Interviews Masada Marathon

Coming in to a legacy – Sam Eastmond talks Book Beriah, big bands, the Spike Orchestra and living in the Downtown Diaspora

lift my eyes

The newest interview in the Masada Marathon series features Sam Eastmond of the Spike Orchestra. I was really excited to talk to Sam, firstly because Cerberus is one of my personal favorite records in the Masada catalog and secondly because Sam’s love for and excitement about anything Masada-related is absolutely infectious.

We talked about big bands, radical Jewish culture, how Masada influenced Sam’s life and outlook on music and, of course, about Binah, the Spike Orchestra’s upcoming album in The Book Beriah. After we concluded the one-hour interview, we spent two more hours just chatting about music in one of the coolest conversations I’ve ever had, not just with a musician, but with a genuine fan.

One thing we could definitely bond over was the frustration of living so far away from the New York downtown scene. As Europeans, we often find ourselves missing out on fantastic concerts and great moments. For two weeks, I’ve been lamenting the fact that I can’t be at Sofia Rei’s upcoming 5-night Residency at The Stone, which starts with a Masada gig (April 24th) and which you should definitely try to catch if you’re around because she is simply amazing!

I could only imagine how difficult this distance must be for Sam, which is why I opened the interview with this topic.

One of the things we have in common is that, as Europeans, we are so far away from the New York downtown scene and all this music we love. We often find ourselves missing out on great moments. Being a musician, being involved in Masada and especially being such a big fan of Zorn, this must be especially difficult for you. Tell me a bit about that.  

I live in London, so I already feel I’m in diaspora for that Downtown Scene. And that’s what I’m into and what I listened to for years. You know, Masada changed my life. But I’m still over here.

I talked to Jon Madof, who’s a dear friend and there are all these little moments where I mention something that sounds so incongruous to him because the Jewish scene in London is different from the Jewish scene in New York. Over here, it’s very klezmer. What hasn’t taken hold is that radical Jewish culture, that idea of cultural Jewishness separate from that Shtetl Eastern European tradition, the idea of developing this language as modern, contemporary Jews who were born somewhere and lived there their whole life. I didn’t listen to much Jewish music when I was growing up. I listened to jazz, I listened to pop and all these different things. So that klezmer language is not my language. That’s not how I talk as a musician. It’s not what I listen to.

Masada is something completely different. The first time I heard the first track on that it’s like Zorn is kicking down the door, yelling, “Hey motherfuckers, this is Jewish music for you!” I mean, it’s not really what he’s saying. He’s saying, “This is my Jewish music!” But for me, it was like a light-bulb moment. There’s a way to connect all these elements of me that don’t live in separate little places but are all part of one thing. Which is why, when I write or arrange Masada tunes, it’s not klezmer. It’s reflective of all the things I listen to. That all goes in there.

But that language, that Jewish language, when we’re using those modes and working with Zorn’s tunes, right at its heart – at its DNA – it’s got Jewish culture. For me, to be able to connect with that without those preconditions of that old tradition has been life-changing. This is why I’m a fan. Zorn changed my outlook on music. Listening to Masada was, like, “Oh, I can do that. That’s me!”

I’ve always been into trying to put different things together. I feel like I spend a large part of my life with people saying, “Oh, what you’re doing isn’t jazz!” And I’m like, “Okay, that’s fine.”

Who gives a shit, right?

Well, you get back to boundaries and genres and that’s bullshit. That doesn’t matter. No one writes something to a point and goes, “Oh, I have to re-write that, that’s not jazzy enough!”

I think the problem starts when you start seeing things as complete. Then, stepping outside those boundaries becomes dangerous or transgressive. I think musicians and  artists should have a vested interest in exploring things. In making things not fit the boundaries. It’s tricky.

I mean, I understand why people want labels and handles to guide them into stuff. My response to that is always that I think people need to listen better.

I like that!

Who defines what is what? How do you categorize Zorn?

