Dave Miller: Guitarist

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A Conversation with Tim Daisy, part II

Please scroll down to the previous post to read Pt I of my interview with Tim Daisy.  Also, please visit timdaisy.wordpress.com for more info on Tim, including performances videos, complete discography, and his calendar.  Tim’s ensemble, Vox Arcana, is having an album release performance at The Hideout in Chicago tonight (August 11th)!

DM: Another record you put out recently is Light on the Wall (Laurence Family Records, 2009), which is a duo record with reedist Ken Vandermark.  It is a double LP with the first record containing duo improvisations, while the second is split between solo drum and solo clarinet improvisations.  Let’s just go for a straight comparison here: how would you describe the differences between Vox Arcana your duo with Ken?

TD: First of all, the thing that is most different is that the duo is all improvised while Vox has some written material.  That being said, because Ken and I play so much together, there are certain ideas that are floating around in our heads that come out when we play.  Second of all, I’m playing strictly drums in the duo.

DM: How much, if at all, do you and Ken talk about the music?  Are there conversations, say, when you are on tour about what worked and what didn’t?

TD: Oh yeah, absolutely.  Ken is one of the great communicators in this music.  We recorded Light on the Wall in the middle of our first duo tour, which was the most challenging tour of my life.  We did fifteen or sixteen gigs, most of them night after night.  To go out with just drums and reeds, to try to create night after night and not have any fixed material to lean on…it’s incredibly challenging.

We found ourselves getting into similar landscapes and territories and the challenge of that tour was to try and come up with new things.  I felt really good about some of the gigs but, for others, I didn’t.  My problem, sometimes, was that I’d be feeling really good about a gig one night and then get to the next gig and be thinking too much about the night before.  I’d end up repeating myself a lot.  It’s important, when improvising freely, to not get into this space.  It’s better to just get into a comfortable space where you’re really not thinking about anything.  The music was most successful when Ken and I were both in that headspace.  I started to repeat myself when I started thinking or worrying too much.  I really learned a lot and it was definitely the hardest tour I’ve ever played.

Towards the end of the tour, we recorded the live duo set, which is on the first record, at the Dragon Club in Poznan, Poland.  The second record, which consists of the solo improvisations, was recorded at a little theater called Estrada, which is run by Wojtek Juszczak, who’s been presenting creative music in Poland for years.  The theater was chosen for it’s great acoustics, but it was not a live recording, so there wasn’t an audience.

DM: While on the duo tour, did Ken struggle with the same musical issues that you did?

TD: Yeah.  He constantly does and he constantly talks about it–how, when you hit a wall, to break through it.  What he likes to do is talk about it, which helps.  In some situations, it’s just a different thing–musicians don’t like to talk about it, and I can respect that.  With Ken, though, it’s a constant search and a constant dialogue about what’s happening.  The lines of communication are completely open, and it really helps to knock that wall down.  When you’re on the road with one person for that long…it’s like being in any relationship–you have to talk about your frustrations or else it’s just going to build up and explode! [laughs]

DM: Ideally, because the music is freely improvised, it should change on a nightly basis and pay tribute to whatever specific environment in which you’re performing.  How do you feel about taking a general musical concept that really worked one night and trying to apply that to a different night on the tour?

TD: There are some things that do work.  I mean, with playing the drums every night, there’s going to be times where I’m playing a fast, open, floaty time.  There’s going to be periods where I go into medium time.  There’s going to be periods where I play a ballad tempo.  There’s going to be times where I play open, kaleidoscopic sounds.  There’s all these core ideas.  I have to use a lot of them night after night just because what else am I going to do?  There are certain fundamentals that just work well.

What do you do in addition to that, though?  That question for me, was the biggest challenge.  For instance, we might get into a space where I’m playing fast time and Ken is doing something over it.  If you did that the night before, how do you vary it?  That’s the tough thing for me.  Nevertheless, repeating those core ideas is totally valid.  It’s important to try and put a fresh perspective on it, though.

DM: The perspective of Ken and you on that tour, I’m sure, was very different from the audience on any given night because they didn’t see you night after night.  Or maybe there were some people who saw multiple nights?

TD: There were a few who would come to a gig in Krakow and then show up in, say, Warsaw.  That’s one thing that really inspires me–when people see a gig early on in the tour and then are able to come to a gig later in the tour and see how the music has evolved.  That evolution is something I’m really interested in.

In my opinion, though, the passage of time of tour doesn’t necessarily affect the music the way you think it would.  Just because you start a tour and you’re fresh doesn’t mean that your ideas are going to be the strongest.  By the time you get to the end of the tour, you’re really tired and you’re not going to be as focused–it’s not like that at all.  It’s some outside mysterious force and I have no idea how to control it.

