Brooklyn-via-Cali drums heavyweight Ches Smith is a master of percussion, an omnipresent figurehead about town who holds the beats down for the likes of avant-jazz heroes like Marc Ribot, Darius Jones, Trevor Dunn and Mary Halvorson and can also be found pulling all-nighters drumming in Haitian vodou ceremonies. Smith also leads These Arches, a big-band free-improv supergroup with Halvorson, Tony Malaby and Andrea Parkins.
During his time as student of legendary avant-garde percussionist extraordinaire William Winant Smith hatched the concept for his Congs for Brums project, where he goes it solo—not with just a drum set, but with piano and cheapo electronics as well. On that project’s third record—Psycho Predictions, on bassist Shahzad Ismaily’s 88 Records—his gnarly lo-fi post-jazz propulsions are composed as one continuous, yet melodic piece with no overdubs, but lots of improv-meets-funk mashed beats and noisy electronics splatter.
Sound of the City sat down with Smith at his kitchen table to talk Halvorson’s astrology readings, playing with his buddy Dunn, Haitian vodou drumming and Psycho Predictions.
Are you from the Bay Area?
I’m from Sacramento originally. I lived in the Bay Area for about ten years.
When did you move here to Brooklyn?
In 2008, so it’s coming up on four years ago now.
Why did you move here? Was it for the music?
Strictly. [laughs] I was already in a few bands from here and it was just much easier [to move here]. There was a period I was touring so much and my wife and I lived in L.A., but I was never there at all. I was coming here more than there.
How do the Cali and New York scenes compare?
It depends on the kind of music. There was a lot of really good jazz players. When I was in that scene, there was a lot of restaurant gigs and stuff like that and the creative music scene was pretty… there’s this guy named Jeff Gauthier out there putting out a lot of stuff, and he’s great. Nels Cline was doing a lot of stuff before that. It seemed to be drying up as far as venues but there’s no lack of players. When I was there, there was a place called Tropicale [in L.A.] for a little while and that closed. I don’t know if there was a lot going on but now there’s this place The Blue Whale, which is great. I think it’s picking up again. Chris Speed and David Binney have been going out there a bunch. There was also the Kneebody guys and people like that. They are from there, as well. It was hard for me to work there and especially touring. I do a lot of touring in Europe and it was just really hard to get there from the West coast, obviously. [Laughing]
Do you find it’s way more active here?
Yeah! For what I want to play, definitely. I felt like people were really down to play, like it wasn’t hard to get sessions together and gigs.
You seemed entrenched in the Cali scene when you lived there, though.
I’d say I was a little more involved with Northern California bands, like this band Xiu Xiu—they’re kinda from all over the place at this point. Xiu Xiu and Secret Chiefs 3 and Mr. Bungle and just offshoots of that [Bungle] and that’s how I met Trevor Dunn. Actually, Trevor’s trio [trio-convulsant] was pretty much started back here—the version Mary [Halvorson] and I are in.
Is Trevor’s trio-convulsant still active?
Actually, yeah. It’s taken a big break while Trevor was doing his rock band Madlove for a while. I’m not sure if he’s writing yet but he’s trying to book a week at The Stone next year. He’s writing another trio record but with a string quartet. That kinda sounds like kind of an involved project.
You play with Trevor a lot and were on some of Ipecac Records’ releases—Sister Phantom Owl Fish came out on that label.
Trevor’s trio record and Madlove, as well. We toured with the Melvins and Fantômas and bands that are on that label.
The Melvins just played here recently.
Oh! Was that with Trevor or the two drummers?
The two drummers. They’re going to tour with Trevor for the new record, Freak Puke.
Yeah, they’re gonna do, like, all 50 states in the fall or something like that.
Sound of the City interviewed Buzz recently.
Buzz is absolutely hilarious. I had two pretty long U.S. tours with him and it was superfun, just opening for the Melvins in Fantômas. He’s a really good guy. That was both with Trevor and the trio-convulsant.
Did you grow up on stuff like the Melvins?
Like come high school, yeah. Earlier than that it was like “whatever.” I was listening to a lot of Hip Hop and, you know, like “drummer music.” [laughs] My older brother was into like Rush so he’d make me learn all those parts. It was good for me.
