Perfect Sound Forever


Borbetomagus tears it up live!

Jim Sauter interview
by Jason Gross (July 1997)

Any idiot can pick up an instrument and make mindless noise- trust me, I've done it! It takes really committed people to create a huge, overpowering, take-no-prisoners mass of sound. Borbetomagus have done with for going on 20 years now. Certainly not novices anymore, Jim Sauter (saxophone), Donald Miller (guitar) and Don Dietrich (saxophone) don't have enough catchy melodies or snappy rhythms to be considered rock and though all of their music is improvised, it's much too loud and punishing to be considered jazz. What they create is music that's really it's own beast. Most people will definitely find this cruel and usual punishment. Enligtened individuals will find pure bliss in their freedom and exploration. BRING THE NOISE!

PSF: How did you get started in music before Borbetomagus?

I've known Don Dietrich since grade school. We played in a high school band together and we were just doing standards. Once we were doing 'Night Train' though and the two of us went into these wild solos that got the band leader really pissed at us. Later, I went to school at Syracuse and he went to Parsons. We got back together in the same area and we thought it might be fun to do some playing. We formed a group which went under the name Industrial Strength around '76/'77. It was full of long, orchestred kind of pieces. We worked with a drummer and a bass player. It was inspired by Art Ensemble kind of stuff in terms of loosely composed things. The first time we brought this public, it was pretty fairly received and that was all the encouragement we needed to come back and do it a few months later. It was an active thing but we didn't have any real practices or major bookings to be concerned about.

It was around that time that Don heard Donald Miller doing a radio show at WKCR at Columbia University. He was playing some stuff that was exciting like Evan Parker, Peter Brotzmann and some of the other European improvisers and electronic music like Xenakis. So it was like 'wow, here's the music we'd been hearing in our heads.' We didn't even know it existed or that it was available. We sought out the recordings by calling Donald. We got talking and he asked if we'd like to get together and play some time . We got together in '77 and it clicked and we knew it was going to lead to something.

Donald was playing in a group called Sick Dick and the Volkswagons with Brian Dougherty and some other people. Don and I sat in with them for a gig. But personality-wise, it just didn't click. We knew we wanted to pull out of that. It worked well with Donald and us. Brian was also with Borbetomagus for the first few years. When Brian left, a lot fell on our shoulders to keep some kind of musical continuity going with an unusual orchestration of two saxophones and a guitar.

PSF: How would you describe the music that Borbetomagus does?

That's a difficult question. I think of it as a personal expression based on a desire to create something new, innovative and fresh each time we get together to play. That comes from our approaching it as three individuals with an interest in creating a musical art form that's singular and indentifiable as our own.

PSF: Are free jazz players (Coltrane, Coleman, Ayler) a big influence?

There's no denying that they've been an influence for all of us. They're inspiring. I would hardly say that we're a post-Coltrane jazz combo. In terms of what they brought to their musical expression, it was their own aesthetic. It helped define a new and unique aesthetic. I think that's what we have tried for, and to a certain extent succeeded in doing.

When we first started out, we were green and naive. We were a bunch of young guys who were getting together and playing. We liked the music that we were making. We thought 'let's put out a record of the music we like to hear' because no one else was doing it at the time. In 1980, there was this whole downtown New York improvising scene. One critic Henk Berkman called it the 'plink-plunk-ploong' school. We didn't seem to fall into step with that. Our whole music developed independently of any kind of affiliation. If anything, it developed as a reaction or counter-action to that. Initially, we just set out to make music that we wanted to hear. With each release, we tried to continue that, making something new and different from what we've done before.

PSF: How do you see the changes in the band's music over the years?

You can just listen to it! (laughs) It's interesting because we just had a talk about that. A lot of musical vocabulary was starting a while ago. I go back and I listen to the earlier recordings and I hear things that were starting to pop up in 1981 and new techniques and sounds coming in around 1984. There's almost like a chronology of things that were coming into the group's vocabulary. Some of those elements were very innovative for when they started to go down on disk.

PSF: What kind of things do you mean?

