WHEN ECM RECORDS released David Torn’s Cloud About Mercury in 1987, the album didn’t make anyone rich, but it did enrich the musical community, influencing artists all over the stylistic map, from boppers to rockers. Accompanied by Mark Isham’s impressionistic horn lines, Torn’s Trans Trem-equipped Steinberger slithered, squawked, screamed, and soared over drummer Bill Bruford and bassist Tony Levin’s sophisticated polyrhythmic underpinnings, resulting in a startlingly inventive hybrid musical form. Twenty years later, Torn and ECM have reunited to release Prezens, an equally eclectic and ambitious album featuring alto saxophonist Tim Berne, keyboardist Craig Taborn, and drummer Tom Rainey, with Torn’s solo compositions filling out the remainder of the disc.
Throughout the intervening decades between Cloud and Prezens, Torn has traversed huge stretches of aesthetic territory, releasing numerous solo and group albums—including two hyper-electronica outings under the pseudonym SPLaTTeRCell—as well as working in various performance and production capacities with artists as diverse as David Bowie, Jeff Beck, Dave Douglas, Tori Amos, John Legend, David Sylvian, Sting, and Kaki King.
Additionally, Torn has contributed “textures” and other sonic elements to myriad films, as well as scoring numerous television specials and feature films himself, including Believe in Me, Friday Night Lights, The Order, and Traffic. The allure of Tinsel Town even prompted him to go bi-coastal, dividing his time between his longtime upstate New York abode and new digs in Pasadena, California.
“My life is pretty complicated,” says Torn. “I’m not a rock star—I’m just busy.”
It’s no secret that Torn loves to improvise—alone or with his band—and then manipulate the hell out of whatever he comes up with, often transmuting it into something wholly unrecognizable by the time he’s finished. Unlike your typical remixer, however, Torn can also handle the creative heat live-in-the-moment, one second executing a tricky chord progression, then looping and reversing it while adding washes of filtered fuzz, then dropping the loop an octave and wailing over it with searing tones punctuated by wild whammy manipulations and flashes of feedback—all executed with uncommon fluidity.
The music on Prezens is an extension of that stylistic eclecticism and integration. A splash of looped, flute-like sounds is followed by a bluesy organ-trio-plus-guitar-and-sax groove, which is in turn followed by a detuned, quasi-metal guitar explosion that trails off into ambient-jazz atmospherics. And that’s just the first song. Next up is a non-band track built on a haunting, heavily manipulated guitar loop, overlaid with beautiful harmonics, a mirthful synth-like melody, and deconstructed passages from Verses on the Faith of Mind by the Third Patriarch of Zen. Torn even samples, loops, and processes members of his band in real time, using microphones built into his guitars. Yet, despite these extremes, the whole album works in the same way that disparate images coalesce in a Dali painting.
“I see, hear, and feel all of these things as an integrated experience,” he explains. “I’ve spent years developing looping and processing techniques the same way I’ve developed techniques on the guitar—so that I can actually play my instrument and not play at it.”
You have said in the past that you don’t consider yourself to be a “real” guitarist. Why?
My view on that has actually changed a little bit. When we’re kids, we have the intention of being the hottest, most technically proficient, and most knowledgeable guitarist. But I dropped that goal in order to find something that was my own. There were years where I really felt like I was outside the realm of what people considered to be normal guitar playing. I wasn’t “dispensed with,” but I was always on the edges of idiomatic playing. Then, a few years ago, I began realizing that perspective had to do with dividing the musical personality into segments—the guitar player, the composer, the producer—and that all those aspects of who I am as a musician combine to fuel the moving train of creativity.
That said, although I’m not a master at anything, I actually have quite a bit more idiomatic familiarity than most people realize. I’m really comfortable playing semi-metal and bluesy stuff, and I have fun playing over jazz changes. Whenever I feel like I’m playing too idiomatically, however, it starts to seem tongue-in-cheek, or even that I’m being sarcastic. I avoid that, because I have the intention of playing music that is sincere. Of course, all of these delineations—idioms, styles, sounds, etc.—are kind of bull, anyway. There’s music, and then there’s not music [laughs].
