David Torn's unique guitar loops and textures are currently a feature of David Sylvian's live performances, but his unconventional approach has made him critical of the music industry machine.
IT WAS FIVE o'clock in the morning. I looked around the table and I could see David Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Richard Barbieri, Mick Karn, Ian Maidman, Robbie Aceto, Terry Bozzio and Mark Isham. And I thought 'this is my dream table!'." The speaker is guitarist extraordinaire David Torn, currently on David Sylvian's In Praise of Shamans
tour and presently recounting the events of the previous evening - or earlier this morning, if you lack the musicians' perspective. The celebration marked the last of three concerts at London's Hammersmith Odeon, a long way from Torn's native New York but "home" for the ex-Japan frontman. Torn claims not to be "too lucid" as yet, but his enthusiasm for the Sylvian concerts and our interview conceals any evidence of his fatigue.
Torn is probably most widely regarded as a jazz player - a label he resents and one that has brought him problems in the past.
"I thought I was playing pop music all the time", he explains. "Admittedly the music was strange but I always though it had commercial potential. I circumstantially fell into the world of modern jazz but it never was me; I was a lead singer and lead guitarist in weirdo bands.
"Now I feel I've fallen out of the jazz world, people realise I'm not John Schofield, I don't play like John Abercrombie or Wes Montgomery. The difficulty of obtaining a realistic recording contract in America pushed me out of that scene and I just became a player."
Today Torn is happier to describe himself as a pop musician. It's a description that's been brought about by the musicians he's become involved with and the direction he hopes popular music will continue to take.
"It feels like the musicians in pop who I feel are really expressive - like Mick, David and Andy Summers, people I have a lot of respect for - are mixing. For me this is a really exciting time, because not only is my circle of friends expanding, but the public is picking up on something else beside industrial-grade pop.
"Something exciting was happening in the '70s, out of the mixture of rock and jazz, which everybody thinks has died. But it didn't really die, it kind of boosted the level of pop in general. Now I feel the same kind of thing is happening again. We keep talking about this expanding 'Bloomsbury set' - Mick is working with Mark's band, now Terry Bozzio comes in bringing his influences... I'm going to work with Jane Siberry and that's another set of influences."
It's tempting to politely suggest that Tom's idea of pop music and the overtired cliches that characterise the pop charts in this country are entirely different matters. The amicable American has the answer ready and waiting.
"Didn't Scritti Politti work with Miles Davis recently? And Jon Hassell's been working with Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. It's hard to tell at the moment, but I think what's bound to happen is that stuff that was once considered, at least by the industry, as being strange, is actually showing up with great strength and power in public. The fact that Mark's records and 4AD records sell, and that there's a public for David and groups like Blue Nile suggests that what was once obscure is now proving itself to be very interesting to the public at large. And that includes musicians who were considered to be pop musicians but who are finding that there are ways to experiment with music. Some of the Art of Noise and Grace Jones stuff is very experimental."
TIME TO TAKE stock. Torn last spoke to MT just twelve months ago following the release of his LP Cloud About Mercury
, an adventure into sounds and scales that leaves you convinced that Torn is happy pushing his playing to the limits of musical harmony and technical dexterity, and happier making his guitar sound more like a synthesiser than a guitar. All the same, it's hardly mainstream pop. In the same year he contributed to David Sylvian's third solo album, Secrets of the Beehive
, along with Mark Isham on trumpet and flugelhorn. Since then he's written the music for a film directed by Brad Gilbert called The Order of Things
, which he describes as "totally technology" and which should be on release in a matter of months. Coming up is a proposed collaboration with Richard Barbieri, Mick Karn, Andy Summers, Bill Bruford and possibly Steve Jansen.
Somewhere along the line ex-Frank Zappa drummer Terry Bozzio fits into the picture. But in the meantime Tom, Sylvian and Isham have been joined on the road by ex-Japan men Barbieri and Jansen on keyboards and drums, bassist and percussionist Ian Maidman, and guitarist and keyboard player Robbie Aceto. Once again Tom's guitar contributes washes of sound that defy you to link them to the instrument in the hands of the man you see playing in front of you. His relationship with Sylvian began after a trans-Atlantic phonecall.
"He was that man that rang me", remembers the guitarist. Reference to MT's interview with Sylvian helped convince Tom that the invitation was worth accepting.
"I really was left this wild card position where he didn't know what he wanted me to do before I started reacting to the tracks. So we did a solo on 'Boy With the Gun' and I played my koto guitar on 'Maria'.
"Something exciting was happening in the 70s, out of the mixture of rock and jazz, which everybody thinks has died - but it didn't really die, it boosted the level of pop in general."
