Photos by Amy Southerland Eugene Chadbourne
Interview by Dan Warburton, April 1998
route for Berlin's prestigious
FMP improv festival, the eminent Dr. Chadbourne, the world's foremost
exponent of free improvised country and western be-bop, and erstwhile collaborator
with Tom Cora, John Zorn, Shockabilly, the Violent Femmes and Camper Van Beethoven,
stopped off at the Instants Chavirés in Paris on April 8th, where he
amused and amazed us with his extraordinary guitar and banjo playing. Apart
from originals from the ongoing "Insect and Western" series, and an
extraordinary piece called "Madagascar" where Chadbourne had to play
guitar and banjo at the same time (with hilarious consequences), the evening
also included music by figures as diverse as Bach, Satie, Merle Haggard, Thelonious
Monk and The Doors, with affectionate nods to Chuck Berry and Louis Armstrong,
before Chadbourne finally abandoned the guitar altogether for an electronically-modified
children's toy (christened "Patrizio"), amplified to pain threshold,
which he proceeded to "play" with forks, screwdrivers and anything
else that came to hand, which included somebody's boot, a journalists
camera strap, and my own cigarette lighter. When I finally caught up with Dr.
Chad next day (he was enthusiastically sketching the Eglise St. Eustache while
waiting for me), my first question was about "the real star of the show..."
Tell us about "Patrizio"!
That was part of a game my children had, and I can't remember the name of it, I think it's called "Tip the Waiter"--there's the waiter guy and all these little plates and dishes, things that stack on top of each other. The way the game works is: you start out, you put a dish on the guy's hand and you push the button, and you never know how high up the hand's going to go. Then you put another dish on and so on, it keeps on going up higher and higher until eventually it falls over and you've lost! As you might have decided from hearing the description, the game runs out of excitement after a while... (Laughs) It was popular for about six months and then it was like, let's take this to the used toy shop... It was in the reject bin, and I said I'll take it, I can use it. I brought it on the first tour I did with Paul Lovens, and he liked him--he gave him the name Patrizio, and he became a kind of mascot... So as I was going to play with Paul in Berlin, I was trying to decide what kind of weird instrument to bring along--I was looking for something really light, because the weight of my luggage was getting out of hand--so I thought it'd be fun to take Patrizio to Berlin, he deserves the trip, but I thought I should put some pick-ups on him, and a contact mic, so now he's ready for action! I think it'll be a nice surprise for Paul. He doesn't know Patrizio's coming. He also doesn't know about the new Patrizio complete with pick-ups. The old one was only an acoustic model...
It's the first time anyone's played my lighter in a concert...
That sounded great!
Here in Europe though we take our improvising pretty seriously. What are your thoughts on that?
My audience is mixed up; I have some of the improvisation crowd, but some of them don't like me because I play other kinds of music; for other people I've heard that I'm like "the gateway" into free improvisation; and in the other direction when I started doing the country stuff a lot of punk rockers would come up and say they'd started buying Patsy Cline albums and things like that after listening to my stuff. I didn't realize that would happen, but that's great. That's one of the things about listening to music: one thing tends to lead to another.
One guy told me it was the best version of "People Are Strange" he'd ever heard! (Laughs) When I first started doing the country stuff about fifteen or more years ago, the Europeans wanted to have nothing to do with it... first they weren't that excited that these young American guys were imitating their European sound, but then when I came up with something of my own they didn't like that either. Someone like Derek Bailey had no way to relate to country and western music. In Germany country and western is quite popular, but in a lot of places in Europe they just think it's like cowboy music, which is completely different. So Derek and most of these guys couldn't figure out what I was doing at all, but I kept on doing it and kept on doing it and now they all like it! Paul's a perfect example: now he encourages me--he sent me a note saying that at the FMP festival I had to play a lot of country and western, because these improv fans are just too dry and they need to hear it! So we'll see what happens.
Do you approach a country tune in the same way you would a piece by Monk, for example?
