Interview: Jazz Guitarist David Torn

David Torn takes sound on some spellbinding journeys. He can make a note resonate like it’s strapped to a freight train and run through a shower of asteroids. He can bend tones toward the birth of the delta blues, then ignite the fuse of feedback and send the whole shebang rippling into parts unknown.

The guitarist, producer, mixer, composer and self-described “texturalist” was himself the son of an audio-geek dad and a mother who encouraged his passion for music. His sensibilities were soothed by meditation and philosophy at an impressionable age, then singed by the blitzkrieg of Jimi Hendrix and John McLaughlin and galvanized by the hypnotic loops of Terry Riley.

Now 62, Torn has played with David Bowie and John Legend, written and mixed film scores, collaborated with fellow guitar experimentalists Elliott Sharp and Vernon Reid, and achieved minor cult status under the pseudonym Splattercell. But he is perhaps best known for his records on the ECM label.

Cloud About Mercury was recorded in 1987 with the King Crimson rhythm section of Bill Bruford and Tony Levin. Madonna sampled a track on the disc for her song, “What It Feels Like For A Girl,” which later appeared on the television show Glee, resulting in the most serendipitous double-down payday of Torn’s long career. While active on CMP Records and in various collaborative projects, Torn didn’t record again for the label until 2007, with Prezens, a knotty yet incandescent gem featuring such jazz luminaries as keyboardist Craig Taborn and saxophonist Tim Berne (a longtime friend).

David Torn at TEDxCaltech

In 1992, Torn underwent surgery to remove a life-threatening brain tumor that left him deaf in his right ear. He described the experience in a Tedx talk and performance at CalTech in January of 2013. That solo guitar concert at CalTech presaged Only Sky, Torn new record for ECM, released just last month. He is touring in support of the album, which he calls “my most personal record.”

In this extensive interview, Torn takes us through his extraordinary life in music.

Let’s talk about the new record, because I have been listening to it a lot and I really like it.

This record began very innocently really. [Record producer and ECM founder] Manfred Eicher felt very strongly about this ten years ago, when we first got back together and he said, “I want you to make a solo guitar record.” And I said I’m not doing that. If I want to do something for your label, I’ll have a band that will have a lot of impact.

David Torn - AK

Which you did, with Prezens.

Which is what I did. But he kept hawking at me for that solo thing. And a couple of my friends – like Andre, who is managing me on this tour – came to me and said, “I don’t understand why you don’t do the solo thing. You know you can do it. It is not that hard for you to mount; just the two of us really.”

So the genesis of the record was, just do what you do. I had some ideas about it. The only restriction I put on myself was that everything had to be improvised. Anything that even remotely appears like a song had to be an improvised song. It couldn’t be something that I thought through or wrote down and was then performing and interpreting. I had to do it on the spot.

How do you come up with song titles? Do they mean anything? Are they whimsical or specific?

There is one whimsical one but the rest of them are – I don’t know, I am looking for some closure somehow. I am into the manipulation of language, so they are meant to evoke something, just as the music is meant to evoke something. I am not trying to purposefully convey specific emotions through any of the pieces of music. However, I feel every one of them and they have complex feelings – complex feelings are involved. And I want the titles to have that same kind of openness. After I’ve heard it four or five times I have usually got the idea of the phraseology that suits what I think the feeling is to me.

Is there any rhyme or reason to the emotions that get evoked and the emotions you think you are feeling at the time?

Nothing beyond itself. Yeah, things get colored by how I’m feeling generally. I come from a long line of mentally ill people. [chuckles]

My total hearing is below 50% capacity.

Which is a curse and a blessing for the kind of music you make.

Life presents musicians with a lot of material; that is what it’s for. If I had an ethos – and I don’t – [laughs] but if I did it would be that the person making music is actually reflecting back feelings and things that are somewhat incapable of being explained via words – explained and explicated further through words. So I always want the titles to show that somehow.