Some of the things we were doing on horns. There's 'spittoon' where we put some fluids in the mouthpiece and tilt it back so that it's a gurgling sound in the horn. There's 'bells together' where we put the bells of the two horns together and create one sound chamber in which the sound of both horns interact and intersect. We've been doing that since we were 14 or 15 years old and playing in high school bands. Donald Miller's approach to the guitar, his whole sound has only changed slightly over the years but he's got a beautiful heavy fuzztone sound. He's done everything from playing with files and tuning forks to personal vibrators to bring into the group that sound that he gets from his instrument.

PSF: When you do 'bells together' does that effect your breathing into the instrument?

It's truly ensemble playing in its purest form. If we're conscious of each other's breathing, we can almost phrase things so that there's a continuous sound. You're very much aware of what the other player is doing because you're feeling the air and pressure that he's blowing back into his horn and then into my horn. There's this thing that he does like a mouth wah-wah. He opens his mouth as creates this wa-wa-wa sound while I'm playing. It's him actually playing the sound coming out of his mouthpiece. It's there for people to pick out. The thing that's always been important is not that we're a band of great technicians but the overall sound we make as a group and the unique group sound that we have as a trio. A huge trio sound for the three of us.

PSF: How does the group compose songs?

On the spot. At one point, early on, we used to have rehearsals and work out musical ideas. At our earlier concerts, we had ideas about where the 'pieces' were supposed to go. I remember a great amount of anxiety because there'd be somebody who wasn't following along or doing what we talked about doing. We would have it out with each other at the next gig or rehearsal until we realized that it really wasn't fun anymore. That was when we pretty much put an end to this idea of rehearsals. And that was another important reason for playing the music that we do because it has been fun.

It's also been very rewarding as a musician to find an audience for what we've been doing. It's been through modest but regular output of recordings that have reached people that appreciate what we're doing. It's been really exciting to find and meet people that heard and found those recordings and experience the music and connect with it the way we do. It's really rewarding to put out something that's as personal as it is to us and to find that it touches other that deeply and profoundly.

PSF: On the other hand, I remember a live record where you guys play your heads off for ten minutes and then at the end, you hear some idiot in the crowd say 'what was that? a tune up?' (on Sauter, Dietrich, Miller (Agaric 1981) from a show at Bergen Community College, Dec. 1981)

Oh yeah. I guess that's a good document of how music affects different people in different ways. (laughs) It reached into his soul in a whole different way and that's perfectly OK with me. That was when we were younger and greener and more eager to be playing more. We put ourselves into situations that weren't ideal. A friend, the Rev. Dr. Paul, had got us that gig and I sent all the info down to the guy who was booking it and he never asked for a tape. When we got down there, it was a student Christmas party with candles and everything. We were the entertainment. They were expecting your average jazz combo, which we're definitely not.

We saw that this could lead to trouble so I remember us having a huddle before the gig. 'Let's just go through this and lay back.' About 10 minutes into the gig we decided that there's no way we were going to play anything other than what we'd normally play. The student director came up to the stage and said 'Stop! I want to talk to you!' So he brought me out into the hall. 'You can't go back and do what you just did!' he says. 'These kids are here to have fun.' I said 'We can't play what we just did because of the nature of what we do is largely improvisational.' He says 'don't be a wise-ass with me!' I said 'maybe we could talk about what we're doing and give some context.' He told me 'these kids are here to have fun, not to be educated!'

So we went back and we tried again. But we just said 'forget it, let's take no prisoners' so we cranked it up. It really inspired some amazing playing. It turned into acid in your face. Now, we're a little less pushy to get ourselves into a situation like that. We're probably better off for it though we still find sometimes that an audience isn't totally prepared for what we're going to present.

Other times we did concerts with support from 'Meet the Composer.' They were one the few organizations that provided grant money, but not for groups. We arranged the concerts to present 'new works by composer Donald Miller' and 'new works by composer Donald Dietrich' and 'new works by composer Jim Sauter.' One of the things 'Uncle Meet' encouraged was audience discussion about the work. We made an effort to talk about what we were doing and our techiques. We were trying to demystify what we were doing. In some cases, it was successful. It was a lot of work. In the right audience and forum, it was great because people were really interested in what makes you make this music. Occassionally, you get a heckler.

