Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Bill Stevenson on jazz
I have a Post-It on my wall labeled "dream interviews." There are six names listed, four of which are crossed off: Glenn Danzig, Cecil Taylor, Richard Davis and—the latest—Bill Stevenson, whom I interviewed a few weeks back for Time Out New York. (Trey Azagthoth and Charles Brackeen are left!) Stevenson, the drummer of Descendents and ALL, as well as a former member of Black Flag, was far friendlier and more enthusiastic than two of the other names on the list (I'll let you figure out which). I've been a fan for years, and I wasn't let down in the slightest by our conversation.
1) The Descendents play Roseland Ballroom in NYC this Friday, September 23. Info via TONY.
2) Here, via the TONY site, is an edited version of the Bill Stevenson Q&A. Topics-wise, this is much more accessible than what's below; among other things, we discussed Stevenson's recent health problems and his ever-evolving impressions of several classic Descendents songs.
3) Below is an extended outtake from the chat dealing with Stevenson's interest in jazz. We touched on Black Flag's instrumental/improvisational experiments, Stevenson's love for Ornette Coleman and quite a bit more.
HS: With regard to Black Flag, I'm really interested in the instrumental material and some of the more improvisational stuff, like on The Process of Weeding Out and Family Man. Did you feel like there was a current of, for lack of a better term, punk fusion that you wanted to explore further that got cut short?
BS: Yeah, I just wish I was a little further along as a musician when we were trying to do that stuff. 'Cause I was listening to Charlie Parker, listening to Ornette Coleman, listening to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, listening to King Crimson, but I didn’t quite have—even with respect to my meter, my ability to hold time while doing various improvised things—I just wish I had been better when we were trying to do that because I think it could have been more successful. We could have found maybe a whole other bunch of people that might have enjoyed it. I very much appreciate the fact that we were trying to do what we were doing, but I don’t necessarily think the execution was on vinyl as it was in our heads.
HS: It was almost like the first stab at something like that, that had been attempted.
BS: Well, I mean, with guitars, you know, but Ornette Coleman was doing it for 25 years.
HS: Sure, but coming out of a hardcore vocabulary.
BS: Yeah, but we weren't paying attention. It didn’t matter what 7 Seconds or whatever was doing. It just mattered whatever we were interested in at the time.
HS: I was reading an interview from 2003 where you were talking about that rumored ALL instrumental album. You mentioned that you guys were getting into this more improvisational style and had encountered some difficulties in playing that way. Has that current been picked up? Have you been working on that instrumental or improvisational material?
BS: We recorded seven pieces, four of which I think are pretty good, but yeah, it’s just one of those things where, you know, the rent is due, so do we have ten hours a day to apply to this? Functional concerns are obviously the number one enemy of creativity. I don’t know; I don’t have a logical answer.
HS: You were saying how back in '84, you didn't feel like as a player, you were quite up to the challenge of exploring that kind of improvisational stuff with Black Flag. Did you undertake a serious study of jazz or fusion after that?
BS: Oh yeah, you’re damn right I did. I think one of the cooler actual success stories of that would be maybe the song "I Want Out" on Problematic by ALL. It’s not on the improvised side, but on the unfathomably technical side where you can still sing along. And then another one would be the song "Virus" on the Only Crime record To the Nines. There's a middle section in that song where for me it’s interesting because it’s like a drum improvisation over a set pattern—kind of the opposite of bebop. So I’ve had a few things that I would consider to be successes in that area. But I don’t know… Improvising is like… Guitar solos are like farts. They’re okay if they're you're own, but who necessarily wants to listen to them?
HS: Well, what I really like about some of the more experimental Descendents material is that you’re right on the edge. The Process of Weeding Out is freer, like the bass and drums are holding something down while the guitar goes off. But what I like about something like "Uranus" by the Descendents is that it’s a composition. It has a looseness and a little but of space in it, but it’s still a written piece of music.
BS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Your perception of this is right on. That's what I mean. I think "Uranus" is a success story in this way and maybe that song "Birds" on ALL's Percolater. There have been a few successes. So I think you might like that song "Virus" on the To the Nines record by Only Crime. That’s in a different way though because it has vocal patterns and everything.
HS: Especially ALL during the period of Allroy Saves, I almost feel like it was this new kind of progressive rock, where all the ideas that would be in a Yes song or something like that would be squeezed into these one-minute songs.
