Interview Jon Abbey

Das Gespräch mit Jon Abbey fand am 21. März 2014 per Telefon zwischen New York und Stuttgart statt. Gegenstand des Gesprächs ist Abbeys Label Erstwhile Records.

Interview & Abschrift: Björn Gottstein

At which point did you have the feeling that there is a music that needs support in form of a label and that you were going to be the person to give that support?

I have always been interested in music and began exploring different areas of music gradually getting more and more experimental, and at the same time it was basically looking for something to do with my life that I felt good about. I worked at TIME magazine, not such a huge job, I was a reporter for a little while, but mostly not such an exciting job, but I didn't feel good about myself, so I wanted to do something I cared about, and so I left TIME and came up with the idea to start a label in 1998.

Did you feel that free improv at the time was actually developing in a direction you found music should be going?

Living in America I didn't get nearly as much exposure to the Europeans or the Japanese who where the ones doing most of this stuff at the point. But I got some contact with them. I went to Victoriaville in Canada a few times, and people came to New York. When I first started Erstwhile the plan wasn't for it to be focused on electro-acoustic improv. I was lucky and I also kind of ended up helping it along but I was lucky that it coincided with the blossoming of that kind of music right around the same time I started the label.

What was it that appealed to you about this music?

That is a big question. But I guess one thing I like is the idea of people creating something in front of you, people being pushed into something that even they couldn't have conceived of coming into a performance. And by the circumstances and the people they are playing with and the atmosphere in the audience, ending up in a place where they would never have gotten to under other circumstances. And I find that very exciting.

Did you find the music radical?

You know, these are charged words. It encompasses a lot of things when you say radical. I mean, it is certainly not music for everyone. Radical, I hate to define. You are not going hear it on MTV, it is not going to win mainstream Grammy awards anytime. (lacht) I do think that there is something of a leading edge rather than a cutting edge. If that makes sense.

When you first decided whom to publish, how did you go about this? Was it all about intuition? Or was there at times also the feeling, that you might not be so fond of something but see a certain necessity of releasing a CD?

There is a lot of intuition. Also Erstwhile has always worked differently from probably any other label in that I don't take finished projects. Most other labels, people will make a record and send it to a label and see if it can be published. I commission projects. Often first time meetings between people and people who know each other but maybe haven't worked as a duo before. And then I give them 18 months or so to come up with a record. And to me that is a perfect balance of familiar and unfamiliar, and it has been pretty successful. But I do factor in, how often have people been recorded, how much they have been documented. One reason I gravitated to Keith Rowe so strongly early on as opposed to maybe Derek Bailey or Evan Parker is that he was much less documented. At that point he was almost entirely undocumented outside of AMM.

So it was more looking at people and not so much looking at a scene?

Yeah, I've always looked at people as individuals. Also I feel like one way I can hopefully help the scene to keep going creatively a little longer than it would otherwise is to introduce new combinations. And, of course, they are not all going to work and they are not all going to resolve in lasting partnerships, but the ones that do will hopefully help the scene succeed more on a long term.

When you started working with these musicians from Berlin, from Vienna, from Tokyo, England, the US, was there much debate about the question: What is a CD? What is it supposed to represent? How does it relate to the music in a live situation? Did you have aesthetic debates?

(lacht) I mean, you know some of these musicians. And one reason that many have gotten names for themselves is that they have very strong ideas about the way things should be, which I totally respect. But I think one thing that I brought to the scene that maybe wasn't there so much before, for a long time the improv scene, the way it was documented was: you just tried to recreate a concert as closely as you could. There was no thought to a record being different from a concert. And I think I tried to bring that in, not in an ECM-type way, an aesthetic which I respect but have never really liked. ECM is always trying to push everything through the same mould, to make everything sound with the same sound quality. Whereas I believe every project should have a specific aesthetic that best suits it. Trying to put out the best record within the specific aesthetic for that project.

That is saying that there is not an Erstwhile sound?

Well, I think if you look at the whole catalogue, it is pretty wide ranging. And I would say, no, there is not an Erstwhile sound. I would say that maybe there is a group of subsets of Erstwhile sounds that you could do, and even some of them overlap. But, for instance, in the last few years I have been working a lot with Wandelweiser musicians, but they are not projects that could be on Wandelweiser. They are projects a little bit farther from that. And I think if you pull out those nine or ten releases you would have a pretty strong aesthetic within them. But then, you know, if you compare them to maybe Jason Lescalleet or something like that, I don't think there is any overlap.

That is probably true. Nonetheless Erstwhile has always sounded different than a CD with similar music on a different label.

I mean, it depends on the project, again, but I have always been focussed on sound quality, not audiophile-type sound quality, but recording well. And like the Vienna projects I did with Christoph Aman, who is amazing, those have always been helped by that. I had Earl Howard here in New York to help sometimes on post-production. It is funny that people do think there is an overarching Erstwhile aesthetic, because I think that if you look at the specific projects, you would say: „It is not as true as I thought.“ But I like that it somehow combines to create this idea in people's heads.

I remember talking to Christof Kurzmann about Schnee and how he had never come up with the idea of playing with Burkhard Stangl and how happy he was with how the duo turned out. So running a label is not administration, but curation?

