David Slusser

A conversation.

I visited Dave at his work place: Pixar, in Emeryville, California.

Tim Perkis: Well this is quite a contrast. I was just over at George Cremaschi's place, in a pretty beat-up section of Oakland...

David Slusser: I've been down there, in West Oakland…

Yeah, and here you are in a this amazingly well-equipped studio, with about the best gear one can get...

Good enough, anyway.

Well, let's just say it's clear no corners have been cut here. A lot of musicians have day jobs, but you have an unusual relation between your music and your day job, I think, isn't that right?

Yeah, it has grown, the relationship has developed over time. I originally got into this type of work just trying to find a day job, so I could play my music. Just to make a living -- hopefully to save up money to record, go into the studio, buy instruments and equipment -- I said to myself: "How can I use the skills I already have in a decent day job?" So I started getting jobs in recording, and radio, and television film, which eventually led to film.

If you don't want the crappy job on the bottom of the heap you're going to try to excel a little bit as you go along, to be better at your job so the job isn't such a drag. [laughs] So I just gradually acquired skills.

And how did those skills relate back to your own music?

Well at first it was just recording skills, so I could do my own recordings. I could borrow nice microphones, nice tape machines. And I also learned editing skills. At the point I got into it, it was still razor blades, cutting things up. I would be experimenting with musique concrète, chopping up tape and reassembling it, and doing very long loops. So I began to do tape pieces pretty early on.

I picked up a lot in the first film job I had, at a TV station in Cleveland doing PBS documentaries. We had a small film department, four or five guys, and I had to do all the sound. I would make loops of ambience - you just get some clean ambience, where there aren't any cars or trucks going by, say its some nature ambience, some wind in the trees -- and I would cut a nice clean section of it, and then I would loop it. And if it started to sound too loopy, I'd get a longer loop of something else, say a creek or something, so I'd have two tape recorders feeding a film dubber and these loops would be going around strung out on mic stands, big loops of ¼-inch tape, circling the entire room. If someone walked in and knocked it over the machines would crash to the floor, and it was a mess.

So I started doing loop music, very primitive in a way. And I saved a lot of these ambiences over the years and kept them, and of course as computers came in, I learned that type of technology, and started cutting in digital, non-destructive hard-disc editing. So you could cut all day and not wreck anything.

How did you start out as a professional musician?

I started taking paying jobs when I was old enough to drive to the gig. That was 1968 and I played acoustic bass in a Herb Alpert cover band. I was also in a semi-pro big band that did Elks lodges and dances. By the end of high school I was leading and booking the school's stage band for outside jobs at dances and corporate parties. After 18, I gradually got involved in the bar band thing.

After I graduated from college I went on the road with my band for a year, trying to get a recording contract together. We had no idea what was going on. This was the mid-70's.

What kind of music were you playing then?

Oh man, it was --- I don't want to use the word fusion - but it was a like Miles Davis meets Ornette meets the Grateful Dead. People would call that jam band music now. Rock-Jazz? Not Jazz-Rock. Funk? It could be danceable, we kept trying to learn jazz.

So were you living around here?

This was in the midwest, in Cleveland in the 70's. But the music scene wasn't happening there at all. I think punk music came to Cleveland in about 1975 - before it came to San Francisco. So it was either disco or punk, there was no jazz, or free music, or tape loop music, anything interesting like that.

Did you have a feeling you were connected in to a larger tradition beyond what you were hearing played locally at the time?

I had no idea. It was primitive Ohio.

I'm from Cincinnati, myself.

Oh, I played in Cincinnati, because I went to school near there.


Miami, in Oxford, Ohio. But we played on - is it Mt. Adams?


I can name the clubs: Crow's, the Matrix.. and there was a something garage down there?

Yeah, right, the Clifton Garage. I left there, and went to the University of Michigan in 1969, and I never really went back to Cincinnati after that.

Oh! -- One of the places my band moved in the 70's was Ann Arbor. So I played Blind Pig, Del Rio's, Mr. Floods, all those places. You know 'em?

Yeah, absolutely, I was there, man!

We played there in 1975. So we traveled around to Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti. We rented a house in Monroe, Michigan next to an insane asylum. And then when we moved to Buffalo, we rented a house there also next to an insane asylum! - I'm not kidding!

In Buffalo we all joined the union. We were playing more of a jazz thing, so that's how we could get jobs in clubs. We were playing at the Blue Point Supper Club once -- there was nobody in there -- and this African-American gangster, a great big guy comes in and says "Hey boys, come down to my club." He was really into Barry White, he talked like him, sounded like him. So we played in his club. And actually we were a front for a drug franchise that was going on in the back room, and we were just the white band in the black club.

We did ok there, but then we tried to get into some nicer rooms, to get some money. We worked really hard, everybody in the band was out hitting the streets, looking for gigs, and we finally made it to the big room in town, the Stadler Hilton. The union rep, the guy that booked the room, said, "I'll manage you guys". And he took away our gigs, and gave all our gigs to his bands, and pulled some union switcheroo on us. So the band broke up in the middle of winter. Stranded in Buffalo. So that was it for the jazz experience, pretty much.

