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Friday, March 25, 2022

"Art Should Try to Hover Above Our Humanity a Bit and Not Wallow in It" - An Interview with Damon Smith (part 4)

From Keith Prosk: How much exchange there is between the plastic/visual arts and your musical practice; I know you are deeply attuned to the arts world and I wonder how this feeds back into your playing, particularly in the context of something like the collaboration with Keith Rowe, who has also taken significant inspiration from the visual arts.

There's a fair amount of exchange, but I think it's a bit more like a Venn diagram. And I think there's that area where, let's say poetry and music and art all meet and the mechanics are sort of off to the side. They're important. But that meeting point is where the art really happens. There's a difference between why Cy Twombly’s thing goes beyond a scribble, and why Brotzmann never seems awkward. Brotzmann can play some really sideways stuff, but he understands art and he knows how to place it, where another musician is just not going to sound as good. There's an aspect of art that really translates to music and then there's aspects that don't, obviously.

I got into art as a way to understand more about music, but it's also become its own sort of hobby. I'm looking into art and allowing it to be what it is and see what it is. And I think that there are different ways of taking it in art. Even though I've got a big collection of art books, I think seeing a painting in person makes it a little easier to understand, whereas in music I think the record is going to give you a better overview, but there's a lot of exchange. Keith Rowe is one of my favorite musicians and I collect his work in depth. I stay up with whatever the newest release has been. His last solo guitar LP (Absence, 2021) would be one of the releases of the year. I would say it's really great. I bonded with him personally around art and things like that and talking about Cy Twombly and different artists. And one of the greatest days of my life I spent about 2-3 hours in a late Barnett Newman exhibition at the Menil, which I would say is my favorite Museum in the world, the Menil in Houston, Texas, and just going through that with Keith and talking about Barnett Newman. And then we talked about music and other things and that's where the idea for the trio with Sandy came about, we (Smith, Ewen, & Rowe) were just out drinking in Houston. Eventually I got an email from him saying he was going to be on tour and, but nothing in Houston. He asked if I wanted to work in a trio with Sandy. Then we did that whole project, which ended up being pretty nice.

NM: I saw you were in Chicago not so long ago at the Art Institute. What are some of your favorite art museums? Who are some of your favorite visual artists? To close out the topic, how about your favorite cinema and associated artists?

The Menil in Houston is probably my favorite Museum in the country. And then the Brandhorst in Munich is probably a close 2nd, those are both the places with the most Cy Twombly. I'm living in St. Louis now and they've got the Pulitzer Art Museum, and it's a really beautiful Museum. It's got Richard Serra’s first Torqued Ellipses outside of the Tado Ando building. And whatever exhibition they have is just installed in the most pristine way. Everything's perfect. The building is amazing. The attendants are all people who are super into art and really nice and happy to talk to you. Same with Houston, the gallery attendants were all really cool. These museums are free too, you can just walk in. And sometimes you can go to one room and leave or do the whole museum. Those are probably my two favorites. The Fort Worth Modern (also an Ando building with Serra!) is a really great Museum. The New York museums are great, of course, all of them pretty much the Guggenheim, the MoMA, the Met Breuer, the Whitney. I was just at the Whitney and saw the big Jasper Johns Show. It was fantastic. And the Art Institute of Chicago is a great museum; fantastic collection. The SFMOMA is the first Museum where I really got into art, and so I have an affection for that. The Rose just outside of Boston is a really beautiful small museum that does great shows.

NM: You seem to be an avid reader of poetry as well, can you share some of your favorite poets and comment on how poetry has influenced your music?

I think for anybody who's just kind of starting out in the music, a great guiding light is Steve Lacy. There's just absolute clarity on what Steve Lacy does and talks about. And he was really interested in poetry, he was really interested in art too. So some of those interests came from him, some from other places. But when I came to the music I was living in the Bay Area and Berkeley has some of the greatest bookstores in the world, great poetry sections. The other thing about that is, I was dealing with public transit. And what I really liked about poetry is you could knock out a poem between your train stops, or whatever. There's the brevity of it, I really liked the closure of it. And then, of course, like visual art, it becomes its own interest. Now I'm interested in poetry. You get really interested in language. As far as favorite poets? This could even be considered a release of the year, but Nathaniel Mackey's Double Trio. It's a box set of three poetry books, and the name comes from Glenn Spearman's “Double Trio”. Tons of free jazz references in it. If there's ever a book of poetry that could also be considered a free jazz release, this is one of them. Fred Moten, who is another favorite poet, has a book called The Feel Trio, which is great.

