Horist interview December 13, 2005
I first heard Bill Horist back in 2000 with his solo guitar work CD Songs from the Nerve Wheel. It was funny because as I saw the reviews starting to pop up for the disc people kept calling his guitars keyboards. This past August me & Bill did a couple of shows together & played together on a couple songs. If you know me, I have trouble working with other musicians; so anyone I can get along with musically I'm always a fan of. Anyway below is the interview.
QRD – How did you first find out about prepared guitar & why did you decide to do it?
Bill – In the strictest sense of the term,
and long before I heard of prepared guitar, I was exposed to it by way
of Bauhaus and Danny Ash’s guitar playing. Later, I learned of instrument
preparation from John Cage’s prepared piano work. Later still, as
I was developing an interest in freely improvised music, I heard folks
like Keith Rowe, Fred Frith, and Hans Reichel. My first attempts
at preparing guitars was co-incident with getting into some of those Jim
O’Rourke recordings on Extreme. Real drone-o-rama stuff where he’d
not even touch the instrument – even more laissez faire than Rowe’s work.
It really wasn’t until I relocated to Seattle ten years ago that I actually
pursued it in performance. Prior to that I lived in Michigan and,
since I was too “out there” to get local gigs with any regularity while
playing “normal” guitar, extrapolating on the sonic possibilities seemed
a pretty unlikely option.
QRD – How much time do you spend playing “normal” guitar versus prepared guitar in an average week?
Bill – Actually, in practice, I play “normal” guitar almost exclusively. With that kind of playing, there tends to be specific things I’d like to work on and develop, whereas with the prepared guitar work, I don’t want it to develop, in a way. I hope to keep the latter in some nascent state where the possibilities that can sometimes only exist in a lack of sophistication can surface. It tends not to be about “chops”. Of course there are exceptions, but this has been pretty consistent for the last several years. Now, there are things in my prepared guitar playing that do require some development, but I seem to be able to exercise those strategies in normal playing. Plus, since instrument preparation lends itself well to improvising, I like to avoid the pitfalls of routine and attempts to recreate.
QRD – What tuning do you use for prepared guitar & how does it help you to get your sounds?
Bill – Currently the tuning is F#/B/B/F#/B/A. The lowest string is the first B. It’s a tuning that almost seemed to evolve out of my lack of interest in applying a tuning. After several years of not tuning while I played, this became some sort of default. It wasn’t intentional or conscious at all. It’s kind of a weird dialectic because, on one hand, I could say the tuning is absolutely critical to my sound; but on the other, it really doesn’t matter at all. If I used a different tuning, that would be critical to my sound. It’s like that aspect of chaos theory – sensitive dependence on initial conditions. The tuning will dictate everything about how the strings operate in conjunction with the objects, no matter what the tuning is. So I could and will eventually change the tuning and discover how the objects behave anew.
QRD – What all objects do you use to prepare your guitar; I think there are some forceps & some kind of picture frame?
Bill – I have a cloth bag full of addenda, as in junk, I’ve found over the last several years. Favorites include, hemostats (also known as roach clips outside the medical profession), nails, bolts, broken cymbals, a picture holder, broken bars from a mat cutter, really long threadwire, slinkies, knives, other tools, parts from a car’s suspension – basically anything I see that seems to indicate a property that could be interesting. Sometimes a glass slide and a pick even! Though I haven’t done it in a while, I used to take requests. People would bring objects and I would have to improvise with them on the guitar – the best of the bunch was when someone brought me a 6-foot ladder.
QRD – How important is the actual guitar you use as your initial sound source? Is the tone important or you get most of the tone out of your hands & inserted objects?
