By Nick Metzger
Damon Smith is a bassist, improvisor, and teacher currently residing in St. Louis. A student of Lisle Ellis, he is the proprietor of the Balance Point Acoustics label which he initiated in 2001 and which is now quickly closing in on 60 releases. Active since the early nineties Damon has been a part of several free improvisation scenes across the United States, including Oakland (1993-2010), Houston (2010-2016), Boston (2016-2019), and now in the Mid-West United States (2019-present). His bass playing contains echoes of the gritty experimentalism of the 70’s German free improvising tradition, but with a strong American jazz impetus that propels the improvisations in a very distinct and rhythmic way. His collaborators are legion, as we’ll get to in the interview and in the accompanying Balance Point Acoustics Round-up, which makes listening to his music a very diverse experience. Damon is an art and poetry enthusiast, as well as a voracious listener, and so there are loads of references contained herein and I’ve included links where available. Below we discuss Damon’s background in BMX and his transition to music, his teachers and mentors, working with Werner Herzog, the challenges and triumphs of running a small label, the various scenes he’s contributed to, what listener’s bring with them to improvised music, art museums, poetry and poets, expensive hobbies, pleasures of the off-cut, and much more. In addition to the interview, as I just mentioned, there is an accompanying Round-up discussion of recent Smith/Balance Point Acoustic releases that Lee Rice Epstein joined us for, the diversity of which guarantees you’ll find something that’s right-up-your-alley. I’d like to thank Damon for all the time he spent talking with us and for all the great recommendations that he shared. Without further ado…
NM: When and why did you decide that music, specifically free improvisation, would be your profession? What internal and external factors have most influenced your path?
What I was doing as I became an adult is I was still really involved in freestyle BMX, and it was in what's now called the Dark Ages of it because there were no X-Games and the magazines for it had started to fall off, and it was a very underground version of this flatland stuff that I was doing. But I was doing it at a very high level. If there were contests, I would have entered a pro contest and not won. But I would have competed at that level. I think there was one that I entered, and I entered the pro class, but there was nothing going on. And in a way, it sort of prepared me for this music because it was just you and the bike in the parking lot.
There was no glory. Like, maybe your friends saw you do this trick. We didn't have video cameras. Sometimes there was one around, but it was just like that whole thing. And so the music we were listening to at that time were things that were tuneful but complex, and the Meat Puppets, Dinosaur Jr., Firehose were really in rotation. My friend and I went to see a Firehose concert. I don't know if it was Joanna Hatfield opening or the band that she was in opening, and then it was Firehose and then Primus and we were really into Firehose. We just would play those over and over again on our Boombox and we're just listening to that, and we kind of thought, I don't know if you're familiar with them, but it's really tuneful, sort of indie rock. We thought, oh, maybe it'll be a sit down show, who knows? And then you go there and we've been going to punk shows that time. We'd been to a lot of punk shows, my friend Mike Woods and I and been out to see music and stuff. But the performance of Firehose was so punk rock, and they were just ripping in concert, which is funny about things that I'll say later about live versus recorded music. And he's (Mike Watt) just playing the shit out of the bass, and he's playing it with his teeth. And he's got, like, a beer in his pocket and things are going everywhere. My mom is a composer and classical pianist and studied classical guitar and piano, and so music was in the house, but I never even thought of doing music.
I'm like, 18. And then I see that. And I'm like, ‘whoa’ that's a thing to do. And one of the other things was that I wasn't attracted to guitars. So seeing this bass player kind of go nuts made me go out and get a bass within a week or two. But then I get into the whole SST catalog. Saccharine Trust is still an important band for me. And then that led me to Elliott Sharp and Henry Kaiser and stuff like that. And I'm listening to Coltrane and Mingus and some other stuff. And, of course, Weather Report just to hear Jaco. I really loved Coltrane at that point. I really loved hearing Jimmy Garrison, really loved Mingus. But I thought this is black music. It's not for me. And this goes into kind of an interesting side of the less sinister side of these things, because there's all kinds of terrible things about access to music and stuff and why and what. But then the guy I was living with had to escape the IRS and moved to Florida from California and left me his whole record collection. And I pulled out this Peter Kowald record Duos Europa.
