Monday, March 3, 2014

The Long-Distance Bassist: an Interview with Shayna Dulberger

Brooklyn bassist Shayna Dulberger has been on the creative music scene for the better part of a decade, leading her own groups including her latest, a quartet with guitarist Chris Welcome, tenorist Yoni Kretzmer and drummer Mike Pride. Releasing most of her music herself, she’s also led groups featuring altoist Darius Jones (The KillMeTrio), drummer Carlo Costa, and collaborates with Welcome in a noise duo called HOT DATE. Her role as an electric bassist has charged the no wave revivalist quartet Cellular Chaos (with Weasel Walter, guitar; Admiral Grey, voice; Marc Edwards, drums), and she has also worked frequently with saxophonists Jonathan Moritz and Ras Moshe, bassist William Parker, and double-reed expert Bill Cole. In this interview she real-talks the daily struggles of an improviser, being a woman on the creative music scene in New York, and having a diverse approach to outsider music.

How did the current quartet come together?

Yoni Kretzmer had recently come to town – this was back in 2011. We were playing on the same bill at Local 269 as part of The Evolving Music Series. He messaged me sometime after the show to compliment me and asked to play, and we got together and had a great time. So I hired him to play my music. I get along really well with him, I think.

Mike Pride has been part of your environment for a long time, right?

He has; actually when I first moved to Brooklyn from Rutgers – Chris [Welcome] moved to Brooklyn before I did because he’s two years older than me, so he moved here and I was still going to school, but I was coming over all the time. He was going to ABC No Rio every Sunday for the jam session, which was really fun. Everybody would be mismatched in twos and threes. Chris and I were at the session and Mike and Jonathan Moritz were playing, and we got mixed and matched in improvisations, which was really fun. Mike hired Chris and I to start a trio, Ixtlon, which was very short-lived. Jonathan played on three of Chris’s quartet records and Jonathan eventually hired me to play in his trio, which will be performing in April at Spectrum.

When I first saw you, you were playing in a really nice trio with [tenorist] Ras Moshe and [guitarist] Amanda Monaco, and that must’ve been around the same time.

We’ve done a few of those gigs – maybe once every year or so? I play with Ras all the time. Amanda is great.

You’ve been playing with Ras for a while, right?

Yeah, when I first moved to Brooklyn I started a series in Park Slope and between going to the ABC No Rio sessions every week and having my own series, I met a million people. I had Talibam! play, and that series is how I met Ras. He asked me for a slot and asked if I would play bass on the gig. It was with [drummer] Charles Downs and [guitarist] Dave Ross, and I’m pretty sure that was my first time playing with him. That quartet went on to make the Transcendence record – I’m proud of it. That was my first real in-studio recording session.

As for your compositional process over the years and how it’s evolved, could you talk about that?

Yes. It’s really just going through any artistic chapter – like a blue period or red period, it’s kind of like that, and right now I’m in a folk-melody period, whereas before I was more interested in rhythm, harmony and counterpoint. Now I am more interested in melody and spontaneity.

How did this period emerge?

Well, I was feeling frustrated with making grooves sound interesting – they were stiff and felt uncreative. The melodies in the new book of songs are improvised over and under – it’s a bit more like my first record with TheKillMeTrio, but the written parts are longer.

As a listener it’s hard for me to bridge what you’re saying, because I’m on the receiving end and I like Ache & Flutter, the rhythm record, very much. You seem like you’re very self-critical of your work, which is good.

Thanks. It’s terrible – I get really dark sometimes, but I think that is why it’s important for me to surround myself with other creative people who are supportive of me, and I feel lucky to have so many people in my life who are supportive, like Chris, Ras, and Weasel [Walter]. I can’t believe how nice and nurturing and patient Weasel is, and yet he’s so intense and has a million things he wants to work with people on. Chris is constantly working on elaborate chamber pieces or he’s practicing really hard music. This is the kind of energy I need to be around.

Was the development of these folkier ideas and grooves that people can hang onto something that came out of working with Cellular Chaos, or was it present before?

It was present before; there are some rhythms that on Ache & Flutter that were like that, and I’ve always listened to rock and metal – that comes out in The KillMeTrio. I had listened to Lydia Lunch before Weasel joined her band, and in 2005 I was really into the Swans and wanted to do thirty minutes of half-notes and have the drummer just play toms. I’ve always been interested in this heavy, minimal thing as well, so I'd had these influences before joining Cellular Chaos.