Well, I treat everything the same way; I play it the way I feel like playing it and do my interpretation, so in some ways it's true that I take as much liberty with the country stuff as I do with Monk or with Bach or with anything else that I play. I just do my own version of it. The difference is that country has a lot going for it in terms of interpretation of the lyrics: you've got lyrics about someone ringing the telephone, knocking at the door, someone getting killed--there are all these references to things that make you think about sounds. Whereas with Monk it's just a purely musical thing.
Do you approach his music melodically in some way, or are you trying to play the changes?
If they're his. What I try to do with the Monk stuff is do my version of it but keep his framework, or some reference to it, because his music is unique. There's a lot of jazz that's not unique, the only thing about it is that it swings, or with free jazz that it's ferocious... but Monk's music has a kind of personality to it and you can lose that sometimes. Sometimes I hear a bossa nova version of a Monk song which may be nice but it doesn't have the feeling of the Monk tune anymore. I try to avoid that.
Was jazz part of your life before country? What happened in the early formative years?
I started with Herman's Hermits, that was the first record I ever bought. At that time the Top 40 charts were a mixture of country and rock, that was the unique thing about the American scene back then. Now they have everything divided up, they have country stations (you never hear country and western on rock stations anymore), but when I was growing up you'd hear the Beatles and then the latest Roger Miller or Johnny Cash, all mixed together in the same charts. As a result, country music was a big influence on rock: Chuck Berry's music was a kind of combination of elements from country and jazz, and later the Beatles were influenced--songs like "Nowhere Man" or "Act Naturally," which was a Buck Owens cover. Of course the Byrds and Bob Dylan went completely country.
You also played a Gram Parsons tune last night...
Gram Parsons was really important because when the musics started to go their separate ways, with the hippie backlash against country and western, he reached out and created a country music that brought the hippies back in. He's one of the best loved country guys now. When you talk to people that like country music, everybody really likes his songs and the feeling they have. They're really beautiful.
Did you start guitar at an early age?
Yeah, very early. Mostly because I noticed that girls liked the Beatles. My friends--the boys--all thought they were awful, that they were "queers" with those weird hairdos (laughs)... but the girls really liked them, so I thought: "Girls like music, that's the way I can get a girlfriend!" Up until then the way to get a girl was to beat somebody up or be good at sports, and I couldn't do either (laughs)--so that's why I started playing guitar.
I taught myself--I never really felt like I needed to take lessons: there were so many opportunities to go hear good players. I was one of those geeks that got there early and sat in the front row. I went to a lot of things when I was too young to get in, because I got there so early and I'd be hanging around until the musicians in the band figured that this was some kid who really liked music, and they let me stay. I remember going to see The Leaves like that, sitting on the front row for both sets; same with The Association--that group had a lot of hits but still used to play these little clubs--I remember seeing them on campus. There were some really great guitar players from the town I grew up in, Boulder Colorado. Tommy Bolin was one of them--when he became famous I didn't think he was any good anymore, he was really fucked up with drugs and he played much less interesting stuff than when I used to see him with the local bands. Another guy that was really great was Rusty Young, later in Buffalo Springfield, who played pedal steel. I got to see a lot of really good players. That's where I learned a lot of stuff. With all these types of music you have people that vary from being totally awesome to being like... anybody can imitate them. There was a lot of music back then I wished I could play; when Jimi Hendrix came along I would have given anything to be able to play that stuff, but it took me about fifteen years of practicing to be able to play a couple of notes like him, in terms of the sound and the technique.
I was in all these psychedelic garage bands, and improvisation was encouraged back then; in the late sixties it was really popular, everybody was trying to outdo each other making weird albums: the Beatles "White Album," the Stones "Satanic Majesties..." People were listening to all these weird albums, and they played long pieces of music with improv on the radio then; that's the kind of milieu I grew up in. When rock changed and became more pop-oriented, I completely lost interest. I liked it the other way: my ears were already open for something else.
Promoters used to say: 'After Chadbourne, never again!'
Why did you move away from Boulder?
To avoid the Vietnam War. My father was really opposed to the war, and my mother had been running away from one dictator after another all her life, from Hitler, to Mussolini, to Nixon... she just kept going! We went to Canada and I was up there until they had an amnesty, and by then I was interested in playing professionally. I really wanted to play avant garde jazz. I really got into it, and I started thinking: "Well, there are some guys on these records like Sonny Sharrock or John McLaughlin, but there aren't really that many guitar players..." Then I heard Derek Bailey.
