online music magazine and proponent of proper booth plurality
by Bart de Paepe
One of the most exciting improv outfits around these days has to be
White Out, the New York duo of drummer Tom Surgal and synth wizard
Lin Culbertson. One aspect that characterises the band is their openness
for collaborations with other people: Jim O’Rourke, William Winant,
Thurston Moore and David Nuss among others all played with the duo
on albums like ‘Red Shift’, ‘Drunken Little Mass’ and
the recently released ‘China Is Near’. Though the sound
of White Out may differ according to who’s playing, the overall
sound can only be described as ‘White Out’. We had a chat
with Tom and Lin, who once met each other during a Big Black show at
Why did you choose the name White Out? Is there a specific meaning
Tom Surgal: We chose the name White Out because it seemed to be the
name that best evoked the kind of music we play. In terms of what
it means, I'm not really sure how to answer that. What does any name
mean? What does ‘Tom Surgal’ mean? Like the end result
of any form of artistic expression, it should mean something different
to anybody who encounters it. We do however enjoy everything that
the name suggests: A blizzard condition, a form of cinematic montage
(the opposite of black out). It's also an American brand name for
corrective ink (which most people erroneously think was invented
by Mike Nesmith's mother, when in reality she conceived the rival
brand Liquid Paper.
Was there a particular record that got you into improvised music?
What does improvising mean to you and what makes playing in White Out
special/different from playing with other people?
Lin Culbertson: I actually listened to a lot of Sun Ra in my formative
years. I really like the crazy freewheeling spirit of "anything
goes" that some of his albums elicit. Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch
was also a very influential record for me. We are practitioners of "free
improvisation" which has absolutely no pre-determined elements.
There is no pretense and no calculation, just action and expression.
It could be seen as a life philosophy I guess. The most fun is playing
with people who you have an affinity with. Like any collective activity,
improvisation can be unsuccessful if the participants do not respond
well or listen to each other. Playing in White Out is an ecstatic
experience! Everyone we have collaborated with has brought a special
uniqueness to the project. Tom and I have very similar tastes in
music and I love playing with an excellent drummer who is conceptual
and always trying new ideas.
TS: There is no one record that got me into improvisation. Actually
I don't really like to ponder my role as an improviser. I prefer to
blur the line between what is composed and what is improvised. All
art is improvised to some extent, the classical musician interpreting
a predetermined score must still lend his own individual voice to the
part he is to play, otherwise everything would just be computerized.
It's all a matter of degree. When we sit down to perform, we have the
same set of concerns that any other musician playing music has. We
play parts, they just haven't been written yet. Playing in White Out
is indeed a very special setting for me. Lin is the 'ultimate collaborator
a truly original force, supremely inventive, and a deep listener. Nels
Cline has dubbed her "New York's best kept secret", and what
can I say about Jim that hasn't already been said many times over.
Those cats rule my world. Playing with people of such high musical
caliber and then combining those estimable talents with those of our
other friends like Thurston, Watt, and Winant is like a dream come
Do you see a political dimension in playing all this improv stuff?
What about improvising outside the music?
TS: Everything we do is political. Every action one takes has political
ramifications. Look White Out doesn't pander to an audience, we subscribe
to the old Miles Davis principal: that we only play for ourselves and
the other musicians we perform with. We are part of a resistance movement,
a resistance to mediocrity, the most politically righteous path an
artist can take.
LC: I do see performing this type of free improvisational music as
political. It is such marginal music and very challenging for the audience.
Listening requires a degree of both concentration and surrender. I
am amazed by the growing number of people who are interested in experiencing
it. Improvisation can be exhilarating for the audience as well as the
musicians. Many times there is someone who comes up after a show with
a look of astonishment on their faces. It is usually the first time
they have heard this type of music and have totally connected with
it. It's great to indoctrinate people into the world of "free".
Tom, in earlier interviews you stated that you feel more
connected with European improvisers like Brötzmann and Parker:
what is it in their approach you feel connected to? In which sense
is their playing different from Americans? Have you ever played with
TS: That response you are referring to was taken out of context,
I was being asked to comment on a very specific stratum of American
players. Obviously there are a lot of American musicians I hold in
high regard, many of whom I have already mentioned in the course
of this interview. But I will reiterate as to why I feel a special
affinity for European improvisers: Basically what it comes down to
is that the Euros are not so encumbered by formulaic structures.
They don't feel so compelled to play blues changes and adhere to
set time signatures. Their playing is as informed by new music, and
pure sound as it is by any other influences, which is precisely where
we are coming from. Yes I have played with both Peter Brötzmann
and Evan Parker, two of the most rewarding musical unions I have
Does White Out play a lot of shows? Any favourite recent one?
LC: We don't play a lot of shows. This type of music has a specialized
audience. We haven't been to Europe yet so would love to go over
and play there. My favorite show is last December at the club Tonic
in NYC with Jim and Thurston.
Lin, apart from White Out you're also playing solo as Quasi Sutro.
Is that all solo synth?
LC: Quasi Sutro is a recording project that had a cassette release
on the Freedom-From label quite a while back. It is multi-tracked
stuff that is both more structured and more subdued than White Out
jams. I also use additional instruments to the synth: piano, guitar,
flute, voice... There is more Quasi to come.
What synths do you use? Do you make some of these yourself?
LC: I use all vintage gear. Up until about a year ago I played a
Sequential Circuits Pro-One and a Casio CZ 101. Now I just have a Korg
MS-20 and an autoharp in my setup. Since attempting to make my first
drum machine from a PAiA kit, I have abandoned the idea of constructing
my own instruments. I do not solder well.
Tom, you’ve played a lot with Blue Humans, how did
you get involved with that band? Does it still exist?
TS: My involvement with the Blue Humans stemmed from Thurston producing
a new Rudolph Grey record and him asking me to come into the studio
and help EQ the drums for Rashied Ali. It was my first introduction
to Rudolph and we discovered that we had a lot in common and we developed
an immediate rapport. Our musical union evolved from there. Rudolph's
a real original. Actually the first time we ever played together
came out of that session and was documented on the New York Eye and
Ear compilation put out by Matador. No the Blue Humans do not currently
exist. Rudolph has been relatively inactive in recent years, let's
hope that changes soon.
Actually you’ve played on a few records with Thurston Moore
like ‘Not Me’ and ‘Klangfarbenmelodie…and
the Colorist strikes Primitiv’: how did you meet him?
TS: I met Thurston through my friend Lydia Lunch some 20+ years ago.
Just for the record Thurston is one of my all time favourite people
and we were already the best of friends before we ever played a note
of music together.
How did you get in touch with Lydia Lunch? I believe you’re
also playing on one of her records…
TS: Well I wouldn't say we worked together, I just sat in on some
odd metal bits for a record she was cutting when we were both out
in LA a very long time ago. Lydia is a lifelong friend of mine whom
I met when I was doing set design for a feature film she was playing
the lead in.