Interview: Thollem Discusses His New Nine Album Compilation Collection And Life As An Itinerant Musician

Interview: Thollem

Keyboardist/pianist Thollem McDonas recently posted to Bandcamp nine compilation albums featuring selections from his solo piano and electronic work, as well as in various ensembles including duos, trios, and quartets with over a hundred different collaborators. Collecting together tracks from his nearly 60 album releases, among the collection you will also find a Best Of compilation dedicated to his efforts in the Italian punk band Tsigoti, as well as with the Estamos Project, not to mention a collection dedicated to the Blues, to collaborations with different drummers, as well as his recent experiments on the new DSI Prophet Rev 2 synthesizer.

While Thollem is a classically trained pianist, he prefers an improvisational approach that incorporates elements of free-jazz, post-classical, the Blues, punk, and noise. In addition, the musician’s aesthetic is informed by the years he spent involved in “grassroots politics,” as well as “anti-war and environmental activism.” Much of his twenties he lived out of a backpack as, what he would describe, an “itinerant antagonist to society.” This period also saw him putting aside music in favor of his activism and writing. Thollem explains that he would eventually go on to realize that his musical abilities offered the best way for him to “participate in making the world a better place.” Exploring his discography, it’s obvious he’s never looked back since. Still informed by his anarchist roots and living an itinerant lifestyle after all these years, Thollem’s music is a testament to his restless and prolific creative drive, as well as Art’s ability to bridge and build diverse communities.

This past December and January the artist, activist, and educator took time to answer our many questions about his travels and music. Along the way, we discussed the recently posted Bandcamp collection of compilation albums, with the musician providing context and insight for the staggering amount of projects represented in this as-of-yet career spanning round-up. You can read our correspondence below, as well as preview Thollem’s musical selections via Bandcamp…

LETV: Thollem, congratulations on the recent release via Bandcamp of your nine compilation albums. You seem to have packed several careers worth of work into a mere ten years. Before we delve into the nuts and bolts regarding this huge collection of music, I’m struck by how central an itinerant life-style has been to your musical project. I think that really comes out on 2016’s audio-visual project Who Are U.S., where your travels around the country with videographer ACVilla chronicling that year’s run-up to the presidential election, framed the songs and films from the series. Does travel play an important role your creative efforts?

TM: Thank you! My OCD tendencies definitely came in handy with this. For me traveling is important in many ways. I’ve been pretty itinerant for most of my life. Often I do intensive 3 – 5 week tours but instead of going ‘back’ home I/we (my partner ACVIlla often travels with me) rest in varieties of places, usually in communities with a lot of artists. This has given me the opportunity to collaborate with tons of different artists over the years. I highly recommend this lifestyle to other artists and am always happy to help when I can. As any touring musician knows, we don’t really get to experience a lot when on tour, it’s get up, get in the van, drive to the next town, load-in, sound check, wait to play, play, wait to get paid, get paid (hopefully), sleep (have a little fun in between it all), get up the next day and do it all over again until it’s over and you crash in your own bed. I feel better when I’m in motion and it feels like my mind flows better when my body is moving through space. It’s a different state of mind, entirely. You have to be more awake than you need to be otherwise. I also feel it keeps me more in touch with the real reality, that the Earth or the universe is our home, not just the place where we know where everything is, or where the people are that we’ve interacted with our whole lives, or the place we pay our bills. Comfort and predictability is an illusion. Constant travel is a constant reminder and all that’s definitely an important influence on my work.

LETV: If I understand you correctly, your itinerant lifestyle seems to be a function of touring, a creative impetus, as well as how you feel you live “best.” It brings to mind a lot of different reference points, as well as the fact that musicians through the ages have always had to live an itinerant life in plying their craft. In addition, as your music touches often on the American tradition of the Blues and Folk, I think of times in our history as a nation when, due to economic and social reasons, disenfranchised classes of society were forced to travel as they searched out “new opportunity”–black migration from the South to urban centers in the North, or “hobos” traveling the train lines in search of work during the Depression. Does any of that strike a chord or shed light on your project as musician/artist?

