Thollem McDonas is a well-respected and prolific experimental pianist, having released a butt-ton of material already this year both on his own and with others, including a new Tsigoti record, Read Between the Lines … Think Outside Them, on Post-Consumer Records in January. He’s got at least four more albums coming out this year, one with The Hand to Man Band, an experimental quartet featuring living legend Mike Watt, also on Post-Consumer. His duo Bad News from Houston, with Deerhoof drummer/Hand to Man Band member John Dieterich, released their debut album In the Valley of the Cloudbuilder in March also ALSO on Post-Consumer, and we here at Critical Masses (well, me, because I wrote about it) dug loved it. You can refresh your memory on how I felt about it right here. Here’s a little excerpt to whet your whistle: “McDonas and Dieterich spend their time reveling in the tactility of their instruments. They’ve allowed themselves nothing more than acoustic guitar and piano on which to perform, but the space and the studio were fair game, and they use it to great advantage as cavernous echoes and sampled tones are as equally important as the notes actually played.”
In between his insanely busy schedule, Thollem was kind enough to correspond with me via email. He’s got a lot on his plate, as you can see in the fully detailed discography of McDonas’s output from 2012/2013 following the interview, and as we’re barely a third of the way through the year, there’s some great stuff coming. This includes a new Hand to Man Band album, for which Thollem’s disclosed that there are SEVEN HOURS of usable recorded material. So… what’s that, like a septuple album? (It’ll be trimmed, I know, I know…) But we get a peek inside the working mind of a master of his instrument, and although the focus is on In the Valley of the Cloudbuilder, there’s a wealth of other fun stuff here too.
Critical Masses: You and John have been working together for some time now in various capacities, including as part of The Hand to Man Band. When and how did you first start working together? What drew you to each other as likely collaborators?
Thollem McDonas: Martha Colburn, the NY/Amsterdam filmmaker brought us together to perform to her films at the SF Museum of Modern Art in 2009. We really hit it off musically, and have enjoyed working together since on several different projects. All for Now on Dromos Records (Lisbon) was our first album together. We recorded it at SF MOMA the day after the performance with Martha’s films. We have a real ease working/playing together in every context, so far. Now we’ve got a second Hand to Man Band album we just started post-production work on last week in Albuquerque. We have so much great material for it, it’s going to be hard to carve it into just one album…
CM: Was that first performance mostly improvised, or did you hammer out what you’d do ahead of time? Who played what? Was All for Now written and recorded via the same process?
TM: John and I met a few times before the performance to get an idea of how we’d approach both working together and also with Martha’s films. We found right away we really loved matching our sounds to each other to create, in a sense, one instrument with two parts. That has been one of the main compositional devices we have used together since, it’s one of the defining elements of our duo. We are both interested in improvising within frameworks, general or specific. All for Now was recorded in this way, where one of us would throw out a concept and we’d play within that until we felt it had run a course like a short poem, I suppose. So the album ended up as a series of short pieces each with a well-defined character unique among the others, but nothing written down or composed in the traditional since.
CM: The press materials for In the Valley of the Cloudbuilder talk about an “evolutionary leap” in your collaboration, and that the two of you are “mining very new musical territory.” What does that mean?
TM: Well, first of all, we spent much more time on this album, in the conceptualizing, recording, and post-production than on All for Now. We also utilized more timbres even though it’s still basically just guitar and piano. We both did much more preparations of our instruments and also used feedback with the piano, recording both the piano itself as well as an amp. The recording was much more elaborate and this became an essential aspect of the album compositionally/conceptually. It’s VERY well recorded, thanks to Nicholas [Taplin]! This is not to say that All for Now was not well recorded, we’ve just pushed things beyond from that. With All for Now we did very little post-production work with it. That album is basically exactly as we played it. In the Valley of the Cloudbuilder is more complete in its overall concept and has elements that are shared throughout it, sounds and ideas that come and go in different contexts, and constant surprises, pulling the listener into tiny sonic nuances. For me, I really hear a story, or many stories, but wide open enough for the listener to fill in all the details for themselves, perhaps differently on every listen. It’s so multi-layered and rich, I’m astounded each time I’ve listened to it. I think Tuia [Cherici]’s artwork and video also play right into the open-ended story of it all, she really caught on right away to what we were after. We didn’t give her much to work with except for the music itself. We wanted to let her run with it as her imagination led her.
