Interview | Rhys Chatham

Rhys Chatham has played trumpet since the early-1980s but it’s still appropriate to recognize his new Brass Trio as a significant sea change. Known for organizing terrifyingly large ensembles with up to 400 guitarists, the pioneering composer who has found a common thread running through punk fury, minimalism, and avant-garde jazz displayed the strongest trumpet work of his career on last year’s stunning record The Bern Project. On February 13, Ars Nova Workshop presents the Philadelphia debut of the Rhys Chatham Brass Trio, the freshest realization of the celebrated composer’s ceaseless forward momentum. Having just arrived from Paris for only 4 U.S. dates, ANW caught up with Chatham to talk about his trumpet turn, the new trio, and his upcoming record on Northern-Spy.

So, as a song title from The Bern Project asks, is there life after guitar trio?

I had just come back to trumpet after taking a hiatus for a number of years, so on the album I'm playing guitar as well as trumpet. The album's producer really wanted to call one of the tracks "Is there life after Guitar Trio?” so that's what we did. We've been playing G3 in various formats for over 30 years now. For many years, I played it as the finale of each of our concerts. Guitar Trio really was my life. I was even going to put a version on the new release of brass playing that's coming out on Northern-Spy Records, but my girlfriend said, “Rhys, enough already!” I took her advice and did that album with just brass. It was a good idea. I mean, after, there's gotta be life after Guitar Trio, no?

Guitar is likely the first thing that comes to mind for people when your name is mentioned. Do you see your recent turn to trumpet as a sharp trajectory shift from your past work or as building upon it?

My brass and guitar work have always been on two parallel tracks. I started playing trumpet in 1983 when I realized that I was losing my hearing from playing too much loud guitar music. I decided it would be better to play a softer instrument. I had just made a piece for choreographer Karole Armitage called “For Brass,” which was a brass octet with drummer Anton Fier. I kind of fell in love with trumpet after that. The only thing was, the damn thing takes ten years to learn how to play. As soon as I realized this I decided to continue with my guitar pieces, but I practiced trumpet at home until I was ready to play out. 

By the mid-1990s, I was ready. My training as a composer comes out of the classical tradition, but my training as a trumpet player came exclusively out of the jazz tradition. I had to learn all my major and minor keys, how to play over iim7, V7, I changes in any and all tempos and any and all keys. Basically, I learned how to do what every trumpet player is supposed to know how to do.

My first album as a trumpet player was released during the mid-1990s by an electronica label called Ninja Tune. I had kept all my distortion boxes from my rock days and applied them to trumpet. I was playing over heavy electronica grooves. When the guys at Ninja Tune heard it, they said, “Wicked guitar playing, man!” They thought it was an electric guitar! The album was a success and with the release I had defined a personal sound on trumpet: a trumpet which sounded suspiciously like a highly distorted electric guitar. So in that sense, the work I was doing on trumpet from that period built upon my experience as a guitar player.

Who are some of your favorite trumpeters and what about their approach and voice has influenced you?

All trumpet players spend many years finding and refining their personal voices, so there are many trumpet players I like and who I've been influenced by. In terms of my own voice on trumpet, I was particularly influenced by two people. I liked the way Don Cherry played during the glory days of free jazz, and on the minimalist composition side of things I liked Jon Hassell's work. In fact, a good description of the way I currently play is "Don Cherry meets Jon Hassell meets Bill Dixon.”

I always enjoyed playing over changes during my student days, but when it came time to play out on my own, I found them too restricting and preferred Don's free approach to things. So I took this route and developed my own way of doing it. Jon Hassell was the first player to use a harmonizer as part of his sound, so in one of the pieces the Brass Trio is going to play at Ars Nova Workshop, I use a harmonizer as a kind of tribute to Jon. Jon and I also both come out of the same background. When I played during the early-1970s in La Monte Young's group, the Theater of Eternal Music, Jon was in the band, too. That's where I met him. We also both studied with Pandit Pran Nath, the singer, whose work has greatly influenced and formed both Jon and myself.

You’ve cited Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi as an influential force when you first started playing trumpet. How has Iommi’s guitar work translated into your playing?

I always wanted to be able to play as fast as Tony Iommi on guitar and I tried and I tried and tried. But it never happened for me because a guitar has so many frets on it. I could never figure out where to put my fingers. Trumpet is much easier, because it only has three valves. I found that my problem of having less than average digital dexterity didn't prevent me from playing really, really fast on trumpet. So it wasn't until I played trumpet that I could play as fast as Tony Iommi. I was so pleased.

You’ve worked with guitarist David Daniell and drummer Ryan Sawyer in your guitar ensembles. How did you know they were the right pieces for your brass trio?

Well, for one thing, as you mention, I've worked with both of them in other contexts. I've been working with David for years: he's the concert master of my 100 and 200 electric guitar pieces. Ryan was playing percussion at the Crimson Grail performance we did at Lincoln Center last year, and was a real pleasure to work with. I listened to a selection of the wide range of styles he is capable of playing, so that clenched it. We asked him if he was available and he said “Yes!”

But I have to back up a bit to answer your question properly. During the 1990s, I had developed a voice on trumpet that made use of heavy distortion and loud volumes, like I said. It sounded not unlike a distorted electric guitar. I took a break from trumpet for a time and about three years ago I decided to return to it. However, I didn't want to play the same way I did during the 1990s, so I set about defining a completely new style. When I currently play trumpet, I go through a number of delay devices, which have become part of my instrument and sound. While during the 1990s my trumpet was loud and distorted, for the new work I decided to go for a more pure trumpet sound, using no distortion at all. Also, I make much wider use of the range of the trumpet: a technique which came out of the work of Bill Dixon. Using looped long tones give the pieces their flavor of early minimalism.

Later on, I heard a recording of one of David Daniell's pieces, and discovered to my surprise that he, too, was working with delay devices in his set-up, and also working with looped long-tones. So I asked him to play in the context of one of my brass pieces. He asked me what I wanted him to play. I said, "Just play what you would normally play.” The work that we were doing was that close, he made sense as the guitar player to work with.

Last week it was announced that you signed a two record deal with Northern-Spy, and the first one will be out in April. What can you tell us about it?

The first record with Northern-Spy, called Outdoor Spell, marks a real break from my past brass releases. When I returned to playing brass a few years back, I spent almost a year defining a complete new way, at least for me, of playing trumpet. No more distortion, no more wah-wah pedal, just pure trumpet, making use of its entire range, from the lowest pedal tones to high triple Cs. Outdoor Spell is the first release where we can hear this new style. The first piece has me on voice and trumpet. The second includes a Cuban percussionist that I know from Paris named Beatriz Rojas. And the final piece included the French improvisor Jean-Marc Montera on electric guitar and Kevin Shea on drums. Jean-Marc I've played with for years in France. He's also worked with groups as diverse as Sonic Youth and Patti Smith. He's essentially a free player, but he’s conversant in nearly all styles of guitar playing. Kevin also plays with Mostly Others Do the Killing, Peter Evans Quartet, and Talibam!

When was the last time you played Philadelphia? Any fond memories of previous visits?

The last time we played in Philadelphia was at Ars Nova Workshop! We had a great time there and the sound system was really good. I think I was playing guitar in the context of a group called Essentialist. We had a blast, and I'm looking forward to visiting you guys again!

Rhys Chatham Brass Trio and Chris Forsyth will perform on Sunday, February 13 at International House (3701 Chestnut Street).