What about Theory of Ruin, an early band you were in? And you’re wearing the t-shirt.
I can’t believe I’m wearing this shirt. It was a band with this guy Alex Newport, who was in Fudge Tunnel and this band Nailbomb with Max of Sepultura. [Alex] was more on the heavy music side of things. Theory of Ruin was too arty for the metal dudes and then too heavy for the art people. It was great; everyone hated it.
The trio-convulsant got pretty heavy. Trevor had a metal thing going in there.
That’s pretty much from Trevor. Mary’s a total lunatic, but I wouldn’t call her a metalhead. She’s definitely into punk stuff but probably more out than metal.
You have tons of projects going on, from playing with Darius Jones to playing in your own bands. Do you bring different mind-sets into different situations?
Not really, but I could be guilty of bringing too much of the wrong vibe to something. But people seem to be OK with it. [laughs] Like last week, I played a gig with Mary at Cornelia Street, then went to play a Haitian vodou ceremony all night and then got home just in time for my kid to wake up, hung out with him, then went down to D.C. with Darius. It was all in the same 30 hours or so.
How did getting into the Haitian vodou thing happen for you?
That started by accident. I got hired to accompany dance classes in the Bay Area—like Afro-Haitian dance. I was like “I don’t know anything about this” to the teacher and then she was like “No problem. For now, you can play whatever but come hung out with these guys.” And they were super-nice people and they kinda took me under their wing. I then found out about some teachers in New York when I started coming out here, you know, from the Bay Area people.
So you did an all-night Haitian vodou ceremony?
It’s a ceremony. It’s basically like a religious event that drummers go play in service of this ceremony. They happen all over, usually on weekends. This one was in Queens; there’s a lot of them in Queens and East Flatbush, as well. I was studying with a guy named Frisner Augustin, who passed away in February, and it was his company of drummers that was doing it. I’m still hanging around them, trying to learn stuff and play with them.
Are there other drummers in the jazz community you know of that play Haitian vodou ceremonies?
Not that I know from the jazz community, although I know Andrew Cyrille, who’s Haitian-American, has a record and he recorded with my teacher that passed [Frisner]. He had a project that included Frisner in it. There’s gotta be others that I don’t know. There’s a guy named Markus Schwartz who’s a great drummer of the Haitian stuff and he’s combining that with jazz. But I feel like he’s coming more from the Haitian side than the jazz side, even though he knows a lot about jazz music.
Do you incorporate any of the Haitian vodou drumming into your own music?
Not consciously, but it kinda creeps in there, some of the rhythmic ideas, I guess. The Haitian thing for me is more like is just something I’m interested in but I’m not concerned where I end up with it; I’m just trying to learn about it.
You’ve been doing it for a long time, though.
About 10 years. But maybe the last five I feel like I’ve been finally getting somewhere because thanks to good teachers and lot more practice time. I’m just trying to learn as much [as I can] and want to be able to play with those drummers and hang basically. I’m interested in the culture, as well.
What happens at the ceremonies?
It’s basically songs for the spirits and the drummers are accompanying the songs and the ritual actions within it.
How did you get into jazz originally?
I heard some fusion stuff when I was maybe sixteen. A teacher of mine made a jazz mixtape [Laughing] for me. This teacher at my high school was like “Yeah, you know? Like jazz… like Steely Dan!” And I was like “Oh, so that’s jazz?” I remember my dad listened to that stuff and I was like “Oh, that’s funny.” Another teacher made me this cassette with old music and it was basically from the 30’s. I kinda listened to that and there was something interesting about it. Then I went to college when I was 17 and I remember the Branford Marsalis Trio came and Jeff Tain Watts was on drums and I heard that and I was like “Holy shit! What the hell is going on?”
So that sparked you?
I think so. I happened to meet two other good friends that were just getting into it, as well. We were all kinda trying to discover it, started getting Coltrane records and stuff like that. I think Tain was a perfect person to see because he’s kinda got a little bit of a rock sound approach. He can bash and it’s aggressive. I think that really spoke to me at the time. Basically, I had to start digging in and getting into it.