There will be gigs where I’m super alert, I arrived at the gig with plenty of time to soundcheck, and I ate a fantastic meal.  Then, when we play, nothing is working!

I did a gig once with Ken where I was subbing for Paal Nilssen-Love in this group called FME.  This was back in ’02.  The gig was in Lexington, KY and we drove and showed up 45 minutes late because of traffic or weather, I can’t remember.  So I get all my stuff set up and my snare stand breaks.  I duct taped it back together and meanwhile, the audience is really nice, but they’re just sitting there, waiting for us to play.  I’m just tired and hungry and haven’t had any coffee.  Finally, we played, and it was the best gig of the tour by far.

I’m starting to figure out the more I do this that, psychologically, if you have less to worry about when you start playing, it at least puts me in a better space.  However, if I’m too comfortable, I start second guessing myself, you know, should I tune these drums again?  Then you go to play, and it’s not working right.

I have a really good friend, Mikolaj Trzaska.  He’s a fantastic saxophonist from Gdansk, Poland and we did a few duo gigs recently.  For the gig in Gdansk, we played in this old synagogue.  We had lots of time before the gig to relax because he lives there.  I just set my drums up, the room was beautiful, some people came…when we played, it just felt like we were misfiring.  You know how when you get into free improv land, sometimes you feel like you’re making all the wrong turns?

The next day we played in Bydgoszcz, Poland.  We had a long drive and not much time to set up.  I had a shot of vodka, we started playing, and the music just worked.  The acoustics in this club were really good, though.  It reminded me of when bands used to play on the floor of the Empty Bottle.  That vibe where the crowd is surrounding you.

How to control these factors of creative energy is beyond me.  I’ve had some of the best gigs where I’m ill-prepared and tired and I’ve had some of the worst gigs where I’ve had lots of time to prepare for things.

You’re also right about the audience perspective comment you made.  They don’t see us night after night.  To them, we’re not repeating ourselves.

DM: As a free improviser myself, I think it’s fair to say that this music can be more subjective than other types of music.

TD: Yes.

DM: Have you ever had this experience happen where you get off stage from a gig you didn’t feel too good about, yet someone comes up to you and tells you it was amazing?

TD: Yeah.

DM: It just reminds me that you can’t ever really trust your own perception.  You don’t know what it means.

TD: You don’t know what it means.  You know how you feel when you get off the stage, but it affects different people differently.

DM: Did you have an experience like this on the duo tour?

TD: Yes, definitely.  One of the things I don’t like though, is when a person in the audience will go up to the musician and say they enjoyed it and then the musician responds with something like, ‘really, you enjoyed that?’  Almost like he/she is asking ‘why?’  You can think or feel however you want to about the way you played, but don’t bring that out on the audience.  Thank them for coming, say thanks for the compliment, and that should be the end of it.

In any event, what you’re talking about did happen a lot.  Sometimes I didn’t feel the same way, but it’s the creative process, you know?  For a lot of people in the audience, I’m sure it felt new and fresh.  They enjoyed it, and that’s something to really be thankful for.  I’m a big fan of any kind of feedback.  I like positive feedback more than negative feedback, of course, but I’ve gotten plenty of constructive criticism and it helps.  I’ve had people say positive things and not so positive things and you just have to digest it all and roll with it.

There was one concert where someone came up to Ken and said, “That was a good concert, but not a great concert.” [laughs]  I can live without those kinds of comments, but if there are people who want to offer constructive criticism, saying something like, ‘Hey, I really enjoyed parts of that set.  What were you thinking about when you did this?  What was your approach to this?’ — I’m super open to that, absolutely.

DM: How do you find the balance, in an improvised setting, between responding too much or too little to the musicians around you?

TD: The worst situation to be in, in a free improv setting, is when whoever you’re improvising with is just responding to everything you do.  As an improvisatory tool to be used sparingly, that’s fine.  You have to hold your own ground, though.

The flipside to this is to not be listening and just playing, unaware of what’s happening.  Again, that as an improvisatory tool to be used sparingly is cool, as well.  You’re exactly right, though–it’s a space between holding your own ideas and, at the same time, offering a dialogue with the people with whom you’re improvising.

This changes with the number of musicians in the band.  For me, for some reason, the biggest difference in free improvising is between three and four people.  I feel the most comfortable in a trio, probably.  When you add one more person, it just completely changes everything, even more than solo to duo or duo to trio.  I’m not into numerology or anything, but there has to be something to that–three to four.  It’s just strange.

