Weasel Walter: Interview
Musical Masturbation with Shit on the Wall
Since there's no accounting for taste, I'm sure many of you are asking: Who the
fuck is Weasel Walter? He's the driving force behind the Flying Luttenbachers.
He's also the founder of the Chicago Improvised Music Workshop, attended by
Kevin Drumm and, you guessed it, Jim O'Rourke. But these days he's not too
interested in improv. The last Luttenbacher's album, Systems Emerge from
Complete Disorder, was composed and performed in its entirety by Weasel.
He's a rarity: I ask Weasel if he wants to do an interview while buying some of
his music from him, and he says sure. I proceed to have schoolwork, and go to
the No Fun Fest, and be generally busy, and don't send him questions. And then,
out of nowhere, I get an email from him asking me if I still want to do the
interview. This is the kind of guy that makes people look bad, as he did me. His
responses came back fast, thorough, and scathingly honest. He'll have none of
the mystique that generally surrounds musicians. He works his ass off. He knows
what he likes. And he's by no means a "drummer"; he just plays drums because
nobody else will, or can. I appreciate the time and thought he put into this
interview, and I can't thank him enough. I know he'll hate my writing this, but
this guy is everything that's right in music. I hope you'll think so, too.
You've worked with so many people in your career. Is there anyone you haven't
worked with you're dying to play with?
WW: Good question. Yes and no. In regards to the "no" answer: when I
was younger, I had my sights set on playing with certain free jazz guys (or
whatever), but through the years I realized that I wound up playing with who I
should be playing with, for whatever cosmic reason, for better or worse. I
didn't get to where I am by following some preset path. It doesn't really do
much of anything creatively to go around and collect scalps in the music scene.
The only thing that really matters is the actual strength of what you're doing,
not the illustrious list of names of who you did it with.
On the "yes" side: I would really like to do something with Mick from Orthrelm
and Zach from Hella. I think they're two of the most incredibly disciplined and
distinctive players in the underground right now and a trio like this could
certainly create some formidable music. I'd want to be the bass player -- the
chance to tie together their concepts would be really amazing. If it happens, it
does. If it doesn't...
"With the Luttenbachers I'm interested in honing my
craft to precision, not just chucking shit at the wall and shaking my fist like
a hardcore guy to underline the intent."
TMT: How and why did you come to be enamored with these two?
WW: Well, Zach is the best drummer in the world and Mick is a rock
musician and conceptualist of unusual discipline and vision. Although at times
it might be a little hard to tell, I'm very much into excellence, and it's only
natural that I would admire excellent musicians!
TMT: Do you find composing or improvising more rewarding?
WW: Composition! I'm really not all that interested in pure
improvisation anymore. I'm more interested in controlling complexities of
structure, harmony, timbre, etcetera, and not so interested creating situations
for groups of players to masturbate together in. I realized at one point that I
was going to express what I wanted to express more fully by concentrating on
orchestrating exactly what I want out of music as opposed to leaving it up to
chance. And when you don't have truly excellent improvisers, one is leaving the
result up to chance. I'm more Boulez than Cage at the moment...
TMT: Do you regret the time and energy put into improvisation, such as
your workshops in Chicago? Or was it a valuable step for you as a musician and
composer? Do you think there's any worthwhile improvisation going on?
WW: It wasn't a waste, because it was time spent being actively
involved in creative music. I had to organize people and exercise a degree of
logic in putting certain musicians together. I had to deal with logistics. I had
to respond immediately and in a meaningful way with musicians I'd never played
with before. There's more to being a musician than just playing notes. Way more.
It's a whole worldview. It's a complicated thing.
I don't really listen to free improvised music at all these days. It just
doesn't interest me. Doing all that improvisation in the '90s probably taught me
that I much prefer singlehandedly controlling the structure of my music rather
than having a bunch of people spontaneously make bad or incongruent decisions
about how it is going to turn out. Best of luck to them! I still think Kevin
Drumm is a genius and I enjoy the humor, attitude, and skill of Fred Lonberg-Holm.
Occasionally I play in a band called Murder Murder which is a very cutting
parody of the pretentiousness of contemporary improvisation. I'm a real asshole.
TMT: How do you compose? That is to ask, most composers aren't
drummers by trade, so how does that background affect your work?
WW: I'm not a drummer! I'm a guy who plays the drums in the band
because I can't find anyone else to do the job satisfactorily. I don't have that
much actual affinity for the drums: I do have a strong desire to realize my
music though, and I'll utilize whatever tools I need to in order to get it done.
