicians are stubborn. We don't want to admit that albums are becoming insignificant, for instance.
AAJ: ...a lot of us are still dealing with the obsolescence of the album. Online music sources are very much attuned to selling individual songs.
TM: And there's free music everywhere, available for download. We're bombarded with content from the internet. And can we stop it? Should we try to? I don't believe it should be stopped, or can be. We, as musicians and artists, must learn to adapt. I think that the information needs to be free. It needs to be out there. After I die, what do I want my life to mean? I want my stuff out there. In terms of making money off of it, aside from providing for myself and Angela, having health insurance, and not suffering too much, there's very little I really care about, money- wise. But what I really want to do, ultimately, is save the world [laughs].
AAJ: [laughing]...and music is, after all, the healing force of the universe.
TM: Well, there's one more thing I'd like to mention, concerning saving the world [laughs], because we do travel perpetually, living out of backpacks. I play a lot of concerts, night after night after night in a different city, and moving on. Sometimes we're able to stay in one place for a bitwhen I'm giving a workshop, for example. Sometimes I can stay for a week or two and really collaborate with local musicians, artists, filmmakers, dancers, and so on, and develop projects together. As a result, I have projects, ensembles, bands all over Europe and North America. And the beauty of that, philosophically, is that I never go back home after a tour. I'm continually moving forward.
Of course, I return to places that I've been to before, but I'm always moving forward, and never going back. For me, this is a very important aspect of my work. I've been able to establish deep and lasting relationships with people all over. I feel that this is another aspect of my activism that branches out from what I've done in the past. So many of the answers to these bigger questions we've touched on can be found when communities cooperate. Cooperation over competition. Because of my lifestyle, I can really participate in a wide variety of communities and often act as a conduit between them.
By constant traveling, being constantly in motion, perpetually crossing bordersmusically, culinarily, linguistically, ethicallyis something you can't replace with technology. You can go online, of course, and hear music from anywhere and look at pictures and videos of what those places are like, but that doesn't even come close to the experience of actually being in a different country, walking down the street. When you're there, you have to communicate somehow, and observe the local customs. And if you want to go to places and play improvised music, you become aware of the culture of the improvising musicians within each of those communities. Because they're different everywhere you go. There are different approaches, and different ways of interacting, within each of these communities.
AAJ: Do you find that this sense of community is affecting other musicians? I get the sense that a lot of young jazz musicians, for example, are getting in touch with their own roots in a very fundamental and profound way. It's all leading to some very interesting and beautiful music.
TM: Jazz is America's classical music. It's also America's folk music. It's so deeply rooted in us and, as Americans, we have a very deep reverence for it. Which we should. In Europe, they have a reverence as well, but they hear it differently than we do. And, if you think about all of the American musicians who've actually had to move to Europe in order to survive, they're all on the cutting- edge of music. And that's where a lot of the influences come from in European jazz: from the real innovators. The ones who couldn't make it in the States because their music was too innovative. So many incredible musicians have wound up in Europe...
AAJ: ...only to record albums for BYG [laughs]...
TM: [laughs] That's right!
Tsigoti, Read Between The Lines...Think Outside Them (Post- Consumer, 2013)
Bad News From Houston (with John Dieterich), In The Valley Of The Cloudbuilder (Post-Consumer, 2013)
Thollem McDonas, Dear Future: Archival recordings from 1983- 1989 (Wild Silence Records, 2013)
The Whistling Joy Jumpers (with Jad Fair & Brian Chase), Surprising Wooden Clocks (Thick Syrup Records, 2013)
Estamos Trio, People's Historia (Relative Pitch Records, 2013)
Soar Trio, The View From Up (Edgetone, 2013)
Thollem McDonas, William Parker and Nels Cline, The Gowanus Session (Porter Records, 2012)
The Hand To Man Band, You Are Always On Our Minds (Post- Consumer, 2012)
Tsigoti, The Imagination Liberation Front Thinks Again (Post- Consumer, 2012)
Estamos Trio, JimpaniKustakwaKaJankwariteecherï (Edgetone, 2011)
Thollem McDonas and Arrington DeDionyso, Ten Thousand Tigers (Pine Cone Alley, 2011)
Thollem McDonas, Gone Beyond Reason To Find One (Edgetone, 2010)
Thollem McDonas and Stefano Scodanibbio, On Debussy's Piano And... (Die Schachtel, 2010)
Thollem McDonas, Gigantomachia (ESP-Disk, 2009)
Thollem McDonas and Nicola Guazzaloca, Noble Art (Amirani Records, 2009)
Thollem McDonas, Two RevolutionsBox Deserter (Edgetone, 2008)
Tsigoti, The Brutal Reality Of Modern BrutalityWar Is Terror, Terror Is War (Edgetone, 2008)
Thollem McDonas and Arrington DeDionyso, Intuition, Science, And Sex (Edgetone, 2008)
Thollem McDonas, Somuchheaven Somuchhell (Saravah, 2008)
Bloom Project, Prismatic Season (Edgetone, 2008)
Thollem McDonas, Racingthesun Chasingthesun (Creative Sources, 2008)
Thollem McDonas, Poor Stop Killing Poor (Edgetone, 2007)
Thollem McDonas and Edoardo Ricci, Sono Contento Di Stare Qua (Edgetone, 2006)
Thollem McDonas, Nuclearbomb Cavepainting (Pax Recordings, 2006)
Thollem McDonas and Rick Rivera, I'll Meet You Halfway Out In The Middle Of It All (Edgetone, 2006)
Thollem McDonas, Rent Romus, Jon Brumit, and Steven Baker, The Bloom Project (Edgetone, 2006)
Thollem McDonas and Rick Rivera Everything's Going Everywhere (Edgetone, 2005)