TM: For sure! On a lighter note, there’s also the tradition of the great American road trip and of course much darker moments in our history like the Trail Of Tears. People in our country have traveled for a lot of different reasons. I am very privileged to be able to travel by choice (mostly), first of all, and fortunately, it suits my nature as well. I spent much of my 20’s living out of a backpack and sleeping bag, mostly involved in grassroots politics, anti-war and environmental activism. I spent many nights sleeping outside, waking up wet from morning dew and waiting for the first rays of sunlight. You really appreciate warmth when you’ve been wet and cold night after night. I feel very much in parallel with the Situationists, certainly in the sense that in order to stay awake we need to challenge are own assumptions of what we experience, and why, so that we don’t become numb to what we’re accustomed. The concepts of Existentialism as well, that we choose who we are each day, our values, our activities, how we respond to others and our circumstances is truly up to us each day. Also, the long tradition of anarchy has been a positive influence on me all my life, not the false definition of violence and chaos but the ability to discern between natural and artificial hierarchies. Ultimately though, I think of the great tradition of roving musicians like streams and rivers of water, with confluences wherever we meet. Sharing our sounds and approaches and allowing ourselves to be influenced and to bring it along as we go. People have historically been pushed and pulled in so many ways, for better and for worse, but as musicians, we can make the best of this and we have. I’m grateful to be able to play my small role in it all.

LETV: Before I ask you some questions about your musical background and current projects, I’d like to finish up on this theme of the itinerant musician and travel as a creative life source. We’ve discussed the importance of that for you, but I’m also curious how the notion of “home” might fit into this. For instance, do you need a “home” to currently make music as you do? After touring or travels do you return to a home base that has personal resonance for you? Do you have a home studio or place where you need to store gear and equipment?

TM: I haven’t had a home for over a decade now and so have to be pretty resourceful and also able to work under all kinds of conditions. I’ve worked with many different engineers in many different studios, some big and some small. I’ve also done a lot of simple stereo recordings, with improvised music. I do most of all the editing on albums I’ve produced on my laptop once someone else has mixed it. Usually, I’m present with the engineer when mixing. Mastering is usually done without me. I have several mastering engineers that I’ve worked on many albums with and that generally know what I’m looking for. I’ve gone through a lot of different keyboards over the years, but I almost never own more than one at a time, I always sell or give away equipment when I’ve acquired new equipment and therefore don’t have to store them. I have two file boxes of keepsakes that are in storage that I don’t travel with. Otherwise, everything I own is usually with me.

LETV: It sounds like over the years you’ve developed a real methodology for your itinerant lifestyle. I find it fascinating because it really runs counter to the way many of us live and the comforts of home and routine that we seek. As someone who has traveled for longer periods of time at various points in my life, I know that the thrill and adventure of traveling are also coupled with the daily struggle to find food and lodging–not to mention gas money, money to record your music, etc. While traveling “light” seems to be a strategy, what other strategic choices have been crucial in allowing you to maintain a creative but nomadic lifestyle?

TM: When I was in my twenties I only owned a bike, a backpack, and a sleeping bag. I slept outside a lot, sometimes outside federal buildings, sometimes in old growth redwood forests, sometimes under overpasses. I rarely played a piano or keyboard for several years, but I wrote a lot of pf poetry, some of which I used for Tsigoti lyrics 15 years later. I really lived as kind of an itinerant antagonist to society. I really wanted to live with the reality that I was temporary and that my thoughts and actions would far outlive me. I lived a pretty anonymous life, especially compared to now. Back then I wrote every day. Western notions of time lost significance for me. Though those experiences continue to be important, I live pretty differently now. For the last 10 years, I’ve been traveling by cars, trains, and planes throughout North America and Europe. Being able to regularly play solo is what ultimately allows me to tour like I do. I also have on-going collaborative projects with my partner ACVilla who travels with me most of the time. But I also have a lot of other collaborations that push and pull me in different ways, sometimes helping keep it all going and sometimes maybe distracting from that. I’ve decided this last year that I need to be more focused on less projects. There’s no quick answer to your question on this, for sure. Mostly I’ve been able to keep it going by perseverance, compulsion, and non-stop work.

LETV: It’s interesting to hear that there was a time in your twenties when playing music wasn’t central to your life. I’m curious, though, when did you realize that music was a special talent you possessed–not necessarily when you choose to devote yourself to it as an adult, but an earlier experience possibly as a child or teen. I understand that you received “classical” training along the way. What can you share about your earlier musical upbringing?

