Q&A: White Out’s Tom Surgal And Lin Culbertson On Their New Record, How The Sound In DIY Spaces Sucks, And The Secret To Being A Couple In A Band


White Out—along with Gotham lifers like Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth and Unsane—head a slate of disparately drawn iconoclasts who, despite downtown’s colossal overhaul, still unequivocally bleed NYC guts and grit through their musical veins. Inseparable since being introduced by former SY drummer and acting legend Richard Edson in 1986 outside CBGB at a fuckin’ Big Black gig (how New York is that?), percussionist purveyor Tom Surgal and analog synth guru Lin Culbertson have operated under the White Out moniker since the mid-90’s.

Album number six, the just-released Asphalt and Delay, once again highlights White Out’s revolutionary ecstatic avant-jazz jammage, which regularly illuminated NYC experimentalist joints like the old Knitting Factorys, The Cooler and Tonic. This time though, Surgal and Culberston recorded Asphalt and Delay sans collaborators like Thurston Moore, Nels Cline and Jim O’Rourke, and the results are stunning. Its five compositions—recorded in their apartment—drift in and out of atonally gorgeous realms, as Culbertson’s ethereal moans and shrieks and synth jabs converse perfectly with Surgal’s drum caress n’ gnashing.

Sound of the City caught up with the amusingly snarky Surgal and the sweet Culbertson via email.

Tom, you were ill last month and had to postpone the original record release show at Zebulon. Are you completely recovered now?

Tom Surgal: Ask my malpractice attorney.

Throughout White Out’s trajectory, you’ve been famous for your collaborators. Asphalt and Delay is your first album as a duo. What brought you to the decision to record this one as a duo? Was it a conscious one?

Surgal: Jim O’Rourke approached us to do a record for a label he was doing for Sony Japan, and we needed to get something together quickly. Recording as a duo was logistically the most expeditious approach we could take. Then Jim’s deal with Sony fell through.

How challenging was it not to have, for instance, Thurston Moore supplementing your sound, or Nels Cline, Carlos Giffoni or Samara Lubelski or O’Rourke?

Surgal: No more challenging than any other music we’ve ever played. We don’t depend on other outside influences for musical inspiration; they augment our sound, they don’t create it.
Lin Culbertson: It was easier in a way. There was more available air space and no danger of overplaying.

Was there no one available to collaborate with when you decided to do Asphalt and Delay?

Surgal: It wasn’t a question of other peoples’ availability. What we did with this album was to make a maximum amount of sound utilizing a minimum of personnel.
Culbertson: There are always numerous people to collaborate with at any given time, that’s what’s so great about New York—lots of improvisers from which to choose from. We just decided to record this album as a duo.

Can you explain how you went about recording this one?

Surgal: We set up mikes and pressed record—pretty straightforward, no overdubs or postproduction effects.
Culbertson: I think it has a relaxed quality because we weren’t rushed; we weren’t all stressed out constantly worrying about studio time. We experimented more with different combinations of instruments because everything we own was at our disposal. You never have the luxury of transporting every instrument you posses to a gig or recording studio.

Was it purely improvised?

Surgal: Yes, as with everything we play it was both pure and improvised.

Asphalt and Delay was released by audioMER. How did you hook up with this particular record label?

Surgal: We have a close friend who lives part of the year in Brussels, where audioMer is based. She passed the material on to them and the rest is history.

Past White Out releases were on No Fun, Ecstatic Peace and ATP. Was it not feasible to have one of those labels release Asphalt and Delay, or maybe another label expressed an interest in releasing it?

Surgal: We didn’t even approach them, it’s always good practice to spread the wealth around, don’t let any one entity have too much of a good thing.
Culbertson: We really wanted to do another vinyl release. AudioMER is also an art concern that puts musicians together with fine artists to create albums covers. it seemed like a interesting label on which to release Asphalt and Delay.

Tom, you directed the video for Sonic Youth’s “Sacred Trickster.” Any plans to direct more videos? Were you in demand after directing that one?

Surgal: Ask my agent. Of course that’s the second video I’ve directed for Sonic Youth and I’ve done all sorts of videos over the years for bands like Pavement and Blues Explosion. I’m currently devoting all my filmic energy to the completion of a documentary that chronicles the history of the Free Jazz movement.

The documentary you speak of has been brewing for a very long time. Can you talk in detail about it? What content will it entail? Where will it be shown? When do you expect it will see the light of day?

