This interview with the members of The Westerlies and Wayne Horvitz was conducted by email during December 2013-January 2014.
Tony Reif: How did each of you get into music in Seattle? Could you fill us in on your backgrounds in music, your studies and individual career paths up to now, in Seattle and now New York?
Riley Mulherkar: I discovered my love for jazz through the strong jazz education programs in Seattle. My babysitters played in the local high school jazz band and I went to their concerts when I was young, so by the time I was in second or third grade I had already made up my mind that I was going to be a trumpet player. I learned the music under the mentorship of band directors Robert Knatt and Clarence Acox, and was also lucky to get involved in classical music programs including the Seattle Youth Symphony, which expanded my love and appreciation for music beyond the jazz realm. When it came time for college, I knew I wanted to be in an environment where I could continue to study music and be inspired by art all around me, and Juilliard is the just the place for that.
Andy Clausen: My father is a musician, so we always had music playing around the house. In his younger, wilder days (late 60s and early 70s) he played in R&B bands and jazz bands in Vancouver. I grew up banging on pots and pans with my older brother in the kitchen, tinkling around on the piano and singing upper harmonies on family road trips. I started playing trombone in the school concert band starting in fourth grade, and was always the last chair. It wasn’t until later in middle school that I started to take a serious interest in the thing. I had incredible music teachers in the public schools in Seattle: Moc Escobedo at Eckstein Middle School and Scott Brown at Roosevelt High School, both trombone players coincidently. Both were extremely inspiring and encouraging for me to get deeper into the music.
The jazz program at Roosevelt was an incredibly rich and stimulating environment for an aspiring musician (much like Garfield was for Riley, Zubin and Willem). The most inspiring part for me was simply being around students who were so passionate about music. When I got there as a freshman I started hanging out with the older students and getting exposed to this huge world of music I had never heard of. European improvised music, 20th century classical music, and the music from NY’s downtown scene… I was hooked!
Around that time I also started my first band. I wanted an outlet to explore some of the territory I was hearing on all these records, stuff that we weren’t going to play in high school big band. I started composing, and getting together sessions with my friends to read things. It was a beautiful test kitchen to discover my voice and grow as a composer, culminating with a record in 2009. At the same time I was getting more into the playing side of things – taking lessons with a great trombonist, Jeff Hay, and playing with local big bands in Seattle – any opportunity to perform with others.
I really connected with the scene of college students at the University of Washington. Cuong Vu had just taken a position there and inspired a whole community of players who were doing some really cool things. I started playing with them and we formed The Racer Sessions, a weekly series for new & improvised music (which continues five years later!), and a record label – Table & Chairs Music. It was this scene that gave birth to my second record, The Wishbone Suite, released on T&C in 2012.
For a while in early high school I thought I wanted to be a chef. But around the end of my sophomore year I started to realize that I needed to pursue a life in music. I felt a real strong gravity towards NYC and towards Juilliard. I’m extremely grateful to have the opportunity to be there.
Zubin Hensler: My parents are both musicians (my dad’s a classical trumpet player and my mom’s a singer) so I got into music pretty young. I picked trumpet to play in my elementary school band then got to play in the jazz bands at Washington Middle school and Garfield High in Seattle. We’re very lucky to have amazing music programs in many of our public schools in Seattle; I learned an incredible amount from the teachers (Bob Knatt and Clarence Acox) and students I met there. I also grew up a couple blocks from Wayne and started studying improvisation with him when I was in 7th grade. I studied off and on with him for the rest of my time in Seattle and eventually started performing in a couple of his groups. I owe a huge amount of my musical education to my relationship with him, he opened up my eyes and ears to a whole world of music I would have never discovered in Seattle. For college all I knew was that I wanted to be in New York, so I ended up picking Manhattan School of Music where I studied with Laurie Frink. I’m now out of school, living in Brooklyn, and working primarily as a freelance producer and composer. Some of my work is for Mason Jar Music, an audio/visual production company here in Brooklyn. I also work at a few farmers markets selling gourmet and medicinal mushrooms.
