David Torn is a tough man to pin down — literally and figuratively. One day he's in his upstate New York project studio as a solo artist/avant- guitarist working on the follow-up to his latest batch of cut-n-paste/jammin'-in-space brilliance known to the world as SPLaTTerCeLL. The next he's headed to a UK scoring stage to record a London Orchestra doing Bollywood-style string parts for a film score he's composed for a big budget Hollywood film [The Order]. Soon after I get a call from him as he steps into the role of producer/remixer of Jeff Beck's most recent album, Jeff, transforming tracks into post-modern, pan-cultural extravaganzas — resulting in a 2004 Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for the song "Plan B". Of course, this is the same David Torn whose serene, ambient, and finely textured soundscapes have gone on to become über-successful mainstays of the sample CD and film music world.
Weeks pass and the next time I hear from him, he's been summoned to a New York City studio to record guitar for Tony Visconti and David Bowie, who goes on to call David "the Yo-Yo Ma of guitar." By the time I finally catch up with him, he's back at home, preparing to produce a new album for guitar tapping phenom Kaki King, to be followed by another film-score composition assignment [Friday Night Lights]. Of course, he's also trying to squeeze in a favor for a friend by mixing an album for another well-known musician, one of the many who call upon David's talents as guitarist, texturalist, producer, remixer, composer or mastering engineer to grace their projects.
When we finally sat down to catch-up and chat, I did what I always do when I find myself in the presence of this grinning, wise-cracking, forever- excited musical genius: I sit back, smile from ear to ear from the laughter that always follows, scratch my head a few times as I try to figure out what David's come up with next, and most of all, prepare to listen with both ears and both sides of my brain.
On producing/remixing Jeff Beck
So how did your involvement with Jeff Beck come about?
I got a really nice note from Jeff in October/November '02 or something like that, that had nothing to do with working. It was just like, "I love your stuff. Thanks for making the SPLaTTerCeLL stuff, it drives me crazy." Terry [Bozzio] called and said, "Jeff is insane about this SPLaTTerCeLL stuff, he's absolutely nuts about it." Then his manager called in November before I went to London, and tried to get us together while I was there and I obviously couldn't 'cause I was 24 hours a day on that film score [The Order] while I was there. It just never happened. Then in January, his manager, Ralph [Baker], called saying, "You should really talk to Jeff because he's really unhappy with his record and he thought you could save a track or two." [laughs] So Jeff called and said, "Whatever you wanna do. I don't care. Use whatever you want, don't use whatever you don't want." I asked, "Do you mind if I'm rewriting?" I hadn't heard the material at this point, and he said, "I don't care what you do, go as far left as you want, as far right as you want, just completely reshape it." I got the first track, "Plan B", which ended up being the single, and I went, "God, how am I gonna fix this?!" I went into the multitrack, I got the multitrack, and I thought, "I can't do this! I don't know." So I rewrote four or five different versions and it was driving me insane. I was going for a week — let me try it with this tempo, this key, these chord changes. Then I tried the little thing with the tablas, and the new chords at the beginning, and I thought, [whispers] 'Fuck, shit, I can't get it!' I put it to the side and went back to it a week later and I just went, "Okay, I'm going back to my original idea with the tablas at the front with the new chord changes," and kinda started organizing around that, and I was kinda still hating what I was doing. There weren't any spaces in it at all, so I started working on that, and then Craig Street came over and I played it for him and he's like "Dude, you're like Mr. Electronic now!" [laughs] As he's walking out the door he goes, "Sounds like it needs an acoustic guitar," and I was like, "Fuck you, Bitch!" Right? [more laughter] And after he left I went, "Hmm, acoustic guitar..." I put the acoustic guitar down at the beginning and then at the end, with the tablas, and I thought, 'Wow! This is a good setup. I like this, that's good!' Then I sent the track to Jeff and he said, "Do another one." He sent me another track, so I did another one. There were no substantial changes he made to anything except he would call back and say [in British accent], "Is there something new we can do to the guitar at the end?" That would be it. The third track was like the week before the album's release, and they called and Jeff asked, "Can do you one more track, can you do one more?" and I went, "Yes." To work with Jeff Beck, "Yes, I'll do one more track." That was the last one and it didn't turn out that good. I rushed it and never really organized what I thought it might have become because there really wasn't the time. I probably would have been able to do it if I spent two weeks on the one track because you're handed material and you're not being asked to do a remix, you're being told, "This is what's going on the album!" So you have this restriction of your writing but you have to write as if you're in a remix mode, and then you're picking out material from the original tracks you really dig, but writing around it, and I just didn't have the time for the third one.
What was it like, as a guitarist, to...
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