There is the song titled “A Goddamn Specific Imbalance.”

Yeah. Well, that one is pretty specific. During the piece of music I had some physical balance problems. I have these neurological problems, and I got unbalanced during the piece. I actually cut out a piece where I am pretty sure that I fell and knocked some shit over and got back up and went again. And then the piece really got bent. It felt like it got bent. And my head hurt that day too. I get these weird feelings in this area of my brain, a peculiarity, right there. It is a weird feeling. So I was pissed off.

Are you still totally deaf on the right side?

Oh yeah.

And that won’t ever come back?

No, it won’t come back. I had this weird thing happen yesterday. I was in a plane and my sinuses are full and you know sometimes when you are either rising or falling and you get those pressures. That happened yesterday and it was hyper-dramatic, like an explosion. And I was like, “Wow! I can hear in my right ear, for like the first time in more than 15 years.” And I went [snaps his fingers in front of each ear]: Nope. My total hearing is below 50% capacity because there are midrange things, especially vocal things, that are not transient.

Do you ever worry that something is reoccurring related to your brain when that happens?

I do, but I have been retested enough that it is no longer my worry. They had to test me regularly for something like five years. It used to be about once a year that I’d have some bizarre experience, very strange and very far from comfortable. And the last one was the worst, which was two years ago. I actually went into shock. It was like I got hit by lightning storms in my head. I fell down in my bathroom with nobody there and hit my head on the sink. The last time it happened, all my local doctors got together and tried to figure out why this particular thing was so violent and so shocking. They said if this doesn’t happen again inside of the next year, it is probably never going to happen again.

He said, “I’m sorry I couldn’t save the ear.” But I was thinking, “Dude, it’s cool; I can hear in stereo in my head.”

Does the lack of hearing affect your music?

It did.

Some of your stuff is so orchestral and I was thinking both the history of meditation that you have and this hearing issue – there is something really grand about silence and I am wondering if that ties into what you do.

When you frame silence, I think it can be. Miles Davis famously said it is the notes you don’t play. There is something about music being the frame [for silence] and that is definitely a theme in my life. It is definitely a theme of the entire record label [ECM] with Manfred. That is his deal. “The most beautiful sound next to silence.” That’s what he meant. It doesn’t exist if it is not next to silence.

I know the hearing thing changed me. I had to work really hard to hear, to get close to the way of hearing that I had previous to that. And I think that the immense amount of concentration and will that it took me to do that actually increased my connection to my own music.

One of the things I noticed as early as waking up in the ICU from that operation... You are stoned out of your gourd, right? I am in the ICU with the morphine. And you drift. And what I kept drifting in and out of was listening to this incredible sound in my head. And I kept going [sighs and swoons] – following it like you do when you are a musician, just following the music. Not trying to grab it at all, but hearing all these amazing sounds. And then there was the pullout [into full consciousness], the recognition of like, “Oh my god, there is so much music in my head.” And it didn’t stop. It was still going.

I opened my eyes and the doctor was there, and he said something about how he was incapable of saving my hearing. Tears were running down his face and he said, “I’m sorry I couldn’t save the ear.” But as he was telling me this, I was thinking, “Dude, it’s cool; I can hear in stereo in my head.” So I think that stuff really changed me.

Do you think this music inside you is something everybody has and they are too preoccupied to notice it, or do you think it was a pent up thing because your hearing got shut down?

I have no idea. Really all I know is what I got.

You noticed this music more, whether or not it was always there.

I think the music was always there but I never reveled in it so much. And maybe that’s the key. But then I got to find out that I have to learn how to hear again – then it was me sitting in a chair crying. Because people would play me music and it would freak me out so much – coming from the outside in, it sounded so terrible that I couldn’t take it. It took me months before I could hear something and make sense out of it. And I had to practice doing it. I said to myself, “Dude, you are just going to have to sit down and listen to this stuff. Eventually these bad things will pass but you have got to make do right now. You’ve got to figure it out.” I knew it wasn’t going to work unless I put in the time. I wanted to be involved in music. I had my family – and I love my family – but in terms of like being a man who does stuff, that need to produce…

Music is your self-identity.

