When it comes to The Music and Myth, the most consistently rewarding articles to write are undoubtedly the interviews. For a lifelong fan of the art, there is nothing more fascinating than having the opportunity to discuss music with some of my favorite musicians.
My goal in these conversations is to gain an understanding of a musician’s mindset, figure out what makes them tick and reflect that in a way that honors their work and what they stand for and gives the reader an accurate glimpse into that musician’s life and work. The goal is to tell a story; either the story of a particular album, a musician’s lifelong journey, a challenging project or anything else that may be relevant to them at that moment in time.
Recently, after conducting an interview that will be published next year, I got an e-mail from the artist. It read, “I want to thank you for writing such a thoughtful and thorough piece. I really feel like you heard what I had to say and wrote it out so truthfully. I really hear MY words in the article, which is not usually very common when doing these sort of things!” That is the most rewarding feedback I can possibly get.
As an author of fiction, the very process of conducting an interview is fascinating; from studying the artist’s work in preparation to choosing the most relevant questions and moving the conversation forward in a way that will make the artist comfortable and excited to talk about their work. Sometimes, that is not easy. Other times, the conversation flows so naturally that the proverbial story just writes itself.
This is the case for today’s feature: a conversation with composer, arranger and trumpet player Sam Eastmond. The very testament to what I’ve written above is the fact that this wasn’t even supposed to be an interview. In truest jazz fashion, we improvised an interview out of a friendly conversation about music.
When Sam texted me to let me know about his newest album, Gulgoleth, composed for the Spike Orchestra rhythm section consisting of Moss Freed (guitar), Elliot Galvin (piano), Otto Willberg (bass) and Will Glaser (drums), I immediately agreed to review it. I also suggested to have a Skype conversation, firstly because I was excited to talk about the album, but also because Sam is one of my favorite people to talk to about music. His natural enthusiasm, charisma and positive energy, as well as his candid, eloquent nature make every conversation fun (as attested by the two-hour chat that followed our first interview). As we were talking, the conversation just flowed so naturally and beautifully that I simply had to immortalize it in an article. I had to! I had it in me and there was no way to move on until it was written. If you read on, you’ll discover that this is a feeling Sam can relate to very well.
In our one-hour chat, which I’ve transcribed almost verbatim, we talked about every single aspect that led to the creation of Gulgoleth, from inspiration to composition, choosing the musicians, recording the album with celebrated sound engineer Marc Urselli and ultimately finding a home for it at Chant Records. It captures every single step of the creative process and is by far the most coherent and comprehensive interview I’ve ever done. To top that, in a complete coincidence (or perhaps not) the day I scheduled it for publishing happens to be Sam’s fortieth birthday. It was everything that should happen with music journalism all happening at once. That is another thing I know Sam can relate to.
So kick back, take a bit of time and take a look inside the fascinating mind of one of the most exciting composers of the present moment.
That being said, all that’s left to say is, “Happy Birthday, Sam! Have a great one!”
Please tell me a bit about the origin of Gulgoleth. How did this project get started and how did you get the idea to move away from the big band for this and scale it down to a quartet?
It’s a totally different thing to do. It’s the same people, it grew out of the big band, but it’s a totally different thing. When I was writing Beriah, which we talked about last year, that was… I wrote that record in nine days. That was super intense! There were a lot of people. And then recording it… Sixteen-to-twenty-hour days. For me, not for anyone else, necessarily. It was such an intense period of my life.
As I was writing that — because that was not something I’d composed, it was something I was arranging and working on so intensely and it had this connection with Zorn — I’m coming home and I’m watching Jack Smith’s films and Marx brothers for like twenty minutes and then I’d fall asleep. Then back into it the next day. All these ideas just started piling up. I had this huge backlog of stuff I wanted to write.
We finished Beriah and I had all these ideas. When I compose, I very rarely sit down at a piano, a computer or grab a pencil or something until I’ve got a date booked and some musicians booked. So most of what I compose, I’m drawing sketches or working out who I want to work with or putting up little file cards with ideas, because I haven’t got enough room for a big chalkboard or something I can just fill. Here, I’ll show you… (turns the camera so I can see the book shelves with the file cards) So there’s file cards and bits of paper everywhere. I had all those ideas but I didn’t know what I wanted the music to be. I knew what I wanted it to sound like.
Then, when we were doing Beriah, the energy in the room with the rhythm section and the way they were communicating… I was sitting there thinking that I want to do something… not small, but with fewer people. Because that means you can compose in a different way and you can have more of a rock band approach where there are bits of paper… because that’s what I bring to a room… but those bits of paper are like one or two pages long… or six. And then I sit in the room and we direct the energy and we find our way through these charts. You know, it was what I could do at the time. We’d done Beriah. That was a big record.
