Chris Corsano & Bill Orcutt The veteran musicians talk their studio debut, short songs, and “the best music ever made”

Photo: Sebastien Bozon

After collaborating in a variety of settings for the last six years and change — mostly duo, but with an occasional extra ringer or two thrown in — guitarist Bill Orcutt (Harry Pussy) and drummer Chris Corsano (The Hated Music Duo, Icepick, Dissention) have brought out their first full-length studio LP, Brace Up!, on the guitarist’s Palilalia label. Entering the studio proper does not necessarily mean that the rough-hewn veneer from previous live records and limited-edition cassettes is at all lost; on the contrary, their scuzzy message remains both tight and far-reaching, channeling everything from the Minutemen to Bob Thompson and Doug Snyder.

TMT writer Clifford Allen posed as referee in this improvised phone conference on October 28, 2018, and all lived to tell the tale.

I’m curious how the idea of playing together first appeared and the duo’s effect on your views of improvisation.

Bill Orcutt: I think it started when I emailed Chris to see if he was available to play; I got his email from [Roaratorio Records honcho] James Lindbloom and thought it would — I wanted to play electric and I wanted to play with a drummer, and had the idea that playing with Chris would be the best thing.

Obviously Harry Pussy is one thing and the work with Chris is different, but I’d like to know how, in an electrified guitar-drums situation, that medium has changed for you and how you feel this project with Chris is centered.

BO: I only knew Chris’s work from YouTube, but he was working in a lot of different spaces and was also playing the kind of non-jazz, non-rock music that I thought I was playing.

It’s interesting that poking around YouTube is the way to introduce yourself to someone’s playing or introduce someone’s language into your own. I guess the way we find people to collaborate with is changing and has changed over the last few decades, but it seems like this was a very specific choice rather than meeting at a concert or through other connected ensembles. It’s a very directed choice.

BO: Initially, yeah, but I think I wrote Chris, and he said he was actually kinda busy and couldn’t do anything —

Chris Corsano: Really?! I said that?

BO: That was my memory of it, and then —

CC: There was a specific date that I couldn’t do.

BO: Yeah, I said I was going to be in New York and asked if you’d be around and you weren’t, but then we wound up playing, and so the earliest was Tusk Festival. That was our first time, the trio with Alan Bishop.

Chris, from your perspective, I assume you were aware of Bill’s work and of course knowing your history in duo performances in general —

CC: I definitely knew Harry Pussy, and I’m not gonna say I had all the records, because that’s pretty tough to pull off, but I had a lot of their records. And Adris [Hoyos] was huge for me; seeing her opened up a lot of doors. You don’t want to do it exactly like the people you admire, you want to put your own spin on it. And it wasn’t just Adris, it was the group — so I wanted to play with Bill of course. I don’t think I worry about it much now because it has developed, but [I didn’t want it to be] a cover band of someone’s old thing.

And the duo thing, I don’t even think about the formation to be honest; if it’s a duo or a trio, maybe I react differently, but the m.o. is often the same. Not consciously, but in a duo I might say there’s a lot of space to fill up, or there’s a lot of space to play with. I like this because I can dig into every note that Bill is playing, for instance; I can hear it as long as I’m not too loud. I can really concentrate on the music we’re making together.

As far as the language you’ve developed, Bill, the landscape you’re working with now includes so much of the Great American Songbook and the jazz repertoire, and takes from a lot of traditions in solo guitar. I’m curious how that has been worked into an improvised duo formation.

BO: The process of working out those songs had a big influence on what I thought you could do with four strings. I had a much bigger vocabulary of chords than before; I had a lot of melodies and cadences and little chord sequences that I learned that inevitably found their way into the duo. Although we don’t really ever play any songs per se, I might throw in the melody of “Lonely Woman” or something at certain points.

I would assume that as you work into these melodic snatches and forms it does probably make you think somewhat differently about orchestrating a duo or ensemble than you might otherwise.

BO: In Harry Pussy, I was mostly tearing stuff apart, you know; there were all these rules about what you couldn’t do — you couldn’t play chords, and as far as rhythm was concerned, you could only play the most spastic, convoluted rhythms or you could play the most moronically simple rhythm, but nothing in between. Since I’ve been playing solo, I’ve loosened up a lot of those rules, though that’s still part of what I’m doing. It’s part of me, but I also got the freedom to do other stuff as well.

CC: Were those actual rules that were stated, or —

BO: They were never formalized. I would just enforce them as needed. Particularly when we brought Dan [Hosker] into the band. He didn’t know our rules, and I remember some really awkward sessions when we were trying to get started; he was making what would be perfectly good suggestions for another band, and I would have to be like “no, we’re not going to do that.” There was a tense moment when he wasn’t returning my phone calls, and I had to write a song out so the next time he showed up at rehearsal, we’d have something to do together.