Surgal: The main focus is on the forefathers of the movement, the great creators. I’ve so far conducted about twenty-five interviews and shot a bunch of live footage of everyone from Sonny Simmons, Marshall Allen and Rashied Ali to Gato Barbieri, Evan Parker and Peter Brotzman. Upon completion my hope is that it will stand as the definitive statement on the subject. I can’t really speak authoritatively on the subject of where it will be shown; clairvoyance is not my strong suit.

You also did an awesome trailer for Senso, the last White Out record. Any plans to do a trailer for Asphalt and Delay?

Surgal: I wrote and directed that piece and Lin shot and edited it. We’re improvisers, we never plan.
Culbertson: Actually, the concept for a new video is brewing at the moment. They take a lot of time and energy to produce, so not sure when it might actually materialize.

You two met outside CBGB at a Big Black show in ’86. Were you both there to see Big Black? If so, do you recall anything about that show?

Surgal: Sure, it ruled like every other show they ever played.
Culbertson: I don’t remember the show at all. I was working for the New Music Seminar, so I probably saw about 20 bands that night.

Do you still listen to Big Black and/or postpunk/punk and rock music in general anymore or are you both strictly jazz/experimental music listeners?

Surgal & Culbertson: What we play has no bearing on what we listen to. We listen to everything and then some.

In 2008 I interviewed both of you for the Voice and the crux of the article was musicians like yourself living in a post-Tonic universe in New York and the lack of places to play that supported community like Tonic did. Can you speak to this four years later of what, if anything, has changed, for better or for worse?

Surgal: Oh yeah, everything has degenerated. It’s pathetic, there are virtually no decent venues in New York. There’s just are all these DIY spaces with crap sound…
Culbertson: …and the DIY clubs keep moving farther and farther out to places like Bushwick and Queens. There appears to be some interesting new venues popping up in Greenpoint. The new Issue Project Room and Roulette spaces are welcome additions to the New York performance landscape.

Tom, that said, you were booking shows for Rehab/Club Midway a few years ago back then that club ultimately shut down. Was your booking of shows there somewhat of a deliberate attempt to fill the void tonic left?

Surgal: Definitely, and we put on some killer shows, everything from Han Bennink to Gate to Thurston to Mats Gustafson. But that series only occurred once a month, and, as you mentioned, the club went out of business.

Do you have any plans of booking shows again?

Surgal: Lin and I booked the entire month of March last year at John Zorn’s club The Stone. Two shows a night for 30 nights; it took us a year to set up and, if I do say so myself, I think it was the best series of music presented in recent memory. That’s enough curating for any one lifetime.

You’ve said that where you live in NYC and the traveling expenses you face to haul your gear to gigs makes it difficult to play more often than you do, which seems to be only a few times a year, if that. With your new record coming out and experimental and avant-garde jazz shows seemingly on the rise, have you re-evaluated your position or come up with any other ideas that would allow you play more gigs? Do you have the desire to play more?

Surgal: I don’t think we play any more or any less than most other local acts. Plus keep in mind we’ve played in other places like L.A., San Francisco, England, Geneva, Paris and Marseille.

You two met in ’86, but the first White Out record didn’t come out until ’95.
How did the White Out vision come about, and what took so long to record?

Surgal: I wasn’t even really playing music during most of that time period.
Culbertson: I got my hands on an old analog synthesizer and one day we just jammed for a lark and White Out was born.

Where was your first gig?

Surgal: The Cooler, opening for my friend Charles Gayle.
Culbertson: Really? I thought our first gig was in the No Neck Blues Band’s rehearsal studio.

Has White Out ever collaborated with Charles live? That would be killer. Both of you have new albums so maybe it can happen?

Surgal: White Out has never played with Charles, although he and I used to play together back in the day. We even went to England together. I don’t see us collaborating any time in the near future; there exists a real dearth of good quality clown regalia.

This Sunday you are playing with guitarist Anders Nilsson. Is this the first time you are playing with him?

Surgal: Yes.
Culbertson: We’ve seen Anders play in other contexts and he’s awesome, so we are looking forward to engaging him in sonic dialog.

Was playing as a duo this Sunday an idea you considered, since the record is as a duo? Have you played live as just a duo ever?

Surgal: Sure, it’s even partially documented on two of our earlier albums.

You have been together since the mid-’80s and have operated as White Out since the mid-’90. What is your secret to staying together as a couple in a band?

Surgal: Steroids.
Culbertson: Our secret’s out.

White Out (with Anders Nilsson) play their record release show on Sunday at Zebulon.