Weasel Walter profile from the Boston Phoenix, 9.9.08

Posted on September 18, 2008

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My conversation with Weasel Walter is plagued by his crappy cellphone batteries. Every few minutes the “battery low” beep rings out, hangs us up, and sends him to his phone charger — which he prefers to hit up for small doses of charge, as though it were a water cooler. Irritating as this is, it does afford me time to gather my thoughts, flesh out my notes, take breathers. Which is, I needn’t really spell out, not the way Walter approaches his music.

“I like momentum, velocity, speed, violence,” the multi-instrumentalist says from his home in Oakland, California. “Harmonic tension, rhythmic tension. Just reaching higher levels of tension. Hold on, call me back in like five minutes.”

I use the five minutes to fill in some blank spots in the notebook and formulate the next question, which hinges on how Walter’s best-known project — the Flying Luttenbachers — relates to his lifelong immersion in the free-jazz assaults of Alvin Ayler and Cecil Taylor. His latest projects focus entirely on of-the-moment flurries of sound and mercurial mood changes, but when the Luttenbachers started off in 1992, they were an improv-heavy punk group. In time, they switched strategies, drafting compositions full of scribbled X’s and O’s with aggressively criss-crossing paths. There was no front guy; there were no melodies, no words. Imagine lifting a Wizard-of-Oz curtain on punk rock and discovering a cruel, faceless computer pulling all the strings.

Back on the phone: “I was always into the throw-away bin at the record store. Back in ’85 for three dollars, you could get some really weird records. Eventually I got into the New York no-wave bands, who were working with some real free-jazz people, and it seemed like something that was really breaking down barriers. And so that’s what I decided to do with my music.”

Walter disbanded the Luttenbachers last year in favor of pursuing the fully improvisational music he’s been dabbling in since 1994, when he launched a series of freewheeling “workshops” in Chicago. He’ll ride into Boston this week to perform with a line-up that includes local freedom lovers Greg Kelley, Forbes Graham, and Paul Flaherty.

His phone beeps again, so I rush to inquire about his nightly game plan. “I don’t talk to anyone before we start. All I know is that when I get there, all hell’s going to break loose.” The beeps grow more insistent and we take another refueling break. I try to imagine a Walter improv set like this, staggered with moments for reflection in among the skronk, clank, and death-metal drum fills. Something tells me it wouldn’t jibe with the Spartan business model he’s going for nowadays — releasing all his own records and grudgingly putting them on vinyl for whiny fans who want “stupid fetish items.”

Back on the line, Walter has anticipated my next question. “There’s no way this is a consolation prize or anything for breaking up the Luttenbachers. This is what I need to do. My modus operandi is to do what I think is æsthetically correct. Sometimes it’s crazy, sometimes it comes out sounding like an intricately arranged composition.”

Is that the rewarding part of this kind of performance?

“Not really. Although in those cases it’s great, because then even if there are just 20 people standing there staring at me when it’s done, at least I don’t have to be bummed thinking about wasting three years trying to write the thing. It’s about communication.”

Then his phone lets out a final beep and I’m on the line with myself.

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