Interview with Dan Warburton
Paris, March 2nd 2006
Photos by Seth Tisue
Where do you all live?
Donald Miller: They still live where they were born and bred -
Jim Sauter: Rockland County, up the Hudson River about an hour out of New York City.
DM: - and I live in New Orleans, since 2001.
So getting together is harder than it was before.
Don Dietrich: Even when we lived in close proximity to each other there was a lull of about five years when things dropped off fairly considerably. Back then we could call the shots and get together and play in the city more or less when we wanted, but then we thought maybe that would be too much exposure.
DM: I always got the impression that our fanbase in the area loved it, needed it, but could only take it about once a year. Unless you're touring when you can bring that once-a-year experience to different towns, it becomes a draw issue in New York.
I was surprised to read in David Keenan's Wire piece on you that when you started out the avant-gardists in New York like Zorn and Chadbourne would have nothing to do with you.
DM: Well I have more input on this one.. I used to hang out with them about the time I met these guys.
JS: Maybe that's why they'd have nothing to do with us! (laughs)
DM: Could well be.. the radio show I had was a big focus. But it became very clear that I wasn't go to pay them much attention if they weren't going to pay much attention to me.
JS: "There's only room for one experimental guitarist in this town.."
DD: It was a niche scene that they'd sort of established. It was a little bit like marking out your turf and pissing on the couch to make sure we knew where the boundary line was. We'd come to see a few of their gigs to see what they were doing and quite frankly it didn't do a whole lot for me but by the same token there wasn't a whole lot of other things to listen to where Jim and I came from, which is a fairly provincial area. But at least it was a scene and it seemed to have some potential. Anyway, I'm not a very outgoing person, Jim's more gregarious and he just walked up to Chadbourne and Zorn and introduced himself and they looked right past him like he didn't exist. It was so fucking rude, it was unbelievable.
JS: That was enough. I'll set myself up for that just once.
DD: Evidently we posed some kind of a threat, but they didn't know what we did.
Was it really the romantic struggle Zorn likes to make out it was, like playing for five people and eating potatoes for a month?
JS: We all did that. There were a few places to play but there was no big audience.
You talk about marking off territory but the territory wasn't that big to start with.
DM: Zorn was doing his thing out of his own apartment, basically.
DD: So really you have to question what was at stake here.
JS: It didn't really matter because we did our thing anyway. And it worked out better for us in the long run. We were able to get some funding from an organisation called Meet The Composer, which allowed us to set up gigs and bring people to join us.
You became composers?
JS: Yeah, sure! We would present new works at these events and that allowed us to put a little money into a pool which helped finance the first record. Once we had enough money from the Meet The Composer gigs to pay for the recording, we went in the studio and recorded. And when it started selling and getting a few favourable reviews it was enough encouragement to do it again. And we had the finances to do it again. So that's how the whole Agaric record thing started. We were long past feeling blue about not having any association with the Downtown scene.
DD: The feeling blue lasted about a week.
JS: It forced us to do our own thing.
DD: We were also fortunate because of one of my professors at Parsons School of Design was a great sculptor – who's just passed away – by the name of Brad Graves, and he happened to be married to Verna Gillis who owned Soundscape and she allowed us to play there. That was one of the great clubs. You'd go see Peter Kowald solo and Borbetomagus was the audience. You could go see Jimmy Lyons and spend the evening bullshitting with Cecil Taylor until one o'clock in the morning. It was just a great place. And she was very supportive of us. She invited us to play at the Cool Jazz festival, of all things, in 82. She curated part of that. That was a feather in our cap. So we plugged along and forged ahead.
JS: The records started to reach a bigger audience too. We started to establish our label and the records found distribution and for the most part they were favourably reviewed. They disappeared in no time. That was encouraging.
Remind me of the dates of your first recordings.
DM: Our first album, which also had Brian Doherty on electronics, was April 80, the session with Hugh Davies [Work On What Has Been Spoiled] was October 80. The Borbeto Jam / Industrial Strength session [with Milo Fine, Tristan Honsinger, Toshinori Kondo and Peter Kowald] was October 81.
Where did you record that?
DD: Nyack, right down the street from where Jim used to live.