TM: I grew up studying the piano, playing recitals and doing competitions. My mom was a really dedicated piano teacher and it was just expected of me, with both desired and undesired results. My dad wasn’t around much but he was a legendary piano player (at least in my mind). I remember one day when I was in middle school waking up and realizing that I was a musician, like I’M A MUSICIAN! like a totally different person all of a sudden. I started composing and improvising and singing then as well. Then I went to SJSU for performance and composition degrees, which took 10 and a half years because I dropped out of everything in the middle of it. I’m really grateful now that my mom forced me to take lessons and practice every day growing up. I’m grateful for all of the performance experience I had and the theory and music history. I think all of this information and experiences can be really valuable, but not necessary, necessarily. I also felt really suffocated by it all and I had to escape it in my early twenties. I cut a lot of bridges and expectations. I also thought the world was on the brink of total devastation, I still think that it is, it’s just taking longer than I thought. But at that time it made no sense to do anything but protest and organize politically. Finally, I woke up one day and realized the best way for me to participate in making the world a better place is through my music. Life is all an experiment.

LETV: Your extensive training and experience as a musician obviously came with a lot of expectations and pressures. But, in listening to your work it seems to have given you a fearless approach–rather than, say, paralyzing you under the expectations and “rules” of being a classically trained musician. Your years of playing experience seem to give you the confidence to follow your Muse wherever it might lead. Was there a period of “unlearning” the rules and what was expected of you, or would you say your personality is more inclined towards following your own path?

TM: Thanks John, I’m definitely not fearless, but I am facing my fears a lot. I think it’s hard to say what is a result of my natural personality as opposed to my experiences. I had a lot of influences growing up in San José: All kinds of Latin music, Asian music, Jazz and Punk Rock. I was 12 in 1980, so I kind of came of age the same time west coast punk was really happening. I had the fortune to hear a lot of legendary jazz musicians at a club called Kuumbwa in Santa Cruz where my step-sister worked and still works and later at Ajax where the Church Of St. John Coltrane combo played every Friday night for a while. I also played a lot of 20th century piano music, most of which questions everything we think music is supposed to be. I’ve never been very good at fulfilling people’s expectations, as an artist, so I think that kept me from getting paralyzed by classical music institutions. I’m an anarchist, for the most part, I am against artificial hierarchies and unreasonable expectations. I’m not interested in being a purist in any ways that others define. I think life is nothing if it’s not experimental. When we settle on something too long we are distracting ourselves from the reality of constant change, codifying the revolution, making it subordinate to our expectations. I see the arch of most music as being revolutionary, that’s how ideas develop. I figure that to truly honor musicians that inspired me I have to dig deep and create something that couldn’t have been created by anyone other than me and in that moment in time, rather than to copy what they did. I love a lot of music made by people who have no formal training and I’ve known a lot of great musicians who make an unjoyful financial living with music. Unfortunately, classical music has become so codified and marketed in a particular way that it’s lost its’ original spirit. I feel like I’m living my life in the way that all these great composers taught me through their music and their lives, which was usually their way of breaking the chains of society’s expectations. What have I got to lose? Just my life, which is not really even mine, to begin with. And if my life doesn’t really even belong to me, then it definitely doesn’t belong to anyone else. ‘What if?’ ‘why not?’ has been a mantra of mine for a long time. Life is messy and we’re all freaks!

LETV: In recent months you’ve begun posting compilations of your work to Bandcamp, and not only is it a genre-spanning collection that reflects your multi-faceted approach to music, it also reflects the fact that you’ve worked with over a hundred different collaborators while putting out “60 or so albums” since 2006. Those are staggering numbers, but it also seems to suggest you’ve assembled quite a diverse community of fellow musicians along the way. While the Bandcamp collection also includes solo work on piano, and various electronic devices including the DSI Prophet Rev 2, your work with others seems to point to the importance of community in your musical development. I would love to know more about some of these projects and how they came about, but to begin, I’m curious whether you set out to develop a network of compatriots, or whether this just “happened” out of necessity along the way…

