Chris Weisman: Interview
“I’m into weird that works.”
Chris Weisman has a tendency to freak out. A devout Beatles fan since elementary school, he went on to study jazz and music theory at the University of New Hampshire. Since graduating more than a decade ago, he’s been twisting and turning between songwriting and jazz, searching for what he calls “my method, or something.” His love of catchy tunes and complex chords has produced a body of work that veers from quiet and folky to shocking and tripped out. No matter which Weisman record you spin, it’s hard to know what’s coming next.
And then there are the freak-outs. They’re deeply personal and hit Weisman pretty often. During a period of “crisis,” as he calls it, Weisman may declare he’s finished with songwriting or consider leaving music altogether. The thing is, the songs always come back. And when they do, he records them quickly, singing and playing guitar at the same time, straight to 4-track.
Except, it didn’t quite go that way when he was writing his new double-album Transparency. “It’s like five follow-ups to Fresh Sip, that all collapsed,” Weisman explains during recent phone conversation. He’s referring to his 2009 double-album, Fresh Sip, which NPR declared one of the “10 Best Cassettes of 2010.” According to Weisman’s accounting, some of the songs on Transparency were originally written for a still-gestating follow-up to Northern Songs, his 2009 collaborative album with Greg Davis. Others were written for an album Weisman recorded directly after finishing Fresh Sip. The thing is, he freaked about that album and never released it. Then there’s the handful of unpredictable, wild instrumentals that break up the songs on Transparency. Those were written in 2008, during a time when Weisman had given up writing songs to become an “avant-garde jazz guy.” He recorded an album of instrumentals, listened to them, and decided he was doing the wrong thing. Then he holed up in his parents’ house and wrote and recorded Bicycle Operator and Coach in two weeks. It’s one of his catchiest albums, hands down. And it’s all songs.
Weisman’s greatest strength may be that he never gives up, even when he gives up. Instead, he pours all the searching and conflict into his songs. He’s a songwriter, guitarist, teacher, home recordist, and inventor of limited pitch collections. He just authored a book about one of his pitch collections, called Nonmusical Patterns and Their Musical Uses. Over time, all those ideas cross-germinate. And as Weisman himself points out, he’s like a gardener who tends soil for years, only to one day find an exotic flower growing in that soil, though he doesn’t know how it got there. That’s an apt metaphor for Transparency. Weisman tended to a handful of ideas over a few years, and though he didn’t think any of them would bear fruit, a long and adventurous album sprung up out of the darkness.
There’s a lot happening on Transparency. It’s a lot to listen to in one sitting.
I don’t think of it as something that you would probably consume all at once. I think the recordings that are on that are from probably like … November 2009 to maybe May 2010 or something like that… Greg Davis and I have had … trouble doing a second album. I had made, maybe 10 songs for Greg, maybe in the fall of ‘09. They were, like, sadder, and I don’t think he really knew what to do with them, and so some of those, but not all of those are on there.
On the first side?
I think, mostly.
The first side is quieter, and the second has bit more of the filled-out pop stuff…
There’s certainly some of that at play. … And there’s another whole album I did, that’s a 10-song album I made right after Fresh Sip and then freaked out about and didn’t like…
What did you freak about?
I think I was trying to impress myself by going too fast. I was like, “OK, after [Fresh Sip], I’m going to get really into this method of this thing being like a diary, so the next 10 songs I make, I’ll release them in the order I made them.” The album was called, it had a good title, it was called Chia. And I was then going to make a Chai, and then I was going to make a Cairn… Do you know that word?
Yes. The little piles of rocks you see when you’re hiking.
Yeah. So I made this album, Chai, and then… there were some bad songs on it. Songs with weird problems; songs that needed to be discarded. I just freaked and I sat on it. So that was sitting around for a long time, and then there was probably a whole other wave of recording, and then there was the final wave, which was the one that really felt great.
I … started writing away from the four-track. Instead of writing a song and recording it – maybe the next day – I wrote maybe 10 songs and just learned them and remembered them better. And every morning I’d get up and I’d play through all the ones that I had, actually practicing them. That’s songs like “Round,” “Music In The Line,” “Winning Blues,” “Money Madness,” “Rosenwinkel Vertigo”…
Again, a lot of the stuff on the first side.