No tags have any use really. The only tags worth paying attention to, for me, are the ones that are conceptual rather than dealing with a surface sonic aesthetic. So if I hear something like “experimental”, I’m interested. What are you experimenting with? What are you reacting against? That’s interesting to me. What music isn’t experimental, right? If it’s just a formula, then… sure… you’re making it for someone else. And that’s fine, but it’s not for me.

So I guess applying these tags when you’re talking about presenting the music but not when creating the music.  

I think these days I just describe anything I do as Radical Jewish Culture, or experimental or avant-garde. So, to get back to Masada… that’s Radical Jewish Culture. And the beauty of that is that it can mean anything. You just look at Book 3. Look at the disparate nature of the albums. If you were trying to categorize that at a record shop, you’d have to cut it up and put it in 11 different sections. And then you get… you know… I can sit next to Jon Madof on a shelf. (laughs) And we can both sit next to Bill Frisell. And all three of us can sit next to Cleric. Or Secret Chiefs 3.

So why the big band? Especially with Masada tunes. This music seems difficult enough to arrange even for small ensembles. 

(Laughs) Because it’s my first love. My parents were very into music, very supportive. I had a beautiful environment in which to appreciate culture and art when I was a kid. I got into jazz and the thing that spoke to me in jazz was large ensembles.

So when I was 13, I started my first big band and wrote charts for it, because, you know, there was no internet in the way there is now. You couldn’t just google big band charts. (laughs) I started a band, I got all my friends and we had a large ensemble. And I pretty much spent the rest of my life just refining that process.

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What speaks to me is large ensembles. What I hear when I start to hear things is lots of people playing things, lots of things happening at the same time, lots of things fighting for space. When I was a teenager, my heroes were Duke Ellington and Gil Evans. It’s just what I hear. It’s the world in my head – it’s the large ensemble.

And it’s insane. Because it’s commercially unviable, logistically unwieldy and makes no sense. Every time I talk to people about trying to do stuff with it, the first response is, “Try it with fewer people.” And my response is, “But where’s the fun for me?” (laughs) My two instinctive reactions to any problem in composition are write more and add more people. So why fight against that? I set myself problems within that.

The idea was just to get people together and fuck up what a big band can be. Destroy it! So we did all this crazy stuff and we made a record. Hugely influenced by Zorn, hugely influenced by radical Jewish culture. Had no money, no clue how to do it. Wrote a bunch of music. Recorded it. That’s how we made Ghetto.

There are twenty-two people on that record. We haven’t yet found a way to play it live. I’m really funny about playing live. My gimmick is that I pay my musicians. (laughs) For all sorts of reasons. Firstly, because I need to. Because how you behave ethically in a community is very important. And secondly, because there is an element of a big band being different than, let’s say, Rashanim. We don’t always have the same sixteen people when we do something. Even when we play Cerberus live, not everyone who’s on the record can make it. Because these guys that are on the record are really great pros. And what we do doesn’t make a lot of money. So I can’t ask them to turn down a tour that’s paying their mortgage that month to play one night with me doing this.

How did you get from Ghetto to Cerberus?

You know, Ghetto is insane. I’m a musician, so I know how to make a record. I know how to write it, to make it sound like I want. I know how to record it with Benjamin Stanton, our producer, who is a genius. I couldn’t do anything without him.

And what we did next was…we didn’t have a clue. (laughs) You know, we made that record, that was it. At that point, I’m happy. I’ve made it, it’s done. Next… what’s next? That’s where my mind goes. So I sent it to musicians that I respected.

So, you know, I sent it into Tzadik. And Zorn dug it. And Zorn’s probably one of only a couple of hundred people who’ve heard that record. Not because it’s a secret, but because people haven’t heard of it. (laughs) There’s a difference. So, you know, Zorn heard it, he dug it and… the really short version of this story is that at some point we started talking about doing a bit on Masada, which obviously is a dream come true for me.

