Did you find that only men are allowed to play the didgeridoo?
Indeed, within that culture that is their rule. Although I’ve known a Western woman who was taught by Aborigines and it seemed they were able to make a distinction that she was a woman but from the other culture and so they found it possible and acceptable for her to do it. Although I think she ran into more opposition than I have. She had more Aborigines saying “Not only are you white but you’re a woman. You shouldn’t be doing that.”
I asked the Aborigines why this was and they had an interesting and kind of twisted story about it, going back to their origin stories. They said that there had been, in the dreamtime, in the original time when everything was created, there were two women who went out in a canoe and went beyond the usual fishing grounds into an area that was the realm of the gods where you’re not supposed to go. And they got caught. And the ancestor beings were going to kill them and then “Well, we’ll let you off this time because you’re naive. We’re going to teach you how you should live properly and what rituals you need to keep to not get in trouble this way.” And sent them back.
They came back to the rest of the people and said “We’ve been told all the rules for proper living and we were also shown this amazing instrument that we should play when we do ceremonies.” And the men said “Well, we’ll take that. You can’t have it, cause if you had it you’d be too powerful.” And that was the reason, which was a funny twist for me cause I thought he’d say “Well you can’t play it cause you’re too delicate, you’re a weak woman, you wouldn’t be able to handle this.” But it was more the opposite. “No, if you had this then you’d have all the power. And we’re just going to take it, we’re just obnoxious, we’re going to have it.” They were very upfront about it.
Do they have groups of people playing didgeridoos or is it just one at a time?
It’d only just be one at a time. They don’t use it in all parts of Australia. It’s really an Arnhem Land thing, which is north central Australia. In other areas they just have singing and clapsticks and the dancing and really no instruments. But where they use the didgeridoo it’s considered pretty essential – the singer and a didgeridoo player. And as the day went on, more and more people would arrive and then they’d start dancing all the special steps that go with the song, which in themselves actually make a kind of rhythmic accompaniment with stamping on the ground and so on. But always just one didgeridoo.
You’ve mastered circular breathing, which allows you to keep a note going indefinitely.
That’s one of my main lessons when I went to live with the Aborigines, having come to this on my own and finding circular breathing so strange because it’s not usual in Western culture. You have people like Roland Kirk who did it, some other jazz players, occasionally classical players. So you get carried away with the idea that “Well this note could go on forever in principle. What’s the longest you could do it and who holds the record?”
And then I go to the Aborigines and I find out their songs are typically thirty seconds long. They’re not doing the circular breathing primarily to prolong the length of the song. They’re doing it because as they do this gulping in and out and switching over of the pressure control it creates a rhythm in the music. The circular breathing is really a way of imposing a structure on the sound. That’s what’s most important, not how long it goes on. Which also makes it different from someone like Roland Kirk who, to his great credit, managed to do the circular breathing in a way that you couldn’t hear very clearly where he switched over the pressure from his mouth to his lungs and did the breath through his nose. He just kept it smooth and going and that’s quite a discipline in itself, but it’s so different because then you’re not imposing a structure of breathing onto the music. You’re letting your fingers play the saxophone, do the structure.
Particularly there’s some fast riffs in the traditional Aboriginal repertoire where there’s no time for exchange of oxygen. You do these gulps that just basically go down your nose and out your mouth and it never reaches your lungs. You can’t play those for a long time. Some of the slower riffs you can kind of get a lungful in, you can do those for a couple of minutes. But it was a real revelation for me to see that I should stop thinking about how long I could play for and focus on how the breathing creates the rhythm.
Also in my own particular journey with the instrument, when you have the drone going continuously, even if you’re imposing rhythm on it, it fills up a lot of space. And when you try to bring that into a band and use it with bass and guitar and keyboards and horns and so on, you’ve already taken up a huge amount of the sonic spectrum with a didgeridoo. I started heading toward the more sparse sound, more staccato, particularly as I got into looping with the Dr. Didg thing. If you’re going to have three or four didgeridoo riffs at the same time in all the loops, they’ve each individually got to be pretty sparse.
Have you spent a lot of time thinking about the connection between music and physics?
There are a number of examples of famous mathematicians and physicists who were also quite gifted musicians. So there’s a general sense that there must be some connection in the way the brain works that helps you with both. But in my own experience I’ve found them to be very separate. I think I could look at something like being a classical player and appreciating Bach and being into mathematics. Those I could see the relationship between, because the music is so mathematically constructed and analyzable in terms of its symmetries and relations between the notes.
When you get into something like improvising it feels to me what’s more important is an expression of emotion and something that you’re feeling. It’s hard to find the analogy in physics. Because in physics, the world is there and you try to understand it, discover it and explain it. And in music you try to make something that didn’t exist before that expresses how you feel in this moment on this planet. Having said that, I’ve got the physics mind going so I bring that to bear on what I’m doing musically. Like I have a pyramid that sits at the end of the didgeridoo that’s a sound isolation device to stop my microphone picking up the drums and getting all the drums in the loop. And even on a more musical level in the way that I categorize and analyze and understand what I’m doing. I do systematize it in a way that has some relationship to how I approach science. But when it comes down to it, you’re looking for something – it’s got a groove, it’s got a feel, it’s got to be expressive. And I can’t see any analogy to that in physics. Physics is kind of inventive and playful but not creative in the same way.
There is an aspect to where having a composed piece can give you a framework within which you can possibly express yourself in deeper ways [than improvisation]. If it’s a good composition and you’re a good musician in how you perform it, you have to fully inhabit it when you play it. Even if it’s composed you have to re-experience it and re-feel it and re-interpret it and if it’s deep and complex you can do that in a way that is hard to do when you just have to invent it off the cuff. But to actually just do it right there in front of people, you’re really creating.