CC: Did you write a song out that broke some of those rules, or —

BO: No, it was just a very simple song, moronically simple. It’s on the last album, and it is called “Sick Again.” But yeah, it was getting to be the point where I was just shooting down all his suggestions, but I didn’t really have anything positive to contribute other than to say “Oh, we can’t do that.” I had to come up with something we could do together, and I managed to get him to come back to one rehearsal. That built enough trust that we could sort of go on from there.

Having only listened to the records and never seen Harry Pussy when it was a going concern, it seems to me like it was also — not to get too much into the past, but there was a performative aspect that is different from what you are doing now. It was almost performance art in its operation.

BO: Yeah, that’s very true.

How did you decide to move into the studio for this project?

CC: We had a day off from our tour in Brussels, and to call it a studio is a bit of a stretch, but it was a place we’d played without people in it. They have a nice setup already, so they multi-track record the live gigs, and they were kind enough to let us hang out. Christophe Albertijn, the engineer, was kind enough to show up and set up mics, and he did a great job and he did a rough mix that we ended up using. As far as “studio” — it was more than a Zoom [microphone] in the back of a room, but we’d had a couple of blown-out recordings, and we decided to try something with different fidelity to see what would come out of it.

Were you trying to get to a point in your work where you could make a studio record together, or was it more of an afterthought in terms of how you are developing your sound, and that it was natural to document it as such?

CC: Speaking for myself, we’d put out some tapes and a live record, and it was logical to put out something else. You should be giving people something on tour, so in my head there was no concept of building toward something. It’s moment to moment, and you hope that it’s good enough, and it’s released when you decide that, yes, this is something worth having people listen to. For me, having Christophe record and mix it moved the recording out of my hands, and I could just focus on whether what I was doing was quality or not.

As you’ve now been working together for several years, what kind of changes in your practice have you noticed, either as you play together or separately?

BO: I find there have been changes in how I play; I don’t know specifically, but across solo and duo I feel like — the last show we played in St. Louis, I felt like we’d gotten to a place as a duo where, looking at it with a somewhat selfish point of view, I know I can do whatever I want. Not that I ever stopped myself from doing what I want before, but now wherever I want to go, it feels good and seems like it is working. I was really happy with that, and it’s been good. I think I’m a pretty open performer and not afraid to reveal myself. I definitely have my own approach with its own logic and idiosyncrasies, but in a duo or a group, it’s all about the interaction with the other performers.

CC: Your solo self-titled record, the style of recording was different, and I think people made a bigger deal and made it seem like you were putting out an ECM record or something. It was a very beautiful recording, and hearing the space on that record, I dunno whether it was an influence, but I felt like we should try something with a similar recording style. It’s not just the physical playing that changes, but you think about this stuff beyond the doing of it towards how it gets presented, and maybe… it’s not like this is an answer to Bill’s solo record, but maybe a tiny bit, as in the expectations our small little world has. Now, if you’re talking about development, I don’t feel like I develop much or regress. Regression is like me listening to a lot of Hendrix in his last year and how much of Mitch Mitchell I can borrow (well, I’m not giving it back!).

I was thinking of maybe less well-known points of reference like Ray Russell and Alan Rushton. There is a language of guitar and percussion duos, each pairing very different from one another, and it’s quite an area to fit yourself into as well.

CC: That comes up a lot; I’ll hear comparisons, and if I make a sax and drums record, people will bring it up — if I’m playing with a sax player, and say that musician does something that’s very Coltrane-ish, it not only calls up just Interstellar Space, but also every Coltrane record we may have heard. It’s even not just setting yourself up in the history of just two instruments, because I think that’s kind of limited. Bill’s killing it now — what other guitarists do I like that are also killing it? And how did the drummer in that band work? How did that whole band work?

Right, and a band doesn’t require 3 or 4 or 7 people. It is what resources you have and the intent.

CC: And a good band doesn’t sound like — The Meters don’t sound like four individuals doing their own thing. That rhythm section — it’s two people, but it is one superhuman, for instance. You can try and sorta get into that without thinking of strict personnel and that level of technicality.

Sometimes you can channel another instrument that isn’t actually there, and it — that’s just music and sound. Bill, did you want to add anything to this?

BO: I was thinking of — and I think I told Chris this in an email — but I was thinking of the Minutemen, listening to the tapes after we recorded it. And we are big Minutemen fans anyway.

