Interviewed by Ed Baxter, November 1991. Previously published in LMC News, December 1991. Many thanks to Ed for sending this article.
Introduction: Perhaps the most prolific and certainly one of the most innovative of American improvising guitarists, Davey Williams was one of the musicians at the centre of the free music scene in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the 1970s. In the last twenty-odd years, Williams has appeared on over thirty records - in groups such as Curlew; in The Knitting Factory line-ups; in a long-standing partnership with LaDonna Smith; as a solo performer; and, as "Cyd Cherise", in Ron 'Pate's Debonairs with the legendary Reverend Fred Lane. He currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama. Recently on a visit to London, where he was rehearsing and performing with Steve Noble, Billy Jenkins and Oren Marshall, Williams spoke to Ed Baxter about the tradition of free improvisation which arose independently in the early 1970s in Alabama.
EB: Perhaps first you'd tell us something of the scene that emerged in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the 1970s: what people thought they were doing, how they came together, how it constitutes a parallel movement to the development of free music in the UK.
DW: In the early 1970s, as part of the hippy community - the hippy, student and ex-student community in Tuscaloosa - there was a non-hippy mainstream group of people; and amongst those people were Craig Nutt and Lanny Hatcher (who recently died at the age of 40 of a cerebral hemorrhage). They had an apartment - Erot - and basically there was a strong interest in Dada and Surrealism, in terms of the aesthetic, plus there was also a lot of interest in experimentality of ideas in general. Erot was a remarkable house. In the front living room, when you first came in they had all these pictures they'd found, God knows where, of 1950s gay pornography - the wall was completely lined with them - as well as paintings and books and stuff. They weren't gay, you know, they just had this idea of... radical decor. People would come in and those who weren't hip to what the scene was about - straight or gay - would think, Good grief, what kind of place is this? People would show up over there and they'd have these house bashes - sessions where all manner of creativity would go on. What you might call making music without rules. At that time - about '72 or '73 - I'd had been gigging five nights a week in soul bands, as a working musician. But I was getting disenfranchised with the whole idea of all these nights on the bandstand playing this music. I was friends with these guys and one night they came over and said, "Why not come over and play with us?". I said, "Hang on, I'll get my guitar," and they said, "No, don't bring your guitar". I thought, What? Go play music without my guitar? But, okay, I went over there and played saxophone instead - which I had no idea how to do. What was really happening was these sessions - they called it Headache Music: what it amounted to was a really cathartic improvisation, informed by American free jazz and so forth - Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, whatever. Plus paintings would be going on, and assemblages and stuff. Out of that had started a group, the Blue Denim Deals Without The Arms (BDDW/OTA), which in fact amounted to an improvising group. Nobody was aware of Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, the FMP people and the like. But a friend, also in the group, Roger Hagerty, worked in a record shop that specialised in hard-to-get records and he got some early Incus records. Incus 1 and 2 and some FMP records. I was attracted to the cover art on "Topography of the Lungs", bought the record, took it home and played it. I thought, This sounds like what we're doing, you know? The general thrust of it sounded really wide open. This was about 1974 or '75. Derek Bailey still lived down in Bromley, Kent, and his phone number was on the record; and I called him up and said, "You don't know me, I'm calling from Alabama. But I think we're making some similar music." He asked, "Do you make tapes?" and I said, "Yeah." So I sent some tapes, got in touch with the European scene. "Musics" magazine was out at that time... and it kind of just got started that way. What happened was that the Blue Denim Deals - which was mostly people who had been playing improvising longer than me - began to realise to our surprise that we were part of a world movement in music. So we started making some records and stuff. And then Tim Reed - the Reverend Fred Lane - was writing these sort of songs, in a way - and that led onto the formation of Ron 'Pate and the Debonairs. Ron 'Pate was Craig Nutt, who was the organiser of those early sessions. ('Pate of course being a reference to 'Pataphysics - everyone was into Jarry). That's how it started, actually. We made a record of a show that Fred Lane had written and organised - kind of like a big, real bad Broadway show or something: Raudelunas 'Pataphysical Revue. That took place in a theatre on the University Campus.
EB: What was the attendance? Was it poor?