That must have been a shock.
I really liked it, because it didn't relate to jazz at all. It was something else, you could play it for people, and if they were good musicians they could tell he really knew what he was doing, but other people would think he was just an amateur. I used to like that--it was like a code, you could completely lose somebody. They'd have no idea the person could even tune the guitar, but in fact they were really incredible musicians. I was really drawn to that idea.
Why did you move to New York?
I was living in a very remote part of western Canada, putting out my own records and writing about avant garde music. I'd been earning my living as a journalist, writing for a newspaper; one of the contacts I made was with an Italian percussionist and composer, Andrea Centazzo. I heard he was putting out a series of albums to establish himself, so I reviewed them for some Canadian publication. This was the mid-seventies, and he had the top players: Steve Lacy, Derek Bailey... I felt tremendously isolated, because there weren't that many people interested in that kind of music up in Canada, so I decided to go to the East Coast of the States and see who I could fall in with. My eldest brother was living in New York and there was a vacancy in his apartment. When I moved there I got a phone call from Centazzo who was in town for some Latin percussion convention--they'd flown him over, because he was involved in some company that made gongs and cymbals--and I invited him to come over and stay at the apartment, and we got to be friends. He said he could get me some gigs in Italy, and he set up quite a long tour. My playing was so extreme at that point, in terms of what was acceptable on the Italian jazz scene, that Centazzo always said afterwards he could never get another job in Italy! Promoters used to say: "After Chadbourne, never again!" (Laughs) The beginning of that trip was quite auspicious: I had the tickets and $40 left in the bank--I went there, and the girl made a mistake and gave me $400 worth in change! I walked out of the bank, and I was like: "I'm making money playing in Europe and I haven't even left yet!" (Laughs)
Did you end up playing with Bailey on that trip?
When I finally made an album I sent it to him. One of the great things about Derek--and it's still true today--is that he reaches out to people: somebody sends him some weird record and he sits down and writes them a nice letter: he's just a wonderful person. He wrote to me and when I took that trip to Europe to play with people, I got over to London and everybody was really nice. Evan Parker put me up at his house for a few days, and Derek had a couple of concerts organized with different people. That was the first time I met him--I remember he was going out to some music shop to talk to someone about building him a guitar, and he asked me to tag along. It was really nice. Before I went to England, some of the American musicians I knew like Anthony Braxton and Leo Smith had warned me not to play with Steve Beresford--they said he was insane and he couldn't play, so right away I sought him out! (Laughs) We got together and we've been good friends ever since.
When you were in New York did you ever run into Sonny Sharrock?
Yeah, every now and then. He always sounded good. What about those Herbie Mann albums? I read some jazz critic somewhere who said you could always tell when Sharrock was soloing because half the audience were outside on the sidewalk! (Laughs) Herbie definitely liked him though, he was in his band for a long time.
How did you meet John Zorn?
I'd only been in New York about a week before I met him; it was through a mutual acquaintance from San Francisco, Larry Ochs from the Rova saxophone quartet (this was well before Rova). He was in New York visiting his sister, and he went to a concert by another San Francisco musician and there were so few people there that they all got talking, and he met this guy John Zorn. John said he played, and Larry told him I'd just moved to New York, and John said: "Oh, I have his albums!" He'd bought the Canadian albums and he liked them, so I called him up and that began a long period where we were collaborating really intensely. We had a lot in common for a long time. Back then there were only a handful of people we felt sympathetic playing with.
One of whom was the violinist Polly Bradfield... whatever happened to her?
She's still playing. She had a lot of children and went out to California. She was never that driven to have a musical career. She was a really interesting musician though, I really liked her. Very extreme. I think her solo violin album is one of the best things I've ever heard. Do you know that? I have to send you a copy. I've got lots of copies, because when she left New York, in a big hurry, she piled her records out in the street, so I kept them; every now and then I meet somebody who wants one or who I think ought to have one. We did a couple of concerts together in England and Belgium that came out on a record, "Torture Time"--that was another nice album.