That is the example actually I always use. Those guys knew each other, Burkhard and Christof knew each others for ten years and never thought to play together because of their very different background. And I saw them as part of a quintet, and it just made sense to me. And they laughed at me for a little while, and I talked them into doing it, and then it became their most successful project. They toured all over the world with it. They played China and Africa. They played everywhere.

What about the economic side of running a label. It is not really a thing for making millions of Dollars.

(lacht) As far as this is an overstatement: yes, this is true.

But that wasn't important to you.

No, of course not. There are a million things I could do, if I wanted to make money. I don't care about that. I just need enough money to get by. But I really needed at that point and still do to do something that I felt good about. And I always say that I will stop Erstwhile if I couldn't find projects that I could really get behind. And luckily that hasn't happened yet, and it has been 15 years now.

But the focus has changed. Can you describe this change? Why certain aesthetics are maybe over or not so interesting anymore to you?

Yeah, this is always a complicated topic. I think in the history of music and certainly 20th century music and 21st century music now, which I am much more familiar with, most musicians have a certain amount to say. And very rarely does that last longer than ten or fifteen or twenty years. And one issue we have had in the music, not just my label, is that a lot of the first wave of musicians from 1999, 2000, 2001 have either moved to different places in their own music or have just run out of ideas. And it has been a little hard to replace them. But I think alongside that, historically, you have collective free improvisation, which is now at this point almost 50 years old. This is very contradictory. It is a hard thing for me to explain to people. I'll see how I can do. On the face of it it makes no sense that free improvisation could run out of steam. Because by theory anything should be able to be possible. So how can that stop. Nevertheless it kind of has. At least with regards to recorded documents, recorded free collective improvisation has really run out of steam the last five or ten years. And I think when I was coming along it already was in that direction. And then the Tokyo musicians gave it a burst of fresh blood and that kept it going for another 5, 6, 7, 8 years, whatever. But it is now back to where it first was. And even though improvisation will always be my first love over different kinds of composition and also collaboration over solo work. Because I was talking about the idea of surprises. It is much harder to be pushed into strange, new territory for yourself when you're just playing by yourself. It is not impossible, but it is much harder. And so since those are the things I love it has been harder for me to move into solo works and different kind of composition. But that is where the music is going, and I can only do so much.

Some time ago Dieter Kovacic brought up the fall of the wall as a reason for a paradigm change in music, Berlin and Vienna being close to the former iron curtain. The Tokyo musicians spoke differently. They were talking about clogged information channels and reacting to it by silence. Now, there are actually a lot of American musicians who are now the avantgarde in improvised music, Jason Lescalleet is certainly one example. Do you need a situation as an artist to react to?

I understand what you are talking about, but it is such a big topic, I am not sure how to answer it. I can say though, that it is great that you recognize that about the US. Because when I started in 1998 I didn't work with almost any Americans. I didn't have any interest in the things that were going on here at the time. But I do think that it is totally true that in recent years for whatever reason a lot of the most insteresting is now coming from the US. And I would have been stunned if you had told me that 15 years ago. But I do think it's true.

I was in San Francisco in 2004. There were many people involved in this scene, but more on a local level. I met Drew and Martin from Matmos. Now they have the Red Room in Baltimore. It has become more visible.

I mean the US, of course, is a very huge place. And you know this music has always thrived with very small pockets of people, one, two, three, five people in a city makes it seem like a burgeoning scene to the rest of the world. And the US has those now, but they haven't been so connected. So one thing I tried to do recently, I don't know if you are aware of my ErstAEU, which is for young Americans? I did the first three last year and I have a whole bunch in the works. And one of the ideas there is to try to bring together socially more of these young Americans who are working in pockets of isolation across the country.

And are Berlin or Vienna still in your focus? Are those places you listen for?

Is that as a question?


I mean again, this is a different topic. Tokyo, yes, although the musicians I have worked with have changed quite a bit. Berlin and Vienna are much less so. I work with Annette Krebs and Andrea Neumann some still, but in general the German and a lot of the European focus has shifted to the Wandelweiser people. So yeah, I mean, Vienna, but Radu Malfatti instead a lot of the people who I documented a lot in my earlier days.

Less about places, more about the artists? You don't scan cities.

No, I think places are important, I just think different social situations effect people differently and there are little scenes that pop up, but Vienna and Berlin aren't places I am looking at so closely at the moment.

And not Stuttgart either?

(lacht) I am not aware of what is going on there.

There are in fact some people involved here. There even is a venue.

It is very wide spread on a small level now. But I am, of course, interested in individuals who I think I can get something special out of on a record.

The name of the label. You just came up with it?

Yeah, I am happy with it. I was looking for a word that I would be OK with seeing a billion times in the future if the label actually lasted. And I do like the word. It was also supposed to be a little bit of a joke because it is basically the exact opposite of what I try to do. Because it is historical. I am looking forward and the word "erstwhile" is looking at the past.

But you are giving the music a historical dimension by putting it on CD.

I am really happy with the word. But there is only so much you can put into one word. And I didn't want it to be something too obvious. I have a ton of respect for the label Matchless, but I would never call my own label something like that, like Superb Records or Amazing Records. It is strange to me.

It sounds like the label is going well.

If you look on the website there is a list of future projects, and like I said I still basically work the same way. I ask people to do projects and they are going out 18 months or two years into the future. And actually I just added four more projects in the last month. Like I said, as long as I can still find projects I think are worth supporting, then I'll keep doing it.