Willem de Koch: I didn’t come from a particularly musical family, although my mother sang in choirs in high school and would always play great choral works on the stereo when I was growing up (Beethoven’s 9th, Mozart’s Requiem, etc.) My mother has always worked in the non-profit arts world for places like the Oregon Bach Festival and the Seattle Chamber Music Society, so I was exposed to a lot of classical music at a young age. I originally eschewed playing in my elementary school music program and decided instead to take up the guitar in fifth grade with a private teacher. In all honesty it was probably just to pick up girls, but at the time it seemed really cool and it was my first musical outlet.
I never had any intention of joining the school band, but when I was in sixth grade at Washington Middle School the band director (Robert Knatt) randomly approached me in the hall, pointed his finger in my face and said, “Trombone.” I tentatively agreed to start playing in the lowest level band, not realizing at the time that I was signing my life away. I soon found myself hooked on the trombone, and quickly advanced up the ranks until I was in the top level jazz band my seventh grade year. It was there that I first met Riley, and also that I first started to consider music as a career path.
It was at Garfield that I first started playing in the school orchestra, where I was exposed to a whole world of trombone playing that I hadn’t before considered. I then decided that I wanted to go to a conservatory for classical trombone, and eventually win a job in a symphony orchestra (an aspiration I have since done away with). I also played in the Seattle Youth Symphony with Riley, and I started taking trombone lessons with Steve Fissel, the bass trombonist in the Seattle Symphony. I owe a tremendous amount of my development to Robert Knatt, Clarence Acox, and Marcus Tsutakawa (the orchestra director at GHS) and the programs they ran at WMS and GHS. The music community between Washington and Garfield (and Eckstein and Roosevelt) is extremely unique, and the inspiration and mentorship I received from the musicians in grades above me (including Zubin) was a large part of the spark that originally got me hooked on music. I knew I wanted to end up in New York, because while I was pursuing classical music I never renounced my other musical interests (including jazz and improvisational music) and New York seemed like a place that would give me opportunities to pursue lots of different musical projects. I chose Manhattan School of Music primarily because of its location.
TR: At what point the four of you get together to form The Westerlies? What was the initial concept behind creating a new brass quartet, and in what ways do you feel you complement each other in the group?
RM: Even though we all grew up in Seattle and went through the great jazz education programs in the public schools there, we didn’t start playing in this configuration until we had all relocated to New York. In late 2011 we got together to try playing as a brass quartet, starting with more standard brass repertoire, Bach chorales, and free improvisations. It was really magical, so we started composing our own music and over the last two years gradually expanded our repertoire to include music from each of us as well as some of our favorite composers. The best thing about this band is that the four of us would be making music together no matter what instruments we played, as we are close friends and just love each other’s musical sensibilities.
AC: Zubin, Riley and Willem all went to school together on the other side of town from me, so they had been playing together for years before I met them. I first got to know Zubin and Riley at the Centrum Jazz Workshop in Pt. Townsend, WA. Willem I think I got to know through Riley, maybe at some school band competition or something.
But it really wasn’t until we all ended up in NYC that we really became close. At Juilliard, Riley and I stuck together just because we were from Seattle. We started going to this big potluck dinner that happened at Zubin’s place every week. When Willem got to NYC in fall 2011, we all started hanging out. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but it just seemed really natural that we would all play music together. We were all going back to Seattle for Christmas, so we decided to do a show together and write some music.
We all have fairly similar musical priorities – and that translates to what I think is a very cohesive group sound and aesthetic. We all love folk music and Americana, and we’ve always thought of ourselves as more of an improvising folk-brass-band, rather than a jazz or classical ensemble.
WdK: As Riley says, we originally got together with no concrete concept in mind. We simply knew that we liked one another’s playing and musical sensibilities and wanted to have an opportunity to make music together, regardless of instrumentation. Whatever our unique ‘sound’ is, I think it came to be as an amalgamation of our varied musical tastes and interests. Our unorthodox instrumentation both forced us and allowed us to find our own approach to music, simply because there is very little standard repertoire for brass quartet and we can’t follow many of the conventional idioms of traditional jazz music, given that we don’t have a rhythm section.
