January 16th, 2009 | Interviews

michael hsiung

Stream: Weasel Walter (excerpt from upcoming CD)


(from an upcoming CD to be detailed in future)

Weasel Walter is one of the most fearsome phenomena ever to emerge from Chicago, with or without his Flying Luttenbachers and with or without Capone and Chicago Pile-1 hiding in the history behind him. He now lives in Oakland where he is part of XBXRX and numerous new projects. This interview by Dan Collins.

You replaced a buddy of mine—Nondor Nevai—in a band called Hatewave years back!
You’re starting off obscure right off the bat, aren’t ya? Nondor Nevai is somebody who I’ve known since the early nineties, and obviously he’s a very unique and idiosyncratic character. One of the threads that was important to me in the early nineties was extreme death metal. I was sort of a punk snob until about 1993. And then the experimental guitar player Kevin Drumm introduced me to the second Deicide album, and it blew my mind because it went so far beyond what I thought heavy metal was—into this realm of alien bug music. Nondor and I were sort of a part of a small cluster of people in Chicago at the time who were equally interested in weird experimental music and extreme death metal. There weren’t a lot of us back then, so we sort of had to stick together. So when it came time for Nondor to leave Hatewave, the lead guy said ‘Do you want to do it?’
On the other side of the spectrum, you’ve played people who are more poppy—like Bobby Conn. What year was that?
That was around ’94 or ‘95. The early Bobby Conn stuff was really deranged in a way that’s been made glossy and slicker at this point. When I met him in 1993, he was playing with his old group Conducent, who had this strange Manson-family vibe—hearkening back to the ugly aspects of the seventies as opposed to the kitschy aspects, which is kind of commonplace. But these guys were living it on a different level. I saw their show, and it blew me away, and I said, ‘Hey, man, you’ve got to open a show for the Flying Luttenbachers.’ I booked him to do the solo thing, and it was great—so twisted and weird—that I said, ‘Hey, you need a band, and I need to be in your band,’ and he said, ‘Okay.’ I spent several years in and out of his band playing pretty much every instrument. Early on there was really bizarre concepts that I could get into—I’m not averse to pop music, but there’s gotta be that twist there because I’m always looking for that twist in anything, no matter what idiom it is.
Did you ever get casted by Cynthia Plaster Caster, like Bobby Conn did?
No. She was obviously around… I had sort of politically drawn lines in Chicago early on, and she was kind of in this other camp that didn’t really overlap with me. I was in my early twenties and I was trying to define myself, and I generally defined myself in terms of trying to destroy everything I wasn’t. So I burned a lot of bridges. People often ask me ‘Do you know Steve Albini?’ or all this Touch and Go stuff, and to me they were really the enemy at the time. I definitely wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around. I knew what I wanted to do and I tried to do it. I meet a lot of musicians in their twenties, and they’re doing the same thing. Negation is a useful way to define yourself.
‘The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.’
Well, one of the early Luttenbachers albums was called Constructive Destruction. For me, that was very pertinent at the time. I’ve always seen music and my function in music as trying to do things that aren’t incredibly redundant, or trying to take certain forms to the next level. Part of my motivation has been to fight mediocrity in music. When I was younger, I actively tried to destroy other music. And now I just don’t care. I’m more interested in putting my money where my mouth is creatively. It’s not such a nihilistic act at this point.
To a certain extent, do you think it’s hypocritical to talk about not being redundant if at the same time you’re recording free jazz, an art form that’s been around since the sixties?
No, because I’m trying to push it further. And trying is the key word—ha ha! I’m hard-pressed to find contemporary free jazz that I can relate to. I want to hear really violent fucked-up free jazz records, and I don’t hear anybody else makin’ ‘em, so I make ‘em myself. If somebody came along and blew me away with their record, I’d probably either be playing with them, or go do something else. In the case of a lot of the things I’ve done in the last three years, those are some of the most extreme free jazz records out there, period. I defy anybody to show me anything that rises to that.
Is that partially what contributed to the breakup of the Luttenbachers?
I think my new concentration in improvisation sort of rose along with my frustration with the amount of work versus the lack of recognition the Luttenbackers were getting. I was getting sick of not being compensated and I decided not to be a martyr about it, and I said ‘Fuck it.’ I think the music the Luttenbachers were doing at the end is excellent. At some point it will be the right time for that music.
Do you think that being in XBXRX was one of those serendipitous things—you were able to jump in because you were in the right place at the right time?
Let’s say I have been in certain places at the right time in terms of meeting people who are important to me, musically or otherwise. I saw XBXRX on their first tour in 1999, when they played in Chicago. I walked in, and there’s all these kids on stage going apeshit, and at the end they all destroyed their instruments and walked off. It was really great. When I came out [to Oakland] in 2003, Vice and Steve were out here and they weren’t doing XBXRX, and they were like, ‘Uh, do you want to be in a band?’ I was like, ‘Okay, let’s do XBXRX. You did all this work. You have this name, you have this concept—let’s just do it.’ Since then, XBXRX has gone in so many different directions, and we’ve pretty much lost everybody at this point, sadly. The fan base expect it to be this thing it was ten years ago when they were fourteen and fifteen years old. XBXRX is at this strange crossroads—being adults and stuff.
