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Colin Stetson

Monheim Papers “If I'm hearing my breath to such a degree how do I make you feel that and have my breath in your ears”? Thomas Venker
Photo: Colin Stetson. Richmond Lam for Monheim Triennale

During the The Prequel, our pre-festival to the 2022 edition of the Monheim Triennale we hosted a few artists talks with the ones like Hibo Elmi, Phillip Sollmann, Shahzad Ismaily, Ava Mendoza, Monheim Triennale Director Reiner Michalke –and also Colin Stetson.

Thomas Venker (Monheim Papers): Colin, what was the last gig you played before coming to Monheim?

Shahzad Ismaily and I have a band together, the Ex Eye. I think the last gig we played was in Brooklyn. Right?

Shahzad is confirming from the back of the room.

Colin Stetson: February 2020, at Saint Vitus, a small venue in Brooklyn. It was really fun. We finished that, and I had that rare –well, now in retrospective it was perfectly timed – vacation moment; I went down to Mexico for above over a week and then head up to LA and had a week of meetings in LA – and that was the week where everyone was going: "Is this a Thing?“ Everyone was still out everywhere and in dinning and work, but they started wiping everything down. And it was the start of, I remember, the spray bottles came up. And everything was getting wiped – it was the wiping week. I got back to Montreal two days before everything went down.

Thomas Venker: So you haven´t played for 15 months?

Colin Stetson: Not in front of an audience. No.

Thomas Venker: I wonder what this means for someone for whom the stage is of such a high importance? You are not just on stage presenting your music to the audience, the way you play your saxophone is very body intensive. Not doing this so long must be a problem, training wise.

Colin Stetson: I haven't been on a stage for 15 months, but I´ve been like almost to the point of burnout busy over the course of the past 15 months. It has been nonstop work.I stored two and a half seasons of television and two feature films – and I made two records of my own and worked on a bit on a third.
The whole thing is just down to recording and to practicing: I did a small live not live thing, a prerecorded thing for the internet in November 2020 for the adult swim festival.

The thing about this physically I'm in, I can't stop it at all. So its maintenance is every day, from waking up – I start the day with breathing exercise to make sure that my lunges are still dilating, and then I warm up on the instruments, do some basic exercises to make sure I'm there. It's like a couple of hours every day, just making sure that I’m not reseting in terms of the endurance and agility and all that stuff. Cause as soon as the reseting starts, building it back up takes a little bit.

Thomas Venker: Thats where my question was heading to: you can´t stop your machine…

Colin Stetson: I've done that in the past, like years ago, and it's really like borderline dangerous, and also it's so frustrating and beyond restriction. For me it fells like the contrast of being able to tap into the whole world of feelings and then reset and out of the ability to do that. Honestly, I find it terrifying, it really fucks me up.

Thomas Venker: I can only imagine how much discipline one needs to keep this going. Especially under the quite depressing circumstances of a pandemic.

Colin Stetson: When you experience depression, it's much, much easier to enact a ritual or a routine of maintenance – as you know not to do so is far, far worse fate.
I miss what we've been experiencing the last couple of days here in Monheim. It's just what's the meaning behind this: being with old friends and making new friends. When we hang out together, we all have a shared experience that is very very unique to each other, it’s the lightning rode where we all find coming out and then learn from each other. That I miss the most, being with other musicians and with my dearest friends … I cried a few times last night. (laughs out)
I remember this one moment, it must have been 2010: I was opening up a night for the Arcade Fire, we were playing the West-Coast of the United States and down into Mexico on that tour and we played a soccer stadium in Mexico-City that night. So I was playing solo saxophone in a soccer stadium for eigtheen thousand people – and the fucking volume of it was, this sheer sound it wasintoxicating, it felt like pure power. I adore that feeling. You don't get this feeling when you're in your room by yourself just playing every day; but also I do like getting things plugged back in and turn up the mains and feel that again.

Photo: Colin Stetson. Richmond Lam für Monheim Triennale

Thomas Venker: Colin, are you an observer while you play? Do you try to get eye contact with your audience?

Colin Stetson: No!

Thomas Venker: I see. I asked this coming from your stadium story as I wonder how this must have felt for you.

Colin Stetson: On stage in the stadium, this was a weird thing – and I experienced that with different groups when we played in front of really big audiences, nothing ever quite like that specific night with Arcade Fire where it was so big, you're definitely not seeing a face –, it's just because it's dark, but you are also so far away from everybody. So you just notice a certain ambient din, that many people murmuring, breathing, talking, just making sounds. I've never experienced this kind of space before or after again.
But to come back to your original question: no, I don't look at the audience, I don't really look at anything, my eyes are closed. First a for most I think because I've always found it really disconcerting when you watch someone playing a horn and their eyes are open. For me, you know I meditate a lot, and the goal for the act of playing, especially with the solo sets – I'm not successful with this all the time, and it is to various degrees depending on how present I can be at any given moment – is to be as in a mindfulness meditation where your goal is simply to be there, just as straight experience of your senses.
My goal in solo sets is to be just in the sound. When it really works I'm not thinking. When I play my solo sets I play my songs a thousand times, and this been going on for decades –  so I don't think about, what it is I'm doing next or what my fingers are about to do.
When every thing goes right I shouldn't feel like the pain part of the experience, I shouldn't feel what my limbs are doing. Just beinga swirling sort of point in space.

