he who hesitates...


in The Wire, No. 65 Jul 1989, pp36-39

Old Bill's a pace-setter on guitar,
but a Mr Plod with the verbals.
Can he finish his sentence before
Jonathon Coe's tape runs out?

B I L L  F R I S E L L may be a great guitarist, but he hasn't got the hang of this self-publicity business at all. I mean, the man just has no idea how to make a impact. He's too polite, for one thing. Too accommodating. Thinks too hard before answering questions. Hasn't anyone ever told him that journalists aren't taken in by this sort of behaviour?
On the occasion of this interview, for instance, he certainly did himself no favours. We breezed into the lounge bar of his hotel, the three of us - interviewer, photographer and designer - sat down, put our feet up, and peremptorily announced that we wanted to take some pictures in his room. (His bathroom to be precise.) Inwardly I cowered as I imagined the sort of response that, say Miles Davis or Keith Jarrett would make to this suggestion. Would he go the whole hog and kick us out onto the street there and then, or would be let of lightly with nothing worse than a stream of colourful abuse?
"Sure", said Frisell amiably, "That's no problem."
He led us up onto the fourth floor and along a sequence of labyrinthine corridors so long and tortuous that it would have made Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast look like a Wendy house. Safely installed in his room, my companions set about making some basic preparations for the picture session - taking all the furniture, installing floodlights, re-tilling the bathroom, that sort of thing - while Bill looked on with a certain amount of bemusement. But still no disapproval. And all the time I was wondering: what's with all this Mr Nice guy stuff? Where does he think it's going to get him?
It's particularly disconcerting to find that the man responsible for some of the scariest and most unearthly noises ever to be called forth from six stings and a block of wood should turn out to be so mild-mannered in person. To look at him, you'd think that the meanest thing Frisell could think of doing with the guitar would be to strum the chords of "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing".
We were in the right room, weren't we?

N O B O D Y  P L A Y S the guitar like Bill Frisell (yet), and by the same token, I've never met anyone who talks quite like him either. Before we go any further, there are some things you have to know about Frisell as Interviewee:
1 At times his conversation sounds like one of his solos: that is, just as he delights in dismantling the syntax of the orthodox guitar solo, so he has little time for the syntax of ordinary speech. He'll start a phrase, get halfway through, grow bored with it then start of on a different one which often only obliquely connected. If this is one of the techniques which makes him intriguing as a guitarist, it also means he's a headache to transcribe. Then again this was at the end of a six-week tour. Perhaps he was just tired.
2 He speaks at the rate of about a word every five minutes. I realised immediately that I'd made a terrible mistake in turning up at the interview with only one tape in my machine. Interviewers meting Frisell should come prepared with at least a five-pack of C120s. The traditional three dots aren't always enough to do justice to the length of his pauses: so now and again I've stretched it to six.
3 Occasionally there'll be an even longer pause than usual. When this happens, you know that he's searching for some elusive word. You try to guess what it's going to be, but invariably he comes down on something completely different: relying on the hunch (again, in speech as in guitar-playing) that sometimes the only way to surprise people is to state the blindingly obvious.

I T  W A S beginning to look as though our photographer would have to call in a team of expert plumbers before the bathroom was in a fit state for the perfect snapshot, so I decided it was time to get Bill talking. I fired my first killer question - "Why did you leave ECM: - and settled back to adjust myself to the Frisell rate of delivery.
"I just needed a change" he began, picking his way through the words with extreme caution. "Like with the latest record its. . . I never could have done anything like that with ECM. I mean the whole process was so different. I had much more time, and there was a lot of different people involved, and we had three different producers on the record, and . . . The record I did before was not produced by Manfred [Eicher, ECM supremo]. . . But basically what would happen with me was it was more . . . It was always done really fast, in one or two days, you didn't have really much time to . . . I mean, I like doing things that way, I'm not putting that down, and Manfred is . . . his way of dealing with that situation is . . . I mean he's just incredible in the studio for using that process, but I just wanted to try something else."
The new LP, Before We Were Born", was recorded for Elektra. As David Ilic pointed out in his review (Wire 63), it's very much a Frisell sampler: the line-up varies from track to track, and there's only two songs credited to the band which he's just been touring - himself, Hank Roberts (cello), Kermit Driscioll (bass) and Joey Baron (drums). Its hard to take in all at one go. One minute you're listening to country and western, and then it's neo-industrial rock, then its a spaced out blues, then it's free improvisation, then it's a tango. But Frisell maintains that this haphazardness is deliberate. Over the last few years he's played with Paul Bley, John Zorn, Power Tools, Paul Motian, Wayne Horovitz and Jan Garbarek(among others) and influences like that don't just go away.
"First when I started this group it took a long time before we could record . . . That was one frustration . . . thins moved really slowly." (I know the feeling.) "But now this is a chance for me to take all the things I've learned from playing with all these different people, and sort of focus it into one . . ."
Here we go: area perhaps? Entity? Organic structure?
". . . thing."
He admits, though, that the format of this album was partly dictated by the record company.
"The idea for that record, the first germ of an idea, was when I went to talk to Bob Hurwitz [executive producer at WEA]. When I was looking around for a company to go to, I went and talked to him, and . . . I had all these ideas, like for different records . . . like - I want to do a record with Arto Lindsay, and I ant to do a record with John Zorn, and . . . He said up to this point, he didn't feel I'd made a record that really showed what I did . . . He said that you had to listen to about ten different records to sort of . . . get the picture. So he wanted me to try to pull a few desperate things together."
Hold on! Let me just rewind the tape here. Surely he said disperate things?
". . . pull a few desperate things together . . ."
No? Oh well, I suppose it fits, in a way. OK, carry on.
". . . and put them in one place, so that you could get just a more broad view of what it is I do. But it was hard . . . I still don't know . . . I mean it is made up of a lot of different . . . "
Styles? Genres? Ingredients?
". . . things, and it was really hard to try to make it into one record."
At this point Bill was finally summoned into the bathroom to adopt the pose you can now see him adorning the cover of this magazine. He disappeared, as unflappable and co-operative as ever, and returned, still beaming, a few minutes later.

