Bill Horist

Interviewed by Ben McAllister

Bill Horist is an improviser whose solo prepared guitar work is riveting and unique. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him perform a number of times and in different configurations. Each time I’m struck by the humanity of his playing – his sensibilities as a showman as well as his ear for form and texture serve him well during his live gigs. He also jumps around a lot and tells stories about the objects he jams between his strings – sometimes while wearing swim goggles.

You can find his playing on his many solo releases as well as works with Phineas Gage, Ghidra (with Wally Shoup and Mike Peterson) and KK Null of Zeni Geva.

Bill and I played a show together recently in Bellingham, about an hour north of Seattle via I-5. We decided to take a back road (Chuckanut Road, for you locals) to extend the shop-talk portion of the evening, and an interview began via email shortly thereafter, in late 2004.

Ben: Tell us how you first came to music and the guitar.

Bill: First came the mandatory piano lessons while I was a kid growing up on the near north side of Chicago, which I despised - both the north side and the lessons. It seemed that piano lessons were one of those things that all the parents in that area made all their kids do, kind of like soccer, ballroom dancing, and therapy. There didn't seem to be a true familial love for music, sports, dancing or mental health for that matter so all these activities felt perfunctory somehow. That lack of context just fostered resentment toward the whole thing so I quit as soon as my parents would let me. Later my family moved to a tiny farm town in Southwestern Michigan.

There we adopted several children, two of whom, my brothers Matt and Monte, were in a punk band. They said that I could join if I got a bass because that's what they needed to flesh out the group, so I bought a bass. We spent one summer playing in our barn and then I dropped the ball. Later I met a guy from a nearby town named Eric Bowers. He was a keyboardist and we found common ground in our developing tastes for industrial and gothic music: Death in June, Coil, Sol Inivictus, Current 93 and the like. We would make 4-track recordings and I would vocalize or play samples on his keyboard, maybe a little bass. I think that is where my actual passion for music was born. From that a band was started.

I had then taken up writing and so I became the singer in this little band that sounded conspicuously like Joy Division. I would write these precocious little songs rife with all the worldly experience that I couldn't possibly have, being a teenager in a tiny town. It was me, Eric, a guy named Lance Phelps (who later moved out here [Seattle] and played drums with the Spits for a while I believe), Paul Newton and my brother Monte. Paul, our guitarist, quit and so I reluctantly picked up the guitar. We broke up after one concert at my parent's antique store and went off in our various post- high school directions.

As I got involved in college, which comprised of me skipping all my classes and screwing around with my 4-track, a shift occurred. I simultaneously realized that I really enjoyed playing guitar and I also came to terms with the fact that my singing was awful! From there I developed an interest in instrumental music. In the early Nineties, a friend in college gave me a Mahavishnu Orchestra record, which floored me. Around that time I also discovered John Zorn's Naked City on a fluke (the fluke being that some terrible chain record store in my town actually had a Naked City record). Those two records fostered an exploration into jazz and avant-garde music that certainly informs my present activities.

I later tried to major in music in college but ghosts of my formative experience in piano scared that aspiration away fast. Later I studied film and went on to work as a lighting director for a local TV station. The experience with film definitely had the most profound influence on my music of all my formal training.

Ben: Film had a huge influence on me too - I got lots of formal ideas (pacing in particular) as well raising my awareness of what people picture when they hear music. What did film do for you?

Bill: Totally. The visual implication is huge for me too. That is one of those funny things about the popular conception of instrumental music in general: so often people will listen to it and their reaction is "that sounds like a movie soundtrack" simply because you've removed the didactic nature of words from the equation and what is left to the listener is a unique visual experience.

Some of my favorite feedback I've received about my work has been these protracted descriptions of dreamlike scenarios that have been induced by my music. Beyond the visual aspect, syntagmatic relationships evince through editing are also very influential to me. The idea of taking disparate concepts or things and by the very nature of their proximity, creating a relationship that fosters a new or larger or different concept or thing; the whole thing about seeing an image of an eye followed by a drop of water and coming up with “cry.” I think the same thing happens in music although on perhaps a subtler, implicit, or intuitive level.

Ben: Do you think in pictures when you play?

Bill: Rarely do I think in pictures when I play. Although when I listen to others or back to myself I am almost always spurned into visual experience. When I play I think in textures, actual physical, tactile textures. This often dictates what kind of objects I will use with my guitar to translate the grit of distressed metal surfaces, or the immutability of smooth glass, or whatever, into a sound. I think, when I'm performing, my concerns are more pragmatic than anything loftier, spiritually or intellectually. Shit man, I'm just a guitarist!

Ben: Have you done any film work or collaboration with a visual artist (which I suppose includes dance)?

