Harold Budd may be known to the world as an ambient "soft-pedal" piano playing collaborator of Brian Eno and the Cocteau Twins, but in plumbing the depths of his multi-faceted four-decade career, I discovered first hand perspective on everything from East L.A. in the 1940s to the pretentiousness of the minimalist avant garde movement of the 1960s to the celebration of artistry in 1980s Europe. Harold is playing his first show in his native Southern California in twelve years tonight with Bradford Ellis, Veda Hille and visual artist Jane Maru at Whittier College. This interview by Christina Gubala." /> L.A. Record


August 21st, 2016 | Interviews

Harold Budd: Oh, yes! I did, yeah. I certainly did that, and lucky me! One of the nicest guys I’ve ever known in my life. Sweet, unpretentious man, and I had a great time with him. He underwent a great deal of scorn. People just thought he was fucking crazy. A noisemaker. And I thought just the opposite. I thought he was expressing something that was real, genuine, and not phony like the kind of jazz that you guys are tooling around with. It was real. Real, real, real. And I just thought, man … well, the Army band was a gas anyway. I loved it. Such an easy life. But the quality of musicianship was extremely high, and dull beyond talking. It was so sleepwalk … it was awful. Then someone like Albert Ayler comes along, and Jesus Christ! It’ll never be the same. It just knocked me on my ass. I was so happy.
So jazz drumming was your first inspiration…
Harold Budd: Definitely. Yeah. And not just jazz, but Black culture that went along with the music. One without the other is unthinkable. And I admit that now that I look back—now that I’m a hundred years old I can look way back—and I admit rebellion is part of my … rebellion against my own family, against my own culture … boring middle class…
In ways very restrictive and oppressive.
Harold Budd: All of that—all of that.
I relate to this.
Harold Budd: In every way, in every way. It’s frowned upon. Intellectual pursuits are not tolerated. The middle class white America was just revolting. Disgusting. And Black culture was completely the opposite, and the music that came out of it was so liberating—so astonishing and freeing. I grabbed it. All my friends in high school, for example, we all gravitated to one another, like, ‘Chet Baker’s playing tonight. Let’s go there.’ We would somehow go there, and all that stuff. That was our life. It was a great life. Starved to death, but it was a great life. [laughs]
And then you started working for Douglas Aircraft, as I understand it, and eventually went on to go to LACC to get your education in music.
Harold Budd: It was a meathead existence. It was awful. And it’s my fault for just buying into it. Or, I never bought into it, but it was my fault for sticking it out. And I never got a high school diploma because I was kicked out for insubordination, and that’s something I’m still very proud of. I hated my existence. Anyway, I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’m gonna be a dumbbell for the rest of my life if I don’t do something.’ And doing something was getting an education. I quit my job, I moved to San Francisco, and … you know, was a bastard. Financially was a bastard.
I made that mistake early, too. [laughs]
Harold Budd: It didn’t work out, so I hauled my ass back to L.A. and somehow I just … I don’t know how I did it, but I finished two years at LACC, which changed my life. When I was a kid about that age, my friends and I knew one thing: there were only two geniuses in the world, and they were Jackson Pollock and Orson Welles. Period. That’s it. We all knew that, and we didn’t respect anyone else who didn’t know that. [laughs] We were such snobs. It was really disgusting, but it was wonderful.
But you gotta be passionate about something! I have noticed a tendency for you to gravitate towards visual artists in your collaborations. The early Rothko piece is a perfect example.
Harold Budd: They were so many miles ahead of the staid musical life, you know? ‘Oh, somebody plays a cello.’ Who cares?! Honestly. ‘A wonderful piano player.’ Who cares?! Come on. That’s boring the shit out of me. But somebody like Rothko—as one example, before he was super famous and all that—God, he just went directly to the medium itself. My medium is staining a canvas with color, and doing it, and really doing it, and this is what I do. Boy, did I love that. It was so direct. No thinking about it, no pining away. Direct. Went right to the art. It has nothing to do with art history or anything, he just went directly to ‘it’. That always attracted the hell out of me, and it still does. Because I’m convinced that is what art is. It isn’t all the nonsense that goes along with its explanations. That’s my feeling, anyway.
I agree with you. I’ve noticed that in the sixties and early seventies, the visual aspects started to seep into your performances. You had directions about the soft colored light, about blue light, hanging gongs, things of that nature … and now you’ve done collaborations with artist Jane Maru, a filmmaker. Do you dabble in visual arts or filmmaking at all? Or do you look for collaborators and then bring what you have to the table?
Harold Budd: When I say ‘dabble’, I’m not kidding. I have published some etchings, and they’re little more than fancy doodles, but it’s what I do … the only thing I can do is doodling. It’s entertaining to me, and that’s it. But no—I’m not a visual artist at all. But I’m good at setting moods in lighting.
Very tall flowers occasionally making appearances—and integrating the sense of smell, as well, with flowers. I found that really fascinating. You strive for a complete sensory experience.