Yeah, we made Ghetto, we sent it to Zorn, we started making Cerberus. That’s the short version of the story. Which makes everything sound ridiculously simple. (laughs) And of course it’s not.

Before I wrote a note of Masada, I listened to the entirety of what had been released. That influenced me when I wrote. The whole point of the big band right from its inception was trying to do with a big band conceptually what Zorn did with Naked City with a rock group.

Talk to me a bit about the creative process behind Binah.

Yeah, it’s really weird. I start from this point where ninety percent of the new music that I listen to comes out of that Downtown Scene. For all sorts of reasons. But mostly, just because that’s what touches me. That’s what hits me emotionally, as a fan. That’s what I’m interested in.

But it’s weird… sitting here… I live in a not fashionable, not particularly nice part of London. (laughs) Every morning, I sit on my balcony, I watch the street drinkers and buses go past and sometimes I’m talking to Zorn about making Masada records. (laughs) It’s not real, it’s not the real world, that’s not what happens. And around here, where I live, I teach a lot of music. Most of the music teachers I talk to haven’t heard of Zorn. So it’s a huge disconnect. That’s why I use the term, that’s why I say I’m in Downtown Diaspora. It’s how I feel a lot of the time. Then, those CD-shaped and vinyl-shaped packages from Downtown Music Gallery arrive. That’s my connection to that world. That music and that culture.

But I think music can change the world, I’ve been saying it. I’ve made those connections and it changed my life. It’s not for me to comment on how what I do affects anyone else but… there’s no cynicism in what I do. Everything I do comes out of love and catharsis and anger. And it’s all to some extent the product of being where I am. And I have my community here. The guys that I record with, they’re my community.

Someone like Moss Freed on guitar, who’s one of the very few people who’s been on Ghetto and Cerberus and is now on Binah. Those people are crucial to what I do. So I could go to New York and do what I do, but it would be different.

But if you want to talk about creative process, then this is it: I get the Masada tunes from John, which are three or four lines, not a huge amount on information – on some levels. On other levels, a world of information! The process for me is: I get the tunes and then I get on the phone and book a band. I don’t write a tune of music until every instrument has a name next to it. I don’t write in the abstract. I don’t write for any big band. I write very specifically for my community, for the people I love and trust and who love and trust me back.

Our Book 3 record is the perfect example of that. This whole process was a delight. Everything in it was amazing. But the first call I make is… well, the first call I make is to Ben. I say, “Cancel your holiday, man, Zorn wants to do a record.” Which is pretty much what happens. (laughs)

The call came in June of last year. So I got Zorn on e–mail, Ben on the phone and we’re trying to figure it all out. Because my attitude is: always say yes, and then try to work out how to do it. If problems come up, if we think about them the right way, we can solve them. It’s never a question of, “Will I do the record?” Of course I’ll do this. I don’t know how, but I’ll do it.

So once I talk to Ben and we book the studio and all that other stuff, I find my people. I find Moss Freed first, because he’s a huge part of what I do. Then it’s, who do I want to work with? Who excites me? Who do I want to write for? Who’s saying something that I want to listen to? I very rarely work with someone I don’t know, or who I haven’t worked with before on other projects. Because this is a very intense process and there’s a lot of people. And you’re jamming together, working on something really deep and intense and if it isn’t family, it doesn’t work.

The nice thing about this record is that it was family. Everyone in it has the same intention. And that’s my job to set up. Because if we’re not all pulling in the same direction, it can’t work. Once I get those names on the page, I can write.

Cerberus was tough. Cerberus was like chipping away at marble. This record, the minute I saw those tunes, I knew what every tune was going to do. In my head – zap! This was the longest album I’ve made and I had trouble keeping it short. You’ve heard “Levushim”, right? That’s like eight or nine different things. That’s the journey we’re talking about. These three lines of music suggest all these things – that structure, those settings, the places that tune goes.