Bill: I have done a scant amount of work for film/video and it hasn't been for years. Despite being told regularly that I should, I rarely seek it out. One of the reasons being what I said before about the visual implications of my work and instrumental music in general: I'm skeptical of marrying my sounds to one specific image that everyone sees in the same way. As it stands right now, people get personalized movies, unique to them and their relationship with the world from my work and I like to usher that decentralized, personal experience.

Many people don't even realize that that is what's happening. They tell me that I should do music for film without any acknowledgment to themselves that they just saw a movie while listening to me. That is one of the top three comments people who do instrumental get, I think: "You should do music for film." The others being "You should try doing that with a singer," and my personal favorite, only applicable in the last decade or so- "That was pretty fuckin' cool, man. It'd be over the top with a DJ."

I have worked in other fields of visual art much more than film. I've done a lot of live improvised scores to films with the Paul Rucker Ensemble and others. I've also done a few things with live painting and other forms of creating. A few years ago, I wrote some music for an Italian theatrical production of Italo Calvino's “Invisible Cities.” The most work has definitely been with dancers. My last solo CD, "Lyric/Suite," is a solo guitar score for University of Calgary choreographer Davida Monk's "Lyric" which we developed together at the Banff Centre in 2002.

I think what I do in solo performance (or any time I do the laptop-guitar that is) has a stronger-than-normal visual aspect. To watch someone evincing these strange sounds via these very unconventional methods is a spectacle for eyes as well as ears. That knowledge has certainly informed my more recent work in which I seek different ways to use my body to influence and react to relationships between string and object.

Ben: You mentioned the Joy Division, Mahavishnu and Naked City. Were there any other influences early on?

Bill: Well somehow, at 11 or so, I found "Sailing" by Christopher Cross to be one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of music. Later, in my early teens, I got into new wave and punk. Thinking back on it, I tended to prefer any music that wasn't overtly blues-based. There are so many guitarists that have influenced me (to say nothing of the dozens of other instrumentalists, artists, scientists and accountants that have done so) it's hard to site specific ones. Certainly folks like Fred Frith and Hans Reichel, who is one of my all time favorites, helped me see possibilities; all the usual suspects in the world of experimental music. But then there are others, folks like Leo Kottke, Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr, Greg Ginn from Black Flag, Vini Reilly, J Mascis and Robyn Hitchcock to name a short few. Long before I ever heard Frith I was amazed by Danny Ash's exploration of guitar treatments in old Bauhaus concert videos. I'd mention Sonic Youth too but they're like garlic in a recipe – you know, it's implied!

Ben: Did you make a conscious decision at any point to break from traditional music and follow your own path?

Bill: I don't think there was ever such a shift because I really never felt any kinship to, or had any formal training in any musical traditions even when I would play more conventionally. I tended toward exploring my own interpretations of whatever music I was into at the time rather than studiously absorbing the tradition or precedents. I've always felt, and still do, that there are just so many random circumstances that can lead to great works and merely applying more control over study, and it's application had very little to do with the quality of the outcome. This is probably a blend of obstinacy and laziness but it is how I feel! However, in the early nineties, I did attend a workshop in Connecticut with Henry Kaiser, which definitely was some sort of turning point. The ideas I began pursuing were certainly less conventional after that!

Ben: What did Henry teach you at this workshop?

Bill: Well, much to the chagrin of many of my fellow workshop attendees, he wasn't teaching licks, chops, sweeps, runs, arpeggios or even riffs! In fact it was confusing even for the folks who were okay with that. It was almost like the Karate Kid with all this uncertainty of what we were gleaning there. You know, "Wax on wax off" that kind of shit, but it was more mental then physical. I think I hardly played guitar at all in the workshop! The basic gist of it was "be yourself.” Yeah there was a little part of me that was like, "I just spent several hundred dollars to be told to be myself?" But, at the same time, being from a small town, it was fantastic to kick it and hear all this wonderful music that it would've taken years of seeking out from a very knowledgeable fellow. As time went on I did see that it was fostering a new level of being, or, at least, seeking myself through more idiosyncratic means. It was then that "Wax on..." started to make sense!

Ben: Can you describe, as you did onstage at Bellingham, your approach to preparation of the guitar? Were you inspired by Frith or Cage to begin preparing your guitar? How do you find objects to use?

Bill: I wonder what I said in Bellingham?! Anyhow I play prepared guitar, the short of which means that I use objects not associated with conventional guitar playing, to elicit a variety of deviant timbres and textures. Not sure if my live address sounded so damned erudite but that's the gist!

It's a somewhat obscure condition called plectrum ennui, I think. I aim to find parameters in which I can coax sound from the tenuous relationships between the stings, pickups and the objects that change how the former two behave and relate. Because it is so tenuous, the approach lends itself well to improvisation. Despite my insistence on tuning the guitar to start off, and depending on the preparation (i.e. a drum cymbal wedged between strings and fretboard), all intonation is out the window. It's a constant discovery of new intonations and different string lengths. Often the result is pretty microtonal.

