Colin Stetson: Horn Of Plenty

Originally published on July 1, 2014 12:10 pm

The sound that begins Colin Stetson's newest album is like a massive oil tanker listing into jagged rock, tearing away at the hull. In fact, it's merely Stetson's chosen instrument, the bass saxophone — and from those earliest notes, you realize the sheer power of the horn in the hands of a master.

"It's a beautiful, strangely fragile instrument — and capable of much, much power," Stetson tells Weekend All Things Considered guest host Noah Adams. Stetson acquired his saxophone about six years ago, but it's more than a century old.

"Back then, especially, they were made of soft metal," he says. "The mechanics of it are stretched out over a huge body, so any little ding, push, pull can set everything awry. It really relies on having perfect equilibrium."

There's a lonely feeling to the new album — titled New History Warfare, Volume Two: Judges — that can scare you if you listen at night with headphones. Stetson says that's not an accident.

"Overall, I'm just dealing with this theme of isolation — specifically, the kind of pendulum swing within that, between fear and transcendence," he says. "If I've come across correctly, then you're right to be afraid."

Stetson's sound is unique and not just because the bass saxophone is such a rare beast. Though he's a solo performer, he used many microphones simultaneously when recording the album (up to 24 on some tracks). Some were placed inside the instrument or applied to its surface; others were scattered about the room. One special microphone was attached to Stetson's throat, which accounts for the guttural wails that can be heard on certain pieces, the sound of which he likens to "screaming into a pillow."

Stetson also practices "circular breathing" — that is, he takes in a breath through his nose at the same time he exhales through his mouth, creating an uninterrupted stream of music. He first learned the technique when he was 15, and says he couldn't tell you now just how he mastered it.

"I don't even remember anymore. It was just one of things where you initially couldn't do it and then you could, like riding a bike," he says. "Eventually your brain just figures out how to do it and your body follows along."

Though Stetson doesn't need to stop playing in order to breathe, his breaths are audible all over the album — carefully placed in time with the horn's rhythms, working as a percussion instrument in its own right.

"Everything that I do is intended to be the music," he says. "The breathing is all part of that."

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(Soundbite of music)


This is the sound of a bass saxophone. It's how Colin Stetson has chosen to begin his newest album. From the very first notes, you realize the power of this instrument in the hands of a master. Listen to that. It's like a massive oil tanker listing into jagged rock tearing away at the hull.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: The album's called "New History Warfare Volume Two: Judges." And when I spoke with him earlier this week, Colin Stetson told me about playing this powerful instrument, one almost as tall as he is.

Mr. COLIN STETSON (Saxophonist): The saxophone itself is about 20 pounds. It straps onto my body like any of the other saxophones do. It's a physical chore in that the keys are very - set very, very far apart. The instrument itself is so wide so your hands are spread really far open to begin with, and it does require an enormous amount of breath.

ADAMS: And do you get vibrations - you must - vibrations back into your body?

Mr. STETSON: Oh, absolutely. That's where the fun starts. One of the things that I learned really early on when I was a student playing the saxophone is that when you play your low notes and you look at a digital clock, the clock starts to jiggle and vibrate. So what's happening is that the vibrations going through your teeth and into your skull are just actually making everything vibrate.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: Let's talk, please, about the narrative of the album. The name of the album is "New History Warfare Volume Two: Judges." It's part of a trilogy. It's a complicated story. I will say that if you listen late at night with headphones, you can get a little scared.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STETSON: Good. Well, you know, overall, I'm just dealing with this theme of isolation, so - and specifically, this kind of pendulum swing between fear and transcendence. Hopefully, if I've come across correctly then you're right to be afraid, I guess.

There's an underlying narrative that I use. It's just a story of a single person, classic castaway scenario. Wakes up on a beach alone and...

ADAMS: And the person encounters - later on, he encounters horses with no eyes.

Mr. STETSON: Yes. Those are the first of his encounters.

I refer to this herd of eyeless horses as the judges, and you find yourself awake and alone on a strange shore, a strange place and you hear and see a rumbling. In my mind, the horses in that scene, they're the embodiment; they're a metaphor for fear.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: I think I read that you use quite a few microphones and record in quite a big room for these songs.

