Interview with Anthony Pateras, Sean Baxter & Dave Brown by Piotr Tkacz, April 2008.
Piotr Tkacz: You, David and Sean, have been working together since 1992 in a group Bucketrider and since 1995 in a duo called Lazy. And how did trio begin? You invited Anthony or did he find you and wanted to play together?
Dave Brown: Anthony was organizing an occasional mini-festival called 'Articulating Space' at the Footscray Community Arts Centre here in Melbourne. At one of these performances Anthony concluded the night with a solo piano improvisation which blew both Sean and I away. We got our heads together and said, "Let's do a Cecil Tayloresque Free jazz band with Anthony." We envisaged that it would be completely tonal and free. But when we asked Anthony to join us in the venture his disdain for "jazz" became evident. And it was at his suggestion that we pursued the prepared instruments schtick.
Anthony Pateras: Well now I love free jazz and back then was even more naive than I am now !! - but I love what's happened with the band. Anyway - I'd been watching Sean and Dave perform for years and consider them (and still do) two of the best improvisers in the world. I was honored they invited me to join the band. We still toy with the idea of doing a completely non-prepared record.
Piotr Tkacz: If I have to describe your music in three words than I guess it would be something like "coarse chamber music". I mean, there is a lot of roughness, some "unpleasant" sounds, but I think that contemporary academic music is important reference point for this trio. Even if your attitude toward it could be called destructive. And also, some works of John Cage came to my mind while listening to your albums.
Sean Baxter: There is definitely an aesthetic reference to the avant garde classical music tradition, but there are also references to European free improvisation, free jazz, music concrete, abstract electronic music and noise (there are even elements of 70s soul and contemporary r&b - if you listen deeply enough!).
So whilst I think you are correct in identifying modernist chamber music as one of the pallettes the trio intersects with, there are many other sound worlds as well. Not to mention the whole relationship the trio's sound world has with gamelan in terms of the group textures.
Our approach is firstly inspired by the discipline of creating coherent and tightly structured free improvisations which share an overlapping timbral world due to the use of preparations and extended techniques to conventional acoustic instruments.
Anthony Pateras: Well sure - I'm obviously influenced a lot by avant-garde composition that has occurred in the last 60 years, although specifically the period 60s-70s, where I think a lot of amazing work happened but was overlooked. The problem with that music now is that a lot of people writing it don't even know improv exists, therefore it tends to have an implicitly narrow aesthetic both timbrally and formally. Not to say that improvisation is impervious to this!
Sometimes people have mistakely thought we were doing a Xenakis or Lachenmann cover - its true!
Piotr Tkacz: Is your percussion set a "standard" one or do you also use some objects, etc? How you could define "extended techniques" in regard of your playing on percussion?
Sean Baxter: I pretty much use a "standard' drumkit setup - bass drum, floor tom, rack tom and snare, with cymbals and hi-hats. So it's really your traditional jazz kit. But that's where the convention ends, because one of the rules I've imposed upon myself for Pateras/Baxter/Brown is that I can't play the drums with drumsticks. Instead I use lots of "junk objects": bits of sheet metal, serving plates, aluminum wok lids, enamel camping plates, wind-chimes, chopsticks, wok brushes and a whole heap of other junk which essentially serve as the "utensils" I use to devour the sonic world of the kit. And this is where the extended technique comes in - using these novel implements to create new sounds from a conventional drumkit. As far as my relationship to extended technique goes, it is very similar to how the term applies to other instruments. I create the sounds by rubbing and scrapping the drums instead of hitting them; by using the resonant properties of the kit to extract unfamiliar sounds, or sounds which are evocative of electronic music like piercing harmonics from scraping cymbals or crackling densities using enamel plates and wok brushes. There is also a great deal of aleatoric stuff that I do: creating random rhythms and timbres within a broad limitation such as wildly flailing a set of wind-chimes around the drum surfaces and the like.
Piotr Tkacz: In this trio you have prepared piano or you make preparations ad hoc, during the playing? What objects do you use? Is there any system of preparations? Are those preparations different from the one you used on "Chasms"?
Anthony Pateras: The preparations for the trio are more freely placed - with "Chasms" there are specific phenomenological and harmonic goals that aren't specific to the trio. I always do them before we play, and rarely change them during the performance - one approach I like is just putting things in randomly and then "re-discovering" the piano throughout the gig...its a nice way to keep things fresh, and often results is vastly different approaches concert to concert.
