Interview with Darin Gray
He plays at The Josephine Saturday December 3 with Bill Horist. His discography is voluminous and varied. Check out this recent track from a record that came out of Japan with Jim O’Rourke and Akira Sakata:
Akira Sakata & Jim O'Rourke w/ Chikamorachi - Hanamaki (excerpt) by familyvineyard
Or there’s this, from On Fillmore, his collaboration with Glenn Kotche:
Got to chat with him about these collaborations as well as general musings on improved music, the state of the record industry in 2011, “a sloth going down the tar pits” and more.
What brings you to Seattle?
Robert Inwanik’s band, Alchimia, played at The Chapel Performance Space, and invited me out. I’ve known Robert for about 10 years, met him when he came out from Poland. His old band, Rope, was my favorite band. They are an amazing band. I played with them a lot, solo opened for them. I have another group, On Fillmore, that played with them. So we got really close. I’d probably seen Rope 20 – 25 times and everytime, awesome. That’s hard to say about most bands.
So, he asked me if I wanted to come out and play in their first show and I said yeah.
And tomorrow you play with Bill Horist at The Josephine.
Yes. I’ve never played with Bill, so it should be exciting. We have a mutual friend named Chris Corsano, one of my best friends, a drummer I play with as a duo in Chikamorachi.
The Josephine is a cool venue, if you can even call it that. They float on an interesting line between being a public and semi-private place.
I’m excited to play there. It was The Sun City Girls practice space and I’m a huge fan of theirs. Apparently, they lived there.
So when play with someone you haven’t played with, how do you have a reference for what to do?
It varies from person to person. My preference is to not talk at all about what we are going to play beforehand about the music we are going to make. So, the honest answer is that there is no reference point. Although in the improvised music scene, it has been happening for so long, that you hope there is a reference point. You hope that the person you are going to play with is cool. Which I’m sure Bill will be. And now a days, you have their records or you can listen to what they do. It is a little different for me because I do so many different things. So it may be harder for someone else to get a reference point to play with me. Really, I don’t think there is a reference point. Just trust. And hope.
The more I listen to improvised music, it seems like a conversation between musicians, at its best.
Yeah it is. Although something that might be dangerous in it just being conversational is that can be too polite. “How are you?” and then the person answers back and forth, where real conversations with your friends are a mess. The English is a wreck, you are interrupting each other, and that to me, that more honest conversation, is more interesting to me when you are playing music than polite conversation. That’s the danger when you don’t know people.
It’s like a first date.
Yeah, exactly. Because you are trying to put your best foot forward, you are trying to play your best stuff, but that doesn’t always make the best music. The catch is getting comfortable, in any situation. You don’t get better at improvising. I’m no better than when I first started. But I’m more comfortable failing, I’m more comfortable in those awkward moments, to just let it be awkward. Like after that first date, the person knows you are a wreck, you leave the dishes out, whatever it is. You are a mess! And they are okay with that. Or not. That to me makes more interesting music. And it is more interesting for the listener too than some polite back and forth thing.
Do you think there’s a correlation between improvised music and improv theater? As I listen to you talk, it reminds me of the difference between good and bad improv, especially comedy.
Absolutely. It is the same thing. All the arts are so interconnected. They have to be.
When it is funny is when there’s tension. And when you go as an audience member, you are aware that people are taking risks and you grant them that right.
I’m surprised that more people don’t go to improvised music or theater. I’m not naïve about it, but I’m shocked. It’s a small audience. I’m surprised because it something you can’t get anywhere else. That night is just for you. It won’t ever happen again. As a listener, you go home knowing wow that concert was just for me. A unique moment. That’s exciting.
I have to ask you about Jim O’Rourke, who I am a huge fan of, especially those records from the nineties. He seems to have left the compositional world and entered the improvised world from his more recent work.
I’ve known Jim forever, along with Glenn Kotche. We’re all best friends. Realize Jim came from improvised music. when he was a teenager, he was going to Europe and improvising with Derek Bailey, who, to me, is the greatest. But people really started hearing about Jim when he made those Drag City records. So they don’t know the back part of it, that he was composing but also improving from the start. Complex guy. He’s been doing that stuff since he was a little kid. Lately he has released a lot more improvised stuff. He may be working on some more compositional stuff, I’m not positive. I’ve released a ton of improvised records with him recently. I’m a huge fan of all of his work. I played bass on Eureka, Halfway to a Threeway, Insignificance. We had a group called Brise-Glace in the early 90s. I was lucky because in Chicago he produced a lot of records and he asked me to play bass on them. Mainly Drag City artists.
Did you see that The Sea and Cake is playing tonight, speaking of Chicago bands. They are part of the avant pop music that was coming out of Chicago in the 90s.