DW: It was a huge success. We didn't say "improvised music". We said things like "Come see this, it's not a movie - it's Fred Lane kicking a dog", you know? And quite a lot of people came. Of course, quite a lot of people left immediately. We did two major shows: Raudelunas 'Pataphysical Revue, which was a musical/theatrical event connected with the opening of an exhibition, kind of a dada/ surrealist exhibition, which we all had work in - so a lot of people came because it was an opening. And From the One That Cut You, which we advertised with flyers and so on - like a proper show. There was quite a lot of people at both events. A lot of people didn't know what to think. But it was kind of a success actually. At the same time, it was a mysterious kind of success. A seminal event, as it turned out, though we didn't know it at the time.
EB: How were those involved subsisting?
DW: People were students or they were working. I was still working in soul bands, that's how I made my living. I was in this nine- piece band, "Salt and Pepper". I was "Salt", the rest were all these black guys. I learned a lot, musically. But I was working as a musician, a couple of other guys were working as musicians, some were students... LaDonna Smith was doing her graduate studies at the University in Composition and Theory. Just whatever, you know. There was no thought at that time of making a living out of the avant-garde.
EB: How has it changed in the intervening years?
DW: A lot has changed. Some people don't play at all any more, other than the occasional session. Others like LaDonna and me more or less make a living out of music. Plus, not everybody still lives in Tuscaloosa: everyone's kind of split up. I've lived in Birmingham now for eleven years. Everybody lives in different places. But in fact, in a way it's sort of the same: once a year or something people get together - and there's still a lot of improvising going on. When LaDonna and I were living together (and still at LaDonna's house), everywhere we ever lived, there was a studio-room where people could play. In fact, as an extension of the studio at Craig and Lanny's, Erot. Any given night of the week you could drop by at LaDonna's and there's probably people playing, or there's a good chance of it. So there's still a lot going on; but it's twenty years later.
EB: Has an audience grown up, or is it more a case of a pool for musicians arising?
DW: Well, both. There's younger guys and girls that have come along and started - attracted by a gig, or by a friendship with the improvisers. At the same time there's a bit more of an audience now. If we put on a gig probably fifty-odd people will show up. At the time, when we still lived in Tuscaloosa, LaDonna and I organised a gig in our living room and had an audience of about twelve people for John Zorn and Eugene Chadbourne. John at that time still had really long hair - he'll hate me for saying that. He drove down with Eugene in a Volkswagen which they slept in the back of overnight. But now there's an over-scene. It's still not a funded scene like here. The arts council takes some interest but not in the scene: they might take interest in an individual artist or a series. So it's still basically a grassroots kind of scene. But it has grown to be much bigger than it was.
EB: This pre-figured punk - was that movement more or less irrelevant to the improvising scene in Alabama?
DW: The thing about punk in relation to the improvising scene was primarily a question of different generations: punk was people practically old enough to be my kids. What I've found in the last five years or so is that some of the best people in improvisation are coming from the direction of punk. People who were in the punk, thrash and hard-core scene are among the most likely people to appreciate the drastic wide-openness of improvisation. At one time there was a dichotomy between, say, thrash and improvisation. That's not so much the case nowadays. In Birmingham you are far more likely to get ex-punkers or people still into punk at a gig than you are to get somebody from the jazz scene showing up. The jazz scene, People playing standards and stuff, has some good musicians, but it's not a progressive scene at all, not in Birmingham - generally not in the States. It consists of pale imitations of the New York scene mostly.
EB: As an aside, do you think it would be plausible to get The Debonairs over to Britain?
DW: Plausible, yeah. You could contact everybody, yes - certainly the professional musicians. On the other hand, with Fred Lane, it'd be a big job, getting the money to get all the people over... Fred Lane, he's an artist in a lot of ways. He makes these whirligigs, which is a folk art term for, basically, things that the wind turns. You have them in your yard on poles. His have toy doll parts and so on - much related to these cartoons that he's always done. Ridiculous cartoons. He got really well known as this whirligig artist who wasn't a folk-artist: only in the most dadaistic sense could you call him a folk artist. It's hard to get him away from that - no, that's not the right way to put it. He's busy doing it all, all the time, you know. At the same time, Ron 'Pate (Craig Nutt) is a nationally renowned wood artist: he makes these tables that have asparagus legs... with tainted wood - he's really a remarkable artist. So everybody's got these careers going. Me and LaDonna are the main two who are basically musicians that I can think of. But on the other hand, if everybody knew we were going to go, we'd get ready for it and do it. Part of it with Fred Lane has been to only half know what you're doing: to have these songs like - well, you play them, but basically it's on the one hand a vehicle for improvising and on the other hand a vehicle for some sort of comedy. So it's best not to know the songs too well.