Nevertheless, my most successful experiences with free improvising is when everyone is holding their own ground but, at the same time, you can just tell they are listening.  Everyone’s got each other’s back.  It’s not a competition.  I might take something you do and mess with it.  I’m not going to play your idea back to you.  I’m going to come up with an abstracted version of it.  I’ll move it around and do something different with it.  That’s where it’s at.  You don’t want to be in a situation where you feel someone is clinging to you.  I’m sure I’ve been the clingy one before, too.

DM: Are there conscious points in time when you attempt to go one way or the other–interacting or not?

TD: That’s a great question.  In a completely free context, I don’t like to think about it like that.  Maybe subconscious points in time is a better way to think about it.  Because I’m in the moment, I might make a split decision to react, but I’m not continually thinking about.  I’m definitely not thinking about it before I play.  During the actual activity I might think about it a little bit.  I’m definitely not thinking like, ‘now I’m going to do this.’  It happens sometimes, but I try not to do it.

In a Vox Arcana composition, there might be a segment of pre-determined improvisation guidelines like ‘imitate the cello.’  In this case, the conscious decision has been made.  In a completely free setting, though, I always try to keep a clear head unless something has been talked about before.  There’s been some open improvisations in concerts where the group has talked about guidelines.  That’s cool.  However, if it hasn’t been talked about, I don’t want to think about it like that.  I just want to listen and, hopefully, engage in some kind of dialogue and make good decisions.

DM: On your solo pieces from Light on the Wall, which were all improvised, I noticed that you usually switched something around in your setup.  Was this to bring you into another frame of mind in order to distinguish the different improvisations?

TD: Yes.  That was a conscious decision.  First, I didn’t want  any of the pieces to be terribly long and, second, I kind of set up different landscapes for the different pieces.  I made loose guidelines for myself.  This piece, I’ll do mallets.  Next piece, I’ll scrape and use all these different kinds of objects.  This piece will be more “traditional” jazz type sounds.  This piece is going to be all with the hands.  That way, each one has its own character.  I didn’t setup anything other guidelines besides the initial idea, though.

DM: I really appreciate how, even within the landscapes you set up, it sounds like you’re mining one specific idea within that landscape in many of these pieces.

TD: Thanks.  Yeah, I wasn’t consciously thinking about a single idea, but that’s kind of how it came out.  During the course of an improvisation I’d start to notice a theme and then I’d just start working with and developing it.  That’s how I was feeling at that moment.

DM: Ken has some great moments on the album, as well.  When playing tenor, he seems to be very influenced by the funk saxophone tradition.  In his playing, there is a lot of that ‘riff mentality,’ which holds the improvisations together, to a certain extent.

TD: Yeah, it’s a nice glue.  I don’t want to speak for his playing, but I agree with you.  It’s one of many influences.

DM: I also really appreciate that, in a lot of the free duo improvisations, there is a pulse.  It’s a nice way to contrast the moments where there is no pulse.

TD: I like playing time.  It just adds another dimension to the music.  I’ve been to a lot of free improv gigs where I really like what they’re doing but, after awhile I think, ‘it would sure be nice to hear a pulse!’  It’s different for everybody, though, and it also depends on the situation.  There’s certain types of free improv that you don’t want to hear a pulse on, for sure.  I don’t think musicians should limit themselves though.  It’s just another tool at your disposal.

DM: Have you done any other tours as a duo besides the aforementioned trip to Europe?

TD: Well, not since then, but we did a tour in the States in 2007 to support an earlier, limited edition, CDR duo release called August Music.  That tour was fun because we were traveling in a big van, so I brought two drum kits along.  One was a standard jazz kit, and the other was smaller–a 13″ bass drum, two snare drums, and eight cymbal stands.  I had all my junk with me.  It was just a junk kit.  Ken was able to bring his bari, bass clarinet, and clarinet in addition to his tenor.  It was nice have these extra instruments to use as different landscapes for ideas.

The European tour was actually supposed to be a Vandermark 5 and Frame Quartet tour, back to back.  There wasn’t enough work, though, so we just made it a duo tour for most of it, and then did some Frame Quartet gigs at the end.

DM: This is a loaded question: do you see any advantages to touring in the United States over Europe?

TD: Certainly not the money! [laughs]  The money situation is pretty dire here.  That being said, I like playing in my own country.  I love the different cities in the United States.  I love driving between cities and seeing the amazing landscapes.  At the same time, seeing Cracker Barrell or the same fast food restaurants every 20 miles wears you down.

I don’t think there’s advantages to either one.  I think it’s just different.  Monetarily, you usually get paid more touring in Europe.  There’s, something about the States, though, that offers something different.  I don’t mean this literally, but there’s more room, in a sense.  It’s this huge country and it just changes your outlook on things.

I can appreciate the infrastructure here.  I’ve toured a lot in Eastern Europe.  To travel between two cities takes much longer there.  If you were to travel from Chicago to Madison, it would take you about two and a half hours.  There, that distance would take seven hours by train.  That can get annoying after awhile and will start to wear you down.