CC: [George] Hurley — when I was a kid trying to learn his things, which were so melodic and, because he was hooking up with [Mike] Watt, so hardcore that if you just play Hurley’s beats, you could even solo his tracks on those recordings and they would sound amazing. When it’s the interaction, there’s a chemical thing that happens between the bass and the drums — in the rhythm section on that level, you’ll never be able to reproduce it yourself. By not knowing that as a dumb kid, it makes you play more melodically than you would’ve if you just were trying to learn the drum part on paper.

Also, taking the Minutemen thread a little bit further, there’s so much blues and folk music that enters into their lexicon that it is very apt as a signpost. Bill, your playing certainly looks to those areas quite often.

BO: It’s also a great Telecaster band and, on this record, a lot of songs that are in the one- to two-minute range.

Yeah, which kinda surprised me based on having seen you guys perform live and engage things that are more suite-like and move in a different way.

BO: I don’t know if you ever got into Indent or any of those live Cecil Taylor records, but —

Chris Corsano & Bill Orcutt live in Bergen, Norway 2018

Sure, of course.

BO: At the end, he’ll come out and do a series of encores and each encore is a bit shorter [laughs], there’s like a 30 second one at the end, I always thought if you did a whole concert of those it would be fun. I was thinking of that.

CC: If you play a show and they’re all really short songs, and of course hardcore bands do that all the time, but having people clap after each one… you can make anything work live, but doing short piece after short piece, sometimes the audience can get tired of clapping all the time — oh, another minute and I’ve gotta clap? Screw this!

BO: The night before, we didn’t do that. When we played live, we actually didn’t do any short songs. It was just when we recorded.

CC: And you suggested it I think, and it came out really well I thought — those were some of the best things because they forced — recording is a different thing and I can get really, like, “Oh, should we do another one?” If you do a short blast, you’re a little more conscious of the two things that came before, so it forces you to — forces me to get into some weirder spots faster by not relying on a big buildup.

It’s like doing intervals or something, almost, like I think of athletics and having to do these short bursts of intense activity and then a short rest, and then another short burst of activity. Music and athletics, especially improvised music, are sometimes brought together in a way that doesn’t do either a great service, but it does make me think of that kind operation and that readiness and level of synapse training. For someone who has been in practice for a number of decades, it’s probably second nature, but it’s also probably quite a challenge as well.

BO: Yeah, you don’t have time to ease up to an idea. You kinda have to start it with a specific idea in mind — for me at least, that’s the fun part.

CC: It’s almost like compositionally more challenging than physically, because the brain’s kind of a muscle anyway, and you just have to sprint, you know, idea-wise you have to sprint. You can’t be thinking long — it’s just like from the first note we do, or the second note because the first note is random if we’re starting at the same time, but then I hear what Bill’s note is and I’m like, “Oh, okay, this is it.” If you know it’s going to be a short thing, then the focus is maybe more akin to a sprinter: every step has to be as hard and as purposeful as possible.

BO: No false moves.

I’m curious whether there’s any thought to developing the duo in a structurally different way in the future, either adding personnel again or stretching the current machinations as far as they will go.

BO: I’m just trying to get through what we’ve got now.

CC: Well, we did do those tapes of the drums run through Bill’s programming.

BO: Oh, yeah, right. That’s true.

CC: That’s definitely an expansion of what we’re doing.

BO: That’s actually some of my favorite — I told Chris this already, but I think one of those isn’t just the best thing we’ve done, but actually the best music ever made! [laughs] It’s called Gucci Tops and Bottoms.

CC: Well, we played with Alan and with Bill Nace, and Okkyung Lee in France, so we have added people. But there’s something about the notion of development, like out of a caveman or something, things change, but I don’t see it — I guess I’m not looking to have things progress to something greater than what it already is. It should be good from the get go, not “Oh, we’ll get there eventually,” you know. It may be different and perhaps there are more facets of the thing to check out, but I wouldn’t want to lose anything. That’s where my head is at now, with anything or any kind of band I’ve been in: Is it still as fierce or fucked up as it was the first time when we didn’t know each other as well? I don’t want to lose that because you can polish it, and some things do get easier and it does feel like we can go anywhere, but it does feel like we can go in any direction, not always forward.

The St. Louis thing [at New Music Circle] was with Okkyung and Joe McPhee. When I play with Joe, it’s not really similar, but both he and Bill spring “Lonely Woman” on me, which is the toughest song to play when you don’t have a bassist, because you need [Charlie] Haden and fast drums. That’s always a mind-fuck and I love it. I’ve never been able to pull it off, but with Joe as with Bill, I like this thing of being not too comfortable, because there could always be something new. This is the stuff you can go back to, “Oh, I remember this feeling,” and for me it’s not really about developing it further.

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