Perfect Sound Forever

Chris Corsano

Interview by Stewart Voegtlin
(December 2004)

When you're privy to what a drummer like Chris Corsano stuffs into – and pulls out of – his stick-bag, much is revealed. One can make innumerable clichιd analogies to the implements of physician/sculptor/chef, yet, when you really think about it, any overheated analysis dies on the page.

"Implements?" Corsano's bag stocks mix-and-matched sticks of wood, chewed to pieces, worn down to their last bit of borrowed solidity. His mallets look as though they've struck concrete, not cymbals and drumheads. His tools whirr and blur and wrap around rhythms as if he's beating them out of the air.

Corsano is a discursive drummer: he moves quickly and easily from topic to topic, amplifying, extrapolating, and most often paying extraordinary attention to any partner musician's in vivo insta-comp. While this quality primes us for more quasi-philosophical spew, talking with the man himself disarms most heady analysis.

Perfect Sound Forever: When, or why, did you pick up drumming?

CC: I started more or less when I was 13, 'cos my older brother Tony played drums (and still does).

PSF: Are Tony's drum calisthenics similar to yours? When's the Corsano Family Duo coming out?

CC: Make that a trio – my mom's a drummer, too, though Tony and I are half-brothers, so, she's not his mother. Tony was drumming before I was born; my mom started about five or six years ago. Tony does all kinds of stuff. He was in the Contortions for a while, about ten years back. Then he drummed for the Harlem Gospel Choir. Now he's playing with different people, but mainly focusing on going into schools, showing kids how to make drums out of household items, and then teaching them some beats. He gets everybody rocking. My mom's getting a soul band together now.

PSF: Lots of drummers wax nostalgic about their first kits – do you? Was it the old plastic and tin Service Merchandise, or ad hoc pots and pans?

CC: I guess I actually had a toy kit before I was thirteen...maybe I was eight or so. I think it had Animal from the Muppets on the bass drum. It didn't last long, though; Josh Steadman came over and busted it, if I remember right – wildest seven year-old drummer ever, that Josh. We're even though, 'cos a little while later we both took his toy car and tossed it out his mom's car window on the highway to see if it'd keep up with the other cars. It didn't. Our moms took us to the local police precinct to put the fear of the Law into us. It scared us straight. My first "real" kit was some fucked-up, clunky '70s kit with translucent blue plexiglass shells that I bought off some dude in his basement. As long as there are basements in Northern New Jersey, there will be cheap, used and fucked-up drum-sets available to young upstarts who don't know any better, from men with thin mustaches and cut off jeans. Hallelujah.

PSF: Are you self-taught – headphones and air drumming – or one of those Steve Gaddian, student-snare tappers?

CC: Mostly self-taught, a couple of months of lessons when I first started, but they took all the fun out of it. My brother gave me some pointers, too, but I never had the discipline for doing rudiments/practice, so I learned by drumming along to a boom box.

PSF: What were you listening to early on?

CC: Right when I started, I think Mitch Mitchell was my main influence. Also Ginger Baker, Keith Moon, John Bonham – classic rock radio. Then the metal years, then punk – in high school, I became a Minutemen freak and started playing bass. I think the Minutemen purged a lot of chops-as-end-result thinking out of my head and made me care way more about how the instruments related to each other. Same goes for Capt. Beefheart.

PSF: What are some present influences?

CC: Well, in a general, and in somewhat of an obnoxiously evasive sense, I guess everything I've heard that's left an impression, be it positive or negative. Not wanting to sound like someone can really change how you do things.

Another less concrete influence would be the way a memory of a live show, or the first time hearing a record or drummer gets distorted and built up in your brain, to the point where the impression of the thing carries more weight than the thing itself. I like how that works, 'cos that type of influence isn't really about trying to duplicate an actual style or sound so much as just shooting for the feeling you get when your mind's been blown. If I tried to carbon-copy my favorite drummers, I'd have nothing to say that they couldn't say better.