JS: We ended up with a lot of material, about three hours in total, but we didn't really shape it to LP length, so when we gave Cadence the first pass at it he [Bob Rusch] didn't go for it. So we pitched it to Leo [Feigin, at Leo Records]. We let him pick what he wanted -
DD: - and he picked the worst shit! He had this unerring ability to find the worst shit out of everything. And he stuck Tristan Honsinger's name under a picture of Peter Kowald and Barre Phillips.
DM: We did not then nor did we ever work with Barre Phillips, who I've never even met, nor I believe ever seen live. What our good and dear comrade Leo Feigin did was to grab a photo of Peter K and Mr. Phillips which Peter had used on the first of his three bass duo LPs for FMP. He then put "Tristan Honsinger Cello & Voice" under the Phillips-with-doublebass part of the photo. Just real slovenly, inexcusably bad, bad design work that would get a professional copy editor fired for missing.
JS: But it helped get us some exposure. Then we arranged what was left and presented to Rusch. And this time he could see the correct sequence of things and he said, wow I really like this. But the Leo and the Cadence albums are from the same session. We had a limited amount of time in the studio, and limited funds and we wanted to keep recording as long as possible. We were like slavemasters! These guys would want to sit around and shoot the breeze and smoke cigarettes and we were like, you guys have no idea how we had to work to pay for this studio time! They were laying this "experienced improviser" shit on us, like discussing how they wanted to approach the next take, and we were like, c'mon man, let's just do it!
How did you hook up with Hugh Davies?
JS: We went in to hear him in the city, he was playing solo, and we went up and introduced ourselves and we were like, we really enjoyed the concert and we love what you do, like Music Improvisation Company is really a major album for us and we were wondering if you'd be interested in coming up to where we live just outside the city and recording. And he was like, well tomorrow wouldn't be good, but maybe the day after. I've got a couple of days. His whole attitude was that if you're playing improvised music you've got to be open to encounters. So we picked him up and he came up and stayed with us and we did the session.
Is that album still in print?
JS: No, it's on the list of things to reissue.
DD: One of the things we're trying to do as an addendum to the original studio session is to add some live material we recorded with him at the LMC's Festival of Experimental Music in London in 93.
DM: We were in the process of getting it all ready to go back in 99 and suddenly he got sick -
JS: - and we thought it would be a little tasteless to do it so soon after he passed away. But – I always say this – "it should happen this year!"
And Live in Allentown is coming out again..
JS: Yeah, that's coming out. The artwork's done. It was Phil Freeman's review of that, his Epiphany thing in The Wire that made us realise we had to stop dragging our feet about reissuing it. It forced us to go back and listen to it. And we all realised how important it was.
DM: A lot of the old vinyls are back burnered for reissue. We're trying to figure out what the marketplace will bear..
JS: What the marketplace will bear? Since when did we care about that? We don't worry about that!
DD: We've always preferred live recording, but it's always been difficult to get a good one. It's almost as if we're compelled to go into the studio because time and time again our live recordings were shit. We have been plagued from day one with shitty recordings. Either the sound guy was too fucking stoned to realise the tape was running out, or something went wrong with the recorder, on and on and on down the line. 27 years of tape disasters.
And the recording of your last gig here at the Instants Chavirés got fucked up.
DM: Yes, someone must have bumped into the machine or something going to the bathroom. It might have been you.
No, it wasn't me this time, but I did once accidentally sabotage one of Phill Niblock's concerts by inadvertently switching off one of the laptops he was using to project his films.
DD: No shit! (laughs)
When was the first time you played together?
DD: February 1979.
JS: The first time we played was as a quartet.
DM: There was a No Wave guitar played called David Solomonoff whom I'd met the night before. I'd done a gig with my current band at the time, with Lester Bangs, no less, sitting in, and I met Solomonoff. He was into Derek Bailey and when you meet someone in New York in 1979 who's into Derek Bailey you stick together, so I said you gotta come on by. It was an informal jam session over at my apartment in Manhattan. But the core meeting that day was with these guys.
How did you get in touch with Donald?
