Weasel Walter, The Flying Luttenbachers, and ugEXPLODE
Interview by Jack Gold-Molina
Weasel Walter is a drummer/percussionist/multi-instrumentalist and composer who founded the punk jazz group The Flying Luttenbachers in 1991 with saxophonist Chad Organ and late free jazz saxophonist and trumpeter Hal Russell (aka Harold Luttenbacher). In the following interview, which took place May 2, 2011, Walter talks about his long playing history as the leader of The Flying Luttenbachers and other groups including projects with veteran creative jazz drummer Marc Edwards, as well as running his own alternative music label ugEXPLODE.
Weasel Walter: The kind of mindset I was in when I was younger, I don't regret any of it per se but when I was young, the outlook that I used to have and the way I behaved totally came from my musical roots which were punk and free jazz, which were both rebel musics and they were both anti-establishment in theory. I thought that the way you made a splash and you made yourself known was by burning down everything that you were against or wasn't you.
When I was young, I was just just doing what I thought all of my heroes did which was take a fucking stand for their aesthetics and pretty much terrorize everyone who wasn't in line with those aesthetics. But that was then and this is now. I am a lot less interested in what other people are doing, particularly if I don't like it. (Laughter) I am more interested in putting my money where my mouth is musically. Like, 2002 was the tail end of me being really dark and saying a lot of shit in public.
Perfect Sound Forever: Looking at it from a historical perspective, you were coming off of a tour with the Luttenbachers, and it was pretty major -- 95 shows. I have listened to that album a lot, Trauma, and it scares some people. The only thing I can think of that really comes after that is like some unreleased Noah Howard with Frank Lowe or something that is completely insane. It's such a great piece of music.
WW: Well, thanks. Trauma was the result of a lot of hard work and figuring out what the music was by discussing what it wasn't going to be. (Laughs) It was this attempt at like distilling something down to a very fine focus through negating everything else. We talked a lot about what we didn't want that music to be, and through doing that, eliminating all of the elements we didn't want in it, we came up with this very finely wrought ball of molten lava that we threw at everybody.
PSF: Yeah, it's 11 "tunes" and each tune has a different mood. One piece has got you doing some really crazy stuff on the percussion and this sort of free blowing stuff, and the next piece is slower and farther out. I think that kind of stuff is actually really good for you if you can handle it.
WW: I'm a proponent of art as education and/or punishment. (Laughter) I'm not too concerned with whether or not somebody thinks it is fun. If they do, that's fantastic but with a lot of The Flying Luttenbachers' music, the motivation was not to have a good time. The motivation was to achieve a certain pinnacle of intensity and articulation and momentum. Whether or not that is fun, maybe that's not a lot of people's idea of a good time, but the whole point of the band was to fulfill this ideal of reaching for something that goes beyond the comfort zone. I think the band succeeded to do that throughout its entire career.
The music I make is still doing that. It's just that I don't work in that format anymore. There is some subtext and shit to the concept of The Flying Luttenbachers that isn't really relevant right now. What I have been doing since I put The Flying Luttenbachers out to pasture is essentially the same stuff I have always been doing, it's just not really called "The Flying Luttenbachers." Since it's not in that box, maybe people have a hard time following it or understanding it, but that's their problem. It's not really my problem.
PSF: What was it like touring with The Flying Luttenbachers?
WW: It depends which band. There's little nuances. There were, I don't know how many people in the band -- the high teens. I would have to check notes on that. Grueling, up to a certain point. The last bands didn't tour as much due to a complex set of circumstances. 1999-2002, the two lineups of that band toured a lot because the idea was, okay, we want wider recognition, we want people to hear our music, we've got to get in the van and do it and maybe it will pan out. In my opinion, it didn't pan out. What we were presenting, I believe, was too much for people to take. They might have been at the show for some reason and gotten blown away, but it wasn't something they necessarily wanted to bring home with them or come back again to see.
The myth of rock and roll touring is that every time you go back to the same town there are more people and somehow your popularity grows. This was not the case with The Flying Luttenbachers at any stage in our career, as far as I could tell. When we went back, there were less people. But do I regret it? No. We did it. We pushed the limits. We went as far as we could. The touring was grueling, generally. I think it might have been unpleasant for any or all of us at certain times due to the conditions, the psychological shit going on. It's hard to say. We were on some kind of mission so it wasn't really something we did for pleasure. It wasn't really something we did for fun. We were fighting a war, basically. So the conditions were warlike.