TM: Being on the road all the time gives me a lot of opportunities to collaborate with musicians, also dancers and filmmakers. All of my collaborations really come together in a wide variety of ways, but mostly just because I’m out there and involved with many different types of artists. It’s a great time to be a musician, in a lot of ways. I know all of the reasons why it’s difficult, very intimately, but there’s an incredible potential for openness in the world of music and art, like never before and I feel like I’ve definitely taken advantage of that! Tsigoti started because my friend and drummer Andrea Caprara and I were sitting around his kitchen in Italy and decided in the moment that we wanted to record some kind of a punk album in the 3 days before I had to split. It’s just what we felt we needed to do. We called up Matteo Bennici and then Jacopo Andreini came back from tour the next day and we made these songs out of a bunch of words about war I had written when I was in Prague. We’ve released 4 albums since and done a bunch of tours, mostly in Italy. Mike Watt actually got to know the band and that’s why I ended up inviting him to record what ended up being the Hand To Man Band along with John Dieterich (Deerhoof) and Tim Barnes (O’Rourke, Silver Jews). Conformity Contortion with Sara Lund (Unwound) started because I was traveling around the country recording with lots of different drummers. Sara and I just really hit it off musically, and personally, within this particular approach I was interested in for this project. Sam Coomes from Quasi introduced us. I started working with Nels Cline after I heard him and Thurston (Moore) play. I had a particular idea that I presented to Nels and then invited William Parker to join us. We recorded our 2nd album with Michael Wimberly kind of because we were both given equipment from Analog Outfitters who were making unique equipment out of discarded Hammond organs. Martha Colburn asked to use some music off my solo piano album So Much Heaven, So Much Hell, and we’ve been working together regularly for quite a few years now. Community is really important generally, and for me personally, and this is a way that it particularly works for me.

LETV: Is it fair to say that many of these collaborations are improvisational in nature–or are song elements/composition worked out before recording? Sounds like there might be a bit of both going on. Also, tell us more about how you handle the recording process?

TM: For sure many of my collaborations are either totally free or structured improvisations. Even Tsigoti, which is a song-oriented band generates material spontaneously while we’re all in the same room. We felt that is an important aspect of what the band is all about, that we don’t generally bring in finished songs but work off of fragments of ideas together, in the moment. I have collaborations that veer more into the free jazz realm, others more into post-classical, others into noise and others into song like my album with Jad Fair and Brian Chase. We live in a time where musicians are meeting all over the world creating across cultural and linguistic barriers, making music more or less without a specific aesthetic result. Improvisation gives us the ability to connect personally with other musicians we may not even share a common language with. Of course, that can be true with other genres as well, but free improvisation has a universal approach since there don’t have to be any assumed parameters. The recordings happen in many different ways, sometimes really crudely and other times in great studios. Tsigoti is all self-recorded in a communal studio in Italy. My three trio albums with Nels Cline (with Pauline Oliveros, William Parker, Michael Wimberly) were all recorded by professional engineers in pro studios. I am fine with all possibilities, it all just depends on what’s possible and appropriate to each project. I am usually with the engineer when mixing, then I usually do all the editing and usually a different engineer masters it.

LETV: It’s really crazy trying to make sense of all the projects and artists you’ve collaborated with over the years so I’m just gonna jump in and ask if you might provide a few words about certain musicians and projects that stand out. For instance, you’ve worked with guitarist Nels Cline on several projects. Also, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ drummer Brian Chase shows up a lot, as well as a number of other drummers including your project Conformity Contortion with Sara Lund. What was it like working with Mike Watt? Pauline Oliveros passed away last year and her body of work in and around music is fascinating. What was it like working with her? And, while I’ve only scratched the surface, I’d love to know more about the Keyngdrum recordings. In addition, with political conditions as they are, it’s an important time to know more about the Estamos Project

TM: I originally asked Nels Cline to join me in the studio after I heard him and Thurston Moore play their duo set ‘Pillow Wand’. Nels and I have been friends for a while and fortunately, he was into the idea. Then I thought of William Parker to join us. He and I had talked about doing something together at some point and I had a particular idea of how he could interact with me and Nels. That led to the first of three trio albums Nels and I made together, each time with a different 3rd member. The 2nd was with the great drummer Michael Wimberly and the third with Pauline Oliveros. Pauline, Nels, and William had all contributed scores to Estamos Ensemble for the first album of that project in 2011. I originally conceived of the Estamos Ensemble to bring musicians together from both sides of the México/U.S. border, as well as Native artists for the artwork of the covers. So, all these projects are kind of related. The trio album with Pauline was her last published recording and it came out a month after she died. An extremely sad and strange experience for me and Nels. Pauline will undoubtedly be seen as one of the most important innovators in the history of music, as well as music and technology, gay rights, philosophy and much more.