My compositions spring from a need to constantly try and expand the creative
scope of the project while remaining intense and challenging.
I'll get an idea that is purely abstract and I'll try and figure out a way to
bear out the concern in the writing. It's sort of like problem solving. I'm very
interested in continuity -- whether it's the storyline running through the
albums, the internal motivic continuity of a single composition or, like the
next record, writing a whole album based on a very limited set of musical
elements. I like to find new ways of saying what I'm trying to say with music. I
just hack away at things until I have something I like. I'm very concerned with
using non-standard harmony in particular. I identify clichés in order to avoid
TMT: How much is your sound limited by the tools at your disposal? How
often do you recreate the sounds in your head?
WW: You know, I hear a lot of what I want in my head, but by the time
it comes out, it has changed. Once something comes out into reality, you always
start seeing different things in the kernel of the idea and it begins to
transform itself. In some ways, my writing is a mechanical process. I'll weigh
certain elements like density, meter, tempo, blah blah blah against each other
and try to mold the writing statistically, trying to find a balance of all the
elements that satisfies me. I dunno, there's a million approaches. It can be
pretty analytical. I listen to a lot of complex music and try to learn and come
to terms with the possibilities of composition on a higher level. I definitely
don't have the instrumentation I want for the live band at the moment. It's a
guitar trio, which is fine in itself, but it limits what kind music we can make
on stage very severely. I accept this for what it is and leave the wacky
arrangements for the solo records! I've never had the resources I want, but I
choose to deal with it anyways. It's always been an extremely primitive
"I'm more interested in controlling complexities of
structure, harmony, timbre, etcetera, and not so interested creating situations
for groups of players to masturbate together in."
TMT: What resources are you lacking? I'm relatively unfamiliar with
your situation, so what makes it primitive?
WW: Decent sounding, working equipment. Overzealous prodigy musicians
fully committed to pushing music past known limits. Enough money to pay my rent.
Publicity. Adequate record distribution, accounting and payment of royalties
from labels. A booking agent for Europe. Name it; I don't have it. I do have the
will to create despite the limitations of my circumstances, and I do pretty
good. I don't want to seem like the guy with two hams under his arms who is
complaining that he can't eat because he doesn't have any bread! I do ok. It
could be worse. I still manage to put out a few records every year.
TMT: Being that you worked alone on it, how long did Systems Emerge
take to compose and record?
WW: The compositions on that record took different amounts of time to
complete. "Behemoth" was started about two years before it was actually done. I
had basic rhythm track in the can, but it didn't have an ending or all of the
solo overdubs, so I picked it up when I was putting the album together and
finished it off. "Kkringg Number One" and "kkringg number two" were actually
being rehearsed by the Infection band before it broke up. We played "two" live
on the oops! tour and I played both of them live as a karaoke act in late 2002.
All told, it took about three solid months to really assemble the record once I
decided what was going to be on it. I mastered the record while tripping out of
my brains on mushrooms. (Also that night I listened to John Coltrane's
Infinity LP about four times in a row . . . it sounded real good!) The whole
concept and continuity of the album came to me that particular evening,
including the song titles. I was being communicated with by the unknown.
TMT: What exactly is a karaoke act?
WW: When one pre-records everything except the instrument she intends
to play live and then goes on a two week tour of the midwest and east coast with
this set-up. I'm not a she, but I'm being theoretical.
TMT: What in music today excites you the most?
WW: Music that is visceral, kinetic, intelligent, honest and unusual.
Right now I'm mostly listening to modern classical stuff like Xenakis, Varese,
Messiaen, Boulez, etc. It's all very stimulating to me because of its amazing
complexity and density. I feel like I'm trying very hard to adapt some of their
techniques into a rock-based format -- it's more apparent on the solo stuff, but
the spirit is still there with the band stuff too, albeit in an overly
TMT: What is it about these composers that you appreciate, beyond
their complexity and density?
WW: Their music sounds incredible! Most of it (still) goes far beyond
the norm sonically. A lot of it is very intriguing on an intellectual or
organizational level. Often, all of the parameters of these sorts of
compositions are not immediately evident, so there is a definite reward to
concentrated and/or repeated listening. There's an incredible amount of
substance and logic involved that you don't find in mainstream music. It's
extremely intelligent art. I tend to like the most extroverted examples because
I enjoy visceral intensity as well. Brains and body.
TMT: Do they have a musical "philosophy" you admire?
WW: Yeah, not being a lazy putz about music. Striving for excellence.