Which is interesting because I had not heard HOT DATE before today, and was pretty surprised at what it is. I certainly have a predilection to minimal music and noise, but I didn’t expect that HOT DATE would be in that realm.

That’s from last winter; we just did a gig last weekend at XFest in Holyoke, Massachusetts – Walter Wright owns an art gallery up in Lowell and he started a festival where he invites all these amazing improvisers and performance artists, dancers and visual artists, and he curates the space visually and makes up groups. You get fifteen minutes to play music with someone you’ve never played with – it’s a huge, crazy party and this was the sixth year. On the last day he has bands play. HOT DATE played and, I’m not sure if you know about how we perform, but we wear all black and have these orange masks on, and we had these two red lights in the middle. Four people stand in front of us and they’re all wearing these monster masks I sewed with mosquito nets (so they would be breathable). It’s more theatrical than my other projects – eventually, I want to get a string of lights to go in the middle and around us, maybe get some tap lights, sort of like a light sculpture. I like the visual effects and people's responses to this project. Also, having people standing that close, which is rare, is pretty awesome.

I didn’t know about that aspect of the group and had only listened to the recording. How do you view the performance of that work versus releasing a document, which is missing the theatre?

Performing is the most important thing to me right now. It’s very different than what can be mass produced on CD, tape or vinyl. The set design was just another step from designing a flyer or an album cover. I usually do the design for most albums I release, so designing the set was a smaller step. It’s something I wanted to do, and I’ve had a lot of trouble getting visual artists to collaborate with me for some reason, or choreographers – they half-ass it or are too self-absorbed to really put something into the project. One day it’ll happen, but I get exhausted trying to psych people up for things, so I do it myself.

I can imagine that people are busy and don’t want to branch out of their own things. How do you find people to do the standing role?

That's a great question. We’ve had people say they would do it and when it comes to show time they wimp out. Some people move around too much. It's best to get dancers or movement artists even though it's really simple. The people who are standing in front of us are really just standing there – they aren’t choreographed in any major way, but they are part of the atmosphere. XFest is easy because there are so many weirdos around, and at this point we’ve been doing it for two years so people know what the vibe is. I try to get people who have already done it before, like Alex Pelchat, who’s very young but one of the best improvisers I’ve heard. He’s a great noise artist out of Montreal.

I’ve only spent much time with your jazz-oriented work.

I do a lot of things; it makes sense that you say that, because I’m most known for free jazz, and I really love it. That’s me at my most natural.

How did you get into playing creative music?

I always played creatively. I used to tell stories and play piano at my babysitter's house when I was a kid – she was basically my first teacher. I played piano in elementary school and then played guitar, and I was kind of – well, I was kind of a tough and never did my work, hated participating in activities and going to class, so the school therapist said I should join the school band. There were already enough guitarists, and I grew up an hour north of the city and we always listened to WQXR and NPR, so classical music was around along with doo-wop and folk music, and I decided I wanted to play upright bass and nothing would stop me. My parents took me to a lot of shows growing up, so I saw Richie Havens a bunch of times and went to the NY Philharmonic. The orchestra teacher asked me to play violin or cello, and I got one lesson on the bass and learned all the major scales in a day. I’d already been playing piano and guitar, so it wasn’t a big deal. The chick who taught me was two years younger and twice my size, but it was cool – I got third chair right away and it was really fun. That’s all I wanted to do – I was set from age fourteen.

As far as jazz and free music, how did you become aware of it?

I was spotted playing pizzicato by a jazz teacher during an orchestra rehearsal, and he invited me to play in the jazz band. I went to his office and he played me Blue Train and I was sold from then on. I went to Rutgers for jazz and wasn’t too interested in free music. I wasn’t aware that people performed it and made careers out of it until I met Chris and went through his record collection, and he started taking me to shows in the city. We went to Tonic every weekend, and I discovered Weasel through him – Chris is from Chicago and was going to Flying Luttenbachers shows as a teenager. I would go through his records and that was the first time I heard Destroy All Music and thought “oh…” I told him that we were going to start a free jazz band and we recruited these two guys who had absolutely no interest in playing the music. Modus was the name of the band.

Rutgers as a program, was it pretty conservative?

Yeah, it was, but it was also a lot more relaxed than it is now. It’s really intense – I have some super-senior friends who are still there. You have to learn the standards and listen to a lot of Coltrane, but of course I loved that and I wanted it. I like to swing and I love Coltrane – it was making me a better free bass player to know the foundations.