A lot of the sad acoustic guitar stuff on the first side. And the method for recording that was a little different, too. I would actually sing and play at the same time, which I don’t usually do. And that’s why the vocals sit a little quieter in the mix. And then I would double-track that, sort of a la Elliot Smith’s first two albums, which I’ve really been into the past couple years. So I made a couple cassettes that were mixed down … and got this funny idea, like, “Oh, I’ll just release this, all of this, as one big thing and make it even longer.” And that idea just kind of stuck and it got kind of played with a little bit over time and some songs got added, and definitely some songs got cut. …
There’s stuff from that period that’s not on there, but that’s how it ended up so long. Honestly, it’s been really fun to do something that’s long, because it feels more … like writing a long book or something … there’s a lot of cross-talk, lyrically. I listen to the whole thing and … there’s even weird stuff where lyrics recur, even though it wasn’t intentional. Stuff like that. Especially for lyrics, it’s fun to have something longer….
How about musically?
No intentional self-reference. … But as my friend Zach was pointing out, he’s hearing more and more similarity between my songs, which I’m a little freaked by, but at the same time it’s kind of inevitable, I think.
“Music is like the one thing that has any flow in my whole life.”
Especially across 30 songs on an album. There have to be a few moments where something seeps in.
I think that chord progressions not as much, because I’m really conscious of those when I’m writing, so that stuff sort of tends to be pretty novel. But when I’m writing melody, I’m just singing. … I think there’s rhythmic things to melodies that I repeat. I don’t catch it. I don’t go, “Oh, I shouldn’t do that, I’ve done that before.”
When we spoke last year, you told me you had written some instrumentals for Transparency using non-musical patterns.
They’re not non-musical patterns. They’re My Alphabets. The similarity between those two things is that a non-musical [pattern] generates, basically, another scale for me to play. And it’s not even a scale in a sense that these are the notes that I’m allowed to use, it’s that these are the notes I’m allowed to use in this place on the guitar. So it’s even more specific than a scale. It’s like a scale position. My Alphabet is just the alphabet laid onto the neck, and then I spell something and each letter has one place where it can make a note on this grid.
“Bicycle,” [from Transparency] is actually just the letters BICYLE. There’s two Cs in the word, obviously, but there’s no representation of that in the scale that’s generated. The one way to listen to that piece is to recognize that there’s… literally only six notes that I’m playing in that whole thing on the guitar.
The title track, “Transparency,” is also in My Alphabet, and then I think “The Beatles” is in My Alphabet. … I recorded them like I would record a song, which is that I allowed myself to overdub over them at will with no restrictions. On “Bicycle,” the keyboard comes in doubling the melody, but the keyboard sound is actually a sound that when you hit a note, not just that note comes out, but the note a perfect fifth above that comes out.
I wrote those and other instrumental My Alphabet pieces [in 2008], and had never recorded them, but had them notated.
How do those fit in with the songs on the album?
The title Transparency means a lot of different things to me. Obviously the title comes from an old piece, but then titling the album that, it’s a reference to the thinner texture of the first side, but it’s also [that] I get into all these grooves where I’m like, “This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to make these My Alphabet pieces, and I’m not going to write songs anymore. Or, Now I’m going to make albums that are like a diary, and they’re always in order.”
I have all these little temporary visions that I think are going to last forever, like I finally found my method or something. I know intellectually that I’m wrong, that I’ll change again. I keep changing all the time, but I’m obsessively looking for the answer or something. By making this big album called Transparency, the thing that’s transparent about it is that it’s all of these concepts that I thought at one time were the big picture, and allowing them to stand side-by-side in a messy way.
That all turned into one huge double album.
Yeah. And it’s a reference to The White Album, too. And it’s 30 songs, the same number of songs. “Julia,” that’s probably The Beatles song that’s had the greatest … well, everything has affected me so much, but that’s how I ended up sounding. That song, in a sense: a lot of crazy chord motion, acoustic guitar, double tracked voices, sort of lean… Transparency is close to that in a way, too, in a way that The White Album is just this massive sort of thing that almost doesn’t hang together.
Last time we talked, we talked about inverted guitar and non-musical patterns and My Alphabet, and you said you had developed all these things, but 90 percent of your work doesn’t really include them. On this album, the tunes that use My Alphabet really stick out. Is there ever a conflict between your love of pop music and the side of you that naturally leans away from the tonal center of whatever you’re writing?
I have identity crisis problems that have to do with being 35 and having less money than I’ve ever had in my life. … Sometimes when I have a period when I’m having trouble writing songs, I fantasize about abandoning the whole thing. And I sort of worry about getting bad, too. So sometimes I fantasize about, “Oh, I’ll just retire from that… and do all this jazz stuff or whatever, instead.”
