Interview: Ches Smith

Since finishing his studies at the prestigious Mills College, percussionist Ches Smith has worked across jazz, rock, and experimental categories, proving to be a versatile artist ready for any challenge.  Over the years he has worked with Xiu Xiu, John Zorn, Wadada Leo Smith, John Tchicai, Marc Ribot, Fred Frith, Tim Berne, Terry Riley, and many others.  He has appeared on over 30 recordings, the most recent being Finally Out Of My Hands with his These Arches ensemble featuring Mary Halvorson, Andrew Parkins and Tony Malaby.  In preparation for Ches Smith & These Arches’ Philadelphia debut on Thursday, November 18, ANW asked Ches a few questions about this exciting new ensemble.

 Your playing and projects cover a wide musical spectrum, from Good for Cows to Congs for Brums, These Arches to Xiu Xiu.  Do you see these various approaches and projects as overlapping or more disjunctive?

 I feel there is overlap in the writing. Who I am collaborating with ultimately determines the outcome of the written material.  Good for Cows is half Devin Hoff's concept and writing, and half mine.  So, the ideas have to work for both of us.  That makes the result different from, say, These Arches or Congs for Brums, in which I have the final say.  The material for Congs for Brums and These Arches may have similarities initially, but changes drastically when arranged for the members of These Arches or for solo percussion/electronics in Congs for Brums.  Congs for Brums is the only project where I am deliberately writing etudes: pieces with things that I am trying to develop in my playing, or that challenge me as a player.  Xiu Xiu is an entirely different scenario in that the material ultimately has to spark a lyric or narrative from singer/lyricist/founder Jamie Stewart, or its not going to work.  That's not to say he won't like it, but if he can't connect to the material as a storyteller, it’s usually curtains.  From a playing standpoint, all the projects I play in overlap, but I see each one having different concerns as far as volume and sound goes.  I do not concern myself with style or genre. When playing, especially, I am not trying to reach into a particular bag.

Tell us about your history working with Mary, Andrea and Tony?

Mary and I met in the second version of Trevor Dunn's Trio-convulsant.  We became best friends.  I now play in her trio and quintet as well. I met Tony 5 or 6 years ago on the West Coast when he was gigging in Oakland, CA.  I was a fan of his from before that.  Now I occasionally play in his groups, as well.  Andrea was also someone I was listening to way before I moved to NYC, but this band is the first time we've worked together.

Why did you choose to work with these specific musicians for the compositions on Finally Out of My Hands?

I like the way they brought the music alive, and took it way beyond my control.  They often push the limits of the compositions, as well, taking liberties with the written material.  I'm learning how to write for a hectic environment which is constantly in flux.  They improvise great in a free setting, as well.

A hectic environment that’s constantly in flux?

By that I am referring to the scenery which often surrounds the written material.  When improvising, the band does not worry about how to get back to the composition.  The writing must be rugged enough to hold up to whatever is happening: It must work with someone making something up instead of their written part; it must be able to hold its own against (Andrea's) feedback, extreme interpretations of the phrase (especially from Tony) including smearing, stretching, etc.  Sometimes the reprise of the written material feels like trying to land an airplane in a heavy storm.

What’s the significance of the name These Arches?

The name These Arches was inspired by the traditional function of arches in bridge design, in which weight is supported by the horizontal tension at the arches’ meeting point. I was reflecting on bridges in music: bridges in compositions, bridges between improvisation and composition, bridges between the players' highly-developed individual voices.  The arch reminded me of how I was trying to deal with composing for these improvisers, and having improvisers deal with my compositions. The pieces, on the one hand, need to be activated by improvisation to result in forward motion, or they might collapse under their own weight.  On the other hand, the written material can act as the other half of the arch, providing counter-pressure to the forward thrust of the improvisation.

Finally Out of My Hands captures the act of letting go.  How does this relate to these pieces?

For one, the title has to do with the way one deals with stress and anxiety.  I do as much as I can, then try to let it go.  I wrote the piece “Anxiety Disorder” during a period when I couldn't access this method.  Secondly, I place responsibility for the outcome of the music in the hands of the band, which also includes me, of course.  I refuse to “lead” in a live situation.  If shit gets fucked, as a group we are going to have to make something up.  We may find our way back to the piece, or not.  I feel we are getting better and better at doing this.  The composition should be flexible enough to allow this.

What new projects and collaborations are you working on?

Tim Berne's Los Totopos, new Secret Chiefs 3 recordings, my third Congs for Brums record, a Congs for Brums split record with Chris Corsano, new Xiu Xiu recordings, likely in collaboration with Greg Saunier of Deerhoof, a group called Snake Oil with Tim Berne and Matt Mitchell, new material with Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog, and a new trio with Tim Berne and David Torn.  Matana Roberts and I did a duo show last night [November 7] that I really enjoyed.

The end of the year is approaching: any votes for 2010’s best album?

The new one by Tony Malaby's Tamarindo featuring Wadada Leo Smith.  Michael Formanek's The Rub and Spare Change. The latest Darkthrone. But don't take my word for it.  I don't get to new stuff nearly as much as I'd like.

Ches Smith & These Arches will perform a free concert on Thursday, November 18 at The Rotunda (4014 Walnut Street).