The most recent bouquet of releases which the appreciated Portuguese label Creative Sources accurately arranges for the listening pleasure of improvisational music and electro-acoustic music lovers everywhere, included “Alter Egos“, the very first release by Watt. Watt is a very good combo comprised of British cellist Hannah Marshall, talented American percussionist Stephen Flinn and dynamic trumpet and flugelhorn player Ian Smith. Some followers of the more experimental scene will probably recognize some of these names: Hannah and Stephen’s names often appeared in the linear notes of London-based industrial/ambient group The Cutmen (featuring one of the pioneer of industrial percussions, Z’ev). Ian, on the other hand, collaborated with a plenty of renowned sound artists and musicians (Han-earl Park, John Sinclair, Harris Eisenstadt, Reeves Gabriels, Evan Parker, Lol Coxhill, Maggie Nicols and many more) and co-founded the London Improvisers Orchestra in 1998 with Evan Parker and Steve Beresford. Their impressive synergy and the richness of the musical ideas they squeezed out during their spontaneous improvisational sessions are collected in this fine record, which aroused my curiosity so much so that I decided to talk about that and other things with Stephen Flinn. Please hearken carefully.
Chain D.L.K.: Hi there. How are you?
Stephen Flinn (Watt): Great!
Chain D.L.K.: How did you guys meet? Do you remember the circumstance of how Watt was born?
Stephen Flinn (Watt): I first met Ian on a wonderful gig in 2000 in London that was organized by Tony Wren. It was an outstanding quartet with Ian and Tony, along with Marcio Mattos on cello.
Ian and I played again about ten years later on a gig with Phil Minton. After that gig, we decided to put a trio together with Hannah Marshall.
Chain D.L.K.: What about that 30th of June 2012 in London? Do you remember what you did before and after that session that ended up becoming “Alter Egos”?
Stephen Flinn (Watt): Basically we hit with no rehearsals. We had strong coffee prepared by Dave Hunt, the engineer, and rolled the tape. We recorded for around three hours. After the session I took the recording back to the states and mastered it in Los Angeles.
Chain D.L.K.: How did you discover Creative Sources and Ernesto Rodrigues?
Stephen Flinn (Watt): Ernesto’s label has been around for quite a while, and a number of musicians recommended the label when I was looking for a label to release a recording of electroacoustic improvisations, Architect of Adversity, back in ’06. Ernesto’s attention to detail is stellar; he deserves a medal.
Chain D.L.K.: What can you tell us about the improv scene in London?
Stephen Flinn (Watt): I really love the scene in London. There are several venues to play with attentive audiences and there is a sense of community of the London improv scene, which isn’t as common in the states.
Chain D.L.K.: Are there any specific places you would recommend for the followers of this genre?
Stephen Flinn (Watt): Boat-ting is a must! It’s on the first and third Thursdays in a boat on the Thames, and is curated by Sibyl Madrigal. Other notable venues are Hugh Metcalfe’s Klinker series, which I hear is back on, and I believe is the longest running improv series in London. Café Otto and the Vortex are two other excellent venues.
Chain D.L.K.: What would you suggest to a neophyte of this particular music?
Stephen Flinn (Watt): I would suggest that someone new to the music go see it, if possible, live. Seeing it in person allows the listener to hear and see the music as it’s being composed and can get a better idea of how the musicians are interacting, which I think is one of the things that makes this music unique.
Chain D.L.K.: What’s the mysterious object on the cover artwork?
Stephen Flinn (Watt): It’s a picture of the fins of a 1959 Cadillac taken by Joseph Szkodzinski. The picture on the insert, which looks a bit industrial, is the grill of the same car.
Chain D.L.K.: Is there any particular track you like more than others?
Stephen Flinn (Watt): Fond of the third track, “To My Heart,” because of the way we spontaneously come together, and the fact that there’s a lot of interplay with energy without being frantic.
Chain D.L.K.: During the recording session, do you remember any moment when you were particularly proud of the musicians you were playing with?
Stephen Flinn (Watt): Every time I’ve played with Hannah and Ian, it’s been a complete pleasure. We did a gig right after the recording session that was really a blast. It came off quite well because we were really making a concerted effort, as I mentioned, to listen to each other. My feeling, in general, is that European improvisers are more interested in going for a “group” sound, as opposed to a free jazz aesthetic with the rhythm section laying down a vibe for a soloist to blow over. I find the European approach to playing to be the more rewarding. Of course, I am speaking in the most general of terms.