And there's that big kind of goofy picture of Kowald, his bald head and all that when you pull it out. And I was like, well, this guy's doing this stuff, so maybe I can, too. And what was kind of great about having him as an entry point was that his whole concept was that, yes, it is black music. He was very adamant about that as well, but that he felt he could contribute. So there was this nice mix of that. So there's that aspect of just like, seeing someone who looks like you doing it.
And we definitely noticed in the Bay Area and in Houston where you have more women in the concerts for example, and more women to come out in the audience to see them play. And there is that small matter of just seeing someone, like you, doing it. It doesn't soften the blow of the more sinister side of these things. But there's that idea of seeing someone like you and that sort of gives you the right to participate or the invitation to participate. So Kowald played a big part in my ideas on that. I play his musical ideas more and more now, I'll do something more straight out of what he does because I feel like he's gone. And if there was a context with someone that he would like to have played in I might use some of his material because that's the only way it can live on. And I don't mind doing that. The first bass teacher I had was a guy named Bill Douglas, who's on some ECM records and (other) stuff. Great player. But then my first major bass teacher was Lisle Ellis, who I don't know if you know his work. He's got some Hat Art records with the piano player Paul Plimley. And my favorite one is still Paul Plimley and him and Joe McPhee doing the music of Max Roach. It's on Hat Art (Sweet Freedom - Now What?). No drums. I think Lisle lives in Arizona now, he was in a band called What We Live with the guy from ROVA, Larry Ochs, and kind of playing around. But at that time, he was in Cecil Taylor's band, and so he was my first bass teacher. And he had studied with, I think, Miroslav Vitous’ classical teacher and Dave Holland and people like that, he was Canadian. So studying with him gave me a really good foundation and also having a person with a whole other style kind of kept me from sounding directly like Kowald out of the gate, which was nice.
And then if we move on to the next part of the question, this is somewhat interesting here regarding the improvisation aspect because I'm not as hardcore as people like Jack Wright and Daniel Carter about composition. I've got some new music pieces that I play. I play the Ben Patterson double bass solo as well as a work by Scelsi, which maybe we'll talk about later and I do some work with old masters. I did an album with Georg Graewe and Michael Vatcher on Nuscope recordings that I'm really proud of, and we do a few of Georg’s compositions on that. And we do a Carla Bley tune and an Annette Peacock tune. So I'm not totally averse to playing composition, but in general, I'm one of the only full time free improvisers in America. There's a few others, Jack Wright, Daniel Carter, Sandy (Ewen), and a few other people who just don't engage. And the way that I got to that is a bit interesting. I was listening to a record. I might tell you what it is off the record, but I'm not going to say who it is. And it was a saxophone player's record, and it was the compositional form that I hate the most, and you can print this, which is a tricky head and a one chord vamp. And the bass player on the album was a great famous bass player. And the bass line was, I felt, beneath that bass player. And I thought, when you have musicians at this caliber, you shouldn't tell them what to play. And a little bit of that comes from the privilege of being a bass player. So even at that time, I wasn't even good. I was young, I just had a bass and I was super interested and enthusiastic. But because I was a bass player, I could play with all the greatest players in the area.
We'll talk about who I was playing with when we get down to your question about the mentors and stuff. But yeah, at that moment, hearing that album and imagining this person handing a piece of music to this other great player. I just realized that you're just going to get better results if you pick somebody who has a better idea than you do about their instrument. If you can think about the people that I'm playing with a lot, I mean, a good example is somebody like Jeb Bishop, who I was playing with a lot in Boston. Telling him what to play is sort of silly because he's going to orchestrate himself so beautifully and get to places you could never imagine in your little idea about your piece. And then that idea of free improvisation evolved into something different than the founders’ thinking, Derek Bailey and John Stevens and all those people where the primacy of improvisation was the main thing. And in my generation, I feel like it's a compositional practice where I can sort of express my ideas on the bass. And that's one of the things that I try to do, is make sure that my compositional ideas are contained on the instrument. One of my biggest influences, probably, is Bill Dixon. And there's a great quote from Bill Dixon, where he says the lines of Barry Guy, William Parker, Tony Oxley, are their own, the compositions are by Bill Dixon. And then he says, ‘If I want them to do something, I'll suggest it on the horn’. And then also, of course, the bass has so much structural power that I've got a little more power to enforce structure than other instruments, maybe. So that's my personal philosophy of free improvisation.
NM: How did you settle on the double bass as your preferred means of expression?
