I had the pleasure of interviewing John Zorn on October 20th, 1990, about a year after the first Naked City album was released and just after a performance of Cobra at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.
When did you start composing and playing music? I've found some of your records from the late 70's...
Zorn: Yeah, my first records are like '76 or something like that. I started playing really hard in New York from like '74 but I've been composing and writing since the mid-60's, since I was a kid.
Are you from New York?
Zorn: Yeah, born and raised in New York. Where are you from?
I'm from [turning on my accent] Boston...the reason I ask is that some of the people you collaborate with or work with are from San Diego. It seems like a lot...
Zorn: Wayne Horvitz is...well, he's not really from San Diego. That's not true.
I was thinking Diamanda Galas...
Zorn: I've worked with her a little bit. And actually on this new Naked City record I'm working on a piece that will feature her.
That's coming out on Shimmy Disc?
Zorn: Well, no. The twelve-inch with 42 songs on it will be out on Shimmy Disc and Earache out of Britain. But I'm going to come back out here in December and record the second full album for Nonesuch and that'll have one piece with Diamanda on it.
I like the piece with Diamanda on The Big Gundown. I can't think of the name of it...
Zorn: What is it? "Metamorfosi" I think it's called. She's incredible! Actually, she may be the only musician from San Diego that I ever have worked with.
So much for that hypothesis (laugh).
Zorn: That was a great theory. You can throw that right into the trash can. Heh Heh.
You've worked with a lot of musicians from all different backgrounds. I'll throw out some examples: Fred Frith, Eugene Chadbourne, Vernon Reid, Elliot Sharp, Bill Frisell, and so forth. They...
Zorn: Those are all guitar players. Interesting. Robert Quine. I've worked with him.
Diamanda, does she play guitar? (laugh)
Zorn: Noooo. She used to play piano. And she still does play piano a little bit. Have you ever seen her play?
She was on Night Music playing some piano. It was quite good.
Zorn: She is a good piano player.
It seems like you sort of search out these...I don't know if you search out or if it just turns out that way, that artists working with you are from different backgrounds. Like Eye from the Boredoms.
Zorn: Yeah. That is definitely something that needs to be searched out. I run around, I listen to a lot of music, go to a lot of concerts. And when I see someone that gases me, I try to go out of my way to involve them somehow in what I'm doing or get involved in what they're doing. Eye was a great discovery. He is one of the great vocalists of all time.
Actually, a friend wanted me to ask, "Why are you working with Eye?"
Zorn: Now, what a silly question. Anyone who hears the record should know the answer to that. It's because he is absolutely out of his mind. (laughs) That's why. He's fantastic!...A lot of people can't take him. He's really extreme.
He's pretty agresssive.
Zorn: He's a great screamer, but he's really got a wide variety of sounds. When I first saw him he was playing in a group called...umm...Geva Geva. There is a group called Zeni Geva in Japan that's got this guitar player called Null.
K.K. Null. I interviewed him. He was here two weeks ago.
Zorn: Null was here! (speechless)
Yeah, he played with the Pain Teens.
Zorn: With the long hair. He hardly speaks any English, how was the interview? (heh heh)
Zorn: I bet it was, man. No, that guy is great. He is brutal. So he was playing with Yoshida Tatsuya who plays in the Ruins. Who's a great drummer also. Him, Null and Eye had a trio [Geva Geva]...and I went to see them and Yoshida asked me to come and play with them, actually. And the first set, it looked like Eye was just completely improvising, doing whatever he wanted to do while Null and Yoshida played these songs that were all really, y'know, complex and all worked out. It looked like Eye was just doing whatever he wanted to do...And, uh, I said y'know let's improvise together. Let's do some duos or something. And he said, "What's improvising?" (laugh) He didn't think what he was in was improvising. He called it kind of...in Japanese you can call it Tekito...Tekito means kinda like "do what you want"...but, he didn't make the connection between improvising and Tekito. (laughs) Even today, like we do total improv duos that are just killer! He's got a natural sense for improvising. After the gig, I'll say what did you think of that. He'll say "I had no idea what I was doing! What was that? Was that music?" (laughing)
I have the Boredoms album that's on Shimmy Disc...
Zorn: That originally came out on a label called Selfish in Japan and then...uh...I gave Kramer a tape of the Boredoms and he flipped, so he wanted to license the record and now it's out on Shimmy Disc.
You had a performance of Cobra this week at the Great American Music Hall, that's that card/war game...