You studied with William Winant?
That was later. After my undergrad I went to the Bay Area and just started playing around. I met Willie and we kinda became friends and then he got me into the school. I wasn’t even planning on going to grad school. It was kinda backwards. I met Willie and he was like “Hey, you should study here” and I was like “Alright.” It was great. It really kicked my ass. He’s just a great musician and extremely musical.
When you are living out west, were you aware of the Flying Luttenbachers and Weasel Walter’s stuff?
I remember [Flying Luttenbachers] came through [L.A.] and it was them and maybe Hella [on the bill]. It was one of the earlier shows. Then Weasel moved to the Bay Area shortly after that. Yeah, he was around and I became friends with him there.
Was Trevor living there at that time?
At that point I think he had moved here in 2000.
Did you and Weasel move to New York around the same time?
Yeah, yeah. I think he moved here less than a year after I did.
Were your musician peers telling you to move to New York, like, “There’s so much going on here!”?
People told me that. I remember Trevor left me a message—before he ever got me in his band—like on my answering machine and he was like “Hey Ches. It’s Trevor. I’m calling you to get you to move to New York. Bye.” I called him back, and he had this idea for this group with Mary and I. I was like “I’ll do the band but I don’t think I can move there yet.”
You play with Mary a ton.
I met her through Trevor. When he left me that message, I had never even heard of her. Trevor introduced us and we became good friends.
How did the Congs for Brums concept hatch?
I’d been doing the occasional drum set solo show for a long time. I think the first one I did was in ’98.
So you started doing just percussion then added more instrumentation into the project?
That’s when the Congs for Brums thing started, really. It was kinda coming out of this idea of “I want to be able to play a solo set and not have it not be completely boring after five minutes.” [laughs] That was my goal, at least. I was studying a lot of works for solo percussion at Mills [College] with Willie. So I started writing for the vibraphone first. I knew I wanted to make a record with vibraphone and drums. I’d kinda write these pieces for vibes and then take some of those ideas and try to put them on the set in a way that would push me to learn something new about the drum set and also learn more about the vibes pieces which pushed me to work on that instrument, as well. But I wanted to write a unified record. That’s what I was trying to do with the first record [Congs for Brums].
When I joined Marc Ribot’s band, he and Shahzad were always pushing me to get into electronics or electronic drums, in addition to the drum set. For my second record [Noise to Men], I incorporated that set up, along with the drums and vibes. I just was trying to explore ideas I was interested in: different sounds on each instrument that complimented other sounds like electronic sounds that complimented vibraphone sounds, like a real sonic dimension I was kind of after.
What’s the dynamic like when you play solo as opposed to being behind the drum kit with a band in front of you?
It [playing solo] used to just freak me out. I’d get really nervous and I hadn’t gotten nervous in a long time playing drums with a band. I think it must have been that, that I was so exposed. When I first started the vibraphone, it was a new instrument for me also and I was writing stuff to challenge myself so I was trying nail it. That was probably why I was uptight. I then got more comfortable with that but then I started noticing how you don’t really have any way to tell if anything was good or not except for the audience and I never wanted to rely on the audience to tell me that. It’s taken the last few years but I finally realized how to do it—how to do it and not wanna quit. I just have to go out there and play and listen; just kinda play like it is a whole band but it’s just me. It’s pointless to judge it while it’s happening—that’s really not the right approach for me. I just need to go with it and pursue every potentially bad idea that comes up in the moment.
When you play live, it is a composed piece or is it improvised?
It’s a piece, but there’s a lot of room for improvising and sometimes there’s whole sections of improvising. Psycho Predictions is one 45-minute piece and when I recorded it and Shahzad produced it—all that means is he kind of recommended things and he’s really good at picking takes—we decided that I was going to do thirteen takes of it, no matter what. After the third take, Shahzad was like “I’m pretty sure that was the one but we have to do the remaining ten takes.” [laughs] So we spent the next day-and-a-half just doing the rest of them and it actually taught me a lot and we did end up using pretty much the third take. But it just taught me a lot because I could really explode it after that. I just try to approach each section like it’s the first time I’ve ever played it.
