In the third and final part of Underscore’s conversation with Andrew Weathers—the first part is available here, and the second here—we go back to Andrew’s early years in North Carolina and his time studying and working in California. Underscore gives Andrew the last of fifteen prompts—five places, five people, five things—and Andrew uses them to blur the artificially imposed boundaries between music and everyday life. Here he talks about a couple musical legends close to his heart, advocates for art that’s being made outside of the big metropolitan regions, and makes a brief detour into the world of BBQ.
PERSON #4: ROSCOE MITCHELL
U_: I want to go back to your time in Oakland, and at Mills College, where you studied with Roscoe Mitchell in the early 2010’s.
AW: Roscoe is a treasure, man. I had classes with Roscoe at Mills, and I also had composition lessons with Roscoe. And then I worked with Roscoe on some performances that he did with , when I was doing production work for them. And so I was lucky to work with him a lot.
Something I liked about Roscoe is that…just hanging out with him, you want to take notes because you learn a lot just from his approach to life. He’s a person with a lot of wisdom, and so just talking to him you learn a lot.
We had an improvisation class with him—maybe fifteen people—and we would play and he would time us and tell us how much time had passed at the end, and then we would all discuss what happened. And I remember at some point—people were maybe playing too much or not being focused—he was obviously a little frustrated, and he told us, “If you’re going to break a silence, you’d better have something to say.” You don’t want to think of anything as perfect. Silence isn’t perfect. It’s not the end-all be-all. But I think treating being quiet—and not running your mouth or not interrupting—with respect is something that’s important to do in music and your everyday life. You need to give things space in order to understand them, and if you need to do your own thing and put your own thing there, make it worth everybody else’s time. Like everything, he’s talking about improvisation and it applies to that, but it applies to everything if you want it to.
Another thing: Other Minds—I’m hesitant to talk about my day job because I still work there—is a nonprofit organisation. We put on festivals and that sort of thing, and along with that comes donor events and schmoozing with some people I’d prefer not to schmooze with. There was an event like that at the festival Roscoe played, and I could tell that he was very agitated and not super stoked to be there. I talked to him for a little bit, and he said, “I would rather be practising right now.” He is so dedicated to his instrument that, even though he’s at this thing that is ostensibly related to his job of being a musician—and ostensibly, a thing that most people would think of as being a good time—it was just an interruption to his practice. I admired that a lot. And I wish that I could get to that level with anything. But that’s why he’s Roscoe Mitchell.
I read Val Wilmer’s book about a year ago, and Mitchell and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) show up in there. I still don’t know his music very well, but the more I learn about him and that circle of artists, the more I realise that everybody is indebted to them.
I mean, it’s fucking shitty and it’s fucking racist that everybody in that circle—Roscoe, George Lewis, Wadada Leo Smith—is pegged as a jazz composer or a jazz artist. Obviously, that’s important to what they do—all of them. But I just see it as a means to relegate what they do to a place where they’re allowed as Black people. And that take is nothing new, and it really sucks that that group of artists and any vanguard jazz doesn’t ever get to fully integrate with New Music or classical music or whatever it may be.
Maybe my history is bad, but the more I was reading about AACM and Chicago in the sixties, the more I started thinking about the indie rock in the nineties that came out of Chicago. And so many of the things those indie rock artists were doing were taking the ideas and the lessons of AACM, whether they knew it or not, and applying them to rock & roll. I’m sure a lot of people understand that connection better than I do, and there are a lot of people out there who would openly acknowledge it. But I’d never heard anyone say that straight out, and when I thought about it, it made perfect sense.
Totally. It’s just the age-old thing of Black music being the source of all American music, in one way or another. And it doesn’t get its due.
I once saw Roscoe Mitchell with a group for a couple nights in a row, and nobody was playing an electrified instrument, but the sound they got was so intense it almost felt like a metal show to me. I feel like you can’t have that power unless you have an acute sense of what silence and speech mean in turn to each other.
It’s just speaking with intention and intensity. You don’t need a whole lot to do something that’s very aggressive or intense.