Zorn: Yeah, that's my game piece. It's not a war game. A lot of people get upset with that stuff. Apparently, Willie Winant tried to do the piece down in San Diego, or somewhere down south at some school, and some girl student got really upset and tried to blockade the performance. Cause she didn't like the use of the word "tactics" or "guerilla systems" or "cutthroat." This military stuff. We gotta get rid of that.
How does that work? Is it difficult to explain?
Zorn: Well, what do we have now? Ten minutes? Really it's best to (chuckle) just go on to another subject. To put it like into one sentence, it's kind of a loose system that permits improvisers to interrelate and react to each other in different ways.
And you as conductor control it by...
Zorn: I don't control it at all. It's all up to the musicians in the group. They control it. They make all the cues, and they tell me what they want, and then I act like a mirroring device so that everyone can see what the cues are.
Oh...so, you're not directing who is improvising. You're saying...
Zorn: No, not all.
You are telling everybody else who someone wants to improvise with?
Zorn: Right. Like someone will say, well I wanna do this now. So they will tell me and I'll tell everyone else with these cards. And then at anytime, anybody can...
Aren't you choosing? Like if several people are saying I want to do this...
Zorn: Well, of course. Like you have seven people with their hands up. I gotta make a choice. Y'know, that's tough. Sometimes I gotta go with someone that has an idea and make several calls in a row, because they got an idea. And sometimes I stick with just one person for a while. That may seem unfair. Then I'm like enough of this guy and then I'll take someone that hasn't made a call in a while or...if there are five people with their hands up and there is one person that has never made a call in the piece, then I'll take that person. And I try to be as diplomatic as I can, but it always ends up being a psychodrama up there on stage. (laughs) That's what those pieces are about.
A friend saw the show and said that when you switched from one improvisational set, I guess you could call it, to another that it was just flawless. It just jumped from one to the next...
Zorn: That's very simple. You just give a downbeat, and say at this downbeat a change is gonna happen. Some cards [are] just any kind of change. Some cards are more specific, like everybody drops out except one person. It's like a very complicated toggle switch. It's an on and off switch for the all the people in the band. I never talk about what they play, because each person has a very personal style. Y'know, they've developed a language on their instrument that nobody else can duplicate, so I wanted to find a way to harness that kind of talent in a compositional arc. What I came up with was this kind of game structure that talks about when people play, and when they don't play, but doesn't talk about what they do at all. So everyone gets gassed when they're doing it. I mean, it really is a psychodrama!
I heard it was really fun to watch.
Zorn: It's a blast to watch. It's a lot more interesting live than it is on record. I mean, it really is a theatrical event. It's a sporting event! Cause you never know what's gonna happen.
There's a lot of humor involved.
Zorn: Yeah! Usually the people in the band have a sense of humor and when they screw up, it's always a subject of ...
I hear you have a hardcore band in New York. Is that true?
Zorn: Well, in Japan, I have got a group of musicians that I have worked with a lot, that concentrate just on the hardcore stuff, say, that Naked City has been working on. We have like a repertoire of sixty songs now.
Wow. Does it have a name?
Zorn: It's called Torture Garden: Yoshida, the drummer from the Ruins; Eye is the vocalist, Ema Hori who is an incredible guitar player. And the bass player is also from the Ruins, this guy Kimoto. We just played at CB's last week. I brought them all over to New York to do some gigs.
Great. Is there going to be anything coming out on vinyl or CD of that band?
Zorn: For that particular band, nothing is planned yet. I'd like to do a twelve-inch with 5 songs or something like that. All the Torture Garden material has already been recorded by the band Naked City. That'll come out on Earache out of Great Britain and Shimmy Disc here in the States [ed. note: It came out in 1991].
Shimmy Disc is licensing the Earache record?
Zorn: Well, it's a complicated thing. Basically, this Naked City record (the first album on Nonesuch) came out, right. In the middle of it are about ten songs that are really short and hard. I said I wanted to do a record of 40 of those pieces, cause I was really interested in the compression and compactness of form that that music gets to.
Putting lots of information in a very very short amount of time...
Zorn: The guys at Nonesuch were not interested. If I wanted to do that, I better take it somewhere else. So what I managed to do was get them to bankroll the whole thing, and then I licensed it to Earache and Shimmy for basically no money and no royalties. So they are just putting this stuff out that Nonesuch bankrolled.
Neat. What a deal!...You spend a portion of your year living in Japan. How long have you been doing that? And why?