That said, I'll do what's expected and just drop some goddamn names for you: Adris Hoyos, Muhammad Ali, Nancy Arlen, Beaver Harris, Ed Blackwell, BillyHiggins, Tom Bruno, Neil Young (the one from Fat Worm of Error, not Buffalo Springfield), Milford Graves, Pete Nolan, Tim Leanse, Domo-Domo Barnes, Domo-Domo Kotche, Don Moye, Tito Puente, Ikue Mori, Louis Moholo, Bianca Sparta, Rashied Sinan, Sean Meehan, Brian Chippendale, Han Bennink, Alla Rakha, George Hurley, Utrillo Kushner, etc.

PSF: I don't mean influences so much as I mean people whose playing you're into – I'm not trying to "trap" you; and I don't really think you can be "trapped" – you don't really sound like anyone else, except maybe – and I stress maybe – a Duo Exchange-era Rashied Ali. But punchier – it's like you're perforating structure, rather than creating it. Also, Adris and Tito are pretty disparate, right? I don't really know of anyone that comes close to Adris' style of drumming; it's honestly this totally visceral action verging on the animalistic. Have you ever met her?

CC: Yes, I have. I got to play with her in a quartet with Thurston Moore and Matt Heyner. Every time I see her play, there's so much there that I hadn't noticed before – it takes a while to process all that information. Like, maybe it's obvious to say, but there's a lot of grace in how Adris plays, in addition to the explosiveness and emotion that I immediately picked up on. There's probably not another drummer who's had a bigger influence on how I think about drumming.

PSF: Whom were you playing with early on?

CC: You mean when I started playing free, or before that?

PSF: Pleistocene era. When you thought Muhammad Ali was a boxer and not some cat melting heads with Silva, Few and Wright.

CC: Early-early was Pete Sharma, Phil Kim, Ben Zavodnick, Adam Rothenberg, and a few other folks from high school. After high school was Aaron Mullan and George Moore (no relation to Thurston). George, Aaron and I did get into free improvising – more in a rock context, 'cos we were rock kids and not jazz-bos. On initially hearing so-called "free-jazz," I was immediately drawn to it, although I didn't think I had any business playing "jazz," so I guess we were more free-rock or free-noise or whatever other goofball name you want to throw on it.

Eventually, I started improvising with people who are considered "free-jazz" musicians, which made me worry that I'd be outed as a rock numbskull, or something on the bandstand. I still don't consider myself a "jazzy-jazz guy," as I once heard a security guard say to William Parker in a Hadley, Massachusetts Cumberland Farms [convenience store], but I don't worry about it anymore, 'cos music, at its core, is all to do with feeling and nothing to do with labels.

PSF: What prodded you towards "freer" music?

CC: Seeing it live, for sure. I had a feeling that the stuff I was listening to and playing was more restrained than I wanted it to be, but I didn't know exactly how to fix that. Then I saw a series of shows up here in Western Mass. that instantly won me over: Test, Flaherty/Colbourne, Harry Pussy, No-Neck Blues Band, William Parker.

PSF: Flaherty/Colbourne, Harry Pussy, and the No-Neck Blues Band – these folk all foot the edges of the same circle in regard to their visceral approach. Approach is a big thing to me: it breaks or makes the sound. Of course, there are a lot of ways to approach the drum-kit; and, perhaps more importantly, there are many ways to "view" the kit.

Some of my favorite percussionists eye their kits in two main ways: one, as cymbals, tom-toms, snare, etc.; and, two, as source elements – metal, wood, steel and skin. This sounds so fundamental, but as you know it's not. It's the difference in [Ed] Blackwellian riding-the-ride and getting so far outside the kit that it doesn't sound anything like a "kit" anymore. You're one of the few that can straddle this line and erase it.

CC: I dunno. Do you think people really do look at it in an either/or type of way? Maybe they do. I'd venture to guess that the line is artificial, and a cymbal is simultaneously both a cymbal and a piece of metal. And in a pinch, it's a hat, or a Frisbee, or an umbrella. It's all how you look at it. And sometimes you'll be looking at it in a certain way, a cymbal as timekeeper, and then you decide to shift to a different view – cymbal as noisemaker – for the contrast that the change creates. It doesn't even need to be a conscious choice. Maybe the music just called for the cymbal to become something less cymbal-like.

