Chris Corsano: Interview
“Back and forth between many different worlds.”
Exemplifying robust cosmopolitan values, Chris Corsano makes himself at home across multiple scenes and sound-worlds, from rock to noise to free-jazz to ________. He’s played with a massive range of musicians, including Thurston Moore, Björk, Nels Cline, and C. Spencer Yeh. He’s also in a little trio called Rangda with Sir Richard Bishop and Ben Chasny, and works frequently with Mick Flower in the Flower-Corsano Duo. When he’s found the time, Corsano’s dropped some astounding and gonzo solo albums — 2006’s The Young Cricketer and 2009’s Another Dull Dawn — and has recently been spotted working with free-jazz legends like Paul Dunmall and Joe McPhee.
Corsano’s all over place. Not only is he out collaborating with whoever’s up for the challenge, but he’s constantly drifting across the globe searching for new sounds and kicking up noise at international festivals and in mysterious galleries. As you can imagine, he’s not an easy dude to catch up with. But Tiny Mix Tapes did it. We caught him. Then, we tied him up for an hour and forced him to talk to us about what it’s like to be one of the most exciting drummers making music today. Here’s what he had to say.
You played on a track on guitarist Glenn Jones’ new album, The Wanting, called “The Orca Grand Cement Factory At Victorville.” I interviewed Jones a few months ago, and he said the following about you: “Chris Corsano — nothing musical is alien to him.” How do you feel about that?
Hmm. [Laughs]. I don’t know about that. I appreciate the compliment, but that’s not true. When I read stuff he’s written, or when I’ve talked to him, everything he says is amazing. He can cut through things really well — he’s clear, but also poetic. He can talk about music very eloquently and also play the hell out of a guitar. But, I don’t know what he was thinking this time. Normally he hits the nail on the head. [Laughs] There are plenty of musical things that are alien to me.
He also mentioned that the first time you met each other was at the Brattleboro Free Folk Festival in 2003. How have you seen that scene evolve since those early days?
It was a defining moment for me and many others. That, and the DeStijl/Freedom From Festival and the No Fun Festivals a few years later. After a while, they all started to feel like family reunions, and new members of the family started to come in one way or another. Despite the bastardization of “free folk” into “freak folk,” all the people who were there are still solid. They just continue to do their own things. The context they work in always changes, but it seems like the music comes more from within their own cracked heads. [Laughs]
“I look at drums as tools for when there’s a sound in my head that I want to get out, or if there’s somebody who’s producing sounds, then I use drums so I can respond to them. When I’m really excited about the person I’m playing with, there’s a creative energy that I need to release.”
I’ve heard some drummers talk about how they approach their kit as a tool, like an external object, and others say they think of it, not as an extension of their bodies, but as an actual body-part. How do you think of your kit?
I don’t subscribe to the idea of “drums as a part of the body.” That’s more of a metaphor than an actuality. Maybe that’s a consequence, for me, of touring a lot. Like, when I’m in the UK, I can’t bring my own drum set, so I have to borrow one. It would be weird to think of those drum sets as a part of my body that just changed every night.
I look at drums as tools for when there’s a sound in my head that I want to get out, or if there’s somebody who’s producing sounds, then I use drums so I can respond to them. When I’m really excited about the person I’m playing with, there’s a creative energy that I need to release. Or maybe there will just be an action that my arms want to do. Drums are just a means, and there are some things with drums I can’t do. Sometimes due to physical limitations. You know, I wish I could play so fast that it would be only tones. But, maybe then the “drum as part of the body” metaphor works since we’re always dealing with these limitations, whether of the body or of the drums themselves.
For me, they’re just a sound source. They’re just these heavy things that I lug around because they’re the best instrument I’ve found so far to make the kind of music I want to make.
You’ve incorporated a lot of small utensils and random objects into your kit in the past. What have you been working with recently?
I’ve been getting more into contact mics recently, and I’ve been using pieces of wood on the skins. I’ve been building these strings, stretching them across the drum and blowing them. I’ve been tinkering mostly with old setups, like a sax mouthpiece into a funnel on the skins with a circular breathing drone. I’ve been refining some things that never really sounded quite right to me. Actually, maybe I’ve been hitting a few dead-ends recently, or at least I feel that way. There was a period when I was arriving at a lot of new stuff, but these days I’ve been more focused on honing what I already have. I’m still looking. Maybe it’s like a writer’s block, or something. [Laughs]
I’ve seen you perform twice this year, both times in Philadelphia: One was a trio with Nate Wooley and C. Spencer Yeh, and for the other you were doing a live, solo score for a film by Andy Lampert. These required you to adapt to two very different performance situations.
Adapting is just what a drummer, or any musician, does. Especially if you’re an improviser. Actually… that reminds me that I just totally fucking lied to you about that last question. I did this whole elaborate thing with contact mics and strings and an amplified fork, and there’s a whole bunch of new shit I’ve been using recently.
Why did you lie?
