Sax Prodigy: Colin Stetson on Completing a Trilogy

Having worked with everyone from Tom Waits to Bon Iver, virtuoso saxophonist Colin Stetson is forging a bold new path by himself. He talks to The Skinny about his latest album, unorthodox recording setups and the loneliest whale in the world

Feature by John Nugent | 24 Apr 2013

“I’ve been everything.” Colin Stetson is wrestling with the question of how he defines himself. “I’ve been a solo artist for many many years, I’ve led bands, I’ve been in rock bands, I’ve been in unconventional jazz groups, I’ve done session work...” He searches for the most straightforward self-definition. “I am a musician who plays saxophone and other instruments. I don’t tend to define much of anything in my life.” 

Stetson is no ordinary saxophonist. Negative connotations abound in such a job title; the 80s all but consigned the instrument, in the warped popular imagination at least, to the cheese of Gerry Rafferty and the sleaze of Kenny G; soundtracking lifts, discount warehouses and sex scenes. But Stetson is hardly wedded, as his instrument popularly is, to jazz, smooth or otherwise. 

His current guise, for fans of pigeonholes, is as solo artist. The third and final part of New History Warfare, his remarkable minimalist solo saxophone series, has just been released to wide acclaim. Each record is a unique exploration of the possibilities of the instrument, realising what Steve Lacy, a trailblazer of woodwind experimentation, meant when he declared that “the potential for the saxophone is unlimited.” 

Save for a smattering of guest stars, Stetson is solo in the most defiant sense, alone with his saxophone throughout. As with any avant-garde music, it is a sometimes demanding, sometimes exhilarating listen. But what makes it all the more impressive – and fascinating – is the technique through which this is achieved. 

Stetson is as much a virtuoso musician as he is prodigious technician, a magician of hidden sounds and unorthodox methods. He blends a miscellany of playing styles – circular breathing, multiphonics (producing sounds from the keys and valves), ‘singing’ through the reed – with a bespoke microphone setup, recording from every angle. There is, in all likelihood, no musician quite like him. The New York Times has called him a “one-man astonishment machine.” 

"Beauty and love and peacefulness don’t ever really hit home or resolve, unless there’s been fear and anger and sadness for it to be defined" – Colin Stetson

This singular approach did not come all at once. “There was definitely no eureka moment,” he says, speaking to The Skinny during a brief break from the road. “It’s something that built very organically, over almost twenty years.”  And it continues to evolve.  Most of the techniques Stetson employs in Vol. 3 could not have been achieved in Vol. 1. He records ‘as live’, in single takes, requiring tremendous lung capacity, and his stamina has improved greatly over time. “The more I do, the more I can push the endurance aspect, and take more time with things. That’s one of the things I try to explore in Vol. 3: focussing on the minutiae, stretching things out.” 

And in order to catch this process in full, there are microphones, everywhere. In creating multiplicitous, multiphonic sounds, it makes sense to capture as rich a recording as possible, rather than the conventional “just throw one microphone over its bell,” a practice Stetson dismisses as a “very limited snapshot” of the sound. So, working with producer Ben Frost (a groundbreaking musician in his own right), he expanded on certain conventions whilst spurning others. Overdubs – layering supplementary parts of the instrument in a later studio mix – are largely rid as unnecessary (“everything is already there”). Instead, a multitude of microphones surround the instrument and the room, carefully placed to chronicle and isolate the assortment of melodies and noises. “My goal,” he explains, “is not to recreate the three-dimensional space, verbatim. It’s always been to take that sound and exaggerate it, making something that was very specific to the medium.” 

So, save for a few additional vocal parts, it is as it was: a delicate, deliberate, embellished recreation of an acoustic space, in an effort to recreate the “physicality” that much overproduced studio music often neglects. The result is something quite striking, giving the impression of many musicians and instruments where there is only one, replacing the loops and overdubs of minimalist pioneers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley with the blunt simplicity of raw acoustics.

It makes for an intense listening experience. We are plunged into swirling whirlpools of repeating motifs, colliding with one another in a way that may seem nebulous and indeterminate. But nothing is left to chance. “The songs are not in any way malleable,” Stetson asserts. “If you heard one played one night, it would be more or less the same song the next night. The forms and the melodies are all very structured and very composed.”

Much of the album is brooding, emotional, bleak, but Stetson maintains it is “all part of singular scenes, characters and imagery, part of a grander structure and storyline,” rather than any sort of personal emotional purge. At live shows, Stetson likes to allude to the true story of a whale, whose song, at 52Hz, renders it unintelligible to all other whales. It is doomed to swim the ocean alone, forever. He finds this story rather poignant. “It is that feeling of isolation, boiled down to an essence, and then encapsulated in an actual real world physical story.” 

A profound sense of isolation resonates throughout the New History Warfare trilogy, and not just from his solitary playing style. But Stetson avows his thematic outlook is lighter than it might seem. “I’ve never really presented one side without the other. Things like beauty and love and peacefulness don’t ever really hit home or resolve, unless there’s been fear and anger and sadness for it to be defined. Any music I’ve written has always had juxtaposition of one of these types.”

The plurality of moods on this latest LP is plain to see – a cover of Washington Phillips’ What Are They Doing In Heaven Today? has the air of a gospel-style requiem, whilst Hunted, with Stetson’s eerie, distant voice wailing through the reed, gives the impression of a redolent half-remembered dream. Brute, meanwhile, has Stetson pummel his keys with the ferocity of a prizefighter, as a vocalist in the background barks fiery apocalyptic war cries. 

It may be surprising to learn that this bellowing heavy-metal singer is none other than Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, a guest on four tracks of Vol. 3. It is something of a favour returned, following time Stetson has spent as part of the Bon Iver collective. In fact, he is a tirelessly prolific collaborator. How’s this for a CV: Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, Feist, Lou Reed, David Byrne, Jolie Holland, Sinéad O’Connor, LCD Soundsystem, The National, and many others have worked with Colin Stetson at some point over the years.

Picking a favourite experience amongst that formidable list is “not necessarily hard to answer, more of an impossibility,” but he speaks of Waits most effusively. “It was a beautiful experience for me – really intense, and exactly how I imagined it would be,” he recalls. Stetson provided horns for three Waits albums, and gleaned much along the way. “With Tom, you’re leaving ego behind and you’re really working for the piece of music.”

This ethos lingers. Having written, recorded and performed for over twenty years, sometimes in the background, other times to the fore, Colin Stetson has only ever worked on music he believed in. Whether introspective minimalist solo work, or “getting up on stage with Arcade Fire and playing for a hundred thousand people," there is a distinct integrity and thoughtfulness in his approach. “I’ve been very lucky,” he reflects, modestly. “I’ve done so many different things, but I don’t do things ‘for a gig.’ I’m really just recording and performing with music that I feel strongly about.”

New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light is released via Constellation on 29 Apr