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Interview with Colin Webster

img  Tobias Fischer

Freedom obviously plays an important part in improvisation. But to some, it just means a little bit more: Colin Webster's gigs and recordings never rely on routine, never succumb to the charm of formulas, never allow for easy categorisation. "Playing free over grooves", as he reveals in this interview, is what got him his job at the Anthony Joseph Spasm Band, where his lines fanned fire into the already combustible concoction of soul, reggae, rock, jazz and a multitude of associated styles. Since then, Webster has never stood still, engaging in a variety of radically different collaborations and solo projects. In a trio with Dutch outfit Dead Neanderthals, his sound is raw, aggressive and visceral, his literally blood-spilling performances almost auto-destructive. In his electro-acoustic duo with Graham Dunning, the tone is equally active and subtle, strikingly direct, yet full of intricate details. For his recent solo debut Antennae, meanwhile, Webster intentionally made the quiet sounds of his alto, tenor and baritone saxophones his focal point, the breathing sounds and mechanical noises produced by his fingers. The result is a deep and concentrated collection of 18 tracks, some of them under a minute short, which takes listeners on an intense ride into Webster's processes and preferences. It is one of the signs of just how successful his mission has been that even after repeat listens, it remains deviously hard to subsume the results under a single term. The freedom to surprise and venture into the unknown – Colin Webster has made full use of it here.

Keith Rowe once asserted that it is often certain people that “give one permission to do things”. What was that like for you?
I agree with a lot of the things Keith Rowe has to say, although not necessarily that point. I haven’t read the context of the quote, but I wouldn’t say anyone has “allowed” or given me “permission” to work in a certain way. I would say that I try to constantly remain open to influences and inspiration. The realisation and eventual adoption of certain aspects of these influences is probably what “allows” you to make your work. One point that Keith Rowe makes that I strongly agree with is the importance to play as yourself, and not try to “be” someone else. Obviously there are always players you hold up as role models, but the ultimate aim for any artist is to find your own voice, and “be” yourself. Perhaps allowing yourself to do that is one of the most vital decisions an artist can make.

What or who were your early passions and influences?
I started playing the saxophone when I was a teenager. I had been learning the piano from quite an early age, and my dad suggested I give the saxophone a try as well. Piano was my primary instrument for several years until I was 17 or 18, then I picked up the saxophone quite quickly and it eventually took over. The town I grew up in – Swindon – didn’t have a strong live music scene to be inspired by, but for some reason I was always really fascinated by music. Obviously this was before YouTube, and the endless amounts of music we have access to online now, so I used to listen a lot to the radio, and whatever CDs or tapes we had. My family aren’t musicians, and we didn’t have a huge record collection in the house. But I found my way anyway. I was always curious about different styles of music, whether it was rave, heavy metal, Brit-pop, whatever, and eventually I got round to jazz. I remember finding Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus in my dad’s CDs. That was one of my favourites early on, and still is. Very fortunately, around this time I also had a great teacher – Gary Bamford – who not only taught me jazz theory and improvisation, but also used to lend me a lot of his CDs and tapes. So that was when I began checking out jazz more seriously, as well as more esoteric stuff like Zorn and Funkadelic. Zorn really captured my imagination – I once crashed my car listening to The Big Gundown. When I was 18 I moved to London to study music at Goldsmiths College, and that’s where I began to gravitate more towards improvised music, and free jazz.

You would go on to work with and for the Anthony Joseph Spasm Band. How did that project come about?
That project is not active at the moment, but was a huge part of my life for the last eight years. The band was started by Anthony to accompany his poetry readings. I was asked to join in around 2005, as I had been playing in a free jazz trio with the bass player, Andrew John. At the time I was into playing free over grooves, and that was what they wanted for The Spasm Band. There was also an added element of reacting to the lyrics and Anthony’s delivery. As the project progressed, the improvised element reduced, and the music became more formalised and structured. What became interesting for me at that point was the compositional angle. As the music we made became more influenced by styles like afrobeat, funk, and soca, I had the opportunity to write horn sections and be involved with the arrangements. Since most of the work I do now is instrumental improvised music, there isn’t really an obvious connection between the two worlds. I’m sure there’s an influence underneath, but they are very different.

Apart from working on your solo album, you've been busy working in a variety of different ensemble constellations, ranging from the Dead Neanderthals to your recent duo with Graham Dunning. What interests you in collaborations?
Collaboration is vital for me, and I think that goes for any improviser. That goes for collaborations that have existed for years, or happen on the spot. The two projects you mentioned are both fairly new for me, and hugely different in how they sound and operate. Obviously Dead Neanderthals exist as a band in their own right, and I join them for certain shows, recordings, and tours. Having said that though, our trio formation is starting to take on an identity of it’s own as opposed to being an augmented version of their sound. On the new album we’ve recorded, and the most recent tour we did in the UK, this was becoming more apparent. The music has a strong noise element, and is very intense and brutal. We tend to make a single bold statement with no respite whatsoever. The duo with Graham is one of the newest projects I’m involved in, and is almost the polar opposite. It came off the back of the textural work I was doing on Antennae, and discovering Graham’s work with prepared turntables and field recordings at around the same time. The music here is much quieter, minimal, detailed, and is a totally fluid collaboration in the way ideas are exchanged. In terms of leadership, it’s always a sliding scale in my experience, and the positives and negatives that that entails. I’ve yet to be involved in a band where it’s singularly my own vision, although I wouldn’t rule it out for the future.

