Onstage, saxophonist Colin Stetson is a steampunk Harry Houdini. If your first experience of his solo work is seeing it, you won’t believe it. Latched onto a brass machine nearly as big as he is, Stetson blows powerfully and continuously into the instrument in a way that seems to defy the limits of human endurance, creating sounds that will be unlike anything you’ve ever heard one person produce. Before you can really process what he’s playing, you’ll be struck dumb by the spectacle of his performance.
But as impressive as his playing is to watch, Stetson has already achieved an excellent reputation purely on the strength of his playing. Your first encounter with his music was likely not as a solo performer but his work backing up some of the biggest acts in rock music. He has loaned his talents to albums by Tom Waits, Bon Iver, Feist, TV on the Radio, and fellow Montreal residents Arcade Fire. Stetson won a share of the Polaris Prize for his work on Arcade Fire’s recent album The Suburbs, but his full-length solo release New History Warfare, Vol 2: Judges was also among the ten finalists.
Judges and Those Who Didn’t Run, an EP of new material released this past fall, combine Stetson’s conservatory training and study of the jazz avant garde, his raw physical performing style, and the theatricality and songcraft of rock to create a uniquely compelling sound. Low-frequency drones, half-vocalized screams, fluttering percussion and the occasional Laurie Anderson guest vocal make for songs that seem to come from somewhere deep in your memory, or even from your own bones.
Stetson took a rare moment of mid-winter’s rest to talk to At Length about his breakout year, his physical limits, and his rather daunting New Year’s resolution.
At Length: The first thing I want to do is congratulate you on what was by any measure a really successful 2011.
Colin Stetson: Thank you very much
AL: Not only did you release two solo records this year that got a lot of attention, but counting your work with other artists like the Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, it seems like you participated in just about every significant thing in music. I imagine you must have kept really busy.
CS: Yeah, I’ve been going pretty non-stop for a number of years, but this was by far the busiest I have ever been.
AL: Do you have a feeling of having crossed some threshold in popularity this year, with more people seeking out your music or artists seeking to collaborate?
CS: I definitely feel there’s been more recognition, so more people know what it is I do, and I’m definitely getting a lot more offers. Unfortunately, I have to say no to a lot of them — there’s only so much time in the day. But, yes, definitely over the past year things have picked up.
AL: Your music is tuneful and quite accessible, but I think that most people would probably still consider it difficult for the average music listener. Now that you’re playing for new audiences — like at All Tomorrow’s Parties — what kinds of reactions do you get from people who are hearing your music for the first time?
CS: At shows overall I’ve been well-received. There’s something that goes on, I don’t know what it is exactly but there are certain barriers that are broken down when you’re in a space with the audience and you’re physically there. It seems to extinguish a little of that pre-conception of what it is they’re supposed to like or how they’re supposed to react to certain sounds and certain music. A lot of that garbage just goes to the wayside in a live context. That is, if I’m playing well.
CS: No matter who I’m getting up for, I’m always jacked and excited, and I have the appropriate allotment of nerves for the shows that I do, but not in terms “I hope that they accept me.” It’s always more tied to just getting out and doing what I consider to be something really physical and emotional. I liken it to the years that I was an athlete in that regard, where you are truly a performer and you have to be on top of your game.
AL: Unlike someone that goes out there with just a laptop, one of your shows can be like a really amazing dance performance or a basketball game or something equally physical. You’re putting out such an amazing amount of physical energy when you’re playing that I imagine that can’t help but be more infectious.
CS: Well, I hope so. I hope it continues to be so if that is the case. It certainly is the most difficult thing that I know how to do and it really keeps me on my toes in life.
AL: When I listen to your music, or when I watch you play, it seems almost as if you and that giant saxophone become like one beast, and I think that comes from in part the way you seem to want to explore the limits of yourself as a player and the sax as an instrument in a very physical sense: you record all your tracks in single takes and you seem to push your own physical limits. Why are these particular sorts of constraints important to you when you’re making your music?
