Interview: Mary Halvorson, Pt. 2

Interview: Mary Halvorson, Pt. 2

You also went the New School—you’ve called it “jazz school—and you said you really got into that but it killed it for you. I imagine there was a little of that, you know, “All the Things You Are” is where it’s at and—

Yeah, and you have to play it correctly and this is how you’re going to play it and it kind of sucked the life out of it for me. It made it kind of lifeless. But at the same time I did want to learn all that stuff and I wanted to learn the guitar technique, I wanted to learn the scales. I wanted to learn the chords. So I was learning it, which I wanted to do, but in the process it kind of lost something for me. I just needed a break.

And so the first record you released was a MAP, or M-A-P [Six Improvisations (2003)]?

Uh-huh, MAP, yeah.

That’s about as far away from like straight-ahead jazz as you can get.


So was that sort of a reaction to the “jazz school” thing?

Yeah, but I was playing compositions, too. I was doing a lot of improvising. I was playing compositions but not standards. And that was kind of what I was taking a break from and a lot of the stuff I was doing was influenced by jazz so that I wasn’t really practicing more traditional jazz. I do now, actually, practice that stuff because I think it’s a really good way to learn the instrument and I want to be able to apply it, that material into what I’m doing.

Well, there’s almost a kind of psychedelic rock element to that record that was kind of surprising to me. You’ve mentioned that you got a little sick of the guitar and you went out and got a bunch of effects pedals and sort of worked your way through it.

Yeah, that was when I was at the New School. It’s true, I did do that.

What defines your approach to technology? A lot of guitarists get a huge rack of gear and they bury their sound in effects but you don’t do that. Your basic sound is that acoustic string, that pure sound of the guitar yet you’re totally willing to warp that sound.

Obviously every guitar player approaches it differently—and it’s just my taste—but I really like having a mix of these things. I really like having the acoustic sound of the guitar mixed in because I really feel like that’s a really important aspect of the guitar: the attack of the pick and the sound of the wood. But then you’re having at your disposal an electric guitar, you know? It’s nice to be able to take advantage of amplifiers and get a tone that you like and feedback and effects. But I like that to be balanced and blended. And I’m not saying that’s the only way to do it because I’ve heard plenty of guitarists who maybe have a wall of effects—which could be really bad—but have great control over that stuff. Ty Braxton is an example of somebody who has complete control and does amazing things, looping all these effects. And then you get people that don’t have any kind of acoustic element really to their electric guitar, it’s all from the amp, and that can be great, too. Personally, I just like having that balance and I like being able to think that if the amp was taken away, and all the effects were taken away, that the core of the instrument is still there and I could still come up with something. I kind of think of the effects as like ornaments, like ornamenting or adding something to it.

I heard a story where you used to tour with your gigantic 1970 Guild Artist Award [guitar] and your dad built a flight case for it, is that right?

[Laughs] He’s an architect so he likes doing these really detailed drawings. But he didn’t build the case. Because my guitar is such a weird size, it needs a custom shape, so the flight case company required a detailed—I mean, they were just asking for a few measurements. They were asking, what’s the length of the body? And how long is the neck? I guess maybe they were asking for 10 measurements or something and my dad said he’d do it. But before I know it, he’s completely carried away and he’s measuring the distance between this and across here and this length and he’s drawing little diagrams (laughs). That’s on the cover of (Saturn Sings), you’ve seen it. But it was hilarious. I can’t imagine what these people thought at the company.

I assume the case was well-made.

It was, I mean, it worked (laughs).

But then you took it to Europe and the guitar didn’t make it until like the last minute or something?

Yeah, it almost missed a gig once. There are a number of reasons why I don’t do it anymore. One is that I travel so much and I’m not that strong (laughs) and I’m really tired and then the thing weighs 50 pounds. It’s like a coffin. I’m basically carrying around a coffin. So my muscles are aching and the thing is getting lost and it’s really not good for the wood to be exposed to such cold temperatures. And, in the end, it doesn’t even fit in the trunk of a normal sized cab! It just creates a lot of inconveniences. So I thought I really need to find something smaller that still has that kind of acoustic quality that I like that I can travel with and that’s what I will be playing tonight. But I’m still having problems because I try to carry on my guitar. I have a little gig bag I carry on the plane—but even with that, you get people telling you, “You can’t carry it on.” With the airplane restrictions getting worse and worse, it’s really stressful. I can’t sleep the night before because I’m worried my guitar is not going to make it. And there’s really no right answer, you know? I haven’t figured out an answer because it still stresses me out.

