All This I Do for Glory: An Interview With Saxophonist Colin Stetson
Extreme soul searching leads sax stylist Colin Stetson towards the very core of his creativity.
Until recently, I thought my first encounter with saxophonist Colin Stetson was from watching 12 Years a Slave, via the gnarled and unnerving tones of "Awake on Foreign Shores". Turns out though, I'd heard him years back, on Tom Waits' 2002 albums Alice and Blood Money, albeit in a style that hadn't yet evolved to the post-genre, borderline terrifying thing he's after now. Stetson does the work of an entire band: a circular breathing method stokes perpetual skronk, keys tap beats, vocal lines resonate through the horn and are picked up with contact mics. It's solo instrumental work with layers, intervals, sections. Real songs, though the playing is idiosyncratic enough to collapse the genre game into self-referencing.
His new album,All This I Do For Glory, follows New History Warfare Vols. 1-3, a three-album series that began in 2008 and was completed in 2013. In 2015, Never Were the Way She Was, a collaboration with violinist Sarah Neufeld, was released. A year later came SORROW -- a reimagining of Gorecki's 3rd Symphony. All This I Do For Glory, then, is the first non-collaborative work released in four years, a continuation of Warfare techniques, and with a heightened emphasis on songwriting.
Many artists come to mind when hearing the new album. Opener "All This I Do for Glory" rides an undulating Suicide-style groove, while "Like Wolves on the Fold" has a melody and pulse that could nearly be a Radiohead song. Indeed, influences seem to come less from jazz, than from IDM artists and assorted electronics experimenters. "Between Water and Wind" displays a trashy grind, placing it in Throbbing Gristle territory, while album closer -- the gripping 13 minute epic "The Lure of the Mine" -- begins by outlining a sonic space often accessed by modular synth players.
Yes, Stetson's horn can do many tricks, sound like many things, but tricks and chops alone never transcend, and we're way beyond novelty or norms with this material. It's truly singular. The sounds wrested from his instrument, how it's pieced together, and the fact that he's doing all of it in a single take ... honestly, it's hard to talk about Stetson's playing without overselling or grabbing for superlatives. So be it.
Interviewing Colin was one of the more interesting assignments I've had, and one of the most fun. He was generous and compelling, and what I thought would be a quick lead-in question about the album title elicited a response that went beyond what I anticipated. His reply was an outpouring of thought, nearly an essay. In it, there is a verbal parallel to the music: circular breathing as sustained thinking; instrumental multitasking as holding a multilayered discourse. It gives a real sense of how he ticks, in mind and playing alike, which cannot help but overlap.
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I'd like to start with the title. Can you tell me a little bit about what it means?
The title was something that I got to from a couple of different directions, firstly being that when I got done with the touring, around 2013 when Vol. 3 came out and I was just finishing touring with Bon Iver, a good decade of touring had reached a peak, a critical mass. It was becoming psychically and psychologically near unbearable for me. So as part of a pretty extreme soul searching endeavor, I started to wonder just why it is that I do all of this, this particular thing. Because the making of music doesn't have to be quite as demanding or difficult as I usually tend to make it.
And so I quickly kind of surmised ... the first thing was: are you trying to make this thing difficult because the recognition of the difficulty and the feat is what you are after? So the first hurdle I got through was really clearing that out of the way, and that was indeed a negative for me. No, it really doesn't come down to that, in fact, if anything, I prefer it when people don't even know what it is I'm doing or how it is that the music's being created, because they have a real unencumbered by expectation sort of honest reaction to the music as just music.
So, clearing that first bit out of the way, I started to think in much more esoteric terms, coming up with more of a general treatise on what that creative spark is, where it's coming from, and where it derives from. And it seems to me that you can pretty much place -- for human beings, for the kind of conscious systems that we are -- you can equate the propagation of ideas with the same sort of neural-biological basis as our urge to procreate. So it inhabits this psycho-sexual sort of urge space in our consciousness, but ultimately what it's there for it to pass on genes to another generation to outlast our lifetime. So I started to think that our ideas and our concepts are simply just another facet of that biology that just has another way of expressing itself.
And so then that all, as in the trilogy where I wrote this narrative as a corollary to the music, I started doing the same thing with this, as kind of stating the antithesis of a general argument. All This I Do For Glory is kind of the arc of the particular narrative for this particular protagonist in the story of this record, and the narrative of the record is more or less disproving the statement of the record. Or I guess its illustrating the fundamental logical flaws in that, in that title as a statement.