ZH: I’d just add is that we each have pretty unique tastes and careers outside of The Westerlies and I think that adds a special quality to the band.
TR: When did you and Wayne connect, and how did that relationship develop? When and why did you decide to arrange a program of Wayne’s music? How did you select what tunes and pieces to arrange, and who was going to arrange what – or was it more a group process? How have you balanced out written arrangements and improvisation, more classical and more jazz approaches?
RM: Growing up, Wayne lived just a few blocks away and was a friend of my parents. When I began to get serious about studying music I started taking lessons from him and that was when I really started to improvise for the first time. As I got older he became not only one of my favorite musicians and composers, but also a good friend and mentor. He happened to have similar relationships with all four of us, so it was natural to play his music in our band; as Andy says, we’d been plagiarizing his work for so long it was about time to do the real thing!
WdK: I first met Wayne when I was a sophomore in high school. My little brother had been taking improvisation lessons with him, and I soon followed suit. Wayne was the first person to introduce to me the idea of free improvisation and improvisation outside the realm of jazz music. Before I met Wayne, music for me was very much bound by genre. Wayne really demonstrated to me that one could find merit in all types of music, and take disparate aspects of different types of music and combine them into a cohesive style. As my relationship with Wayne developed, I soon began playing in certain groups with him and doing a significant amount of copyist work for him, which gave me some unique insights into his compositional process.
AC: I also met Wayne when I was in high school, I can’t remember exactly when or how. I would see his groups performing around Seattle and always felt a deep connection to his music. I went over to his house for a lesson once and he bestowed two golden nuggets of information on me that I still think about every time I compose. First, that music should ALWAYS have some unique color present at ALL times, whether harmonic, rhythmic, or textural. If the music is all vanilla it’s no good. The second thing he said was that a composer must be aware of the ‘essence’ of his piece and work to develop and exploit that ‘essence’ to its FULLEST extent.
Wayne has been a big supporter of all the members of the Westerlies for many years; teaching Zubin, Riley and Willem from a young age, hiring us for gigs in Seattle, and NYC, and now that he has the Royal Room, giving us a welcoming home for our music.
Wayne approached us about the project in early 2013, and it seemed like such a natural step to take. We were very excited. Over the next few months we immersed ourselves in Wayne’s records, most of which we were already familiar with. But listening with the idea of arranging for brass was a completely new and exciting way to hear the stuff. We compiled a list of 30 something tunes that we thought might work, and with the help of Wayne, whittled it down to what is on the album. The division of who would arrange what happened very easily, as each of us had a natural gravity towards certain tunes and styles.
RM: We each picked a few songs to arrange and Wayne added some newer compositions that have never been recorded, like “Wish the Children Would Come On Home.” The process of arranging varied from tune to tune – some are deconstructed and abstracted from their original context, while others are played nearly verbatim to the sheet music. Improvisation is woven into the fabric of everything we play, so whether in an exposed solo or hidden as a texture behind a melody, we are constantly finding new ways to interpret the music in the moment.
AC: The balance between composed and improvised material was, as much as possible, informed by the tune itself. We sought to make the music our own. In some cases that meant straying from the written material, and in other cases, the improvisation and personalization happened more in the dynamics, inflection and style.
WdK: While none of the music was originally written for brass, it was a really fun process to go through all of Wayne’s music and select pieces that would work well with our instrumentation. We each selected some of our favorite pieces to arrange individually, and then arranged what was left as a group. Even when we bring in our own compositions and arrangements, the rehearsal process is always a collective group effort and we always lend constructive input to one another’s work. This process is part of what gives cohesiveness to work, instead of allowing it to become a collection of highly individualized arrangements. Wayne’s music seemed to be a natural fit for the ensemble, given how much a pervasive influence he has had on all of us.
