It was always important for me to find a balance point - interview with Damon Smith

Piotr Wojdat
Autor zdjęcia: 
mat. promocyjne


You were living and making your own music in many places: San Francisco, Houston and Boston. How would you describe this places? What are the living conditions and possibilities to play music there?


Damon Smith: I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area with my parents when I was 13. As far as the music, it was a great place to start. I used to say it had a big, lazy audience! You could play often and get small audiences but they would be different people all the time. It would also be different if you played in Oakland, Berkeley or San Francisco. There were some great "old masters" around like Eddie Gale, John Tchicai and Glenn Spearman as well as great musicians from earlier generations like Henry Kaiser, ROVA, Lisle Ellis (my bass teacher) and the great Marco Eneidi. Because it was a beautiful and historic place, musicians from all over the world would come through and it was possible to play with them. I moved to Houston in 2010. Houston has a highly cultivated scene for the music. Mainly due to the efforts of David Dove and his organization Nameless Sound. He brings in great musicians and there is an education component, which meant there was both an informed audience and great younger musicians to work with. I got a lot of great work done in Houston and still go back to play. I started playing with Sandy Ewen, Rebecca Novak, Thomas Heton & David Dove there. I still go back to play regularly. Playing around Texas was also very nice, you could play in Denton, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin. I played often at the great No Idea festival in Austin put on by the percussionist Chris Cogburn. A very important relationship for me was working with the legendary drummer Alvin Fielder when I was in Texas. It changed the way I played and thought about time and rhythm.


Boston was a very interesting move. I treated that more like "the east coast" than just Boston and was able to work all around New England and New York City. Boston itself actually had the highest playing standards of any improvised music scene I've experienced in the US. All the musicians were serious and dedicated, I never saw a bad set there or any lackluster playing. 


New York of course, has so many incredible musicians, but in relation to Boston I'd say there might be higher highs but also lower lows! Boston was also great because there were so many musicians from earlier generations, two musicians that I was able to learn a lot from in that period were the great trombonist Jeb Bishop & the master drummer Ra Kalam Bob Moses.


What is Balance Point Acoustics? Is it your own project and label?


DS: The name is related to freestyle BMX bike riding, which is what I did before music and it was always important for me to find a balance point - which was often right here you fall! It relates to finding the center of the pitch and many other aspects of the free music! The last part "acoustics" was stolen from the great label run by Georg Graewe "Random Acoustics". My label was named before I had an email! I would have picked a shorter name! I started to release my duo with the great Peter Kowald, who was the reason I started play the double bass. That album was just reissued with duos with Joëlle Léandre and Bertram Turetzky:


Last year was very busy for you. You've released a lot of recordings. Two of them with Pandelis Karayorgis ("CliffPools" and "Precipice" which was released by polish label FSR). How is it to work with him?


DS: He is a fantastic musician! I feel like we were able to play together from the first moment. I really love piano and working with a great pianist is very special. I think that trio with Eric Rosenthal was such an easy and amazing group to play in, I think every note we played together has been released! The music always unfolded with such ease and there were always a lot of interesting turns.


In the last years you've also worked a lot with Weasel Walter and Jeb Bishop. How would you describe them as a people and as musicians?


DS: They are both very important people to me, it makes the quartet with Jaap Blonk JeJaWeDa very special. Jeb I met and played with once years ago in Chicago in 2002. When I moved to Boston, he was at the first concert I played, it was to be a quartet with Pandelis, Jorrit Dijkstra & Alvin Fielder. Jeb had his horn and Alvin insisted he play with us. It was a fantastic concert and the last one I played with Alvin. We worked together very often, if not in the same group then often on the same bill. I got to hear him a lot, he was very generous with his insight and wisdom. He changed the way I thought about many aspects of the music.


Weasel & I started to play together in Oakland in 2004. With Weasel, it is just as much about playing together as working together. In the same way that we are able to get to an interesting place right away in the music, we also are able to get a lot of projects over the finish line. We've been able to do so many great projects over the years, whether initiated by him, me or Henry Kaiser. Our trio with Sandy Ewen has been one of the most important groups I play in. Our quartet CD with Roscoe Mitchell, "A Railroad Spike Forms the Voice" will be out in a month or so! There is a special confidence we have as a "rhythm section" it feels just as easy to play independently or to lock right in with him. We both hear things a bit "faster" than most, so that really helps.


This time you've released an album with Guillermo Gregorio and Jerome Bryerton (“Room of the Present). What was the idea of this project and how was the session?