Brian Chase and I first started playing together when the NY bassist James Ilgenfritz brought us together as a trio to play a few concerts a few years ago. Brian offered to me that anytime I’d like to include him on a project to let him know so when Jad Fair and I recorded our improvised songs together I asked him to overdub utilizing objects he had around his Brooklyn home. We recorded a duo album at Dub Narcotic Records and did a tour together when it came out and now also have a trio album with Todd Clouser coming out this spring that we recorded in that same session. Brian is famous because of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, of course, and he’s also great sonic experimenter outside of the band.

The Keyngdrum recordings were all made with simple hand-held digital recordings in casual situations along my travels. I was interested in working with as many different drummers as possible to create kind of punkish improvisations. Each collaboration with the different drummers resulted in a wide variety of possibilities and I released an album on Union Pole Records that consisted of 10 drummers, a different one on each track. Conformity Contortion with Sara came out of that. Sam Coomes introduced us and it just felt reallllllly good right off the bat. New Atlantis Records offered to release the album and it turned into its’ own project. We recorded a 2nd album, this time in a studio in Portland that Personal Archives released last year

LETV: Since we’re on the topic of collaboration, I first met you when you and ACVilla were working on your Who Are U.S. audio/visual project, traveling around the country during the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. What was the impetus for that project and what did you learn from your travels at that time?

TM: Who Are U.S. was an idea that came about because of the Presidential Elections. I realized that elections are really about who we are, our history and where we’re going. There’s a lot of fiction involved written by the candidates and the media. ACVilla and I decided we wanted to go throughout all 48 states to document what we found and challenge our own assumptions. The main focus developed into the place where people meet each other and our environment. We started thinking of it as if we were aliens, how do you really get to know and understand and express a country as big and diverse as the U.S. It’s not easy, and it was really exhausting. It was kind of the ultimate improvisation and process piece really. It also resulted in a 90-minute movie with my soundtrack I created for it and no dialogue. It can be seen on Vimeo and the soundtrack was released by Aural Films as a 3-disc box set.

LETV: Here’s a last question regarding your work with others…I seem to remember reading at one time that you were in Mathew Barney‘s River of Fundament. Do you I have my facts straight, and if so, what was it like working on a film like that?

TM: I am in River Of Fundament. I played giant piano strings that were connected to 150-foot tall steel ovens in a slag pile. The guys from Wolf Eyes were on top of the ovens attaching cymbals to the wires that would chop off my head except there was someone catching them in time with a rope attached to the wires. It’s a bit hard to describe. Totally insane experience, definitely one I won’t forget until the day I die. Glad I didn’t die during the shoot!.

LETV: To wrap things up, do you have any projects in the making for 2018? What can we look forward to?

TM: I have a lot in the works this year. I think this will be the last year of so many releases before I start focusing primarily on song-oriented music. I have a trio album with André Stjames and Tim DuRoche coming out on the legendary ESP-disk label, a duo album with Gino Robair, who is most widely known as a percussionist with Tom Waits plus the editor of Electronic Magazine on Setola di Maiale, a duo album with Michael Bisio also on Setola di Maiale, a new multimedia show with the films of Martha Colburn, Tuia Cherici and ACVilla, the trio album with Brian and Todd on Personal Archive Records, a new solo song-oriented album I’m working on now called Thollem’s Hot Pursuit Of Happiness (Label TBD), a duo album coming out with Tracy Silverman (Electric Violin) on Edgetone Records, a solo piano album called 4 – Pianos, Infinite Tunings recorded in Detroit on a new label that Trinosophes and People’s Records is starting up together, Tsigoti‘s 5th album will be coming out the end of the year (Label TBD), an album recorded at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn while I was in residency there with Nels, Michael Wimberly, Yuka C Honda, Laura Ortman, Rod Hohl, Jessica Lurie, Marco Orozco and Ravish Momin (Label TBD) and I made a bunch of improvised recordings with different musicians around the country last year that’ll be coming out digitally on Edgetone. And I’ll be around the country again playing shows with the films and Hot Pursuit Of Happiness.

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