ZH: When we work on a piece it pretty much always starts with a written arrangement or lead sheet, but we’ve found a way of developing the music as a group to the point where it becomes more of a communal statement. I think that process of democratically composing or arranging the pieces is really where we differ from classical music. We never approach written arrangements with the idea that the composer’s decisions are set in stone. So even if we don’t do a huge amount of traditional improvising on stage, our rehearsals have a lot of improvisatory energy, which I think moves the music we make further towards the jazz world and helps us bring our unique sound to every piece we play.
TR: Wayne, you’ve not only mentored The Westerlies but also presented them in Seattle at the Royal Room and in New York at The Stone and performed with them on some of those gigs. What do they bring to performing your music that you particularly appreciate? Do you see this collaboration as possibly developing longer-term, in other directions?
Wayne Horvitz: Well I started working with members of the band, before the Westerlies ever existed, a few years ago. These guys all passed from students to peers pretty quickly. At first as subs in various larger ensembles; Willem helped me a lot with some copying and even arranging of a piece I was doing for school orchestra. I took Zubin with me to Portugal with the New York Composers Orchestra. All of them have played that music with me in New York. By the time I was curating my week at the Stone we had already gotten into this project, so it was a great way to rehearse some, and get to hear it played in public a few times. I remember how good the Wednesday show was and then Friday was just off the charts.
Zubin and I spent a couple of weeks two summers ago chopping up samples for a possible project that still lives on a hard drive somewhere.
That’s the long answer, the short answer is that of course I see ourselves working together in the future individually and as the Westerlies. They are great to work with on every level.
TR: The process of recording was unusual: you had a sort of private recording residency for a week in a large house on Lopez Island, one of the San Juan islands in Puget Sound north of Seattle, with Wayne producing. What interesting things happened during that process that shaped the outcome? Did things work out more or less as planned, or was it more serendipitous – any big surprises? What advantages and possibly disadvantages were there in taking this route rather than going into a studio or recording in a hall in Seattle?
RM: For the past couple years we’ve been lucky enough to have a sort of compositional and rehearsal retreat in the home of Mike and Jodi Halperin on Lopez Island. Mike and Jodi have been some of the most dedicated supporters of our music, so when we were looking for a place to record the project, the transformation of their beautiful living room into a full-fledged recording studio was a dream come true. After four intensely long days of recording on a breathtaking bluff overlooking the Puget Sound with bald eagles flying by every few takes, we had everything we needed.
WdK: This week long residency on Lopez has become an annual tradition, because we always find that it allows us to hone our musical concept and strengthen our personal connections to one another as a group.
AC: The recording process was certainly very idyllic and picturesque. It WAS a dream come true – retreat to a remote cabin perched on a cliff with your best friends, set up recording equipment and record at a relaxed pace, letting the environment inform and inspire the music. It ended up going more or less according to plan, but we sure could have used another week! After a day of setup and sound checking, we ended up only having three days to record 16 pieces. As always, we underestimated the amount of time and number of takes the process would require. Not willing to compromise our standards, we had to put in brutally long days (12-16 hours of recording). It was intense, stressful and a true test of our friendship, but we could not be more happy with the musical results.
From a technical perspective – Eric and Wayne did a fantastic job in capturing the brilliant shimmer of the large main room. But takes were often delayed or ruined because of passing seaplanes, and our focus was often interrupted by eagles and other wildlife roaming the property around us. Still, the benefits of controlling our own environment, the bonding and focus that occurs in seclusion from the modern world (no phone or internet access), and the sheer natural beauty of the environment made the whole process extremely unique and enjoyable. I would love to do it again!
ZH: In my mind this kind of recording process is ideal. As New York based musicians who have many creative and professional outlets, scheduling is always a challenge and it is very difficult to stay completely focused on any single project for any extended period of time. That’s why a retreat-style recording process is so appealing – it takes us out of the whirlwind of our everyday lives so we can become completely immersed in the project. Of course we could have used more time, but to have four days with just us, Wayne and the music was a really incredible experience. I hope we can record all our albums this way.
TR: How did the idea of creating the contrasting, disruptive, outer space/inner space interludes with Wayne on keys and electronics come about during the recording sessions? And the album title – Wish the Children Would Come On Home – how did you decide on that? The piece itself is quite unsettling – is there some concept around this that you’d like to discuss?