You were running your own label, Parachute, at the time.
I started Parachute in Canada--when I got to New York a lot of people that wanted to put records out realized that if they were all on the same label they'd have more clout with distributors. What that really meant was that one person was doing all the work, and that was me. I got tired of that pretty quickly. But some pretty major players put their first discs out on Parachute--Zorn, Bob Ostertag, Lesli Dalaba... The most successful album ever released on Parachute was "There'll Be No Tears Tonight," my country album--that was the only one that was ever repressed, then licensed again and put out on CD. Right now I'm trying to find someone else to get more of that stuff re-released.
Do you still have any control over Parachute material today? I notice Zorn doesn't mention you in the notes to the Parachute boxset...
Well, the tapes belong to the musicians, you know. (Pause) Back then I was writing avant garde music, and jazz-like versions of it, and compositions for improvisers, though getting involved with Zorn kind of pushed me out of composition for a while, because I think that nobody else I knew created pieces as good as his: he really had an incredible approach to it.
Were those rehearsals for his game pieces as grueling as legend has it?
Worse, because there were so few people involved in this stuff. Zorn's music made me really uptight, not only because it had to be really precise, but also because he was really dictatorial about it. He'd get really angry with certain people if it didn't go a certain way. There are composers that bring the best out of players in a sympathetic manner, and there are people who are really hard on you. I think both methods work, though playing Zorn's pieces wasn't something I really enjoyed all that much. Eventually, about the time I left New York, he was starting to get a lot of people that he was comfortable playing with. The ranks really grew from two or three people to dozens. He got to the point where he could do his music with anybody, just call in some studio musicians and do it...
It's curious that his notes for the Parachute boxset, despite extracts from the sketches, don't go into much real detail as to exactly how the performers had to construct the music.
I have people ask me about how certain pieces were made, and to tell the truth I don't even remember. I don't remember how to play any of that stuff. (Pause)
Yet he wrote "The Book of Heads" for you--or did you commission it?
I didn't ask for the piece. He was just writing a lot of music at that point, and he wrote that piece for me, and I performed it a few times in New York. There was some discussion about my recording it, but we had really divergent approaches to recording things. I really like lo-tech, and he's always been drawn to those big-budget, pristine, studio kind of thing. (Pause) There are certain areas where people are unyielding, in a way.
What do you think of Marc Ribot's recording of it?
I haven't really listened to it that much. I like the little tribute in the liner notes; that was really nice--but that was after not speaking to him for five years. I don't understand...
He seems to have given commissions for Tzadik albums to all his old buddies except you... why can't we have a Chadbourne album on Tzadik?
Well... ask him. Maybe he's just avoiding it because he doesn't like the way I do things, I don't know... I like making records, I make records for all kinds of people and I make a lot of them. I've approached him about certain things, one thing I've been working on is a kind of tribute to Leo Smith, with him playing on it and some performances of his compositions, but John wasn't interested. (Pause) He's a mysterious guy.
Why did you finally leave New York?
Well, there were two major factors that led me to leave. Firstly, my music started changing, I started playing the country stuff and nobody in New York could deal with that at all, there wasn't any tradition of playing country music in New York. Musicians are a funny bunch; they can be really good at what they do, but some of them look down their noses at other things and think they're really easy when in fact they're not. To some people improvising is really easy, but then you get some classical musicians who practically throw up if they have to improvise two bars during a concert if they lose their place or whatever... Other people can't read and think it's unimportant. Typically the attitude I ran into was that people thought country and western was something anybody could do, there was nothing to it, so what was the point in it? But they didn't really know how to play it. There's a whole world you get into, just like any other kind of music.
The second reason was that I started raising children and I didn't think New York was a great place because nobody had any room to do anything. It wasn't very relaxing. Your kid couldn't just go outside and hang out with the junkies. We couldn't afford to live there anymore. I wanted to find a new locale, so we moved to North Carolina where I knew a drummer who could play any kind of music... he'd been coming up to New York and playing in a country band even though the musicians weren't particularly receptive to it.