I run a big band, so huge elements of what I do are orchestration and giving people notes to play. One of the reasons I’m so happy with this record is I’ve found new ways to give people space. So, around the orchestration, there are moments of freedom, moments of more group collected improvisation. Sometimes that’s happening at the same time as the written thing and sometimes what sounds like group improvisation is written. It’s all a way of conveying and communicating what your intention is. If you put a section in where one person is playing free, then that section is directly affected by what happened before and what happens afterwards, but in the context of the piece.

So what is freedom? Is everyone free throughout the whole piece? As the orchestrator, I have a narrative. We start here, we finish here, in the middle we go through this and how we get from one place to the other… it depends on who we are. And it’s tough. And that idea of what is written and what is improvised is only one step away from, you know… I improvised it all. Because I sat down with the score. Composition is just writing down a mental improvisation.

Do you feel that, because these records aren’t played live that much, there’s an added pressure on you when you’re recording?

It depends on how you view it. To me, coming into Masada with Volume 26, when there’s already maybe 60 albums at that point that I’ve listened to, that I love – this is not my music. And I don’t mean that in any way other than, when I work on Masada, I am part of something greater. I am coming in to a legacy. I’m coming into John Zorn’s world. My first responsibility is to honor and respect everything in that. Everything that’s been done before and anything that’s coming up next.

That doesn’t stop me from experimenting or doing it differently or trying to screw things up a bit, but it’s not me. It’s not making an album where I can do whatever I want and that album goes out and it’s by itself. I am conscious of the fact that I did Volume 26 of Book 2 and I’m conscious that I’m doing Book 3. I’m aware of that. If I have succeeded in artistic terms with arranging Masada, it’s because I’m not arranging for myself or my band. I’m arranging as part of the entirety of this.

This may be where the distance helps me. I’m not playing this live. I’m not workshopping arrangements and trying them out at The Stone and then there’s some comments coming in, or things like that. Maybe that’s a good thing or maybe that’s a bad thing. But what it does is it puts pressure on me. Also, because of the size of the band and the expense involved in recording this, I get one shot to record it. If we record it and it doesn’t work, it costs me as much to re-record as it did to make the thing in the first place. And I really feel that weight. I felt that I was doing something that was a continuation of something so meaningful to me and we had to get it right the first time.

Now, with Binah, when I was talking to Zorn about doing the album, everyone’s album was in at that point. So he plays me a bit of everyone else’s album and goes, “This record has to be better than the last one you did.” So, you know, there’s pressure. All the time. And there’s pressure because what you’re doing is part of something that’s greater than you. If you don’t do it justice, it’s not just you you’re screwing over. That affects everything.

Now, what I write isn’t easy to play. It shouldn’t be, necessarily. For me, the best feeling in the world is when I look at someone who has been playing my music and they’re exhausted but they’re smiling. And they’re like “Man, this is a motherfucker to play, but it’s worth it.” That’s what I guess we’re looking for all the time. There is nothing worse for a composer than a musician playing a tune and going, “Meh… it’s all right.” That’s worse than someone hating it.

Going into Masada is never about one tune when you arrange it. Or ten tunes, or nine tunes or one album. This has to sit there. And when you’re me and no one’s heard of you and you sit on the other side of the world and there’s a Metheny Book 2 record and there’s already a Bill Frisell record and working with Zorn… there’s pressure. And that shouldn’t be negative. It should be about being able to tap into things that feel extraordinary. To be able to push yourself beyond what you think is possible.

I mean, look, this Book 3 was intense. We were talking in June. I arranged those nine tunes in maybe ten-eleven days. I cleared my diary. Every morning at seven, I started. Every evening at six, I made dinner for my wife and then every evening at seven I wrote again until I fell asleep. And then I woke up at seven again.

I mean, the minimum this music deserves is your total dedication and everything you have in you. I think I’ve not talked to anyone who worked on Masada who doesn’t treat it like that.

Find out more about Sam Eastmond and the awesome Spike Orchestra on his website:

Pre-order The Book Beriah on PledgeMusic, where you can also hear “Levushim” as a sample track: 


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