Lately, as I've attempted to relinquish further control, I've tried to find different ways to activate these relationships in ways other than using my hand. I mean, if I'm not using a pick, why should I bother with my hands? Probably the most apparent method is to get the guitar bouncing around under my galloping knees. This method came straight out of a simple inability to sit still. The trick for me it to find a preparation that will react to that motion and, in turn, become a sound.

Not just a sound though – music. I really tend to have a streak of accessibility in what I do. I definitely like to play with things that sound like conventional melody and harmony. Not always but it does appear at some point in most shows and recordings I do. I'm not just interested in making unusual or alienating sounds, and as time goes on, I just don't consider what I do any different than more conventional music. Granted, that kind of thinking may lose cache with the more puritanical free improvisers of the world, but it's not like playing electric guitar won't do that anyway!

I was certainly influenced by both Frith and Cage, probably in that order too. It was probably Jim O'Rourke that inspired me to do it first (or at least after Danny Ash from Bauhaus) [with] those weird solo guitar records on Extreme. Hans Reichel probably was the biggest influence, as I've said, although he doesn't do a great deal of preparing his guitars. Instead, he built some very strange instruments. In addition to his knack for the unconventional, I just loved his music, which I can't always say about Cage's and Frith's music for prepared instruments.

Ben: How does your playing differ from others i.e. Hans and Fred?

Bill: It's a bit tough to assess how my work relates to those fellas despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the comparisons are so obviously there. I'd venture that I may find my work somewhere between the two in a way. I tend toward more conventional harmony and melody than Fred and a lot more aggression than Hans. The fact that I often use looping pedals and build these textures into somewhat expansive, almost orchestral levels, probably separate me from the two of them. But I think it's like anything else. They have their idiosyncratic languages and, after ten years, I'm beginning to have mine!

Ben: We've talked about “non-idiomatic music” in the past. This implies a music that is not grounded in any previously-defined genre. I've read many folks try to define it as what it's not. How would you define it?

Bill: Non-idiomatic music, the way most folks view it, is like the whole Mu thing. You know. Nothingness so complete it includes the absence of nothingness. It's hard to pin it down on its own terms. Yeah, a lot of free jazz is non-idiomatic but since it's now enjoyed about half a century of existence, it's hard to say it's without tradition. As time goes on, there are more and more idiomatic signposts being hung along the ever- lengthening timeline of "music without tradition."

Even the more recent zeitgeist in the avant-garde, things like “lowercase” music or whatever, sounds conspicuously like the minimalism of the last century. It even borrows, partially, an ethos from dub! Having less and less interest in jacking off the ineffable, I prefer to think of non-idiomatic music more along the lines of personal music – an idiosyncratic lexicon that stands out as truly one's own. Now of course it's up to the individual as to how much of the outside world, and its traditions, they reiterate through their work and that varies wildly. I tend to have a good deal more accessibility come through my work than many of my contemporaries, but hell, that's who I am and it's expressed strictly on my own terms.

Ben: You've already done a lot to blaze the trail for others in the non- idiomatic realm. Talking with club owners in Berlin after a gig of mine for instance, they all knew your name. Tell us how your travels outside of the US have gone. How does running a solo tour compare to a group tour?

Bill: Traveling outside the US has been fantastic. Truth be told, traveling inside the US has been relatively fantastic too. There is much talk about the differences in hospitality on the road in the US and, say, Europe. Such disparities do exist. It is much easier to tour and survive in Europe – no matter what you're usually guaranteed a place to stay, food and other amenities that aren't guaranteed on the road in the US. Plus, the density fosters many more options for places to play. The density thing is something us West Coasters lament a good deal too. Viable places to present unusual work are pretty few and far between as compared to the East Coast and Midwestern US. Damn good thing it's beautiful out here!

Despite such differences, I think touring solo, as opposed to [touring] with an ensemble, levels the field a bit. As a solo artist, it's definitely easier to hook up accommodations and often people are happy to sport some grub, certainly more to a soloist than to an octet! In general it's easier to travel. You get to decide everything for yourself, which can be awesome. If you've been touring with a band and are familiar with the meeting strategies and schedules, the buddy systems and all that shit, you know how much like an elementary school field trip it can be! However, the long lonely drives and the lack of conversation with people you have a continuous relationship with can take their toll. I tend to work well on my own so I don't have many other issues with that kind of time with myself. Thanks goodness for books on tape! Of course it's really nice to have someone else to drive if you've had a few too many!

Ben: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Bill.

Bill: Cheers!