An Interview

The Westerlies (II)

The interview with the members of The Westerlies was conducted by email during August 2016.

Tony Reif: One thing I’ve noticed about this record is that it’s even more polished than Wish the Children. Was that something you consciously set out to achieve, and if so, how did you go about it? More rehearsal? More editing (in the way classical music is usually highly edited)? Two more years of playing, together and apart?

Riley Mulherkar: I think it’s certainly a combination of all of those things – more than anything, we’ve matured as an ensemble, and we allowed ourselves to give an incredible attention to detail in developing this body of music. Before recording, we spent about four weeks workshopping and rehearsing the material at two separate residencies (one on Lopez Island, WA, and the other at the Avaloch Farm Institute in New Hampshire) – a total luxury, yet totally necessary to execute some of these pieces.

Andy Clausen: We learned a ton from the first record. For that project, we had only performed the music a couple times before entering the studio. So we were still very much getting a sense of the music as we recorded it. Many details in the performance and arrangements were worked out as we went, and I think that resulted in a certain “rawness” to that record.

For this project we very consciously wanted to take our time in the composition, workshopping and rehearsal of the music. As Riley mentioned we spent four weeks off the grid, spending eight, sometimes ten, hours a day workshopping and rehearsing this music…which seems totally crazy and luxurious looking back. We wanted to go into the studio with as close to perfect technical mastery over these pieces as possible so the recording process could be more about experimentation and shaping the performances to be as expressive as possible.

Willem de Koch: I’ll just echo what the other guys have said here. I think the more polished sound of this record can be attributed to the ample rehearsal time and an extra couple of years maturing as an ensemble. This album definitely challenged us in its technical execution more than the first album did. We also made an effort to perform the music for a live audience as much as possible before going into the studio to record it.

Zubin Hensler: I’d also add that our arranging abilities have certainly developed. We have a deeper understanding of how to write for this ensemble, which makes us more comfortable and thus tighter, more confident. In addition, working with Jesse Lewis, our producer/engineer/editor/mixer/masterer, helped us achieve new heights sonically. Part of what first drew us to him was his ability to produce recordings that sound perfectly polished while still full of life and complexity. He certainly did a fair amount of editing, but he was brilliant at pulling performances out of us in the studio that would make the editing fluid and musical.

TR: How old and how new are your compositions? How did you select which ones to record? And how did you individually and collectively go about composing and arranging them? Did you generally workshop them, or did the composers come with the arrangements pretty much worked out? And what about the balance between composition, arrangement and improvisation? Has your overall approach to creating music changed or evolved much since the first record? In some ways a lot of these pieces feel more elaborated and defined, maybe more complex in the interactions between the four voices, than your arrangements of Wayne’s music, which were already pretty complex at times. Do you feel these pieces have attained a final form that will vary mostly in the details of execution from performance to performance, or are some of them open to more radical retooling in real time? I’m thinking of solos in the jazz sense, of which it seems there are not that many here, even though you certainly all express your individual musical styles, feelings and identities in your playing – and yet it comes across most strongly as group music.

RM: The compositions vary in age – some are some of the earliest songs we played together (e.g. “Saro” and “Songs My Mother Taught Me”), while many were written and developed during our residencies leading up to this album. Regardless of composer, every piece is shaped and developed by the ensemble, and we are continuously trying new things to this day, both in rehearsal and performance. Regarding the balance between composition, arrangement, and improvisation, there is a daunting amount of intricately through-composed material that makes up most of the pieces, with moments of improvisation throughout. But certainly, whether in the form of solos or collective improvisation, everybody certainly finds a time to shine at some point!