One day, I just sat in the bus on the way to a day job that I don’t do anymore and I was so miserable. Just so miserable. So unhappy. It was coming up to the summer and I didn’t have a recording scheduled in or anything and I was just so unhappy. I was thinking, “Okay, why am I unhappy? The happiest point of my life is when I’m doing music with people. If I’m unhappy now, then what I need to do is do some music with people.” (laughs)
Not that I wasn’t doing stuff, but I kind of feel like records and compositions are where I’m at. Gigs disappear in seconds. They’re great, I love playing gigs! But because most of what I do is so ambitious, I get to do it once. If you’ve got fifteen people, just even finding a day they’re all free is a challenge. There’s a limit to what I can do. So I sat in this bus, thinking, “I’m not having this!” So I got in touch with the rhythm section. I was like, “Okay guys, I want to do a record. I’ll book a studio. Let’s find a date you’re all free!”
This must have been, like, June. There was one day between then and October when everyone was free. It took an insane amount of e-mails and text messages. And, in my head, the further this bus goes, the darker I’m getting. I’ve got to deal with all this bullshit when I get to work.
Then, we found this one day and I was like, “Great, put it in diaries, I’ll book a studio! I don’t know where yet, but we’ll do it and I’ll write some music.” Because I’ve got all these ideas. I know what I want the record to sound like. But I never sit down to write it out as music on paper until there’s a deadline and an end point where it’s going to get played. I, think, partly I need deadlines because otherwise things never get finished. You know what it’s like, you’re a writer. Without a deadline, there’s always an improvement you can make. There’s always something else you can do.
And I’ve got, like, four of five albums worth of stuff on my computer that has never been recorded, never been played. And it will never get played now, because I’ve moved past it. All those ideas are going to be used in something else but those bits of music are never going to happen because the moment is gone.
You need to capture that music when it’s relevant to you.
Yeah. And I think there’s some self-preservation about that. I could sit at home and write all day and I would amass a library of music that would never get played. And that would be frustrating. That would be self-defeating.
So I’m sitting in this bus and we’ve got this date. I’ve instantly booked a studio that I knew a friend had used, that had a nice piano. And that was it. That was the record. So I went to that miserable day job and at lunch time I left and I went and I just sat and I started figuring out how things are going to fit together and then I went back in.
Then I came home and, again, I wrote the music in about a fortnight. All of that music. There are two tunes that we didn’t record, so I wrote ten tunes in a fortnight. For this band. Specifically for these people. Then, things started happening — the magic of it all fitting together.
The first thing was that Marc Urselli got in touch. You know who Marc is, right?
I met Marc in 2016. when I went to see some Zorn shows in Paris. He was like, “Hey man, let’s do something together.” I’m like, “Pfff… let’s do something… I wish!” The first thing I need to do is I need to pay everyone to turn up. No one is giving me a chunk of money to record something. But in the back of my head it’s like, “Okay, so I want do something with Marc.”
We had this one day in August. I think I just hit him up and was like, “Hey man, I’m doing a record with a quartet. It’s on this date.” I said, “I know you’re probably in New York.” He’s like, “No, no, no, I’m in Europe that week. Let’s do it!” So that just happened. (laughs) The one day the band was free was the one day Marc had in Europe when he was free. So that sort of worked. And Moss, you know, one of the roles…
You know, I book people because they play. But, when you put bands together, it’s not just about adding an instrument, it’s about what energy they bring, what else they bring. So, in the big band, I book Noel (Langley) because he’s the best lead trumpet player in the country and in Europe and one of the best in the world, but also because he’s like my conscience. He sits there and he says, “Hey, Sam, the band needs to take a break!” Left to my own devices, I’ll book rehearsals from 10 to 18:00. And if no one tells me to take lunch, we don’t take lunch. (laughs) I book Noel because he sits there and he’s like the uncle of the band. He looks after all the players when I’m driving them too hard and I need to step off a bit. He worries about things. And Moss does that as well. Because Moss is a perfectionist. He wants everything to be perfect. Moss is like, “Let’s do a rehearsal.” I’m like “You were part of the conversation when no one was free. Ever!”
And then we found one day but the drummer couldn’t make it. So I’m like, “Okay, that’s fine. Will is an amazing drummer.” The band is thinking, “Okay, we’ll work it and then Will will fit in.” In my head, I’m thinking, “This is perfect!” Because if these three guys have got an idea and a picture of the journey of the music, then all Will has to do is react. And Will is great when you just suddenly look at him and go, “Do something!!!” (laughs) There’s a moment of panic and he just pulls some shit out of the bag that feels like Joey Baron’s in the room.