Utilizing the wide range of musical possibilities to their fullest. I happen to
enjoy the simplicity of rock music as well, but I'm also very interested in
making some timeless works that warrant repeated listening. Some of my music
will take people a long time to get accustomed to. That's pretty obvious by now.
I'm not being arrogant or something: it's just the truth -- I put a lot of
thought into the logic of my musical presentation and the only way anyone could
ever get it all is if they're me! Or if they read every shred of garbage I write
and say about it all. Or ask me.
It's not that I'm so "ahead of my time" -- it's just that a lot of people are
still so fucking behind the times. I mean, most of the classical stuff I listen
to is almost 100 years old and I suppose it still sounds like noise to most
people. I don't really give a shit what "most people" think though. I'm not at
all concerned with that.
"Look at history: everything gets watered down and
assimilated into the mainstream at some point. Everything."
TMT: Do you have a musical philosophy?
WW: To create intense, visceral music with whatever tools I have at
hand. This music will have multiple layers of information encoded into it. It
will be performed with urgency and velocity, whether it is slow, medium or fast
in tempo. I am interested in expanded tonalities and asymmetry of form. I am
devoted to going beyond what is expected in the idiom of rock music, while still
delivering the goods.
TMT: To wit, how would you describe exactly what you're aiming for
with your music, in the long term?
WW: To somehow continue to survive and grow, documenting my work and
continuing to change. I hope that I've managed to create some music that can
effect people in uncommon ways.
TMT: Who is making the music you're most envious of?
WW: Orthrelm, Hella. I consider these guys to be my peers though...
and superiors in some regards. It's a good thing, not a competition. I think I
still have a long way to go with what I'm doing. There's definitely a way to go
as far as actual quality is concerned. I continue to struggle to move forward
every day. The process will never end.
TMT: Systems Emerge and Eruption present a dichotomy, destructively
chaotic and constructively chaotic accordingly, to your work. Is the destruction
of musical forms or the formation of them from primordial constructs more
interesting to you? Which is more difficult? Rewarding?
WW: Excellent observation. Those records are like inversions of each
other. Eruption is true entropy! I'm not that interested in destruction,
per se. I used to talk a lot of flimsy rhetoric about "destruction", but it had
more to do with confronting the musical status quo, threatening it with some
sort of ultimatum. I was trying to assault the prevalent sensibilities I saw in
the music scene. In a lot of ways it was purely reactionary, which I don't think
is a totally healthy mindset. Now I define my music by what I'm actually doing
as opposed to what I'm not doing or what everyone else is doing that I think
sucks. Call it maturity or whatever you want. I'm not mellowing out a bit, but I
don't really see any more point in making purely chaotic music for its own sake.
I've done plenty of it and I don't know that it proves much other than "look at
me! I've got a lot of energy! I can make noise for a long time!" I did that...
now it's time to do something else. You know, like, be intense and energetic and
dissonant in a deliberate framework, with more detail and accuracy and
variation. One has to transform and adapt or one is simply trapped in the past,
generally with diminishing returns. There will always be someone faster,
noisier, louder, blah blah blah. I'm not competing for any of those titles. I'm
not going to become this pathetic old man trying vainly to do some young
TMT: What place does discomfort have in music? Is it among your aims
to create it in the audience with your music?
WW: No. It's not my aim. I happen to like sonorities and structures
that the common person might find dissonant or challenging. This is their
problem not mine. I'm interested in musical tension, but I'm not interested in
getting in fights with audience members or some nonsense like that. I would say
that I'm trying to create an alien, unusual experience for the audience. An
unfamiliar ritual. If the choose to be threatened by that, well, it's their
problem, once again.
TMT: I made it to the No Fun Fest in Brooklyn, which was absolutely
amazing, not only as a musical event, but also as a bellwether of the strength
and emergence of the burgeoning "noise" community. Where do you think this is
all heading, and what does it mean for music? How well does the community serve
WW: Although I know and appreciate a lot of those people, my music
really doesn't seem to fit into the scope of it all that much -- I know this and
they know it. I'm more of a peripheral member of that community. I get this
feeling that a lot of those folks think I'm too square, or overambitious, or
something! I'm more interested in order than chaos and that's sort of a dividing
line. With the Luttenbachers I'm interested in honing my craft to precision, not
just chucking shit at the wall and shaking my fist like a hardcore guy to
underline the intent. I mean, you didn't see the Luttenbachers there did you? We
weren't invited to the DeStijl festival, All Tomorrows Party, No Fun Fest, the
Empty Bottle festivals... we're not covered in the Wire, we're not a politically
correct member of the so-called current "avant garde" (which seems to mostly
entail bands blatantly ripping off stuff that's already been done better
anyways). This is all obviously for a reason and I'm not worried about it. I'm
always just a little too out of step, it seems, but I don't march to anyone
else's beat. Fuck that. I want to be recognized and liked and accepted, but only
on my own terms, for the right reasons. I'm happy for any success my friends and
peers can get. Satan knows it won't last forever...