AC: Throughout 2014 and 2015 we began exploring more original compositions and incorporating them into our sets alongside the Horvitz music. When we first started thinking about repertoire for the second album, in early 2015, we sat down and went through our entire book…surveying what we had, what we liked and disliked, what we felt was missing. More than anything, we wanted the second record to be more bold, expressive, textured, and representative of our four distinct compositional voices. I think there were about seven or eight existing pieces in the book that we all agreed needed to be on the record. As Riley mentioned, some of the pieces were central to our early repertoire. “Saro”, “Songs My Mother Taught Me”, “New Berlin”, “All To Ourselves”, “The Beach”, and “The Beekeeper” all fall into this category. (We call it “Old Testament Westerlies”, things that existed BEFORE the Horvitz project.) Other pieces that gradually found their way into our sets in 2015 were “Rue des Rosiers”, “Where’s Music?” and “Edomala”. Everything else was composed in 2015, specifically for the recording.

Having played together in this format for almost five years now, we have a much more informed sense of each other’s strengths and unique sensibilities as players. So in writing this new batch of music, we all were very conscious about mining the expressive palettes of each player, challenging each other, and broadening our textural range. I think it’s true that some of these arrangements are a little broader and more ambitious in scope than what we came up with for the Horvitz project.

I think that in a broad sense, our philosophical approach has remained the same from the beginning. Whatever the piece, it is our goal to covey the essence and feeling of the composition as expressively and honestly as we can. If an improvised solo in a “jazz” sense feels like a useful tool in achieving that, then we use it! And there are many occasions on this record where that’s the case.

But I think it became clear in our analysis of our repertoire that to achieve some of the musical and textural developments we were looking for, it was going to require more specific compositional work from each of us. Interestingly enough, most of the pieces that we born after that conversation were essentially through composed.

WdK: I think Andy and Riley covered all the bases here! In general, most of these pieces have found their “final form”, and generally any variation in the music is born out of the improvised sections. However, we are always open to trying new ideas and exploring new territory in our existing repertoire.

ZH: Yep, these guys pretty much hit all the points. I’d just emphasize this idea that we wanted to strongly convey our four personalities and the ways they can interact. This was done through us each writing our own pieces and taking solos, but also through deepening our sense of how we can juxtapose those personalities as we’re composing for the ensemble. I think we’re writing for each other in an ever more compassionate, empathetic, and challenging way.

TR: How did you decide on the three cover tunes? Were there a lot more in the running? What did you want them to add to the record? Of course, they are explicit nods to the three main traditions your music encompasses (classical, jazz and folk), and each of them has a very specific mood that’s different from any your own compositions here…

RM: As you’ve noted, we really felt like each cover paid a necessary and honest tribute to traditions we draw from. We arranged each one for our own instrumentation, but the character and colors of each piece are so strong that they certainly stand out from the rest of the music. “Saro” and “Song My Mother Taught Me” are some of the pieces we’ve been playing longest out of this body of music, and “Where’s the Music?” was a more recent addition. Ellington was a natural choice, as we all grew up competing in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington high school competition, so his music has always felt like part of our story.

AC: These three pieces became part of our core repertoire rather organically. From the very beginning, we’ve enjoyed bringing in cover songs just to try out. Usually it’s simply because one of Westerlies loves the song and wants to play it! In some cases we are asked to arrange pieces for special occasions or programs, but I don’t think any of these fall into that category. These three were the ones that just seemed to stick the most and we would always seem to gravitate towards choosing them for our set lists. It felt totally natural to include them on the album for that reason. And it was a happy coincidence that they happen to come from the three musical traditions that have been most influential to our group.

ZH: I’d just add that we found our inspiration for the “Saro” arrangement on Sam Amidon’s album All Is Well, which was made in collaboration with Nico Muhly. That album is very influential for us, especially in the way that they approached drawing contemporary classical and experimental improvisation elements into a folk context. So our recording is an homage to the American folk tradition, but also to Amidon/Muhly’s groundbreaking work.

TR: The centerfold photo in the booklet shows the recording setup at The Farm, with a stereo pair on each of you plus 3 high room mics, 2 in front and one behind you, to catch more of the room sound and reflections. What were the discussions like between you and Jesse Lewis about how best to record the music? How did you hook up with Jesse in the first place and what made you decide to go with him? Did you talk much with him ahead of time about how ‘produced’ you wanted the record to sound? And what’s the situation at The Farm – is it a full-time studio? You were there I think for a week – any unusual or amusing tales about things that happened there?