Zorn: Five months a year, something like that. For about seven years. I really like it there. There are a lot of great musicians. The scene is very open. A lot of stuff going on. People's ears are really open, they are not closed. A lot of scenes here, people just get tunnel vision and are into one thing.
They are into hardcore and that's it...
Zorn: Or they are just into classical or they are just into jazz. They get really prejudiced about that kind of stuff. They won't listen to other musics. I've always liked a lot of different kinds of music. I've always liked to listen that way. People in Japan are kinda the same. There is a lot of openess there. People aren't afraid that some weird guy comes over from New York who is interested in doing these weird things. Everyone is kinda into it, and wants to try new things. It's a really great place to experiment.
One that thing that is really interesting about your music is that people like myself (I'm originally from a punk background) are now learning about Jazz through artists like yourself. You put out an album of all Ornette Coleman covers, so I go check out Ornette's stuff, and find out it's pretty cool. So I end up branching out that way...
Zorn: That is a lot of the reason I do what I do, to really spread the word and spread information and turn people onto different things they may not be, y'know, aware of. That is what Naked City is certainly about.
What kind of music do you play just totally for fun? Like if you just wanted to have fun and were not having to play for a recording or a performance. Is there anything that you play at home by yourself?
Zorn: That band Slan that was here a couple of months ago that got trashed in the press, and is always getting trashed in the press (laugh). That is really a lot of fun for me to do. I love doing that.
What is Slan like? I am not familiar with them.
Zorn: Slan is a totally improvised hardcore band. It is the drummer from Blind Idiot God, Ted Epstein--who is an incredible musician, Elliot Sharp on guitar and vocals, and I play sax and do vocals. It's a chance to kind of totally improvise in a song form and do whatever is on our minds. It's a lot of fun. But, I mean, we can't play for more than thirty minutes without totally running out of steam (laughs).
At that pace, it is hard.
Zorn: It's hard. Ted can really kick your butt; he's really a great drummer. You should check out his band Blind Idiot God. They are really great.
It seems like the accessiblity factor for your music has stayed the same over the last ten years...
Zorn: Has it? You mean, the inaccessibility of it.
...your notoriety. You are much more well known now than you were five years ago.
Zorn: That's for sure.
What's it like, having that much more notoriety?
Zorn: It's a pain in the ass. It's a pain in the ass, definitely. As soon as you get a certain amount of attention, then everybody kinda wants to start taking pot shots at you. All your old friends that supported you don't support you any more. You know, it's really easy to support someone who is doing horrible. How can you give any sympathy to someone who is supposedly doing well? But I'm not here to complain. I'm doing fine. I'm making the records I want to make and ignoring the critics, as I always have.
Is everything busier now? Do you find yourself much more busy doing non-music stuff?
Zorn: No. Absolutely not. I'm more busy doing music stuff. Different kind of music stuff. I was always busy. In the old days, I used to practice the saxophone. Now [that] I don't practice it, I have time to compose. And more chances to perform all over the world. I really keep the nonmusical things, the business kind of things, to a level of zero. I've never called for a gig in my life. I mean, I just can't. And I've never shopped a tape around. People know where I am. They want me, they can call me up on the phone.
