William Hooker interview
by Matt SilcockActive for well over twenty years, drummer William Hooker continues to actively slash-and-burn his own niche in the free-jazz-and-beyond milieu. Extremely prolific and always smoking, Hooker has shown himself to be adept at improvising and composing with almost any form of instrumentation, including (but not limited to) synthesizer, electronics, screaming electric guitar, and turntables, as well as a relatively 'traditional' spirit of '65 horns-and-piano lineup. This latter approach is featured on a brand new in-concert double-CDR on Nebraska's Last Visible Dog label called Eternal Breath Gene of Triank. On the occasion of this powerful release, I had an interesting phone conversation with Hooker (12/6/99) that touched on his history, his philosophy, and some of his plans for the immediate future.
PSF: When did your first album come out?
My first album came out I think in 1974. It was a vinyl release, double.
PSF: Who played on it?
Myself, David S. Ware, David Murray, Mark Miller, Hassan Dawkins, and Les Goodson. And it ended with a solo of myself that was done on a television special.
PSF: Like public access?
No, channel 30. A regular station. It was a station that dealt with uh... you know, every station has a sort of a black program or two. And this was one of those. I took five minutes of it, and that's the way it ended. The first album I ever made.
PSF: It was recorded in New York City?
PSF: David S. Ware and David Murray, huh? That's an interesting lineup.
Well also, Les Goodson and Hassan Dawkins were very interesting too because they played with Sun Ra, and they had put in a lot of time understanding the, the uh...
PSF: The cosmo-equations?
The cosmo-equations, as well as the sound equation that it takes to actually make more of their music for a trio. It was a very interesting record. It was a double album, and there was like, you know, different groupings of different people.
PSF: Is that a pretty rare album? I've never seen it...
Yes. It's a classic.
PSF: So when did you first start playing what you would call free jazz or outside jazz?
I'd say 1968.
PSF: And before that were you playing bebop and stuff?
Yes. Bebop, rock'n'roll, clubs, shows, that kind of thing.
PSF: Are you from Connecticut?
Yes. New Britain, Connecticut.
PSF: You were doing frat parties - is that legend true?
That's just a part of what every musician does. They play weddings, they play bar mitzvahs, they play everything. I played everything. Before I embarked on my journey of not getting any gigs. You know what I'm sayin'! 'Cause you have to face the fact that no one's going to be interested in what you're gonna do, as you turn to the 'out' sort of method of doing music.
PSF: How would you describe the difference between inside jazz and outside jazz?
Consciousness. I would really say that. I'm talkin' about the people who really play outside jazz well. They have to reach a certain level before they go outside if they've never been inside. You have to reach a certain level, if you wanna go outside, being inside. Some people start from outside, and maybe they can come back inside, I don't know. But that hasn't been my experience.
PSF: I know there's a lot of criticism about people who start outside without learning the changes and the scales. Do you agree with that sort of criticism?
I don't agree with that at all. I think that it's just a different approach, and I would not besmirch anyone from starting from any sort of vantage point. I think that just being interested in music is a beautiful thing. I think that just playing your instrument is also a beautiful thing, no matter how you approach it.
PSF: There's good and bad players from any approach. As long as they have soul, they can be good.
That's true. But in either case, you've gotta admit they're playing, they're not just talking. So I've gotta give 'em credit. You have to play music to exhibit anything before criticism happens - the point is, they've actually done something to be criticized, which I think is laudable.
PSF: They're puttin' something on the table.
That's right. I don't care where it comes from. Even though I do have my standards of excellence. I just give that as my general attitude toward people who have decided they're gonna play music. At any point and time.
PSF: When did you move to New York City?
About 1973 or '74.
PSF: So you were playing outside music for a few years in Connecticut?
Maybe one-and-a-half years. I wasn't playing my outside music, I was playing inside music, but I was really outside in terms of what I was playing.
PSF: You mean within the inside context you felt you were playing outside?
Definitely. Because in terms of most places you find that you're playing with inside players. And they either put up with you or they don't.
PSF: In Connecticut?