DS: Jerome Bryerton & I started working together at a very formative time for both of us. We developed a way to play together that got to some new places. We worked in trios with Wolfgang Fuchs and Frank Gratkowski at that time. I had all of Gregorios' albums on Hat Hut and Jerome, who lives in Chicago, had met him. I flew out and we did two recording sessions in 2007 and 2008. The trio worked really well from the start, and is based on free improvisations. I actually asked to play some of his scores because his compositions are so fantastics - both to look at and to play. For some reason it took a long time to sort out the compositions and improvisations so the recording sat around for years until Maciej Karlowski asked about it last year! For the most part, I am committed to improvised music, the idea is to play with people who have a better idea about what their instrument does than you do. I think Gregorio's scores actually get you to new places rather than just "lay claim" to the music which is rare.


What are "The Munich Sound Studies"? 


DS: My girlfriend is writing a book on German Expressionism and she needed to go to Munich, I went with her to see the Cy Twombly collection at the Brandhorst Museum. I was able to do some shows with Udo Schindler, and Jaap Blonk was already there. Jaap is a fantastic sound poet and improvisor, we have been able to really do some great work together. Udo suggested Karina Erhard. The music was really fantastic from beginning to end. So, these two volumes were released!


On your website we can read that visual art, film and dance heavily influence your music. Could you give some examples?


DS: I think those edges where the principles of the other arts meet are where things become special. It is important to have a sense of at least one other art form as a musician. Visual art is my biggest concern outside of music, but I also read poetry everyday.  Dance was very important for me as a young bassist. The Bay Area had a serious modern dance scene. When you play with other musicians, the underlying elements of music are still relevant. With dance, it is reduced to gesture, and you can't just mimic the gesture of the dancer, you have create your own layer. So, it helped to really establish the independence I needed to make interesting improvised music. Of course, improvised music doesn't make much money, but I have found a way to have an art collection, living with art everyday changes your mindset. I started with multiples by Joseph Beuys, Lawrence Weiner and Jenny Holzer, I've been able to get prints and objects by Arnulf Rainer, Arakawa, Bruce Conner, Jasper Johns, Richard Tuttle & Günther Förg. When I lived in the Bay Area, film played a bigger role in my life because the Pacific Film Archive was screening something interesting most nights. Meeting the great Fluxus artist Ben Patterson and double bassists Ben Patterson and learning his solo bass work helped focus these ideas even further as well as my work with Jaap Blonk.


You've worked with Werner Herzog. Do you like his films? What do you think about him as a film director?


DS: I think his films and his directing are both  fantastic. When we did the soundtrack for Grizzly Man, we didn't play to video - he directed us. He sat between the cellist, Danielle DeGruttola & me. We only used video for the bear fight, which was my idea, he didn't want music for it, but when he cut the film, he decided to use a bit of the bass & 'cello duo we played. My favorite films of his are Aguirre, the Wrath of God & Lessons of Darkness


And who inspires you the most in the music?


DS: It is still probably Peter Kowald, Gunter Christmann & Charles Mingus if I have to narrow it down! I listen to at least two albums of improvised or new music every morning so there are many musicians who inspire me. Hans Schneider is a fantastic bassist you don't hear enough about. He has a very special sound that is full of detail. My two favorite albums of all time are "Touch the Earth" & "When the Sun is Out You Don't See Stars". In an even more direct way, combining Mark Dresser's research in the harmonics and subtones on the double bass + Evan Parker's work in pulling multiple voices out of a single tube have really  maximized what I can get out of a single string.


What are your plans for the near future? I saw you've made a concert online.


DS: I was invited to do some very nicely presented streaming concerts in the last year by Heavy Air Happy Hour, Non-Event in Boston, Mark Dresser & William Parker's Deep Tones for Peace, Thomas Helton & the New Music Circle here in St. Louis. While not an ideal format, they did create important performance  opportunities and something to work towards in the practice room. I am doing a short tour of Texas, playing outdoor shows. There are some younger musicians organizing outdoor concerts here in St. Louis. I think we'll be playing outdoors until it is too hot or too cold. My project for the past year has really been getting the recordings in my archive that I have always wanted to see in the world out. Right now I am working on two trio releases, one with Keith Rowe and Sandy Ewen & the other Birgit Ulher and Chris Cogburn. The Texas tour is with the great singer from Denton Texas, Sarah Ruth:


The main thing is really to see what the instrument has in store for me. There are always new sounds to discover and old sounds to expand.