CM: I’ll come back to Tuia’s work, but you’ve nailed one thing here that really stuck out for me, and that was the use of the studio, the recording process, and even the engineer as de facto third, fourth, fifth players on the album. And not that two people can’t make a full sound together, but it doesn’t necessarily sound like two people making music together, it sounds like more. I think mic-ing the amps as well as the instruments helps in that. I mentioned in my review how I thought the songs that allowed the “room,” or the ambience of the studio, to assert itself—which oddly (to me) tended to be the less frantically played songs—came off as a bit more “jazz,” or obviously improvised in that you and John had to play around the results. You even mentioned above the “constant surprises.” How much of those effects, the unpredictability of your surroundings and how they were recorded, were you going for or even hoping for, and how much was happy accident?
TM: Honestly, there weren’t so many happy accidents, necessarily, we were pretty strategic about everything we did. For sure, the recording process was very important and the post work we did as well. Nicholas was instrumental in the process as were his great gear and recording knowledge/ideas. When I say “constant surprises” I mean that in terms of listening to it after many months and with very fresh ears. I don’t remember what’s coming around the bend next and it’s fun now to listen to it in this way.
CM: I probably should have asked this question earlier, but here goes. I’d been familiar with John’s work in Deerhoof but I wasn’t terribly aware of Tsigoti until recently (really great stuff by the way, I immediately thought of rRope as a contemporary), and it’s quite obvious that your work in Bad News from Houston (and The Hand to Man Band) is much different than perhaps the casual listener might expect from either of you. Before being approached to do Martha’s films, were you and/or John itching to try something more experimental in a wider setting, or was that simply opportunity knocking?
TM: I’m glad you like Tsigoti, thanks for that. It’s really a side project for all of us, even though we’ve just released our fourth album. We meet once a year or so, do a little tour, and write and record our albums in three days. So, it doesn’t have anywhere near our full attention. Perhaps that’s best in some way, because it keeps things fresh and immediate. But I do also wish we had more attention, since we have many reviews that are over the top appreciation for what we do, and I’d love to tour the band more often, and they are some of my best friends in the world. Jacopo is the drummer of L’Enfance Rouge, and that is his main focus, then we all have varying focusii and so on. I’m actually most known as a pianist in post-classical, imrov, free jazz. So, I actually come more from the experimental side of things though I have interest and curiosity for many different approaches and musical attitudes and have been working much more with rocker-ish types of musicians in the recent years. John also is an avid musical explorer, which Deerhoof is a great vehicle for, but he also has many other projects that go in a variety of directions. I think when Martha asked us to perform for her films John and I were both just really excited to work together and to see where it goes. I’ve performed for quite a few years now with Martha’s films, in major museums around the world. She’s an incredible artist. She and I are talking about new projects currently, so we’ll see where that goes too! I’m writing you right now from John’s kitchen, actually. We’re just starting work on the new Hand to Man Band recordings that we made in December. For HTMB’s first album, my hope was that it would sound unlike anything any of us had done before, and I think we were pretty successful in this pursuit, though I wouldn’t necessarily say that was the overall goal of the band…
CM: Since you’re with John, you should totally mess with him and make up a story about how I’ve belittled his contributions so far.
TM: Ah, funny… I don’t think you have though!
CM: I hope I haven’t really belittled John – that would be bad form…
I think I could get really lost talking about the sound and the method of capture and the studio setup, but I’m afraid that might be over the head of the casual reader, so I’ll leave it somewhat open-ended for you. All I’m going to say is the absolute tactility you’ve achieved on record is astounding – it really feels like you’re in the room.
TM: I’m delighted as well by this… First of all it was Nicholas’s equipment and his particular way he approached the session. Honestly, you would need to ask him to have a more thorough answer to this. John had his hand on the controls for mixing. We do everything together but he would be the one to talk more from a technical approach. Maybe you should do a full interview of him about his mixing and mastering.
CM: Speaking of Nicholas Taplin: What about his methods or work ethic drew you to him? How did you end up collaborating with him?
TM: I’ve been working with Nicholas for ten years or so now. The first time was with Zdrastvootie who asked me to overdub piano parts. He was the recording engineer on several projects including Naked Future (ESP-disk) and Intuition, Science, and Sex, my duo with Arrington de Dionyso on Edgetone Records and other projects as well, including The Hand to Man Band’s first album and our new recording we made in December. It’s been a good run!