At one of these shows was at the Piermont Village Hall around '81, we had 'composer Donald Miller' set up a phonograph and play records. He had Xenakis, Yoko Ono and the Velvet Underground and he was trying to show this musical evolution for an audience that was stacked with people from a local psychiatric clinic. 'Uncle Meet' was very concerned about audience numbers so we were concerned also. I called up some group patient home and invited them as guests for the concert as a good will gesture. Donald was totally unaware of this. While he was giving this lecture in all seriousness, Dietrich and I are in the back just dying. One person would get up and would be crying 'I don't like it... I don't like it... Why can't you make it stop?' It was really kind of a funny situation. When he realized what we'd done, he was ready to kill us.

Another situation was in '82, when we played at Blue Mountain Art Center in upstate New York. Again, they had no idea what we did musically. When we got up there, they were very cordial. They had a great dinner set out for us with wine and they were playing an Art Tatum record for us. They were really nice to us. When the concert started, there was this look of horror on their faces. They no idea of what we were going to sound like. They were totally unprepared.

PSF: What about shows where everything went the right way?

When it clicks, that's when it all comes together. We've done a number of great concerts that way. There's just some convergence of the planets or something at those times. Some of them have gotten away from us without any good recordings of them. That Bergen show and the music on Zurich was a great concert. It is documented on a double album recorded in '84 (Agaric 1984). It was well-recorded also. Where everything was working right sound-wise was our tour of Japan in June '96. That came together beautifully and now it's out as Live In Toyko on Alchemy Records (ARCD-095) We pushed the sound system to the limits and beyond. It was a packed house and it was such a thrill to see such a great turnout and response.

PSF: How do find it to work without a traditional rhythm section with bass and drums?

We have to keep SOME sense of rhythm, otherwise the music would just be sitting there doing nothing. All of us have to assume part of the responsibility for the rhythm of the music- to propel it and keep it moving along. I think that's one of the other things in the evolution of our recording- how fast the pace of the rhythms have evolved. As we've gotten more accomplished (which is debatable to some), the less accomplished we sound, which is not an easy thing to achieve. It really moves along. The changes happen pretty fast. Things could all be going in one direction and one of us will hear something else and everything will shift and go in another direction. That's a real kick to hear that kind of thing happen.

PSF: Does living outside a major city make a difference with the work that you?

Definitely. It's helped to sustain us as a group. In our early years, when we were looking for funding, we hustled more and developed our music for smaller audiences. Being outside gave us a place to work it out. It also kept us from being drawn into a downtown scene. I had a different perspective by being outside of it.

PSF: You were talking about improvisation with the group. You don't think the band would consider working with any formal structure in your music in the future?

It wouldn't work for me. Having played together as long as we have, we have a lot of history between us all. We have a lot of things in our shared vocabulary. There are things that we all know each other can contribute or throw into the mix in a concert situation. The exciting thing is that we still hear and contribute things that we hadn't come up with before. As long as I play with Don and Donald, it's still a rush because we're always pushing each other to new levels and new plateaus. We're kicking open new doors or at least trying to with each new concert.

PSF: Are there other bands you've heard or work with that you feel a kinship with?

I felt an immediate kindship with the guys in Voice Crack, Norbert Moslang and Andy Guhl. I first met them in '84 when we played with them. They had been doing what Don and I were trying to do. Organizing concerts and having a 'life.' I just connected with them and we've become good friends. We've made some great music together over the years too.

PSF: Do you think that there is and will be a serious muscial movement of improvisational bands like yours?

I don't know. I hope so. I think it's inevitable and likely that's something's coming down the pike. I think it's refreshing and I give people credit for mentioning us as an inspiration. (Blowhole) people acknowledge a thanks to us. As long as they don't start doing Borbetomagus covers, that's OK. (laughs)

When you're talking about movements or styles of music, what's exciting about stuff in free jazz is what's exciting about stuff in punk or electronic music or in rock. It's just stuff that seems to push previous boundries and challenge existing notions and extends limits and just grabs you in a way that's exciting to hear. In whatever category or genre, you hear something that just reaches down into you and grabs your gut. You say 'wow, this is great!' It crosses boundries.

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