No, that's anywhere!
PSF: In New York City too?
Oh, definitely. You've heard stories about that, how people are ostracized . . . that's just the way people look at the standards by which they do what they want to do. The standards by which they judge who's on the bandstand with 'em.
PSF: Would you say New York City is one of the best places to find a community that doesn't ostracize?
For me it has been. For me it has been, because I've found that it's a wellspring of ideas, a lot of people are here, a lot of people are dealing with a lot of different genres, and basically you can find what you want, you can find anything in this city that you want. Whatever you're lookin' for, you'll probably find a match. It's a really good place. It's a spirited place. I mean today, I came walkin' up Fifth Avenue, lookin' at all the windows, I go and I see the gigantic Rockefeller Center tree, and it's packed with people skating . . . I went through the Japanese section, I went into Saks Fifth Avenue, I saw exquisite things that I could've bought for my family . . . I saw all kinds of things, and that's what New York offers. It's a beautiful place. Especially this time of year.
PSF: Early winter?
Well no, Christmas. Christmas time. As a matter of fact, I will send you a piece that I just wrote, and I just put it on my site, which is www.knittingfactory.com/hooker, which is an expanding site, it's really growing. I just put this new poem on it, and it's called "Christmas Time." If you could put it in this article, that'd be great.
PSF: Cool, I'll do that. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about these guys that've been playing with you, like Richard Keene...
Richard Keene is a very, very excellent performer. He has performed and studied with the Cecil Taylor Unit and studied his music extensively. He's studied with me extensively and worked with me for a long time. Great player. I really enjoy him and his spirit.
PSF: When did he start playing with you?
I'm not sure about that, but we've known each other for about 12 or 13 years.
PSF: And then, Blaise Siwula...
Blaise I just talked to today, as a matter of fact. We had to arrange a rehearsal for tomorrow, because we're going to resurrect a piece that was entitled "The Black Mask." It was presented at the CMJ last year - the most recent CMJ - and he's going to be an integral part in the next setting of music that I have coming up.
PSF: Lewis Barnes... he's a trumpet player?
Yep, I've been with him like I would say 14 years or so. Excellent, excellent trumpet player.
PSF: These guys are all really good.
I would say! I would say.
PSF: You don't see 'em on a lot of albums other than yours, or am I wrong?
They're probably not on that many, because you know, jazz is different than rock'n'roll. A lot of people don't get that much opportunity to actually do their music and record it. So that could be the reason why it's a very selective discography for some jazz players.
PSF: Especially out players.
No, not especially out. Especially people who are not known in the media. As soon as that happens, you can make two-thousand albums a year and they can all be out. But it's a matter of that happening. I wanna bring that into it, it's a matter of seriously letting people know that this music exists and the players are good, otherwise it's a dead issue.
PSF: One way to do that is to play with people like Thurston Moore.
No - yeah, that's one way to do that, but the way to do that that I've really been seeing - the way that he got to do that, was because the media embraced him as a person that they really wanted to let people know about. I think that it's time for... it's time for people to let people know that I exist! I think that would work. That would help! Y'know what I mean? Because everybody starts somewhere, they don't just all of a sudden emerge from the sky and everybody sees them, y'know. Regardless of who they are. They could be the Rolling Stones.
PSF: Okay, this is kind of a goofy question...
What is it? I mean, it might be goofy...
PSF: Who would you rather listen to, Lester Young or Borbetomagus?
Both. Both and neither.
PSF: Do you listen to much music?
Not that much. Right now, I'm checking out the WTO and that kind of thing.
PSF: The WTO?
The World Trade Organization situation. That's basically what I'm checkin' out right now.
PSF: More current events...
Yeah, political stuff. I don't have that much time to do that much stuff. I check out what's been happening and try to keep abreast of what the world is doing. Basically, during the day I listen to a lot of classical music to tell you the truth. We have a really really good station here. Then after that I get a chance to listen to my own music 'cause I'm editing it, getting into deep listening sessions. Studio sessions and stuff. But the classical stuff is a good thing for me to work by. A nice backdrop.