One of the things that I like to do with poetry is get titles from little phrases of poets. What I really like is to use translation, because then I feel like you're not taking directly from the poet. Octavio Paz is one of my favorite poets. Paul Celan is one of my favorite poets. My favorite living poets, though, would probably be Fred Moten, Nathaniel Mackey and Susan Howe, who does these fantastic concrete poems. Jaap Blonk is another one. His poetry is fantastic. An exciting thing for me on the subject; I wanted to steal titles from Fred Moten for the last Alvin Fielder Quartet album (The Shape Finds Its Own Space, 2016) and (for The Very Cup of Trembling) I was able to ask Fred to name the record and the tracks for us, and he did. I don't think anyone has ever done that before. He gave us some nice names and named the album with a beautiful title, “The Very Cup of Trembling”. These poetic titles are really great and it helps the record shine a bit if you have a nice, strong title. On the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet release Sandy uses railroad spikes on the guitar. There’s a book from Blank Forms of Joseph Jarman's poetry (Black Case Vol I & II: Return from Exile, 2019). It's a fantastic book, and I would recommend it to everybody. That phrase, "The Railroad Spike Forms the Voice" came from a Joseph Jarman poem. Poetry is something I'm just engaged with every day. I read some poetry and there's the brevity of it. And even if I'm dealing with long form poems, I'll just take a little bit of time, and I think that's helped my music and finding titles for it, but also finding those edges of making it go beyond math, making it go beyond traditional music. I think the lyrics used to help shape more traditional music a bit because the syllables would push it a little this way or that. So it's not just a direct rhythm, which is math in classical music and even in folk music. I think the lyrics could do that. And then having that sense of what poetry means to me helps the music go forward. But then again, it's it’s own practice, and in some ways it can be a break from music, but obviously it helps..

I read this great essay called "Dan Flavin and The Catastrophe of Minimalism" and then we named an album "The Catastrophe of Minimalism" (with John Butcher and Weasel Walter). And got great cover art from the late Cor Fuhler, he had posted his art and gave us permission to use it and then it all came together in that album, it had been nine years since we recorded it. When Cy Twombly talked about using poetry in his paintings and his titles, he said he's never illustrating the poem or the mythology. A lot of it's Greek mythology and things, but he's looking for an atmosphere. I think that poetry can help you find those atmospheres. When I play in my practice, maybe some Bach or learn to play a Mingus tune, the idea is that you're playing great music so that you can recognize great music when you play it yourself.

NM: Part of the charm of your Facebook page is your enthusiasm for offal and BBQ. We would be interested to know if rituals of the pit or eating or cooking or turning poor man's meats into delicacies or something else informs your musical practice in some way?

So,thinking about being a broke musician and trying to map out what your life is going to be, what do you want to have as a marker for success? One of the things I think is important for me is I wanted to have an art collection and so having things like Joseph Beuy’s "Multiples" and prints by artists like Bruce Conner and (Roy) Lichtenstein. I've got a Jasper Johns print. You can get these things for not much money if you’re looking. I feel like it's really important (to have an art collection) and to also eat interesting food. This idea of taking an off-cut and mastering it, finding out what this element is like. What does a goat kidney taste like? Some of it is just curiosity but you do find some keepers. Some people might be surprised to hear that I would recommend most testicles, (they) are pretty damn good if they're prepared well. Goat and lamb kidneys are really wonderful if they're done right. There are other things, like pork kidneys, that are really for the hardcore. There are certain other things that are used in a lot of Asian cooking, like pig uterus, and you can go buy one. So a lot of this has to do with if there's one available, I see it as a challenge. Goat heads are $4, and a goat head or a pig head or a sheep's head can be really delicious if you do it well. Other times you find things that are for the hardcore only. Like bull penis, you don't really need to mess with. The regular person doesn't need to put that in their diet. But I would say testicles are generally great. I think livers are usually good, hearts are usually good, especially when you are able to make them really well. And some of it is about getting control over these things and trying to make them really good. Now I live in St. Louis, and there's a great farmers market near here, and I'll be able to get a frozen raccoon for $12. And these have been trapped for their fur. So I think there's also an ethical side. Years ago I was vegan, and when I went back to eating meat, I thought, okay well, I'm going to try everything. The cooking, a lot of times, does come down to understanding the properties of what you're working with. If you just go get that raccoon and cook it up like you would something else, it's not going to be happening. But if you understand the properties of what you're working with, you can get something really good out of that. Raccoon is pretty good. Beaver is less gamey than beef. It's a very clean, delicious red meat that you could do anything with. It's not hard to work with at all, but people are afraid of it because it's not common. It’s about curiosity and having a new and interesting experience and finding out what the keepers are. There are some real keepers I know how to make, like, the way that I make raccoon. I do a pressure cooked, BBQ pulled raccoon. It's fantastic, so that's a keeper, and some of the other stuff is just for fun.