CS: The physicality of it has always been a pretty fundamental element to making music for me. Because it is a physical process with the saxophone — especially the bigger ones, but really all of them in their own right are quite physically demanding. So for me, as I’ve been playing more and more solo, and developing this music more, it just organically came about that the music I’m able to perform is tied to what I am physically able to endure. So once I consciously realized the degree to which that is the case, it really became a mission. Since I recorded the first record, I have set a few certain parameters that would dictate how I would make this music. So as I perform it, I also record it — with single takes and no overdubs and all that — to preserve that essence of everything being tied to breath, and being tied to physicality. The two are linked and one is an extension of the other. So for me, it’s really one and the same.
AL: I know you run every day and do yoga to keep yourself well-conditioned, but have you ever had performances where your body has failed you in some way?
CS: Amazingly, no. I’ve had performances where I’ve not felt particularly awesome, and others where I have felt particularly awesome. There was one, a few years ago, playing a solo performance at the Moers Festival in Germany. This was the biggest solo show I’d played at that time. I had been opening for the National on tour and it was the ninth show in a row I had played, and it was over an hour-long performance. At some point near the end of it, I was playing one of my longer songs — about twelve to fifteen minutes of circular breathing — and there was a point at the very, very end of it, where I had to take it up a notch. It’s a crazy huge thing for me when this happens, when my mouth breaks and I have to take a quick breath and let everything slack. It only takes a split second and not that many people in the audience would notice that it actually happened, but I really notice.
When I compose these things they’re very set in stone. I used to improvise when I performed, and I would have skeletal landing points where I would go to different places as I saw fit. And in that way it was all open for interpretation and everything bent to how I felt that particular day. Music would be initiated by how I felt and what I could accomplish at that particular time. But now the compositions are such that there’s not really much I can do besides go straight through and I have to perform up to the right level, otherwise the sound won’t be the right sound.
AL: You mentioned circular breathing, which is a thing that everyone wants to talk to you about. I’ll be far from the first person to ask you about Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who made circular breathing a big part of his performance. He’s also somebody who liked to vocalize through his instrument and create unusual, almost electronic textures with his playing. I don’t know if he was an influence on you, but I’d like to hear how you developed the techniques that you have come to use in your playing.
CS: Rahsaan Roland Kirk was definitely a huge influence. I started right around the age of 18 or 19, and when you’re in college, you exposed to all these bigger, newer, and different ideas. All this stuff that in the past you overlooked or you hadn’t been exposed to yet. So I got to hear a lot of different things, with certain players like Rahsaan, Peter Brotzmann, Mats Gustafsson, Evan Parker, all the things that people were doing. It was part of the repertoire, so I would try to mimic everything to absorb all of that technique and assimilate it into my own growing vocabulary. But at the same time what was probably more important was the act of cross-instrument transcription, where you remake the work of guitar players and singers and electronic music and things like that. Where you are actually really trying to recreate the forms that somebody is making on a different instrument, rather than recreate the techniques that were already created on the same instrument that you’re using. And that was something that was really priceless for me. Particularly people like Jimi Hendrix and the electronic music of Nobukazu Takemura early on — that was huge for me.
AL: I’ve seen a quote from Jimi Hendrix in which he said that he always wanted to work with Rahsaan Roland Kirk but never got a chance to.
CS: Hendrix passed at a young, young age of what — 27 or 28? Who knows what would have happened had he lived? Talk about being merged with your instrument or being one body — that was just the pinnacle of that for me.
AL: Judges came out about a year ago, and had a very consistent sound and a darkly apocalyptic feel. Then you released a two-song EP this past fall, the title of which was the first line of the track “A Dream of Water” from Judges. Was this material left over from the Judges writing process, or was it conceived of as as a separate project?
CS: No, these are things that I started after Judges came out. I was already getting pretty hard into the composition of the next volume. The newer songs are much weightier, longer forms than the last record, and there was starting to be such a body of pieces that I couldn’t really see them all fitting on to the next volume and making much sense. These two on the EP were things that I immediately had written and were just resonating with me at that point.. The more that I thought about them and looked at it all in context, these two particular pieces were thematically something that fell more in between the two volumes than really sat on the third, so that’s how I organized it. They represented a bridge, so to speak, between the two.