I N   T H E meantime I'd been mulling over one of the nagging contradictions inherent to his music. There's the anarchic, deconstructivist impulse which leads him to hang around with Zorn, Lindsay and pals, but there's also what Brian Morton (Wire 36) identified as feel for the architecture of songs, his "virtuosity of deep structures". Hearing Frisell talk about his band, it becomes more and more obvious that this is a conscious tension, one which he has chosen to live within, although naturally enough he finds it hard to articulate the precise nature of his goals.
"During this tour - because this is most we've been able to play - it's becoming more . . . whole, somehow. That's what I was hoping. It's not like . . . well now there's a bebop tune, and then there's this, and . . . I mean each piece we play has its own character, and everything, but they're becoming a little more organic. We're using elements from other parts of our vocabulary, but . . . it's getting more evenly distributed through what we do."
So is that what he actually wants to happen?
"Well, I like the idea of going from one place to a drastically different place, but with the group . . . I want to be able to do that, I want to be able to shift gears, turn completely around, but at the same time i want it to have some clarity, or . . . There has to be some kind of line going through it. I think that's starting to happen now, a little bit. But it's a long . . . "
Struggle? Time coming? Day's journey into night?
" . . . process"
Perhaps Frisell's compulsive eclecticism, his rooted unwillingness to stick with one particular style, goes right back to his days in Colorado when, as well as listening to a lot of blues and surfing records, he used to scan the area's one jazz station for something that would catch his attention.
"They would play things like Coltrane's `My Favourite Things', or some Kenny Burrell things or Jimmy Smith, so I started to hear bits of things that way."
Only "bits of things", you notice. Even now he finds it hard to name individual players whose current work he finds inspiring.
"I just listen to the radio, or I'll see videos on the television or something . . . You know, and there's a lot that doesn't really interest me, but then there are things that just jump out."
Suddenly he remembers someone. "Lately in the last few weeks I've been listening to a tape of John Hiatt. A friend of mine said check this out, and I've really kinda got into that. These songs you know, kinda country songs, and the words . . . I just love that stuff."

F R I S E L L  C R A V E S stability as much as anyone: the stability of family life, of knowing where his next gig is coming from, of having a chord sequence to follow. At the same time, there's a part of him which enjoys living dangerously. (He talks fondly of working with Paul Bley where "There's no rehearsal at all. Not even a word about what we're going to do. He'll talk about anything but the music.") Its probably in a domestic context that this contradiction is most acute.
"My wife and kid came for the first part of this tour, and were with me for a couple of weeks, which helps . . . But even that's difficult. I mean all the travelling and everything . . . One side of me wants to be home in one place, and to be with them, but then also to be playing here is . . . It's incredible . Especially the last tour when I've been doing my own music."
He seems relieved that he has now built up the kind of following which means that gigs can be booked a year or more in advance. But with music as spontaneous, as adventurous as this isn't even that element of security counterbalanced by the thought that the band just mightn't be sparking off each other by then.
"A little bit, yes, but when I got this band together . . . I mean it took me years and years to finally decide on this group. I was thinking about it for some time. I was thinking and thinking, and trying different things, and . . . I've known these guys for a really long time. Kermit and Hank and Joey . . . it's been 14 years or something that we've played together in some kind of way or another, and we're all . . . they're like my best friends, too, so . . . I really wanted to put something together so that I was sure of, not just to do it for like one record and then let it go. I really have hopes that we can do it for a long long time. Because it seems so rare these days when you hear . . . These days it seems like it's always . . . every year somebody has a . . . it's some guy's name and he's got a different bunch of people playing with him, y'know."
Altogether, Frisell radiates trust - both musical and personal - in his three sidemen. This was what clinched it:
"I needed to have guys that could play in almost any style, or they could go in all kinds of different directions, and then I also needed to have people that are . . . personally, you know . . ." He laughs shyly, and then springs the biggest surprise of all: "We all love each other."
And the crazy thing is - he means it. Not a trace of irony. Not a hint of embarrassment.
I mean, what is the matter with this guy?

Copyright the W I R E magazine, 1989

transcribed by david cooper orton, 2-viii-98

Also available:
a miscellany of frisellia, a continually expanding bibliography of interviews/articles re: Bill