DD: I'd heard his radio show on KCR and I'd never heard any of this stuff he was playing before – where we lived it was hard enough to get a Captain Beefheart record, much less the stuff he was playing which was just extraordinary, it was blowing my mind. I told Jim I said, you gotta check this shit out, this is unbelievable! So Jim takes the bull by the horns and calls him up one day and says, hey we like what you're doing. My friend Don and I play sax, and Donald says, I play guitar – do you want to come down and jam? And that's how we got together. To this day I can remember driving up the Henry Hudson Parkway afterwards in Jim's VW Beatle, and it was cold, grey, and the two of us we like.. finally, to break the silence, Jim just looked at me and said: "I don't know what he was doing but at some point it felt like the floor was lifting up underneath me!" (laughs)
DM: What they were doing was extremely exhilarating.
JS: We were doing the bells together – when Donald heard that I remember him going (mimes silent horror movie scream with knuckles in his mouth) – "Oh my God!"
Donald, what were you playing on the show at the time?
DM: I did have a pretty good collection. I got mainlined into all the European labels – Incus, FMP.. I probably had the entire Incus catalogue. That was when I was about 18. Rare free jazz stuff on Nessa, Delmark and so forth. And all the classic Deutsche Grammophon shit: Kagel, Xenakis, Stockhausen, Penderecki (before he went super Catholic), Ligeti and so forth. Lots of Xenakis. My show was broadcast on the "classical" side of the station – I wasn't able to get into the "jazz" slot.
How did you get into all this crazy stuff?
DM: Eric Ziarko down in Maryland where I was born and grew up. He had all the connections. We actually met at a Braxton gig. My little clique in high school actually got to see Braxton in 1976.
JS: He played at the senior prom.. (laughs)
DM: It almost was like that, actually! It was right after I graduated. There was Lewis and Abrams and Dave Holland and Steve McCall. So like the crazy eighteen year old I was I told Braxton, I really like your work with Derek Bailey on the Emanem albums. And Eric and his wife Janice were walking by and this was America in the mid 70s and someone's just mentioned Derek Bailey, and we became friends and this guy had every BYG and America and great modern classical connection and we smoked a lotta dope and listened to all these things. He had the connections to Martin Davidson, and I'd be like robbing my mom's purse to get records.
How did you end up with a radio show?
DM: Well, I was at Columbia, and I had the record collection. I was able to play my own records on the show.
JS: The cool thing was that Donald was able to bring guests in.
DM: Yeah, I got to know people like Henry Flynt and La Monte Young.
DD: He made a point of playing [Evan Parker's] Monoceros to Philip Glass, on the air! (laughs) And when Verna Gillis at Soundscape was presenting the European musicians they would also make a point of getting up to his show.
So what do you remember discovering on Donald's shows?
JS: We all loved [Brötzmann's] Machine Gun, of course. And that ICP stuff went right to the bone.
DD: And Penderecki. That was something we'd had no prior exposure to.
JS: [Xenakis's] Persepolis for me was like a watershed.
DD: That was something Jim and I tried to seek out. I remember going every month to a classical store in Midtown Manhattan and the guy ended up literally calling me up just to say, no, we don't have it yet! (laughs) I mentioned Brad Graves earlier.. he had been telling me for some time about this amazing record called TheTopography Of The Lungs [the first Incus release with Derek Bailey, Han Bennink and Evan Parker]. We used to hang out at Brad's studio on West 52nd Street and he had this limestone sculpture called "Topography Of The Lungs" and I'd heard about that record for year but it wasn't until we met Donald that we actually got to hear it.
JS: There was only like one guy distributing that stuff out of Brooklyn, Jim Eigo, who later became our distributor. Part of what was exhilarating about it too – and it's hard for people to imagine today, because it's so easy to find things on the Web – part of the fun was the search, the thrill of discovering things like that. When you hear stuff like that for the first time it just changes your world.
DD: I'll tell you a funny story. In 1985 I was in Colorado Springs, which is really tiny city if you know it, and at this point my life is totally focussed on finding weird record stores and buying weird records. I'm a weird record maggot. I'm going in every record store in Colorado Springs and it's all mainstream. I keep asking, is there any record store around that sells weird records? Oh you gotta go to this one.. I finally find this little hole-in-the-wall record store, way the fuck outta town, it's got like Syd Barrett picture discs and I'm like, oh finally! I spend an hour going through this store and I'm just not finding what I want, so I go up to the counter and say, excuse me, what is the weirdest record in this whole store? And they all look at each other without saying a word and he reaches under the counter and he pulls out our black album! I said, no shit! That's me! (laughs) I mean it wasn't even for sale, they didn't want to put it out!