How did you meet William Parker? I know he’s been important in your musical direction.

I’d been going to his shows since I was eighteen, and it was just bound to happen. [Drummer] Andrew Barker had a series called Phantom Ear at Union Pool, and in 2007 the quartet with Charles Downs and Ras opened up for William’s band. I talked to William and told him how much I enjoyed his music, and he saw me play and I took a great solo that night, so it was a victory night. A month later he emailed me and asked if I could play the Vision Festival in his big band.

That’s pretty amazing.

Yeah, I remember getting that email! It was in the early afternoon and I was living on 22nd St. and 4th Ave in Brooklyn. I was sitting on a pink chair my grandma gave me and looking out the window thinking “Oh my god! This is it!.”

Was there any formal teaching from him?

No, he treated me like a band member. I know people who have taken lessons from him and and I think he focuses on playing together, rather than lecturing – though I have seen him speak and he's very inspiring. Have you ever seen his Tone World book? I borrowed it from [trumpeter] Pasquale Cangiano and it’s pretty fascinating. I have also been developing a relationship with Patricia [Parker]. She’s great and super important for the scene here in New York; I also got to know William through playing in Bill Cole’s Untempered Ensemble. When he was with the group he played a lot of shenai so at one point it was me and two shenai players. Just the fact that William feels comfortable not playing bass and having me on it instead, that’s –

It’s like Mingus having Doug Watkins play bass.

Exactly. I was 23 when he invited me to play Double Sunrise Over Neptune at the Vision Festival. It was amazing, but I’m still working my ass off and I still have no record label interested in releasing my music. I’m not touring unless I save up for it and make it happen. I have to send a million emails out just to get a gig. It could fall apart at any minute if I don’t do the work.

I’ve noticed a few of your call-outs on Facebook about being very frustrated. I know it’s frustrating for everybody here – not to diminish your struggles, which are very real.

Yeah, well, this year I’ve been touring a lot with Cellular Chaos and Hot Date, and I’m still getting good reviews. Whenever I go out and play a show people come up and say that I’m very successful and ask how I do it, looking for advice. I go home and look at my spreadsheets with the money I make from PayPal and how much I didn’t make the other night paying my band fifty bucks each, and am I creating an illusion by showing all this positivity? I’m just trying to get people interested and I want my music to reinforce positive things, but at the same time I feel like I’m creating an illusion that it’s all positive – I want to be more open and personal about these issues to let people know that it’s really fucking hard. Jealousy and envy really stress me out. I think it’s fake. You think I’ve had some breaks, but I still have to put $3,000 aside to make my next record. Where’s that going to come from? My day job – I teach piano and guitar to little kids. But that’s time spent not working on my own shit. It hurts a little bit that people might think that I’m making my living from my music. I’ve been a sandwich maker, caterer, dog walker, dog and cat sitter, office assistant, and now I just teach private music lessons to little kids.

I remember reading that on the cover of Archie Shepp’s Live in San Francisco LP, which has a proudly-emblazoned golden Selmer saxophone on it, Shepp was having to pawn his horn to feed his family because Impulse wouldn’t give him an advance and Selmer wouldn’t give him a horn, even though he was endorsing their product. In this music, people who appear successful often are scuffling and working for nothing.

But there’s a lot of people who like to be bitter and feel like others are “chosen,” whereas I’m hanging on by a thread. I could get fired from Cellular Chaos tomorrow or lose a gig because of something I can't control, like the weather.

You’re saying this with a big smile, it’s funny.

Pretty much! I can’t survive without a sense of humor. This lifestyle is way too crazy.

How did you get in with Cellular Chaos?

I wish I remembered all the details – I went to see [drummer] Dylan Ryan and his trio play at ShapeShifter and I met Stephen Buono who was also playing that night in his band Split Red. Dylan grew up with Chris, so we've been friends a long time. Stephen messaged me and asked if I wanted to play with Cellular Chaos, and I thought he meant a show so I began plugging Hot Date. He was like “no, will you play bass in the band?” I don’t really play electric – I used to play in a doom band that was really fun and I’ve been teaching beginning electric bass, but it's not my first instrument.