EB: Does Lane write music or is it worked out in rehearsal?
DW: Well, what happens is that Tim writes the songs - which basically consists of us having these interminable sessions where Tim and me and usually LaDonna get together and Tim goes, "Well, the song goes like this: Dum de de dee dee". And I go (on the guitar) "Dum, de de dee dee?" - "Yeah, that's okay". Then Tim says, "The horn lines go like this: Do beep beep beep." And I go "Do deep da dee?" and he goes "No, no: Do beep beep beep" - and so on. A laborious process! After about six weeks of this we get the songs together and I have an idea how the horn parts are supposed to go. Once we've figured out the chords, then we teach all the parts to the people in the group.
EB: The early material (Raudelunas, From The One That Cut You) sounds generally quite ramshackle, the later stuff (Car Radio Jerome) coherent and expert, and yet it seems to work both ways.
DW: That's part of the idea. Even though on Car Radio Jerome Tim narrowed it down in the selection of musicians, with just the more experienced ones - everyone who plays on that record actually plays their instrument. For the most part, anyway. We went into a studio to record that. From The One That Cut You and Raudelunas 'Pataphysical Revue were recorded from live shows pretty much.
EB: Getting back to your guitar playing, you started off improvising on sax and then went back to the guitar. Could you expand on this?
DW: Well, what happened was this: what they were getting at, which was a brilliant idea, was to get away from what I already knew how to play, which is what everybody, as it happened, tried to do, once we got to Erot. Everybody tried to really get away from what they already knew how to do. But I still wanted to be playing the guitar. So, really quickly - like in an hour - I got the idea of what was going on. Which is to say, I got what was going on in improvisation, though I didn't cognise it that way at the time. And so I went back to my guitar and sort of began a systematic deconstruction of my technique. I kept playing other instruments - bass clarinet, saxophones - particularly those instruments, reed instruments, though I don't still play them except in the most unpractised sense. But I started thinking, How can I transfer the sound of the saxophone, bass clarinet etcetera to the guitar? At the same time we were listening to lots of kinds of music: ethnic music, avant-garde classical music, electronic music, free jazz, whatever. And I realised that when I listened to jazz records or something, the instrument that interested me least was the guitar. I thought, I don't want to sound like the guitar player in a jazz group, I want to sound like the sax player. So I really just started looking at what I could do other than just pluck and fret notes. I did that for really quite a few years and quit working in bands. As time went on I began to want assemble everything I knew. I was still practising scales and stuff but I wasn't doing them on gigs. About ten years ago, which is to say eight or ten tears after the beginning, I thought, What I want to do is to be a "complete" guitarist, so to speak. So I started trying to integrate everything: straight playing, sounds, objects, everything. But there is a point where I really drew a line and said, Okay, no more of that for a while. And it was a kind of definitive move away from traditional guitar technique.
EB: Did you experiment much with tuning?
DW: I experimented with detuning in a way but I was primarily interested in keeping the guitar tuned. What I experimented with more was muting the strings and using the pickups to amplify object sounds, more than stuff to do specifically with the strings. Derek Bailey once said that once you detune the guitar, it's another instrument entirely. In a way that's true. The guitar I'm now using, the Steinberger, has an incredibly flexible tremolo bar which has an exaggerated potential for altering the tuning of the instrument. There's a lot of stuff I do with the bar in bar-down positions, in fluid positions, let's say, but still to do with the guitar being in tune. I never detune the instrument nowadays, unless I'm playing it slide guitar, which is something I've always been interested in - blues slide guitar. Another thing I did was to play in Johnny Shines's band: Shines is about 76 now, he was a protégé of Robert Johnson, in the Delta in the 1930s, and went to Chicago - kinda been around for a long time, and so I was really lucky that he lived in Tuscaloosa in the late 60s and early 70s. I got to know him and played in his band and he showed me quite a lot about slide guitar, to do with altered tunings and open-chord turnings, which I got into. There's a lot of stuff on side 2 of "Criminal Pursuits" (a solo album) where I've got the guitar altered from open tunings. But basically I play the guitar in tune now and alter it with the bar.