JS: Files under the counter, for "Weird"..
DM: Where they keep the shit of women and animals having sex.
JS: They probably put it on when they want to get people out of the store. (laughs)
What were you guys listening to before you discovered his show?
DD: There was very little. Jim and I would go into the city and hear the worst fucking shit, it was just fucking awful, like Leon Thomas playing some godawful funky garbage. We went to hear Pharoah Sanders at Town Hall and he played about five minutes of phenomenal music and the rest was that boring Afrocentric crap, and we'd go hear David Murray – a real good concert was David Murray, Stanley Crouch and Fred Hopkins, at a church in the East Village. Then Jim and I went to see another David Murray concert which was terrible, and he was sitting backstage and we walked back and said, hey we like your music, and he was like – we weren't there! Like, fuck you!
JS: That was the good time to hear him though.
DD: When he was still under the Ayler influence. Things have gone downhill since then.
DM: The black scene really did dry out hard in the late 70s, hit the plateau that Braxton's always talked about. When he signed to Arista the records got to be fairly boring.. Most of that shit on the Wildflowers records is goddamn unlistenable. With the exception of Sunny Murray, who was the only guy crazy enough to keep the shit going on. But everyone else began working, or got signed, or started doing smack, and the whole scene got really boring.
What about Cecil?
DM: Oh, he was just perfect.
DD: Somebody just gave me a DVD of him live in Munich, in 1989. It's great. As far as I'm concerned, Cecil's an institution. He's done a lot of wacky stuff with dance and poetry, but who gives a shit? He's done what needs to be done to set everything in motion. He was really my first jazz musical foundation shake up – I probably heard him about 74 in college, a friend turned me on to him, with Silent Tongues. And it was the right time to listen to him – I was knee deep in all the heavy duty art theory and that record put a meat cleaver right between my eyes. All my playing came together in a big way. I'd been playing guitar, but within a period of about a month I heard that and Stockhausen's Aus den Sieben Tagen, and everything started to coalesce and make sense for me. I never picked up the guitar again, I started playing sax again at that time.
As far as saxophonists and guitarists go, were there any specific influences on your playing?
DD: I love Hendrix.
DM: And I love Ayler.
But did you have a traditional musical education?
JS: You could call it that. We played high school bands together.
DD: Every single year, every single fucking year I'd get thrown out of the band.
JS: We were doing the bells together thing even then, out of pleasure of exploring the instrument, exploring what the instrument can do. When we were like 14 years old. We've known each other forever.
JS: Once you develop a relation with the instrument you can't not love Ayler and Coltrane.
DD: The point Jim hits on is absolutely solid, which is that, if you love the instrument, which clearly Jim and I did from a very early age, when you love anything that much it's just logical that your love's going to blossom like a flower. I remember my parents had this terrible record called Ebb Tide, and the first five minutes of it was like seagulls.. and I was, like, I can do that! And you do that in the middle of Finlandia and they send you packing.
JS: When I went off to college I had a chance to work with a college radio station too, and I got exposed to stuff I'd never heard before, like Dolphy, Ayler, Shepp and Coltrane. That was long before we met Donald.
DD: Jim's exposure to that was a big influence on me, because he brought that shit back from college as well, and I'd never heard that. That Archie Shepp stuff was really solid.
JS: Ayler definitely resonated with both us, because to a certain extent we were doing a lot of what he was doing, rather naively, the upper register stuff, what we call the "High I" stuff, we had no idea that that made any sense to anyone other than us.
DD: Fifteen years old, you'd be in the football marching band, and you'd have the plume from your hat in your saxophone and you'd be walking down the hill and, it was Jim and I, and it was like, OK, High I! (screams) We were fifteen years old, man – this is a new note: high I! (laughs)
JS: If it was a way to make friends, we didn't make any. But we were definitely on to something, without realising it.
DM: "White punks on dope"..
When was your first public performance together?
DM: 1979.. I had a band called Sick Dick and the Volkswagens, after Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49..