The band you formed became the Chadbournes... was that story true that one guy threatened to cut your balls off after one of your concerts?
Yeah, that's really true! (Laughs) I had various country band line-ups, and we also started playing some psychedelic music too, because basically the only places we found to play were what we called the "new wave" scene, the punk clubs. The psychedelic material went over a little better with them. To me it was all the same anyway, I knew how to do it all. The band Shockabilly evolved when we found the right line-up; we had one trio with Tom Cora before Kramer, and when we tried it with him things kind of clicked and we started touring a lot. Kramer stepped forward with a kind of concept about selling it, producing the albums and so forth... That band really toured a lot, that went on for a while.
How did Camper Van Chadbourne come about?
After Shockabilly broke up, I became a kind of freelance. It was fun, I was doing a lot of solo concerts again and a lot of young bands approached me about playing and making records. I did a whole series of records with a lot of different bands. I liked it in a way, because it was like the best of both worlds. In theory, you've got a band with that tight band sound where every night it's really fierce... until they split up! But you don't have to be in the band and deal with all their crises. That's the theory anyway... in reality, I wasn't exactly dragged into the band politics but often something would be going on that totally distracted me from what I was trying to do, little feuds going on... particularly with Camper Van Beethoven. How did that start? I played a concert in San Francisco and they were one of the opening acts, and one of the guys came up and said they'd turned down some other shows to do this one because they really liked me and would I play a Pink Floyd song with them? Their records were doing quite well, and with bands like Camper Van Beethoven or the Violent Femmes I could get a fairly decent amount of money to make a record. The last Camper Van Chadbourne tour was during the Gulf War in 1991. That was a really incredible tour. There were two studio albums and a double live album, and there's stuff still coming out. What led to the demise of Camper Van Chadbourne was Camper Van Beethoven itself breaking up. All the members of the band were doing their own things, it became quite complicated.
On the subject of politics, how do you find America under Clinton as compared to under Bush or Reagan?
Well, things don't really change. When you have someone in power like Nixon or Reagan or Bush it makes you a bit paranoid, because they're constantly ranting and raving about things that bother you. They're more aggressive about it. But from experience, I know that Democrat presidents are just as bad in a lot of ways. There's just as much sabre rattling; it was Lyndon Johnson who escalated the war in Vietnam, but at the same time he did a lot of social things that were really good, that were beneficial. Even Nixon had some beneficial social programs--he was so desperate to get the votes of blacks, he took the advice of any that would talk to him, like Sammy Davis Jr.! (Laughs)
Were you never tempted to follow the free jazzmen of the sixties and move to Europe?
Sure. I still am. I'd like to move away. I'm sick of living where I live because they don't care what I do. I moved there in the first place because I knew some musicians, it was really cheap, and they liked the stuff I was doing. But now there are no clubs. The club scene is gone, and it doesn't look like there's any interest in reviving it. I hardly ever play there, I hardly ever make any money there. But it's difficult to find a place to live abroad, especially with children and everything... You just can't show up and squat in someone's apartment. This Italian percussionist was telling me about the English musician Mike Cooper, who now lives in Rome. I said I thought that must be difficult, but he told me he had an Italian girlfriend, and I said: "That's 95% of the problems solved right there..." Yeah, I'd go to Amsterdam tomorrow if I could find a place to live. After that, there's nothing to it.
The Brits are quite good at being ex-patriots... Harry Birtwistle and Michael Nyman live in the south of France, Keith Rowe's outside Nantes. Fred Frith lives in Stuttgart...
Yeah, he's tried just about every country! (Laughs)
Do you think the situation is much better for this kind of music in Europe than the States?
It's better in the States than it was, but it's worse in Europe. A lot of things that used to make it better than the States have disappeared, particularly in Germany. I used to do about fifty or sixty concerts a year in Germany, but since the reunification I play about three. These things tend to go up and down. But right now I've got to really fight to play in Germany. It's strange.
You also write about music. Tell us about that.