RM: We first became aware of Jesse Lewis while on the road in the Midwest, listening to records we loved – Brooklyn Rider’s Brooklyn Almanac, Roomful of Teeth’s debut album, and more. We kept seeing his name pop up and decided to give him a Google – to our surprise we found that he was also a Seattleite, and went to the same high school as three of us and played trumpet in the jazz band! The connections only continued from then on – when we met and put together the pieces, it turns out I actually saw him play when I was in about first grade. Never has anyone so quickly and deeply understood us as an ensemble and as four individual personalities – he was our producer, our engineer, our coach, and our guru.

AC: I cannot say enough good things about Jesse! I don’t think any of us knew what the process would be like going into it. We knew Jesse was this mysterious genius who had produced some of the most expressive and sonically bold acoustic albums we’d ever heard. He sort of wore (at least) three different hats throughout the production process.

First, he was a technically brilliant session engineer, with an obsessive understanding of acoustics, and the most beautiful mic locker I’ve ever seen! The first day of the 8-day recording process was spent setting up and experimenting with our placement in the space, tuning the room to fit our desired timbre, and exploring various mic options. We settled on a mono mic and stereo pair on each of us, three main overheads, and several additional pairs placed around the studio. Zubin would have a better sense of the exact setup. But once all that stuff was in place, it was all music-focused for seven days straight.

Second, he was an incredible musical and spiritual coach. We had sent demos and scores of all the pieces to Jesse ahead of time so he could get a broad sense of the music. But as we tackled each new piece in the studio, he would come sit on a couch directly in front of us and just listen to our live, acoustic performance in the room. Many of my favorite moments from the session were the insightful comments he would make after those initial run-throughs. He would immediately pinpoint the essence (and challenges) of the song and have the most thoughtful and interesting ideas about how we might approach each piece, mentally, musically and/or technically. In an earlier life, Jesse was an accomplished classical trumpet player, so he has an immensely valuable understanding of and empathy for the challenges in playing a brass instrument. I remember him using a lot of fascinating suggestions of almost reverse psychology-like techniques to help us overcome the many technical and mental challenges that come with playing a brass instrument twelve hours a day for seven days straight. For example, if we were struggling with intonation, he would suggest that we forget about intonation entirely and simply focus on breathing together and blowing through the phrase, or focus on our blend in the room. The problems would usually solve themselves! If we were struggling to achieve the right character of a particular piece, he would conduct bizarre thought experiments or mention an unrelated image that came to mind as a way to shake up our approach. There was one piece (I can’t remember which) where he encouraged us to imagine the most disturbing sight we’d ever seen, and to channel that into the piece. We didn’t reveal what those images were until months after the fact.

Third, he was a wildly experimental mixing engineer. Having captured our performances from so many sonic vantage points, he had tons of options in the mixing process to shape each piece. It was really exciting to hear the pieces evolve so dramatically throughout the mixing process. Each piece has its own unique sonic character that was developed to suit the nature of composition.

We feel tremendously grateful for all the time, energy, care he poured into this project at every step of the way. He really became a fifth Westerly!

WdK: As the other guys have said, working with Jesse was an incredible experience from start to finish. He seemed to understand us on the deepest level, both musically and personally, from the get go. He had a very keen awareness of each of our individual personalities and how they each fit into the ensemble whole, and always left room for us to express our personalities in the music. Jesse became a lifelong friend through the recording process.

ZH: I had a number of multi-hour phone conversations with Jesse before we ever met in person. In these conversations we covered a huge amount of ground, from musical and recording influences to pros and cons of different recording spaces and methods to the role of brass in new music. From the get go I found him to be incredibly open, passionate, and informed. We ended up deciding on The Farm because I had done some producing work there in the past and knew it to be a good-sounding space with relaxed, positive vibes. Eric, the owner, is also a trumpet player and just generally a wonderful dude. It is a full time studio and I would recommend it very highly.