[Laughs] I forget what I’m doing sometimes. I don’t normally think about what I’m using until someone asks me. Like when people go to work and do their daily thing… this is just what I do. None of it seems important other than the overall goal of making music that I enjoy.
As far as adapting, when I go into a situation, I have an idea of what the people I’ll be playing with are going to sound like, maybe. And then, I just adapt as I go. It’s a necessity. If you don’t, people will notice that you’re being insensitive to what’s happening around you. The thing with Andy required much more of an adaptation. I’d never done a film score before, whether live or recorded. I didn’t know any of the dialogue, and there were some technical difficulties so we couldn’t do a run through before the show. As you were hearing that dialogue for the first time, so was I. I had seen the visuals and could sort of guess what the content was, but that’s it. The score wasn’t supposed to be as improvised as it was. [Laughs] So adaptation is survival, and if you don’t adapt, you get left out in the cold.
On your 2006 solo album, The Young Cricketer, the song titles created this narrative of advice to a young, aspiring cricketer. Where did that story come from?
I found this book in a thrift shop in the UK and it fit really well with a couple of metaphors — maybe no one else picked up on them — and I used an image for the cover art. I was living in Manchester at the time, and noticed that with all the other countries where I could move, England is really not that much different — same language, and so on. But doing the Cricketer record was like me joking around to myself, and being in this new spot and feeling alienated from the city. Cricket seemed ultra-English and the book was written by this old-timer — the guy on the cover is actually the writer’s father. It was filled with all of this kinda old-fogey advice, like “We need to keep the spirit of cricket alive,” and when you take that out of the context, it all seemed ridiculous and funny.
I’m serious about what I’m doing, but I like including at least a vague sense of humor, especially with the song titles. I think it makes this sorta very serious music a bit easier to ingest. Music without lyrics doesn’t necessarily have some kind of meaning it’s trying to communicate other than the music, so then with the titles you have this open text that you can play around with. Cricketer was something like a concept record, except there’s no concept other than the music.
Last year you put out a really raw and raging record with saxophonist Virginia Genta called Live In Lisbon. What was that show like?
That’s funny you say that. Virginia sent me the recordings and was like “Hey, we should put this out.” And I said, “No, it sounds really dirty and raw and we shouldn’t.” She wrote back and said, “I think you’re wrong.” I gave a copy of the recording to my friend Bill Nace and asked him what he thought and he gave it a thumbs up. I trusted his judgment over mine. [Laughs]
It was on the rooftop of Gallery ZDB in Lisbon. Usually they have shows inside, but it was summer so we decided to do it on the roof. It was in this older section of Lisbon where the buildings are really jammed next to each other, so I could look out and see some old guy in his kitchen wearing a sleeveless T-Shirt with stains all over it hanging out. There were these birds flying overhead. It was a fun show because the space wasn’t a dark club. It was great, but I thought the drums might be too loud.
You recently did a residency at Incubate Festival in the Netherlands. How did it go?
I played three nights in a row with people whose music I really love. It was great. The first night was with Dennis Tyfus, the second was with Christine Sehnaoui, and the third was a duo with Mats Gustafsson. The first night actually ended in a trio with me, Dennis and Christine. I would’ve like to do more of that: bring together two people who hadn’t played together before and who wouldn’t played together otherwise. They both seem to travel in different circles, but that’s mostly an illusion. The stuff Dennis is doing with vocals and tapes fit in really well with what Christine’s doing, but because they get looked at a certain way they end up playing different gigs and live in different worlds. I’ve always been lucky to hop back and forth between many different worlds, which is what I always liked about the Free Folk Fest. They’d bring together all these things even though everyone didn’t sound the same.
Like, if you listen to all the late-’70s New York bands like Teenage Jesus and DNA, none of those bands sound alike, but they all inhabited a certain space. By virtue of what they weren’t, they became something, and then people called it No-Wave and it became a thing. That’s always going on, so it’s up to musicians to make the connections and play with each other. No offense to writers, but as soon as a writer writes something about music, readers take it really seriously and 10 years later someone reads it and they think that’s how it was. Musicians also can get lazy and they read something and think, “Oh, this is how I really am,” or “This is how that person is.” I’ve found that the expectations I have of someone from some particular scene are always imploded the moment I play with them. Everyone’s eager to get out of their skin and do something different. Once you start cross-pollinating with new people, you discover new sounds. I wish I did more of that at Incubate.
“Virginia sent me the recordings and was like ‘Hey, we should put this out.’ And I said, ‘No, it sounds really dirty and raw and we shouldn’t.’ She wrote back and said, ‘I think you’re wrong.’”
Of Christine Sehanoui’s recorded material I’ve heard, she tends to be pretty soft, and Mats Gustafsson often goes really hard. How was it improvising with these two different stylists?