So, again, even that problem just felt like it was perfect for me, for how I wanted to make this record. Since 2014, I’ve gone into the studio or we’ve turned up at rehearsals with piles of paper, densely charted, and I know where everything is going to go. One of the things I did with Beriah and one of the things I did with this and one of the things I’m doing with the new big band stuff is that I’m trying to bring more freedom in, to bring more hand signals. You know, we have a beginning point and an end point and how we get to those two things becomes very much about the people in the room and their energy.
So, you know, Will couldn’t rehearse. We go around to Moss’ house and we played some of the tunes. And Elliott’s playing Moss’… he always tells me off when I say this but… his, like, school keyboards. Not a piano. It might have some dynamics in it, but you can’t do anything with it. The whole thing I was saying to Elliot was, “On this record, I want you to get inside the piano, I want you to be pulling strings, I want you to use objects.” And he’s rehearsing in there on this little, sort-of, almost Casiotone keyboard. He’s like… clink clink clink. I’m turning around to Moss and going, “I want you to smash up your amp!” And Elliot’s like… clink, clink, clink. (laughs) I can feel it in my head and it all works.
Then, we get to the studio and I meet Marc for coffee first. And one of the conversations I’ve had with Marc over the years is that there is no place in London where you can get acceptable coffee. (laughs) You know? There’s one or two places that are all right, but the English are not people to whom coffee is a natural luxury. So I find this place by the station and they’ve got Italian baristas and I’m like, “Well… look, at this point, Marc, if the coffee’s not good, it’s on you! This is your people making our coffee.” (laughs)
So we have a coffee and then we get down to the studio and Marc goes, “You English cats really work hard!” Because we meet at nine, we’re in the studio at ten, we’re doing a day of work. And I’ve got ten tunes in my bag and Moss’ is going, “Man, don’t be upset if we just get an EP out of it, not an album.” I’m like, “No, no, we’ll get an album. There’s two spares but we’re going to play eight tunes. We’re going to record those.”
On the walk down to the studio, I’m talking to Marc and I must have been saying to him, “What can I do to make your life easy today?” He’s like, “Well, the main thing is, as long as you rehearsed, everything will flow.” I was like, “Yeah! I mean, we’ve had loads of rehearsal. We did a whole afternoon! With almost everyone there!” At which point he’s looking at me like, “What have I got myself into?”
You know, when you book Marc Urselli, you don’t just get someone who records music. You get someone who understands music, who gets inside it. But also… he’s the best in the world at this. So Moss is in the corner worrying. He’s saying to me, “Don’t be upset if we don’t record anything before one o’clock. It takes a long time to set the studio up.” As he’s saying this to me, we’ve been there for, like, three quarters of an hour, Marc is like, “Track one, let’s go! Yeah, I’m set up, you record now! I’ve put all the mics in the right places, I know exactly what you’re going to do, let’s do it!” And we just did it. It was one of those beautiful moments where everything coalesces.
We get through… It’s an intense day, everyone is exhausted by the end of it. We did two full takes of each track. A lot of the time we use the first take because the energy was just great. And I like things where you don’t know it too well; when everyone is finding their way through it together. You get that spontaneity and you get that real-life intensity where the focus is so in it. Because no one knows what happens yet. No one can play it in their sleep. We get to a point where everyone’s throwing everything of themselves into it. The music really flows.
We get through all the takes and we finish an hour and a half early. We just sat in the control room listening to tapes, going, “Yeah, let’s take this bit from that one, maybe do that…” It was just the most perfect, symbiotic system. Everything that should happen with music all happening at once.
Again, at this point, this is a record that I don’t have a label for. In my head, it’s probably a self-release. This is just music that I need to make because it’s in me and I need to get it out there into the world. Otherwise I can’t move past it. I can’t do anything else until this is done. Those guys, they really brought it. Everything just worked.
Why did you decide not to play on this record?
It’s weird because I don’t play in the big band either… much. I mean, we did a concert yesterday and we got one in a couple of weeks and I’m not playing on any of those.
It’s interesting to me, because you’ve once said that your “instinctive reactions to any problem in composition are to write more and add more people”. It seems that in this situation, where you’ve encountered a problem of a personal nature, your solution was to reduce the number of people and make it more raw, in a way. Could you tell me a bit about that?
Well, that’s it. I started out wanting to give myself problems to solve. If I say, “There’s only four people…” And I’m a control freak. So it was like, “If there’s only four people and if I’m sitting in the room but I can’t make any noise, how do I solve those problems?”
Also, this was stuff in my head I was working out. I mean, the band and the record is called Gulgoleth, which is the Hebrew word for “skull”. So it’s like, “This is all music from my head out into the world through everyone else’s language.” Because, if I play, I’ve got a presence. I can direct things. I can move things in a certain direction. But what if I’m not playing? What if I just sat there and did some hand signals? Then, I’m relying on the people in the room, knowing their language, using their language, but also being sensitive to what I’ve written down. How do I solve these problems when I can’t play?