Do you play your entire record [Psycho Predictions] live?
Yeah, I’ve been playing the piece but there’s a point in the middle that usually is a good point to take a short break. It’s also unusual because normally I might go on to the next piece as soon as I’ve recorded the one piece because the idea of touring on a record is basically non-existent. [laughs] That’s kinda how it is with most people I play with, too—they’re always a bit more excited about the new stuff. I’ve actually been consciously playing this piece over and over and just trying to see what’s there and I don’t feel like I’m done with it yet.
The song titles of Psycho Predictions point to a concept album—”Death Chart,” “Birth Chart,” and ‘Conclusion: That’s Life.” Is there an idea there?
Yeah, there is. [laughs] It kinda came from a conversation that Mary and I were having. We were on tour somewhere, in maybe Germany. We were with her trio, so it was John Hebert, Mary and myself. Mary is really into astrology and she’s done all our charts, so she might know more about me than I do at this point. I can’t remember but she said something about my chart that led her to say that she thought I might have some psychic ability, a blatant psychic ability and I seem to have strength with community in the network of people or something. I was telling Shahzad this later, and he was like, “That’s great. You should have this storefront with ‘Ches Smith’s Psycho Predictions!'” So he named it right there. That was when we were working on the record and then I just started thinking that I guess that this is my tip of the hat to “spirituality” [laughs] if you will. It’s as close as I’ll get to that. I was just thinking about that and I was thinking about Mary and that’s like that “Birth Chart,” Death Chart” thing—she’s always doing people’s charts. It’s just something that she’s into and actually she’s told me a lot of stuff that’s become true for me so I kinda listen to her.
In a good way?
Yeah, she believes in using that stuff positively. Anyway, I guess I’m kinda rethinking my strict, uh, materialism. [laughs]
Is Psycho Predictions jazz?
It’s a piece for an improviser—I could say that. There’s stuff that sounds like rock in it and all the jazz I’ve played and studied, it helps—on the drum set. [laughs]
Does your group These Arches falls more into the jazz niche?
It started out that way but I just listened to the new mixes—I have a second record coming out that’s done, I just need to master it—and that doesn’t sound like jazz. [laughs] Tony Malaby is in it and Mary but there’s Tim Berne and I don’t know if he considers his music jazz. Jazz has informed so much of what I’ve done.
So the new These Arches will be a departure from the previous record, 2010’s Finally Out Of My Hands?
The writing is more involved. As far as the kinds of tunes they’re not too different….there’s melodies. [laughs] I can say that. But a lot of the improvising is collective so it gets really intense. I’m trying to decide when it will come out—November or February, one of the two and it’s going to be on Clean Feed.
Did you join Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog through knowing Shahzad?
Yeah. Shahzad was out and we were recording a bunch of Secret Chiefs stuff, like three weeks worth of sessions. I don’t even know what happened to all that stuff. [laughs] Trey [Spruance] keeps releasing bits of it. We were in my kitchen and Shahzad was like “Do you know the guitar player Marc Ribot?” I was like “Sure.” He’s like [to me] “Well, he’s looking for a drummer and I think you might be the right person.” I was like “Yeah, right!” [Laughing] and he was like “Would you want to come out and audition?” Shahzad set up this audition. It was the day before and neither of us were sure it was going to happen. I’d flown out here [to New York] and I was pretty broke back then [in 2005]. Luckily, Trevor set up a gig just to help out. Then at the last second, Shahzad called me back and was like “Meet at this place at noon tomorrow.”
Were you really into Ribot?
I really liked his playing. I didn’t know every single thing about him like I do now. [Laughing]
Is Ceramic Dog working on new material? Ribot seems to be super-busy all the time.
We kind of all are. Marc’s had a really busy year so far, but the new record is being mixed right now, finally. It’s taken a while. We were trying to hone in on what material would make sense. Marc brings in a lot of stuff and live every gig sounds different. There’s always new stuff happening. We’re trying to see what record it turns out to be. I think it’s going to be more raw sounding, a little bit like what we are now—like how we sound live, that is.
Ches Smith’s Congs For Brums plays Littlefield tonight.