he already legendary free-drummer Alex Neilson has played with most of the musical underground’s heavyweights of this era. This one man folk renaissance movement has left a trail of recordings and thrilling live shows with Jandek, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Heather Leigh, Alasdair Roberts, and Richard Youngs in his youthful wake.
Always moving from project to project, Neilson always brings a sense of exploration and independence to his playing. As one of the most energetic and ‘in-tune’ free players around, Neilson has a better grasp than most on trying to get across the nature of improvisation.
How did you discover 'improvisation'?
I grew up in Leeds and started playing and attending gigs in and around the student area when I was about 16. It was here I first came across bands and collectives like Ashtray Navigations, Vibracathedral Orchestra, Fencing Flatworm records, the Termite Club, Crumbling Spine, and a whole crop of people dedicated to improvisatory music. There’s a sound and approach that I think is pretty particular to the north of England (e.g. no chops, organic DIY, and heavy drone based improvisation). Seeing those bands blew my tiny teenaged mind. There were people who put on shows themselves, released their own albums, and privileged sound in its own right over any received ideas about musical standards in structure or technique or anything; people saluting infinity and spilling fluids together.
How did this affect your listening habits at home?
Around that time I also discovered American free jazz players like Albert Ayler, Arthur Doyle, John Coltrane, Sonny Sharock, and Sun Ra. As a drummer, these people didn't just widen the goal posts for what was possible, they blew them into 100,000 fucking splinters. I still fantasize about starting a band and doing a similar thing with British traditional music as Albert Ayler did with the music of his culture and heritage. Exploding those beautiful old tunes with the uncontrollable urgency of free improvisation...kind of like Frank Wright meets the Copper Family round at Andrew Chalk's house in South Yorkshire.
What influenced your decision with Directing Hand to cover traditional tunes?
Improvisation and British traditional music has made up the bulk of what I have been listening to and obsessing over for the past five plus years. In the past I would usually try and orientate bands I’ve been in towards having a more improvisatory approach and/or interpreting traditional music. I usually came against strong resistance in one form or another. So I have partly used Directing Hand as a vehicle to reconcile these two musical forms, as I see them as being part of exactly the same current.
Recently I travelled down to the south coast of England to meet a great hero of mine, Shirley Collins. I may be flattering myself quite a bit here, but I kept entertaining parallels in my mind to Bob Dylan as he rode the rails in the early 1960s to visit his great hero, Woody Guthrie.
Is improvisation more about release or exploration?
Catharsis certainly has something to do with my need to play improvised music. Challenging myself physically and creatively in a very real and immediate way is very important to me. Allowing myself to feel exposed and vulnerable and engage with the very core of my creativity in a way that is uncontaminated by procedure or preconceived notions of “what I should (not) be doing.” Making that work with other people is essential to what I am. It constantly provokes questions in me and challenges my ability and conception of what music is, and how fully I can realise the kinds of sounds I constantly fantasise about colliding. I feel that I’m on the verge of being able to successfully and naturally synthesise a lot of vague, nebulous strands and feelings. I feel like I am just starting out.
What qualities does a good improviser need?
I don't want to come across like I can prescribe a formula for “what makes a good improviser,” but I think people need to be open minded and willing to accept any kind of sound and be able to submit yourself to it on a very basic level. Don't worry about chops or technique or try to rein in the sound to something that you can make intelligible in an acceptably musical way. If you play with the utmost belief and conviction then the thing will sculpt itself and birth its own form, according to the very nature of its being.
Can you find those 'magical' moments playing with anyone?
I don't really think that you can commit to improvised music with anyone in a way that I would consider successful or fulfilling. I have played with a lot of people who engage with improvised music from a very theoretical/academic point of view and I find their approach to playing to be very frigid. They seem to be playing very much in a culturally conditioned 'style' of improv(ising), which seems to quash the spirit of why I might want to engage in this music in the first place. It can be very unemotional, cerebral, calculated, and male. Some people get too caught up in site specific, psycho acoustic, spatial awareness mumbo jumbo and that really turns me off.