Sonically, the most specific and important idea that Jesse and I talked about was fluidly moving between two very different ensemble sounds. The first is what I’d call the more ‘chamber music’ approach, in which the ensemble sounds unified in a room. This is closest to how a quartet would sound in live performance and it’s achieved with more distant mics, imitating the position of the audience. The second sound is more of a ‘folk’ or even ‘jazz’ approach, which is to really capture the four distinct voices and present them side by side in a clear and intimate manner. In this type of recording you can clearly hear each voice and the beauty comes from acknowledging the little eccentricities and the ways they interact. Sort of in the Blind Boys of Alabama school. So, our goal for this album was to create a sort of sonic continuum with Chamber Music Blend on one side and Folk Music Intimacy on the other. Thus the massive number of mics…we essentially wanted to capture every possible angle so as to allow for extremely expressive mixing.

TR: In the mixing, did you already know the sound you were going for with each tune, or did you discover that as you went? Some of the mixes are pretty wet, others are quite dry. In “So So Shy” it almost sounds like there’s sampling/looping going on, but I assume it’s overdubs (and maybe some added reverb?). Roughly speaking and on average, were you using a lot more of the stereo pairs than the room mics (as would be typical in jazz recordings), or were the stereo pairs more like touch-ups, with the room mics providing the basic stereo image and most of the level (more the way classical music is often recorded)? Did that vary a lot from piece to piece?

RM: I ‘ll leave this mostly up to Zubin as he’s got the co-producer credit, but I think it’s certainly a mix of knowing what we wanted and making those discoveries with Jesse along the way. From listening to Jesse’s other records, we knew he has a genius for extracting the most insanely textural and tactile sounds, and that influenced not only the way we approached playing this music, but even how we wrote it.

AC: The goal in the mixing process was to achieve the most expressive realization of each composition, through speakers. We wanted the listening experience to be as bold and dramatic as possible, while still preserving the purity of four humans blowing air through metal in a room, together. I think what makes Jesse so unique is his ability to utilize all the various microphones throughout the space, to automate and pan the various sounds in and around in a way that creates a listening experience beyond what is possible in live performance, but through (mostly) natural, acoustic mixing techniques.

ZH: The mixing process was very involved and experimental. Jesse really took it slow and did a ton of creative exploration to find interesting and evocative sonic possibilities for all these pieces and their different sections. As mentioned, the microphones were placed so as to capture the music from the widest possible range of perspectives, so as we worked through the pieces we constantly asked ourselves: what is the character of this section? what is the personality of this line? what is the relationship between the four voices here? And as we answered these questions, different mics were pulled up or pushed back or subtly processed in order to spatially communicate, on record, all the little intricacies that exist in these pieces of music.

There are definitely some techniques used at times that are not typical for chamber music or jazz albums, such as hard compression, dramatic reverb automation, delay, distortion, overdubs…but I think they were all used for expressive purposes that grew out of the compositions themselves. This is what excites me more than anything else about Jesse’s work – he accesses the creatively expressive studio techniques that are so common in popular music forms and harnesses them for use in more abstract art music. It’s brilliant. He is brilliant.

TR: A simple question: do you all maintain your positions consistently throughout the album from left to right: Zubin, Riley, Andy, Willem?

RM: We do. We used to switch our order up quite a bit, but while developing Wayne’s material found that combination and have stuck with it ever since.

ZH: We did in recording, but in mixing we did mess with that arrangement a fair amount. The most common panning alteration was to put Willem in the center, so as to have a more powerful and steady bass presence. But there are other expressive panning choices throughout the record.