Bill – Like the tuning and the objects, the guitar is critical to the sound; but not essential. I could probably be just as happy building a stringboard out of a 2x4 and working like that; but, at some point in my late teen years, I seemed to identify with the guitar – maybe it’s strident ubiquity in western music and the resulting need to be fucked with – so that, in a way is essential. I couldn’t see myself doing this with laptop or anything. As for the tone, it is important, but I wouldn’t say an orthodox “good” tone is important. The guitar I use, an old Tiesco, has its sound. My interest in that particular guitar has probably to do more with other properties that interest me, such as microphonic pickups and switches that turn pickups on and off individually. The name of the game really is in the interaction between string, pickup and object. My latest solo recording, which will hopefully get released in 2006, really showcases this relationship. For the recording I stripped away just about all ancillary effects and looping devices, favoring the action that is happening on the guitar itself. It allowed me to really explore what can go on there and really get microscopic with it. Because I’m not layering stuff in real-time, like on my past efforts, there is an intimacy to the explorations and one can get really up close with things that happen in an incredibly small sonic place.
QRD – Who was the first person you saw use an e-bow & when did you decide you needed one?
Bill – Jeez, not sure – Robert Fripp maybe? I’d heard them long before though and really dug the sound. By the time I actually got one, I was less interested in the application to which it seemed to lend itself – single string legato up the wazoo type stuff. I found it great to use in conjunction with various objects. It became another layer in the relationship between object and string by the fact that you can attenuate strings differently with it and that can really glean some crazy results with, say thin pieces of metal or whatever. Other activities with e-bows include raking them up, down and across strings or using it to vibrate against itself - it can almost sound like those crazy split partials that horn players can get.
QRD – What was the first pedal you bought?
Bill – Hmm, I’d have to say either a DOD chorus or flange – it was the 80s after all! Two sounds I really don’t care for anymore. Probably like sour cream – I over-indulged in the teen years and now I can’t stand the stuff!
QRD – What was the best pedal you bought?
Bill – That’s tough! There are three
that seem critical to what I need to harness the sounds I like. First,
the volume pedal – the ability to change the attack of the guitar is huge.
Sure, I heard it first through Bill Frisell, but it has a long-standing
relationship with eerie pedal steel in tons of country music. Next
would be looping pedals. I use the Line 6 DL-4. It’s small,
sturdy and, despite the fact that I’ve heard complaints from others about
it’s reliability, given the years of abuse to which mine has been subjected,
the fact that it seems a little glitchy these days is completely understandable.
I actually still have the box and warranty so I thought about sending it
QRD – What was the worst pedal you bought?
Bill – That’s easy – fucking Cry Baby wah wahs! I hate them! Went though 4 in three years! Wanna wah wah? Get a Vox. Besides, contrary to Dunlop’s (Cry Baby) marketing BS, Hendrix used a Vox!
QRD – How does urethra pain relate to your music?
Bill – Sounds like I told you a story while we were gigging together last summer! Despite doing a gig with a kidney stone years ago, I’m not sure the relationship goes beyond that. Actually, it’s interesting though, and maybe this is more about music and pain in general. It’s happened numerous times that I’ve been ill, injured, or in pain while having to do shows and just for that set of music, the ailment seems to disappear. It’s what musicians get instead of health insurance!
QRD – Your live show is completely improvised, are your albums just collections of improvisations or more planned out?
Bill – The albums I’ve done with others have been done in all manner of ways. As for the solo records, they are improvised. The one exception is my last release, Lyric/Suite (2004 - Accretions), which was, for the most part, a composed score for choreography. However, despite the fact that the original material for my other records has been improvised, ideas would be culled and edited after the fact; so although improvised, it isn’t heard as it was played. One of the great things about improvised music is seeing a live event that will never happen the same way again. There is the fact that, once recorded, it will always sound the same and the fact that it’s improvised becomes moot, in a way. Of course you can say “man, that was improvised,” but it isn’t gonna change with each subsequent listen – you may though. So it seems like it almost doesn’t matter how it was conceived once it’s set into a medium that will present it identically each time.
QRD – You did a recent set of solo guitar recordings completely without effects, why did you want to do that?
Bill – I mentioned this above, but to recap; it was to find a better arena to explore the microscopic sounds that result from instrument preparation and let them be the focus – something that can often get lost in swaths of loops, delays and other effects. Further, I liked the idea of creating one of those “in the room” recordings – like old blues records, you know, one mic, one amp, and in my case, a pile of detritus!
