INTERVIEW: CHRISTOPHER WILLITS: TOKAFI (2008)
Right now, Christopher Willits is a happy man: The sun is shining, he is working on new music and 12k have just published "Ocean Fire", his musical meeting with Japanse legend Ryuichi Sakamoto, an album which he calls "another dream that has become very tangible". For the past years, his circle of friends has steadily grown and Willits has gone on to study with Pauline Oliveros and Fred Frith, record with Taylor Deupree and video artist Scott Pagano, turning into a priority on the eclectic roster of Ghostly International. In a way, "Ocean Fire" now brings together various aspects of Christopher Willits' oeuvre in a single, coherent and utterly unique work: His use of experimental and extended guitar playing techniques, his "sculptural" and "visual" approach, the fluent combination of improvisation and composition and his love for collaborations: Next to his solo output, Willits has built a discography of ensemble releases, which include projects like Flossin (with a lineup of Zach Hill, Kid606, Nate Boyce, and Matmos) and The North Valley Subconscious Orchestra, a duo with Medicine's Brad Laner. Another distinct feat about "Ocean Fire" are its roots in immediately recognisable harmony and more daring, experimental, intuitive and unpremeditated territory. "People are not stupid, we dont need to hear a traditional structure to understand the way that different sounds make us feel", Willits says of this, "Let's try some new stuff, new kinds of 'songs'". On his upcoming tour with Stars of the Lid, audiences will be able to capture him perform these new songs live and catch him doing what he likes most: "To bring people together with these sounds I imagine."
Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hello! I'm at an outside cafe spot in Bernal Heights, in San Francisco. Trying to get this to you as soon as possible. been lax on my interview replies the last couple of days since the weather here has been just amazing. Hard to be on a computer inside when the sun in calling me outside... So I brought the computer here... Still some sun to hang out with.
What's on your schedule at the moment?
Working on a new record for Ghostly, new North Valley Subconscious Orchestra, some other new collaborations. Preparing for a U.S tour this April with Stars of the Lid.
"Ocean Fire" has just been released on 12k. How important was it to you that this album is now finally available wordwide?
It feels like another dream that has become very tangible, feels really fullfilling and inspiring to me.
"Ocean Fire" was recorded in two stages, with a live session at Ryuichi's studio providing the basic tracks and several months of studio work refining it. How did you go about preserving the spontaneity of the initial sketches into the minutely worked-out final versions?
It was so effortless. There was so much detail in the recordings. All I really did was guide what was there to a final form.
The album was realized over a longer period of time and encompasses different phases of your last two years of creativity. Did you allow these different influences to flow freely into "Ocean Fire" or did you try to keep your work on different albums strictly separated?
I tend to work on multiple things at the same time. So everything influences each other in a sense. But I'm always working within the constraints I have set for each release, each release has it's own boundaries. That liberates me to dive deeper into different area that I want to explore.
I had the decided feeling that you and Ryuichi were looking for a less obvious, but fully organic way of integrating sounds of water and oceans into your pieces, with water sounds turning into musical elements and sounds flowing like waves at times. Was this a conscious approach or is it the natural result of working on a "conceptual" album in full concentration?
Well, we simply made the music together and then after we awoke from the dream realized it was like a long meditation using images of the ocean. So we decided to make the intention of the release about healing the damage we have done to the ocean. Personally the music is ecstatic to me. Ecstatic in that it's full of happiness and sadness and terror and pure joy and inspiration... All mixed together and felt simultaneously.
How, would you say, does your style complement that of Ryuichi and vice versa? Can you still tell exactly who played what on the album?
Ryuich had all of these grainy piano washes and I pushed my guitar sounds to soak into that, while still retaining some stacato and rhythmic folding that i'm into. What amazed me as we improvised is how there was no key that was ever dictated... We just felt it out and kept modulating stuff wherever it felt natural. So you get this interesting mix of melodic and dissonant sounds at times. There were a few times while recording when we'd look at each other and be like, is that sound you or me?
Neither your guitar nor Ryuichi's Piano can be heard in an immediately recognisable way on the album. Is this because too concrete sounds could have potentially hurt the associative process in the listener?
Without talking about it we just gravitated to that approach. It just happened that way, like we both understood what we wanted. This a unifed swarm and flow of sound like water and energy pushing and pulling. Opening up time, allowing people to release into it.
"Ocean Fire" is "dedicated to the healing and restoration of our fragile oceans". Why is it so important we become aware of these qualities again? Is there an obvious reason why your recent releases have repeatedly touched upon water-related themes ("Surf Boundaries")?
