Tyler Damon is a lifelong percussion student and a master craftsman – and a collaborator in the truest sense of the word. In three years I've seen this man present ideas and techniques I never imagined anyone could extend or advance – and he's often done exactly that himself within the span of a few months. This isn't just empty hyperbole. I've seen him do it! The first time I saw Damon play he was “onto something really great,” as I remember saying to my friend Nick while the band was packing up. The second time I saw him – which couldn't have been more than a few months later - he was already there. And this rate of growth is still happening on the regular. There may be a legendary deal with the devil in there somewhere, but I don't have that story here – and I don't really wanna know anyway. Most subsequent experiences have left me shaking my head in disbelief, wondering if there will ever be a wall big enough to contain the guy. And there isn't any particular style you can pin on him either. Hell, you'll see him laying down the sort of righteous hippie clomping that every soft-spoken Hoosier hayseed gargles White River bong-water to – and then at the very next gig he comes off like a one-man spastic kitchen percussion orchestra. And while variety and technique are important, how many drummers do you know who can make the sky sleet silverware and still be 100% dedicated to a work of collaborative improvisation with other sentient beings? The creation of the collaborative work is The Most Important Thing, no matter how dazzling the musicianship. That his stick-work never overpowers his cohorts is paramount. Everything Damon plays is about collaboration and creation. And maybe I'm wrong, but if there isn't a musical statement to be made or sought out, I'd expect him to just not play. But as he's always in search of the next frontier, don't expect him to sit anything out in the near future. Or possibly ever, if our luck holds out.
The following conversation topics include (but are by no means limited to):
Circuit des Yeux, Astral Spirits, Dave Rempis, Tashi Dorji, Muyassar Kurdi, Daniel Carter, skateboarding, Darin Gray, Marvin Tate, Thee Open Sex, Chicago, Bloomington
FJB: What was it that finally made you go ahead and make the move to Chicago? 'Coz I've been bugging you about it for at least two years...
Tyler Damon: I'd been thinking about it for at least that long. I mean there were a lot of things. There was no great straw that broke the camel's back. I mean playing with Circuit des Yeux has put me in a position where I'm pretty plugged in with work immediately. We're still in an album cycle right now so that'll taper off at some point – not just for me, but for all of us – and it's been a bit amorphous. Like back in November and January when we did some dates, Cooper Crain was in the band but he also put out a Bitchin' Bajas album around the same time so they're sort of on an album cycle with that too. We have Andrew Scott Young from Tiger Hatchery and a host of other projects playing bass – I really love playing with Andrew & I'm sure we'll do some improv in the near future, I hope. Whitney Johnson (Matchess) has been playing viola & Whitney is no real stranger to the improv world – and Haley (Fohr), for that matter, has always had one foot in that (outer) world too. So that felt like a really good foray into Chicago. Y'know, I really don't have a permanent place to live here right now so maybe this interview will help me find one! People have been very kind and welcoming – but I'm still getting my footing. I don't know. I feel like I've been in this transitional period as a human being for two or three years. I feel like I'm getting away from your main question, but basically the main catalyst was not having a whole lot of reasons to stay in Bloomington (Indiana) & having more work in Chicago.
Tell me a bit about the new trio with Dave Rempis and Tashi Dorji...
...the Kuzu thing – I mean, at the time that was just a one-off. Tashi and I both love Dave; we love his playing and we love him as a person. I was playing duo with him. Dave did that solo CD Lattice and that tour where he basically traveled around... (I interrupt like an idiot. Turns out Tashi also played a duo set w/ Dave on that tour in Asheville, where Dorji lives.) So both of us were sort of familiar, beyond just being friends, so it seemed like the next logical step.
So when was it decided to pursue Kuzu as a project?
When that recording that Dave Zuchowski did turned out so good! I'm sure it was sort of bubbling in the back of our minds “yeah, this is something we should consider” but when Astral Spirits wanted to do an LP of that stuff... that one was really easy. There's a mobile recording studio that Dave does along with his partner Wendy and it's multitrack so it's mixable, which is a huge step up from the typical Zoom improv recording. People might not know but the Mette Rasmussen trio stuff that Tashi and I did is a Zoom recording. I mean, a lot of records are. I think that's sort of a “scene secret”. There are some mastering engineers that do some remarkable work, like Lasse Marhaug, who made the To The Animal Kingdom record with Mette and Tashi sound the way it does.
The first time I saw you play was with Keith Jost at the Spot. You were opening for...
Rosaly and Rempis! That show sticks out in our minds because of the crowd that night.
Yeah, everybody was bunched around Rempis and Rosaly.
Yeah, that whole vibe was much more like a rock concert than it was a typical improv chin scratcher. That's not a dig, but you know... the energy was quite different.
[ Watch a short clip from this show]
How long prior to that show had you been out playing improv? 'Coz I know you'd been out doing rock band stuff with Open Sex...
I consider Open Sex to be an improv group.