TR: Songlines’ new US distributor, MVD, asks for “for fans of” comparisons to help market their releases, and you guys obliged with this list: Kronos Quartet, Brooklyn Rider, Nico Muhly, Sam Amidon, Wayne Horvitz, Bill Frisell, Roomful of Teeth, Goat Rodeo, and American Brass Quintet. Some of these are obvious, others maybe not quite as much, but it certainly covers the ground between indie-classical, crossover classical/folk/Americana, and some kinds of jazz. Do you think in terms of these categories, or are they mainly useful as some kind of shorthand for the media and for people to discover your music? I’m also wondering if any of you feel an affinity for classic (50s) Third Stream, e.g. Gunther Schuller, John Lewis, and the Music for Brass and Modern Jazz Concert LPs (which also include compositions by Mingus, George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre and J.J. Johnson). And how interested are any of you in the history of classical brass music and perhaps referencing it in your pieces (I’m thinking for example of “Although Of course You End Up Becoming Yourself”, where I also hear Horvitz echoes)?

RM: There’s certainly a place that Giuffre, George Russell, and the Third Stream movement have in our realm of influences, and echoes of more traditional classical brass certainly played a role in how we approached passages of this music, whether the fanfares of “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself” or the chorale of “A Nearer Sun”. Because there aren’t a million other brass quartets to draw comparisons with, the groups you mentioned like Kronos, Wayne’s Gravitas Quartet, and Sam Amidon are artists we draw inspiration from both in sound and vision.

AC: We really try to avoid thinking about genre categories as much as possible. We certainly love and have the utmost respect for jazz, classical and folk traditions, but for us, those types of labels are limiting or alienating to audiences, press or media. Ideally, we want folks to come to the music without any preconceived notion of what it is or should be.

I am tremendously fascinated with the musical concepts of the Third Stream. I found that Modern Jazz Concert LP at a used record store a number of years back and am in total awe of how fresh and unique that music sounds 60 years later! I got my hands on the score to George Russell’s “All About Rosie” and copied out all the parts so I could perform it with my big band. His ability to develop such a simple idea (a kids song from his childhood) into this incredibly dense and varied three movement piece was HUGELY influential to the way I think about composition. “Ruddy Ducker” and “Although Of Course” are most certainly products of this type of compositional process/approach. I am actually much less familiar with the traditional classical brass music repertoire, having not played in an orchestra or classical chamber music growing up.

WdK: I think all of the music you mentioned above is very applicable and has definitely found its way into our music. Having majored in classical trombone for my first couple years of school I had a good amount of exposure to the history of classical brass music and traditional brass repertoire, and I’m sure some of this exposure indirectly influenced the music on this album. I remember particularly enjoying playing the brass quintets of Victor Ewald and Witold Lutoslawski in school. From a compositional perspective, I was definitely influenced by the way they conveyed a sense of vertical harmony through the movement of five individual voices, and also by the way they differentiated the melody and accompaniment figures within a group of homogeneous instruments.

ZH: Yeah, I’d look at this as – the list we gave you represents the common ground of influence that the four of us share. Those groups all have direct influence on us as a whole. But, additionally, we each have very distinct and sometimes contrasting influences that we each bring to the ensemble. Willem’s the only one who spent time as a classical trombone major in college, Andy has definitely studied the compositions of Third Stream and others far deeper than the rest of us, Riley performs classic jazz arrangements more than the rest of us, and I spend most of my non-Westerlies time in the experimental indie-pop/rock/electronic world. So I view our influences as a sort of Venn diagram, where some things intersect, but some are very unique.

TR: Another simple question (this one just for Andy): what does Edomala mean? The internet has been singularly unenlightening about this.

AC: A La Mode backwards!