I don't think it is important if you have read the press release or not. And this is not a campaign for green peace where we needed to make ocean sounds for saving the ocean (although I'm not against a more didactic project like that). This mysterious, expansive, ecstatic sound emerged through our subconscious minds. This music grew from the great unknown. The words surrounding the music simply aim to consciously clarify the feelings and intentions we felt and heard in the process. I mean, what if a collective intention is enormously powerful?
So the intended outcome is there to join forces with, if you choose to. Perhaps we sound like some cheesy artists dreaming about saving the world to some people, and thats fine too, ha ha. I'm sure there are Sakamoto fans who are hearing this kind of music for the very first time and they are like "what in the world is going on here?" and that's so great! I mean, what is going on?? I feel that there is a large number of people, especially in Japan who are going to hear this very strange and beautiful music and tune into the intention that surrounds this music. Even if it's just from the sound or title "Ocean Fire" alone, or even on a subconscious level. It will have an influence. It already has on us.
The title "Surf Boundaries", to me at least, had little to do with the movement of water or anything like that... Definitely nothing to do with surf music or the Beach Boys. Not sure why people talked so much about the Beach Boys with that record. Most likely, the vocal harmonies + the word "surf" in the title = Beach Boys? I personally don't think so.
Actually, that really relates to what i was just talking about. That's a good example of how the sound (5 part vocal harmonies) + the framing with a word (surf) creates some intention... But in that case it's not my intention, ha ha. Anyways, for me "Surf Boundaries" is about being conscious of and creatively navigating these sometimes elusive boundaries between people, energy, objects, ideas - everything really.
For "Plants and Hearts" on Room40, you used an ingenious recording technique to capture your guitar's sounds from various angles. How did the idea come up?
My old friend, and master engineer out here in San Francisco, Ryan Kleeman, introduced me to MS recording and we just decided to try it out for that recording. I wanted to play with the sonic perspectives of the recording and MS gave me a lot to experiment with. I'm definitely going to be doing more stuff like that in the future. I think the results are fantastic.
Efforts like "Plants and Hearts" and the sounds on "Ocean Fire" suggest you no longer see your guitar as just an instrument, but as a complex tool for sonic exploration, which you are still discovering yourself. Is that a correct perception? And so, what are your challenges in this regard at the moment?
Yeah it probably seems like I'm in my "drone period" or something, ha ha! I'm always doing all kinds of stuff. Really into the guitar processing on the releases you just mentioned, and also more funky, cut up folded guitar processing. I've always seen the guitar as something more than just a string instrument for chords and solos. That path began years ago with long chains of stomp boxes. I'm always going to be discovering the guitar and different ways of processing its string vibrations. I'm definitely devoted to it. This is one of the reasons I'm here: To bring people together with these sounds I imagine.
These experiments also show your proximity to the visual arts. Do these two areas of interest constitute direct mutual inspirations or are they merely two different ways of expressing yourself on a different level?
Or to put it differently: Do you sometimes compose with a particular image in mind?
I think it's all coming from the same source. Images and sounds are just different forms of energy... Different ways of communicating. And when you bring those things together, so much can happen. I'm making more films lately, getting back in to this more. Often using sequenced photographs that are woven into the rhythmic structure of my guitar sounds. For instance, for a live performance of “Plants and Hearts" in LA, I took over 5000 photographs. Hi-res abstract shots of plants and light. I created a max/msp/jitter patch that sequenced these photos randomly. And it was all synced up with my guitar processing. I'm working on more of this stuff for my U.S. tour this april/may with Stars of the Lid.
In terms of thinking about music and composing, I approach it more like sculpture or painting than traditional music. I'm thinking a lot about about shape and color and texture and space and how that all creates a cohesive whole. I'm less concerned about adhering to any "musical" structure, just for the sake of communication or something. People are not stupid, we dont need to hear a traditional structure to understand the way that different sounds make us feel. Let's try some new stuff, new kinds of "songs".
An important step towards uniting your activities underneath one umbrella is your overlap-project. How is it developping in these - still early - stages?
Indeed, you're on it man. Overlap.org is about giving a home to this diverse culture of music and art that many of us are in. We release all kinds of music and videos, allowing people to pay what they want for them. We organize live events, and we also provide people with a way to share their work via a blog and podcasting tools we provide. Overlap is about this nebulous culture of art that weaves into all kinds of genres of music, sounds and images.
You studied with Pauline Oliveiros and Fred Frith - what did they teach you?
I think fred taught me about remaining wide open when improvising. Having no predetermined ideas when entering into an improv session. Pauline taught me about deepening the way I listen. Around that time a lot was bridged between meditation and listening.
On your own website you repeatedly thank your listeners and audiences. Are you still as grateful as ever for being able to live the life of amusician?
I'm so grateful for all of the support from fans and friends and family. So happy about the decisions I have made in my life and the people that surround me.