In the big band I don’t play mostly because, who can conduct when they’re playing trumpet? I haven’t got enough hands. That’s the reason I stopped playing in the big band. There were moments when I wanted to be waving my arms about. Actually, the thing I was writing this morning is something that I’m playing in, a smaller band again but designed to play, designed to use hand signals. Because now that’s the new problem I can solve. Because that’s not what I’ve been doing. So it’s, “How do I take myself out of my comfort zone with the next thing? How do I work on something that’s different, that gives me some challenges?”
I’ve got another maybe three Gulgoleth records in my head at the moment. And I’ve got another two or three Spike Orchestra records in my head. And those are the things I do that I know how to do. So, at the same time, I need to be finding some other problems, finding some other things to solve. I didn’t play on it because I wanted to hear them, because I wanted it very clearly at the beginning to be these four people.
You know, the origin of the record was just looking at those four people in the studio one day and going, “Yeah, those motherfuckers have got something when they play together.” I didn’t want to get in the way of that. I wanted to set up a set of problems and then, you know, I’m there and I’m directing, but almost to walk away and say, “That’s what I think. Over to you now. How do you feel about that?”
And, you know, all four of them… they’re the people who excite me and inspire me. Because they can do anything. Quite often, when you’re working with a big band, you’ll get approached by guitarists, you know? You sort of… If they’re in the “jazz mode”, if they’re jazzheads, you know, they want to play jazz. And you get jazz pianists and they want to play jazz. But these four cats can play anything. So I can chuck in a heavy metal bit and it feels authentic. And then you smash cut into two bars of cocktail-jazz and that works. And then back to something else. And then the next tune is like a surf tune.
You know, the sequencing is something I’ve thought about really hard. In my head, it’s like a record. It’s like a vinyl record. I wanted that moment where the surf tune kicks in… like track 5. I wanted that to be either when you flip the side or when you put on disc two and somebody’s like, “Oh, wow, is this the same band?” Because it’s such a shift from the intensity to this moment of lightness when it comes out of it.
You’ve mentioned sequencing and that’s always something I ask about, because I love listening to music sequentially. Tell me a little bit about the creative process of making this music and the importance of track placement.
I’m thinking about the sequencing as I’m writing it. One of the things on this record is that there’s eight tracks and there are four pairs of tracks, if that makes sense. There’s two surf numbers, is the obvious one. And then some of the other pairs are about how I approached it compositionally and how I wanted people to be playing it. So when I’m sequencing it, it’s like I have four types. It’s like ABCD, ABCD, almost. To mix it up. The question was, “Is track five ‘Involuntary Jaw Spasm’ or is it ‘Plastic Fower’?” Because those are the surf ones. So with those two, I spent a lot of time figuring out which one I felt went better first or second.
The first four tracks flow because that was like two pairs of things that I wrote in a certain way. So “Zombi Love” and “Buzzard Soup” are compositional ideas that go into something else, whereas “In The Grip Of The Lobster” and “Atlantis Falls” are sort-of like a different way of composing. I’m writing it and, even on the page, I’m writing it in a different way. I don’t know if you hear it, I don’t know if anyone can hear it. I almost hope they couldn’t, because they got to work all together. But, to me, those first two go together because they came from the same sort of approach. The next two have a different approach and then there’s almost a sequence. There’s a surf number, there’s a high-energy Jewish number and then there’s a surf number and then there’s a very slow Jewish number.
There’s a lot of RJC in it but I didn’t want to make an RJC record. I didn’t even necessarily want to create RJC tracks. So whilst I might write a melody that does that, I’m not telling the band that this approach is like Masada. I would start here, I would put this thing on and then, instead of evolving out of that, I want you to contrast with that, so we get something that can sort of fit in that world and also fit in another world as well and move between those things. The tracks are really conceptual.
And again, “Zombi Love”, I spelled it without an E. The spelling you see on those ’80s Italian films. That was my little tribute to Marc. I’m going to spell “Zombi” like it’s Italian. (laughs) Maybe he sees it but he doesn’t know, because it’s natural to him or maybe he wouldn’t even think that I’d do that but right from when Marc was involved I thought, “I need to put you in the tracks!” I need to have a little bit of Urselli that just exists in there.
Like a cameo appearance.
