You’d be hard pressed to find a CV more impressive than that of Colin Stetson.
The saxophonist has worked with artists as diverse as Tom Waits, Anthony Braxton, Laurie Anderson and The Arcade Fire, and is currently a jobbing member of indie darlings Bon Iver. That his talents are in such demand isn’t such a surprise, though, when you consider his instrument of choice – the formidable bass saxophone – and the inimitable way in which he plays it. Nowhere are Stetson’s singular talents displayed so effectively as in his solo work. Across a trio of albums Stetson exploits highly advanced techniques drawn from avant-garde jazz to make his saxophone drone, growl and shimmer, at times imitating whole swarms of instruments, at others sounding as if passed through several layers of digital processing. Stetson records solo, live and with no overdubs, but in spite of those limitations his compositions can evoke a sonic world richer than most manage with the full apparatus of the modern studio at their disposal.
Stetson is that rare thing: an instrumental virtuoso in a world of studio musicians, somebody whose feats of bodily prowess require him to maintain rigorous physical discipline. But for all that, his latest effort, New History Warfare Vol 3: To See More Light is not, to use Stetson’s term, a “geek show.” Stetson’s instrument, and his techniques, are very much a means rather than an end; a means to compositions that may bear superficial resemblance to, say, Evan Parker’s solo work, but musically find their roots in the classical minimalist tradition and the stark soundscaping of his Constellation label mates. To See More Light is Stetson’s most accomplished record yet, a rich and enveloping “war story” that concludes the New History Warfare trilogy. FACT’s Angus Finlayson caught up with Stetson to discuss his experience as a teenage prodigy, the hazards of being treated as a gimmick, and the decline of virtuosity in the modern age.
This album is the third in a trilogy. How is it a step on from the previous two instalments?
Well it’s a war story, in my mind. So in that vein everything is much more grand. It’s a much broader and more far-reaching landscape and atmosphere, for me.
Technically, either in terms of your playing or recording, would you say you’ve moved on between the first album and now
Absolutely. Each one of the three albums has built on the one before an enormous amount. Especially between 1 and 2. Not only in the way that we recorded things – I was able to get more invasive – but also the playing. After doing the first [album] I started to perform solo much more than I had been in the past. Quickly after that, physically, I became much more proficient. So with Vol 2 there was a lot more I could do musically, supported by all of these techniques. And then Vol 3 , again – there’s almost nothing in there that I could have played when I recorded Vol 2, I think.
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I wanted to talk about your upbringing. I’ve heard you described as something of a teenage prodigy on the saxophone. Is that true?
Yeah. When I was in high school I was studying with a guy named Christopher Creviston, who was just phenomenal – a great man and a phenomenal player. He was a doctoral student at the University of Michigan at the time, in the town that I grew up in, Ann Arbor. At that point, when I was 15, I didn’t have any training besides the band in middle school. I was really starting from scratch. Chris saw that I could play things that were very far advanced, beyond what my years on the instrument were. But he didn’t ever tell me that I was working on a piece of music that was maybe college-level. He’d just say, “I think this is what you’re ready to do…”, and he would always dumb everything down in his presentation of it. So I’d think it was all normal for me to be working on these things.
At the same time he kind of knew that authority and me weren’t really awesome at that point. And if people were really badgering or bullying in terms of trying to get the work out of me, it wouldn’t happen. But if you were disappointed in the fact that I hadn’t done the work, I lost my shit [laughs] and would do everything in my power to make sure that I did not disappoint. So that’s what got me from starting out at 15, not being able to read music very well, to competing in soloist competitions at 16 and winning. By the time I was 17 I had already won a scholarship to study at the University of Michigan. So everything changed very quickly. I went from having [saxophone] be something on the side, to practicing four to six hours a day.
How did that impact on what you might call a normal teenage relationship with music? Did you have your strumming three chords on the guitar, getting into punk kind of phase as well? Or was the saxophone so central to what you were doing that you didn’t have that?