AL: The overall structure of the trilogy isn’t completely obvious to me after listening to just the first two volumes. Could you tell me what New History Warfare means to you and why you needed a trilogy to flesh out these ideas?
CS: When I went to record the first record, it was the first time I had done a solo record at all. It was the first time that I started to organize this music that I had been writing for years, a lot of bits and pieces that had been swirling around for years in a more improvised setting. When I set out to codify it all, to put it all into album form, the songs started to become actual songs, but yet that first album is still really unformed. There’s much more of an improvised element to that one, much more so than the second one or the third one. And so going into it I realized that it was just the tip of the iceberg for me. I knew I wanted to record it with this element of multi-miking, and I had all these kind of ideas — kind of wants and desires — and I realized that it was really going to be a thing that was going to grow and something that I was going to learn from. It was a statement that was not going to be this singular thing, it was going to be a developing story. When I was putting that together I made it into a trilogy because I tend to think of things in that cinematic way. Its this archetypal format, and at the same time it’s a challenge to put something together in that form, so it all just made sense for me.
AL: You mention multi-miking, which contributes a lot to the unique sound of the records. You’re not only miking up what an audience would hear if you were just playing in a room, but also miking up the interior of the instrument and some other things as well.
CS: Well there are a lot of things that the observer would hear that you never get from just from a microphone in front of the instrument. First of all, if you’re sitting right in front of the instrument, 3 feet in front of it, or you’re sitting behind me or just to the right of me, you are getting a completely different picture — even just at that little difference in vantage point. The instrument itself creates an enormous amount of sound and a multitude of different sounds as well, so the idea was to capture all these things that you really can feel, like a lot of the bass that you can physically feel in the presence of the instrument. If you have just one microphone in front of it to take in that one snapshot that that one microphone can do you’re going to be losing a lot of the subtleties. The saxophone can have a pretty good response down in the low end. You’re creating some 40 Hz tone there, and you’re going to be feeling that when you’re in the presence of the instrument, but most mikes are not picking that up. So really I’m miking it very invasively, trying to get everything that’s there, so that when it’s on record it can all be dealt with. Listening to a record is a completely different experience, and completely different reality, than the live reality, so I try not to recreate a live experience but rather to recreate a surrealistic or an alternate reality for the music, something that specifically exists on record and abides by the strengths and weaknesses that exist in that space.
AL: When I first started getting into jazz and had the chance to listen carefully on a good pair of headphones, I started to notice that these musicians aren’t just electric guitars coming through amps. These are actual people breathing in between the notes, and that adds a level of intimacy that you just don’t get when you’re listening to something like a pop record, or a rock record. And with your music it not only feels like the listener is in the room, but that they’re able to walk around you as you play. It’s really something else.
So what’s up for 2012 for you?
CS: Well, I had a nice little break in January, which has been pretty lovely — first time in a long, long time. I’ve just been at home working on volume 3, and now I’m well on the way to being done with the recording.
AL: Oh, that’s great.
CS: And I’ve been doing a few projects for other people. Some soundtrack stuff, but mostly in 2012 I’m with Bon Iver on the road, and taking time between those tours to tour solo a little. There might be some collaborations with a couple of different friends coming throughout the rest of the year, one which should be landing in spring or summer. And then rehearse with a bunch of different things, irons in the fire for the fall. And it looks like Volume 3 will be landing sometime either in the fall or by this time next year.
AL: That’s great. I’d would really like to catch you live at some point soon.
CS: Great! Well I’ll be around.
AL: The New Year’s has just passed and I don’t know if you believe in New Year’s resolutions, but if you, do you have a resolution that you made for this coming year?
CS: My resolution is pretty much always the same. With tiny little personal tweaks, mostly it’s just “be better.” It’s a really vague, really general notion, but I do I like events that cause us to have these moments of reflection, and it’s a nice time to reflect on how and what this life is at this point in time — what and how it has been, and then to look into the future as to it how it can be, and how I can be better in every way. Be better to myself, better to my partner, better to my friends and family, better in music. Progress is kind of a key for me. So that’s it.
AL: Well that’s awesome. That’s a lot on your plate.
CS: I don’t know what else there could be, besides just moving ahead and continuing to be the change that you make for yourself.