(Backpedaling) Well it is kinda improv but it's also structured too, like Velvet Underground rehearsal tapes or something.*
Haha, yeah – you're not wrong. It's working within a stricter set of parameters than most free improvisation. But for that reason I think it's hard for me to really pinpoint the moment... I think I started doing it when I was college. I used to be really heavily into skateboarding – street skateboarding, in particular. Well you can do that alone. Or you can do that with a group of people – and you can collaborate as much or as little as you want and you can sort of carve your own path out. I feel like skateboarding has shaped my outlook in a way that has led to this point. And so it's hard to define the moment, aside from thinking about when I quit skateboarding due to injuries. I decided if I wanted to keep drumming I couldn't keep breaking my appendages. Or bruising my tailbone or worse! When I was in my mid to late teens it became clear that these were my two things (skateboarding and drumming) that I'm into doing and that I might actually be able to take somewhere. But then it became pretty clear that you can skateboard for how long? I'd be waaay past my prime at this age – I'm 31 – but I can keep drumming. So the choice seemed simple. And drumming can cause those long-term injuries but you're probably not gonna break your arm doing it.
Yeah, you're not likely to do something that won't allow you to play drums anymore.
Hopefully! But yeah, I feel like these two paths coalesced in a way. And how I felt about skateboarding - and everything that came my way when I was out in the street doing that - bled into my drumming practice. And then when you realize that there's a whole world of people out there doing it ( improvisation) and expanding on what your idea already was about that is really empowering, I think.
What was it like when you realized that there were other people doing that? Did that blow your mind?
Yeah, but... I think the first proper recording of free jazz or improvised music I listened to was Ornette's Free Jazz album; and that's only because somebody in my middle-of-nowhere library in southeastern Indiana had curated the cd collection to have things like that album, Captain Beefheart, Mothers of Invention, things like that... 'coz I was already pretty dialed into punk and metal and all of the subgenres thereof. I felt like I was moving onto the next level of “being extreme” or something but in retrospect it seems I was just interested in finding something that allowed for a broader range of expression. Y'know, in metal there's not a lot of room for this other emotional content.
Right. That's a good way of putting it.
Y'know, for better or worse, I appreciate all sorts of forms and formalism but I think that when I realized that was a possibility and it started to bend my ear in this other way – because I was recognizing maybe... I don't know. New patterns start to emerge in everything. When it ceases to be purely mystical, maybe you can see the process. Or you become more aware of a theory of how people are even approaching this kind of playing because you read about it or you become aware of certain players. You start to recognize individual styles. Or even strange idiomatic kinds of things that start to pop up like “What is considered Free?” Which is inevitable. I was sort of like a stubborn child in some ways and always wanted to things this other way. No matter how tried and true this method was... even though I'm right-handed, maybe I'll try it left-handed from the outset because I'm stubborn and contrarian in this certain way. The short answer to all of that would be that sometime around college I got burnt out on technical playing and unnecessarily complicated music. So my boss and friend at the record store,** Heath Byers, gave me a Cold Bleak Heat*** cd called It's Magnificent But It Isn't War and that was the closest thing I'd heard at the time that less spazzy and formal in its way than, say, the early Hella records. That must've been 2005, 2006 maybe?
How old were you when you started playing drums?
I got my first drum at ten but I don't think there was any point in my life when I wasn't drumming on something. There's at least one photograph of me kind of like in this little circle way where I have all of these pieces of toys and furniture from around the house and maybe I've got a pencil and a chopstick.
Was there any particular music that inspired you initially?
I'm not sure. My parents got me started early on my own record collection because I think they understood that I needed my own music. They understood that generationally and individually. My dad comes to shows now. He saw Peter Brotzmann. It's cool. To get back to your question though, the first CD I ever chose and purchased myself was Pearl Jam's Vitalogy. I guess I was eight to ten years old. Before that I was just getting things from the library.
The library saved my life. That's small town Indiana stuff.
It was the Cincinnati Public Library though. It wasn't until middle school that I wound up in Indiana. That's just one example. I can remember my dad bringing me Sonic Youth's Experimental Jet Set Trash & No Star from the library. And Nirvana.
I want to talk about the duo of you and Tashi. When was the first time you played and how did that happen?
Some people I knew in Bloomington had brought him to my attention. Some other friends had met him on tour & said I should check (his music) out. It really struck me – a lot. So I wrote him and said “I'm really into your playing. Hope we can play together sometime” - something to that effect. I don't know if Tashi saw a video of me or heard the first solo tape I did, but it ended up working out where he was coming through Lexington around March 2015 & he invited me to play a few shows. Lexington was the first one and Lafayette was the second one.
And that was amazing. I thought you'd been playing together forever.
Yeah, you were at that one too! You'd probably know better than anyone what's going on with this duo. Probably better than Tashi and I.
I doubt it.
You definitely witnessed it in a way that I'll never be able to see it.
