By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
"What I did was I packed boxes full of CDs and records, I put some clothes and instruments in a rental, and drove 3,000 miles in three days," says Weasel Walter. "That's typical of my aesthetic: You got time to sleep when you're dead."
Such is the brash rhetoric often spewed by the ubiquitous extreme-rock deconstructionist and newly minted Brooklyn resident, having traded in Oakland, California's languid scene for our booming avant-garde gridlock. "Moving here is a clean slate for me," Weasel (he's particularly averse to being called "Walter") explains over coffee in Bushwick. "I have to figure everything out again. I was fairly comfortable on the West Coast, but it seemed static at the end. And I'm against stasis."
Weasel's anti-stagnate approach was hatched at an early age—discovering free jazz at 15 impelled his foray into drumming—and he's been nonstop since. Now fixated on a steady diet of violent improvised music, but with metal and rock side-gigs thrown in (via the bands Behold . . . the Arctopus and Cellular Chaos, respectively), his percussive blitz remains intact, derived from his self-styled "brutal prog" days leading noise-punk freakazoids the Flying Luttenbachers. His makeup inflects that bent, and he's intent on making waves in the scene, or lack thereof. "I don't see a lot of true iconoclasts right now—people who stick the fuck out," he says. "I am not denigrating what people are doing here. But to have a 'scene,' you need lynchpins. I've always been that kind of person because I am really opinionated and really loud and do what I want to do. Some people take that as an affront, and some are into it."
Weasel first rose to prominence in '90s Chicago—the Steve Albini, post-rock, Touch & Go years—by spearheading the city's free-jazz movement alongside fellow purveyors Ken Vandermark, Jim O'Rourke, Jeb Bishop, and Kevin Drumm, and with the Luttenbachers, whom he disbanded in 2007. "Every day, I wake up and I say, 'What am I going to do today?' " he explains. " 'How am I going to expand what I'm doing and push it forward?' "
Here, in the city that spawned his beloved No Wave, he'll have to start by introducing himself: Even serious music fans may be unfamiliar with the improvisational transcendence he has wrought with guitarrorists Mary Halvorson and Henry Kaiser, Sun Ra saxophonist/bandleader Marshall Allen, and longtime Cecil Taylor drummer Marc Edwards, or the mysterious fruits of Weasel's own underground label, ugEXPLODE. "I know there's people who've never heard a single note or project I've done," he admits. "In a weird way, I am the new kid in town. I have work to do, and came here to fuck shit up."
Methodically fucking shit up is more like it. While he shrugs off his skills on the drums he deftly massacres ("They are just a tool I don't take pride in—I just happen to play them"), while describing his persona as "refusenik" and his craft as "part-caveman with blood, sweat, cum, vomit, and shit," Weasel isn't all bluster and hyperbole. As ugEXPLODE's lone employee, his disposition is all business. He established a label to document a scene: his own. "He's a no-bullshit person in every respect, and the studio experience is the same," explains Halvorson, a frequent collaborator. "We rarely discuss anything we're going to play. We go in, set up, and play until we're finished, with very few breaks to ponder the material. With Weasel, it's simple: Whatever comes out, comes out."
Shed the requisite "free jazz" and "experimental" pigeonholing, also—Weasel doesn't partake. "One, I am not a jazz musician. Two, I know what I am doing, so I am not experimental," But three of his discs from last year alone—Plane Crash (with Kaiser and bassist Damon Smith), Large Group Performances (his big-band venture), and Apocalyptik Paranoia (his improv army with Kaiser, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Peter Evans, Greg Kelley, and Forbes Graham)—fit the paradigm, and were overlooked on most year-end jazz polls, including the Voice's. He couldn't care less, of course. "Look at the music I make: It reflects what I'm all about. If it's not popular, I'm not going to act shocked. If my philosophy is not popular, then my aesthetic is probably not going to be popular."
Not relegating that aesthetic to just arty spaces is Weasel's vision, especially with the ensemble he now leads with Marc Edwards. "There's two drummers going full fucking force, with a frontline of interesting players. Instead of playing some depressing jazz door gig where there's two people, we'll be in front of rock crowds kicking their nuts—or pussies—off."
Actually, there's one genre label he doesn't mind: No Wave. And who better to make that distinction? As a mid-'80s teenage punk weirdo, a young Weasel (born Christopher Todd Walter) found his niche when he got a hard-on for Lydia Lunch. "I could relate to No Wave because it was intense, iconoclastic, and incredibly nihilistic," he recalls. Leisurely trips to the library morphed into feverish collecting of photos and videos—he's recognized as a pre-eminent historian and archivist, recently fact-checking and penning the foreword to Marc Masters's No Wave opus. "People don't recognize my work as No Wave because it doesn't sound like the Contortions," he says. "But what I do is No Wave: I destroy music, tear it apart, put it back together, fuck it up, push it in your face, make it as ugly as possible, but articulate and well-conceived."
Which doesn't exactly always pay the bills, of course. "It's been a struggle to survive," he admits. "I lived under Spartan conditions, devoted to making creative output." Sage advice came from saxist Sabir Mateen: " 'The reality is a hand of cards,' " Weasel recalls being told. " 'You play the fucking deck or you don't.' " The young drummer heeded the call: "My attitude is not be a martyr and whine about it."
And now he's loose in Brooklyn. It's a December evening at Zebulon in Williamsburg, and Weasel, sitting in with rock-oriented free-jazz eccentrics Talibam!, pulls off a bumbling instrumental switcheroo, commandeering Kevin Shea's drum kit but soon thereafter writhing on the floor with both a guitar and a bass clarinet, flailing, goofily meting out rock-star-worthy high-kicks. After impromptu gigs at the Stone and Pianos, the revamped trio schemed to record an album before the Zebulon set: immediately before. As in, get together in the afternoon, record it, package it, and sell it that night. And, as usual with Weasel, mission accomplished. I paid five bucks.
Weasel Walter performs with Cellular Chaos at Death by Audio January 15, with Peter Evans at Silent Barn January 23, and with Marc Edwards at the Knitting Factory January 31