The scene you refer to has been around a long time, but it's just that people
didn't bother to notice it until now. Chalk that one up to the ignorance of the
masses - people who think they "know" about music but actually don't lift a
finger to find out about it. Most people only like stuff when it's served to
them on a platter, i.e. "Noise is the new Emo" or whatever people are saying
these days. Give me a fucking break.
I mean, when the Japanese noise stuff really became known in the U.S. around
1990, plenty of people picked up on it -- and those people made bands. Wolf Eyes
didn't start yesterday! Those people have been doing this stuff for more than a
decade. Tom Smith has been doing this shit since the mid-Seventies! You know? I
think that certain aspects of noisy music have become more acceptable, or dare I
say it - trendy. I'm not concerned with trends and it always seems like I'm on
the outside looking in. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I'll outlast all
trends. If "noise" becomes truly popular I seriously doubt it will benefit me in
any major way. Maybe I'll get a few more mastering jobs. I don't care about
fitting in. I want success, but I'm not willing to pander to any certain
audience to get it, let alone the noise scene.
"I think that certain aspects of noisy music have
become more acceptable, or dare I say it - trendy. I'm not concerned with trends
and it always seems like I'm on the outside looking in."
TMT: Is there a creative community you do identify with and consider
yourself a member of?
WW: Musically, not per se. There is a handful of bands that I think
are pushing the envelope of rock forms, and I identify with them in theory, but
it's very spread out, and it isn't a localized "scene" or community. Bands like:
Zs, Orthrelm, Upsilon Acrux, Grand Ulena, Hella . . .
However, I do enjoy living in the Bay Area and having the friendship and/or
empathy of the people from Erase Errata, Total Shutdown, XBXRX, Deerhoof, John
Dwyer, Burmese, Crack: W.A.R., Numbers, etc. It's a pretty diverse situation,
with room for even more diversity!
TMT: Do you think noise can become popular? Like abstract art, can it
have an appeal beyond fringe?
Sure. But it won't be for reasons of musical aesthetics: it will be because
of marketing and trends. You know, like, Britney Spears makes a (cough) "noise"
album -- a watered down version of something more potent and creative. Don't
laugh -- it could happen. Of course her "noise" probably wouldn't be what we
consider to be the real thing, but at that point "we" have nothing to do with
it. Look at history: everything gets watered down and assimilated into the
mainstream at some point. Everything.
People enjoy collecting things that fall into categories. They're often more
interested in the thing being collected because it's collectible than the actual
content or true nature of the thing itself.
If noise "gets popular" it will only be for a short time until the brainless
consumer herds of sheep move on to their next trend. With the increasing
popularity of noise will come an ABSOLUTE DELUGE OF MEDIOCRITY (or worse). It
will all be so disposable in nature that people will get sick of it almost
immediately. Mark my word. If it's so fucking easy to make, what value does it
really have, beyond being some stupid audio-format Pog/pet rock/beanie baby to
collect? If people enjoy doing that, good for them. I'm happy for them.
TMT: As you say, its been around for 30 or 40 years, with very little
in the way of inroads made to popularity. Where does music go beyond noise? Or
have we reached the limit, and all that's left is refinement?
WW: 30 or 40 years doesn't even touch the surface. We'd probably have
to go back even further to the Italian Futurists to see the roots. Beyond making
noise is the controlling of noise. It's pretty easy to just throw some shit on
the wall and see if it sticks -- that's why I don't really care about being "a
noise musician". I mean really. The people who are good in noise usually have an
actual concept or personality, but the rest of them? Pfffft. It's so utterly
boring I can't even begin. Where "noise" ends and music begins is the action of
taking these sounds and controlling them to instill them with more meaning and
nuance. This process will never end. It's inconceivable. If there's a new way of
generating sound, the controlling of it will extend much further.
TMT: To Live and Shave in LA was at the No Fun Fest with Tom Smith,
and were fantastic. How was it working with them on the Wigmaker album? What did
playing in TLASILA 2 accomplish for you?