"He'd run pieces on tape and I'd just react to them and start playing. David would play it back and say 'the area that you were in here, give me something more'. We spent two or three days doing some really nice things. Some pieces worked and some didn't. 'Ride' was my favourite track but - and I hope David's going to read this - it isn't on the record.
"Live it's pretty much the same thing except it's really expanded. Mark and I are improvising like crazy, which is exciting because you can see a night that's mediocre, and you can see a night that's just above mediocre and you can see some fucking brilliant nights. This never happens in pop music - or if it does, it's purely on an energy basis. The forms of the tunes we play are fairly well set; most of the band are doing the same things night after night, and that's an important difference from jazz, but there are two guys onstage doing major improvisation. It's the availability of inspiration that takes it above pop."
Sylvian and Torn also spent some time building up guitar tape loops recorded on Sony PCMF1 that contributed to the atmospheres of songs like 'Mother and Child'.
"That's something I'm doing a lot of these days - making tape loops with a lot of different instruments. Last year I worked on Mark's record, Castallia, and two films with him. Motherland and Beast of War, and I worked on a Wyndham Hill video called Tibet. My biggest role in these was to build a library of loops, so I've started doing it for myself as a new concept in basic building blocks for pieces rather than purely ambient things. Now I've got all sorts of things: flute, soprano sax, guitar, altered guitar... David was also writing a piece for a dance company at the time; instead of just building a loop and putting it on tape he wanted performances, so I did a couple of improvised 15-20 minute performances. He chose one that he really liked a lot and that was supposed to be the compositional basis of this ballet piece - naturally that's the piece that the second engineer chose to lose on F1. We got a field recording of bird sounds over the entire 20-minute loop."
The equipment responsible for Torn's unique guitar treatments live revolves around a Steinberger guitar and a collection of delays and effects - a Lexicon PCM70, PCM42, with 20 seconds of delay time, ADA and Ibanez harmonisers, a BBE Sonic Enhancer and a Microverb. At home in the 'States he has an E-mu Emax sampler, Casio CZ101, TX81Z, Alesis HR16 drum machine, a Macintosh running Performer 2.3 and Intelligent Music software and "all kinds of weird home-made things."
His interest in making tape loops has recently made recording equipment a priority.
"I was going to wait for DAT machines to slow down in price but I want to build a library of things that you can only improvise once, and DAT's a perfect way to do that. Sometimes things happen, like sometimes your demos are better than the recorded piece, so why not just record everything? If you've got a DAT player why not record everything and be able to use it in other contexts? I've already done this in a way by putting some guitar loops on tape, sampling them into my Emax and playing them from my Stepp guitar. It's a whole new area of being able to play my own loops."
"Surely the obvious way for a guitarist to approach what is essentially playing samples would be from a MIDI guitar controller. At the time of his last MT interview he had reservations.
"Even a year ago I was not prepared to say a guitar synthesiser was useful because of the technical problems - the tracking, having to dispense with standard guitar-playing techniques. But now I've got an unbelievable collection of samples, including guitar loops and things I couldn't repeat, that I really want to find a way to use them live. The opportunity to perform a loop live and then walk up to the guitar controller and play another loop over it and control the pitch of the loop from the guitar is too brilliant to miss. I'm at the stage where I've got so many interesting samples that I've got to find a way to use them other than punching a keyboard. It's been an evolution in the way I think. Now I'm starting to think that a guitar controller is a step in the right direction. But I'm not going to turn it into a solo instrument in the standard way, I will take the line of more textural stuff."
Torn bought a Stepp DGX before coming to Britain but it broke down on him. Now it seems the Yamaha controller is a more attractive proposition. So much so that he is involved in its testing and expects to be using one within the next six months.
THE "TEXTURAL" APPROACH that characterises Torn's music was also an important part of Japan's before they disbanded in 1983 and probably explains why Torn received that call from Sylvian. Torn offers his perspective: "With Japan's stuff and Mark's stuff sound is just sound. You can put it into a geography rather than staring at microchips. It's the same with Mark's synthesis in a way - it very rarely sounds like synthesised sound, it always has a certain warmth and an 'organic' quality to it. Mark and Richard continue to get brilliant sounds out of the Prophet 5. To me it's weird that the instrument is considered out of date."
"The opportunity to perform a loop live and then walk up to the guitar controller and play another loop over it and control the pitch of the loop from the guitar is too brilliant to miss."
As I said, the result is that you can't readily tell who's playing what onstage.
"Everybody in the group has that same attitude. Sometimes people don't even recognise what I'm doing as being a guitar, which is a little bit ego ungratifying having to point out that the sounds all over Mark's new record for example, are my guitar. On 'Mother and Child' there are sounds like sampled strings which are actually guitar loops. But I'm here to make music and not to hold up the flag that says 'me'. I'm there to do what needs to be done, and most times that means just being part of larger textures.