I’m making songs and I’m making albums, and they’re finally getting released. There’s obviously no money. I don’t play shows and really don’t aspire to go there. I mean, a little. Especially my little fun improvising things I that I like and am starting to do more of. Those are more fun to do live.
Basically what I’m saying is there’s no money … I admit to thinking about money, you know? There’s no money in songs, but the funny thing is my back-up plan is that I’m this insane, esoteric, not-really-jazz guy?
The Wire magazine guy.
Sure. And I kinda am. But that’s not really a money play either, you know?
“This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to make these My Alphabet pieces, and I’m not going to write songs anymore. Or, Now I’m going to make albums that are like a diary, and they’re always in order.”
No, it’s certainly not.
It really isn’t. … The real answer is that in my actual life as a composer, I don’t really have to separate styles. I do sometimes write things that are written with some sort of restriction, and those are almost always instrumental. And those almost never make it onto recordings. So far, anyway, up until Transparency. And those are more where I’m… explicitly exploring restriction, where I’m dealing with a certain limitation. But when I’m in that limitation, and trying to make music from it, the process is exactly the same as when I’m writing a song. So “Bicycle” might sound more angular and more like a weird theory thing, but the process of it is just taking these weird notes and waiting until I hear something. And it’s not like waiting until I hear something complicated, it’s like waiting until I hear something. And then just doing it, you know?
And the same is true of my pop songs. I don’t think of them as pop songs. I just think of them as songs. They can go anywhere. … When the stuff comes out simpler, it’s not because I’m making myself do that. It’s just how those particular pieces turn out. That was a very long answer.
That’s fine. It’s a huge question. Do the pop, jazz, and experimental sides ever overwhelm you with too many ideas going in different directions?
Not really. Part of it is because I write fast. And that probably comes from being an improviser, but even though I’m a very obsessive person, I luckily don’t obsess about the writing. Or the arrangements, actually. Or the recording. Music is like the one thing that has any flow in my whole life. Even thinking about music is all fucked up, but the music itself kinda isn’t so.
No, when I’m writing I just kinda write it. It happens and it really kind of goes its own way, and it’s very easy for me to make decisions. Basically if something happens, I’ll let it happen. If it’s newer types of sounds, notes, note-wise and stuff, then I’ll let that happen, and if it’s simpler, I’ll let that happen. It’s sort of a process of letting it happen.
Two little ideas: One is that all of the practicing that I’m doing with improvisation – a lot of that is about opening up. That’s how I teach, too, just building a relationship with music that’s as direct as possible, and as uncluttered by thought as possible. So a lot of the thinking that I do is designed to get the thinking out of the way, in a sense, and set up systems for approaching music that are as intuitive and non-cerebral as possible.
I want to say that I think that all the practicing and thinking about different things that can happen with notes, and teaching and all that, in a very indirect way is basically the source behind the songs. And then the songs are just kinda this thing that comes out on top that doesn’t have, necessarily, any obvious relationship to the practice, but it energetically comes from that. It’s like tending to soil and then this exotic flower comes out that you don’t really know where it came from.
I definitely feel that when I go through a period of just writing songs and I’m not really practicing and I’m not really exploring new stuff, it’s easier to dry up.
And the one other idea I have, because I said this to a student the other day, because I realized it, is that I am basically into shock. I jokingly called what I did for a few years shock-rock, which is basically what I’m trying to do to my own ear is shock it as violently as possible. I want to hear things go to new chords and melodies go to new notes. Basically, I want to hear something new. Part of the reason I’m attracted to songwriting is that it’s the form that people, including me, are the most familiar with and so it’s the best environment to do something shocking.
“Sometimes I fantasize about, “Oh, I’ll just retire from that… and do all this jazz stuff or whatever, instead.”
It’s almost like a cultural commons we can all relate to and we all know from growing up listening to pop music. This might be an interesting place to speak a little bit about [your new book, Nonmusical Patterns and Their Musical Uses], because it strikes me that part of the point of the book is to make it easier for people to come up with things on the guitar by giving them visual patterns you’ve created. They make visual sense and are easy to play. Is that part of it? Just making it easier and more accessible and have there be less thought involved in sitting down and playing the guitar?
Yes. Absolutely. Basically, when I first started improvising on the guitar, I would learn a scale. Or maybe a scale position. I didn’t know the scale on the whole neck of the guitar; I would just know it in one place. The blues scale, or something like that. And then the way that I would improvise with it was I would basically play with those notes until I started to know how they sounded. But a lot of it was visual, playing where you can play notes at the same time, as long as they’re both notes that are in that scale. And it’s real visual. You’ve got this visual thing in front of you – and this is when I first started – and then you sort of mess around with it, and then just hop around between the points and combine points and everything, and just make sounds…
So anyway, I went through that phase in my early playing, but there was always this specter of “Well, this isn’t really how real improvisers play. They would know the scale on the whole neck, not just in this one place. They would also be changing what scale they played depending on what chord they were on.” So I sort of knew that’s what jazz people did, even though… it was a few years before I ever went to college and learned that stuff.