What, would you say, have been some of the more important tendencies in your own development as a saxophonist over the past four years?
I suppose the most important tendency that I’m trying to develop is to consolidate everything into a voice that I’m content with, and have confidence in. As I said, the bulk of the work I do now is improvised, and I’m really enjoying discussing and working through approaches with different musicians. I’m also finding ways to integrate my voice into these situations. There are things I’m still hoping to achieve, and I suppose part of this is working out if the nature of the challenges I’m faced with are physical, or to do with the instrument.

You only recently added a baritone saxophone to your collection and your first solo release Antennae features alto, tenor and baritone saxophones. How would you describe the appeal of the different types of saxophones for you?
I finally added a baritone a few years ago (after wanting one for a long time), and in most situations, either live or on record I switch between tenor and baritone, or tenor, baritone and alto. I love all three, but I’m mainly drawn towards the low-end instruments. I like the resonance of the low notes, and also drawing out different sonic possibilities using the harmonics, overtones, and so on.

I was impressed by a Facebook pic you recently posted of a blood-stained reed. How did that happen?
That photo was taken after the recording session for the new Dead Neanderthals album that we’ve just finished mixing. It’s an incredibly uncompromising record. We got to the end of the take and blood was dripping down my beard, and was all over the mouthpiece – gruesome stuff. Although Evan Parker said something about blood dripping from his sax when he started playing with Brötzmann, so I guess I’m in good company!

How important is physicality for your approach to the saxophone in general, would you say?
Physicality isn’t something I think about when I’m playing, but I suppose it’s always there. The production of the sound or sounds on the sax comes from your whole body and can manifest in all sorts of ways. Thinking about it would make it contrived.

With Antennnae, the sounds have an emphasis on breath and mechanical noises over "pure/natural" notes. You mentioned that you discovered the ideas "almost by accident in your flat".
That’s right, I was practicing and trying not to get complaints from the neighbours, and started improvising with these really quiet sounds. I know I’m not the first to use key noise, or breath sounds, but still it’s fascinating to play with these elements that are usually overlooked. To begin with I treated it like a game – ‘how long can I keep this improvisation going before I play an actual note’. From there I started to look at how the sounds related to each other, and how I could combine certain sounds. When I decided that I wanted to record an album exploring these ideas, I committed to the idea that I would use a restricted palette of just these sounds, and avoid the “pure” notes as much as possible. It still surprises me how much effort it can take to produce very little sound!

I am curious about your take on the notion of extended techniques. John Butcher once said: "You wouldn't describe aboriginal music or Jimi Hendrix as using extended techniques. It's the music – the way people play instruments is an integral part of achieving their musical aims."
I read that essay as well, and totally agree with what John Butcher says. From a player’s perspective these are just techniques for producing sound, like any other technique. It’s only in a historical or pedagogical context that they could be defined as “extended”. If, like many players, you use “extended” techniques all the time, they are just techniques like any other. I think building a personal vocabulary is important, though on the flip side it’s also important to be able to bring the right sound to a certain situation. Often the developmental work on new techniques comes from being unable to find the right sound or texture for a particular situation. In terms of there being new territory for saxophone technique, I’m sure it’s out there. Often with “extended techniques” it can feel like an arms-race, especially among saxophone players which continues to push things forward.

What I find interesting is that, most of the time, your record releases are not, as with many other improvisers, concert recordings, but dedicated studio sessions. What difference does this make, concretely, would you say? 
I have a couple of live records, one with Sheik Anorak and Mark Holub, and another with just Mark. Both were recorded at The Vortex in London, and were circumstantial more than anything – we played well, and luckily had someone there to do good recordings. I suppose that’s the same for everyone. I love studio sessions though. The records I’m most inspired by are usually studio sessions. I like the studio sound, and having that control and influence over the final aesthetic of a record. Antennae for instance had a very involved studio set-up for a solo recording, with 5 microphones, including 3 stuck to the body of the sax. To capture and heighten the detail of those improvisations would be very difficult to do in a live situation. I’ve also just finished another duo record with Mark that we recorded in a studio that’s mainly used by noise-rock bands. We went through a lot of vintage analogue gear, and got a really heavy aesthetic on our acoustic sound. So these are definitely things I’m into both as a player and as a listener. Having said that, I don’t go in for editing or overdubbing really. I try to keep the mental process and the performance aspect in the studio as true as it would be in a live situation.

What's your take on the claim that 'the future of music is in live'?
There’s really no universal answer any more – none of the musicians I speak to seem to have one anyway. There are so many options and ways for musicians to operate now. I guess the benefit of this scenario we are facing at the moment is that you can really choose whichever ‘reality’ works for you.

You're constantly on the road, recording or playing at home. When you're immersed in sound all day the way you are, does it become less fascinating – because you understand the way certain things work – or even more mysterious?
No, it’s always fascinating. There are different ways of listening of course, sometimes very immersive, and sometimes passive. I’m usually quite immersive and try to de-construct what I’m hearing, but that never stops being fascinating. I think even if a record or a gig ends up being disappointing, there’s always the expectation and the discovery. That’s one of the beautiful things about music, especially improvised music, I suppose.

Colin Webster Interview by Tobias Fischer
Colin Webster b/w photo by Mirabel White
Colin Webster portrait by Anthony Joseph
Colin Webster live shot by Hilde Speet

Homepage: Colin Webster
Homepage: Gaffer Records