They did a split single with hometown faves Mika Miko not too long ago! Are there some bands from L.A. that are young and coming up that you like and would want to do projects with?
The last few years in L.A., there’s obviously a strong energy focused on certain venues and certain bands. That’s nothing but a good thing. Scenes like that wax and wane, and while it’s happening, it’s the best thing in the world. So I feel like my band—especially XBXRX—has had some relation to the scene, and the reactions have been really good. It’s always nice to be in that pocket of energy.
In a live capacity, which format are you coming down in next?
A group called the Scarcity of Tanks. How can I describe this? It’s led by this guy, Matt Wascovich. He is a writer of poetry. His roots are in punk—like SST and Saccharine Trust—and he’s always putting together these really weird bands with people that he likes from the music scene. And he’s so charismatic that somehow he always seems to get exactly who he wants to play with him. His creation is sheer force of will. Poetry is like the roughest art form as far as anyone caring, and his whole thing is that he wants it to be raw and punk rock, so he works with all these punk scene people, but doing this improvised rock, free jazz take on things. Mike Watt will be in the band… I don’t know what it’s going to be until it happens.
Are you a Mike Watt fan? I don’t understand his band Dos at all. I only know a certain amount about jazz—can you explain it to me, because I don’t get it?
Ha ha! Well, Dos is obviously a very personal thing between him and Kira Rossler… I’m not sure there’s anything to understand because I think it’s like a dialogue between the two of them. I think they know what it is. I don’t think they do it to appeal to people—it’s this weird thing that’s out there in a vacuum. You could say that about most of my work. I make what I think is the correct musical statement to make, and at this point, I don’t expect any recognition. I don’t expect anyone to like it. I don’t even expect anyone to listen to it.
I’d say your music is definitely experimental and all-over-the-map, but I think there’s an energy there that is accessible—definitely visceral—that people can latch onto if they’re willing to listen.
As you’ve said, I touch a lot of bases. I’m as comfortable doing rigorous, composed music as doing totally improvised music with people I’ve just met five minutes before. But to me, how the music is made is not as important as what it turns out to be. I don’t make these dichotomies between composition and improvisation. With my own free jazz—I want this shit to have the same momentum as the best grindcore band has. I don’t want it to be this dry intellectual thing. I want it to be a fist in your face.
Is there someone in ‘modern’ classical music who informs your music—Ligeti, or Berio or Cage? Maybe they meet your definition of being more cerebral than truly enjoyable.
I don’t think that intellect is at odds with being visceral. I think you can have it all. A lot of the things we’re calling ‘new music’ is pretty old music. Mostly from the 20th century. Of the things I draw influence from—I mean, Berez, Xenakis, Bartok, Stravinsky, Messian. Schoenberg was writing kick-ass music in the first decade of the 1900s and it still sounds modern today. What they do isn’t really a style. They had a concept of sound and tried to execute it. And that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not so concerned with categorization. I’m trying to get this end effect. And sometimes you have to work in a bag just to get this thing going. I’m not trying to make a certain kind of music, I’m trying to make the ultimate music, something that resonates with me. If other people like it, that’s great—I’m glad. If they don’t like it, they can fuck off. Ultimately, I’m trying to do the right thing for me, in the hope that it does resonate with people.
How do you have so much time to do all this? Does your wife hate you?
I get asked a lot about my being prolific. What I have to calmly explain to people is that I’ve been working on this every day for more than twenty years. That’s where my output comes from. This is my life’s work. To me, music isn’t something I do for fun and enjoyment anymore, although sometimes it’s fun and sometimes I enjoy it. Music making is a structure I’ve found I can apply to every aspect of my life and it has meaning. I think life has no meaning, other than what you give it.
Existence precedes essence?
Mmm… I don’t think I had as much stuff figured out when I was younger. I’ve come a long way, and I think I have a long way to go. But my body of work is just a result of desperately trying to express myself. It’s always been kind of a struggle, but it’s a meaningful struggle.
Did you see George Bush get shoes thrown at him?
He deserves a lot more than that.
Dana Perino got a black eye.
Good! Those guys are war criminals, and they just raped our country, and they deserve whatever they get. I hope there’s some payback for what they did to us. But in a way we let it happen to us.
Do you think considering the dark, dark times we’ve been in for the past eight years…
It could get darker, dude. Could get darker, and it probably will!
It could! But do you think musicians, particularly ones like yourself who are going for something that’s sometimes dark and sometimes grim and sometimes visual and real—do you think we kind of blew it? That we didn’t take advantage of this time to speak our piece?
All I’ve been doing is saying my piece. My piece is not a literal black-and-white agenda. I believe the world is a lot more complicated than sloganeering—than saying ‘Reagan Sucks!’ In the long term, I keep seeing the same problems happening over and over, and they’re a lot bigger than who’s running the White House. Look, my agenda with music has been that the human race is its own worst enemy, and it’s going to be the cause of its own downfall. That’s an observation. I can’t solve it. I don’t have any answers. But, I derive some smug satisfaction from finding out that my observations are true.