PSF: You know, I like crazy out music as a backdrop too.
PSF: Well, I find if I wanna turn it up at a loud volume, I can immerse myself in it. Deep listening. But if I put it a lower volume it makes nice background music too.
All right, then. All right, then, yeah.
PSF: You hear different combinations coming and going, in and out of focus...
In that case, I'm not really listening. That's kind of like just letting it, just like you know...
Yeah, I'm kind of not really listening. But I know it has an effect.
PSF: You've done a lot of playing with electric guitarists...
Not really. Not too much.
PSF: Well, people like Jesse Henry...
I haven't - I would say that those are the only things that you've been exposed to so far, but I've played with a lot of different people, so I would rephrase that question... I'm only saying this because that could be what you're aware of, but that's not what I've been doing. You know what I'm saying?
PSF: Well I realize you're playing all kinds of music all the time...
Yeah, so the thing you're more aware of are those kind of combinations.
PSF: I just find it interesting. I like that combination.
It kind of works for me. I like it. You know, I like all instruments. I can't say there's any instrument that I have any preference over in terms of my performing with them, but yeah, it's worked. Especially since I like to juxtapose it against other sorts of instruments too, like synthesizers, or pianists, or those kind of things.
PSF: The Hard Time album has a great combination of synthesizers and electric guitar.
Oh great, great, I'll have to let this guy know at Squealer that you liked it.
PSF: Yeah, it almost sounds like space rock or something, whatever that is.
Uh huh, uh huh...
PSF: Space jazz.
PSF: Is the title Hard Time a reference to John Lee Hooker?
No. No. I don't really know what that meant, it probably meant just hard time. Y'know, like there's soft time and then there's hard time.
PSF: The opposite of soft time.
Exactly, the opposite of easy time. The opposite of easy listening.
PSF: So would you say you kinda wanna get away from the electric guitar?
No. I don't think there's any getting away from any of those instrumentations. I think it's just a matter of continuously trying to come up with different situations, and tryin' to come up with better work, and tryin' to come up with different places to be able to expose more and more people to things. That's kind of what it's about. It's not really about trying to get away from an instrumentation or not. Because certain things really fit certain sensibilities. If you're playing in an intimate setting, you can't really use really heavy, heavy stuff, where you're blaring people out, y'know, destroying walls. I try to be appropriate to whatever the situation calls for.
PSF: So at CBGB, you get a guitarist?
I would usually try and do that, as well as probably synthesizer.
PSF: I was gonna talk to you about Eternal Breath- that was recorded at the Terrace Club? That's a crazy place.
Yeah, it's like a big house.
PSF: Yeah, tons of college kids all over the place.
That's right. There's a lot of history behind it. I usually enjoy myself whenever I go there.
PSF: It's kind of a strange place, 'cause there's those rec rooms upstairs... it's kind of a strange place to roam around and not really know anybody.
Usually I just go there and I just stay in that big room upstairs that has all the couches, and I usually just read a book or something. Getting prepared for my concert. Or else I go downstairs and eat dinner. And then sometimes, if it's daytime, I go outside - y'know, that kind of thing. But I haven't had the chance to roam the campus that much, even though I understand they have a lot of interesting things there, like you know, Albert Einstein... I think it's like this research center. A lot of other places. A lot of intellectuals and writers and stuff are also centered in Princeton, which I've never met any of them. But I find it's a very intelligent atmosphere, which is good, because when you play this kind of music you really try to find an intelligent atmosphere because you know they're not that judgmental. Y'know what I mean? They have good food there too!
PSF: Have you had any memorable events where you presented your music to an atmosphere that wasn't that intelligent?
No, I couldn't really say that.
PSF: I think your music might appeal to what you would call a 'less intelligent' atmosphere because of the gut-level quality of it.
Well that happens too. You know, CBGB's is a different scene, but they still appreciate it. They're feelin' it.
PSF: Well that says something, that you've never really had that rejection...
Well it probably has happened, but I just can't think of it right now. I probably have a block in my mind about it. That's a good way to think about it. (laughs)
PSF: A block?