PSF: How would you compare that with what you are doing now?
WW: You can only do that so long, in my opinion. When I was younger, I guess I was idealistic in the sense that I thought there was maybe some kind of brass ring to be had from doing all of this and making so many sacrifices. I am sure that none of it really panned out the way I had hoped. My attitude now is not disappointment or bitterness. I think you can only do shit like this when you are young and crazy and you think that you are going to change the world. I no longer think that I am going to change the world so now I am more concerned with aesthetics and staying alive whereas I was ready to totally sacrifice my body and my mind to this insane, unachievable goal of somehow convincing the world that this cacophonous, dissonant music was the correct art and that they should all bow down before it.
Now, my attitude is like, well, I make this stuff, it's probably as extreme or more extreme than it ever was. It's not part of the scene; it's not being written about, it's not being covered. If you want it, here it is. If you don't want it, fuck off. Nothing has really changed except that I'm not willing to die for my art anymore. I almost did. (Laughs) Dead guys don't make music. It's not romantic. Personally, I went to some pretty extreme lengths and I suffered a lot of bad conditions to accomplish what I have accomplished, but I'm not willing to live like that anymore. I don't know, man. I stared into the abyss. I saw it. I'm not too interested in that anymore.
What do I do now? The same fucking shit. But the world has to come to me. I'm not going to go to the world anymore. The web site is up. A lot of my catalog is in print. It's cheap. You could buy it. I play shows all the time. I haven't changed. Everybody else has changed. The scene has changed. People's interests have changed. I'm like a rock.
This is not my favorite period in culture, I've got to be honest with you. In fact, it's the worst period in culture that I have seen since the late eighties. I don't feel like what I am doing is in phase with reality at all. It's apart from it and separate from it. It's not in style, and I don't give a fuck, you know. This is what I do. This is what I have always done. My new records are as intense or more intense than any of that old shit. But I'm not willing to drive to Tempe, Arizona, and play to two people and kill myself over "bringing it to the people" anymore. That's really the only difference. (Laughter)
PSF: Are you still in Chicago?
WW: I haven't lived in Chicago since 2003. I lived in Oakland from 2003 to late 2009. I have lived in Brooklyn, New York, for the past year and-a-half.
PSF: I remember reading a couple of years ago that you were playing with some people in San Francisco.
WW: That was a huge turning point in my life. I had some fertile periods of activity in Chicago, but ultimately I felt like Chicago and I were really at odds with each other on a bunch of different levels. By the late nineties, I was fairly miserable in Chicago, and I was a fairly miserable person as a result, and I spent a lot of time inflicting myself on innocent and guilty people alike. (Laughs) I was young and I was really impoverished financially so the idea of moving seemed totally impossible to me. Furthermore, I didn't know where to go. By the time the 2001-2002 band had started, the Luttenbachers, I really think part of the reason why we played so many shows was because I was looking for a place to go. I was looking for a place to be. It was subconscious wanderlust or something like that.
We kept going out to the West Coast, and every time we played a show in San Francisco or Oakland, California, there were always these great bands or always these great people, and a ton of energy. It got to the point where I liked so many bands on the West Coast and so many people, and I was so miserable in Chicago, it just occurred to me that maybe I needed to move there. I was really encouraged by a lot of people from that scene, and I just did it. I got a truck, put all of my shit in it, and drove across the country and moved into a loft with people in bands that I played with soon after.
At the time, in the early to mid-2000s, there was still a lot of energy for the kind of aesthetics I am interested in and a lot of it was based on the West Coast. There were bands like Burmese, Erase Errata, Total Shutdown, John Dwyer's various projects, Deer Hoof. There were a lot of people I could really relate to who were doing different things. I came in on the tail end of the scene being really explosive. It was on the wane but I still got there in time to participate, and once that kind of rock scene tapered off, I wound up coming roaring back in the improvised music around 2005. I was sort of feeling it again whereas I really wasn't feeling it at the end of my stay in Chicago, basically due to politics and the bad feelings I had about the scene there. Since 2005 I have kind of been prolific in terms of documenting my improvised music activity.
Now that I play with people like Mary Halvorson and Peter Evans -- we released an album recently -- the way the critics always approach it is like this, and it really makes me roll my eyes: they know who Peter is, they know who Mary is, and then they look at me and they don't get it. They are like, "Oh, this is some rock drummer who just decided that he is going to play improvised music all of a sudden," which is totally hilarious because I have been doing this since the late eighties. My first album was a fucking free jazz album. It just seems like no matter what I do, people cannot get the point. At this point I just laugh at it. I just roll my eyes because I really don't care. When people say stuff like this, it's just ignorance, you know.