Yeah. Exactly that! And “Involuntary Jaw Spasm” was like… Julian Lage played over here a year and a half ago. He played on my wife’s birthday. Because it was my wife’s birthday I said to her, “Do you want to go see Julian Lage or do you want to go see my sister, who’s got her, like, highschool music concert that she’s directing.” Fiona said, “We need to go and support Emily!” I was like, “Yeah, but Julian Lage…” (laughs)
So I didn’t go to that Julian Lage gig. Because you got to do what the boss says, right? (laughs) And Moss was texting me from the gig going, “Oh my God, this is amazing! Can’t believe you’re not here! I’m like, “Dude, I’m listening to fifty kids doing ‘America’. I need to know how good that gig is!” And he’s just texting me at one point, going “Lage has just played a solo so great that I had an involuntary jaw spasm.” That’s where that title comes from. And in the session, we were talking about this and Urselli was like, “Yeah I’m recording Lage for Zorn the day after tomorrow.” So all those little things with all that connectivity… Moss went to see Julian, he texted me something, then I write something that’s inspired by that, then Marc hears that story and he’s doing a session with Julian. There’s that thread through the community that exists with these songs.
There are numbers on there where… maybe four of those tunes are named for Jack Smith. I was watching a lot of Jack Smith when I was doing Beriah. So that presence and trying to bring that energy into what I was doing was really important. Then there’s a little Marx Brothers reference.
I give things titles. And titles have a lot of meaning for me. They’re usually the last thing I really ever come up with, because that’s the public face of that piece of music. I also like to hide things in titles that have meaning for me that maybe one or two people will get it or maybe nobody will, but I’ll always know it’s there. Or there’s this death metal piece or these death metal moments and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s about the Marx brothers.” And people look at me and they’re like, “That doesn’t make any sense!” All these connections are really important.
Then, there’s just some other things that are deeply personal. Because I wrote it from that dark place and these are cathartic expressions of when I feel like I was at my worst or when I was at my most stupid. One or the other. And there’s stuff going back ten, fifteen years, that I think nobody else in the world would remember or even care about; stuff that keeps me awake. If anything keeps me awake it’s that I used the wrong word in that conversation in 2002. I felt like a dick. (sighs)
“Zombi Love” is about mutually destructive relationships, from a relationship I was in during most of my twenties. I think the original title was something like “Zombi Love, You Make Me Want To Forgo My Ethical Dietary Concerns And Eat Brains”. Something that was just stupidly long. You’ve seen the TORU titles, right? They’re all like eight sentences. (laughs) I really like really short titles or really long, unwieldy titles. And I kind of made the decision about this that they’re all going to sit on a line. So all of them have got a partner or an a.k.a title that’s six sentences long. Then I thought, “I’m not a novelist. Let’s try to keep them at three or four words.” (laughs)
Tell me a little bit about the musicians involved.
Moss has been on every Spike Orchestra record I’ve done. I played in his band. Or one of his bands. And I’m still finding out things that inspire me and excite me about Moss. He’s still bringing stuff to rehearsals, bringing stuff to the studio that I haven’t heard before.
When we found Elliot, he came into a Book 2 gig without doing the rehearsal with us, really. Just turned up. We got to the venue, the piano had a broken string. We had to wait two hours for the piano tuner to turn up to fix it. And then Elliott smashed it. Will is one of those people. The first time that Will came in, he had done a smaller project that I ended up not having recorded yet. But he just sat down and I was just like, “Oh man, you’re the drummer I’ve been looking for!” The same with Otto. Otto can do everything. He’s got this insane language. So when you’ve got those four cats, how can you not be inspired? How can you not write music that tries to go everywhere and does a bit of everything?
Because they don’t stop at these boundaries. They don’t look at me like I’m strange when I tell them, “Okay, we’re going to do a surf thing, into a death metal thing, into a cocktail-jazz thing, into a free improvisation thing.” To me, that’s just a natural progression if that’s what the tune wants to do. They can take that in their step. Whereas people I’ve worked with in the past… whether you’ve got jazzheads or rockheads, if people have boxed themselves in…
… if they feel uncomfortable going out of their comfort zones…
Exactly that! So when I find people that inspire me and that I want to write for, what they give me is the freedom to do anything. The phrase Zorn uses is, “Your crazy arrangements.” Because to the outside, there are jumps that I make and there are scenes that sound crazy. And when you’re on the inside, the complexity of some of the things that I’m saying also seem crazy. There are moments when I’m in rehearsals with the big band and someone will look at me and go, “You know this is hard?!” And I’m like… (shrugs) “Yeah, but you’re good, right?” (laughs)
And, again, on this recording, when people were worrying about time and not having enough time to do it, I was like, “Hey man, we’ve got like an hour’s worth of music here. All you have to do is play it right once and record it.” (laughs) And you know it’s not that simple and I know it’s not that simple, but it almost was on this album.
It’s nice because this always translates into a good energy. As you know, I loved the Spike Orchestra stuff I’ve listened to and I love this because it always translates into this good energy where you can tell that it’s coming from the people. It’s about the people. That’s when the best… anything… is made. Music, art of any kind. When you’re thinking about the people who are inspiring you and bringing this out. It’s about the community and I know you are a community-oriented composer.
