To celebrate the release of Sorrow, Colin Stetson's stunning take on Henryk Górecki's Third Symphony, we thought we'd post a conversation we had late last year with the much-in-demand multireedist.
With his fingers in many musical pies, over the past year Colin Stetson has also made appearances on studio albums by both Animal Collective and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, while still finding the time to record and release the achingly beautiful Never Were the Way She Was, recorded as a duo with fellow Arcade Fire collaborator Sarah Neufeld.
Below, Stetson discusses his enduring love for Górecki's work, his recent collaborations, and passion for both Swedish metal and Radiohead.
What were your personal highlights of 2015?
CS: Basically, 2015 was mostly about Sarah Neufeld and I's duo record, [Never Were the Way She Was], that came out in April. That was really the focus. I was really pleased with that record, and I was happy to have had as much time to tour it as we did. We hit Europe a few times and the States a couple [too]. It was really lovely. We had some spectacular shows in quite a few different places, which was great! Where are you? Are you from Dublin?
I'm from Glasgow, Scotland. I caught the duo show at the Dome, in London, however, and the audience was completely spellbound!
CS: London shows are always the best that we have. I think I've played London, either solo or as a duo, six or seven times in the past two years. Every show is just fantastic. One of the big highlights of 2015, for me, was the Moers Festival that took place [in Germany] at the end of May. I was doing four [different] projects, which are all really demanding; especially the solo thing, and a trio performance with [Mr. Bungle and Fantômas'] Trevor Dunn and [Liturgy's] Greg Fox - it was just completely exhausting. It was the first time I've done anything like that, in terms of presenting [such a] breadth of music. I don't normally push myself to that degree of ridiculousness Getting to present all of that music, including Górecki's Third Symphony, was fantastic. A very, very special event. It was somewhat nerve-wracking, but a pleasure.
You do certainly keep busy, both with your own projects and your session work. You recently appeared on the new Animal Collective album, Painting With. How was it joining the band in the studio?
CS: Oh, it was fun! Hearing it now, the song ["FloriDaDa"] was pretty much intact by the time I got there. I mean there was some tweaking and some mixing, but mostly the song was ready to go, and they had a solid idea of where they wanted me to exist within it. What I did, though, wasn't really dictated by them at all, which is always great for me; to have some sort of a parameter that I just get to react to, and piece together a lot of different scenarios. That was fun for me.
I flew out to LA with a few horns, and took the morning to approach it from a lot of different angles. We just kept on rolling. It's kind of my favourite working environment; to have a group that just presses record. We were with an engineer that moves fast, so we could keep on hitting take after take. You stay warm, and you stay within the stream-of-conciousness, and that's really how that went. The stuff that ended up being on the song was what I thought was going to end up being on the song! There was a fuck-ton, which I think is the technical term, of other stuff that I played. Some of it was more, uh, reaching, I guess!
Another of your recent studio appearances was on Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour's long-awaited solo album, Rattle That Lock. How did that collaboration come about?
CS: It was actually all very coincidental. David emailed me. He and his wife Polly [Samson] were in the middle of trying to work out the mix for the song ["The Girl in the Yellow Dress"], and [thinking about] what it needed besides what they already had. They were listening to Alice, the Tom Waits album that I played on, and it was just one of those things: 'Who is this guy? That's the sound that I want.' They called me, and it just so happened that I was on tour in Europe and was going to be in London in three days. I changed some things around, and ended up going to his house-boat studio [Astoria], which was insanely beautiful!
It does look lovely.
CS: It's so idyllic! It's a completely different world you step into. Literally, to get to it, you have to walk from where the car drops you off, go underneath this old 17th century tunnel - which is just beautiful and smells like the ages - and then, when you walk out at the other side, it's like walking into The Shire. It's just [full of] perfectly manicured English gardens! Yeah, it was pretty nice. It was really just as simple as that; going out there, checking out the song, playing [it] a lot, and then having lunch!
That's fantastic. Were you a fan of Pink Floyd growing up, or familiar with David Gilmour's solo work at all?
CS: My Dad was a young man of the 60s. He was at Woodstock, and all of the records we had growing up, which were very few, were all classic rock. It was all Hendrix and The Beatles and Jethro Tull. Definitely that was a focus of [my] early years. I can't admit to having kept up with David's solo career, but, with the the breadth of work he's done, I've certainly been influenced by much of it over the years.
Have there been any occasions where you've been offered session work and had to simply turn it down?
CS: Sometimes. I mean, I'm trying to think of anything big that I really, desperately wanted to do. The biggest problem is not having enough time for all of the projects for me and my close friends. Really, the only thing that I want to do is to build these singular and special moments with people that I know and adore. That's what I'm trying to do these days. Sarah and I's duo record was the first of this newer thing of making records with other people. There's the Górecki ensemble, that will be coming out. After that, there are several other groups, [Ex Eye] with Greg Fox again on drums, Shahzad Ismaily on bass, myself on saxophones, and [Poignant Plecostomus'] Toby Summerfield on guitar; that's more of a metal band that will be performing in 2016. There a lot of different things, including the Trevor Dunn Trio, and another improvising ensemble.