Chain D.L.K.: All of you have an interesting background… Are there any musicians you met in your artistic and musical path that turned your mind around and helped you sharpen your style?
Stephen Flinn (Watt): While Billy Mintz, the great drummer based in New York, is more of jazz drummer, he has probably been one of my biggest influences. Billy Mintz is the real deal, and his feeling and sound are phenomenal. Sunship Theus, Ed Shaughnessy, Kennwood Dennard, and Joe Hunt were my main teachers coming up. All of them taught me so much about being a musician. Over the years, I was fortunate enough to do a lot of gigs with Lol Coxhill, and he was a real inspiration. Bob Moses, who I studied with for about six months, hammered home the importance of internalizing resolution points as they relate to melodies. This is something I am always working on. The late Art Jarvinen, who I studied privately with for six months, taught me a ton about graphic notation. I look back on my studies with him as being very influential.
Chain D.L.K.: Do you have any “rite” before performing?
Stephen Flinn (Watt): I like to do a bit of deep breathing. Even though percussion is not a wind instrument, letting the music breathe is something I find myself going for more and more, and focusing on the breath prior to playing is very helpful.
Chain D.L.K.: What about your very first approach to improvisational music?
Stephen Flinn (Watt): I guess my first formal approach to listening to improvisational music involved listening to Lester Young saxophone solos and then playing the solo on the drums. I would sing a short solo every day for about twenty minutes while using different combinations of doo, boo, and dee. By singing the solos over and over again, I became more familiar with phrasing and the particular nuances of the solos. Singing along with a solo is a much more active listening approach as opposed to just laying on the sofa and listening to a solo over and over. A friend of mine, Dave Frank, an awesome pianist who studied with Lennie Tristano taught me this method.
Chain D.L.K.: And your very first concert?
Stephen Flinn (Watt): My first concert was Thin Lizzy in Seattle in 1975. There were only about 200 people there and I remember sitting in the third row and being really blown away by the band. Believe it was their first tour of America. I had been playing drums for about a year, and I remember being so impressed with how Brian Downey, the drummer, was so fluid and had such a big sound. The other band on the bill had Ansley Dunbar on drums. Needless to say, after hearing him play, I felt like I had been shot to another planet. His projection and time are seamless. The whole experience, rather than being discouraging, was actually quite inspiring.
Chain D.L.K.: Some listeners imagine a sort of secret code which only musicians of the improvisational scene understand and speak… would you say that is the case?
Stephen Flinn (Watt): I don’t think that improvisers have a secret code, as in many respects I feel that usually most of the same musical elements are present to a greater or lesser extent: harmony, melody, and rhythm. However, it might appear that certain groups have a code, as they are intimately familiar with each other’s vocabulary by playing together on a regular basis. Often times, I might not be playing something externally which represents a pulse, but internally I am playing from a pulse, polyrhythm, or other internal idea, such as texture matching.
Chain D.L.K.: Many musicians of the improvisational scene have a passion for modified instruments… but what’s the goal of the game?
Stephen Flinn (Watt): I modify instruments and make instruments of different materials to enhance my individual voice. One of the things I love about making my own instruments is that I am pretty certain no one else has the same instrument, which allows me to make my own unique sounds. Also, using instruments that I develop can in some ways influence the way I approach the music that I wouldn’t have come up with using mass manufactured instruments.
Chain D.L.K.: Any work in progress?
Stephen Flinn (Watt): A few months ago I made a duo recoding with Pierre Borel, which I am hoping to release. Just started listening, yesterday, to the final mixes. Lately, I have been contributing to recordings with artists that are pretty mainstream: Did some recording of an electroacoustic nature for a dub group here in Los Angeles. Also, been really focusing on composing using graphic notation. Finding that the process of composition, and thinking slow, is really fueling my playing because when you’re actively engaged in spontaneous improv you’re usually thinking fast. Really relishing taking the time to think about what and how I am approaching the instrument through this process, and feel like it’s having a positive spillover into my playing.
visit Watt on the web at the record label’s website: www.creativesourcesrec.com