Actually, I think Christine’s responsible for the loudest sound I’ve ever heard made with a saxophone. She has a lot of crazy techniques, and one of them is that she can cut through air like a knife. Mats is an incredibly powerful player, but he can also be really detailed and delicate when he wants to be. Playing with someone really helps me see the entirety of their palette as opposed to listening to them on a record. Their intensity level is equal, but it often happens at different volume levels.
Christine’s like a human synthesizer, so I was just thinking about what I could do to complement that. I was using a sax mouthpiece and a piece of metal pulsing against the snare skin. I got to some places that I’d never reached before, and that was totally because of her doing these other long tones and intense sounds.
I heard you also recently played in trio with Alan Bishop and Bill Orcutt?
Yeah. Bill played electric guitar and Alan was on electric bass. It was loud and angular. We had never played together before. I had a really good feeling about it, so I just went for it. I was out of breath really fast. I hadn’t seen Orcutt since his Harry Pussy days, and his new acoustic stuff is amazing. Like Mats and Christine, he’s a player who, as soon as you try to crystallize what they’re playing with words, you’re already leaving out 50 percent of what’s really going on. Music has more things going on than can be put into words and expressed in conversation. If we’re both talking at the same time, it doesn’t work. But with music, it works.
A new Flower-Corsano record’s coming up soon, right?
The new one with Mick Flower and Matt Heyner’s off to the pressing plant and it should come out in December, when Mick and I are doing a short tour in the UK opening for Group Inerane. We had these recordings from 2009 at Issue Project Room when Mick and I played with Matt, who’s also in Test and No-Neck Blues Band. He brought his electric bass and did some percussion, too. Mick and I sorta do our thing. It changes, but it changes slowly so it felt really good to have Matt be the driving force. With No-Neck there are so many people, and while there is some individuality, there’s mostly a big group sound. So you’re not always conscious on the records what Matt’s doing. The same happens with Test recordings. But I love his sound, and so when I mixed the record I just cranked his bass. It’s not just another Flower-Corsano thing. Matt’s more like our special guest leader on this one.
Group Inerane’s fantastic. In the past few years a lot of this non-Western music that used to be really esoteric is blowing up, even on normally sheltered websites like NPR.
It’s about time. Glenn Jones was recently on NPR, too, so maybe the rules have changed. Coming from a punk and hardcore background, normally when someone shows up on NPR it’s a sign that a terrible thing has happened. [Laughs] Maybe there are some good things happening in the world that bubble up to the surface so people like NPR cover it. Alan Bishop and Sublime Frequencies are really responsible for that when it comes to bands like Group Inerane. They go around, they care enough and they have great ears. They spend their whole lives chasing this stuff down. I think it’s cool that more people get to hear it. A few years ago, the world-music stuff was normally softer sounds that translated more easily to an NPR audience. But if groups like Inerane and Group Bombino are gonna toughen the skin of your average NPR listener, that kinda helps everybody out.
“I wondered if this super-surreal exposure I got by doing the Björk tour would bring out some new people, but it didn’t happen. It didn’t change much of anything, and in the end I really don’t care.”
Do you think a day will come where your solo music streams on NPR?
[Laughs] I doubt it, but it only really takes one crazy person at a radio station or wherever to think that it’s a good idea and con their bosses into thinking it’s legit. You know, I wondered what would happen after I played on the Björk tour. I wondered if it would change who came out to shows. When I signed up for that tour I had already done some solo tours, and I realized that it was just the same people out in the audience who looked like me — same age, white, male, record-collector nerds. I was just playing for myself all the time, and I started to wonder if that made my music less valid since the only people who seemed to relate to it were those who had the same history as me. I was just preaching to the converted. I mean, I’m not convinced that you have to have the widest audience possible, but it’s nice to do something that can appeal to a diverse group of people without having to compromise your work. Anyway, I wondered if this super-surreal exposure I got by doing the Björk tour would bring out some new people, but it didn’t happen. It didn’t change much of anything, and in the end I really don’t care.
If something weird happened and my solo stuff was on NPR, I think it would just be a blip on the radar… That’s where I’ve gotten all my inspiration from anyway, so that’s fine. Things are the way they should be for what I’m doing, and I’m not looking to change anything.
As you mentioned before, you’re sorta traversing between many different worlds…shifting between scenes and frequently engaging with new collaborators and seeking new sounds. What keeps you pushing forward?
On a simple level, it makes me feel good to continue musical relationships with people like Mick, and to form new ones that excite me. When I hear something new, I wanna hang out with that person, play with them, and just get together. I want to create something that’s new for both of us.
In a more cynical view of things, my drive is from a fear of stagnation. Part of me thinks, “Fuck, man, who needs all these goddamn records?” when I look at how many records I’ve done. Sometimes I don’t think anybody should have to buy all of them. I want each one to be different and good enough so there’s a reason why a bunch of plastic was used to make them and people actually parted with their money to get them, or even to part with disc space to illegally download them. Time itself is unlimited, so I want any attention or kindness thrown my way to be warranted by always creating something new and not making the same record over and over again. It’s a paranoia. There needs to be new sounds every time or there’s no point.