Piotr Tkacz: How you prepare your guitar, what objects do you use? And how do you use the instrument, you play in tabletop "mode"?
Dave Brown: Here's a list of the utensils I prepare the guitar with or play it with:
Rubber super-balls, alligator clips, found metal street-sweeper blades, animal flea comb, basting brush, makeup brush, bamboo skewers, motorized coffee frother, motorized fan, toothbrush, crochet needles, tuning forks, hair comb, plectrums, icy-pole sticks, earrings, necklace chain, e-bows, al-foil cake patties, bamboo whisks, and bicycle bells.
I play the guitar horizontal on my lap covered in these preparations, but will occasionally return the guitar to conventional positioning for short bursts of fretting (although still fully prepared, just to hint at elements of regular guitar technique, but only hint.
The psychological and technical approach to the instrument/s is in continual flux, forever evolving, changing and developing. With some techniques being left by the wayside and new ones being introduced to take their place beside long-time oft-used ones that stand the test of time and the onset of inevitably, impending boredom, tiredness. Having said that, the preparation techniques that inform and control my improvisatory playing have been developed specifically for the purpose of interactive improvisation and to contribute to the growth of a vocabulary that provides a complete alternative to the accepted techniques and sounds conventionally associated with certain instruments. Also there is a type of character to the sounds produced by prepared string instruments that makes them inherently percussive and tiny but wonderful to enlarge so as to compete with amplified sounds.
Piotr Tkacz: Was there any general idea for "Interference", any goal you want to achieve? The title suggest something similar to what Sean said: "an overlapping timbral world" where sound of one instrument morph into or merge with others. This producing of masses of sounds, like clouds, is especially "visible" in the last track of this album.
Anthony Pateras: Well we wanted to achieve a fucking killer record that represents the band best in a live situation...the hardest thing is to capture the energy of the group in the studio, considering you don't have the tension of the live gigs to fuel the performance.
Sean Baxter: Like Anthony said, our aim was to replicate the dynamism that occurs when we play live, but with the luxury of hi-fidelity that you can only get in a studio recording. The title of the record is more ambiguous than it might imply because the trio's sound has always been based on this sonic morphing, as you say.
Piotr Tkacz: So your method was "live in studio", and there is no overdubbs and so on?
Dave Brown: Yes, all three CD's so far have been recorded live with no overdubs. We could call our trio technique something like "instant composition". The mutual knowledge of each others playing techniques and developed vocabularies allows some sort of joint trust in following where and how the music progresses. While still concentrating on a sense of an intellectual, formal, evocative whole.
Sean Baxter: Yes, that's totally correct. All the pieces were freely improvised to tape with no over-dubs. In the post-production process there was a little bit of editing to clean some stuff up or to make the pieces fit into a particular duration, but that's it. As for the pieces themselves, they were subject to varying degrees of "composition" before we recorded them, and I use the term "composition" very loosely. Our structural limitations for the pieces on "Interference" ranged from something as rudimentary as a rough duration for a piece or a broad dynamic shape, to something more precise like a timbral identity or a particular register, but that's pretty much it.
Anthony Pateras: Yes absolutely...we have no "tracks" per se...we simply come together and play - to do overdubs would defeat the purpose of the group. We often get asked whether we use electronics as well, which we don't. The sound of the group simply sounds like this sometimes...
Piotr Tkacz: In the January and February this year trio was having a series of concerts with guests (Xavier Charles, Mathieu Werchowski, Scott Tinkler, Kim Myhr and Robin Fox). In this context the guest was more like a soloist and you were an accompaniment, "let him shine"? Did players manage to "get into" your playing? I'm asking because I think that trio sound is very consolidated. And are you satisfied with what happened, you want to establish some long-term colaboration with any of those musicians?
Dave Brown: In each of the shows with guests earlier in the year I think we all perceived the role of the guest as an integral, equal member of the group. Their particular talents and style may have led us in different musical directions and in some way this was by design in order to surprise ourselves. Because the trio sound is so consolidated this could of course prove challenging for any guest, but, by the same token, I think we're all confident in being able to accommodate, leave space for and encourage an added player. Playing with these guests leads to developing new sounds and approaches which in turn inform and enhance the trio's playing for posterity.