At the time Carlo [Costa] left the quartet and Yoni was going out of the country, and we’d finished playing my last book of tunes and I didn’t have that much new stuff, and I was in a dark and uninspired place, so I had a month off. Cellular Chaos was taking off a bit and all of the songs were written, so I just needed to learn them. They had a two week tour booked in the South, and I'd never been to the South and really wanted to play down there. I got into Chris’ computer to get Weasel’s email address (he wouldn't care if he knew!), and sent him a message to the effect that I knew he was looking for a bass player and to let me know. I thought I wasn’t going to get the gig, and asked Weasel to audition me. It wasn’t like that at all – we did a three hour rehearsal and I was in. It was at first a sub gig for [bassist] Kelly Moran, but after the tour, Kelly was out, and I could tour whereas she couldn’t, so that was that. I don’t mind being dirty, sleeping on floors and drinking whiskey to get through it. I love playing and performing for an audience, and I can’t turn that down.

Obviously the audience is different for Cellular Chaos and your jazz groups.

It’s completely different – it’s younger, there are more women, it’s more diverse in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation, there are more transgender people at Cellular Chaos shows. I’m mostly psyched to play for younger women; I don’t get that with downtown free jazz shows at all. Last night I played at ShapeShifter with [reedman] Michael Moss and [guitarist] Billy Stein, and they’ve been playing in New York since the ‘70s. That show was all older white guys. It’s not really that big of a deal, it’s just when they talk to me after they make me feel like a unicorn. And I think it’s because they look at me and they see my age and my gender. If my audience is more similar to me, I feel like there is more focus on my craft – playing bass.

I always skirt around the gender question in terms of success or struggles, being in or out of the scene, and some people are critically popular for different reasons – hard work, talking to the right promoters, it’s all an aspect of putting oneself out there. I was trying to figure out how gender affects either the acceptance of your music or the difficulty you have in finding labels, gigs, and so forth.

I would lie if I said no, but I really hate thinking or talking about it. I do think people turn their heads when they hear me or see me because I’m not tall and I’m not male. This is who I am and I’ve been doing this for over fifteen years. I have shaped my life to evolve around playing bass. I feel pretty comfortable with myself being a bass player and it’s hard being around people who make me feel like a circus act. It took me a long time to be okay with talking about this – I think I’m more comfortable now, but I don’t like to think my success has anything to do with being female. It’s because of my playing and devotion to it.

I was thinking the opposite – the scene, as it is, could be creating roadblocks.

I think it’s hurt me with some people and helped with others. Some guys want it to be a sausage club. Some women want it to be a females-only thing. I think it’s unnatural and limiting to work in that way – people should be hired because of their ability and chemistry with each other.

It’s interesting that the touring environment with Cellular Chaos is maybe more open than the jazz environment.

I think I got the gig because I’m a female. I talked about it with Admiral [Grey] and Weasel, and he said that he wants to give other people a chance and not have it be a white-guy band. That’s boring – why aren’t there more women playing music? Why aren’t there more black people playing rock music? It’s true, and Weasel wants to give other people the chance.

I get just as many compliments on my bass playing in Cellular Chaos as in a free jazz band. I’m learning music, I’m feeling it stronger because I play these tunes every night. It’s good for my memory, it adds fuel to the fire when I want to play upright, because I really love upright a lot more – it’s who I am. It’s true – I wish there were more women in the scene and it wasn’t an issue, but it is. How do you get more women in? You hire them and you show them off so that other women can see them and think it’s cool. I know the upright bass isn’t an inspiring instrument to women – a lot of women want to look petite and fashionable, and a bass isn’t going to help them do that.

No, they are going to look strong and awesome.

Yeah, that’s what I’m going for! I don’t know, it’s a sensitive topic and it’s weird because for a long time I felt uncomfortable playing with other women, and I don’t like it when people come up to me and say ‘oh, you’re a female musician. Do you know this other female musician?’ Like we all know each other because we’re females – that happens all the time. Especially being a bass player, people want to ask me all the time about Esperanza Spalding. I’m a couple of years older and right before she made it, I was playing a lot of the same venues. I do the opposite thing!

You go hear someone like Amanda or Mary Halvorson or Kris Davis, and it’s predicated by the fact that they are women, not that they are great musicians. Ideally I don’t want to care what someone looks like.

I really appreciate you not pointing out the female part in reviews – like “she is an upright bass player,” I really noticed that in your writing. I’ve noticed it for years when reviewers say “she’s a young female musician” and it’s annoying. I wanted to sound like Paul Chambers and Charles Mingus since I was fifteen, so when somebody talks about me being female, that works against my interests .I don’t play because I am female and my music is not about being female.