JS & DD: (strange laughter and retching noises)
DM: There's a lot of resentment on the part of these guys about this thing, and I've never quite understood it.. (smiles) We had a lot of gigs at places like the Experimental Intermedia Foundation, weirdo frat parties at Columbia.. we took every opportunity to play that we could possibly get. I was coming to the end of my tether with the band, and it was natural for me to leave them to play with these guys.
JS: They invited Don and me to sit in on two Sick Dick gigs, one at Phill Niblock's place, and one at Giorgio Gomelsky's, who was another big supporter of us, too.
So you were actually playing songs?
DM: Not till after I left. They were pushing in that direction. I've said this before, but there did seem to be a little problem for members of Sick Dick and the Volkswagens to meet members of the opposite sex. (laughs) I was interested in having this whole thing become like the next AMM, MEV, live electronic shit – that's the stuff Lester Bangs used to come see us do – but they wanted to do songs and they wanted to use rhythm boxes, because they were too geeky to get a real drummer. They thought that if they "rocked it up" they might be able to meet girls..
JS: We wanted that too, but we never got it! (laughs) We've always been waiting for the panties to be thrown on the stage, but it hasn't really happened, and we just can't understand why..
DD: We played a gig at the Fine Arts Museum in Berne, Switzerland, a double bill with Voice Crack some years ago, and at the end of the concert the director of this prestigious museum has this big, long table with all the trustees of the museum and the musicians and she's studiously avoiding commenting about any of the music we played. She kept saying she found Norbert and Andy's music "very interesting" and "very interesting" and someone pointed at us and said, what about what these guys played? Silence. "It's too.. maaahn.." (laughs)
DM: I zhink she vas lookink to zay "...macho!" to ze Amerikanischer schweinhunds. Jim came up with the obvious play on Kunstmuseum and Kuntsmuseum..
JS: Did I?
DM: Yes you did.. you wrote it on one of the doyleys.
JS: But we loved her anyway.
DM: Even if she made us pay for part of the dinner. She was supposed to be taking us out.
JS: It wasn't her cup of tea..
DD: She was not about to take those panties off for that concert.
Remind me again of the origin of the name Borbetomagus.
DM: It's the old, old Celtic name for the city of Worms in Germany.
JS: It really came from the imagery we used for the first record, which was this picture of four hands holding boxes of worms.
DD: I came up with the idea of us catching our own worms. Jim and I sat down and hashed out the idea of how this cover would lay out. Jim found these really cool photographs from these really arcane books, pseudo occult stuff from the 30s..
JS: Each of us picked different newspaper suggestions to suit our personalities..
DM: And we took the photographs down in the basement of the frat where we used to rehearse.
DD: If you know the cover of that album, it showed the four of us holding more or less empty boxes with the worms crawling out revealing this goo, slime, earthworm-shit covered photographs of us. So it was earthworms, worms, the city of Worms..
JS: We just liked the way the word looked. We named the album Borbetomagus, but then it was reviewed as the name of the group, and it kind of stuck.
From the sound of it, gentlemen, it doesn't sound as if you were making a serious pitch for the mainstream jazz market..
DD: That's an incredibly astute observation on your part.
Who were you aiming for?
JS: Who knew? We didn't know.
DD: You gotta understand that we were so turned on by all this music that clearly had no place in the mainstream, and we loved that, so why not go with the flow, and even up the ante.
No, that last question was my backhanded way of asking you if you consider your music in any way to be "jazz".
DD: I think the issue of what makes the jazz musician is the syntax, the instrumentation. If you have a drummer it seems to become more jazz-y.
DM: I think what we play is Borbetomagus.
JS: That's the best way to sum it up.
DD: It's like that Pharoah Sanders concert I mentioned, which was an hour long, and there were about five minutes of really inspired playing. So it was like we could forget all the other shit, just keep those five minutes, flay away all the stuff that we don't want to hear and focus in on those little golden nuggets and just play that.
DM: You know that bit at the end of the Monterey concert where Hendrix sets his guitar on fire? That's what we do. For a whole hour.
DD: Yeah, forget all the other stuff. That's extraneous. We don't need that. Somebody else can do that.
JS: I don't think we had a concept of what music we were going to make. We weren't thinking about an audience. It was somewhat naive but it was fresh because of it.
DM: It wasn't naive, it was intuitive.
