Thollem McDonas: The Beauty of Never Going Back Home
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.