You have integrated quite a few alternative techniques into your playing. When did that process begin?
It began in the mid ’70s, when I was in a rock band that played long improvisations with epic guitar solos. I had been listening to Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy for a couple of weeks before one gig, and a few seconds into one of those epic solos I thought to myself, “Dude, this is just the same old crap, over and over.” At that moment, some weird combination of Coleman and Dolphy—not a lick or a quote, but something of the sound and energy—twinkled in my head, and I decided to just blast. I made some very different harmonic and melodic choices, along with some very different sonic choices—how I was touching the instrument, hitting the strings, banging the body, using feedback, pinging the strings above the nut and below the bridge—and it was quite satisfying. Finding a way to integrate those sounds and noises into something a bit more normal really got me going, and I’ve never stopped.
For the past 14 years you’ve mostly played with your fingers, but you also use a pick. Explain.
Occasionally, I use a couple of agate Min’d Picks that I’ve had since ’79. The original shape was uncomfortable for me, so I had them re-cut by a jeweler, who failed to finish one side, leaving very fine serrated edges. I discovered that I could actually “bow” the strings with that edge, and if I placed my finger gently on the string at the same time, I could play all of the notes up to the bridge, and integrate those very high notes into my phrasing.
I can also hold the pick on the strings at a fixed position between the fretboard and the bridge, and fret notes with my left hand. In that case, the pick functions as an alternative bridge, changing the fret-to-pitch relationships by shortening the string length, and dividing the octave in unusual ways. I’ve found specific spots where I can play sets of intervals that are completely outside of tempered tuning, and I’ve used those sounds on nearly every recording I’ve made.
What’s the origin of the additional electronics that are built into your primary guitars?
The idea of installing inputs, microphones, and 60-cycle hum switches started in discussions with Ulli Teuffel, who was already doing something quite similar, but not exactly what I wanted. My first Teuffel Tesla had two different microphones built into it, along with an input and a hum switch. Then, about five years ago, Saul Koll made the first Koll Tornado model, and we really fine-tuned the system on it. He dubbed the additional electronics the “Tornipulator” [see below, “Torn on the Tornipulator”], and we made them highly visible to focus some attention on the damned thing. Recently, Stefan Dapergolas of D’Pergo guitars began building me one of his exceptional instruments with the idea of taking the system to the next level—though we’re going to hide the electronics a little bit just for fun.
What amps are you currently using?
My primary amp is the VHT Deliverance 120 head with a Bob Burt 2x12 cabinet containing Celestion Blues. The Deliverance is the best guitar amp I’ve ever owned. Before it was completed, I primarily used a VHT Pitbull 45 with the 2x12 cab—which is the amp I used for all of the basic live tracks on Prezens. The separate stereo outputs from my effects/looping rig are routed to the effects return inputs of a pair of Rivera M-100 2x12 combo amps, bypassing the preamp sections. I’m also working on a really freaky custom tube amp with Reinhold Bogner that’s incredibly low-fi. The sound is gritty and grainy—though not at all harsh. I use it sometimes, though we still haven’t completed the project.
What effects processors are in your rack?
I use a Lexicon PCM 80 for all of my reverb sounds, and my loopers include a Gibson Echoplex Digital Pro, an Electrix Repeater, and a modified Lexicon PCM 42 with 20 seconds of delay. I’ve also programmed a Nord Modular G2 as an additional effects processor for granular delays and “rhythmifying” ambient loops. Everything is connected via a modified Rane SM82 mixer, and all of the looping devices come up on channels with pre-fader sends to all of the others so they may be combined and routed to the various processors.
What’s on your pedalboard?