I got asked to write a book about the music business, called "I Hate The Guy Who Runs This Bar"; it's all about playing music and dealing with expectations of success... My favorite chapter is called "Dealing With The Non-Creative Mind..." I was expecting it to be heavily censored but in fact they didn't censor anything! A lot of the stuff is kind of radical, a kind of criticism of the music business that wants you to go out and buy all this equipment, to keep up with the latest styles. The book is really critical, but the publishers put it out anyway--they thought it was really funny...
But don't you sometimes get ticked off at being considered as just a comedy act?
That's something you get in every art form. If you make comedy films you're going to get much less in terms of awards. They never gave Chaplin an Oscar until he was dead. Roland Kirk used to talk about that; because he was humorous people didn't take him seriously as a saxophonist, though he could blow anyone else off the stage. I think it's a real gift to be able to create comedy. For example, Han Bennink [see Mengelberg interview - Ed.] is a genius. Other people can't do it. Some people find it distracting, but for me it's supposed to be distracting, it's a multi-level thing. One of my favorite things is that something very serious and very funny is going on at the same time. Totally confuses the audience--they don't know if you're trying to be funny or serious, when in fact you're both. Look at Hitchcock, he was a master of that: something funny, something frightening. Keeps you off guard. People are different--some stick-up-the-ass types don't like it, but if they want to listen to improv stuff that's pretty dry, that's all right, there's plenty of that for them to choose from.
Do you have any personal guitar heroes?
I mentioned Hendrix, I mentioned Bailey. Chuck Berry is my all-time hero--I really like everything about what he does. Those classic songs of his are just brilliant, wonderful. I just saw him play live in St. Louis. I love the way he plays with complete pick-up bands: it's fantastic, he's always trying to throw them, throw them off! I've been trying to learn his guitar style ever since I started playing, that kind of chordal lead he plays. Last night I was thinking during the break: "I'll do this song Chuck Berry style..." He's a real big influence. I also like Charlie Christian, Tal Farlow, and some of McLaughlin, when he first showed up with "Bitches Brew," and on that Jack Bruce album "Things We Like..."
With the sausages on the cover?
Yeah! With the toad in the hole [English culinary "specialty" made from sausages and pudding batter-Ed.] on the cover! I remember I never thought about the food on the cover until I was in England staying with John Russell and he made that one night--I said: "That's what they're eating on the front of that Jack Bruce album!" (With heavy English accent) toad in the hole, jolly good! There's a lot of jazz guitarists that I never listen to, but they're obviously good players. Grant Green, Jim Hall, I like their stuff. But I like all instruments--last year I was working a lot in a trio with an oboe and a bassoon, they're incredible instruments.
You say you're pretty lo-tech as far as recording goes, but what about using new technology in your live performance?
Well, that can be pretty lo-fi too... one of the pieces in the "Insect and Western" collection is called "Termite Damage," and everyone in the ensemble also plays a little cheesy sampler. The score's quite nice; it's a kind of Stockhausen rip-off, but there's a lot of specific stuff about controlling the rhythms on those drum machines--not to the point where you know what rhythm someone is going to play, but in terms of slowing it down, speeding it up, all those things that keep it from sounding funky. When you set four or five of those guys off at the same time all playing those cheesy rap rhythms, it's great, man! (Laughs) I think music technology has really developed these last years, but there are no new real "instruments." Acoustic guitar is still one of the killer instruments, and the banjo is unbelievable.
I heard that somebody smashed up one of your guitars at a concert. What happened?
That was a really awful story. I still haven't really gotten over that. It was a dobro that I really loved. It's being repaired, but the people in San Francisco who are helping with that (some friends who used to work for Gibson) say it's a really complicated repair, so they've sent it to one of the top repair men in Nashville, Roger Fritz. This guy fixes guitars for Fleetwood Mac and so on. So I just have to wait for it to show up. It really pisses me off. (Pause)
At this particular the venue the "artistic director" invited this guy to take part in a kind of improv "round robin" all focused around me, with a lot of ensembles I played with all night. This guy, whose name is Rex Probe, got completely drunk and stomped on my dobro and broke it.
What did you do?
