Here’s part 2 of the interview with Steve Lawson. (Part 1 is Here.) Don’t forget to check out the related page, “Waves Across The Pond”. I’ll be meeting Steve and family for the first time on Tuesday; then we’ll head over to the Wallkill River School to set up for the event. We’ll be streaming to performance on wednesday Here.
NEIL: Brilliant, Steve. That was important for me to hear. Do you know that version of “Black Is The Color Of My True Loves Hair”? From Bass Desires, I think…
STEVE: I do know that tune, it’s great! (listening to it now 🙂 ) It’s beautiful.
NEIL: THAT was a revelation for me – because it was about the “Melody” the heart of a song. And how it can work in ANY context. No limits.
STEVE: So I started digging deeper into improvisation, following that thought. I wanted to be part of ‘collaborative storytelling’. Rather than one person writing a ‘script’ and other actors playing roles in the band, I wanted to see if it would unfold in a whole other way. It was tricky to find that space in London. London has a MASSIVE tradition with ‘free improv’ – really heavy players – so any time you mention free improv, people think you mean Derek Bailey, Evan Parker etc…
NEIL: Wow, had no idea. 🙂 I usually think Cecil Taylor. lol
STEVE: non-idiomatic improv. the stuff that consciously avoids sounding like anyone else’s music. This stuff makes Cecil sound like Britney 🙂
NEIL: LOL!!! Jamie Muir, music improvisation company stuff?
STEVE: Along the Muir lines, for sure. So I needed a different name for it, because players were either drawn to that free thing, or put off by it, but were always constrained by it. So I started calling it Spontaneous Composition. I can’t remember where I stole that term from. It’s a fairly obvious one 🙂
NEIL: Keyboardist Patrick Moraz used to use it for his improv concerts. I love it.
STEVE: The distinction I REALLY wanted to work on was between ‘right’ and ‘good’…let me explain.
STEVE: If you’re playing a composition, being ‘right’ is really important. It’s a written piece of music, and you need to play the right notes in the right order. Get them out of order, and you’re ‘wrong’. But, as is apparent, audiences don’t often give a shit about ‘right’. They want ‘good’, and ‘wrong’ can be very good so long as we’re not distracted by it.
NEIL: Yes, and yes again. “Wrong” is very often right.
STEVE: if we’re worrying about right and wrong, not good and better, then we’re in a different place to the listener. So ideally, if you’re playing a composition, you want to know it well enough so that right and wrong disappear, and all is good/better. I realized that in most of the settings I play in, I just don’t get the luxury of learning songs that well.
NEIL: Funny – in most of my settings, I am expected to…!
STEVE: So I decided to either a) write REALLY simple structures to play over, or b) allow the structures to emerge from group improv, or rather, group listening :), and the group was never bigger than 3… My brain isn’t big enough to do spontaneous stuff with more than 3 people! But I made a point of a) creating a space where people felt free to play their own idea of good, and b) putting musicians together in interesting combinations.
NEIL: Lawson/Dodds/Wood makes much sense now.
STEVE: YES! That’s exactly what it’s all about. LDW was one of the best examples of this. Same with the album with Theo Travis, the one with Jez Carr and the new one with Mike Outram. All from the same place; wildly different musics.
NEIL: (LDW) That’s quite an amazing record. 🙂
STEVE: 🙂 But I still sound like me in all of them; I’m so proud of each one, and all of them are improvised. I found that giving great musicians room to completely change my ideas made them so much better. If I start with a loop, it gives a structure to build on but I often leave the harmony wide open so other things can happen.
NEIL: I think what I’ve found here in the US is that when you ask people to improvise, they tend to think “I can play whatever”, as opposed to thinking somewhat structurally. (…these might be mostly jazz musicians…) They don’t seem to want or be able to (or are not experienced with) creating “space & time” and harmony in an open context. Now I understand why you dug “Galvanized” so much – that’s exactly what it was about.
STEVE: definitely! I generally refuse any offer to ‘jam’. I’m not interested in jamming, because improvised music can be so much more than blowing over changes. Patrick Wood is a master of superimposing different harmonies on top of an initial loop – giving him the space to do that created some amazing music that we’d never have got close to with written tunes.