I do this music because I love it. All of my job as a composer and an arranger is putting the right people in the right place. I think you can split composers or arrangers or band leaders or whatever into people who are like, “This is my project! I’ve written this music and what I need is people of a level to play.” And they’re realizing their vision. To me, that feels like playing in orchestras when I was a kid. It doesn’t matter that it’s me playing there. It could be anyone who can play this part. What excites me about gigs and recordings and rehearsals and all those things is when I turn up and there’s people that I love and people who are buying into what I do. There’s a lot of people in a big band. There’s nothing worse than a musician who…
So, over the summer we had some dates and one of the saxophonists couldn’t do it. Now, the guy who came in was amazing. He was just killing it. He bought into it and he got it. But in the past when things like that have happened, there have been cats that turned up and you can feel they don’t dig this music. You can feel they’re there just to play or they’re there for the paycheck or, back in then day, when we were work-shopping a lot of stuff, they came in because the music was complex and it was a good workout for them. But they didn’t really dig what they were playing. And there’s nothing worse than that.
You know, I can deal with someone who hates what I do. I can absolutely deal with that. Because I don’t do music for everyone. I don’t do music for most people, it would be fair to say. (laughs) But the people who love it, love it! So if someone’s sitting there hating it you can deal with it. You can either try to find a way in for them or you don’t book them again or you just say, “Thank you very much, I really appreciate your time and your talent and your skill but this really isn’t for you.” And everyone understands that, hopefully. If we’re all adults about it. But someone who’s sitting there and is just going through the motions… To me, that’s even worse.
And it’s been a long time since anyone’s come into anything I’ve done and they felt that. But that’s just because I think about who goes in the room. I think about all these things. With the big band, it’s really difficult. When I had a sub coming up, I was talking with Noel about getting subbing for one of the trumpets, not for him. The first conversation we had… we just spent half an hour listening to really amazing trumpet players who were not the right person for this gig. You don’t just come in to play music. The word you used was “community” and that’s the most important thing to me.
You’re looking for somebody who comes into the room and it matters who they are. They bring their presence as a person, not just as a player on their instrument. You always got to have the person who practices, the person who will nag me for music months in advance. Will turned up… because he hadn’t been to the rehearsal, he’d listened to a recording of the rehearsal we did, he’d annotated almost every bar of his part. You know, it’s like a piece of art this drum chart. He really thought about it, really got inside of it. You’ve got to have the people who do that. You’ve also got to have the people who don’t look at it before they turn up and then you have that tension between that sort-of different approach. So I know Moss will look at stuff and I know Elliot will probably look at my music for the first time in the rehearsal. So Will will be setting up and Elliot will be unfolding his music. And I’ll hear him trying out stuff on the piano, and I’ll start hearing little things that I wrote. And he’ll look up at me and be like, “You know this is hard, right?” (laughs) “Yeah, but you’re good. I sent this to you a month ago.” (laughs)
And I say that about Elliot because there is nothing I’ve ever done with Elliot where he hasn’t turned up and elevated everything I’ve thought or made it greater than I’d ever imagined it could be. And I imagine Elliott as great all the time, but he brings an extra level when he turns it up. So it’s about that balance, even with four people.
And who do you need to be an asshole about breaks? Who do you need to be an asshole about making sure that we survive this as human beings, that we walk out of there still in love with each other? You’ve got all those tensions going on. You’ve got to have the people on the instruments you want. But I can never decide whether I think about those instruments first and then find the right people or I think about those people and fit them into a line-up and a way of doing things.
The more I’m doing stuff and the more new people I meet… I don’t have a musician response, I have a composer response. When I meet someone who’s great or I play with someone who’s great, I don’t think, “We should play together!” I think, “I want to write something for you! I want to give you some problems. I want to put you in a difficult place and watch you find your way out!” And, again, that’s a different dynamic. Most of what I go into now, I go into as a bandleader or I go into, “…and we’re doing free improvisation.” So everyone is a bandleader and everyone’s got a level of autonomy. It’s about trying to bring that vibe to something that I’m in control of and let go of some of that control. And I couldn’t do that if I was holding a trumpet. Because If I was holding a trumpet, I would impose my will and if I’m the bandleader people would follow me. And I kind of want to be like, “Follow me, I’ll be right behind you!”
As a writer, this makes me think of working on a comic book. I did that a few years ago. I was working on a comic book series with a team of artists. Writing a script is completely different from writing a novel, where you’re responsible with establishing the background and imagery and everything else directly inside the reader’s mind. In a comic book script or a graphic novel, you provide a description of your vision and let the artist’s mind translate that into a visual representation. I think it’s probably the closest analogy I can make. It’s a great feeling to see your vision brought to life by another artist.
