Todd Clouser on Crafty Improvisation

It’s a bit of a strange journey, though, in the end, it all makes sense.

It’s a bit of a strange journey,though, in the end, it all makes sense. Minneapolis native Todd Clouser wants a big change, so he gets a teaching job at a school in Baja, California. Then, while playing out, he meets some musicians from Mexico City and starts jamming with them. Eventually, he falls in love with the “chaos and freedom” of Mexico City, and ends up living there.

“There’s an audience for me in Mexico City,” he explains. “I don’t have to compromise myself there.”

Clouser’s latest release with his band A Love Electric is entitled Son of a Hero [Ropeadope], and it includes keyboard wonder John Medeski. While Clouser may have backed off the solos somewhat for Son of a Hero, he is nonetheless an accomplished lead player, and an extremely savvy improviser.

What’s it like playing with a monster like John Medeski?

Medeski is not going to sit down and play gentle for you. He is going to turn things upside down—that’s what he does. He’s a force, and you have to embrace it.

Clouser on his “obnoxious” blue Gibson ES -335.

What influences do you most draw from when you improvise?

I grew up in my house hearing Motown, so that’s where some of my groove elements come from. But that also lead me to deep blues—Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, field recordings, and so on. Those are really the roots of what helps me in composition, improvisation, and story telling. However, I first connected improvisation— that word—to Jimi Hendrix. When I was a kid, I’d sit alone banging on my guitar without having any tools to express myself—no chords yet or anything like that. And I got into Hendrix, and I could hear him making noise on this guitar, and that gave me the liberty to follow this route. “Oh, I’m improvising— that’s what I am doing.” So I did a lot of improvised music, and then I discovered jazz, and then I tried to un-discover jazz—at least the academic side of it—and I ended up on a more visceral side of improvisation.

How do you personally manage not to fall into clichés, or copy your influences?

It can be dangerous, because there are harmonies and licks that are so common to us. And it can often be especially dangerous for me, because I do imitate people when I practice, in order to discover something about their language. But when it’s my turn to do it, I want to do something that’s almost completely mine. So I use what I’ve heard as more of a feel question, than stealing actual notes. For me, obviously music is communication. When somebody is really giving me their story, I think that’s more inspiring—and more of a push to allow me to embrace my own voice—than it is to actually use notes from somebody else.

Okay, so now we are on to the next step—how do you formulate what you’ve heard into notes that are truly your own?

From an academic standpoint, you can just manipulate the phrase. There are many ways to manipulate a riff, a melody, or a lick—turn it upside down, omit something from it, elongate it, cut it up, or transpose it. Then, things start to happen. You start to discover new sounds and notes that you might like. Like, instead of playing the root, maybe I’ll go for the flat 9. “Oh, I love that! It sounds really nasty. I’m going to go with that.” It’s okay to mess with things like that, because then the things you got from somewhere else kind of become yours.

Miles Davis’ trumpet on On the Corner inspired Clouser’s guitar sound. “I love that sound,” he says. “I didn’t try to copy it, but there are elements of it in my distortion, resonance, and delay.”

Do you feel your improvisational forays incorporate elements that perhaps some other players may not always consider?

Well, I often try to view the guitar purely as something that makes sound. It’s not cut up in boxes, and it’s not cut up in frets. I don’t necessarily have to strike the strings in front of the pickups—I can hit them by the headstock, or scrape the strings. I look at the guitar as an instrument of sound capable of creating worlds, universes, textures, and colors. Sometimes, guitarists can lose that, because we hear players who are impressive, and we want to emulate the technical things they do. But my goal is to step back from that, and view the guitar as this tool to make sound.

That’s interesting. I feel some players aren’t always comfortable letting go of structure.

I want a little structure, but I also want it to be the Wild West. I want to go as far out as I can go. But, yeah, there are anchors, and even I like the way the root sounds. So I’ll land on things that sound common, but, with that in mind, I’ll always try to discover something new and push it. I’m not really jazz-jazz, but I love the spirit of jazz that constantly pushes things to a place they haven’t been yet.

Of course, that brings up another uncomfortable aspect of letting go—the fear of making mistakes.

Listen, this is why artists like Nirvana and Bob Dylan are genius. People are singing out of tune, or there are tempo issues and stuff like that, and it doesn’t matter because they’re expressing themselves. And that’s what becomes important—having something to say. It’s not about perfection. It’s about humanity. People want to hear you and all the imperfections that make up who you are. That’s what they’re looking for in music.