Yeah. Especially at that age, you are just right in the center of it.

My parents thought there was something very wrong with me – and there may have been.

It’s a little crazy that you have grown so much as a producer since the diagnosis and operation.

And I think I am still increasing. I know my limitations a lot better now too. It used to be that I would just work endlessly until something was done. Now I stop because I realize that my ears are getting saturated and I need to hear clearer, not more. So I take longer working on people’s records than I ever did in the past, which is good for the music, but not such a great thing professionally. Especially as budgets go down and I keep taking longer.

I read that you were into meditation at a pretty early age.

That and I read a lot of philosophers. I was really introverted as a kid. Now I love being around people, but I really had to learn extroversion as an adult.

So reading all that philosophy kind of hermitically sealed it in.

I wanted to be a monk. I stopped playing music to do that. I really enjoyed being alone.

Have you talked to Charles Lloyd [the saxophonist who stopped playing and took a vow of silence for many years] about this at all?

I haven’t talked to him about it. I met him briefly once. He’s an interesting guy. My guess is right around the same time Charles Lloyd was getting into his ways of thinking, I was 14 and my sister had an Allan Watts book. The title was The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. And I remember not understanding most of it, and then there would be one line from one of these Zen masters and I’d go, “Why does that make sense? Wow, that totally makes sense.”

That was one of the reasons why my friend introduced me to this meditation teacher. I got into some trouble as a kid, social troubles just being outside of things and then into drugs. And one of my friends knew this meditation teacher, so he told me about it. That enabled me to get through my life in more ways than I could count. Having that at the time to guide me through was better than any psychotherapy or psychiatry that I could have had. Before everything exploded in the household, my parents thought there was something very wrong with me – and there may have been. But I couldn’t go to doctors, because you’d have to talk to them.

So music was always a refuge?

Yeah, always. Even before that, it was the thing that my parents kind of chose for me, that sat well for me. I remember going to my first piano lesson and making sounds on the piano and it was like, “Wowee!” Incredible. I love this. You’d have problems with the people, but then you’d have the instrument to work with. All of it – drums, piano.

My mom really pushed at having me have that and it was brilliant – it is really on her. My dad encouraged it, but my mom, she was a very fine pianist, but then her hands cramped very young with arthritis, so she couldn’t play anymore. She became a writer.

My dad was a tinkerer and a motor head. There was always an engine in the garage.

Did the technology kick in early? Were you a Moog guy or a Fender Rhodes guy?

Yeah, right there. All that stuff really began to happen post Jimi Hendrix. For me the interest started with the pedals.

Hendrix specifically?

Yeah, no question, Hendrix was the electric turnaround. Remember that my dad was combining stereo systems for a living. So there really was all this music in the house.

And did you also have the best equipment to play it on then?

The equipment that my dad designed were among the best things that were made in America. My dad designed for Harman Kardon, so he always had stuff. He did that for quite a few years before he went back into designing stuff for the military. My dad was a tinkerer and a motor head. There was always an engine in the garage and there were always power supplies, power tubes, pre-amp tubes, all kinds of circuits. He had them in these cardboard boxes all over the garage. I found that fascinating.

So what was it about Hendrix that got to you?

The very first time I heard him, I wondered what the hell it was. My dad took me out one day to a shopping center, pre-mall, and he dropped me off at this record store and I looked at all these record covers and just went “Wow, look at that stuff.” I think he gave me 20 bucks and said, “Buy something.” I picked the ones that I liked the covers of, and one of them turned out to be Axis [Bold as Love] by Hendrix.

So when you started making music did you know what kind of music you wanted to make?