JS: Yeah, you're right. We had no idea if we'd get a record out of it, but we liked what we heard and we've approached each gig and each recording kind of that way.
DM: We've never really had any disagreement about the way things should go.
JS: We pretty much agree on what's a winner and what isn't.
DM: And as a result we've been able to keep things moving. Even the breaks when everybody goes home and does their own thing is a chance for us to bring something new back to the table, like this is something really neat that I've found.
How many gigs did you play a year when you started out?
JS: We played a lot at the beginning, because we were really hustling. We really worked to play a lot.
DM: There were all these very conservative, stodgy, suburban situations we used to walk into and rape and write ourselves checks from Meet The Composer. It wasn't a sham: we were doing high quality performances.
JS: We really tried to shoehorn our way into a lot of situations that really weren't ideal for us. And that's putting it mildly..
DD: That's where naivety comes in.. We were like, you really need to open your ears for this music, this is important for you!
JS: I remember Don and I playing at an Arts Council party in a furniture store, and getting thrown out.
DD: Well, we did finish a bottle of bourbon just before we played..
JS: And we were like, oh they're bunch of art snobs, they can't understand really great talent. Then there were gigs like the one on the black album, at Bergen Community College in December 81 which a friend of ours helped set up. They never asked to listen to a recording, we got a nice fee and a nice signed contract, and we went there and it was a wine and cheese student Christmas party – and they had no idea what we were about.
DM: They were expecting a bunch of New Age guys singing "Don't Fence Me In".
JS: Within like twenty minutes this teacher came over to me and grabbed hold of me like, we gotta talk outside. He gets me out in the hall, and he goes, I don't know what you're doing in there but you can't do it again! I go, relax – we won't because the nature of our music is improvisational and we can't really recreate what we just played! And he goes, don't be a wise ass with me Sauter! You can't go back in there and do what you were doing – these kids want to be entertained! I go, well we could talk about the music and like share some of the early backgrounds, the beginnings of it and how it shaped what we're doing today.. He goes, this is not a lecture! They're here to have a good time! So I say, well I'll talk to the guys and we'll see what we can do. So he was standing about ten feet from us watching us, and I told Don and Donald what we were up against, so we went back and said, let's see what we can do, try and lighten it up.. We did probably the closest Ayleresque beginning we could have done -
DD: That was our version of nice music – Ayler. (laughs) That's about as far as we could backtrack -
JS: - and then at almost the same instant, maybe a few minutes into this, we realised there's no way this is going to work. We said fuck it – and you can hear it, Donald starts cranking up his guitar and I was biting on the alto like eeeeeyaak and at the end you hear the audience going, take a break! What was that, a tune up?
DM: It was kinda like that track on the first Throbbing Gristle album, Second Annual Report.
JS: Then the guy comes up to us and goes, OK I'll pay you, but please stop! (laughs) Those are the kind of situations we really worked hard to get ourselves into.. After we'd knocked our head against the wall for about ten years I thought maybe we'd better back away from the wall. It was a lot of work for no payback. And opportunities to play abroad were beginning to come in.
When was your first trip to Europe?
And how were you received?
DD: Pretty well.We had an absolutely phenomenal gig in Leipzig, when it was still under the Iron Curtain. We played at this 9th annual JazzTage festival and Odean Pope was a last minute cancellation and they somehow got us to take his spot. I think the most outrageous stuff they'd heard was some of the European free guys, like Brötzmann. We were doing our thing, and Donald was just like – booooom booooom booooom with his guitar and Jim and I locked bells and all of a sudden I'm hearing this booooom booooom even louder and I realised the whole fucking audience was on their chairs – they wanted freedom, man, it was like totally insane, they came up and brought us flowers onstage afterwards, it was pretty cool.
JS: I think we were introduced as "Borbetomagus: New York Free Jazz Extreme." And just that introduction made the audience go wild.
DD: After the concert Chris Cutler came up to us and said he hadn't heard anything like that since early AMM. Which was quite a compliment. That was a pretty memorable tour.
JS: That was also the first time we played with Voice Crack, and recorded the Zürich album.
DM: We also played two gigs in London, the second with AMM and Hugh Davies.
Then back to hustling for wine and cheese parties in upstate New York..
JS: Yeah, coming back after that was tough.