Thomas Venker: How doess the situation feel when you are on stage with other musicians? Like yesterday, when there is not really a defined set to play as you all rather improvise together. Are you reacting to the textures and sounds of the others in those moments or are you rather bringing in your signature style?

Colin Stetson: It really depends on what the situation is. In a situation like last night I try to just join in – sometimes this is difficult if you can't hear if you're playing loud enough. I try to bring my attention to what it is the most insane sound and then just letting myself go.
But then if I'm playing with a singer-songwriter or a band, something like that is a very different way of supporting, my roles are very different...
Obviously there are times when it all goes swimming lane and there are times when there are different obstacles.

Thomas Venker: Are you always happy with the musical parts you contribute to other projects, or are some like an economic compromisse?

Colin Stetson: Right now, I don't do anything with anybody anymore. I don't do any touring for other people's thing. I still record with other people, but only in band constellations like the mentioned Ex Eye with Shahzad. There is barely enough time to get all the projects done I want to do.

Photo: Colin Stetson. Richmond Lam for Monheim Triennale

Audience question: I wonder what your motifs were to say yes to play in such a small town like Monheim?

Colin Stetson: Reiner Michalke told me about the city and the festival idea. From his words I knew it gonna to be exactly like this. When he proposed the set up of people, it was like half of them are my best-friends – so there’s notmuch hesitation there.
Reiner was the first person in Europe to to book me. That was in maybe 2009. Reiner saw me back then playing some shows with Sam and Shahzad and after that he asked me to come play for the Moers festival. I’ve known him for a long time, and he was really my first champion in Europa and the reason why I have a really good and long-standing touring career in Europe and all these countries.
And now, having not played for so long, the only thing that matter to me was: are we going to be able to play together? Are we gonna have an audience? Am I gonna be vaccinated in advance, so that I don’t have to beworried in that sense?
Also: travel guidance – I haven't gone anywhere except for my place since February 2020. So, yeah, it was a no-brainer.

Audience: Is your baritone saxophone microphoned on stage?

Colin Stetson: Yeah, I play with microphones on the instrument, just clips, I don't tend to play into stands, everything is on the instruments itself. Last night there were in addition some microphones that I wear to pick up my vocals and there are several microphones on the body of the instrument itself to pick up the percussion of it. The question always is: how it is that I present the sound of the instrument when I'm playing solo – which is all of those things engaged; for recording like my last solo recording I used 18 different microphones on the instrument, it looks like this wire that's hanging of it.

Audience question: But these are all natural sounds?

Colin Stetson: No, that was the point earlier in my career. Back then I was still playing acoustic sets – not all the time, but sometimes. When I originally started doing this all my sets were acoustic and as I was gradually starting to play clubs, you get mics and stuff.  My biggest problem with that – especially for recording – was that as you couldn't mic in front of a horn you get a very specific snapshot of what it is that the horn sounds like, and then you just amplified only that.
It certainly wasn't anyway near my perception and my experience of what the instrument was doing and what I was trying to say with it. So gradually I started to think:
„Ok, if I'm hearing this kind of percussion, if I have this percussion in my skull through my teeth, how do I get that in your skull and teeth“?
„If I'm hearing my breath to such a degree how do I make you feel that and have my breath in your ears“
Live it is a strip down from what I´m doing in the recording studio, there it is as much as I can do.

Audience question: How many tracks do you use in the studio for recordings? Do you record each microphone separately and run a final mix of the whole scene afterwards?

Colin Stetson: Yeah, each mic has its own track – and that's it, I don't do any overdubbing or at least not on the solo stuff, it’s just that one take. So you can get all the different sounds isolated – and then there are different ways to manipulate them, to use compression and gaining and other effects.
With the recording, I'm not after recreating a certain acousticexperience of what it is that sounds like in a room, what I'm after is creating a kind of surrealistic expression of what is happening.
It stared out modestly15 years ago, and now it's gotten to the point where I'm writing something acoustical, but I actually plan and think of what different parts of the instrument are going to sound like once I capture them in certain ways; sometimes I write to a process that I haven't yet developed yet, so I wonder if by doing something with the mic in this way, I can get X to happen. Let’s try that – and then sometimes it takes quite a bit cause you have to try to find not only the right spot with the right microphone but the right preamp and the exact right EQ. But then, when you get this perfect, then it's something that I log, and I use it forever.