No, I always knew what I didn’t like while I was doing it, though. In fact, that is one of the reasons I stopped playing. Partially to get away from the social scene and the drugs but also to figure out what I wanted to do on my own. I was a kid and copying, and you need to copy. Even as an adult, you hear something that is good, and if you are capable of analyzing it, then you need to learn how to analyze it and expand your vocabulary. It is like a classic thing, like tradesmanship.

You have to look to the continuum of people who have come before you. I stopped playing music because everything began to sound the same to me. I just got into meditation and really read into Watts and some of the esoteric things that really made sense to me from a philosophical point of view.

I never actually stopped playing. I just didn’t play in bands or out of the house. Because every time I would go to a jam session, I would feel like, “Do you have to play that lick again? Can’t we just play like I did when I first started to play with friends and we didn’t know any songs?”

Then my girlfriend brought home Jack Johnson by Miles Davis one day. And it had John McLaughlin. And I thought, “There is a guitar that is doing something.” Then later I went to this jam session and said to this drummer, “Let’s just play.” He says, “What do you mean? I don’t know what you mean.” Then he puts on this record and says, “Is this what you mean?” And it was The Inner Mounting Flame [by McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra]. And I went “Whoa! That’s fresh.”

I thought: It doesn’t have to all be the same. This guy is playing hard, loud electric guitar and it is beautiful. It is unique. And it had some Indian music, which I was already familiar with. I freaked out and started playing guitar from the point of view that I could come up with my own stuff. I wrote some songs that were kind of odd, and then I got asked to join a band and everything started to click.

It was this band I was in for six or seven years called the Zobo Funn Band. We lived together for three or four years and stuck together for six or seven [up in Ithaca, New York, during the 1970s]. We practiced and played together every day no matter what. We learned with each other. We had people in the band from varying levels of musical education. One of the drummers was extremely well educated, who had played and performed in premieres like Terry Riley’s In C. He turned me on to Terry Riley.

If I ever said “What a fucking dude,” about somebody, I would say it about Terry Riley.

That’s where some of your production stuff came from.

Totally. All the looping comes from Riley. He just turned 80. What a character, man. He’s my pen pal. If I ever said “What a fucking dude,” about somebody, I would say it about Terry. He’s unbelievable. For me, he changed music.

His music is so specific. I know what you mean about him changing music. He was the first guy who made me understand the hypnotic quality of American music, as opposed to Eastern music.

Yeah. There are elements of American acoustic music that have always appealed to me in a very real way. Especially in some of the records that developed in the ’90s. In some of my scores, like Everything Must Go and Believe in Me, there is a lot of it. The drone quality, which comes from Appalachian music which comes from Celtic music, which comes from Moorish music – all those mixtures of things in America, I find it incredibly moving.

Lars and the Real Girl OST - At The Mall

I don’t know your soundtrack and production work as well as your own work in bands and solo. I have only heard a couple of scores.

Have you heard Lars and the Real Girl? That’s my best soundtrack. It’s not big; it’s small, and yet it still got used in the last Winter Olympics for underpinning emotional things about athletes. If you asked me, to listen to only two of my records I’d pick one of my own records and I’d pick Lars because of the way they’d collide with each other. And it is a collision, because it is very pretty music, very sweet, and it is completely song-oriented.

All things that theoretically aren’t your type.

Well, they are my type now. A whole bunch of people aren’t asking me to do the adventurous ambient modern thing; they are asking me to do the pretty ambient modern thing, the catchy thing. I have always had this obsession with electronics, and how to make them humane. How to make it not be cold. I started playing with an electronics guy who was in a group with David Borden – Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece. I started playing with those guys in the middle to late 70s. They knew Bob Moog and got to hang around with him for quite a bit. I came to a lot of gigs. Every time I saw something that was different electronically or even mechanically that was different on an instrument, if I could do it or purchase it, I would try it. At great expense of my ability to pay our rent, my wife thankfully was very understanding.

I read something where you were saying you had a favorite fuzzbox.