PSF: Have you acquired some techniques through trying different things?

CC: Some techniques just happen during shows, others I'll tinker with at home first. Some get developed; some get scrapped. It's trial and error, mostly. I've always been interested in so-called "extended techniques," before even knowing that there was a name for them. Maybe it was just out of a kid's curiosity of "what does it sound like when you bang thing A against thing B?"

PSF: Do you want to get all egg-headed and chalk this up as dissatisfaction with formalism – a sort of new way/method born out of boredom?

CC: Yes to boredom – at home, Friday night, nothing to do, phone not ringing...what the hell, might as well get out the bows and butter knives! But yes, also to excitement, like seeing folks like Sean Meehan and Michael Evans rock crazed, home-made techniques and then trying to come up with some weird methods of your own.

PSF: Let's talk a bit about Tim Barnes: Stylistically completely different from you, but there's a nexus, and I think it's in approach. Do you agree? How did the Me-You Duo come about? Just a one-off, or do you guys play together a lot?

CC: Tim's awesome on so many different levels – both drummer-ly and humanly. I'd bet he sees drums as, like you say, "wood, metal, steel and skin" but also as drums – he's a master of incorporating his whole being into whatever he's doing. Me-You Duo has so far been a four-off: a recording session, a show in New York, one in Chicago and one up here, and we've done some playing together in larger groups, too. I'm hopefully gonna do something with Tim as Me-You Duo soon...either up here or down in New York.

PSF: An aspect of technique that really gets me is not learning all these different tricks on your kit, or whatever, but rather subtracting bits of your kit from the equation so that you have to adapt to work it out. The best example I know of this was in this old interview with Derek Bailey, and he was talking about his duo relationship with John Stevens, saying that Stevens started out bringing all of this stuff to the gig, the whole everything-but-the-kitchen-sink school of European "junk" percussion, a la Pauls Lytton and Lovens. Then, Stevens began slowly scaling it down: one week he's bringing a bass drum, snare, tom, hi-hat and ride cymbal; the next only a bass drum, snare and hi-hat; the next only snare and hi-hat; the next only a snare, etc. Bailey said that he figured that Stevens would eventually not bring himself to the gig.

When I read [David] Keenan's piece in the Wire (on the "New Weird America" angle), he quoted [Ben] Chasny (Comets on Fire; Six Organs of Admittance) lauding you as more of a "conjurer" than a drummer. Reading that sort of brought the Bailey/Stevens paradigm home: This is a skill that comes from placing limitations on one's self, isn't it? Do you think that this sort of musical asceticism gets one closer to a form of musical essentialism?

CC: "Conjurer"? Maybe he's talking about when I pulled that rabbit out of my hi-hat [rimshot!]. "Conjurer" is giving me way too much credit. All I'll say is that Stevens was a hell of a drummer, and I think very disciplined. Some people kiss their primordial ass bye-bye via strictly measured steps, others just go nutter to get there. And there are probably infinite points in between.

PSF: You're hedging. Like it or not, there's some odd spiritualism being ascribed to all tonally/atonally hirsute things in New York and New England. Seeing Double Leopards isn't just seeing people getting some thick, wooly drones out of their instruments, it's practically theo-phanic. I've read mounds of stuff that makes the Brattleboro Festival sound more like the Brattleboro Ritual. There are all these journalists coming up with queer monikers to label you folk: free-folkers, dronists, noiseniks, etc. It's sort of bizarre. Do you think that there's just been this dry-spell for so long, and now that bona fide music is sleeting down on them?

CC: I don't think that was hedging all that much. Spirituality is way fine by me. I just think it's such a personal thing that it's hard to talk about, especially if you're telling people that there's a right way to do something. Whatever it takes, you know? Personally, I do want the music to connect me to something beyond how well I can execute some drum-rolls.