We had previously played a quartet with Xavier at the Musique Action Festival in 2007. It was so inspiring and successful, with an instantaneous rapport, that we felt we had to revisit the experience. And I'm sure this will happen again in the future. Hopefully with all these guests.
Sean Baxter: When we do collaborations, it is never as a featured soloist and a backing band. Our ethos for improvisation draws from the free-jazz tradition, where all instruments are equal, and from the European free improv tradition, where all sounds are equal. We invite particular players to collaborate with us precisely because they share this ethos, and because their approach to their instrument resonates with our own. Thus, our collaborations are completely egalitarian. However, one of the reasons we choose particular collaborators is because of their ability to add to the whole idea of overlapping sonic-worlds in the group sound. So, whilst the collaborators you mention would seem to be voices that would be distinct from the trio sound, that was not the case. All of them were able to emphasize certain elements which already exist in the Trio's group sound, expand them and then force us into sonic areas that contribute to the whole. The gigs were all awesome, and we will definitely do them again sometime in the future.
Anthony Pateras: Well we didn't intend for it to be such a soloistic thing at the time...some of the weeks were more that than others - for example, trumpet (scott) and violin (Matthieu) stick out more in this instrumental combination than computer (Fox) and guitar (Kim). They all got into our playing to some extent as far as I can tell - there was no counter-productive aesthetic conflict, although in some cases we had to meet each other half way. In the concert with Matthieu for example, some people who come all the time thought it was one of our best gigs, where some thought it was our worst.
These collaborations are one offs and are fun to do - but long term we don't really think about maintaining any of these partnerships...
Piotr Tkacz: In the Cyclic Defrost article about/interview with Dave it was written "Brown observed a greater acceptance of experimental music in Europe, as well as a stronger tradition of playing it." And this fall you are planning to come back to Europe - tell something about this.
Sean Baxter: I think Dave was talking about the fact that there is a longer and more supportive bureaucratic, institutional and funding tradition for adventurous music in Europe. As far as experimental music in Melbourne goes, it is really a very vibrant scene and has been for many years now. You can almost go to an avant music gig every night of the week for the whole year, and audiences are comparable (in terms of numbers) as they are in Europe (and we have a way smaller population!). But having said that, I love playing in Europe because there is a great respect for well-executed abstract music (as there is in Australia, too), and because so many of the musicians I admire and are inspired by, happen to be living and playing in Europe (and not to forget the great friends we have on the Continent!).
Anthony Pateras: Well I guess from Dave's point of view he's being doing experimental music in Australia since the 70s, and its still considered a weird and rarified practice, and from my younger point of view, organising a festival like I did earlier this year (MIBEM), even though we had huge publicity and it was a great success, the resonance to the broader population seems limited. In Europe, (although I would say more specifically, France, Germany, Poland and Switzerland) there is more infrastructure within festivals and venues - often musicians in Australia play for little or no money, which is ridiculous - it is deeply ingrained in the culture. This notion that art should be free (like the US and UK) is strong there. I agree with this to some degree, but not if those who are making it are suffering.
Dave Brown: I would back Sean up and say the health of experimental music here in Melbourne is amazingly well. There is truly a multitude of performers and groups and also a lot of cross-pollination with jazz, rock and contemporary classical performers. I would qualify that by saying that it is a largely an underground phenomena and thrives on and derives from it's subversive nature and role. This is slowly changing as the music listening population here becomes more thoroughly exposed to musical styles and trends from beyond our shores. I think generally, culturally, we have long suffered from being a geographically isolated colony, although this has perhaps led to a unique and intense island of musical exploration and aesthetics.
It's my experience that in Europe experimental musics have a greater degree of general acceptance. Contributing factors to this are possibly a larger population and a longer historical, cultural development were these genres have found there place and been perhaps a little more readily embraced. Whereas here in Australia we are definitely somewhat seen by the mainstream as pretenders, bereft of serious content and intention. And still they wait for us to get 'real' jobs.
I love coming to Europe to play because of the immediate acceptance of what our intentions are and perhaps a European intrigue with our peculiarly Australian aesthetic. Also it's very import_ant to us to come to Europe, receive feedback and absorb the influence of European culture, music, attitudes and personalities. It's import_ant for own continuing musical growth.
Band photos by Philo Lenglet