You do have a very full, warm sound on the instrument that you’ve cultivated, ant that should be what’s interesting to people. The only realize I bring up this question is because I feel like in avoiding it, even though you don’t want to box people in, it’s important to discuss.

I know, I agree and I appreciate you bringing it up sensitively. I look at it like I have goals, and whatever I need to do to reach those goals, I do those things. One time this chick called me up for a gig with an all-female band to do demos for a pharmaceutical commercial about depression, and there were so many no-no’s. I don’t want to be in an all-female band for marketing reasons, and I don’t like the pharmaceutical industry. And I don’t want to be a female musician with depression in a commercial – so I turned that down, even though there was money involved.

So you’ve got integrity!

Exactly. I do think I’ve been hired sometimes because I’m female, but I have to take the gig and get exposure for my work, and I’m going to do what I do. Hopefully I can get to a point where I only do the gigs I want to do and not play with people who waste my time.

Not all the gigs you take are your own band. Are you talking studio work?

No, just one-off gigs. It’s good for me to play other people’s music, because it helps me identify with my own music more. It’s kind of a jazz school teaching – take every opportunity that comes along. It feels good when someone wants to play with me, and I want to do that. I’ve been hired for gigs where someone probably wasn’t thinking about my artistic abilities, and they wanted someone generic, and those were really boring.

People probably don’t do their research.

Yeah, and they just take these quotes from my Facebook page – someone asked me to sit in on the volunteer opera production of The Magic Flute, and I was like ‘I don’t know if I can pull this off.” I could’ve done it six years ago but right now I’ve just been making a lot of noise, and I don’t have the time to rehearse for something like that.

You still could call up the classical chops.

Yeah, The Magic Flute would be a stretch – I’d like to see the music for it, maybe I’m wrong and it could be easy and just doubling the cello part. I feel more comfortable doing pit band stuff – I did Camelot a couple of years ago and it was fun.

I was going to ask another hopefully not-too-weird question, but it is somewhat personal. Collaborating with your partner or spouse, how does that work? I watched Tom Rainey and Ingrid Laubrock play a duo the other day and I was thinking that they know one another so well, yet they’re also continually challenging one another and watching their faces, neither was throwing an easy pitch. Knowing someone as a musician and on a personal level so deeply, as you do with Chris, I’m curious about how that has developed.

We had been playing together before we were “together,” and I feel like he’s my mentor. I look up to him and I’ve learned a lot from him, and whenever I have a problem musically I can ask him, like “this line sounds corny – what can I do to make it sound cool?” Harmony and rhythm – “did I transcribe this right?” His ears and knowledge have always been so much more than anyone else I know. I really look up to him and am really psyched about his playing my music, because I can really manicure it with him. Whereas a lot of other musicians I feel like if I called them in, I’d have to hope that they can do the right interpretation. We can talk about it in depth, we play music in the house all the time – standards, noise, whatever – we always listen to records and go music shopping.

I admit it can be a little stifling and my next project may not have him involved. When I first moved to the city I had TheKillMeTrio and it was clear that I didn’t want Chris in the band, but it coincided with his quartet that I was playing in, so we were still playing together a lot. At that point he wanted to play music that had more dynamics and subtleties and I wanted an in your face loud, angry free jazz band. We have a had a lot of arguments about music but we agree that the goal as a musician should be versatility and being exposed to as many different things as possible. If you put him in the right context and tell him the right things, he will go nuts. That’s how a great musician works.

Yeah, I was going to say, on Ache & Flutter, he’s definitely not subtle.

I suggested certain things – I said "I want you to listen to Sonny Sharrock" and I told him I wanted the music to have that vibe. I was really into Black Woman and wanted to have him sound like that.

Any parting thoughts?

I was really psyched to be invited to play Roulette again [on Monday, March 3] I haven’t played the new space with my own project before. I played the old space with William Parker's Essential Orchestra doing Inscription For Cecil Taylor. Cecil was in the audience! It's great playing with these guys – I’ve been friends with and playing with Mike, Yoni and Chris for a long time. I’m also very excited to test out the new book of music – one in particular I remember my mother humming when I was a child, so it all comes from experiences like that. There is peace, love and torment with this music. I like to describe my new music as melodies that calm demons and improvisations that give them some "exercise."


Interview conducted in Williamsburg on March 1, 2014 and over email.
Solo photos by Wesley Mann
Cellular Chaos photo courtesy ThrAsheville Zine