"One of the things about a guitar that makes it old-fashioned is that it always has to jump out front and make loud buzzing-bee sounds. It depends on what the piece requires: I know if I use a little chorusing and a very short reverb on 'Weathered Wall' it's not going to work. If I make the guitar very bright, have a 15-second reverb and swell every attack, I know that's going to work. I'd rather not have anyone know it's a guitar and have the music work and communicate with people. You might see some guy playing but not know which sound he's making but fuck it, the music sounds right.
"Barbieri is incredible. This is a guy who goes to every soundcheck an hour or two hours early and just programs. He's an unsung hero; he's got an amazing ear for sound. Jansen too; he's very clever with all these little backwards rhythms. He's not like someone who's there to work all aggressions out, he's a musician who's thinking about what he's doing. All his rhythms are composed and that was something that characterised the last few years of Japan - it was really well thought-out in terms of what statement they were trying to make and how they were going to make it. The whole group had that. In any group in any style of music he's the eloquent type of player you want to be with.
"The point to make about the use of all this technology is that it's a double-edged sword. There are so many synths, so many drum machines, so many computer programs and so many ways to use these things that haven't been explored in pursuit of human expression. It's like a horn of plenty. The other side of it is that you have all of these instruments but without an inquiring mind what ends up happening is that all the pop music starts to sound the same. Everybody uses the same sample and the same preset on the DX7 or the D50. You get this tremendous dichotomy between what could be, and what is pop.
"When it's really clear that artist's expression has first to do with the sound of their instruments, how many times can people take that non-creative option before they realise that they're not saying anything? Do they think they're doing something hip? Do they think they're doing it because it's sold before so it'll sell again? I can never figure out where it comes from, this lack of motivation to do something original. I don't mind using a preset sound but I'll change it or I'll process it to make it sound like something I can use. It really doesn't make sense to me that somebody would settle for something that doesn't sound like them. In a way it would be really useful if manufacturers stopped selling instruments with sounds in them - send them out with a blank memory, but of course they can't do that, because they won't sell the instruments.
"It's a shame that the point doesn't get across that this is a really creative time in terms of music and the equipment that's available. It's very unusual that so much has occurred in so short a span of time - the last 30 years.
"It's not just to do with the technology - the record industry was created to serve the creative and it's like the roles have been reversed. I understand it because I still have to fight to convince people in the recording industry that I can sell records. But there's been this switch around, in which musicians feel that they have to please the industry. If you go at it from the angle that you've got to do something that's like something that's been successful before then you're degrading your own view of your creativity. I should be able to go to Richard Branson and convince him from things that I've done and from my attitude that I'm capable of doing exactly what I want to do creatively and they'll be able to sell it. The industry itself has become the glamour beast, but it was created to be an intermediary between the creative artist and the public. It's a confusion that revolves around the desire to make a decent living or better in people who aren't musicians and who aren't artists. Young musicians should find a way to convince the industry it's there to serve them and they're not just there to 'get a deal'. I can't imagine a more critical time to have to convince younger musicians that it's better to have a day job and keep the integrity of their music - and then convince the record industry that what they've done doesn't need to be drastically altered to be successful."
One event that is unlikely to compromise Tom's musical integrity is a proposed benefit for St Peter's Church in London's Vauxhall later this year. The church became a cause for concern several years ago and artist Russell Mills (whose work provided the backdrop for In Praise of Shamans
) began a series of concerts to help rekindle interest in the building. Since then it has played host to the likes of Roger Eno, John Foxx, John Bonnar and the Happy End. Now Sylvian has suggested he and Torn play a duet there...
"I've already begun to have some ideas about it", comments Torn, "particularly in the area of processing. One thing that hasn't been done with David is to use his voice as an instrumental vehicle rather than a verbal vehicle. One of the things I've suggested is to bring in a further delay line and split his vocal signal so that one half goes directly to the house and the other goes through my rack with the delay so I can randomly 'play' his voice.
"There's a quality in the low range of his voice that's incredible, it's unbelievably powerful and resonant, and I thought it would make a great building block as a chordal device - no words, no vibrato, just that low end of his voice instead of bass or synth pads to use as an improvisational tool. But we haven't really sat down and done any mapping yet."
In the wake of the Nelson Mandela birthday concert, nothing could seem more straightforward than to organise two musicians and a pile of sound processors in an old church. So when's the happy event?
"This morning I was thinking about all these things that are coming up for me and I realised that, no matter how many years that go by, with musicians nothing is confirmed until after it's done. And then sometimes you have trouble confirming it."
Well, the man did only get a handful of hours' sleep last night.