The other kind of music that I do was not happening then, because I was living out of the back of a Volkswagen, so I couldn't have an electronic studio or tape machines or anything like that under those conditions. So I didn't get back into that kind of work until I moved out here and got work in another studio, where I could use the equipment to do my tape pieces.

So how would you describe the different kinds of music you do?

I don't know if I can describe the range of the music that I do. I don't try to separate my musical interests into jazz, rock, musique concrète, improv, sound sculptures. It's so wide, that when you say "what are you doing with your music?" it's hard for me to pinpoint it. I don't think of myself as an auteur, or a composer with a capital C. I'm more of a lifelong student. I'm studying what I can learn about sound and music all the time. At any given time what my music is about is whatever I'm studying, whatever is piquing my interest.

Whenever I heard about something, I always wanted to try it out: phase reversal, backward echo, or whatever it was - I would try to do as much work in whatever I heard about just for the experience. Even though it might have been an established musical practice, when you investigate it on your own without any formal training, I think you might come up with something personal in it, instead of doing it in the way someone might instruct you to do it. I look at it from the outside and say "How the hell did he do that?!?" and go in and try to do it myself.

It's led to some pretty strange bookings. After I'd done my Tzadik CD [Delight at the End of the Tunnel, Tzadik 7024], which was kind of a musique concrète thing, I'd get offers to come play as an electronics sort of player at improv clubs. But in 1998, on Duke Ellington's 99th birthday, I decided that I would spend the next year just studying Duke Ellington. I always wanted to know how he wrote those weird harmonies, how he gets that unique voicing. So I spent the whole year learning how to do that.

I'd show up with my 40's Ellington band, in the middle of a gig of electronic noise bands. I mean, we would be taking it out, but the promoters were confused, thinking they were going to get someone playing the electronics stuff.

I'm always off into whatever was interesting me at the moment. It's a study thing. I'm still doing it. The latest is that I'm learning the laptop stuff, because I'm tired of carrying all the analog gear around. I'm slowly learning MAX/MSP, trying to build these little objects, and,. there's a lot to learn.

I'm trying to figure out how you do your thing.

Are you starting by basically translating what you've already been doing into this new format, or are you just starting a new thing? That's the way I always did the migration to some new system: I started out with Buchla gear, and then I rewrote the thing over and over again, trying to do the same thing in different environments. And of course, it comes out different every time.

So how do you think these days about your musical career?

I'm not pushing the Dave Slusser concept anywhere. The record industry sucks. So I think the do-it-yourself releases are a good idea, because that allows a person to finish something and move on. That was the problem with pursuing jazz when I was younger: who wants to hear another white tenor player play jazz badly?[laughs] So no one was going to record that, so we got into other things.

I know you're still playing saxophone out. How does your electronic music relate to your saxophone playing practice? For example when a guitarist branches out into electronics, often it's as if he's extending the guitar playing practice to incorporate the electronics. But it seems that for you the electronics and the sax playing are really distinctly different things.

You can actually make the saxophone do electronic-sounding timbral things and play on a continual sound instead of just individual notes one-by-one. I like doing that, but I'm not that good at it. So I tend to want to do that kind of playing in the electronic realm, because I can get way weirder sounds with the electronics.

Whereas, my study of harmony and theory and melody is such that there is still a lot for me to do there. I haven't abandoned that, and that's what I tend to work on on the sax. For a lot of people it's not very in vogue right now, working in melody. But I seem to have found some things that still interest me, it's still a challenge, and there are wider and wider ways to apply it.

When I was a kid and first starting to get interested in music, rhythmic turns would really catch my ear. The introduction might start with a certain rhythm, and then when the full band came in they had turned the beat around. That stuff kills me! It still kills me! A lot of African music will start that way.

I still feel there's a a lot to do with rhythm. Sure, there's free playing, which I endulge in on saxophone and other things, but when you have a given meter, you have something to work against, and you can imply things that are left out. So I'll still work with rhythm, same as with harmony.

Another thing that would kill me when I was little were deceptive resolutions - where you think the chord is going to go one way and it goes the other way. It's still a favorite thing of mine. If you listen to any of my acoustic jazz music, it's full of that stuff: dropping a beat, or having the end of a phrase be the start of another phrase.

So there's a still a lot to do with notes.

So what is your electronic and sampler music focused on?

I am definitely into sampling and sequencing in a big way - but not the way that commercial software brings it to you. Sample music to a lot of people is appropriating a beat from somewhere, and a vocal from somewhere and boom, you have a new piece of music. Now that's a particular way to use that technology - I wouldn't put it down. But that's not the way I use samplers.

I go out and hear something like a squeaky door, and I'll do a good recording of the squeaky door. I'll play with the door a while to see where the best squeak part is, I'll get that back in whatever electronic medium I'm in, and I"ll change the pitch, I'll try to stretch it around. That's sampling to me: it's not borrowing from MC Hammer or something.