When you were studying at Mills, your main instrument was guitar back then, right?
Yeah, I was studying electronic music, but I was basically making solo acoustic guitar music. I don’t know, man [laughs].
What do guitars mean to you now?
I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I like the guitar. I like that it is an accessible instrument. I like that it is an instrument whose electronics and amplifiers aren’t an accessory to the instrument. When you play electric guitar, your effects are the instrument and your amp is the instrument, and it’s all the same thing. I really hesitate to even think that preparations or Keith Rowe tabletop-style playing is not in the nature of the guitar. It’s a really mutable instrument and can kind of be whatever you need it to be. I like that about it.
That said, I don’t know that the guitar is a way for me to do what I do without translation. A lot of times I find myself adding guitar to things because it’s what I play. It’s not because I want a guitar there, it’s just that’s what I play. So if I need a note, that is what it’ll be; it’s going to be a guitar. And I don’t like that about it. I find that frustrating. And I think that ambivalence shows up in because there’s almost no guitar, I think.
When I was listening to the new record and thinking about all the instruments in it—you can hear it as a rock and not as a rock band at the same time. That was one of the biggest impressions. It was really messing with my understand of when something is or is not a rock band.
This one, more than then last few—maybe not the last song, but certainly the first few—have these qualities where you could think about it in that direction, but you could also not if you want to.
It’s not necessarily intentional, but I think that makes a lot of sense. I like rock music. It was formative for me. So I’ll never escape it, unfortunately [laughs].
Tell me about the last song on the album, “A Bisection Across a Circle Connecting Ozona and a Hill Near Zzyzx.”
The circle around a hill near Zzyzx and Ozona was a trajectory of life. There was this pretty pivotal moment on the first AWE tour in which our van broke down and we ended up in Ozona, West Texas. We missed our show in El Paso, and we ended up having to buy an entirely new van. And that was not awesome. That was very bad.
There’s that, and the hill near Zzyzx, which is also the hill I talk about around the album . There’s a hill in the Mojave National Preserve that’s important to me. That was where I started to understand what it meant to live in California and live away from where I grew up, as well as a gateway from California to Texas. So that’s what the title means, essentially.
The words at the end are…it was one of those things where I just took stock of what was around me, physically and conceptually, and tried to understand the ways in which our physical reality overlaps with a maybe metaphysical reality and understand of the world around us. So I’m talking about the hammers and drywall and my boots and old-growth lumber that makes up this building, and the fact that it is very dense wood. You can’t buy wood like that anymore because there are not really that many old-growth forests anymore, and thankfully those that do exist are protected in one way or another—though that’s at risk, of course. Maybe it’s like understanding our physical existence as a deterioration, in a way. The lyrics to that song are, I think, the words on the album that I understand the least [laughs].
PLACE #4: NEW YORK (OR LOS ANGELES… OR OAKLAND)
When I came of age, and when I was reading about music and art, so much of it felt like eavesdropping on a conversation between people in New York. Over time I got annoyed by that, but it feels like maybe there’s beginning to be a change in the understanding of where art happens in America, especially because so many art institutions are experiencing various problems. I feel like I’m noticing a bit more willingness to open up where some people think art can take place.
This is something that I think about a lot. When I was younger, I was really enamoured with the notion of moving to New York to be an artist. And to do the thing in New York—which is really powerful—which is become involved in a creative community of interesting people. And have access to institutional money, and have access to institutions. To participate, and to just be an audience member for things.
And so a lot of people have done that. And it’s like going to Oakland was for me. I think now I understand that existence of an urban creative place to be something that is not accessible to me, just purely in terms of finances and emotional well-being. And I’m a person with very significant privilege. We are getting a situation where all of the bands in New York and in LA are people with even more significant privilege, in large part—someone is going to get mad at me for this, and that’s okay, they can be mad at me—and those are the people who are allowed to exist in New York and places like that, and cultural centres.