John Zorn Discography
(as of summer 1993)
Pool dbl-LP (1980, Parachute Records P011/12)
Archery dbl-LP (1982, Parachute Records P017/18)
The Classic Guide To Strategy, Volume One LP (1983, Lumina L004)
Locus Solus CD (1983/1991, eva WWCX 2035)
The Classic Guide To Strategy, Volume Two LP (1986, Lumina L010)
The Big Gundown LP (1986, Icon/Nonesuch 9 79139-1 F)
Cobra dbl-LP (1987, hat Art 2034)
Spillane LP (1987, Elektra/Nonesuch 9 79172-1)
Spy Vs. Spy LP (1989, Elektra/Musician 9 60844-1)
Cynical Hysterie Hour CD (1989, CBS/Sony Japan 24DH 5291)
Cynical Hysterie Hour-Trip Coaster 3"CD (1989, CBS/Sony 10EH 3327)
Naked City LP (1989, Elektra/Nonesuch 9 79238-1)
Radio Hour CD (1990, promo only, Elektra)
Film Works 1986-1990 CD (1990, Wave Records, eva WWCX 2034)
Elegy CD (1992, eva WWCX 2040)
Kristallnacht CD (1993, eva WWCX 2050)
That's The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute To Thelonious Monk dbl-LP (1984, A&M SP-6600)
Bad Alchemy Magazine + tape (1985, Bad Alchemy No. 3)
Trilogy tpl-LP (1985, Celluloid CELL 80808)
Lost In The Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill LP (1985, A&M SP 9-5104)
Godard Ca Vous Chante? Tribute to Jean-Luc Godard LP (1986, Nato 634) CD (1992, Nato 53004.2)
The Improvisers cassette (1986, Tellus #15)
Island Of Sanity: New Music From New York City dbl-LP (1987, No Man's Land nml 8707d)
Late In The 20th Century CD (1987, Elektra/Nonesuch 9 79171-2)
Special Noel (Merry Christmas Everybody!) LP (1987, Nato 1382)
October Meeting 87 CD (1987, Bimhuis 001)
Nuit Des Solos LP (1988, Van d'Oeuvre 8802)
Late In The 20th Century II CD (1989, Elektra/Nonesuch 9 79221-2)
Rubaiyat dbl-CD (1990, Elektra 9 60940-2)
Absolut CD #2: EAR magazine presents: The Japanese Perspective duo w/Eye CD (1990, Absolut #2)
What Else Do You Do? CD (1990, Shimmy Disc SDE 9021)
A Confederacy Of Dances Vol.1 CD (1992, Einstein 001)
(Y)Earbook Volume 2 CD (1992, Rastascan BRD009)
Festival MIMI 89 comp LP (no info)
State of the Union CD (1993, MuWorks MUW 1016 CD)
Sax Legends Volume 1 CD (1993, King Records/Japan KICJ 139)
Torture Garden EP (1991, Shimmy Disc 0039)
Leng Tch'e CD (1992, Toy's Factory TFCK-88604)
Heretic (jeux des dames cruelles) CD (1992, disk UNION AVANT 001)
Grand Guignol CD (1992, Avant 002)
Radio, Vol. 1 CD (soon, Avant 003)
Absinthe CD (soon, Avant 004)
Radio, Vol. 2 CD (soon, Avant 005)
Caged/Uncaged CD (1993, Cramps/Italia CRSCD097)
Grind Crusher CD (1990, Combat/Earache 88561-2027-2)
Guts of a Virgin CD (1991, Earache MOSH 45CD)
Buried Secrets CD (1992, Toy's Factory TFCK-88569)
Spreading The Virus CD (1992, Sentrax SET 1 CD)
News For Lulu CD (1988, hat Art CD 6005)
More News For Lulu CD (1992, hat ART CD 6055)
Live At The Knitting Factory, Volume 3 CD (1990, A&M 75021 5299 2)
with EUGENE CHADBOURNE
Duo cassette (Parachute)
School dbl-LP (1978, Parachute Records P004/6)
2000 Statues And The English Channel LP (1979, Parachute, P007)
There'll Be No Tears Tonight LP (1981, Parachute Records, P013)
LSDC&W dbl-CD (1987, Fundamental Save 19CD)
with FRED FRITH
The Technology Of Tears dbl-LP (1988, SST 172)
Step Across The Border CD (1990, Recommended reCDec 30)
with DAVID MOSS
Full House LP (1984, Moers Music 2010)
Dense Band LP (1985, Moers Music 02040)
with SEIGEN ONO
Comme Des Garcons, Vol. One CD (1989, Venture/Virgin CDVE 51)
Comme Des Garcons, Vol. Two CD (1989, Venture/Virgin CDVE 52)
Nekonotopia Nekonomania CD (1991, Made to Measure MTM 29CD)
with JIM STALEY
OTB LP (1984, Lumina Records L008)