BS: Uh-huh, yeah.
HS: Like that song "Check One," which I've always thought was a mini masterpiece that you wrote. Do you remember anything about how you came up with material like that? Can you give an insight into what you guys were drawing on with a song that complex?
BS: There’s just the obvious kind of five things I suppose, which is Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker, King Crimson, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Zappa. You know, they’re kind of ordinary influences, but you know how this stuff works. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it all depends on what it is you’re listening to when when you’re listening to this stuff. Even with Miles Davis, I reckon there’s 50 different ways you could listen to Miles Davis and be getting 50 different things out of it, and that’s certainly true with Ornette.
HS: Do you have a favorite period or couple records of Ornette?
BS: Oh, fuck… He’s my all-time hero of the world, so I don’t even know where to start. I think that most of that material—the chronology escapes me, and this is part of the function of the neurosurgery is some of my memory for minutiae is not all the way reassembled, but I'm gonna say this: All the way up through those releases that they repackaged as Beauty Is a Rare Thing, everything up through that are my eight favorite albums. And then after that, I like the Science Fiction sessions. Oh God, fuck! You what I love? Skies of America! Nobody likes that one, but I love that one.
Ornette to me reached a point where you’d put on the record and it would sound like in high school, in the band room before the teacher got there and everybody was warming up and tuning up—that sound. Sometimes Ornette's records sound that way, and I can’t quite handle that but when it doesn’t sound like that, then it’s my favorite thing in the whole world. And I even like his—I’m gonna call them straighter bebop records, those first two: Something Else!!!! and Tomorrow Is the Question. I love those more than The Shape of Jazz to Come, but then the ones after The Shape of Jazz to Come are some of my favorites.
HS: Like This Is Our Music or Change of the Century?
HS: Would you be able to describe specifically how you’ve been influenced by, say, Ed Blackwell or Billy Higgins? Or do you think it even works that way?
BS: I reckon drumwise, from that arena, I would see more of an Elvin Jones influence. Or I saw Ornette a few years ago and he had his son on drums. I’ve grown to love Denardo but I don’t know… Then it was a bow bass and a finger bass and Ornette. Man, I couldn’t even breathe I was so… It was amazing! I know this doesn't sound like anything to you, but I live in Fort Collins, CO, so I don't get to see Ornette. That same year, I got to see McCoy Tyner just a couple months later, and I was like, "Yes!"
HS: Was there a period where you were gigging as a jazz drummer? Or was it more like private study?
BS: No, that would be the hugest mistake or oversight, would be to try to put me in that category. I simply don’t have the chops. I more just try to sneak in a little bit of the wonderment or elation of musical discovery that is occurring in real time when jazz musicians are playing. I love that.
HS: I play drums as well, and I sometimes feel like it's almost impossible for a drummer to be truly great at playing both rock and jazz. Do you think you have to pick one of the two and focus on that?
BS: I think so. What I was trying to do was to be both. I reckon Billy Cobham is maybe the closest: He's the everyman's drummer, like he can playing everything better than everyone. And I felt like I was heading that direction—maybe I wanted to be Billy.
But then there's the stick-size issue. I use, like, Sequoia tree trunks in, say, Black Flag, and then if I’m trying to play jazz, which I usually just do by myself, then I’m using really small sticks. So I have this medium-size stick that I use so that I can … I don’t know, it’s like being a jack of all trades, master of none. So now the rock stuff’s not as heavy, but the jazz stuff still isn't fast enough. Those are the things we think that when we sit down at the drums everyday, those are the things we struggle with: Who do I wanna be? How do I wanna define my style? Or do I even wanna define my style? What kind of mood am I in today? Today, I’m gonna play with the 7As. Tomorrow, I'll whip out the DC-17s, and we’re gonna go that route. Or maybe just 5 minutes later we’re going to whip out the DC-17s.
HS: Yeah, I always think about someone like Tony Williams. When he’s playing fusion, it sounds really good but it doesn’t sound like a great rock drummer; it sounds like a great jazz drummer playing that way.
BS: Yeah, I think we all want to be that guy that can just do everything better than everyone, but sometimes it's fun for me to just do my—I have my eight things that I can do better than anyone in the world—just do those. I’ve got my one little, stupid drum roll that I do on every song and my stupid surf beat, and that’s me without thinking, just on instinct and in a way, that’s home.