Well I never had any relationship with any other instruments. But my earliest influence is Hendrix – my dad had a lot of classic rock in the house. Throughout my early teens I was a metal head, so that was all around me. When I started to really get into performance, learning the instrument, it just opened up a lot of musical doors that I hadn’t been privy to yet. There was the whole classical world – that glut of music that was there to mine. And all of jazz, which I’d just started to peek into, all of the avant-garde. Throughout high school it was really about discovering all of this. And that only got bigger and wider when I was in college.
When you went to college, was session work your ambition? Was that the path you had always planned to go down?
No, not at all. When I first went to [college] I wasn’t really thinking about life as a working musician in that way. I was in academia, and I was being groomed for more of it by my professors. For masters and doctoral programs, and then ultimately a teaching position myself, performing a recital here and there, performing with orchestras where it came up. That was the classical model. But I had been doing everything else on the side of the core curriculum. Gradually through the four years of college everything tipped. I had a moment after I did a recital one year, where I thought, “Am I going continue playing these shows, basically just for other saxophone players, modern composers and my mum?” Those were the people that came to these shows. Or the alternative at that point was me and my band, Transmission, being at a club, with a few hundred people from every walk of life all coming to do something that was free and fun, and loud… It was a very obvious choice at that point!
At what point did you start thinking about your solo work in the form it takes now? Was that quite a recent revelation?
No, I think the first glimmers of that stuff started to happen in college, when I was about 19. I learned how to circular breathe when I was 15. Then once you’re listening to all the players in the free jazz tradition, multiphonics, vocalising, all these different extended techniques are laid out in front of you. At that point I was really experimenting with things. I would do solo concerts throughout my 20s and into my 30s, usually once or twice a year at that point. But it didn’t become more of a daily ritual until about eight years ago, when I was just bogged down with New York, hustling too many gigs and trying to figure out what to do, when there was just no time for anything that I really wanted to do. And a friend of mine told me, “Quit everything. Give yourself one band that you like to play with and your solo thing – make the first solo record, and see what happens.” So that’s what I did.
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A lot of the coverage around you focusses on the instrument and the techniques you use – the mechanics of it. understandably, because it’s quite unusual. But do you ever worry that your music could be reduced to a gimmick? That people are drawn to the idea, but don’t really engage with the music?
No, that’s not a concern. I mean, I’m sure that that happens. But there are also people who’ve said to me, “I listened to your music for six months, and then found out that you’re actually just one dude doing a thing… I thought it was electronic music.” I like the idea that people can listen to it and not know the source. Because first and foremost I’m trying to impart intention and emotion – in the same way that anybody makes music. It’s not a geek show to me, although I know that there is that element to it, especially in performance. I know it’s hyper-physical, and that there is something about that kind of spectacle that has always been exciting for people. But that’s not the goal. If the goal was some sort of a trick then I could come up with a more ridiculous way of doing it on stage! If people wanted to just see, you know, heavy lifting.
I guess part of that, too, is that in the pop world these days people are often surprised by instrumental virtuosity. Do you think it’s a form of discipline that’s dying out?
Perhaps, yes. But there are still people who are, you know, shredding in their own ways here and there. The early to mid 90s really changed a lot of that, because there was a big backlash against the more virtuosic elements in rock and pop music. And then the electronic phase washed in. Throughout this past 10 years, I think, from when indie rock started, there’s been more of a focus on orchestration, on sound. Which has been great. But in terms of virtuosity, I don’t know. There does seem to be an uptick [recently] in terms of what people will accept, what people want to hear – and I think I’m probably part of that bubble.
I can’t cite numbers but it’s probably a good assumption at this point that there are fewer kids, in North America at least, who are getting the kind of musical education that we all got before. Because that education is no longer in their schools. Also I think in a broader way, shows like X Factor glorify the notion that you’re born with something inherent. That it has nothing to do with work ethic or dedication, or time, it just has to do with… breeding I guess. That has, in a weird and dismal way, divorced us from the notion of becoming something through many, many years of dedicating your life to it. Which is how it always was. For all of civilisation that’s what we’ve done: people have dedicated their lives to purposes, and have become things. We remember people because of the things they were able to become – we remember the dedicated. And I think maybe we’re losing that.
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