We'd been trying to tempt Derek Bailey into an interview for about a year to no avail when, one day in early 1998, he suddenly agreed to the idea. Richard Leigh, long-time London resident and friend of Bailey, volunteered to ask the questions. Their chatty dialogue took place sometime in mid-'98 (no one can quite remember an exact date) and begins below with Derek caught mid-diatribe on the topic of the how pointless it is to try to interview him. The transcript was "edited" down to a third of its original length by Derek, who also added some pithy after-the-fact comments. This was followed by a second interview, conducted in August 2000 by Nick Cain, in an attempt to raise some issues not covered in the first interview. It will be presented in a next entry.
Bailey This comparison between playing solo and talking about it: I find the only way I can keep any interest in doing either is to change something around. Let me give you an example. In Japan, people interview each other all the time. Journalists interview each other if they don't have anybody else to interview. There are so many tape recorders in Japan that there must be some kind of built-in commercial law insisting that some proportion have to be in use at all times. In any hotel lobby, at any time, you can see a bunch of people being interviewed. I did three in one afternoon. And although in at least one case the journalist spoke English, I had an interpreter, because the woman I was working for had worked as a professional interpreter, and she used to insist on being present as interpreter.
Anyway, this particular afternoon, I got so sick of this business, I decided that I would give three totally different answers to pretty much the same questions. Even so, the answers were all true. I referred to things I didn't normally talk about in interviews, like marriages, deaths in the family and so on. So, although some of the details would be the same they were built around a different focus or centre. The journalists had changed, of course, so it didn't matter to them but the interpreter became very confused. And in that way playing can be similar. Although the stuff you are using is largely the same, a different focus can make it quite different. Of course, I'm talking about my impression. I have little or no idea what other people make of it. And, of course, revising this thing, as I am now doing, means it will probably be changed out of all recognition. But, the interview is a corrupt medium, encouraging deviousness, deception, slander and unbridled self-promotion, and there's no reason at all why this one should be an exception.
What I'm interested in is playing. I've tried many times to define it and I've come nowhere near it. Recently, I read a really fine book called Last Night's Fun by the Irish poet Ciaran Carson. It's about Irish folk music. This music has no interest for me at all. However, it's not a set, a fixed, music, and as he claims, it's never played the same twice. And it's a highly social music - part of the Crack. And at times he comes as close to a convincing description of playing and what it means vis-a-vis ways of making music as I've come across. And whatever it is, this playing thing, that's what I do. It's essentially non-documentary, about occasion. But, in public or not, it does not necessarily have to do with performance. And although I can't say exactly what it is I think I know what its about.
It's about now and the fact that now is only going to happen once, and it's irreplaceable and irrecoverable. Of course, there'll be another now along shortly, but it won't be the same now. It won't be this now; the now now. There's no other activity that is as well equipped to deal with the recognition that the present is absolutely unique as playing is.
There are all kinds of distractions and seductions from that. Reputation, for instance. And recording is tricky, although that's been chewed over so many times that maybe we should leave it. I quite like recording personally. Records I don't like at all. But developments in the recording/reproducing field come so quickly now the whole thing could go up in flames at any time. Some aspects of playing have never bothered me too much. I still think that the essential thing that matters about it is actually doing it and getting your motivation and satisfaction from that. That, and getting away with it - being able to carry on doing it - is pretty much the whole story. So, for instance, when you turn up here - and I know you as a man who has listened to this music pretty much as long as it's been around - my fear is that we might talk about the history. The thing that I really don't like about the present situation is the way that improvised music appears to be trying to become part of the heritage industry. We know that in Britain we live by anniversaries, sometimes it can seem as if nothing happens in this country except as a celebration of something that happened year's ago. But for the improvised music community to find it necessary to join in with this grotesque necro-rave seems to be beyond irony. Anti-now.
You're not talking about using it as a peg for arts funding, you're talking more about nostalgia?
The need for funding, apparently, transcends all things. Did you notice the recent discussion about how the CIA used to fund vaguely left, radical organizations and magazines? I wonder what would happen if the CIA offered funding to the LMC. I guess we know what would happen. But would the CIA consider the LMC a radical organization? A less unseemly justification for anniversaries is that they indicate survival. But survival of what? There's some implication in these things that significant events happened then, now we just remember them. There's quite a lot of that about. In fact, the main difference between then and now is that then everybody was concerned with now and now too many people are concerned with then. I think maybe part of it is that I'm too old for this stuff. Most of these characters now, the celebrants who wallow in their significant birthdays, they're middle-aged. I can't fool myself that I'm still middle-aged.
Why does that matter?
Maybe anniversaries appeal to middle-aged people as being an indication of security, almost like an insurance. And achievement; the gold watch or medal for faithful service to the cause. The cause being, of course, themselves. Later, these things can seem somewhat ridiculous. Mind you there are exceptions. Joseph Holbrooke, for instance, reunite once every 32 years. The last time we played together, when playing together regularly, was in 1966. The next time was 1998. We plan another concert for 2030. Just in time for my 100th birthday.
I think a lot of it might have to do with recording and photography, the idea that we were all born into a world where it was natural to record things, and people just think of it in those terms. They think in terms of archives.