But here’s the latest update: I have a couple of friends who’ve had this surgery done on their bass so the neck is removable. They can check the upright bass, still in a bass coffin, but without the head. So it’s like half the height and then neck goes in a separate little case and then they’re able to bring their instrument to Europe with a little bit more ease. I mean, it’s still a pain in the ass to carry around an upright bass! But I was thinking if you can do it to a bass, why can’t you do that to a guitar? And then I thought if I can just put my guitar in a suitcase sized thing and carry it on the plane and I wouldn’t have to worry about anything! So I know this guitar builder who has done some repairs for me before. He’s really talented and has built all kinds of insane guitars and he’s really into weird, one-off projects and he said he would build a guitar for me. We can custom build it from scratch, so everything is custom, from the pickups to the size of the body, everything, and build it with a removable neck so I can fold up the guitar. We’re going buy suitcase, build the guitar so that it fits into the suitcase and then I can walk on the plane. So this is the new model, my new model of travel.

Oh, wow.

Of course, he has five or six guitars to build before mine so I’m on kind of a waiting list. So it’s going to take a little while. I guess it would be two or three years, but that’s my plan. And I’ve never had a custom guitar so it could be really cool to work with him to design this instrument from the beginning.

Is it going to be a hollow-body, similar to what you’ll be playing tonight?

Yeah. I’m going to try to make it look—not look—I’m going to try to make it sound and feel as similar to my Guild as I can, but still, you know, have it fold up. Supposedly you have a bolt, you fold it over. You don’t even have to take the strings totally off, you loosen the strings, fold the thing and then you bolt it back together and then just tighten the strings.

That’s amazing. So, you and Jessica Pavone just did a little tour for your 10th anniversary?


Then that was actually the first thing you did when you came to New York, work with Jessica?

Yeah, it was. She was the first person I met. We were neighbors, weirdly enough. It’s funny to be neighbors in New York. We live like a block away from each other.

So you didn’t meet through Braxton’s group?

Not through Braxton, but we had mutual friends. She actually didn’t go to Wesleyan, contrary to what many people think, she went to the Hartt School of Music where she was playing with Middletown Creative Orchestra. She would drive down a lot and work with a lot of Wesleyan people so we had friends in common.

Those records are really interesting too because, like you’ve said, it’s “writing your own folk music.”


I know you’ve mentioned Robert Wyatt being a big influence and I hear a lot of Canterbury influence to that music. Kind of folk-rock chamber music—it’s not jazz, really.

Not really. And I think because Jess never studied jazz, she’s coming more from a classical background and she’s also really into a lot of folk music and a lot of chamber music so I think it more takes on that kind of influence. There’s probably some jazz influence there but it’s not that strong.

And maybe not even a lot of improvisation, more through-composed.

Some of them are through-composed and some of them have improvisation.

The singing is lovely. I love the harmonies. You both have sort of plain, unadorned voices.

We’re not singers, yeah. I kind of like it when you have singing that’s kind of raw, like it’s not polished. Although some polished singers I really love, we’re just singing not because we’re trying to be singers but because the song requires that, you know what I mean? (laughs)

Uh-huh. Right.

So, we’re just singing. It’s pretty simple, yeah.

It’s beautiful stuff. So then People is another band where you sing and it has very much an overt rock sort of feel.

And that was also another when I left the New School and I was thinking of doing different stuff. I was more interested in rock music around that time and People was probably the second band I formed after the duo with Jess and I was kind of experimenting with having a rock band and then I met Kevin [Shea] and we just started working on that stuff.

And you have a new one coming out?

Theoretically (laughter).