That’s when you’ve got the right people on inks and pencils, you know? It’s like that. On the subject of comic books: if you haven’t already, you should check out Alan Moore’s scripts. The density of information he gives just for the panel of the scripts is insane. So, I love Cobra, I love free improvisation, I love all of the ways you interact with your community in that. But there’s a limit where, you know, what really excites me are compositional ideas. So maybe you start with a compositional idea and then it’s free improvisation. You can do whatever you want. And I say there’s freedom, but I’ve started with a compositional idea. So I’m putting them in a place already. It’s never from nothing. And everything I’m going to talk about with this record will always come down to those four cats in the studio, you know? But also Marc. We couldn’t have made this record without Marc.
He’s like the fifth member of the band.
Absolutely! There’s six of us in this project in the studio. There’s me and I don’t play and then there’s Marc and he captures what is played. But also, if we tried to do it with the house engineer, with all due respect, we wouldn’t have been set up that quickly. And the edits we needed to do wouldn’t have been that quick. We might have gotten through four tunes. There’s also that thing there as well that I’m always incredibly ambitious. Because otherwise, why bother? Everything I do is slightly impossible and doesn’t have enough time and doesn’t have enough money. (laughs) Those are my challenges to solve.
I love that!
Once I get into that position, I know I’m going to be able to do something. When something feels like I know what I’m doing or something feels like it’s easy to realize, I start to think, “Why bother?” It’s like this new Spike Orchestra stuff. It was a big commission. I’ve been working on it for eighteen months. We did two concerts over the summer, we sold out the South Bank, went and played it up north and then we did a concert yesterday where I talked about music and, at the end of it, we played this piece. (Starts moving his arms) And I’m conducting this piece and everything’s working, there’s no stress, everything’s happening, everyone knows what’s going on. And in my head I’m like, “We’ve got to play this one more time and then we need to record it, because this works now, so we can move on to something else.” And, in the band, I know that’s not how they feel. They’re sitting there thinking, “Oh, this is cool now, we know what’s going on.” And I’m like, “Yeah, so let’s stop that! Let’s do something else! Let’s find something we don’t know!”
You know, part of that is, “Not enough time and not enough money.” Because I have to work bread gigs. And everything I do, to some extent, is expensive, if it’s large or if it’s recorded. And I probably gig or record three percent of what I could create. So there’s that frustration that drives everything as well. When you’re in that situation, you get maybe one shot to do something. Why not be ambitious? I approach every record and every stage of every record as, “What if this is as far as it goes? What if this is the last thing?” You know, I can walk out into the street tomorrow and get hit by a bus. And if my last record is something that I’m not happy with, if I didn’t put everything into that, then that would be the tragedy. I mean, not getting hit by the bus. (laughs)
When we started Book 2, right at the beginning of Book 2, in my head, it was like, “Enjoy this, because this might be the only time that this happens. And enjoy this, because you might get cut off halfway through.” And “enjoy” is maybe the wrong word. It was, “Experience this moment! Don’t be worrying about things you can’t change! Now you’ve started this relationship. That’s great, enjoy that! Now you’re being given Masada to work on. That’s amazing, enjoy that!” You know, that is a responsibility and an honor. Only thirty-two people got it in Book 2 and got their albums out. Only eleven people did Book 3. But if you do these things and you’re so overwhelmed by them or you’re so stressed by having them happen then, again, you’re missing the point of why you’re doing this stuff.
You start doing music because you love it. You start playing an instrument because you love it. And you practice because you want to get better, because you love it. Why would anyone learn an instrument? It’s hard. Music is hard. Music requires dedication and sacrifice and, at the end of it, most people who do it make fuckall money. (laughs)
When I was sixteen I could have gone, “Right, I’m going to be a fridge salesman.” I could have been the best fridge salesman where I live. And I could live in a much nicer house with a much nicer car, all those things. But I’d be selling fridges. What’s the fucking point? Look, people need fridges, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not who I am.
When you start from that point, not, “Let’s go out and do a band that people are going to come and see and pay loads of money to hear and do weddings and stuff!” But when you start from that point, you get it. You understand why this creative process is there. You understand what you’re going to get out of it. You connect with people who get it. Then you get small little crowds and small little communities.
And it’s really meaningful to me when I talk to Zorn and he says, “You get this!” That’s it for me. We operate in a marginal world. For me, we are living in the Age of Zorn. This period of music will be known as the Age of Zorn. And he is the greatest composer, to me, of all time. But most people don’t know who he is. Most music teachers I know and I work with don’t know who he is. But it doesn’t affect him. It doesn’t affect the way he creates. I don’t think it does. I think he creates because he needs to create.