Yeah, a great time in music. It is still happening there, especially in jazz and improvised music. I don’t think it gets the critical attention it used to get.
That makes me want to ask you about Japan. Jim O’Rourke is now in Japan. You have a Japan connection. Japan always seems to take things out of the West and then amplify them. What’s your take on Japan.
I will tell you that Japan is my favorite place in the world: the people, the food, the music, the terrain. I’m lucky that I go there at least once a year, sometimes twice a year. I’ve toured the whole country and feel very lucky to have gotten to do that. Most people don’t get to do that. It’s very humbling. It is very different there. I’m not sure I agree that they amplify it. I’m not sure what exactly they do. But they know a lot about music. They focus in on things that boggle my mind. The people that come to my shows there know every record I’ve ever made. They know who produced it, who recorded, what year it was recorded, who played on it, all the names of the songs. They know more than I know! They know everything about it. That kind of dedication is inspiring.
And when they go to a live show, it is serious business. They aren’t joking around. At a live show, they are usually sitting or standing motionless. Sometimes, I can hardly tell if they are breathing! When you first experience that, you think you’ve played the worst show of your life and they hate you. And then afterward, they want to meet you and they are so excited and want to talk about records. I love it there. Lately, since about 2005, I’ve been doing free jazz concerts with the great Akira Sakata, my mentor and hero. I could go on about that man for hours. I encourage everyone to find out what they can about him. He’s obscure here and not as well known outside of Japan. But he’s a marine biologist, an actor, he’s had tv shows, he’s a great jazz artist, one of the founders of free jazz in Japan. The guy is fascinating. I play with him, Chris Corsano and Jim O’Rourke in Japan; outside of Japan, it is a trio because Jim won’t leave Japan. I’ve had the best times of my life there in Japan. I also toured Eureka with Jim O’Rourke there in the 90s.
I love that record! I was just listening to it. It is amazing; it goes all over the place.
Yes, I love it too. It is a beautiful crazy record. We toured it there and it was kind of a similar experience, playing pop and free jazz. They just love music so much. It is great for a musician. I mean, a lot of people love music in the states, but it is just different there. It’s like when you and your friends get together to talk about music or theater or film or whatever and there’s four of you; over there, it’s like there’s 200. There’s more of it and so much enthusiasm.
The other thing that’s interesting there too is that, of course, it needs to make money, but it isn’t so based on money. They figure out ways to make it happen. I mean, ticket sales don’t pay for Chris Corsano and my plane ticket over there. So through funding, private donations, on and on, they figure out a way to make it happen. A magazine, a club and a label might bring you over, not just a promoter.
On that idea of making money, here we are in 2011. What are your thoughts on how musicians make a living in this era where everything is downloadable and often free. How do you do it?
Well, the easy answer is that it is a combination of lots of things. But the more difficult answer is that no one knows at this point. Everyone is scrambling to figure it out. For me personally, I’ve never paid a bill off of record sales. My whole life. And I’ve been making records since the 80s. So the collapse of the record industry does affect me as much as many of my close friends and people that I work with. Ultimately, it affects us all, but as far as making a living, it doesn’t affect me personally just yet. I do things like teach, so I supplement with that. It’s an interesting time. It can be looked at a lot of ways. I choose to not just look at it in a negative way. Something is collapsing; something is disappearing. But at the same time, something became huge.
I just saw Hugo, the new film by Martin Scorsesee, which is partly about the collapse of the silent film industry. And there are parallels to where we are now, both with film and music. The recorded medium of music is changing.
I appreciate that you aren’t looking at in a binary, black and white way. It’s complicated.
Well for example, I love albums. I grew up on albums and I love listening to them from beginning to the end. And I don’t know if that even exists for many people now. But it exists for me. And I’m going to keep making albums. It’s what I do. And if I’m a giant sloth going down in the tar pits, I guess I’m gonna go down the tar pits. And I’m not going to stop.
A lot of people are bummed out about it. But I think we’ll figure it out.
Well, the internet is a Pandora’s box that’s been opened and there’s no way to shut it. It’s changed everything for the good and the bad.
Right. People have heard things that I’ve played on that they never, ever would have heard otherwise. I would love it if I got paid for that and got money and was able to live a better life. However, who is to say how it will all pan out in the long run. Who’s to say someone won’t fly me to Peru to play because they heard me on the internet and got some funding. Who’s to say? It can happen and has happened.
You know, I managed a record store and I worked there right when CDs were coming in. And the same conversations were happening then. It was the death of vinyl. And obviously that didn’t happen. Here’s vinyl now outselling some CDs now. And it reminds of when synthesizers became affordable. And when they came in, everyone was going to be put out of work. No more drummers, no more real musicians, no more bass players. It is going make everything obsolete. And obviously it didn’t do that.
So I hold hopes. I have to.