There are a lot of things I don't get to do enough of, but I can't say that I've missed anything major that I've wanted to do. There's been a couple of things that happened in New York that I wasn't able to do, because I was on tour. There were a couple of things with Laurie Anderson that I haven't been able to do, [and I was] pretty heartbroken about not being a part of. Usually, when somebody is asking for something, we can make it work, because either I'm somewhere where I can easily get to them, or I can do it in my studio, where I stand behind the sounds.
You've mentioned your interpretation of Górecki's Third Symphony. Tell me a little bit more about the project.
CS: The most famous recording of it came out in 1992 or 1993 on Nonesuch Records. It was the highest selling Classical recording of all time. That one was hugely influential on me. Me and my friends in college at the time, when we got hit with that, it just changed everything. Since the mid-nineties, It's been a plan of mine to do it; I've wanted to record this. Circumstance and motivation and personnel and whatever gets in the way, or just doesn't provide a clear path, and then recently all of those things just lined up perfectly, and I took a shot. It's all coming together, and I'm really excited about it.
Looking ahead, what else have you got planned for 2016? Do you plan the bulk of your workload in advance, or is there an element of 'going with the flow' in terms of projects and collaborations?
CS: No - I really wish there was a little bit more 'flow'! Mostly it's all cordoned off at this point. The Górecki ensemble is seeking performance opportunities, and we're trying to put that together. Sarah and I will be doing some more duo things. I will have some solo touring again, in earnest, in the fall. Most likely, I'll have another solo record dropping before the end of the year. I'm working on several right now: there's the new rock band, there the Górecki ensemble, several solo records, and film scores. I'd trying to keep to a schedule, but it's tough sometimes!
Who would be your dream band or artist to collaborate with?
CS: I'll always say Radiohead. They remain singular in the world of music for doing what they've done, and for being what they've been to so many people in so many different ways. They're very big role models for me in terms of perfectly riding that line between genre and not becoming something that is very easily pigeon-holed and classified. I'll always say them.
Do you a favourite Radiohead album?
CS: Hail to the Thief.
Interesting choice! Why Hail to the Thief?
CS: I don't know whether it was just a specific time in my life, with certain very meaningful moments of exposure; like the music combined with specific happenings. Normally, that's the one that has the biggest weight for me. I'm trying to think of a runner-up. Probably OK Computer. Just because you can't fuck with OK Computer.
In terms of artists not becoming pigeon-holed, a band I would also say falls into this category is Arcade Fire, whom you've collaborated with many times.
CS: Oh, yeah! There's a lot of variables that have played into this, but they just happened to be on the cusp, right between the era of bands going out and making an audience out of road-dogging, and those that, as the wave broke, it turned into this idea of 'becoming something online'. They have something where, in a sense, they're the godfathers of 'Indie Rock'. Although they didn't happen at the beginning of it, they've become this thing. I feel that everyone emulates them to a degree, even if they don't know they are. There's a quality to their musicianship, and the way they approach music and songwriting, that still harkens back to that older era. [An era which is] just right around the corner, but still is so absent in so much music that you hear today; things that are born out of the studio, and not born from human physical work.
Are there similarities between your recent recording experience with Animal Collective and working in the studio with Arcade Fire?
CS: Yes and no. I would say that there's a greater specificity to what is needed in an Arcade Fire song. Apples and oranges, I guess! Animal Collective, right out the gate, talked about more quote-on-quote bizarre arrangements, and then, in Arcade Fire, it's much more pointed. I remember there were moments, like in "We Used to Wait", where it was really [a case of], 'We don't know what this needs. Can you do something?' But, mostly it's like [the song] "Reflektor", where you just know what it needs: it needs two different personalities of horn-line. One in the beginning that plays throughout most of it, and the other ending line, which is what Stuart Bogie and I ended up building and writing, where things just start to bliss-out and get a little bit emotional. I think there's more specific direction that those songs crave when you come into them.
Finally, Colin, I was wondered what you've been listening to this year?
CS: Oh shit! Recently, just because all these lists have been coming out, I've been kicking myself a bit, because I haven't really been listening to much new stuff. Let's see. I always keep up with what Liturgy are doing, and their new one is great. Eartheater, her new record RIP Chrysalis is fantastic. Right now, as I'm talking to you, I'm scrolling through my iTunes. I still actually buy music! This one's not new to the world, but it was new to me, I don't know how I missed it, but Piercing the Veil by William Parker and Hamid Drake. I had the chance to do a duo show with Hamid, not this Summer but last summer, and had the best time ever. He's just a fantastic and exceptional human. We had a great show, and a great time, and after that he tipped me off to a couple of things that I didn't even know that he did, and that was one of them. It's beautiful.
I don't know how to pronounce their name, but Vildhjarta - they're a Swedish metal band. Their record is called Måsstaden. They particularly have a tune called "Shadow", which is like a distillation of all of the best parts of metal! It leads into one of the most killer modulations, with particularly tight guitars, and trolls screaming later on. It's a good one.
Sorrow is out now on 52 HZ.