It’s more physical than intellectual for you?
I want blood or nothing and a lot of people just don't get it on a very fundamental level. They seem to want arts council backing or they won't even open up their sax cases. Some people just find the idea of losing control or supremely focussing to be very intimidating. Some people condemn a lot of the music I do and like as “just noise” or “tuneless” and therefore “not music” and this, to me, is a very amusing response. As I’m so immersed and committed to what I do, I often forget that a lot of people aren't ready for it.
What goes through your head during a typical improvisation? Not that there will probably be such a thing…
It is hard to say. I guess initially I’m listening to the other players, but that becomes less of a concern as the music develops and we hit a point where everything sings and I don't have to think about anything at all. This is a highly desirable state for me; all the elements acting and reacting automatically, in simultaneity and without any contrivance. You don't have to think too much about anything.
You’re now a part of Taurpis Tula (improvisational trio with David Keenan and Heather Leigh). How did that come about?
David and I have been playing together in one form or another pretty much since I moved to Glasgow about 5 years ago. We briefly had a duo of improvised guitar and drums called Volcanic Tongue, playing a gig or two and making some recordings. I also played in Telstar Ponies very briefly, so we knew each others playing well and have a very similar appreciation of music. I really love Charalambides/Scorces/Heather's playing, she is one of the most naturally gifted improvisers I have met and has a terrifically beautiful voice, so it’s great to play with these guys. We have been playing together, regularly, for about a year.
You played with Jandek in 2005 backing him for his first ever live shows, how long did you have to keep the secret before that first show?
I found out about that gig two days before the event. I got a phone call while in a workshop with Keith Rowe, so the news came as a welcome distraction to that. I was under strict instruction not to let anyone know about the show. I remember Richard Youngs, Barry Esson [Instal festival organiser], and I met up in the centre of Glasgow to talk about the conditions of the gig etc. We decided to go to Starbucks in Borders where no one else who was involved in experimental music would possibly overhear us! I contacted one person to tell him that he would probably want to travel to Glasgow to attend the festival but didn't tell him why. He is a guy called Frank and he first introduced me to Jandek by sending me 15 of his albums through the post when I was about 17. He also turned me on to lots of other great stuff like Sunburned Hand of the Man, Keiji Haino etc. for the first time. I just released a 3” with him on First Person, under the name Black Hands.
What are your musical plans for the rest of 2006?
So far this year I’ve got a few new albums coming out; a duo LP with Greg Kelley, a picture disc with Matt Valentine, Erika Elder, and Mo Jiggs. There’ll be Taurpis Tula CDs, LPs, and tapes, as well as a trio LP with Richard Youngs and Alastair Galbraith. I have a couple of Directing Hand albums in the pipe line—one being the live set from Instal last year featuring Ben Reynolds, David Keenan, Phil Todd, Dylan Nyoukis and Karen Constance. Scatter have an LP out soon, and the new Jandek album just came out with me, Richard, and Stirling from the Gateshead show. The new Taurpis Tula/Spykes split album just came out on American Tapes, so it's been really great to have worked on this many things and see them come out!
I am touring with Bonnie Prince Billy in April. Playing a few shows with Jandek, Directing Hand, Taurpis Tula, and Alasdair Roberts around the summer too. As Directing Hand I have started to sing unaccompanied, which has been very challenging, and I intend to carry on with that for a while.
Hopefully Taurpis Tula will tour in the US later this year. They are about to tour the UK in April supporting Wolf Eyes and unfortunately I can't make it, so they are going to draft Chris Corsano in on drums, which will be amazing! I am going down to Leeds soon and hope to hook up with my good friend Phil Todd—I really like his music a lot....there are probably lots of other things I am forgetting.
Is there anyone you would love to play with that you haven't yet and why?
Live or dead? I would love to play with Bob Dylan, Don Van Vliet, Albert Ayler, Shirley Collins, Milford Graves, Herman Blount, William Bennett, and Blind Willy Johnson all in the same group.