ZH: On our last night of recording Wayne set up his synths [Nord Lead 1 and Yamaha TX-7] and electronics and we recorded five takes of improvisations based on his piece “Wish the Children Would Come On Home”. After listening to them we decided to intersperse clips of a few takes throughout the album as interludes, as well as include a full take as the last track on the album. In doing an album of Wayne’s music we felt it was important to pay homage not only to his compositions, but also to his output as an improviser. His improvised work with the late great trumpeter Butch Morris is particularly inspiring to me, and is essential to my understanding of Wayne as a complete artist. By including clips of our improvisations, which are stylistically and texturally contrasting to the rest of the songs on the album, we hope to better represent the full breadth of Wayne’s career.
WH: The idea of doing some improvised pieces with myself playing electronics came more from those guys than from me. Picking that piece “Wish the Children Would Come On Home” made some sense historically. The original version also includes a solo with synthesizer that sort of floats above the theme. It’s on one of my President records for Nonesuch from the late ‘80s. Or maybe it has a harmonica solo, I can’t remember. We did it the very last night, I think we all thought we’d have more time. That is how recordings go, you think you have forever and before you know it you are out of time. So we did it at like 3:00 in the morning and figured we’d listen back later and see what we had. It was a nice way to wrap up the week.
The title comes from a song I wrote. I am not really a songwriter, but once in a while I get the urge. Anyway I wrote I couple of songs in 1985. Robin and I left NYC for a year and we were living in an apartment in SF right above Chris Brown, the amazing composer/pianist who has been teaching at Mills for many years. I had this closet and I had a keyboard, a drum machine and a 4-track cassette deck in there and a guitar. I still have these mixes somewhere but I haven’t listened to them for years. The song was really slow with a simple back beat and some simple chords and the first verse ended with the line, “What’s the use of drinking, when it’s got no place at home – Baby, Let the good times roll.” And the second verse ended with the line, “6 o’clock in the evening, Wish the children would come on home – Baby, Let the good times roll.” I have no idea why. Anyway later I just took out the line “Wish the Children Would Come on Home” and used it for something else.
TR: Westerlies, how do you see the band developing in the future, and for each of you how central is it to your own plans and aims as performers and composers? (Do you all see yourselves as leading your own bands?) And what are your touring plans?
RM: This band is a central musical force in all of our lives, so while we all have a variety of musical projects in a variety of genres outside of this group, The Westerlies will remain at the forefront of what we do. We have an extensive repertoire of original material that we hope to record soon, but first we are looking forward to touring this project in the summer and fall of 2014.
AC: We all feel a lot of energy and momentum surrounding this band and this album particularly, but the band at its core is an original music brass quartet. We are all composers, and the band existed for over a year before we played anything other than our own stuff. We put that on hold to pursue this project with Wayne, but we are now trying to re-visit a lot of that older material and composing new music for the next album. We perform frequently in New York and are in the process of booking an extensive North American tour in support of Wish The Children Would Come On Home.
Right now The Westerlies is my most active project, but I also have The Wishbone Project (my chamber jazz ensemble of clarinet, accordion, trombone, piano and drums), The Split Stream Big Band, The Andy Clausen Trio, and a few other things on the back burner…hoping to dedicate more time to all of those once I’m out of school!
ZH: As Andy says, we all feel a lot of energy and momentum around this band. I don’t think I (or anyone else) will ever stop doing our individual projects, but this is definitely my most active group. We feel there’s a huge amount of potential for the group and are excited about recording our original music in the near future; even in touring this album our concerts are about half Wayne’s music and half our originals. Beyond that we’re also very interested in exploring more collaborations. As a band we’ve already worked with a wide variety of artists, from indie folk outfit The Relatives to a Juilliard dance choreographer, and we’re definitely interested in exploring our collaborative identity further.
WdK: We all want to take this ensemble as far as we can. There’s a lot of personal investment in the group because one can’t deny that there’s nothing better than playing music with three of your best friends!