EB: What formal training if any did you have - prior to becoming a working musician?
DW: I started playing when I was twelve. (I'm 39 now). I played basically by ear for several years, then I went to this fellow who was a country musician in the Chet Atkins style. He showed me a lot about chords and chord progressions - because I'd learned how to play all these lines but I didn't know chords. Then I played again by ear - I'm not a very good reader. I can read some and write some music if I need to, but even in Curlew, which is a rehearsed music quintet, I find it's more important for me to learn parts than to be able to read music per se: because even though the music starts out written on paper, it still gets fleshed out by ear. So, I didn't really have a lot of formal training. I played with the University of Alabama Jazz Ensemble for about six months and I was reading charts, but even so what would happen was that once I had learned the chords, I'd just learn to play it by ear. Some of the other people have training, some don't. LaDonna Smith, for example, has a degree in Theory and Composition from the University. It doesn't matter, really.
EB: Did you attend the University?
DW: I did, but I didn't study music. And I didn't graduate. I was going to be an English Major. But basically I got into professional music work in the middle of being in school and just ditched it.
EB: On your early recordings - "Folk Music", for example - you didn't use much in the way of electronics. Was that a conscious decision, to get away from that dimension of electric guitar playing?
DW: As a former blues and soul guitarist, I've always like that raw-amp tone. Also, everybody and his brother was using all these foot-pedals. I thought, Well, there's too many people doing that. What I wanted to do was hit a really solid grip on the neck of the guitar with my hand. I come from what you might call the "bad tone" school of guitar-playing. I really like it when it sort of sounds bad at first and then gets better somehow. You know - distorted amp tones and stuff. I've always stayed away from pedals, even though I do use a few now - a sustain pedal and a pedal that adds an octave below - but in general, for beyond the guitar type sounds, I've always moved in the direction of objects on the strings or radical treatment of the strings, technique wise rather than electronic alteration. Mostly just because, as I said, everybody and his brother can do that - you hear people that can't really even play but sound like they can play because they've got all these pedals - and they've got a really good tone and rapid notes because of these pedals. I'd rather put it on the line and if it's going to sound really bad or really good it's because my hands are doing it: not because a bunch of batteries are doing it. Mind you, I can think of some things I'd like to do with MIDI-guitar and stuff but... maybe it's better just to go straight to the amp. A traditionalist!
EB: What projects are you working on currently?
DW: I'm playing in a duo with LaDonna Smith, which we've had since 1973: improvised music, voice, violin, viola, guitar. I play in a band called Curlew, based in New York City, but mostly a band of southerners that live in New York: composed music for the most part, with Tom Cora on 'cello, George Cartwright on saxes, Anne Rupelle on bass guitar, Pippon Barnett on drums and me on electric guitar. We are going to Finland next month. In December we're recording in New England. I have a band in Birmingham called Okay, Nurse - two guitars, bass and drums - that I'm writing most of the music for. That's an experiment in writing music, we're supposedly going to make a record when it feels like it's right. I made some music for a film and I'm doing a piece for a French label - a modern slide guitar compilation. That's mostly what I'm doing. Sometimes I play in Anne LeBaron's quintet. She's a composer, improviser and harpist living in New York. I pick up odd gigs - anything from improvising to playing in a blues band in Birmingham, just for laughs, say. So, I'm fairly busy. I'm also editor of "The Improviser". A new issue is coming out, the first in three years. It's got about 35 to 40 pages of articles. The content is entirely of the readership, so it's got, say, items ranging from "Chaos In Improvisation" or "Computers In Improvisation" to total crackpot articles. The most crackpot articles I wrote. Then it's got a lot of reviews, some poetry and graphics. Literally what people have sent in. We never hire writers or anything like that. It's been going since 1980, when it was just a newsletter. It's now a 60-70 page magazine.
EB: What do you listen to - when you have the time?
DW: Improvised music, just to see what everybody's up to. A lot of 1930's and 1940's big band music - I really like that. Weird rock bands... soul music. Country music on the radio sometimes: it's incredibly depressing shit, frequently, but some of it is great. If music is well done, it doesn't matter what kind it is. You can get ideas or inspiration from anywhere - and you can get bored with the greatest stuff too. At the moment I don't really have a record player, so one of my favourite things to do is to listen to short-wave tuned between stations. I'm very open to what I listen to.