I have a huge pedal collection, but the ones that see regular use are my old T.C. Electronic TC XII Programmable Phaser and Sustain+Parametric Equalizer pedals, a BJF Electronics EQ, a Crowther Prunes & Custard, and a Goodrich Model LDR2 volume pedal. My standby fuzz is a Skreddy Mayo, but I also use a Skreddy Screwdriver, which blends overdrive with a bit of Big Muff fuzz fatness, and a Matt Wells 8 Ball, which is a lo-fi rebuild of the old Ampeg Scrambler. I get many of my big filter sounds with a tiny Guyatone WR2 Wah Rocker, which can sound really shocking when combined with other pedals. I use a Guyatone Flip TD-X Tube Echo for short delays. There are also two other really odd pedals that I use frequently: The Frostwave Sonic Alienator combines frequency-based filtering and constantly variable bit-rate and sample-rate reduction, and the Chrome Daddy is a one-off built for me by Sean at Lovepedal. It’s is the noisiest, craziest, oscillating and sub-oscillating distortion I’ve ever owned.
I use Snake Oil Brand Pure Nickel, gauged .010-.046, or an .011-.048 set of their Rock Formula strings, depending on the application. I really love these strings. I’ve never had this much consistency in a string. And they last forever. I’ll clean them after six months, and they feel and sound like a fresh set. Also, my whammy bar technique is extremely abusive, and I used to break strings constantly, but not anymore.
How did you record your guitar parts on Prezens?
We close-miked the main amp with three mics: a Royer R-121 ribbon, an RCA 44BX ribbon, and a Shure SM57 dynamic. The two Rivera M-100s that my effects and loops are routed to were miked with a pair of Sennheiser MD421s. There was also a stereo pair of Royer R-122s placed a few feet in front of the entire rig to capture the sound as a whole. Everything was recorded to individual tracks, and I blended them later at the mixdown.
Which guitars did you play?
All of the basic tracks on Prezens were done with the Koll, and the overdubs were done with either the Koll or my Tyler Classic, which has a slightly tighter and higher tone. I used a ’92 National Resonator for the slide parts on “Miss Place, the Mist.”
Did you use any alternate tunings?
The Koll was tuned down a step to D, and sometimes down to C#, in parallel to the normal guitar tuning. There were also a couple of overdubs with it tuned to God knows what. The only real alternate tuning was the open tuning for the National steel part, which was C, G, C#, G, C, C, low to high.
Give an example of how you incorporated looping into the recording process.
Some of the more composed elements of pieces began as loops created using the Repeater. I’d record a loop, and then manipulate it using the Repeater’s onboard processing, which could involve re-pitching and rhythmically re-triggering the loop or adjusting the balance of its four tracks—all the while recording the manipulations into Apple Logic Pro as MIDI events synched to the DAW’s clock. Then, I’d edit the MIDI events to taste in the DAW. The MIDI events now recorded in the DAW automate all the processing moves I did previously in the Repeater, as the actual audio is being transferred to Logic. Once the audio was recorded into Logic, it could be edited further, and combined with other elements. This process is quicker than it sounds, and it allows me to maintain the initial focus on improvisational flow and attitude.
Speaking of improvisation, is there anything that you do to optimize the chances of tapping into something really good?
I don’t do anything outside of my normal preparation for performing or playing, which is basically to just take a few moments to be quiet and focus. In terms of the Prezens band, the best preparation is the fact that I was able to fall into a situation where there is this remarkable shared communication and resonance between the players, who are all fully realized, compositionally oriented improvisers. Also, whenever I think I need to spend a couple of days practicing or reorienting myself with my rig to play a gig, it results in nothing. There have been times when Tim and I came to a gig, and we both said, “Oh my God, we haven’t played in a week. I hope we’re going to be okay,” and things went exceptionally well. And, frankly, some of the tracks used on Prezens are from those performances.
What is your internal experience when improvising?
There are a lot of complex feelings that go on, but I try really hard not to allow either negative or positive feelings to interfere with what’s happening. Of course, being non-judgmental in the moment when you’re creating relatively complex music is one of the biggest challenges of doing it.