I've noticed that more and more over the years it feels that in dealing with computers and music synthesizers, and in trying to make music with them, you spend more time fighting a lot of built-in assumptions. When I started in it, there wasn't any musical software -- we were taking computers that didn't have any musical pretensions of any kind, and trying to make music with them. And the synthesizers too were very raw noise-making devices. That was actually much more interesting in a way, and satisfying, than hacking your way through a jungle of cornball musical ideas built into commercial music stuff to find something interesting to start with.

Yes, that's what I've seen. Every time I pick up a new piece of gear, a new keyboard or something, at first it sounds like some pop thing, and you have to really sweat it to get deeper in. And since I usually buy cheap stuff, [laughs] you have to really dig in deeper to find the gritty sounds there.

I can appreciate why some of these younger guys just don't want to have anything to do with computers or electronic musical instruments. For them, that's all a computer means, working within other people's strictures. They didn't have that period that we had where it was a completely open field. For them, it all seems like cheesy crap, and they'd rather do something like make sparks or bang big pieces of metal together.

I can really respect that point of view.

Yeah. My thing is, I would record the sparks, or record the banging of the metal, and I would play that on the sampler. That's sample music for me.

One thing that's really changed since I was a young musician - and once again, when I was playing with a rhythm and blues band in Cleveland - we would do at least four nights a week, at least three or four sets a night, week in and week out. Now you'll get one or two gigs a month, and you'll play one set, maybe a half-hour set! - So am I going to haul all this stuff for a half-hour set!? Ok that's what's really changed. Gigging is a different thing. I guess 'gigging' is not even a concept any more.

So do you play out of town very much? You're a regular full-time employee here, right?

Yeah, yeah, it's really hard to do.

So you can't really go out on the road for a couple of weeks.

I've done it, I did a tour with John Zorn, and one of the guys here I work with went on a tour as a bass player with some folk singer for six weeks or so. So you can arrange it. I could do it, if the opportunity arose. But no, not regularly. There is a price to pay.

This type of work is very time-consuming and demanding. More than once I've made it to the gig for the last tune! - My band mates are trying to be understanding, but I don't want to disappoint them, so I don't do that if the schedule's too tight. It's just wearing on me. I don't know how long I can keep that up.

I think improvising on the saxophone, and hauling the equipment to the gig - that's a young man's game, and I don't know how many old guys are still schlepping their gear around and still trying to blow their brains out.

I was impressed by Evan Parker and his band when they came through recently. They were still playing energy music, music that really leaned heavily on having a constant drive in it - and these are guys in their mid-sixties, and they played with great intensity for an hour and a half. It's impressive.

I aspire to continue to do that. The saxophone is very physically demanding. What your tone sounds like really has to do with how often and how hard you practice. It's about just keeping physically in shape, in a certain way. You're really part of the instrument, the saxophone sound starts down here [pts to diaphragm] and the column of air that's vibrating is actually starting inside you. You're torquing the sound around, your head is just full of it, you're breathing, you're hyperventilating, your metabolism is way up there. It completely takes over your body.

It's very different than sitting there and looking objectively at your computer screen. I know that you do your share of thinking when you're playing, you're working very hard, but with the sax there's that physical element that takes up all your other consciousness completely. So getting lost in the music is a lot easier with playing the acoustic instrument. Playing the sax, it takes over.

I saw you playing a saxophone once …you have one, right?

Yeah, I used to play saxophone, that's what I started out playing. But you're right, I know that that non-physical, abstract nature of computer playing is a real problem, and to get around that I try to keep the visual aspect as unobtrusive as possible. There's nothing on the screen I really need to look at.

That's my gripe about a lot of laptop music. I think that's the real killer, man, you see laptop players in a trance, lost in their computer world. They're not even listening to the sounds they're making.

Do you think so?

Everyone gets into the computer trance sometimes, staring at the screen and losing track of the world. Even when doing sound-based computer work, like working in protools. Computers are very visual things.

The screen attracts your eye.

Yes, and it's a distraction. I've always thought - well, a saxophone or a piano doesn't have a display. You don't really need a display on a properly designed computer-based instrument, I think.

I'm used to seeing you without any display at all, you just have the sliders, right?

I did, but now I have a newer computer that doesn't have that small display I can fold all the way back. Still there's nothing important on there that I really need to see.

So what keeps you doing this physically punishing thing?

I like performing, I think I keep doing it because it's a high, it's a rush, you get addicted to it. Or maybe there is such a thing as a natural-born performer,and you need to be out there in front of people for some sick, psychological reason. But I love to play, I love to perform, I love to make music and have that feedback with the audience. (What little audience we have around here! [laughs]) It's inspiring.

And something happens emotionally to me when I'm doing that. I really get off in a way I don't get off here in the studio perfecting a cross-fade between two ambiences and flipping some little sound around. Although intellectually I love it and it's fun to listen to afterwards, it doesn't take me up to Neptune and back doing it. Whereas playing improv --or just about anything where you're not playing by rote -- gets you excited and takes you out of your body.

I'm not gonna trade that in until my teeth go, or my legs go, or my lungs go.

(c) 2005 Tim Perkis home

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