As far as genre labels are concerned, I guess that's how it goes: people gotta come up with names for things to write about 'em. It's mostly, I think, coming from a good place, writers wanting to let other folks know about these bands that have something in common, whatever that something is. Maybe it sometimes results in too-quick jumps to define things, I dunno. I don't worry too much about what people want to call it, honestly. For me, so much of this stuff comes down to friends playing music for their own enjoyment and sanity – not that it can't be amazingly beautiful, transcendent, and life-affirming when Double Leopards, or Chasny, or Jack Rose, or Charalambides or Taurpis Tula get going. When the music's over, though, it's important to not take yourself too seriously. And knowing the aforementioned groups, I can say that they are down-to-earth, right-on people with senses of humor, and perspective – not overly-serious tree-shamans running around, casting spells all the live-long day.

PSF: When did you start playing with Paul Flaherty? Do you two talk about what you're going to "do" on a given night, or is this mostly an open-your-ears and let's-go affair?

CC: I started playing with Paul in '98. We've never discussed what we're gonna do beyond something like the fact that the joint only wants us to play for 40 minutes.

PSF: How did The Hated Music (Flaherty/Corsano duo record on Ecstatic Yod) come about?

CC: Paul asked me to do The Hated Music with him in the spring of 2000. We'd played a few shows by then. He's much better at documenting things than I am. There's a recording of Paul, Thurston and Wally that I've been meaning to mix and get out since Fall 2002. If it comes out by 2006, I will consider it a great victory.

PSF: How, or when, did you two get involved with Thurston Moore?

CC: Paul and Thurston had maybe talked a little about playing together a ways back. Somebody offered me and Paul a show at the local bowling alley, and I thought it'd be the perfect occasion to invite Thurston to join us. It was Disco Bowl night, so every time somebody would open the door from the bar into the bowling alley, you'd get this extra blast of four-on-the-floor shit-disco. Amazingly, Thurston and Paul will still play with me after booking moves like that one.

PSF: How did you get on with Wally [Shoup]? How does playing with him differ from playing with Paul?

CC: I met Wally through Thurston, in 2002. Though Wally and Paul are pretty different musicians in some ways, it doesn't change my general approach of listening and having to work my ass off to keep up.

PSF: When did you hook up with Dredd Foole?

CC: Um, maybe like in 2001, though I knew him from before then as a friend. Playing with him is very gets my head in a different spot than any other group I've ever done. Must be all that reverb.

PSF: I first heard about Bill Nace through Dylan Nyoukis: the whole "Ceylon Mange" trio. Then I found out that you and Bill had a duo going called "Vampire Belt." How did this come about?

CC: I've been friends with Bill since about the time of the disco bowl show, where his band Katellus also played. We started playing together, either with other people or just the two of us, but didn't do any shows except for a couple under the name Stabs in maybe like 2001 or 2002. That was with Pete Nolan and John Truscinski. But yeah, Bill and I played for a while and then did our first show as Vampire Belt in October 2003 after he came back from a 6-month stint in England where he was playing with Karen Lollipop and Dylan Nyoukis as Ceylon Mange.

PSF: What's the word on the forthcoming QBICO LP with Matt Valentine?

CC: The word is "December." I think. Or maybe the word is "hopefully." But I guess it's on its way.

PSF: Sunburned Hand of the Man: How did you end up playing with them, and what was the tour like?

CC: [John] Moloney asked me if I wanted to sit in at this show in Brattleboro, VT, in October of I think 2002. Paul and I had played on a lotta bills with Sunburned up to that point, and I think we related on a freedom principle level as well as a personal one. Sunburned are damn good folks. I got to do a West Coast/Alaska tour and then a European tour with them and both were fantastic times. They know how to make a dude feel welcome, for sure.

PSF: What are you working on now?