Harold Budd: Live performance is not my strong point. I’m not a player by any stretch of the imagination. I’m not a proper pianist and all of that kind of stuff, but what I do is the only thing I can do, and I can do it better than anyone else because it’s me. [laughs] That’s all there is to it. I don’t take it beyond that, and sometimes when I get a chance to be in charge of the lighting, for example … oh man, I love it. To me, it’s more important than what the content of the music is going to be.
You think it influences the experience for the audience more?
Harold Budd: I certainly do. Completely. It certainly does to me, anyway.
I can appreciate that. I visited a James Turrell installation at LACMA a couple of years ago, and I was struck by the mood that I instantly felt upon viewing certain colors. Are you a James Turrell fan?
Harold Budd: Oh, sure. I can’t imagine not being a fan.
I thought of him a lot as I was reading about the types of things you’ve established, and also your desert artistry.
Harold Budd: Well, I wasn’t thinking of him at all, to be honest with you—but I had the idea, yes.
Chronologically walking through your career has been fascinating, and I brought up Jane before, and you brought her up as well. She’s also a Joshua Tree artist, and as I understand it, the pieces that you did were all improvised. Can you talk to me a little bit about that process and how it came together?
Harold Budd: You know, I was reading … I don’t know if it’s connected or not, but coincidentally, I was reading a brief kind of … thoughts of the Belgian Painter Luc Tuymans, who I admire very much, and he mentioned that he starts each painting with a feeling of … like it’s going to flop. Like it’s going to be awful. And he’s just scared, you know? Frightened to death that it’s going to stink. But still I just go ahead and do it anyway—my task is to finish a complete painting in one day and not go back and screw around and make it ‘better’. You know? It’s good, and that’s it. And I understand that. I have done that so much myself. I would go into the studio and my task was to finish. If I started a piece, come hell or high water it was finished in the can when I left it. I didn’t go back, and I did nothing. It was just that. I’ve always done that, but this time I did it as a kind of tool—I guess, like, ‘This is a rule now.’
To me it sounds like free journaling, but with much higher stakes.
Harold Budd: Oh yeah. And as it turned out, I got better and better at it so I could do at least two—sometimes—three complete pieces a day. That was really fun. And you know … there was no angst. There was no suffering—like art suffering. Nothing.
No agonizing.
Harold Budd: Exactly. So the last recording I did, I think … I can’t imagine doing anymore in any different way. It was so much fun, frankly. [laughs]
Such a thrill!
Harold Budd: Fun and art—so many people do not like those two words put together in one sentence.
Oh, well—you’re insubordinate by nature.
Harold Budd: I think it’s indispensable, and it’s so great. So that’s it. And whatever changes with it, it’s hers. I gave it to her carte blanche to take: ‘It’s all yours.’ And some she did, and some she just couldn’t do or wouldn’t do. It’s all hers. She’s under no compulsion to do anything. I just gave it to her. ‘It’s yours. Have a good time. I hope!’
That’s so pure!
Harold Budd: ‘And meanwhile, let’s go have lunch.’ [laughs]
And now you’re collaborating again! And you’re going to be collaborating tonight at the Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts at Whittier College, correct?
Harold Budd: Yes, yes it is—and this time it’s with Veda Hille, the second female voice that I talked very briefly about, from Canada. She’s just brilliant. She’s so good, and she can do anything she wants—carte blanche with her. ‘Veda, you have fifty-nine poems in front of you. Take what you want, repeat if you want, read them out of sequence … it’s yours, it’s yours. You define what the structure is going to be, and my colleague Brad and I will do our best to follow you, to support you. Go, take it. And we’re your slaves.’ [laughs]
That’s your collaborator Bradford Ellis, correct?
Harold Budd: Yes. Good guy. And a brilliant musician. When it comes to keyboard playing, piano playing—he’s the real thing. I’m not. I’m a fake. I can’t do that stuff. But he can. He’s in charge of the electronics, because if I was, there would be no program. [laughs] It’s very simple.
This is going to be your first performance in the greater Los Angeles area in like twelve years. Am I right about that?
Harold Budd: Is that right? Wow. It’s part of the … the very nice guy who’s head of the theater department, Shane [Cadman]. He’s a terribly nice man, and very knowledgeable about the sort of music that I do. He invited me several years ago to come and just meet his students, and I did, and I had a marvelous time, and I promised him that I would come and do it again, and this time it would be a performance. Well, one thing led to another and it never happened, partly because I’ve had a number of unfortunate accidents—I’ve had a car wrecked, I’ve had broken bones…
Oh my gosh—I’m so sorry to hear of it!
Harold Budd: Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s getting better. Everything will be okay. But I’ve had to cancel Whittier at least two times, and I cannot do that again. So I’m looking forward to the whole experience. I don’t know who’s going to show up—I don’t really worry about those things. I just know that Brad and Veda are going to be at the top of their skill level, and I’m going to follow, and I’m lucky as hell. [laughs]


Page: 1 2