And it goes deeper than that, something that Joe Boyd said. He was the head of the record company I originally signed with – Hannibal Records. He’s also a noted producer and very interesting character on the scene. He gave me my foot in the door. He came to a couple of gigs and he said “You know, I noticed this really cool thing. When you’re up there improvising the audience is literally part of the music because every time you take a sample you capture some of the audience sound.” Which is something I was trying to avoid with the Pyramid and so on cause it could make the loops very messy. But you’d get a loop where you got my riff going and then on the upbeat you hear someone go “Whoo!” And every time the loop goes around it goes “Whoo!” “Hey, that fits, that’s perfect!” And so they’re literally in the music.
In front of people, I’d finish a song and I’d be picturing “What would make these people move?” And I’m looking at the audience and I start a riff and they start dancing. Alright, now what do you put on top of that? And so you’re doing it in conjunction with them and plus the whole vibe thing. You know, if you’ve got a room full of people just wanting you to be good it tends to make you rise to the occasion. It’s sort of an old cliche, the Grateful Dead song, the music plays the band. The audience is an integral part of making great music.
You once sat in with the Grateful Dead. What was that like?
It was mind-blowing and very significant for me. I was a huge fan of the Grateful Dead and had been collecting their lives tapes on cassettes back in the ’70s. It was definitely a big influence on my music. It came about because Mickey Hart was doing his solo work in world music and releasing it through the Ryko Disc label. Ryko Disc bought Hannibal which was the label I was on. It was because we were on the same label that he was told about me and the stuff I was doing and was intrigued by it. It was set up that I would come and do a recording session at his ranch. It was coming just a couple of days after finishing their run of shows with a Mardi Gras show at the Oakland Coliseum. That was February 23, ’93. He ended up saying “Why don’t you come in a couple of days early and bring your didg?” “Sure, I’m going to do that!”
I love the band and when you’re waiting for the show you feel the sense of expectation in the air. The whole crowd’s filtering in like “What’s going to happen tonight?” And I’m going up on the stage and just feeling like this is almost a temple. I’m walking on a sacred ground where this amazing thing is about to happen. It’s been arranged that they’re going to go into Playing in the Band, the big jam, and then it’s going to come down into a Drums section. Jerry and Phil and Bob and Vince leave the stage. I actually end up sitting on Jerry’s Persian rug. “We’ll just bring the rhythm right down and you start a new groove that you’re comfortable with and we’ll build around that.”
So I get out there and play a big drone on the didgeridoo and the whole crowd goes “What the hell!?” I feel this response sweep through the place. They bring the rhythm down and then I start my favorite riff and they join in and it’s grooving. I put headphones on and I could hear perfectly what everybody was playing. I could hear what I was playing too which was vital. We also had Sikiru Adepoju – he played on [Mickey Hart’s] Planet Drum records, an awesome African percussionist – and the two drummers in the Dead. It gets grooving along and then I think “Alright, well I think this needs to go somewhere.” So I start pushing up to the high toots on the didgeridoo and doing this syncopated playing on off beats. And immediately they follow me and start doing it. All the drums are rising up and beating and playing exactly what I’m playing. That was the moment I really remembered. It was like “Holy shit! I’m leading the band!”
It went on for a long time. By the end of it I was playing my guts out and my lips started to turn to chopped meat. Then they dropped down to weird stuff where they’re triggering synth sounds off of midi pads and working their way into the Space jam where the other guys come back out again. And I start playing just weird, the most outer spaces noises I can make with a didgeridoo. That was quite fun. A once-in-a-lifetime thing. What I heard from people later is that the front of house mixer, they were mixing it in and out. At that time, the whole Drums/Space section was a chance for the sound engineer to also kind of be a musician and paint with the sounds. One cool thing that he did, that I couldn’t hear onstage, was they had a third set of speakers at the back of the hall. They were taking just the didgeridoo and panning it left, right, back, left, right, back. To people in the room it sounded like the didgeridoo was spinning around, flying around the top of the auditorium. That doesn’t come out on the tapes.
Who are your influences and favorite didgeridoo players that you could point fans to?
The real thing is to try and hear the traditional Aboriginal players. This exists now on YouTube so it’s much easier than it was in my day. When I started there were like two albums in the University library. The UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music of the World. There are some artists like David Hudson, an Aboriginal artist who has released a lot of music very much rooted in the traditional style and mixing it up with other musicians in some cases. Also Xavier Rudd is awesome. He’s tip-top on the didgeridoo and using it very effectively.
I would really try to find any examples of the real stuff. That’s why I got into it. When I heard that, it almost was like I was hearing music coming from another galaxy. It was strange, I couldn’t understand it at first which I found thrilling. You listen to it and say “I know there’s something going on here but I’m not getting it.” You start to realize how it’s working and it’s very rhythmic and all these multi-layered things going on. I’ve found that a lot of people have come to the didgeridoo and gone for what I see as sort of an easy shot, the most surface thing, that it’s a cool sound. It sounds awesome. It makes your skin tingle and they can easily settle to using it as a sound effect. But it is a rhythm instrument. And you go back and listen to the original guys playing it and they’re not doing that, they’re playing like a machine gun, intense staccato stuff.
What’s the best concert that you ever saw?
The best one was John McLaughlin with Remember Shakti. I just sat with my jaw open the whole time feeling waves of love pouring off the stage.