STEVE: Galvanized is outstanding; a really great record.
NEIL: Thanks! “Galvanized” was not very well received here; too “nebulous”. :/ For me it represents a way to play that I just don’t get to do with anyone.
STEVE: There’s a whole other side to improv, in terms of drawing people into the world it exists in, that seems to be about expectation…that’s what worked so well with the Recycle Collective. It became a format that allowed audiences to not expect it to be normal and crucially, not to judge it against ‘jazz’ gigs or ‘rock’ gigs. It was it’s own thing.
I spent a lot of time talking about musical journeys; about musicians exploring in a conversational way.
NEIL: It’s great to have created a space to work without expectations….! Tell us about how that started.
STEVE: Well, a lot of the exploration of these improv ideas was happening in my front room. I was trying to record as much of it as I could, but realized that it needed to happen in front of an audience. I was inviting various musicians round to just play…BJ Cole on steel guitar, Cleveland Watkiss on voice, Orphy Robinson on vibes and steel pan..some incredible musicians. I was playing at a festival, and decided to try an all improv gig where each musician would join me one at a time, and I’d add what they did into the loop –
NEIL: Ah, conceptual. 🙂
STEVE: …and it was amazing – but tragically not recorded! But the idea was there.
So when I got back home, I booked a couple more gigs. I started out with soloists and duos, but soon came up with the standard recycle collective format of 3 musicians, 3 sets, each set progressing solo, duo, trio. So everyone plays solo, all the duo combos are explored and the three trio sections are ‘curated’ by each of the musicians….more conceptual positioning 🙂
NEIL: Excellent ideas. A form of composition to be sure. 🙂
STEVE: definitely! That’s exactly what it was. The musicians were the composition;
the format was the composition, and the notes were what had to happen based on that combination 🙂
NEIL: A sequence of events…also helps maintain just enough order that even chaos wouldn’t be out of place. 🙂
STEVE: exactly. Sometimes it got really out; other times it was straight pop songs. Really varied.
NEIL: I’m sure!
STEVE: Very little swing/bop, but that happened occasionally 🙂 And almost none of it was recorded! I often took my recording set up (rudimentary though it was back then)
but always forgot to press start, or to plug it into the desk. terrible.
NEIL: Damn. Best stuff never makes it to tape. 🙂
STEVE: That’s why we took the LDW trio into a studio; but we tried to keep as much of that improv spirit there. I still much prefer listening to the rough recordings that the ‘polished’ album even though the album is really well done. I get a kick out of the searching, questioning, journey stuff the most.
NEIL: That’s the stuff that scares most folk. 🙂
STEVE: yeah, I never understood that. It seems to ignore what it is to be in the audience.
NEIL: But – if you’re REALLY open, there are “no wrong notes” as Monk says. The full quote is “There are no wrong notes – only ones you don’t believe in”. Revolutionary. 🙂
STEVE: you want to be a part of something special, something unique, something specific, and something that could at any moment go HORRIBLY wrong 🙂 No, but there are idioms and I think that the territory seems to be pan-idiomatic rather than non-idiomatic. So within those idioms or combinations of idioms, there are vernaculars at work – shared languages, accents, jokes, stories, history that all come into play –
NEIL: Yes! in unimaginable combinations, no doubt.
STEVE: – and, of course, a massive dose of trust. Without trust, improv is a random painful guessing game 🙂
NEIL: Trust is key; so is belief in what you yourself are playing, “self trust.”
STEVE: Never play music with an improvisor who’s trying to either beat you or impress you. Always try and make the other person sound awesome. In a collaboration, self belief is bolstered by not having to worry about the other person bogarting your wikkid mellow choonz 😉
NEIL: Feel free to come here and make me sound awesome. (That’s a joke!)
STEVE: Ha! If that was my only plan, I’d just sit there silently.
NEIL: So I guess we’ll both be sitting there silently, eh? We’ll see how that goes over with the audience. 🙂
NEIL: “wikked mellow choonz”. WTF? Oh stop that now.