CC: Right now, I'm about to do a 2-week tour with Paul in Europe (Italy, France, Belgium, Ireland). There are some records that are hopefully going to come out eventually, but by mentioning them, I'm of course jinxing the whole shebang. Oh's an LP called Last Eyes with Paul (alto) and then its sister LP, Steel Sleet (with Paul on tenor); Last Eyes will be on Records, which is run by Ron Schneiderman, who does Spirit of Orr as well, and Steel Sleet will come out on Tyyfus, from Finland, in a little while. Family Vineyard is doing a CD of Cold Bleak Heat (Flaherty, Matt Heyner, Greg Kelley and me) called It's Magnificent, But it isn't War. There may be a Vampire Belt LP if we can ever get it recorded. There's an amazing baritone sax player from Buffalo named Steve Baczkowski that Paul and I do stuff with every chance we get. Steve's a super-fierce player...especially considering he's playing baritone, so we want to get some stuff out with him on it so people can hear it for themselves.

PSF: What do you want to do in the future? Who do you want to play with?

CC: More of what I'm doing now, I guess. I feel like there're lots of people that I get to play with too seldom – like Barnes. Or like Daniel Carter. Or Wally. And then there are a ton of folks who I haven't even played with yet, though I'd love to. Vampire Can't (Bill, me and Jessica Rylan) is gonna happen in December, hopefully. I'm real excited about that one. I'd like to do something with Vampire Belt and Jeff Hartford (aka Noise Nomads), too. And of course there are a bunch of free improv/jazz players who I'd like to try playing with to see what chemistry develops. But that gets to be some kinda rotisserie league/role-playing-fantasy-jazz game if I dwell on it. Yeah, who the hell wouldn't want to play with Peter Brφtzmann or Kidd Jordan or William Parker, y'know?


A selection of Chris Corsano's favorite live shows:

Harry Pussy: Amherst Unitarian Meeting House, Amherst, MA, Summer 1996

Flaherty-Colbourne Quintet: Amherst Unitarian Meeting House, Amherst, MA, Summer 1996

Test/No Neck Blues Band: Amherst Unitarian Meeting House, Amherst, MA, Summer 1996. Hell of a summer, that 1996 in Amherst.

Cecil Taylor/Min Tanaka: Jacob's Pillow, Becket, MA, Summer 1996. I still haven't gone to see any Butoh dance since seeing this show about eight years ago, 'cos it'd be pretty hard to come anywhere near the effect it had on me.

William Parker: The Cooler, NYC, '98 or '99

Matt Heyner: New Grass Center for Underground Culture, Florence, MA, Oct. 8, 2002. William and Matt are my two favorite upright bassists.

Friends Forever: The Shed, Palmer, MA, Sept. 21, 2003 and Europa, Brooklyn, NY, Sept. 22, 2003. First at a little backyard shed in Western Mass, for 30 kids going apeshit, then for a sea of NYC socialites turned back into kids going apeshit on a street in Brooklyn, until the cops came and shut it down (though not before they took a couple of strolls through the crowd to try to figure out what the hell was happening).

DeStijl/Freedom From Fest: Big V's/Fineline Music Cafe, St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN, Oct. 3-5, 2003. Mike from Hair Police puking on stage while Trevor and Robert blazed away, Burning Star Core (less puke, but still plenty of scorch), Dead Machines, solo sets by Aaron Dilloway, Ian Nagoski, Arthur Doyle and Tony "Boom Boom" Conrad – holy jesus I was not prepared for how great it was to see him live – Borbetomagus, MV/EE Medicine Show w/ Matt flying completely off his rocker in the best way possible, nmperign...

Lauhkeat Lampaat: De Heksenketel, Antwerp, Belgium, Apr. 9, 2004. A couple of Finnish brothers, Antti and Jaakko Tolvi, who do quiet improv while seated close together on the floor, surrounded by small percussion instruments. Antti plays soprano sax and Jaakko focuses more strictly on percussion. It was fantastic to see their relationship as brothers work itself into the music, with the two of them so naturally finishing each other's lines and reaching over to grab a shaker or a bell out of the other's space or hand, even.

Sean Meehan: Hampshire College Red Barn, Amhert, MA, Sept. 24, 2004. This and another solo Meehan show around 2000 where he did a piece playing just the guts of two music boxes completely floored me.

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