Shahzad Ismaily: I appreciate so much the feeling that Collin is a scientist as well as a musician. When you hear him speak about the processing in the studio, then you got the feeling that science is happening here like in an office: testing and experimenting and sampling, like a theory thinks one way and changes another way.
I wonder if you have ever fictionalization or doing visual art museum installation pieces where I would walk into a room and be surrounded by speakers and hearing the percussive clicks in a stereo field. It's a big sort of movement in music right now, especially in current VR set ups, and so I am curious to hear what you think about this?

Colin Stetson: The whole next record is gonna be recorded in a really large space, in multiple spaces, and the way we are dealing with volume and the set up of the instruments …
In Berlin there is a 4D sound situation at Funkhaus, that is another thing that was supposed to happen in 2020, live performances where we map everything out, so the entire experience is curated and is not one of simply throwing things around on random at the time. We actually write it into each piece of music, there exists a really distinct physical geographic map as how I play.I can't get enough of scripting.

Thomas Venker: Good point. Cause the 4D-performances I attended at Funkhaus were more likely random ones. They still sounded nice, but way below the potential of the room and sound system.
Only Pan Daijing convinced me artistically in the room by creating a spooky atmosphere of a real environment.


Colin Stetson: I think that ultimately what we are doing as musicians and what anybody is doing, any kind of performance, you're trying to affect the perception and the experience of your fellow human beings. I would hope intentionally, it's not just running into a room and just throwing shit up and wonder what people gonna feel about this.
My favorite thing about live performances is that you get to conceive a story – a psychological narrative with emotions – on your personal human level. You translate this story into a vessel that you – with an intention – give to someone else; and then you get to see whatthat vessel preserved itself through the experience of it. I feel, like when we do it right, that the preservation of that intention is fairly (if not always) quite true and that the thing we are – we have the brains which by their nature isolate us from every other human being – gives us the ability to communicate. But our communication is generalist in its nature, and so we are constantly, from birth to death, trying to seek companionship, it's why we seek love, it's why we seek acceptance, and we're trying to in a sense break that loneliness – it's the impossibility of having a brain and a skull and nobody can ever go inside and nor you're can get out of it.
But with all these different methods that we devised over millennial, we can at least try to merge in that sense and show someone elsehow we experience things –  this is my experience, this is how I feel.

Photo: Colin Stetson. Richmond Lam für Monheim Triennale

Thomas Venker: That said: what does this mean for the way you communicate your narrative in performances with the other musicians here in Monheim?

Colin Stetson: Honestly, speaking for myself compositionally: 

the essence of the concept of the Round-Robin was there, but in terms of the actual music that was happening (at least to me), this was a display of all these brilliant personalities and their emotions that had been kept from one another for 15 months. Seeing them all just spark up and come to light was just like vividly seeing into everybody's soul for like these brief little moments; like the lightbulbs turn way, way up; or like when you see filaments just super saturate and all of the sudden when the light comes…
Over the last 15 months there was always a bit of blinders on, so you don't know necessarily that one of the things that you dreadfully missing is these moments – also cause you're busy in the day to day, there’s always something to do.

Audience question: I was impressed of the sounds last night – but I almost didn't hear any space or any silence.

Colin Stetson: Oh yeah, you not gonna hear silence after 15 months.

room fills with laughter.

Colin Stetson: No reflection going on. It's just like: ahhhhhhh. but yeah, it's an observation for sure.
I know for my own part that playing for 14 minutes in the Round-Robin felt like a snip, a blink of an eye – and in normal times I've always …
A long, long time ago, like twenty years or so, I spend a day with Roscoe Mitchell, and one of the things he stressed the most about was how important it is to have an inner clock and to understand the time, because you can't hope to manipulate others perception of time unless you can understand the actual passing of time yourself. And so that has been one of my main goals as a musician for all these years.
That comes and goes depending on like excitement level or personal attachment to the music. There are moments when my ability remains true in that way and I know exactly how much time is left for a performance, like I can manage a set list to the minute and play it out like this. For example if I'm on a festival, I know exactly that I have time for x songs, depending on how I play them from eight to twenty minutes.
But in a nice way last night my tempo sense was way off, Greg Fox and I were playing, and I planned on doing like two-thirds on alto and then the final third on bass saxophone, but when I checked my watch for the first time – we were already done.

Thomas Venker: Colin, I think we have to stop here as we have now a rehearsal scheduled in this room. Thanks so much for the conversation.

Thomas Venker

Artist Page Colin Stetson Signature Project: Colin Stetson "EX EYE" with Bríghde Chaimbeul Signature Project: Colin Stetson "Colin Stetson+"