STEVE: I’m really looking forward to playing with you – you seem to have a pretty much endless stream of cool spiky melody that pours out of your instrument. I’m starting to recognize your sound-world, having listened to so much of your music. The things that soundtrack planet Neil. I’m intrigued to hear how they connect with what I do. it seems like an obvious fit 🙂
NEIL: Absolutely! BTW, You type really fast.
NEIL: I agree. I’ve gotten to know your sounds really well; I’d like to know a little more about your actual technical approach to looping so I can better understand what I’m hearing. I’m a good guesser, mind you. 🙂
STEVE: I use the same few looperlative functions most of the time…I tend to put every layer on a different track and mix and match sync’d and unsync’d tracks.
NEIL: For example “You can’t throw it away (there’s….)”. There’s a LOT of stuff going on there, different layers.
NEIL: Yes – I can hear that… some backwards…
STEVE: That also had a lot of live post-processing of the loops so I was able to change the delays that the loops were running through. They came out through a kaoss pad.
NEIL: Individual outputs?
STEVE: 3 stereo pairs
NEIL: That explains quite a bit!
STEVE: 🙂 Though at the moment, it’s in mono, cos I need to replace the sound chip…!
NEIL: Busted? 🙁
STEVE: just one side is broken, so I can run in mono. It works great like that 🙂
NEIL: I’m sure! I’m using a Line 6 Echopro and the JamMan, tho not synched. Each does several different things very well.
STEVE: The Echopro is very cool; some amazing delays too!
NEIL: Really awesome box. Yup. Like reverse, autovolume, etc.
STEVE: I like to have as much room to remix things as I go along, to reverse, fade, mute, scramble, replace etc…but quite often will leave a loop running through the middle of it all, just as the ‘glue’.
NEIL:Interesting. 🙂 I go for more of a “Tubular Bells” kind of concept: create & develop one idea; then let it go and start on the next.
STEVE: nice! I’m looking forward to seeing how all this comes together 🙂
NEIL: Yes! as am I. WOW. 🙂 Very often at a solo gig I won’t take a break – the ides are flowing….
STEVE: I’ve done that before!
NEIL: So I think we can use some of your recycle concepts to guide us through our performance – or rather, I’d like to. 🙂
STEVE: for sure! More than happy for it to work like that 🙂
NEIL: I have a thing for the “Marimba Ostinato” – it naturally falls under my fingers, can spin them off for days on end. Have you tried midi sync with other devices?
STEVE: I did with my echoplex, not with the looperlative. it’s possible; we could have each of us sending to the other, so that for any one tune one can act as master-looper – so I’ll loop you, or you loop me 🙂
NEIL: Might be interesting to try one thing with sync, in either direction.
STEVE: we’ll hopefully get to try that out!
NEIL: As I said, you type real fast. 🙂
STEVE: Are you busy on the Tuesday?
NEIL: Busy waiting for you to show up!
STEVE: 🙂 We could come to you then, and try the sync then
NEIL: Sounds cool.
NEIL: Have you tried hooking the JamMan and Looperlative up together?
STEVE: nope, but I’m sure we can!
NEIL: Personally, I find your approach to improvising quite refreshing! I’m starting to get the feeling that it would be best not to plan much.. 🙂
STEVE: yay! Sounds great to me. I’m much better when I don’t have to remember anything.
NEIL: Also, I will have mic etc set up for Lo. I love to process live voice. 🙂
STEVE: excellent! She’ll be all about that.
The album with Mike Outram is one I’m REALLY proud of; some amazing music on there. And we’d never played together at all before the tape started rolling 🙂
NEIL: Wow, excellent. 🙂 Is it done yet?
STEVE: just finishing the mixing, then need to master it. Will all be done by the time we come to you, I think 🙂
NEIL: I love what you’ve posted so far. 🙂
STEVE: there are a couple of massive ambient improvs…
NEIL: How I love ambient improv… *sighs longingly*
And there ya have it! Please join us for the event if you live in the area. IF not, be sure and tune in to the webstream on June 2nd.
Thanks for reading!