I have so many favorite fuzzboxes.

How do you grow fond of a piece of equipment? Is it ease of use or sounds produced or cutting edge technology?

It is sound and playability, that’s the whole nugget right there. If it looks cool, great. If it doesn’t look cool but the range of sounds are appealing to me in some way and it is playable? That’s what I want. I had this thing happen in Seattle that is illustrative of the way I think. Some dude came to the show and he has probably seen me play before, but we never had a chance to speak. And he said, “I just don’t know how you keep a handle on your rig.” And I said to him, “Well, I don’t think of it as a rig. I think of everything that is set up there as a part of my instrument. I don’t think of it as a collection of little bits and pieces that are electronic things outside of me. I think of them in the same way that I think of my guitar, as instruments to be played. And if they don’t fulfill that function then they are not going to be in there.

Is it concentric circles? At some point do you say these things are integral and belong in the closest circle and then there is this group in the next circle and this group in the next?

The attrition rate is based on the number of uses. So the longer something hangs in there, the more likely it is that it will become part of my vocabulary. And if it doesn’t become a part of my vocabulary, then it is just a trick and I put it away.

I call my feedback device the “interrupt-ulator,” because it interrupts the flow of you thinking of yourself as a guitar player.

That sounds kind of like a wardrobe for people who are fashionistas.

Yeah, but I remember in the early ’80s we had no money at all and we improvised. I was seeing guys like Fred Frith play and just do some absolutely amazing things without any stuff. He was doing what I learned to do, which is, you build your own thing or you develop a new mechanical technique. You look for something that you can do and that somebody else hasn’t done.

Is feedback still a part of it?

Yeah. A big part of it. And it has become less unpredictable for me. I have ways of manipulating it built into my system. I make the guitar give feedback in certain ways – wildly, “screaming birds,” the whole nine yards. I like that development. I call that whole feedback device the “interrupt-ulator,” because it interrupts the flow of you thinking of yourself as a guitar player. I’ll be thinking, “Oh my god, that sounds like an old fusion dude. Break it! Use the interrupt-ulator!”

David Torn Facebook

How much is Manfred Eicher on the new record, if any? He proposed the idea. Did he produce any of it?

No. Our schedules got discombobulated. And so he said, “Just go ahead.” I sent him a couple of pieces that I had done at home and he said just go ahead.

So he trusts you.

He does, and I did send him all the material as it was being mixed, to approve and say anything he wanted, and he did approve all of it. I handed him the master and he approved the master. He trusted me enough that I have now mixed three records for ECM that are not mine. It is very unusual. It’s a big deal for me that all of a sudden Manfred is saying, “Yeah, David can mix it.” Or, “I’ll have David produce it.”

You know, he has produced Keith Jarrett and Tigran Mansurian and Arvo Part. I look at his body of work and think, “Manfred is incredible.” He is like 72 now and he never stops. It is something I really respect; that ability to continually produce, that desire. I was never into the idea that I need to make a record every year, or I need to tour every year. I wanted to go, “Okay how much music can I produce in my lifetime?” Manfred to me, while it is not his music per se, is that model of creativity.

For a while, ECM went through a slump, where at its worst it sounded like freeze-dried tofu. You could take it camping and just add water. But it has toughened up and become better in recent years, especially in jazz.

I think that’s because Manfred felt at some point that he had to recover some of his own jazz roots. When the guys started to revert to the more jazzy things, they didn’t want the big reverb and the big atmospheric thing. I think that was really natural for him and then he branched out into the New Series. The New Series gave him everything else back.

When I came back around again it was like... I can’t believe he heard Prezens for the first time and said “finish it that way.” Awesome. I was scared. I knew he trusted me, but that says something about that guy. I have learned a lot of my aesthetic from him and from [longtime ECM engineer] Jan Erik Kongshaug. But I took my own path with it, completely.

By Britt Robson on June 4, 2015

On a different note