And that’s fine and fair, and people can do what they want. But, personally, I’m tired of hearing bands from New York, I’m tired of hearing bands from LA, and I’m tired of hearing bands from the Bay Area—sorry, my friends. And, you know, I don’t mean to write off all of the really wonderful things people do in those places, because that does exist. But there is so much interesting work being made on all fronts in Durham, North Carolina, and in Lubbock, and in Albuquerque, and in Tucson. When do we get to hear from those people making work in those places, who aren’t able to hire a publicist and make that their story?
He doesn’t hire a publicist. He’s just a fucking weirdo and does his thing that is somehow really interesting to a lot of people. People want to hear him talk about Amarillo, and I think that’s incredible. It rules that he’s pointed a finger, at a national and international scale, at this weird and interesting town in West Texas. And thankfully, he lives in Lubbock now, and we get him. I’m excited for that.
Thinking about New York just makes me think about the sacrifices we have to make if we want to live fulfilling creative lives. For me, that has been moving to this weird town, and renovating this weird, cheap building in the middle of nowhere. And my life is more creatively fulfilling, and I’m able to do more of the things that I want than I ever was in Oakland. They’re different things, and I miss a lot of what I was able to do, in terms of regular access to creative community and established institutions, or just bodies of people made in order to do weird art.
Anything you want to do in Lubbock or West Texas you gotta do yourself. I’m someone that doesn’t struggle to do that, but I know it’s not for everybody. I really truly believe that this gesture of living in a place that maybe doesn’t make sense to a lot of people, but enables a lifestyle of more free time and more physical space and less money—this place doesn’t chew into my finances like Oakland did—I think this is the equivalent of living in New York in the seventies or eighties. This is the way we do that now.
I’m glad to hear you say you think people are moving in that direction, but I don’t see it as much as I would like to. And maybe my expectations are too high, but I’d really like to see more people do that. Not to move to Lubbock or to Littlefield, but to find a weird place that needs some boosting up and needs lively presence, and go there. There’s a way to do that without being a gentrifier, I think. It just takes space and time and thinking about it a lot. And I haven’t figured it out yet. But moving to a small town in order to have access to more quiet doesn’t have to be moving to Marfa or moving to Joshua Tree. I think that’s equivalent to moving to Oakland or LA in its own way. Man, somebody’s going to be so mad at me for that whole thing. Don’t edit it out. They can email me. That’s great. I’d love to talk about it.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the importance of listening in our culture, and part of that is opening our ears to what’s going on in places that more powerful people have previously tried to steer us away from. I hope there’s more priority given to that in the coming years.
I would like to see that, too. I think people are reluctant to allow a place to be cool. They’re like, “Lubbock sucks, but there seems to be a couple of cool things happening there.” Or, “Florida sucks, but Gainesville seems pretty cool.” And it’s allowing themselves to conceive of the South as a shitty place, or conceive of whatever as an entirely shitty place with exceptions. But there are things about Gainesville, there are things in Lubbock that enable the weird and interesting things there to happen.
PLACE #5: ALBUQUERQUE
This isn’t really a tour stories interview or anything, but I wanted to pick a place that might have meaning from your experiences on tour.
I love Albuquerque. I keep saying that if I have to move to a city again I’ll move to Albuquerque. What’s cool about Albuquerque is that…I don’t know that, from a larger level, people take Albuquerque very seriously. People don’t expect there to be such a vibrant arts and music scene in Albuquerque, as there is. People think that Santa Fe is the cool town, or Taos or whatever. There’s plenty of great things about Santa Fe or Taos, but I just think what’s going on in Albuquerque is special.
There was that recently shut down, and it was a queer library and reading room that doubled as a venue—not just for noise and experimental stuff, but also all sorts of music and performance and poetry and everything. There’s just not a lot of places that have institutions like that, that are casual and accessible and the people running it are invested in their communities. And that’s really special.
I just like Albuquerque. The food is great, the architecture is great, there’s access to all sorts of really beautiful nature around there. And I just have good friends there. I think it’s the thing of solidarity with people who live in an overlooked community, and so I have a lot of good friends there.
THING #5: TEXAS BBQ (AS DISTINCT FROM NORTH CAROLINA BBQ)
I remember a long time ago you talked about the distinctions between these two kinds of barbecue, and you’ve spent a fair amount of time in both places now.