WW: Wigmaker was assembled largely from various recordings by Tom. I
didn't attend a wigmaker recording session, but recordings of my stuff were
edited into the stew. Tom is a very unique individual - he's the real deal. A
true outsider artist. The Shave 2 debacle seems to have put a little permanent
bad blood between us, but I'm certainly not holding anything against Tom. The
members of Shave 2 just felt that there was a certain aesthetic route that we
wanted to continue without Tom (who wanted to integrate what we thought were
lesser powers into the group.) This schism was an act of surrealism, pure and
simple. The concept and outcome of Shave 2 was really great and our recordings
are testimonials to this. It was a very successful project on many levels.
"I'm very concerned with using non-standard harmony in
particular. I identify clichés in order to avoid them."
TMT: What are you currently working on?
WW: I'm in the following bands: Flying Luttenbachers, Curse of the
Birthmark, XBXRX and Goof Ice. Flying Luttenbachers are recording a new album
called "The Void" next week. It'll be out in October on Troubleman. I'm working
on another one-man FLs record at the moment as well. Curse of the Birthmark is
recording some stuff in a few weeks for a bunch of releases. XBXRX is in
rehearsal for an album release and some more shows. Goof Ice is a weird
electronic band with Zeek Sheck, Erin from Crack and some other dorks. We just
show up and confuse the audience with our lukewarm bleets and squeaks. No
ambition beyond that!
TMT: What should we expect out of the next Luttenbachers release(s)?
WW: The Void is simplistic guitar trio material sort of like
"Revenge" only deliberately slower in tempo and more morbid and spacious in
tone. The new solo record will have a mixed bag of complexities. Every time I
make a record, somebody hates it and somebody else likes it! They're all
different ways of saying the things I'm trying to say, but some people like
certain flavors more than others.
TMT: In your Dusted Listed, you said SF was better than NYC right now.
Why is that?
WW: NYC breeds so many poseurs and fakes. Pardon my french, but it's
true. It's an unhealthy economic and social environment. It also harbors this
weird localism that I find totally retarded: "We're from Brooklyn/New York!" So
what. As if that matters. Congratulations on being able to afford the rent.
SF has a lot of positive energy right now and there's certainly more emphasis on
actual originality, rather than just picking an early '80s band and copying them
in order to be famous for 15 minutes, which seems to be the way to go in New
York. Nostalgia is death. The weather is great here and the libraries are
excellent. I love it.
TMT: Have you read anything exceptional lately?
WW: Yes! I read a lot of books about 20th century composers and these
guys were/are pretty fucking smart and illuminating about many things. In
particular I found the final Igor Stravinsky/Robert Craft book extremely
informative and hilarious. I read some transcripts of lectures by Chavez, Webern
and Messiaen that were very engaging. Recently Messiaen's book "The Technique of
my Musical Language" was very helpful to me in understanding his music as well
as my own. I'm really into music theory, so I mostly read music related stuff,
but I read ravenously -- about 10 or 20 books a week. It's all just sitting
there at the library, waiting for you and me. Doesn't cost a dime, and you
couldn't buy these books even if you wanted to! You couldn't find them.
The last fiction I read was Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal, and Glamorama by
Bret Easton Ellis. I like trashy stuff sometimes. ha ha ha.
TMT: In that article, you also raved about Zach Hill, the drummer for
Hella. What are your thoughts about the bumper crop of young drummers such as
Hill, Brian Chippendale, and Chris Corsano?
WW: Once again, Chippendale has been in this game for close to a
decade . . . He's no spring chicken! These three drummers are very different,
but they all play with a lot of energy and individualism. Zach is fucking
unbelievable, regardless of what anyone thinks of Hella's music, he's an
undeniable force of nature. Brian is a physical dynamo and he's definitely got
his own musical agenda. I haven't really heard much of Chris, but he and Paul
Flaherty are playing with the Luttenbachers next month, so we'll see. I mean,
Brian and Zach just blow me off the stage so easily. I can't compete with guys
like that, so I don't try. Whatever aptitude I have for drumming is from force
of will. I'm no genius or natural. I just try to do what I can.
TMT: You fooled me!
WW: A genius is someone who doesn't really have to try and she succeeds
beyond everyone else. I try very, very hard and still don't feel like I'm doing
much that is truly extraordinary. That's not self-deprecation, so much as the
blunt truth. I don't feel like a natural at anything. What I do is mostly a
result of sheer force of will and hard work.