So how did I settle on the double bass? It was a bit cowardly, in my opinion now, because I think there's a big challenge in getting the (electric) bass guitar to speak. That's a tougher instrument. It's a much easier instrument to learn to play than the double bass. But getting it to speak in a really interesting way, the way that Mike Watt and (Jamaaladeen) Tacuma, Rafal Mazur and Bill Laswell, and people like that can play, it's a much taller order than the double bass. But the thing about the double bass that really did it for me was the bow . And specifically, I was listening to Bartok, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and the basses come in with the bow, and it's just so beautiful. And I was sitting there with the bass guitar and, like, man, this thing just doesn't do that. And I sort of fell out of love with the bass guitar right there. And now since I'm really back into it, but I don't have a voice on it. I teach it for money. And because I put that time into it I like to stay in touch with it. And I like playing it sort of as a hobby or something, but I don't have a way to put it into the music very well. Then the double bass just with the bow and everything, it just sort of took over and I even sold my bass guitar. I didn't even have one. For the first 15 years of playing double bass, I just had a double bass and I just stayed with that. It's really about that bow and what the bow can do. There's so much in it. And even every few weeks, you're finding something, not every day anymore, but every few weeks, something else coming forward.
NM: Tell us how your imprint Balance Point Acoustics came about. What is it like running a small imprint, both the rewarding and challenging aspects? What are your hopes for Balance Point in the long term?
Basically, when Peter Kowald came to town in 2000 on his big US tour, I wanted to do a quartet with Marco Eneidi and the drummer Spirit, and that came out on Not Two, it's called Ghetto Calypso, and that was my idea. Marco and Kowald had recorded together on Bill Dixon's “Thoughts”, and so I thought of getting them back together, I was playing with Marco a lot at that time. But Kowald wanted to do a bass duo. So the bass duo was his idea. And then he just kind of, I don't know if he said it or if I just always knew I was going to start my own label at that time, but that was the first thing that I put out. And right in that time period, I did a trio recording with Scott Looney and Tony Bevan on bass saxophone (The Sale Of Tickets For Money Was Abolished). So those were the first two albums that came out (on Balance Point Acoustics). My first album that came out was a trio with Gianni Gebbia and Garth Powell called People In Motion, and I just trusted the drummer to come up with the cover art and stuff like that. And when I finally saw it, at that point in my life I wouldn't say this anymore, but in my early 20’s it was literally the worst thing that had happened to me. And I was really thinking about all the traumatic things, which weren't too many. But I was looking at it. I was like, I'll do 30 days in juvenile hall again to have this thing go away. I'll have my thumb broken, which are things that happen, BMX things. And I was like, any of these things I'll live through over this. And so the atrocious cover art was part of just kind of getting control of that sort of thing.
So, in retrospect it was a really good move, because now let's say if
there's a label and maybe their cover concept isn't mine, I can let go and
just let it happen. Let them take care of it, you know, like let them have
theirs because I've got so many releases that look exactly how I want and
sound exactly how I want. If someone else wants to have another vision,
I'll respect it and it's fine. I don't have to get worried about it. Where
other people, when they don't have that control in their life, and this is
one of the worst things about running a record label, can be musicians
trying to get involved in the design. My designer Alan Anzalone started
with me and he's still doing my releases, and there's been a few that
weren't designed by him. But basically the label identity is his design and
my input, which is minimal. And you can't really have an album designed by
committee. So if you have an album with four people on it, they can't all
have a say. So it's basically it's just me and Alan that have the say. And
then the cover artist will have a say and if they feel like their art is
being disrupted, maybe we'll change something. But you have to explain to
the musicians that, look, this label identity is important. I need to
maintain this. I'm not going to correct him. It's not that much, but it's
more than you think. And it's not that they ever have a problem with how it
looks, because he does great work and everybody kind of knows that going
in. But people just always want to change some little thing and you just
can't have it, it just takes too long. It's like having the mix done by
committee, too, which can take forever. And there can be trouble with that
too often. That's worth it, but that's the most challenging aspect of it.
In the old days the challenging aspect used to be going to the post office
and filling out customs forms by hand. But now PayPal has got that taken
care of. So packaging things is pretty automated. You just print the thing
out and put it on there and put it in the mailbox. That's pretty great. The
hope is just that it can keep going. It's great that our audience still
values physical objects, and that's a really important thing. So some
people are trying to declare CDs as dead, and I'm making more than I used
to. So I think that's it in the long term.