I couldn’t even tell you what we’ve been through. I mean, we recorded the “new CD” in 2009 or something and we had three different labels kind of screw us over, kind of string us along and say they were going to put it out and then be like, “oh never mind.” And then we’d be back to square one. So we’ve been sitting on it for a long time. But I really like the record, I hope it gets out. We have a plan now which is actually the same label that put out our first two records [I & Ear]. It’s funny, we ended circling back around. They weren’t doing stuff for a while and then by the time we’d gotten screwed over enough times, they were ready to put it out again. Peter Evans did some horn arrangements on it.

Yeah, I saw something about that. That will be interesting.

It’s really cool, I like what he did. And then we have a bass player now, who also sings. So it’s a little different than the other records.

With everyone in your generation, like Taylor Ho Bynum and you and Ingrid, it seems like anything can happen, any type of music could happen at any time. It’s really refreshing.

A lot of people are doing that because people these days have so many different influences musically, you know, it’s not like you just like jazz. People are being influenced by everything.

I hear there is a new Ingrid Laubrock Anti-House record in the can?


Will that be on Intakt again?

Yeah, Intakt is a great label. I have another record coming out on Intakt actually which is a duo with Stephan Crump.

Right. Secret Keeper?

Yeah, that will be out in March or something. But they’ve been great, great people to work with.

This is a recent project?

Yeah, it’s been about a year and half ago we started getting together playing and recording. He has a studio in his home, a music studio, so we’ve been getting together and just basically recording everything. So, we put out an album. And that’s all improvisations, although we’ve been writing compositions, too, so the following record, which will be on Intakt a couple years later, is going to be those compositions.

Well, that first Anti-House record is one of my favorite records of all time.

Oh, that’s so cool.

It’s just again one of those bands where it’s like anything could happen, you know?


And within a very short period of time, anything could happen. It’s interesting to compare that to like the Tom Rainey Trio, which is essentially the same people but the music’s very different.

Yeah, very different. Ingrid is a great composer, I really like what she does.

And a great player, too.

Oh yeah, she’s one of my favorites.

My sense is that the Tom Rainey Trio is more improvised.

It’s entirely improvised.

Oh, OK. It’s kind of hard to tell! And then Anti-House is quite tightly constructed.

Yeah, but again, with spaces for things to happen. Her compositions are actually pretty involved and pretty difficult. I usually have to spend a lot of time learning them, which I’m happy to do because I love her music.

What makes them difficult?

Rhythmically, there’s a lot of tricky rhythm stuff and also a lot of like big leaps sometimes pitch-wise, so sometimes it just takes a lot of coordination. And a lot of times there will be tricky rhythm stuff and somebody else will be playing a different tricky rhythm simultaneously—but they don’t necessarily line up until a certain point. It’s not like you’re playing against a beat so you have a sense of where you are, so it’s all so tricky. You have to really learn it.

But maybe that sort of tension is sort of built into it? I think some of Braxton’s music is like this, where there’s so many complex rhythms going on that it doesn’t really matter if they don’t line up perfectly.


That sort of imprecision is sort of a part of what makes the music interesting.

Oh, totally, yeah, I think so.

Another new group is Thumb Screw, with Michael Formanek and Tomas Fujiwara—any plans to record that band?

That we’re definitely going to record and right now we’re just trying to figure out which label we’re going to put it out on and when we’re going to record it. But I’d say that’s probably the next project of mine that will get recorded. Aside from the Septet, which I already recorded.

So that’s been recorded already?

That’s been recorded and that will come out in August hopefully [on Firehouse 12]. But Thumb Screw is on the radar. We’ve been doing a lot more with that group and we definitely want to record and try to tour.

Are you the leader of the group?

It’s actually a collective which is really nice. Collectives, they don’t always work because sometimes you have one person or another that’s doing all the work or it feels kind of uneven. Or maybe even nobody does anything and then the whole thing just ends up fizzling out. But with Thumb Screw it seems like everyone is pretty equally invested in it, which is unusual, so there’s a nice balance. We all write for it, we all do work to get gigs for it so it’s been really fun. And both of those guys are both into rehearsing so although we haven’t done that many gigs, maybe four or five gigs, we’ve spent quite a bit of time rehearsing and learning the material, which is awesome.