CM: Back to the idea of tactility, Tuia Cherici’s artwork for the album is brilliant, I want to touch it as much as look at it. Cherici’s video for “Red Dirt Meet” achieves that same sort of “touchy-feely-ness” (my technical term…) with its stop-motion animation (and on an almost totally unrelated note, it reminded me of those old Tool videos they used to play on MTV). Talk about that direction for the visual aspects to the album. And whose idea was it to make the video for that song, yours or Tuia’s? Why that song? Do you feel it’s representative as sort of a “lead track” (since the video was released before the album)?
TM: Tuia is an amazing person and artist, also an improvising musician as well as an improvising filmmaker. She does a lot of real-time visual work with projectors and so on, improvising with musicians like a dancer. She made a music video for Tsigoti which is pretty crazy amazing as well.
She and I have worked together in a variety of projects now and so we know each other’s work pretty well. We didn’t suggest anything to her for either the video or the artwork. We wanted her to just work straight from the music with total faith in what she would produce. Honestly, neither John nor I had any idea of what she was doing until we got her work from her. I think what she did really emphasizes the abstract story aspect inherent in this music.
CM: I think that nails it – she did a phenomenal job, and you and John were wise to let her have at it, as it were, and put together such wonderful visual contributions. I’m beating this over the head, but Bad News from Houston’s music = tactile, and Tuia’s visuals = tactile, so the two media are perfectly matched. You’re very brave letting someone outside of your musical collaboration run free with major artistic aspects! It’s a sort of extramusical improvisation.
TM: And that’s just it. She’s an improviser, a musician, a good friend, and a great artist. John and I are both intrigued by the idea of letting go of control in certain ways. I love collaboration and seeing how someone interprets my music visually, in this case, both in the moment as well as after the fact. For me, it’s always about who I work with and their overall intention as an artist/person. If they inspire me, then I respond by trusting their ideas and vice versa.
And it’s really fun to get her work pretty much finished, and to see it for the first time in that way. It’s great to be surprised, and it gives me the perspective similar to anyone who wasn’t involved in the creation of the album.
I also have tons of projects all happening simultaneously, so it’s a relief when I work with someone that I feel TOTALLY comfortable running with their own ideas, and I don’t have to manage every little thing! John and I also work both in the same room and also in separate states, sending each other ideas of edits and mixes. Sometimes I’ll get something from John and suddenly I’m hearing it in a completely new way, and since I trust John’s ears and curious about his mind, I’m totally open to his ideas!
CM: And that, I think, is such an important aspect to your music, for both you and John to be able to hear things differently and respond to things differently and adapt to those differences. It’s what makes In the Valley of the Cloudbuilder an actual fun record, rather than perhaps a “difficult” or “technical” one, two adjectives I could easily see being thrown at it by listeners who really aren’t paying attention.
TM: I love making albums that are both difficult and tasty. I think it’s healthy to be challenged both as a maker of music as well as a listener and at the same time to have fun with it all. I think the means of the revolution need to resemble the ultimate vision of the revolution itself. For me, that means healthy people and environment, liberty, challenges directly connected to reality, and fun…
CM: Let’s get broad: Where do you draw your inspiration? Is there a brief list for the uninitiated that you felt was behind the Bad News from Houston “sound”? Or do you try to eschew that kind of outside influence as much as possible? I mean, I know this is probably going to be hard to pin down. You’ve got the amazing opener “Changery” with its drawn out piano chords that you can literally dwell in, the two-part “Confuse the Ghosts” that ends on wildly hammered notes evoking the sound. I also love the lengthy suite “Make It Fall” and the utter beauty of the piano lines in “Invisible River” and “Middle Man Problems.”
TM: My inspiration and influences start at the birth canal, then death, then everything else in between. John and I both feel this is like music made for a culture that doesn’t yet exist. It’s non-intentional music in the sense that it’s really not birthed within any already existing style/tradition/practice.
We really set concepts in motion and then the music started to fill in these ideas. Then at certain points we found these shiny stones on the beach, so to speak, and the album is us bringing them back to show to people that we think will like it as well. We actually had this whole scheme set up before we played a note. Then months later we came back to all this material we had recorded and we completely forgot the whole scheme that this music was supposed to fit into. So, we had all this material and we worked with it for its own nature.
