Q&A: Colin Stetson On His Beautiful New Solo Album And Being A Gateway Drug For Jazz

By T. Cole Rachel / April 15, 2013

It’s not often that you hear a solo saxophone player referred to by the New York Times as a “one-man astonishment engine,” but considering Colin Stetson’s prowess as a performer, and the sprawling, often inscrutable nature of the music he makes, it’s totally appropriate. As a polyphonic soloist, Stetson is able to make instrumental music that sounds as it if were the result of some layered, profoundly complicated studio trickery — all without the use of loops, layers, or studio overdubs. That he is able to do this is not only a testament to his amazing dexterity as a musician, but also his physical prowess as a performer. Later this month Stetson will release New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light, the final installment in a series of solo albums that Stetson first began back in 2008. Stetson is also a full-time member of Bon Iver, and has worked with the likes of Tom Waits, the Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, and the National. Given his current touring schedule — not to mention his in-demand status as a collaborator — he might just be one of the hardest working men in showbiz.

STEREOGUM: Earlier today I actually fell down the worm hole of watching a bunch of videos of you playing live, which, let me say, is really amazing to watch. It seems like a stupidly obvious thing to say but it’s so amazing watching you do what you do.

STETSON: Thank you.

STEREOGUM: There’s a pretty big gap between this record and the last one, New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges.

STETSON: Mmhmm, two years.

STEREOGUM: You were very busy during that time doing lots of other things — like playing in Bon Iver — but was the making of this record a much more difficult process that the other ones?

STETSON: No, only in that I was working around a busy schedule. Volume 2 came out in 2011, so Volume 3 will be coming out almost exactly two years later. It took me around the same amount of time to build this one as it did Volume 2. I guess I wasn’t quite on tour as much as when I was writing and recording Volume 2. The whole past two years have been a bit more hectic because I’ve been kind of double duty-ing with the Bon Iver tour and my own tour, and then writing this record, and recording this record, and organizing everything … and sometimes having the occasional day off. But yeah, I don’t think there’s anything drastically different about how I went about things. There’s the depths of understanding with regarding the way that I mic’d the instruments and the rooms and the rooms we used to record it in, and all of that has progressed to a better place over the course of the past couple years. And on a purely physical level, a lot of the stuff on Volume 3 is stuff that I could not have performed when I was recording Volume 2, so there were physical limitations. And there are always physical limitations to overcome, that’s part of the whole process of doing what I do. Gradually over the course of weeks months and years of trying to do new things, and spending more time, clocking more hours of actually playing these things, it kind of unlocks different abilities and greater endurance which then allow me to do things differently musically. That’s what changed.

STEREOGUM: From the outset you had a pretty strong idea that this was to be a trilogy of records? Or did that sort of reveal itself as you went on?

STETSON: I knew I wanted to make a series when I first put Volume 1 down, and I thought it should be a trilogy. I like that format a lot, that classic cinematic format of three acts. And, as far as the storyline goes, I knew I was starting something with Volume 1 and I certainly didn’t know the rest of the story back then, but it gradually has been building alongside the music as I’ve grown and as the music has grown over the course of these years. So it’s all been a very organically developing theme.

STEREOGUM: So for people who might not know, here’s a little bit about the process of how you make these records: Everything you do is recorded in one take, no overdubs, it’s not manipulated in any way. Obviously, that makes things very difficult.

STETSON: No, not really, all we’re not doing is … I’m not using overdubs, and not using echoes and loops, I’m not laying on electronics, but it’s still a recording studio so we’re still taking mics and using compression and EQ and dialing in the mics the way they should be. It’s not like we just set up mics and throw it in and it’s just raw like a live performance. But yeah, in terms of addition we’re exaggerating with mic feeds, which everyone in every studio does, we’re trying to catch the best snapshot and put that particular feed into the context of everything else, with the right character. So there are self-imposed limitations, but really they’re just pretty broadly no overdubs, and no … just the addition of unnaturals is what I avoid.

STEREOGUM: Have you seen the audiences you play to change drastically over the past few years? People obviously know you from Bon Iver and the bands you’ve collaborated with, but your own music is much more challenging.