I like being in a country where I can speak the language!  I should know Polish, because I’m over there so much, but I don’t.  I should know German, too, but I only know very little.

I also still think that the level of musicianship in this country is higher here.  Maybe it’s because there’s so many musicians struggling here.  That’s subjective, though.  There’s dudes coming out of Norway, though, that are just frightening.  Berlin has an amazing scene, too.

DM: How do you feel about the improvised music scene in Chicago right now?

TD: Chicago is one of the unique cities in the world.  There’s so many people dealing with improvised music here, and there’s a fair amount of opportunity for you to present your work.  You’re able to present it consistently.  You may not get rich, but you’re able to do what you want to do and, more often that not, have an audience to listen.  It might not be a big audience, but it’s there.  That is something not be taken for granted.

Chicago is a big city, but it’s small enough where your projects will be noticed in the community.  In New York City, there’s three times as many musicians, maybe even more than that.  There are places to play, of course, but it’s so much more spread out.  There’s so many different types of scenes that I don’t think there’s really a core community there as much as there is here.  There’s 17 million things happening every night there.

You don’t want to get too small, though, because if you move to a smaller city than Chicago, there isn’t an infrastructure and there aren’t enough musicians.  So, I think Chicago has an interesting balance.  If you work hard, you will get noticed, absolutely.  It’s my favorite city.  I know I’m biased because I live here, but I’ve been a lot of other places.

The only other city I’ve been in that’s like Chicago is Berlin.  It’s a similar size and there’s a similar amount of room.  You’re not going to get killed on rent.  You actually have some time to think about music and art.  There’s a lot of strong musicians there putting groups together.  It’s a really strong scene.  Chicago and Berlin have a lot in common.

A lot of musicians that live in Berlin are from other parts of Europe.  They tour Europe and they can actually make some money.  In Berlin, like Chicago, you’re not going to make a ton of money playing gigs, but you’ll be able to do your own thing.

DM: Where have you seen improvised music go since you started participating in this music, and where do you see it going from here?

TD: One thing that I’ve noticed a lot is that more people, globally, recognize each other as improvising musicians now.  Maybe it’s because of the advances in technology.  Maybe it’s social networking.  I think that has a lot to do with it.

This is just a hypothesis, but I think, in the future, it’s going to be less about where you live and more about what you do.  We’re all improvising musicians.  We’re spread out, but we’re all connected.  We’re not Chicago musicians, New York musicians, Berlin musicians…we’re improvising musicians.

As far as where the music is going, a lot of it depends on living situations.  If New York gets any more expensive than it already is, I think it’s going to get even harder there.  There will be less chances for them to play just because clubs won’t be able to afford to stay open doing that kind of music.

Artists, however, are quick to adapt to challenging environments and this music will survive no matter what.  I admire my friends in New York who are able to do this because it’s not easy.  It’s not easy in Chicago, either, but it’s especially not easy there.

DM: Have you accepted improvised music’s position in popular culture, or do you feel that, if enough effort is put into it, it can gain a higher stature in society?  Or are you just not concerned with that at all?

TD: I’d like to say I’m not concerned, that I just want to do my art.  It’s an intriguing art form, and I care a lot about it, so of course I’d like to see it become more popular.  I don’t know what that really means, though.  I don’t think improvised music will ever be thought of as popular music.

I do see improvised music being integrated in small ways into pop music.  Take someone like Bjork.  She’s a pop musician and she’s doing really creative work.  She’s had improvising musicians playing in her band.  She’s shining a light on these musicians that many people don’t know about.

DM: I see that happening a lot more than it used to.

TD: I think so, yeah.  That’s really hip.  The idea, though, of an improvising group being part of pop culture…I don’t know.

DM: What about improvised music making victories on a smaller scale?  Like, maybe at some point, you’ll be able to make more money touring in the States.  That’s just one example.

TD: I don’t know.  I think it actually goes in cycles.  I moved to Chicago in the late ’90s and, back then, the Empty Bottle was packed every Tuesday and Wednesday to hear challenging improvised music.  Then it faded away.  It just goes in cycles.  A lot of it depends on different factors like club owners, etc.

This brings up a really good point.  I play a lot in Columbia, SC and it’s because of one guy down there who’s completely committed to presenting improvised music.  He gets a consistent crowd, too.  Whenever I go there, there’s always people there.  That can happen in a lot of other cities.  All it takes is one person.  It depends on how dedicated people want to be to presenting this music.

I can’t really predict what’s going to happen.  It won’t ever go away, though.  It’s a permanent  and integral part of our culture.

DM: Thanks, Tim!

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