Part of the reason why I really stepped up my label around 2005-2006 was that I just felt like I needed to assert my aesthetics in a more aggressive way because I felt like there is a need for what I am doing which is not being fulfilled by other people. The label might appear schizophrenic to some but it caters to the depth of music that I have always been interested in participating with. I put out fucking insane noise-rock records, and I put out ridiculously frantic improvised music records. There is this whole gamut of things I do. I play in rock bands, okay. I play free jazz with Evan Parker and Marshall Allen and Mary Halvorson. You can be good at more than one thing. It's not my fault that other people aren't, or they don't have the vision to see that.
PSF: I have to agree with that.
WW: Yeah. I really don't give a fuck if people have to pigeonhole me for their own comfort. It's their problem. If people think I'm a rock drummer who woke up yesterday and decided to make a free jazz record, they're idiots, as far as I am concerned, and they haven't done their research. I just sit here and I do my work. I'm not really worried about how it's received or by how many people it's received. It is consistent with what I have always done.
PSF: What is the most recent project that you have done?
WW: I have a trio with Mary Halvorson and Peter Evans. We have been playing for years in different combinations. We recently put out an album on Thirsty Ear called Electric Fruit, and that is a studio record that documents one day of what we do, one moment in time. We tour when we can. Obviously, everyone in the band is very busy so it's not really like a working band, but we have a commitment to working together. That's one thing.
I have a group with the drummer Marc Edwards. He used to play with Cecil Taylor and David S. Ware. I think he is easily the strongest free jazz drummer left from his generation. He is killing on the drums. It's ridiculous. We have co-led a group for years now, and at this point it's a trio. It used to be a sextet, but due to financial considerations we have whittled it down to a more hard core trio. Marc is playing drums, I am playing bass guitar, and we have a saxophonist named Marcus Cummins playing soprano. We have put several records out and right now we are getting ready to document this trio thing. It's just a really hardcore, balls out, free jazz group. There's no balladry in this group. It's raging fucking free jazz the way I would like it to be made and no one is making it right now.
PSF: How would you contrast the two projects, the Electric Fruit album and this group with Marc Edwards?
WW: Electric Fruit is more painterly, it's more about counterpoint. It almost resembles chamber music or something. It's aggressive and it's fast but it's more contrapuntal, more interactive. I think it has the finesse of chamber music but it is extremely rapid and extremely frantic. To me, it sounds very light and wispy and refreshing but still we get reviews that it is totally frantic and crazy. But, for me, it's not the heaviest music I make in terms of density or sonic impact. I like what I do with them, and that's one side of how I express what I do which is not to be this oppressively loud, fast drummer the whole time. The project with Peter and Mary is more about structure and space whereas the group with Marc is more about raging, pummeling, hardcore free jazz that just like rips your face off.
If I could be in one group that would express everything I want to do it would be a really sick group, but there is so much stuff that I want to do that I have never found all the people to have one group, that's why I play in so many groups. I play guitar in a no wave group called Cellular Chaos. I'm playing drums in the technical metal band Behold The Arctopus. I have a working free jazz trio with two young Chicago guys, Mike Forbes and Andrew Scott Young. These young guys, they're brutal. It's like touring with an American Peter Brotzmann and Peter Kowald from the seventies, except these guys party way harder than those guys. (Laughter) I have a group in Europe which is myself on drums, the guitar player Sheik Anorak, and the reed player Mario Rechturn. We have done four tours over there and had several releases. That's an improvised music group. It's loud and fast but it has a lot of different structural things that make it distinctly different from the other groups.
The people I work with are distinctive. I don't make all of these groups to play the same fucking music. The reason I have these working groups is because they all display a side of what I am interested in and they all have radically different voices, and they are all different. I think that some of these groups will appeal to some people more than others, and I think that's fine but my job is to motivate these groups, document them, put them out there as an alternative to the soft, bland, boring culture that I see is permeating the landscape right now. I don't like much music out there. That's why I make a lot of music. (Laughs)
I want something to listen to other than death metal. Death metal is thriving as usual but other forms of music, it really seems like the balls have been chopped off of most forms at this point. I really don't get it. Considering how chaotic the world is, I don't understand why a lot of music is so complacent. I do what I do because I think there is a need for it, for myself and hopefully for others.
See Part II of the Weasel Walter interview
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|