Sax man toes the line between indie and avant-gardeThose who think they’re too cool for school and — by extension — too cool for the saxophone can move along. Colin Stetson is having none of it. The Montreal-by-way-of-New-York transplant has wielded his bass sax for over a decade, playing with a variety of high-profile acts including Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio and currently, Bon Iver. Finally, in 2008, Stetson made his debut solo album, New History Warfare Vol.1, the first in a planned trilogy of experimental jazz records that show off his talent for musical contortionism, using creativity, his body and the studio to manipulate and reinvent the scope of his instrument. His recent follow-up, New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges was just nominated for the 2011 Polaris Prize longlist, and he’s now in the middle of his Vancouver International Jazz Fest residency, conducting workshops and playing a variety of gigs throughout the 10-day festival. Stetson spoke with WE from his home in Montreal about his solo career, his high-profile side projects and the sax’s reputation as the pop culture joke that just won’t quit.
WE: What does the Polaris nod mean to you?
Colin Stetson: It’s a really amazing welcome to Canada for me. I’ve been really enjoying living here and being a part of this scene, especially the music community in Montreal. And to be acknowledged as a part of that community, along with so many of my friends, just feels really special. But then also, just the response to this record has been overwhelmingly good and I’ve been really happy with that.
The record is amazing: so complex and it’s not straightforward, I’m just kind of delighted people get it.
Yeah, that is my main delight as well. (Laughs) I don’t see it as being so difficult or out there. When I hear it, I hear it as being very straightforward songs. Of course, the songs that are creating them are not mainstream or conventional. But, to me, it kind of plays out very cinematically and more or less as a story. But, I’ve grown accustomed to always having everyone else’s ears hear it in a different way. With this record I think I was finally able to get that point across more clearly, so others could actually see what I was seeing, which is what I’ve been after. I’m just getting better at it, I guess. (Laughs)
Cinematic is a good descriptor, since I felt like I was watching a movie.
That’s fantastic. That makes me so happy, right in my heart, ’cause that’s really where — the hugest part of the foundation for this music is in visuals for me. I think very cinematically when I go about writing individual pieces, while constructing them into the over-all arc of the record and in seeing this as a trilogy of records, too. As an ongoing, unfolding narrative, so it pleases me to hear when people are also on board with me with that one.
You didn’t put out your first album until 2008. Were you enjoying a long education process, or did you not feel ready until then?
It was never a focus of mine. I was doing maybe one solo show a year, if that, over the course of 10-15 years. They were always more rooted in the tradition of avant-garde improviser, free jazz route. I was dealing with some thematic material, some of the stuff that ended up on Volume One but it was much more amorphous... I didn’t start to get inspired to straighten it up and put it on record until Volume One. I’d started to do a few more solo concerts and compose more and I’m not sure what the impetus for that was, but — actually, no, I do. I was in New York City, it was really hard to get things done and pay rent, and I remember having a conversation with my best friend Stuart Bogie, who’s an amazing musician. At that point, we were just doing the hustle, playing with everything and I remember him saying, “What are you doing?” and I listed off all the projects I was a part of, and he said, “Well, what do you want to have time to do?” And I said I wanted to be able to do something of my own, and the band I was leading wasn’t able to rehearse as much as I wanted, so it was getting more and more difficult to have that be what I wanted and he said, “Well, quit everything except one band of somebody elses and do your own thing and see how you feel.” So, I did and then I made Volume One and I felt great.
Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, let me know that when I see you in Vancouver, you’ll melt my face off.
(Laughs) Yeah, I’ve reportedly melted Justin’s face off several times.
Now you’re going on tour with Bon Iver, right?
Yeah, I just got done with a week-and-a-half’s worth of rehearsals. I just got home from that.
You can straddle the line between being the indie rock guy and the avant-garde guy.
Yeah, I’m really fortunate right now that I can play my own music and have it be something more than just a side note, or something I do for my own shits and giggles. To the point where it’s sometimes hard for me to imagine committing so much time and effort to another group because of how much I have going on solo-wise right now. Which is just fantastic to have that be a problem. I haven’t had to work another job since I was 30 years old. I haven’t had to take any music gig I didn’t want for the last five years. Now, my only problem is that I have to say no to someone like Laurie [Anderson] which is fuckin’ horrible! (Laughs) Like, “No, I wanna do it so bad but I actually committed to this band Bon Iver...”
Everyone’s talking about the sax’s comeback. Its reputation took a beating, but you rode that out.
It’s just fashion. It’s just what people like to say to each other to feel like they’re all in the same club. Why does everybody hate the sound of the saxophone? Because the ’80s went out with a bad taste when the ’90s came in, and in the ’90s, Kenny G made the saxophone do something that everybody thought was super cheeseball. Those are the reasons. But now, every other aspect of the ’80s have been back in for years and there’s some sort of weird stigma on the saxophone because of what, Kenny G? It’s kind of horseshit. I don’t really buy it and whenever anybody says something like that, I just think either we don’t agree about music or they’re just not telling me the truth. They’re just saying something because they think they should be saying it to be cool. What are the memorable solos? Saxophone solos from the ’80s and all throughout rock music, since back in the ’40s, it’s been the stuff of popular music and rock music. For me it’s never really gone away, but with the indie rock explosion in the past decade, everybody’s been going very far into the orchestral realm. It’s been cool to use things like french horns and oboes and it’s cool to do all that shit because there’s something untouched and something that remains kind of pristine about orchestral instruments, but there’s something tainted about saxophone. Maybe because it already had its super heyday in popular music and maybe the chamber music side of things never had it. Now we’ve seen that take its course in Arcade Fire and even more out than that with the Dirty Projecters music becoming more mainstream. I think people’s ears are opening back up and saying, let’s just listen to what it sounds like and judge it based on that. At least I hope.
Colin Stetson plays several shows throughout the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. To July 3 at various venues. Schedule, tickets and info: CoastalJazz.ca.