TR: Another direct but maybe not so simple question: how much humor do you think there is in your music? Sure, “Rue des Rosiers”, which has a crazy circus quality to it (balanced off by a more serious section – btw I’ve noticed that a lot of these pieces have two or more contrasting sections). Maybe the more precise question would be, how do you see the little moments of humorous playing – the individual instrumental smiles and smirks and roughneck effects, often offset by others playing things super-straight – fitting into what generally seems to be a pretty serious artistic undertaking? Maybe I’m overgeneralizing…each piece has its own structure, range of contrasts, development from moment to moment – one size doesn’t fit all…

RM: There’s definitely a sense of humor in a number of pieces, most notably “Rue des Rosiers” but also moments of “Double Situation” and “The Beekeeper”, and I think it always feels natural in the context of representing our four personalities. There’s a natural group element of humor and interplay that comes from growing up together and knowing each other for so long, and it’s certainly something we strive to share in our music.

AC: I think that art should represent the wide range of human emotions and experiences. Humor is most certainly a part of that human experience. I think the humor is usually inherent in the composition, and in the case of “Rue des Rosiers” was inspired by a very absurd, humorous life experience.

WdK: There are a lot of little moments of humor in the music, and we fully embrace those moments as part of our range of expression. We’re a lighthearted group of guys and we try to let that come through in our music.

ZH: Yeah, definitely. This is an area in which I’ll admit quite a bit of direct Beatles influence. I’ve always loved/been fascinated by the way they juxtapose total sillyness with total seriousness. I think it deepens the expression when a variety of emotions are displayed…almost like the seriousness is more believable if there’s been something goofy as well. Or maybe it’s just important to musically explore laughing off some of life’s more frustrating tidbits. Or maybe we’re just trying to have a good time?? It’s all good stuff to try. It’s all earnest.

TR: A related question/observation: your notes on the pieces refer several times to the Pacific Northwest, and of course the band name does. To me, “The Beach” for example really does express something of the awesome/sublime power and presence of the natural world, a feeling that I recognize from solo hikes in the North Cascades. How much has your group aesthetic been specifically influenced and informed by Seattle, its environment, culture, literary and fine arts traditions (e.g. people like Theodore Roethke, Morris Graves…)?

RM: I think elements of the Northwest seep into everything we do, both in the spirit of the music (i.e. the uniquely Pacific Northwest character of “The Beach” and “Lopez”), and also more specifically in the artists and communities we take inspiration from – local mentors like Wayne Horvitz and Bill Frisell, the thriving improvised music scene, the jazz education programs…When we came together as a band in New York it was because of these shared values and communities, so it certainly finds its way into every note we play.

AC: Having all grown up in the Pacific Northwest, spent time in the mountains, on the coast, in the forests, and in the communities, it’s impossible to NOT be influenced by all of it. It’s who we are as people!

I think each piece on the record comes from a unique emotional place (whether consciously or unconsciously), resulting from what we were experiencing, thinking about or where we were physically located at the time.

WdK: Both of my pieces on the record, “The Shop” and “The Beekeeper”, were written about specific memories of experiences in or near Seattle. I know much of the album was directly influenced in that way, but as the other guys have said, much of the more intangible spirit of the Pacific Northwest influenced our general approach and aesthetic sensibility.

ZH: Yeah! PNW is in everything we do. “The Beach” was directly influenced by the quintessential Olympic Peninsula beach…I’ve explained it to New England audiences as ‘the kind of beach you wear a sweater to’. I think we’ve all spent a lot of time thinking about the differences between Seattle and New York, the pros and cons, and I think we try to incorporate our favorite elements of both in our music.

TR: So what do you see as specifically New York influences on your music? New York is such a huge and diverse place culturally…

RM: New York is like no other place I know of in terms of its strength of community. This band formed as a result of a community we had in college – a small group of artists and students having dinner every Sunday in Zubin’s apartment – and today we continue to rely on and look to our New York communities for inspiration. The incredible new music scene led us to discovering Jesse Lewis, and the wealth of jazz in the city certainly influences the way I play and write – I first played “Where’s The Music?” with my band at Jazz at Lincoln Center before bringing it to The Westerlies. Then there’s also just the element of crazy in New York – the hustle and bustle of the city, the intensity of the people, and the urgency of every moment that infects every New York musician, whether they like it or not. There’s no place like it!