So then you start from a point where you’re making music for people who love it. And it’s great when people get some joy from it. It’s great when people connect with it. But I never write music or record music or put music out and think, “This is the one! This is the one that I’m gonna retire on! This is my Christmas Number One and every July I get a royalty check!” You create music for the people that know. You can’t tell people. You hand it to them or they buy it and they have a reaction to it. So, there are points where being a composer is very lonely, like being a writer.
You sit alone and the work takes you somewhere and you’re not sure… I mean, you’re sure, because you’re never in doubt about what’s good, but you’re never certain that anyone else is going to dig it. So with everything I do, it’s like, “I know this is good. I know it’s the right thing for me to be doing.” But I don’t even think now about whether anyone else is gonna like it.
With Gulgoleth, I put something up on Facebook, just after we recorded it, I think. And it was like jazz-rock-cartoon-surf-Radical Jewish Culture-grindcore-metal. I just listed all the things that are in it. And it doesn’t make any fucking sense. If you say that to someone who doesn’t know, you’re just giving them a list of things they probably think don’t fit together. It takes that energy and those people to make all those things work.
Here’s where the community comes in. When you presented me the project and I looked at it, even before hearing a note, it made perfect sense to me. It’s because I know you and I know your music. When you know who your audience is, you know they’re going to get it.
When you talk about community and you talk about people getting it… You know, this record was going to be a self-release. Then I thought, “Practically, Chant have got a bigger reach than me.” Plus, I’m a musician, man. I don’t want to spend my life writing Facebook posts and chasing up things. I didn’t send it to any record labels. I talked to someone in the UK about it and they asked all the wrong questions. The way they talked about it, it was like, “Okay, this is a business proposition to you. And that’s fine, because you’re running a business. But this, to me, is more meaningful than that.”
So I just sent it to Jon and Shanir. And again, within five minutes, I got an e-mail back from Shanir that was just, “Oh my God, I love this! We need to put it out!” So these are people I want to work with. These are people who actually understand what this record is. I can’t think of a more perfect home for it. Because it’s like, once I’ve gone that far down the road – I paid for the studio, Marc and the musicians – I thought, “I’m going to self-release it now. This is my project! I don’t want to give it to anyone else. I don’t want to let them come in at the last minute and take a big chunk of it.” This music is very personal.
The important thing about Jon and Shanir is that they’re musicians. So they get all of that side of it. And the second thing is, you know, they came up around Zorn. So they got all of those ideals, all of that experience. I have felt in the past, with other record companies, that if you put something out with them, they take a piece of it and they give you something back. There’s that transactional thing. When I do stuff on Chant, I don’t feel like they’re taking anything. I feel like they’re giving something to it. So rather than losing a piece of it, I get a better thing. It’s like that on Chant, it’s like that on Tzadik.
I’m very lucky because I’ve managed to put quite a bit of stuff out in the last few years and everything I’ve done has been with people I love and trust, who are part of the community. Jon and Shanir have never said and Zorn has never said, “I think you should do it like this or that!” It’s like, “You go and do your thing! You let those crazy arrangements happen and then it’s going out. As your vision.” One of the first questions at the other label was, “Is this a touring band?” And I realize the whole thing is, “How do we sell CDs on tour?” And I understand that; CDs cost money. You’re going to invest money. You need to have that understanding. Whereas you go to Zorn and you look at that Tzadik catalog and you know there’s a record in there somewhere that’s great, that’s sold like a hundred copies. But Zorn put it out because that music is amazing and that music needed to be put out. And that’s community.
With Jon and Shanir, when I was talking to them about it… I think Jon, at one point, said to me, “Do you want to put this out on Chant and not somewhere else?” I was like, “Why would I want to work with someone else? You guys get this record. You guys understand what I’m trying to say here and you love it.” These are the only things that matter to me.
I’m not chasing something. All I want to do is create and release and create the next thing and release. My ambitions for my records are that they break even and they are sustainable. Because it’s not about making money but it’s about being sustainable. I want every record I make to pay for the next record I make. Then you set up a chain. Then you have something that has some meaning.
The music business is fucked up, man. Because it’s a business, not because it’s music. Sometimes you have to deal with breadheads. The lengths we all go too to protect our work… You know what it’s like, man. People are putting up full-album Youtube videos, ripping off the artists. I have too many conversations now with musicians where we talk more about protecting our work than we do about making it. We’ve lost the digital revolution because the musicians, the creators are not the people who are in power. Everyone has to pick their response. Zorn has one response and Dave Douglas has another response. You try and work with what there is and you try and work within it. But the minute you start only trying to do that and not worrying about how to create the next thing, it becomes a problem.
Check out Sam Eastmond’s work at sameastmond.com
Pick up your copy of Gulgoleth at chantrecords.com/releases/sam-eastmond-gulgoleth/