I sat down in a corner with my head in my hands, I didn't know what to do. It was like a car accident for the audience...up until then it'd been a wonderful event, people were really happy and then they were so upset. Everyone was horrified. People were coming up and giving me money--I think I made more money having my instrument broken than playing it! (Laughs) That made me start thinking I should break one every night... The guy bought me a new guitar next day (they went after him, though I don't think he ever sobered up) but I hated playing it. Every time I played it I thought about him, about playing this piece-of-shit guitar because he broke my other one. So I sold it, I couldn't stand having it around. I'm waiting for the other one to be repaired. I'm still thinking about some kind of legal action--I mean, why should somebody do something like that and get away with it? It disrupts everything you do. You know, when I play it sounds violent but I don't break anything. The guitar I was using last night is an old Gibson I used all through the Shockabilly period. I leave it in Amsterdam. I don't fly it back and forth, otherwise the airlines would have fucked it up by now. I don't have a large collection of guitars. I can barely afford to have instruments to play; that's why what this guy did was such a bad thing.
You mentioned Han Bennink earlier. Have you ever played with him?
Off and on over the years. I like playing with him a lot. One of the Dutch promoters said he'd been seeing Bennink for years but one of his favorite Bennink moments was seeing his face when he realized that I really was going to play "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" and he'd have to figure out something to do! (Laughs) Unfortunately he's really hard to get hold of--well, fortunately for him--he's really in demand, you really have to stand in line to play with him, he's booked years in advance, so I don't think about it anymore. I'd love to get together with Misha Mengelberg again. When Toshinori Kondo and I played a couple of gigs with Bennink and Mengelberg, we were thrilled, because they were our heroes, these guys had played with Eric Dolphy! So they start talking about Dolphy, and they really liked him on alto sax and bass clarinet, but he started to play flute they went, like, "Oh God!" To them he was kind of conservative! They'd already gone outside that... I thought that was really interesting...
I think Misha got a lot from Monk. Have you seen his blindfold test in Downbeat? One of the funniest things ever--he just doesn't go along with the whole system. He keeps interrupting the guy saying: "Have you got anything with Sarah Vaughan and Dizzy Gillespie, put that on!" (Laughs) Later on he goes to the bathroom during an Oscar Peterson track, then he praises the guy's stereo system, and at the end they play him some cheesy Joe Zawinul-like track and he says: "That's it! That's the greatest music I've ever heard in my life!" (Laughs) He really turns the whole thing around.
What are your ten favorite records of all time?
Miles Davis "Bitches Brew"--that always makes my list. Never get tired of listening to that. I also like the way some things have been repackaged: I like the Coltrane concert in Japan, that's heavy duty. "Notorious Byrd Brothers," one of my favorite albums to listen to. (Pause) There's a double CD of "Celebrity Bloopers..." it starts off with John Wayne completely drunk addressing a convention, talking about students protesting and rioting saying it's the responsibility of other students who disagree to go beat the shit out of them! Completely drunk, he comes up with the expression... (John Wayne accent) "It's ri-goddamn-diculous!" (Laughs) And it just gets better... it includes the Beach Boys rehearsing when the father comes in and starts giving them advice... dark and depressing. I find myself listening to that a lot, it's a real slice of life... (Pause) Country: I'd have to have Willie Nelson, I like some of the duet projects, "Brand On My Heart," "Smash Hits" by Roger Miller. And there's a tribute to Erik Satie that's really good--this guy in a record store traded it for one of my paintings.
What led you to Satie?
