A former student of William Winant, Fred Frith, Pauline Oliveros, and Alvin Currin at Mills College, Ches Smith has proven to be one of the most versatile drummers working in experimental music today. Navigating seamlessly from jazz to metal to punk to art-rock to electronic music to Haitian voodoo drumming, over the years he has worked with Secret Chiefs 3, Trevor Dunn, Xiu Xiu, John Zorn, Wadada Leo Smith, John Tchicai, Marc Ribot, Fred Frith, Mr. Bungle Tim Berne, Terry Riley, and many others. On March 9th at Roulette, Smith presents his exciting new ensemble Ches Smith & These Arches, featuring Tony Malaby, Mary Halvorson, and Andrea Parkins.
ROULETTE: Tell us as about the work you’ll be doing at Roulette.
CHES SMITH: I’ll be playing with my quartet These Arches.
Guitarist Mary Halvorson and I first worked together in bassist Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant, and
have gone on to work together her trio and quintet. I met saxophonist Tony Malaby at one of his gigs in NYC shortly before I moved here from California. I met accordionist/electronic musician Andrea Parkins through Nels Cline. I first wanted to have a band with these particular people and later worried about how to write for the instrumentation. I think our first gig was in 2007, but we didn’t start playing somewhat regularly till 2009.
I am exploring how to write for a group which seems to have an innate improvisational chemistry. I am finding that, for me, the goal isn’t necessarily to make the transitions between the composed and improvised sections seamless. Its more like, ‘what kinds of train wrecks are acceptable’?
I am not consciously working from stylistic reference points in the writing, although it would be naive for me to say they don’t end up in the music. To this end, I usually give the band just melodies, rhythms, and usually a tempo (or two). I like hearing Mary’s, Tony’s and Andrea’s interpretation, and if it strikes any one of them as fitting into a genre, they are free to think of it that way.
R: Are there working artists today with whose work you identify, or rather, who do you consider to be your peers?
CS: Well, first of all, the people I play with who also happen to be close friends: Mary Halvorson, Marc Ribot, Matt Mitchell, Tim Berne, Shahzad Ismaily, Trey Spruance, Trevor Dunn, Ben Goldberg, Darius Jones, Travis Leplant, David Horvitz, Jamie Stewart. Then there are also those I don’t know as well but whose work I really admire: Tyshawn Sorey, Randy Peterson, Marcus Gilmore, Mat Maneri, Prurient, Darkthrone, Kool Keith.
R: What are some defining characteristics of the musical scene you would fit yourself into? What elements of your scene differentiate it from what has come before, or what is happening now?
CS: Energy, improvisation dealing with forms, free improvisation, open improvisation in reference to a composition, a myriad of compositional techniques.
I wouldn’t say there is much to differentiate it from what happened in the past, or other people making music currently. I think most everyone is trying to play honest music, although coming from different histories, traditions, and reference points, however conscious or unconscious.
R: What was the last music you listened to?
CS: Yesterday–rough mixes from a Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog record we are working on.
R: What is music?
CS: To me, music is an excuse to get together with people I find really interesting. For me, that usually results in compelling sounds.
R: Do you consider yourself more a composer or a performer?
CS: Neither–I consider myself a drummer. Ha ha. Well, I suppose I’ll always be a gigging musician first, although I really love writing music.
At this point I feel that writing music is the best practice for playing my instrument.
R: Is there an event or experience that led you to start in experimental media?
CS: In my early teens, meeting older musicians in the Sacramento, CA area who were interested in combining punk rock with free improvisation and bebop. Then later, seeing a double bill with John Tchicai and Derek Bailey in Oregon when I was 17 years old.
R: Who do you see as instrumental in your development as an artist?
CS: Miya Osaki, Marc Ribot, Trey Spruance, Peter Magadini, William Winant, John Amira, my parents.
R: What is interesting to you about your own work?
CS: Just the process of writing, practicing, and playing shows–I never find it difficult to pay attention when doing those things.
On the other hand, it is exceedingly difficult for me to judge the merits of anything I write or play.
R: Do you do other things aside from music?
CS: Raise my kid, talk with my wife, schedule things, read.
R: Other thoughts?
CS: I hope to figure some things out in the next 20 years.