Avant-garde trio Capri-Batterie’s album Bristol Fashion, a collaboration with comedian Stewart Lee, has drawn attention to their unique approaches to free improvisation. AJ Dehany spoke to them via Skype between London and Totnes.
Named after a yellow light bulb powered by a lemon, Capri-Batterie recently released the album Bristol Fashion, a collaboration with comedian and free jazz enthusiast Stewart Lee. It was entirely improvised over an hour in a studio in Bristol, even Lee’s hilarious spoken word contribution which ranges from sugar snap peas to the controversies of civic architecture in Birmingham.
“It was strange for the people recording this album,” said trumpeter Tim Sayer. “We subverted some of their natural recording practices. There is no overdubbing, no editing, we had almost a mix in our headphones with virtually nothing done to the take once it’s done. Stewart Lee’s tracks had a little bit of mixing but basically it’s what we were hearing at the time. We were lucky enough to be in a studio, DBs Music, where that they can do that.”
The group has a smattering of recordings on Bandcamp but Bristol Fashion is their first full-length album. Bass player Matt Lord expressed a familiar improviser’s ambivalence about recording: “I like going into the studio with these guys but the one we did with Stewart was by far the easiest. I tend to have very negative studio experiences and feel that what comes out tends to be a bit of a plasticated version of what I’m interested in. I am interested in albums but I’m not so hung up on the idea. It’s documentation, isn’t it?”
The group is based in Exeter, where none of them lives. Matt Lord (bass and saxophone) and Kordian Tetkov (drums) live in Devon, but Tim Sayer (trumpet and electronics) is based in London. There is a terrific film of them at Cafe Concrete in Plymouth in July 2016 (above), which I was astonished to learn was the first time they came together as a trio.
Kordian Tetkov: We met for the first time one and a half hours before.
LondonJazz News: How did you do the encore, a piece called The Devil (“and the devil is always different”), that amazing two-minute death-jazz thing?
Matt Lord: Kordian and I used to play The Devil as a duo.
Tim Sayer: I can remember you telling me at the sound check that we’ll probably do this at the end and for two minutes: ‘You’ll do it with us and we’ll just go for it’.
ML: That’s right.
KT: That was the only bit we ‘arranged’. We didn’t know what was going to happen.
TS: The thing that sticks out in my head was the sound check, the absolutely beautiful feeling that ‘My God, this is just going to work’. Any anxiety just went out of the window as soon as we played the sound check because we realised we could just carry on; it just gelled in that instant.
LJN: The album Bristol Fashion is a significant step forward in Capri-Batterie’s work, dialling down the volume with a more acoustic instrumentation but retaining the characteristic intensity they bring to free playing. What led to that change?
ML: I shifted over to a double bass less than a year ago. It has caused a huge change in terms of my navigating what we do. I was able to hone my listening to what was going on with these two. With electric instruments I think I got tired with just the sheer volume. That can be distorting in terms of your ability to play with other people.
TS: I think one of the things with any acoustic instrument is the volume pushes you in a certain way and there’s lots of space and nuance to play with.
LJN: How does instrumentation influence what you’re doing? I noticed you used an unusual format with sax and trumpet on the first Weigh In Suite piece.
TS: It’s a small thing that happens within Capri-Batterie where the instrumentation changes. It scales down to small, intense happenings. We’re intending to roll this out in different contexts so we can set it out very quickly. Kordian’s drum kit scales down. I use a pocket trumpet. Matt has saxophone. It’s a more intense creation.
KT: The intention is to be a pop-up band. Have you seen the Fassbinder film World on a Wire? It predates The Matrix, it’s an early 1970s TV sci-fi in two parts. They use this computer simulation program to predict consumer trends and there are characters moving between realities.
TS: It’s like this thing coming out of another dimension from nothing and disappearing again. Like, ‘What just happened!?!?’
Their blend of influences is multidimensional. Kordian started with classical percussion at 12 but loved playing rock music in bands, as well as being fascinated by Taiko drums, which he studied in Japan. Tim as an academic has a research interest in improvising and music technology, “so I have that kind of background in experimental music but I don’t feel that intentionally as a player”. What they do as a trio does fits into a jazz bracket but, says Tim, “I don’t think of any of us are completely comfortable in the jazz world. I can do it but it doesn’t feel authentic if I’m just doing a straight-ahead jazz gig. It’s gonna be a bit different.”
ML: I’ve always been primarily interested in whoever the person is on the outside edge of whatever type of music I’m into. If you’re looking at contemporary classical, blues, pop music even, they all have people who are pushing or searching within that frame and so those are people I relate to. Maybe jazz music has always had a stronger tradition of allowing that to happen – though if you look back on the history of jazz music there’s been a huge opposition to this to those people.
Capri-Batterie is an artwork by legendary German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys. It is a yellow light bulb attached to a lemon, a comment on ecology, freedom and flux. I asked the group if they felt a connection to Joseph Beuys in a political dimension regarding free improvisation, “particularly in our current world where freedom seems to be more like freedom to be an asshole”?
TS: I don’t think we have collectively formulated a manifesto as it were. I’ve played lots of different styles of music for many many years but this is absolutely the first time when I feel myself connecting with the concept of freedom in my playing. I don’t experience it in any other facet of my life. When things are working for me I experience a state of understanding of what freedom is about, of what else is going on around the world, oppression and chaos. Capri-Batterie is anathema to all that. It feels like an important theme for me to deal with to make sense of that chaos.
KT: I think for me free playing works much better than playing in a political rock band. It’s more abstract, but the times are very chaotic. Hopefully it’s some sort of comfort in terms of understanding how things are without a safety net.
TS: It’s very difficult and self-examining music to play, not just when you listen back to stuff but in the moment. There’s lots of questioning – self-doubts and insecurities – and yet we are putting ourselves into this situation to challenge that. The whole thing about not having a safety net there and having space for this: it’s a unique thing. There’s not many other fields of human endeavour where those two things come together.
KT: The real experience is the life experience and the audience is part of it with the players and as always an audience influences the process very much. When things happen, when they feel right, I think then the audience get as much out of it as we do.
TS: It’s challenging for an audience. The interesting thing working with Stewart Lee is how the audience has expanded. I’ve been watching the comments on Twitter going crazy, this mixture of people giving themselves permission to get into the sound worlds, or this craziness, this insanity, all sorts of words are coming up. I think it makes people reflect on themselves: they have to formulate an attitude to this somehow and it’s maybe pushing people to think about things in a slightly different way. We’re pushing that mainstream audience through Stewart’s connection and I was really amazed by the response, to be honest. I thought we might be in for a hard time but it hasn’t been like that at all.
KT: Of course there are lots of people for whom this is insane. The comment that stuck with me was he couldn’t work out if it was total shit or genius!
AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk
Bristol Fashion is available digitally from Bandcamp.
A vinyl release is in the pipeline.