You play with you a lot of different people in different configurations. It seems like if any of these people want to get together and do something, you’re there and contributing to what’s required.

It’s sort of a combination because I like to do a variety of things. But then there’s a point where it becomes too much and you feel too scattered so it’s kind of about finding that balance. A lot of the times there’s so many things that I want to do that I’ll have to say “no” to even things I do want to do, just because there’s not enough time. Or if I feel like I don’t have enough time to practice or compose or things like that, I’ll have to start cutting down. But definitely don’t do anything I don’t want to do. There are just a lot of things I want to do, so it’s a tricky balance, I think.

Anyone that you’d like to play with that you haven’t played with?

Oh, a ton of people. It’s funny, though. I don’t necessarily think of specific people. I’ll hear someone that I’ve never played with and I think that would be great but I don’t think that far ahead [laughs], so I don’t necessarily think about that.

I guess you’re pretty well booked well into the future?

Somewhat, yeah. But I just kind of take opportunities as they come, you know?

You seem to have fairly Catholic listening tastes as well. You’ve mentioned that you like Deerhoof.

I love Deerhoof, yeah.

That’s really interesting. I can sort of hear it, particularly like during your more rock-oriented stuff.

Uh-huh and they have two guitarists now which I also really like because they blend in a really interesting way, an interesting orchestration of the guitars.

What other sorts of music do you like to listen to that people might be surprised by?

Hmm. I listen to all sorts of things. I love a lot of old soul stuff. I listen to a lot of old music (laughs).

Me too!

A lot of old jazz. I’ll check out anything. I also like to try to keep up with what’s happening now, especially in the jazz scene but also bands like Deerhoof. I just got the new Frank Ocean CD, which I found really interesting. It’s a little bit of a different thing. I love Sam Cooke, a lot of jazz. It really depends. I don’t have like a regular routine of listening or anything.

Do you collect records?

Some. I don’t have a huge record collection but it is my preferred form for listening.

Oh, vinyl?


So, you prefer vinyl to CD?

I love listening to vinyl.
What is it about it you love?

Just the sound, it just creates a different feeling, just the sound of the record. With MP3s especially, you really lose something.

Yeah, sure.

I love listening. And I inherited my dad’s record player because he wasn’t listening to it, so he just gave it to me. He bought it in like 1967 and it still has the original speakers, so there’s something really timeless about that, you know? Technology is changing like every day but you have this record player that still works, sounds great, with the same speakers from that year.

Well, I should probably let you go. One last question: what do you do for fun when you’re not traveling and playing music?

What do I do for fun? I really actually like getting away from music. That’s the thing, you get into this thing where all your friends are musicians and you’re playing music and you’re talking about music and it becomes difficult to get away from it. So, I have a few hobbies or things I do. I watch a lot of basketball—


Yeah, so I watch a lot of basketball games. I go swimming. That’s a really nice thing to kind of Zen-out, so I do laps at the pool when I’m home. I study astrology so sometimes I’ll read things about that and do astrology-related things.

I knew you were interested in astrology—so, what’s your sign?

A Libra. Libra sun, Libra rising and there’s Capricorn moon.

Do find the astrological stuff affects your music or inform what you’re doing musically?

Well, it’s interesting just the way you relate to people. Like, the band Instant Strangers is a funny example because me and Tim Berne have the same birthday and then Tomas Fujiwara and Stephan Crump, their birthdays are one day off. And the angle that our four Suns form is a trine, which is like an easy flow of energy. So you can see things like that sometimes. I had a band once in college where we had all four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Each person in the band was a different element and that was also kind of a cool balance. Also, in my septet, five out of seven of the people are Libras.


And I didn’t do that on purpose, that just happened. I tend to be drawn to Libras, in some sense—especially musically. Ches Smith is a Libra, Jon Irabagon is a Libra, Ingrid, Jacob Garchik, Peter Evans. So I have a lot of Libras in my life—but it’s not just about the sun sign. Everyone is a combination of many elements so that, if you look at the big picture, it’s one of those things where the more you know, the more interesting it gets.

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