I feel like as I go on, further and further in this, the music is getting more and more audacious. How I build it, how I create it is more and more audacious. When I attach language to it I feel like that language has to be approaching equally so in terms of how it sounds. And I wanted to have a little bit of a ring of the religious edict. So I approached it from two different angles, and it kind of resonates with me on all these different levels. That being said, this record is the first of two parts. When I was writing all this music I realized I had at least two records, if not three, and I didn't want to do a double album. What I really wanted was to study each side of this. There are two character studies involved in the same narrative arc. The first is All This I Do For Glory, the second will be most likely coming out next year.
Great! Colin, I've got to tell you, with that answer you've touched on many of the questions I had for you. Which is awesome. So we may circle back to a few things.
[laughing] No problem.
I'd like to know the details of where the album was recorded? How long were you working in the studio? Any overdubbing or guests?
There's no overdubbing and there's no guests. This is the first record that I've recorded all myself. Because of the nature of the amount of time that I have, the idea of working with other people is a lot more difficult than it needs to be because everyone's schedules are so crazy. To top it off, Sarah [Neufeld] and I have our own studio at this point where we recorded the duo record. And so I just decided I would work by myself, at least to start it out and see how it went. And immediately, it was great. It was the best. It's the best scenario for me that I've found so far because I get to work when I need to work and I can work for as long as I need to and I don't have to rely on anybody else's time.
So I would say, without a doubt, the amount of time I spent on this one far surpasses any of the others, because if I wanted to spend five days playing the same piece of music over and over into microphones, experimenting on which microphone picked up which sound the best, then, I could do that. I could spend that much time. And on a lot of the songs, I did. So, quite a bit of work went into capturing the sounds exactly as I wanted them to be. Then, even more work went in the manipulating of those sounds, getting them just right in the mix. It was by far the most fun I've had making a record.
On "In The Clinches", I'd like to bring that into asking about your vocal lines. On that track I felt the vocal lines were so expressive, I felt words or phrases were almost there. You could almost pick them out. Are there words behind these songs, even if it's something you use as your own guide?
I'm not thinking words behind the delivery of these vocal lines, no. With each subsequent record I've been able to hone the craft and to control all these things with a little bit more exactness. And so I can be much more expressive vocally than I could even on the last record, especially on the earlier ones. That being said, there is language and imagery behind these things for me. That's what always has helped me to make the arc of a record and make the arc of a particular song, and inject it with the particular intent that it needs to be alive.
"The Lure of the Mine" is the biggie. What preparation do you undergo when you're getting ready to put together a piece that is that long and goes so many different directions?
That one is definitely the one that took the longest to write and the longest to materialize in terms of something that was a playable entity. I had first started playing, messing around with the basic finger pattern motif that the whole song is based on, and it's severely stressfully repetitive on the fingers and the tendons in my right forearm. So at first I couldn't play that thing for more than a minute really.
With anything that I do, if I get something that is going to yield some good musical results down the line, I just adhere to a kind of regimen about it and make sure I put it into everyday's practice and try to extend the amount of time I can do it, slow it down, speed it up, stretching the tendons and stuff. Ultimately, when it becomes a fully finished composition, once you've tackled the endurance aspect of it, then it's the finesse aspect of it, making sure that formally everything is tight and tied together and flows and you can present it musically and not just get through it. So it's just a lot of time.
How to do you make sure people are hearing the music and not the virtuosity?
I can't make sure. I just do. I'm not making this music for someone to listen to it with the expressed notion of how it is I'm doing it. I don't want there to be an accompanying video to all the songs to make sure that everybody knows. So, in most basic terms, I won't record a song if it isn't finished. If, musically, it's not doing what I wanted it to do, and if I'm not being able to play it expressively to a degree that I think makes it into something that exists solely on its own sonic merits, then it doesn't get anywhere near a record.
For me, if I feel like all those things are coming together, and my intention is apparent, then, it's finished. And then really, some people will never hear it as anything besides gobbledygook, and other people will hear it and resonate with it profoundly. I'm certainly not trying to make music for everybody. I'm just trying to make music that I can make within this paradigm that I've created for myself and do it as well as I can and hopefully there are people who are moved by it, and for whom it has some positive effect.