I definitely felt like I was at the right place at the right time, that's for sure.
That Lexington one was at the Green Lantern Bar and I played solo & Tashi played solo and then we played a short duo that I put out (a recording of) in a really small CD-R run called First Meeting. It's also on Bandcamp. I wanna say that Robert Beatty**** recorded that. I'm not sure because I don't think I credited him when I put it out. Anyway, that was the first time and I felt really ecstatic after that. Like “I can't wait to do this as much as possible!” To know that two nights later I'd get to do it again, my mind was completely racing about it and I just had that many more ideas and saw that much more potential. To even have the second night to think about it and actually not play...
On earlier free music performances...
I was playing improvised (music) since 2010 or something. But not in a way that felt like (I was) where I wanted to be, so I wasn't taking it out very much. I was playing with Darin Gray***** already and that was a big one for me as well. Darin and I haven't been able to get together the way that we've wanted to the last 2 or 3 years, but there will be more of that in the future too. I really, really like playing with Darin as well. It's a similarly exciting experience. And I think that was probably where I cut my teeth in a way that made me feel like I could bring that to the public sphere and not feel like I was way under where I wanted to be or something.
You were doing shows with Keith Jost when I first encountered you.
Yeah, that was another regular thing I was doing before (playing with) Tashi. For about maybe a year. But he relocated to New York / New Jersey & then was back in Bloomington for awhile but he then transitioned pretty heavily into writing. And I think he's actually back in New York again now doing a lot of writing. I miss doing that though; it was a lot of fun.
How did you go about doing that cassette last year with Daniel Carter?
That was arranged through my friend, Muyassar Kurdi. She's from Chicago, lives in New York now. The first improv show I ever played up here in Chicago she set up for me. I played solo on that occasion. It was at the Hungry Brain before it reopened.
Oh wow. Just throw you right in.
Yeah, Marvin Tate was on the bill too, which... super heavy cat. So that's actually what I remember most about that show, Marvin Tate. Great. So after Muya moved to New York, Tashi and I had played a tour out there & that's where we were ending and were heading back to Asheville. Muya set up this little session in her dance studio, Woods Cooperative, in Queens. And from what I understand, I don't know Daniel super well – I mean, my experience with him was absolutely wonderful – but I think he plays all day every day. His calendar is just full of music, wherever that may be and whoever that may be with. I mean, he was just really open. He was super cool. It was cool to be brought into the fold in that way & I felt really humbled by it – and it changed my playing, y'know? That's how I feel about it.
Touring. What do you have coming up?
I've got some more Circuit des Yeux stuff as the year goes on & that will be cool for sure. There will be a Texas-only tour for Kuzu in August.
I noticed all the dates were Texas. How did that happen?
Sonic Transmissions festival & Astral Spirits. (Both are based in Austin.) Sonic Transmissions I understand to be Ingebrigt Håker Flaten's festival and it sort of happens over a period of month serially. So it just worked out that we could be there for it in August and then we decided to rent a car and see if we could build some dates around that. The great drummer Dane Rousey from San Antonio helped out and is gonna play some of the shows as well. I don't think Tashi has ever been to Texas so it's interesting to think that we're gonna go there and play 4 or 5 shows. I think we're playing in Beaumont, which is the most interesting to me.
Are you an official member of Circuit des Yeux now?
Well it' s Haley's outfit so the structure of the band is at her discretion. I recorded on the last record and that went great. But Haley may be working on something right now, I don't know what, but I'm not currently recording with them or anything. I am given a lot of liberties in terms of what I play. I very much feel that I was invited to be a part of Circuit des Yeux for my playing, which feels really nice. That's evident to me about the other players in the band so I'm making an assumption about myself!
Rempis, Dorji & Damon have just wrapped up their U.S. Tour (and played in more places than Texas) & the debut Kuzu LP, Hiljaisuus, is out now on Astral Spirits.
Also released Summer/Fall 2018:
Soft Berm cassette on Magnetic South w/ Tashi Dorji
Full Yum cassette on Park 70 w/ Dave Rempis
White Horses LP on Sophomore Lounge w/ Thee Open Sex
and finally Tyler Damon on the Free Jazz Blog
*I saw Thee Open Sex play in August and on that occasion they sounded a bit like the Butthole Surfers covering Amon Duul. One chord for a solid hour that was mostly peaks with maybe a couple of minute-long valleys.
**Landlocked Music, Bloomington, IN
***Mid-2000s Out/Improv supergroup consisting of Matt Heyner, Chris Corsano, Paul Flaherty, Greg Kelley.
*****bassist with Jim O'Rourke, On Fillmore, Tweedy, Yona-Kit
I saw Kuzu last month strictly because I'll go see Rempis play in any setting, but left the club very impressed with Damon so this is a very timely interview.
Great piece Tom, thanks for the interview!
This is such a great interview, Tom! Great to hear Damon talk at length about, well, almost everything.
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