We all know what it means when a light bulb goes off over someone’s head in a cartoon: A new idea is born. In the real world, capturing and recapturing that often-elusive spark of invention is a draining, exasperating, and thrilling task. And, like gamblers pulling on the arms of slot machines, we always believe the next try will bring the big payoff.
David Torn is no stranger to this process. For more than three decades, he has cranked out unique music/noises/soundscapes as a guitarist, producer, sideman, and looping pioneer. His avant-garde, ambient, and futuristic stylings have attracted such diverse artists as k.d. lang, Bill Bruford, Jewel, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and David Bowie. Even pathologically creative musicians such as Jeff Beck have called upon Torn to inject some life into tracks they felt they could take no further. He has lent his singular talents to several movie scores, sample CDs, and lots and lots of gigs. And, at a time when the music industry is in the doldrums, Torn is busier than ever. Like a shark that will die if it stops moving, Torn is in constant creative motion—he even answers the phone by playing a searing cadenza. When he’s not playing, mixing, or digitally vivisecting music, he’s talking a blue streak, getting his ideas out at a frantic pace so his head doesn’t explode.
Do you recall when you got that very first spark of, “Oh, my god—I’m on to something here”?
I was about 14, sitting by a campfire without a guitar in my hands. I became mesmerized by the fire. It was very quiet, and I just concentrated on the flames—how they moved, appeared, disappeared, and changed color. I started to hear a kind of music in my head based on the flames. There was this moment of personal revelation that allowed me to see a connection between how flames look when they’re burning, and how music sounds when it’s very fluid. I went home the next day, and I realized I could translate this to the guitar.
You could translate that level of creative vision at 14?
Sort of. I found that if I stopped trying to copy what other people were playing, I could get closer to the vague goal of creating this flame music. That was the first real moment where I got that feeling of unfabricated expression. But, as a guitarist, I would say that almost everything I’ve done since has been an attempt to regain that.
When are you at your best, creatively speaking?
When I’m not getting in my own way—whether that’s with my chops or my harmonic vocabulary. If I think about super-cool chords or scales or some technique that seems “impressive,” I usually fail creatively. It’s the same with composing. When I don’t give in to external agendas—like trying to copy someone or impress them—that’s when I’m at my best. I generally don’t like too much thinking or preplanning, although my Cloud About Mercury album was pretty strictly conceptualized and executed. It was strict, but open at the same time, so the personalities of all the players still came through. With Splattercell, I felt I made a technological statement without losing the core of that “flame sound.” I try to maintain an element of “nowness” with everything I do. I try to keep that raw edge—even if I’m writing parts for orchestral instruments.
It’s as if you’re applying improvisational concepts to non-improvised music.
Well, I’m an improviser at heart, and that means I have to accept the really horrific things along with the beautiful things. I played a couple of gigs this week with [saxophonist] Tim Berne, [bassist] Fima Ephron, and [drummer] Ben Perowsky, and one of them was really terrible. You couldn’t hear anything on stage, and we played like a bunch of idiots—except for Ben [laughs]. But then we had this amazing gig that was totally improvised. I had tunes to call, but I never got around to calling them, because what we were coming up with spontaneously felt so good. It was an incredibly satisfying, creative experience.
Many players are too afraid to go through the horrible gig to get to the beautiful one.
You have to get comfortable with the discomfort that goes along with the process. I’m addicted to the process—so much so that I no longer consider too deeply whether I’ve achieved my goal. The process is so satisfying that I really don’t care what it sounds like. I have a recording of that great gig, for example, but I’m not interested in hearing it.
It’s like sex. I am much more into the experience of having sex than I am in watching a video of it afterwards.
How does collaboration affect your creativity?
As a composer, there’s always that egocentric thing where I like being in control. But, as a player, I absolutely recognize I’m at my best when I’m communicating with other musicians. It can be an improvisational setting, and it can also be in the studio—like with Bowie’s sessions, where there’s a formatted tune and I’m the only one going off. There’s still an interaction that is so critical for me.
What do you do when it’s just not working? How do you get out of ruts?
If you really can’t move forward with a song, then you have to move sideways. As a player, that means you have to move out of restrictive areas. You need to apply something to the piece of music that’s outside the boundaries of what you already know. Retune the guitar to something you don’t understand, or get a totally new tone. Sometimes, I have to pick up a different instrument—like the oud—and just play something. Even if it’s bad, it might lead me somewhere, and it definitely leads me away from where I was. It helps if you look at music as a continuous path. Before you can arrive anywhere, you’ve got to travel.
Let’s say you’ve got a guitar, an oud, an Omnichord, an amp, and a looping device, and you have to create something out of nothing. Where do you begin?
I start with the guitar. From there, I’ll almost always move to the looping device to form some shape to the music. I might just start with some odd noises, looping them and digitally chewing them up until that moment when inspiration kicks in. Then I’ll grab the oud. That’s a very creative instrument for me, because my skills are limited. I don’t have a huge vocabulary to fall back on, and that makes it easier to write something fresh. After that, I’ll get the Omnichord, find some chords that can sit with the oud part, and then process them heavily and loop them. At this point, I might throw all the tracks into the computer and start writing over the top of them. I have a lot of different paths I can take.
What are the benefits and drawbacks to having so much gadgetry at your disposal?
Well, first off, I don’t look at anything as a gadget. I look at all these things as instruments. I use them as tools to build substance. So, in that sense, the benefits of having a huge toolbox are clear. Having a handle on effects, technology, instruments other than guitar, differently tuned guitars, other stringed instruments, little things you build—it’s immeasurable what level of creativity can be sparked simply by changing instruments.
On the other hand, if you can’t find anything substantial to say on any of these instruments, option anxiety can creep in. Then, jumping from one thing to another can be incredibly exhausting. When you’re in that space, you have to shift gears. Choose one instrument, and just keep hammering away. When you’re writing or creating, you have to work really hard to establish a flow.
What do you see as the biggest impediment to creativity these days?
I think the interest in all things retro has become a huge blockade for guitar-based music. Guitar playing in popular music is at its most conservative state right now. It used to be the instrument of the rebel. Now it’s the instrument of dentists and accountants—although I don’t mean to denigrate those occupations.
How can players break out of that?
There has to be a cut-off point where you stop copying guitarists or styles of music. You have to make an effort to get past your heroes and to get past this icon that the guitar has become. I mean, Jeff Beck continually progresses, but the guys who ape him are still living off Wired and Blow by Blow. Aside from Tom Morello, most of the current “guitar heroes” are not doing it for me. I love a good riff, but I want to hear some noise, I want to hear some new harmonic stuff, and I want some freaky technique that is unique to that player. It freaks me out that there isn’t more room for expression. There is in the underground, and players like Raoul Bjorkenheim, Nels Cline, and Andre LaFosse are all doing amazing things. But in popular music, the guitar has lost its danger.
Most pop players are hesitant to go too far outside for fear of losing their gig.
Those players just need to look at themselves and ask, “How can I add something fresh and personal to this?” Even within the boundaries of pop music, I think you can use those boundaries as creative challenges. But you have to want that. Push it a little bit. Get beyond the idea that you can’t play certain things because they’re “incorrect.”
It still sounds pretty scary.
Only if you stop. It gets easier if you just keep going. With any of your past work, look at it like, “That was great for then, but now I need the next step.” We all need to believe that the next thing we do will be the best thing we’ve ever done. I’m never 100 percent satisfied with anything I’ve done in the past. And that’s why I move forward.