You can't avoid the perspective of history and recordings, but mythology is far more attractive, don't you think? While no less inaccurate, at least you're not expected to believe it. The "What a wonderful gig it was. What a pity nobody recorded it" type of thing. Undocumented recollections are rarely disappointing.
People expect a trace, and it's only in the last hundred years that they've come to take it for granted. Before that you had to be well-known enough to get someone to paint your portrait, or your descendants wouldn't know what you had looked like, because there was no means of recording it. I keep wishing it had come along a few years earlier. We've got so used to the idea that everything is available in some sort of archived form.
Very un-now. Don't you think that there's some implication in this way of making music which should be subversive of the unquestioning acceptance of that kind of thing?
I've noticed your playing getting steadily louder over the last few years.
That's because I've gotten steadily deafer. When I played with Han [Bennink] in Edinburgh somebody said, "It was great but you were too loud." I said, "Really? Thank you very much." I can't tell you how much pleasure that gave me.
It's to do with what goes on with the electric guitar when played at higher levels. In recent times I've become kind of interested in that. But I spend most of my time playing acoustic.
Do you ever listen to things that you did years ago?
Not by choice.
Why I ask is, I've been listening to your music for a long time, and when I listen to the old records, I can't hear any obvious difference between what you were playing and what you're doing now. If I put an old recording side by side with a new one I can hear certain changes, but it's little details. What interests me is not to accuse you of having stayed the same; I wondered if you had any thoughts about how your things have changed, how you perceive them as having developed, and how somebody else might perceive it.
I don't know. To me, the character, and often the detail, of what I play depends on the person or people I'm playing with. But you're probably talking about solo playing. Everybody only talks about solo playing. I suppose for me the subjective playing experience has always been pretty much the same, including when I played in the band business. As regards listeners, I get two things regularly from people who appear to listen to it over any length of time. One is: "Your playing doesn't seem to change much", and the other is: "Why don't you play the way you used to play?"
Do you know what they mean by that?
No idea. Another thing is, I never know if either view is intended to be complimentary or critical. It occurs to me that many of the musicians I admire - e.g. Charlie Parker and JS Bach, Anton Webern and Charlie Christian - after some initial development, appear not to have changed at all. Maybe it's to do with musical language. If you develop a music which is mutable, unfixed, then it has change built into it. It works through a shifting around of its elements and in the process renews itself. And that's fine. But I'm not sure that's enough for a freely improvised music. There's a stimulation that comes from the change supplied by playing with other people that I think of as necessary in this kind of playing. The really essential thing, though, is freshness. I'm not sure that it matters too much how its achieved.
The material, let's call it, that I'm using has come out of what I've done before, and particularly from people I've played with. But, the present usage of it, the settings in which I play, are sometimes totally alien to what they were years ago. This has become a particular pre-occupation of mine. And in some of these settings the stuff seems to me to work okay. But the playing has got very little to do with the musics I've strayed into. And its got nothing much to do with the mores of improvised music, except that the method I use is free improvisation. I think it's mainly to do with guitar playing.
And now, I think there are other things that come into the playing, and they come from quite distant places. In recent times, and again I assume it's something to do with aging, I've found myself playing things which seem to me to relate to stuff I played years ago. I don't mean what I played as a working musician. I mean before that, not exactly as a child, but when I was 12, 13, 14 years old. Some shit which is just to do with guitars. The kind of thing guitar players play. Particularly with other guitar players. Stringy stuff.
Is this to do with the physical aspect of playing, or are you talking about something more abstract?
I think it's more to do with genes, [laughs] guitar player's genes.
The guitar always seems to me to be open to different kinds of music.
It's open to all music. Virtually every music has got a guitar of some kind in it. Brass bands seem to manage okay without the guitar but, otherwise...
If people play in an eclectic style on guitar, it doesn't sound as unnatural as it does on other instruments.
I'm not sure eclectic styles ever sound "natural". But, no, it's got no automatic identity. There are many kinds of guitars but a standard acoustic guitar sitting in the corner gives no indication of the music that's about to be played on it. And, of course, there are umpteen musics where it forms an integral part of the music - blues, flamenco, much of rock - musics where the guitar is a kind of structural part of the music.
I think the early days were easier to grasp, because the area was a smaller one, whereas now it's much more spread out. And a lot of the people on the scene do other things as well. Nearly all the people in it have done so much else. There's a lot more variety in it, a lot more people feeding into it. Think of the variety of people you've worked with in the last 10, 15 years.
The last five years particularly have been for me very rewarding, a very good period. I think the music's been very uneven, but it's been a great time. I thought the early period was fantastic, but for different reasons. Maybe not for a listener, but to be involved in it - terrific. And then I found the '78-'83 period great. So you get these kind of different purple patches. But as far as I understand the present musical situation - and I certainly couldn't claim to fully understand what the fuck's going on - I've liked recent times. It's certainly provided some testing situations.
I think you want to be tested - I think quite a lot of other players put themselves in different situations, but they're like a cut-out figure against different backgrounds. I've always thought your thing has been about interaction.
I like to be part of it, to see how I can work within it. These activities are not in any way peripheral for me. Given the present situation, particularly as regards 'improvised music', they have a real usefulness, something from which I can learn. But the free situation - playing with free players - is still the central part of what I do. And for the same reason as always - its potential. Most of which, I believe, is so far unexplored.
More Derek Bailey in Prepared Guitar Blog