I've always really liked Satie. It's taken me a long time to learn how to play that stuff (it's not really written for guitar). Some of the pieces written for children I adapted for the banjo. I have a personal affinity for him, I think he was a really interesting guy. I love hearing about how he used to spend most of the time walking between his apartment and the center of Paris. There's just a spirit in his music that's really great, I love the playing instructions. Definitely one of my favorite composers. I like Bach, Mozart... and Stockhausen--his classic pieces he made his reputation with are really good--I bristle when I hear people putting him down. He does a lot of outlandish things; someone was showing me this new album with these liner notes about how he's got these two women, these notes go on and on about how they have a ménage à trois and how great Stockhausen is in bed... I don't want to hear about this! (Laughs)
Anyway, back to the records...! There's a Pharoah Sanders that I like a lot, that I've been looking for... it's called "Summum Bukmun Umyun," with Gary Bartz and Woody Shaw on it. It hasn't been reissued yet. There's a solo Derek Bailey thing I'd like to have, maybe the Italian one, but it doesn't matter, I really like them all. How many is that? I don't have a great CD collection, though we've got quite a lot of vinyls. When we got married, our collections really complemented each other: my wife had a lot of country and western and I had a lot of jazz and blues... CDs I've kept a limit to: When it gets above a certain number I start getting rid of them. I haven't got time to listen to it all. I find it's a constant complaint of anyone who has a large collection that it depresses them, they can't listen to it all... I tend to listen to a lot of music when I'm driving round the country playing. They're releasing a lot of great ethnic stuff, lots of old stuff too... it's just endless.
I love working with children
because it's completely out of control!
What about your daughters? Do they still sing with you?
Well, Molly, who's thirteen, recently told me that she didn't want to hurt my feelings, but my music sucked. (Laughs) She's going through a rejection phase, though she's happy to take the praise from people who come to see her live and tell her she's great. She doesn't say it sucks then! Or if I go and open for the Violent Femmes, she's happy to get souvenirs for all her friends... Lizzie, who's ten, seems to be a little more into it. There's not that much opportunity to do things with them, though.
Did they ask to take part, or did you put them in to bat, like Ornette did with his son Denardo?
They enjoyed traveling with me, and became interested in getting up and singing a song... My eldest daughter, who's twenty-one now, tried it and didn't like it, but Molly really liked it and got to the point where she could do a whole set, with costume changes. She was doing that when she was seven or eight. We tried having a group with two of them but they couldn't get along with each other... I had them both on that Rectangle album but I had to record them separately because they fought so much! (Laughs) I think they're really good singers. I love working with children because it's completely out of control. I really like that. For instance, on the "Chadbourne Barbershop" album Molly did "Nightmare on Helms Street," you know, the Freddy Kruger song, and she made up her own version about Jesse Helms... We were also doing a piece with the oboe/bassoon trio that was my imaginary soundtrack to "Exorcist II" and Molly and all her friends really got into watching "The Exorcist." She was doing imitations of the girl, so I had her do a vocal of that on the CD. When we did the Captain Beefheart tribute on FireAnt records, I had her do a vocal that she'd never seen, she read the lyrics to "Pachuco Cadaver" live, and at the end she said: "That doesn't make any sense!" (Laughs)
Tell us about the personalized cassette packaging. How did that come about?
When I started putting out my own cassettes, I started experimenting with the packaging. With CDs it's so boring--have you ever had anyone come up to you and say: "That Jewelbox is wonderful!" You can do something interesting with the packaging--it's something I'm always fighting for. With CDs I can never convince them to do it, but with cassettes I'm the distributor so I can put out what I want. It's really fun. I put them in old socks... people get a real kick out of it. I keep working on new ways of packaging them.
Are cassettes still your preferred medium?
Someone recently approached me about doing a new CD every two months. That's going to be really good, they won't have to print a certain number, nobody will have to invest any money. That's always been one of the good things about cassettes--with CDs you're looking at long delays before something comes out, but with cassettes you can do it right on the spot. I usually make between five and eight copies of a cassette, it depends whether it's in demand or not. I don't always keep all the archives. Someone will come up and say: "What about such and such a cassette? That's one of the best ones!" and I don't even have the tapes anymore! I remember the Monk cassette you asked about last night--that was all recorded in a day when I was sitting round with the flu. It's a nice tape.
What are you releasing next?
There's an Ellington country CD on Intakt that's coming out soon. There's a reissue of my guitar solos from 1977, and I've got a double CD coming out called "Jungle Cookies" that's pretty crazy, and there's one I've done for Leo called "Insect Attractor." I really like insects. Well, there are some you like and some you don't... That affects the music. For instance, the "Termite Damage" piece is all about decay and damage to structures, whereas with butterflies... that's really beautiful.
See interviews of related interest with Misha Mengelberg, Fred Frith and Heiner Goebbels.