Then I went through a long period of constantly shifting between scales depending on what chord I was on, depending on what I happened to be hearing. That’s a whole discipline that I love, too. But then the non-musical patterns were sort of a return to that more naive approach. And that’s a good example of where I used a lot of thinking, in a sense, theory thinking, in order to make something that I wouldn’t have to think about. So it took a lot to make these visual patterns. And of course, the visual patterns on the neck, it’s not like you should learn it on the whole neck. It’s not like that. It’s like, that’s it. That one place. There’s a picture on the guitar. And they’re even more fun to play with than the original scale positions I learned when I was first starting, because they also have a visual logic.
I’ve always thought of the non-musical patterns as thumb pianos. Each one is a like a different mbira. And it’s an mbira where all the notes go together to make one harmonious sound. Maybe a weird sound, maybe an exotic sound, but one unified sound. So you get this little thing, and you don’t even have to think about the notes. You just play them and combine them. It’s actually something you can’t do with all of the notes on a guitar, because they don’t really agree as a whole. Or on a piano. The black keys on a piano are another story – or the white keys. Isolating to those are other good examples of places where you can just kind of stay on those notes and see what you get. Especially the black keys on the piano, a major pentatonic scale.
The patterns also have a bit of displacement, right? You once told me it’s octave displacement because there are so many spots where the note value is the same, but it’s up or down an octave.
Right. So actually there is more built in freshness than just a scale position, because scale positions are basically built stepwise. If you’re learning the position of a blues scale or something, you can do leaps, but you have to do them yourself. And you do start to do them after a while. You start to hear notes that are further [down the scale]. You hear the notes better, so you hop. You’re able to hop more.
But with non-musical patterns you can do that too, but there is also some built-in leaps, just walking up and down one of the things is more erratic in terms of interval. There’s sometimes a small step and you’ll do a half-step and then suddenly jump up a perfect fifth or something. So there’s some real motion built into the thing itself. And then it’s this completely easy-to-learn visual thing.
Sometimes I just play the patterns … not over anything, just like a thumb piano, just playing, not thinking about it against anything. But if I am setting it up as a blanket scale that I’m going to use to improvise over a chord progression or something like that, there’s some theoretical thinking that happens in terms of, “I’m going to use this pattern and I’m going to start it against this key and then it should generate this sound.” But then once I’m actually improvising with it, it’s a return to not thinking. And just being intuitive and really sort of not thinking at all.
I can see the book being good for a beginner or intermediate level player to really spice things up by using the visual patterns to find something that might be harmonically surprising or unexpected or maybe even foreign, that they may not find otherwise.
Yeah. It’s actually, I think, that I worked hard in the way that the book is laid out, too. It’s really spare; it’s really open. For anybody that can read just a chord diagram, if you can read a C chord out of a folk book, you can read any of these patterns.
Kind of what I wanted to do was to make, and this is actually really similar to the pop song thing, which is that I wanted to innovate in an area that was accessible… something that I can share with as many people as possible… I don’t want to just make weird theoretical ideas that only super-advanced people [can play and understand]. I want to make radical art that is accessible to the beginner. Where you could pick up this book and you could be playing these scales that are just nothing like anybody’s even really heard. Or, not nothing like anybody’s ever heard, but at the cusp of new kinds of sounds. It’s the same reason that I’m attracted to writing songs. Basically when I first started playing guitar, I was listening to The Beatles, and I had a chord songbook, and now I’m trying to make art with those same forms. It’s like I just want to make a song album and do new stuff – it’s like I’m extending the first forms that inspired me. It’s like a little chord book or something.
A little tribute to what you first learned.
Yeah. Or going back to the beginning to extend it, not just extending it from some high, sort of weird point that nobody knows how to even do anything. They kind of know, “That guy is doing weird stuff, but I don’t understand it.” I want people to hear, like, “That song just went to a weird place and I like how it feels.” [laughs]
Sure. But there are also people who are going focus more on the weirdness, like anything with art. Some people can get into the weird and some people are turned off by the weird.
I’m into the bridge between the two things. I’m into weird that works. That’s my motto.
[Photo: Abby Banks]