They are very different things, obviously. I prefer Eastern North Carolina pork barbecue with the vinegar-based sauce, but there is the hickory style, which I’m not so big a fan of. And then of course Texas is the beef brisket smoked.
For a little while I was trying to determine which was best, and I did this crazy thing where…my favorite barbecue place in North Carolina is on the way to the airport that I fly into and out of to see my folks. And so I got lunch at in Durham and then flew to Houston and had Texas barbecue that evening. I did not feel super great, but I did get an accurate comparison. They just serve different functions. I prefer the taste of Texas barbecue. At this point that’s what I like.
But I think that—this is a very inelegant way to put it—Texas barbecue has been gentrified more deeply than North Carolina barbecue, in that a lot of Texas barbecue places are very manicured and stylised. Not all of them, of course. Our barbecue place in town is literally a prefab shed, and you sit in the shed. Though beef barbecue’s expensive. You can’t get away from that.
I think North Carolina barbecue is more casual, the places are less manicured. This is not a fact, this is not a statistic, but my feeling is in North Carolina, more Black folks have retained ownership and been able to have thriving barbecue businesses, as compared to Texas, which I think is mostly white folks. As far as I know—I haven’t looked into that, and maybe I’m wrong. But North Carolina barbecue is barbecue for the people, more so than Texas barbecue. And so I think it deserves respect for being that.
PERSON #5: ELIZABETH COTTEN
I don’t think I conceived of it like this, but I think she was the first fingerstyle guitarist I was really familiar with.
You know she’s from Carrboro, right?
I just looked it up, trying to figure out where exactly, because I don’t know the state’s geography very well.
Carrboro and Chapel Hill are essentially one big town. I grew up in Chapel Hill, but we went to the grocery store in Carrboro. And there is a bike path by the “Freight Train” train that is called Elizabeth Cotten Way. That bike path is where I would skateboard from home to downtown Carrboro to go to the record store, or to go and from shows at the Cat’s Cradle and at Go! Room 4 in Chapel Hill. And at the time you’d always see it: Elizabeth Cotten Way. But I didn’t really know who she was, probably until I was in college.
I think she’s a moving figure—in music in general, but I think particularly in guitar music because she was self-taught. Anyone who’s self-taught to the point of playing left-handed guitar on a right-strung guitar upside-down and still sounding like normal guitar music—that you would never know that about her playing unless you —is incredible. It makes me wish that I had learned guitar left-handed, even though I’m left-handed but I learned it right-handed.
I’m grateful to the folk revival for people digging into that American music and pulling people out like her and Mississippi John Hurt and Bukka White. But I wish that we had been granted the opportunity to have more documentation of those people’s work when they were younger, and that they’d had access to a more viable career. Because who knows what would’ve happened. And instead, white people—like me—get to take their music and profit off of it, where I don’t think she was able to until much later in life. If that, even—I admittedly don’t know the history as well as I should.
I started reading a book about a lot of Delta Blues musicians, and there are so many moments in the history that make me think about what so many of these artists could’ve done had they been given more support and more resources. I think, that kind of deprivation shouldn’t have to happen again.
It might not have to happen again. Because music exists within communities, right? It’s a community meeting point. People play music for each other, like all these musicians did. And maybe it’s not their career or something they’re making their living off of, but it does the thing it’s meant to do with great success. But the exploitation comes in when people try to start selling that as a product. And that’s a problem. It results in exploitation of all musicians. And we’re kind of at the beginning edge of musicians being able to seize the means of production.
We’re still working through corporate platforms. As much as I love Bandcamp, they’re still a corporation, they’re still a tech company. I live in fear of the day that someone there makes a bad decision and fucks us all up. I’ll really love Bandcamp, and I love what they do, and I think that they do listen to the people who use their platform. But it’s still money, and it’s still a capitalist organisation, and there’s still that risk. And that would fuck me up a lot, and it would fuck up a lot of people that we both know. But I think we’re at the beginning edges of music not having to exist in an exploitative marketplace.