Mr. STETSON: We did. I recorded this in Montreal's Hotel2Tango, and it's a big and beautiful space. And in terms of the microphones we used, yes, I think they were up to 24 on certain tracks; microphones inside of the instrument. There's microphones that are contact mikes applied to the instrument and others that are, you know, just a whole web of them peripherally all around it and then even one attached to my throat.

ADAMS: What is the one attached to your throat picking up?

Mr. STETSON: All those screams, all those melodies that are kind of seemingly the voice that's screaming into a pillow throughout the course of my record, that's a microphone on my throat. There's other songs like "Home," all the falsetto melody on that track is entirely just my singing voice as picked up through a contact mike.

(Soundbite of music, "Home")

ADAMS: Our guest is saxophonist Colin Stetson. His latest album is called "New History Warfare Volume Two: Judges."

You use - you, of course, have to use circular breathing, that technique. You are breathing in at the same time you're breathing out.

Mr. STETSON: Breathing in through your nose while you're breathing out through your mouth, yes.

ADAMS: Describe how you learned to do that. What's it like?

Mr. STETSON: Well, I learned when I was about 15. My teacher at the time, he taught it to me as a means to perform string pieces. So string players don't have to breathe. When we would play them, our phrasing would always be interrupted by our breath. So he taught me this. It was just one of those things where you initially couldn't do it and then you could, just like riding a bike. Your brain just figures out how to do it and your body follows along.

ADAMS: Occasionally on the record, we can hear you taking a breath while the horn is still playing, while the saxophone is still playing. We're going to listen to a track with singer Shara Worden from the band My Brightest Diamond. This is called "Lord I Just Can't Keep from Crying." It's an old song.

(Soundbite of song, "Lord I Just Can't Keep from Crying Sometimes")

Ms. SHARA WORDEN (Singer, My Brightest Diamond): (Singing) Lord, I just can't keep from crying sometimes. Lord, I just can't keep from crying sometimes.

ADAMS: Now, you're breathing there in a circle, but also, the breathing seems to be part of the percussion, seems to be timed to the song.

Mr. STETSON: Everything that I do is intended to be the music. So the breathing is all part of that. Every - I mean, especially with the way that I envision all this music and the way that I capture it, really capturing all the different sounds that are there. And so the breath is really a huge part of that. They're placed musically, I hope.

ADAMS: Right.

(Soundbite of song, "Lord I Just Can't Keep from Crying Sometimes")

Ms. WORDEN: (Singing) My mother, she's in glory. Thank God I'm on my way...

ADAMS: You did this, of course, without overdubs, and you do that on stage as well. Have you ever gotten in trouble on stage because of this breathing technique and the energy that goes into it?

Mr. STETSON: Sometimes I run into situations where I'm a little gaspy, and so I'm trying to suck in as much as I possibly can, because a lot of, especially with the bass saxophone, you're dealing with such an enormous amount of air that it takes to keep a lot of these ostinatos up that I can get a little bit short of breath. But it's not the same thing as a regular lightheaded dizzy. It's - there's been moments where, almost like a, just kind of transcendent body euphoria happens.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: You have played with a lot of different performers; Tom Waits and Arcade Fire, David Byrne. Anything from those experiences that you bring proudly into your solo work?

Mr. STETSON: I mean, I could say that everything from those experiences I bring - but specifically, there's definitely instances where - that have been really game-changing for me. When I first started working with Tom Waits, quickly understood and learned from him this necessary detachment from ego. He's approaching everything as a separate character. Each song is a new character. Each song is a new scene. And that thing really resonated with me.

Because coming from classical and jazz background as a saxophonist, it can be argued that most of what we do has a lot to do with ego, bringing our sound to that music. So that detachment, that necessary detachment, I think, was pretty instrumental in paving the way for everything that I've done since.

ADAMS: Do you ever get tempted to bring his voice into your saxophone work?

Mr. STETSON: I can't not be obviously influenced by him and his music. It's one of the first things that really had a really big influence on me.

ADAMS: That is saxophone player Colin Stetson. His latest album is "New History Warfare Volume Two: Judges." He joined us from Montreal. If you'd like to hear more from him, visit our website at

Colin Stetson, thanks so much.

Mr. STETSON: Thank you, Noah.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.