Yeah, otherwise I might like jump out the window. (laughter)
PSF: Don't all successful out musicians have that block?
Yeah! Yeah, really, 'cause if you carry that around with you too long, you really start to think something's wrong with you. I don't want to think that way, 'cause I know I'm perfect!
"Ha ha." Right? Put that one in there.
PSF: What, the "ha ha"?
PSF: I'll put it all in there. On Eternal Breath, one of the discs open with like a horn trio - that's a really nice section there. Is that something you composed?
PSF: Do you have sheet music and stuff?
PSF: And then there's room for improvisation in that?
That's right. Amongst the three. I think you can hear it clearly. I think the album is excellent 'cause it really does capture the feeling of where we were. You know that it's a small room, and I sometimes really don't want to mic a lot of things as far as the drums go, 'cause I know that in that room it can come back to haunt you. It's a very live room. But I knew it was a killer performance. It's not really a recording studio situation, but it is a place that I feel really comfortable in, so that's why I felt good about it.
PSF: The disc that opens with drums and piano, with the horns in there, that's pretty raging music.
If you hear my album called Brighter Lights, which is the second album I put out - Mark [Hennen, piano] and I have performed a lot together, and I think that we're always raging. Whether it's the first, second, or third set, we're always raging.
PSF: So you've played with Mark since the seventies?
Yeah. And we're going to be doing something this Thursday as a matter of fact, tomorrow...
PSF: A live thing?
No, we're starting to develop the group that's gonna be probably doing some things this year. I've got something else coming up . . . it's gonna be called A Month of Sundays. It's for the new millennium, and that's going to be four nights at the Knitting Factory, and I'm gonna use a lot of different improvisers.
PSF: And that's in January?
January 27th through the 30th. It's every night, but I just entitled it A Month of Sundays. I'm getting ready for it. Some of the musicians I'm using are Roy Nathanson, Steven Bernstein, Yoko Fujiyama, Joe Gallant, Jason Hwang, let's see, uh . . . J.D. Parran . . . I have a dancer, Makiko Oka, Tor Snyder, David Fuszinski... and all these people, they'll be broken up, so it should be a very interesting situation. Two sets a night.
PSF: A question I like to ask of any musician, especially ones who are into more underground and outside music, is how do you make a living financially?
Oh, right now, I do a number of things. I have a day job.
PSF: What's that, if I may ask?
I'd rather not even discuss it. I have a regular day job, I have to. New York City is about getting paid. Let's face it. You've got places that people are gonna charge you $1300 for one room, what're you gonna do? You have to do something to live, or you wind up in a different lifestyle than I want to live. I'm not a starving person.
PSF: I'm sure you meet a lot of musicians who kind of choose that.
Sure, sure. That's their business. That's not the way I choose to live. I don't judge it. Different people have to do different things. That's the way it is.
PSF: Anything else you want to touch on?
I think basically I've covered all the bases; I think that I've given you indication as to what I have in mind, about what I want to do. Also, I hope that a lot of people will be listening to Eternal Breath - I hope you can take this particular time we've spoken and you can interest people outside of Nebraska in this. As long as you can stay on the web, let people know this is happening, there will be interest, there will always be someone asking the question, and that question will always be answered: "I'm very very proud to have this record out."
CHRISTMAS TIME //
(you gee flu)
we are above the rights of man
Glory to the fossil's grain
Reproach all trained growth / grew nine views:
(I) realistic tram : in the few, who know its pitch .
Black train mover.
You have grown toward the sky - the raise is on high
Where our growth is sea/sated. I see its treatise,
And the move is on the level of light.
Do you know how this shed is toward newness ?
Can you view all of the traps where we flee inward.
We are in the womb of hell, and I know
The travesty. You are viewed from the eye of the Brother big.
Will he allow ourselves - to Be?
Your fingers are frozen(and)the growth of the music is
Stifled.....The poetry isn't.
NEPTUNE, CHITA,(STAR) MARTIAN TOY, SWINGING WILLIE
AND THE TAPS, COFFEE :
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