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by Bart de Paepe

pic 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 CBGB’s.

Why did you choose the name White Out? Is there a specific meaning behind that?

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 true.

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 Europeans?

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 ever experienced.

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.