NM: What can you tell us about your enthusiasm for BMX (or as Paul calls them, little bikes)? How long have you been involved with the hobby? Riding is pretty much improvising, would you agree, any read-across there?

I started when I was 13 and I did it until my mid-20s. And it's interesting because Paul calls them little bikes. In the last maybe ten years, they've taken all those bikes and scaled them up. So the bikes that I ride now have 29 inch wheels on one and 29 inch wheels on the other - standard BMX bikes have 20” wheels. So they're big boy versions of these BMX bikes. The first thing that I did with Peter Kowald when he first got to the Bay Area, he was working with Mikhail Baryshnikov's lighting guy and a Swiss dancer, and they were doing this big performance. And he said, come to the rehearsals, you can come and watch. Kowald was a sweet guy, really nice. They're doing an improvised version of a big solo dance piece, and then at a certain point, they're saying, oh, you know what, at 45 minutes this thing gets really boring. And Kowald says, yes, we need somebody hammering nails into wood. And then the Swiss dude says, we need someone to come through on a bicycle on one wheel and spin around. I was 28 then and I had stopped. I wasn't riding every day, but I could still do everything. And I had a bike. I said, oh, you know, I could do that and Kowald is like, are you serious? Yeah. That's what I used to do. I can do this. The first collaboration I did with Peter Kowald was in the middle of this dance piece. I come in and I roll around on the front wheel, whip the frame around and jump over. It was basically a hang five to a tailwhip to a swivel to a decade. And that was my very first performance with Peter Kowald, on a BMX bike.

Some friends I rode with did really well. One of my friends, Gabe Weed, went on to be a really great pro, and he gave me the bike that I used with Kowald. I had to keep it outside in Houston, and the weather got to it. But then when I moved to St. Louis, there's a garage, and I was able to get some of these big bikes that they make now. They're a bit expensive and it's like, yeah, I needed another expensive hobby besides double bass, vinyl, free jazz LPs and CDs, collecting art and books (laughing). As a broke musician, I needed one more expensive hobby. These things are worse than records. They're additions of 200. They sell out right away. There's all these dudes pushing 50 who did this when they were kids and then some of these people will just get the bike and not even ride it. Just put it in their house. But I try to ride every day. And with these bigger bikes, the tricks are much harder, but the ride is much easier, so I can go out and ride every day. As far as improvising, the hardcore flatland that I was doing before was a lot more choreographed because you had to be really clear about what you're doing and you're going to get hurt, right? But I do some trail riding on the big BMX bike. My girlfriend has a mountain bike, and we'll go out and do some basic trail riding, and then you're improvising because you're getting a tree root here and a turn here that you're not sure about. You're navigating it. What riding flatland oddly did was develop my sensitivity to sound. We had our bikes set up so if we picked it up and dropped it onto the tires it sounded like a basketball. No rattles! We were always listening to the bike to hear how it was working and what it was doing. Even now, I don’t like music on my rides because I love the sound of a perfectly running BMX bike. It also really developed my interest in experimenting and taking things to extremes. I came up in a time when so many things were just not possible with a bike and then I watched them become commonplace and was even able to do many of them. One example was riding a bike up a wall. When I was in Jr. High it was not even possible, a few years later I was doing a wall ride on my way to school!. I think it also relates to how athletic my approach to the bass is.

I took flatland riding to a pretty high level and we were doing some pretty complex things that are sort of the foundations of what the really great pro riders are doing now, really complex rolling tricks that were really fast with the bike underneath you was the Northern California style. Just living in a world where a certain trick was impossible and then living through the period where everyone's doing it was a big revelation. And getting control over an object to that degree. The practicing was so difficult because at that time, we'd find some big, long parking lot and we'd get pedaling really fast and we'd go through a sequence of things and maybe five tricks into the sequence is the part you're working on. You fall, you go back, you do that three times, and then you've got a problem with the bike. You've got it flipped over, you're working on it. And then in that time period, I get a bass guitar, and I'm working on something and mess up, but your hand just goes back here. The time commitment that it takes to do these bike tricks, to do the same amount on a musical instrument, is so much longer. We were in the parking lot all the time. I worked at gas stations and stuff and then went out and did that the rest of the time and then slept. And that was it. So we'd be in the parking lot 8-10 hours and you learn discipline, obviously. And the discipline is interesting because it's coming from the bike. It's not coming from anything else. The bike is going to hurt you. The ground is going to hurt you. So the bike tells you where the problems are by digging into your shins. So then that put me in a position to really listen to the bass. I think it was maybe Barre Phillips or somebody that said, the instrument is always going to humble you. 


 Jump to: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4