STETSON: No, not really, it’s always been really diverse. Because of the nature of what I’m doing, being so on the fringe of every genre, I kind of perch myself on the axis of a lot of things, so maybe people who are jazzheads appreciate it as part of that idiom, and people in the indie rock world, and neo-classical and all sorts of people in whatever camps they are, there’s always some sort of overlap with me. So there’s always different kinds of ears hearing it, but there are a lot of different generations of people. So it’s always really cool for me to not be playing to any particular age set.

STEREOGUM: Your music is a really interesting gateway into a style of music that a lot of people who listen to indie rock might never investigate on their own or even know how to approach, which is one of the things I think is so great about it. You’re like the gateway drug for people who might want to dabble in the harder jazz stuff.

STETSON: Yeah, it’s just one of the better aspects of today, these days, and the internet, it’s allowing so much more cross-pollination and it’s easier and freer to make a discovery for people. On the downside it’s still remarkable to me how little people tend to explore more non-traditional forms of music. I mean, they have every fucking thing on the planet at their disposal and they use it so sparingly or not at all, but the people who do delve into it, you can find anything. So the overall knowledge base is getting really broadened very quickly. It’s awesome, and I love that I can be sort of a conduit for people who may have never had [exposure to certain genres]. A lot of people from the indie rock world use me as a bridge to maybe the more free-jazz tradition, or maybe they use me as a bridge to more minimalist music. I don’t know, I’ve heard a lot of different things.

STEREOGUM: I know you have a lot of tour dates coming up through the rest of the year, like May and June you’re playing shows all over the place. Does it become more difficult to balance doing your own work with the work you get to do with other people?

STETSON: Yeah, it’s always been difficult to fit everything in. I rarely do anything, or I don’t do anything anymore that I don’t feel strongly about personally. So something like Bon Iver, or something I belong to and feel really strong about and passionately about supporting, I have no problem with most of my time for the last couple years be devoted to that project. Then it just becomes a time crunch, like how much time can I devote to recording and writing and still allow myself some amount of rest, which really over the last few years has been nonexistent. But I’m trying to make that all more balanced these days, and Bon Iver being on a break now makes it a lot easier to release a record on my own and do some dates without feeling like I’m going to lose it.

STEREOGUM: I often ask singers about how they stay in shape and protect their voice. It is like being an athlete. The way you perform is so physical — and I imagine so taxing on your body — how do you maintain that? Do you have certain things you have to do in order to play?

STETSON: I do, I adhere to a pretty insane regimen on the road, and I have to make sure that I keep that going because too much of that style of playing just fries me, to the core. Because you’re up there for an hour basically tensing every muscle in your body and applying an amount of pressure to your insides, and not just the pressure on your lungs that tenses all of the other muscles in your body, but also the pressure that you’re putting onto your brain, because of the blood flow that happens with breathing that way. So I need to have other things working all that tension out, and the things I’ve found … daily yoga practices, and meditation, and I do breathing exercises on a daily basis. Just to keep all that dilated and open, and then running a few miles mostly every day. It can be labor intensive.

STEREOGUM: Well aside from being challenging, how does it feel to play these songs? Are you excited to go out on tour?

STETSON: It’s always yes and no. It’s always the most difficult thing for me to do, to perform these daily. To perform a set like that daily, because physically it’s incredibly draining as well as emotionally. It’s every night. So it’s both the most thrilling and satisfying thing that I do, but at the same time … none of these are improvised forms, so no matter what feeling is going through your body or mind, you can’t just stop. I can’t just go, “oh I’m feeling a certain way today so we’ll just wrap up and change and I’ll stop now and everything will be a little lighter and shorter.” The demands are pretty extreme so it can be simultaneously terrifying and excruciating, but also really satisfying. I think that all of this stuff is related to how I grew up — I was an athlete, and I did a lot of extreme and physically demanding and excruciating sports when I was younger, and at the same time developing musically and artistically and a lot of writing, creative writing, when I was younger. So a lot of this, in a very nuts-and-bolts sort of way, it brings together everything I did when I was young.

STEREOGUM: That’s cool, it’s nice when that sort of stuff carries through to your adult life in a positive way.

STETSON: I feel like most of the time, when we step back and look at it and examine the story of our lives, you can see that the groundwork you set when you were 10 to 15 or whatever, just kind of shows up throughout your life with what you immerse yourself in and surround yourself with.