CM: Is there a deliberate theme running throughout? What’s the significance of “In the Valley of the Cloudbuilder” as a title and/or concept?
TM: We both loved this idea of clouds being built in a valley by a conscious being of some sort. It’s a creation myth basically. But totally open ended for each person to fill in as their own imagination can. We both have deep connections with New Mexico, it’s all kind of related. This is again why we didn’t want to give Tuia any direction, because this album really should be a vehicle to facilitate the imagination of the listener. We don’t want to be dictators in this sense, just facilitators. I hear a different story each time I’ve listened. Different environments, scenes, creatures, storylines. It’s really fun abstract music in this sense.
CM: Totally off topic and a minor curiosity: Did you have anything to do with setting the genre metadata for the MP3s? They’re all cheekily “Gospel & Religious” until closer “They War,” which simply reads “Bed” under genre.
TM: No, in fact this is the first time I’ve heard about this… hmmmmm…
CM: Give us a sneak preview of the next Hand to Man Band album. Is it much of a departure from You Are Always on Our Minds?
TM: Well, we’ve got 7 hours of music recorded. We spent 3 days in Nicholas’s studio in Oakland and tried many different approaches to improvisation. John and I just met in Albuquerque for a few days to start distilling all of this stuff into chewable chunks. It could end up being like an Ethiopian music album, or a futuristic punk album, or alien jazz, or, or, or. It’s really still too early to be able to see any shapes at this moment. But there is a LOT of great and pretty diverse stuff there. I’m sure over the next few months it’ll start taking shape. It might end up being two albums plus… (We have some interesting ideas that I’ll keep a mystery at the moment…)
CM: Here’s a sad, old fanboy question – what’s it like working with Watt? From completely a fan’s perspective, he seems like a genuine, honest, interesting person. I think rock and roll produces too few artists like him.
TM: He is ABSOLUTELY genuine, honest and an INCREDIBLY interesting person. I really love Watt, his attitude toward music making, his dedication to the moment and to others, his not only willingness but need to challenge himself. He’s got an encyclopedic mind, ridiculously great memory, giant antennas, and a signature sound. I hear his sound immediately, I don’t know how he does it. With the recording in December Vern Zaborowski loaned him his bass and amp and as soon as Watt picked it up he sounded like Watt. There’s just something unique about the way he touches those strings. I feel really fortunate to be working/playing music with him and to call him a friend!
Thollem’s discography of releases from 2012 to 2013:
2013 albums, released or otherwise:
- Tsigoti, Read Between The Lines…Think Outside Them (Post-Consumer Records, January)
- Bad News From Houston, In the Valley of the Cloudbuilder (Post-Consumer Records, March) – new album with John Dieterich
- Dear Future (Wild Silence, March) – old recordings of previously unreleased material from the age of 15 to 23
- Estamos Trio, People’s Historia (Relative Pitch Records, May) – with Milo Tamez and Carmina Escobar
- The Whistling Joy Jumpers, Surprising Wooden Clocks (Thick Syrup Records, May) – with Jad Fair of Half Japanese and Brian Chase of Yeah Yeah Yeahs
- Soar Trio, The View From Up (Edgetone Records, August) – with Joel Peterson, bass and Skeeter Shelton, sax
- The Hand to Man Band, as-yet untitled second album (Post-Consumer Records, 2013 sometime) – with Mike Watt, John Dieterich, and Mike Guarino
2013 albums without labels … yet:
- Thollem’s Confluence: Solo piano
- 3GMT with Mia Zabelka and Gino Robair
- Electric Nashville with Ed Pettersen, Ryan Norris, Tracy Silverman, and Dylan Simon.
- Thollem, Parker, Cline, The Gowanus Session (Porter Records) – trio album with William Parker and Nels Cline
- The Hand To Man Band, You Are Always On Our Minds (Post-Consumer Records) – with Tim Barnes, John Dieterich, and Mike Watt
- Arrington de Dionyso and Thollem McDonas 10,000 Tigers (self-released)
- Magimc, Polishing The Mirror (Amirani Records) – trio with Edoardo Marraffa and Stefano Giust
- Tsigoti, The Imagination Liberation Front Thinks Again (Post-Consumer Records)
- Perpetually Traveling Music – live improvised concert recordings with many great musicians (additions ongoing)
Plus, an essay published in Anthology of Essays on Deep Listening for Pauline Oliveros’ 80th birthday.