DM: In the mid 90s every so often we'd do these weekend trips to play places like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Denver or Minneapolis, and there was a proliferation of psych rock bands, and all of them had heard of us, but none of them had actually heard us. But they knew that we were to be "highly respected".. So they'd be like, where else are you playing on this tour? And we'd be like, tour? What tour? It's back to the office on Monday!
Who helped spread the word about? Byron Coley?
JS: Yeah, Byron's been a great champion for many years. But there've been a few reviewers – Henk Berkman at Cadence, and Milo Fine, who's been very perceptive and supportive.
DM: Word gets around. Byron was definitely a big push in terms of reaching those younger kids. There's also some limey in France named Dan Warburton I hear who's psyched out about writing about us..
DD: Another memorable anecdote was we had this distributor back in the early 80s called New Music Distribution and they were notorious for taking lots of product and not paying. You had to go there and knock on their door periodically to find out what's left and get them settle up with us. Every time we'd go there nothing would be sold, it'd be hidden behind piles of other shit, they'd do anything they could not to sell our stuff. Jim and I were in the city one day in the Village, to see an art exhibit or something, and we said let's detour go check our inventory. I parked the car in a No Parking zone. Jim ran across the street, and he comes back and says, you're not gonna believe this – they're completely sold out, they don't have one record in the store. And the reason why was apparently Henry Rollins was interviewed by the NME and mentioned just in passing that he thought what we did was "interesting" and that was enough.
Did they pay you for the records?
JS: Oh eventually we squared up. Nowadays we'd rather work with two good distributors instead of six, four of whom are headaches. Distributors have to prove themselves before you want to work with them.
DM: There's always been a kind of Bernard Stollman approach, like, "I'll put it out and you'll be famous one day but you won't get paid by me.."
JS: We took charge of our label from the get go. We wanted to have control and make sure that our stuff was getting distributed.
Are decisions to release albums always unanimous?
DD: There are albums that need to come out, for the greater good, even if what you're doing individually maybe isn't quite as good as it should be. I can think of a record or two where I wasn't real happy with my playing, but overall the record's good.
JS: Certain records came out where Don said, oh no, I don't know why we put that out, and with time they grow on you a little bit more and you realise that there were things in there that were important. Live in Allentown's a good example, of something that came out on cassette in 1985 but it never had a chance to reach a broader audience and it was really significant. Soon it'll have a chance to reach an audience it didn't reach when it first came out. On other labels things come and go, but at least on Agaric we can put things back into circulation if we feel it's timely or appropriate to do so. Ideally, I guess we'd like to have something new coming out every year.
DM: The idea is that we never put out things that sound the same. When we've reached some new stage in what we're doing, then we look for a good document.
So you can speak of distinct periods in the Borbetomagus story.
JS: Yeah, there are milestones along the way.
DM: I mean you could stack Barbed Wire Maggots up against Trout Mask Replica as easily as you could against Acustica, it's a unique "band". After a few years, the band sound dissolved into the visceral experience, thence gelling as The Entity we have brought on for the last two decades.
DD: A mid 80s breakthrough was when Adam Nodelman on Allentown hooked up an echo box with a microphone and shoved it down Jim's bell. I'd played electric guitar for many years so I was well versed in all these effects boxes, probably even had a few lying around from my old guitar days, and it just seemed like, the light bulb went, why didn't we think of that before? In the early 70s with my tenor I'd tried experimenting with a contact mic and it sounded awful.. fuck that, throw a real microphone down the bell, problem solved. We started working with combinations of boxes (that weren't designed to handle the frequencies that we're pushing through them – they were looking for a clean guitar sound) and it just opened up a whole world of stuff. If we ever get around to re-releasing Snuff Jazz with about two thirds more material that never fit on the vinyl, you really see that as a major transitional part where the saxes start getting heavily into the amplification and we don't need an electronics player. And then you go from that to Experience The Magic. We ditched the three amp approach and we had this big fucking Sun amp, put all three of our signals into one amp, and what's really interesting if you listen is you've got this big mass of speakers that we're basically in front of, and as Jim and I walk in front of the speakers you can hear our sound shadows walking in front of the amplifier. That just totally blows me away.
When you started out did you have any idea that it would last 27 years?
DD: Fuck, no!