QRD – How did you become an artist in residency at a university?
Bill – Well it was actually a center for the arts – something you really don’t hear of in the US. It was the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta – nestled between some awe-inspiring domes of the Canadian Rockies. It was under the auspices of University of Calgary choreographer Davida Monk. We had met prior, in the states, and she had used my recorded work for some projects. She secured funding to develop a piece called “Lyric”, based on the text “Lyric Philosophy” by Canadian philosopher/poet, Jan Zwickey. She commissioned me to do the music for the work so I spent about a month in Banff with Davida, dancers Alanna Jones and Su-Lin Tseng, and a host of other super talented folks in various production and advisory capacities. Davida’s process is great because she wants the music to be a part of the development from the ground up – it’s not an afterthought once the work is developed. It really fostered an integrated production. The music was released on CD as Lyric/Suite, which I mentioned earlier.
QRD – It’s been a few years since your last solo release, is there any reason why?
Bill – I’m prone to be working on several things at once and, at certain times, some projects take precedence. Over the last couple years, I’ve been involved with a number of other projects, which has included a bunch of ensemble work and working as a producer on a more pop oriented-project. I also took several months off from music – my first sabbatical in ten years, so it was high time. I’ve also noticed that I seem to alternate recording emphasis every other year. Like I’ll do a lot of playing live on tour or whatever and then realize that I’ve gone a year or so without a release and better get cracking. This year, despite a little touring, has seen a lot of recording. If all goes according to my wicked little design, I’ll have between five and seven releases seeing the light of day by the end of 2006; both ensemble and solo work. In regards to the solo work, I don’t want to release the same guitar record again and again; so I need to wait until a new strategy is revealed to me and I’ll be able to make something that isn’t interchangeable with prior work. Having said that, I’ve been working on a new solo record, but this time it’s all fingerstyle acoustic music and is augmented by twenty or so of some of the Northwest’s finest musicians. It’s a pretty big production, my first as producer and bandleader. We’re almost done with tracking and I hope to be mixing in March. I’m super excited about it because the material is stuff that I’ve developed over ten years but has really never seen the light of day until I started trying it out on live audiences over the last year or so. It couldn’t be more different than my prior work. It has a pretty specific narrative quality. It’s like the lovechild of Leo Kottke, Martin Denny, and Penderecki.
QRD – What are the benefits & deficits of playing with a band instead of solo?
Bill – There are all the ones you could imagine. It’s not as lonely on the road with a band – you can contextualize your experience with consistent partners. However, it’s easier to travel, do what you want, get housed and fed when you’re one. If I want to play in NY, I just have to get a plane ticket and work out accommodations. It would be much cheaper and easier than if I’m one of three or five people who have been living in a van for the last week. It means I can go on tour and not lose my shirt. Of course, when you’re solo, everything is on you, from booking to soliciting, you know, EVERYTHING! After ten years of that, it tends to feel pretty burdensome and sometimes it feels like things aren’t progressing when in fact, they probably are. The solo thing can be lonely in other ways too. Despite the fact that I’m an improviser, I prefer to connect with rock audiences (not always but often). In that arena, a solo act is often passed up for bills because there is a preference for “bands” to do rock shows – even on the fringes of that scene. Plus, when people see you alone for so long, it’s hard to imagine you working with others – which I actually like to do a lot!
QRD – What would you like to do in your music that you haven’t had an opportunity to so far?
Bill – Make a living! Actually I’d like to do more composing that doesn’t involve me playing guitar. One of the drawbacks of improvised music is that you can’t really express yourself through an instrument that someone else is playing. Certainly you can suggest and convey, but actually saying, “I have a part for French Horn,” doesn’t work so well in improv. I’ve actually begun a foray in that direction this last summer. Part of the impetus for the acoustic guitar record I mentioned above is that I wanted to create something that doesn’t require a fetish for a given instrument and/or approach to give it credence. It will be a record of music, not guitar music, not improvised prepared guitar, but music, guitar notwithstanding.
QRD – Anything else?
Bill – Isn’t that enough???