Mumbo Jumbo dbl-LP (1987, Rift 12)
with GOLDEN PALOMINOS
The Golden Palominos LP (1983, Celluloid/OAO CEL 6662)
Omaha 7" (1985, Celluloid SCEL 56)
A History (1982-1985) CD (1992, Metronome/Restless 7-72651-2)
with ANDREA CENTAZZO
Environment For Sextet LP (1979,Ictus 0017)
Usa Concerts LP (1979, Ictus 0018)
Utopia Americana compilation CD (1992, New Tone NT 6707)
with BLIND IDIOT GOD
Saw Tooth 12" EP (1988, Enemy EMY 12001)
Undertow CD (1988, Enemy EMY 107)
Drive To Heaven, Welcome To Chaos CD (1989, Eva 2010)
Bandes Originales Du Journal Spirou dbl-CD (1990, Nato CD 1715)
with HALF JAPANESE
The 20th Anniversary Of The Summer Of Love: compilation LP (1987, Shimmy-001)
The Band That Would Be King LP (1989, 50 Skidillion Watts, Half 8-1)
John Zorn also appears on
GUY KLUCEVSEK Blue Window cassette (?, ZOAR Recirds ZCS 9)
THE FRANK LOWE ORCHESTRA Lowe & Behold LP (1978, Musicworks 3002)
JOHN ZORN, POLLY BRADFIELD, EUGENE CHADBOURNE Trio LP (1979, Ictus)
WAYNE HORVITZ Simple Facts LP (1981, Theatre For Your Mother TFYM 004)
CHARLES K. NOYES The World And The Raw People LP (1982, Zoar 12)
CHEVON & FLAGSTONE Flagstone Reggae LP (1983, Touchstone Records CH1983A)
BAILEY/LEWIS/ZORN Yankees LP (1983, Celluloid CELL 5006)
KIP HANRAHAN Desire Develops An Edge dbl-LP (1983, American Clave AMCL 1009LP/1008EP)
LENNY WHITE Attitude LP (1983, Elektra 9 60232-1) plays on "My Turn to Love" without mention
VIOLENT FEMMES Hallowed Ground LP (1984, Polydor/London Records 820 093-1)
JOE PISCOPO Honeymooners Rap EP (1985, Columbia 44-05224)
JOE PISCOPO New Jersey LP (1985, Columbia BFC 40046)
MICHIHIRO SATO AND JOHN ZORN Ganryu Island LP (1985, Yukon Records 2101)
ROCHESTER/VEASLEY BAND One Minute Of Love LP (1985, Gramavision 18-8505-1)
BUTCH MORRIS Current Trends In Racism In Modern America LP (1986, Sound Aspects 4010)
DAVID GARLAND Control Songs LP (1986, Review RERE 95)
NED ROTHENBERG Tresspass LP (1986, Lumina Records L011)
SONNY CLARK MEMORIAL QUARTET Voodoo LP (1986, Black Saint BSR 0109)
STEVE BERESFORD, DAVID TOOP, JOHN ZORN, TONIE MARSHALL Deadly Weapons LP (1986, Nato 950)
ALFRED 23 HARTH Plan Eden LP (1987, Creative Works CW 1008)
PETER BROTZMANN CLARINET PROJECT Berlin Djungle LP (1987, FMP 1120)
FRICTION Replicant Walk CD (1988, Wax Records 32WXD-110)
AMBITIOUS LOVERS Greed CD (1988, Virgin 7 90903-2)
JAD FAIR AND KRAMER Roll Out The Barrel LP (1988, Shimmy-012)
MARK BINGHAM I Passed for Human CD (1989, Dog Gone Records, DOG-0006-CD)
NICOLAS COLLINS 100 Of The World's Most Beautiful Melodies CD (1989, Trace Elements TE-1018)
SOVETSHOE FOTO The Art Of Beautiful Butling LP (1990, 1st Records, SPV 008-93231)
THE INTERGALACTIC MAIDEN BALLET Square Dance CD (1990, Tiptoe 888804)
MARISA MONTE Mais CD (1991, World Pacific CDP 7 96104 2)
OLD Lo Flux Tube LP (1991, Earache MOSH41)
IMPROVISED MUSIC NEW YORK 1981 CD (1991, Muworks Records MU W1007)
VALENTINA PONOMAREVA Live In Japan CD (1991, Leo Records CD LR 175)
OTOMO YOSHIHIDE We Insist? CD (1992, Sound Factory SFCD:003)
RUINS Early Works CD (1992, Bloody Butterfly ZIKSBB-004)
HOPPY KAMIYAMA Welcome to Forbidden Paradise CD (1992, Toshiba TOCT-6487)
GOD Possession CD (1992, Virgin Records Carol 1874-2)
GOD IS MY CO-PILOT How I Got Over 7" (1992, Ajax)
BIG JOHN PATTON Blue Planet Man CD (1993, King Records/Japan KICJ 168)
GOD IS MY CO-PILOT Speed Yr Trip CD (1993, The Making of Americans MA-7)
GROUND ZERO Ground Zero CD (1993, God Mountain GMCD:002)
MAKIGAMI KOISHI Loroshi No Blues CD (1993, Toshiba-EMI/Japan TOCT-6496)