White Out with Thurston Moore & Jim O'Rourke
by Brad Cohen

New York City’s White Out (percussionist Tom Surgal and multi-instrumentalist Lin Culbertson) layer upon layer a pysch-improv space-jazz constellation if intergalactic mind-fucked and mind-soothing magnitude. In this rare interview, White Out is joined by honorary members Thurston Moore and Jim O’Rourke (of Sonic Youth fame) for an engaging and comedic conversation which touches on topics as diverse as Sun Ra, capitalism, gamelan, No Wave, and European electronic music.

The ambience inside the Lower East Side, New York City jazz and experimental institution Tonic was decidedly different than that in January of 2001, when my initial encounter with White Out first transpired. That night, White Out (percussionist Tom Surgal and analog synthesizer / flute / electric autoharp multi-instrumentalist Lin Culbertson) intricately mind-melded their pysch-jazz free improvisations with that of guitarist’s Nels Cline’s galvanizing maelstrom of jazz-bent shards and atonal, fractured crashes. This evening though, White Out would be paired with oft-collaborators Thurston Moore and Jim O’Rourke of another NYC institution, Sonic Youth. While Cline was easily accessible on that frigid winter night for an interview prior to his two sets - the first with White Out then followed by his and drummer Gregg Bendian’s deconstructionist testimonial to John Coltrane’s and Rashied Ali’s revolutionary free jazz piece from 1967, Interstellar Space, Moore appeared more elusive. Enveloped between sets by peers, well-wishers and throngs of touristy SY fans hoping for an autograph on their copy of Murray Street, I finally was able to squeeze my slight frame through the horde in order to retrieve a few quotes from Thurston about the experimental purveyors in White Out, who through his Ecstatic Peace label, has released WO’s two records - the ethereally-damaged, space-is-the-place, percussive / synthesizer tsunami, Red Shift with David Nuss (No Neck Blues Band) and the starry-eyed, liquidy sonic shape-shifting patterns and textured dreamscape of Drunken Little Mass, accompanied by O’Rourke on Powerbook and guitar. The following is an account of the night’s strange and comedic happenstance.

With his signature tall, lanky frame sprawled on the steps of the minuscule Tonic stage, Thurston sits relaxed with guitar in tow and a menagerie of effects pedals situated every which way. Speaking candidly about White Out’s trademark right-wing politics, his contribution to its sound and his diminishing finances, the audacious Moore leaves no stone unturned in this revealing exchange.

Can you give me your thoughts on White Out and their impetus in this experimental / improv milieu?
Thurston: White Out? They’re the best band in New York right now, besides Liquid Liquid...and Gang Gang Dance. [Ed. note - Coincidentally, Liquid Liquid is playing this same evening for first time in nearly twenty years at The Knitting Factory]. [White Out have] kind of taken over where No Neck [Blues Band] used to reign.

What do you add to White Out’s sound?
Primitive noise...abstract and hectic squalor is what I am trying to go for. Also kind of like a new age melody. Perhaps you’ve heard it (Laughs)?

I absolutely did hear the new age melody (Laughing). Anyway, is Ecstatic Peace releasing White Out’s next record?
I don’t have any more money to put out records so I am just putting out free music now on the Web.

Is White Out involved in your new venture?
No. White Out are capitalists. They have their eye on a more commercial [fare].

While the early set was ostensibly a transmission of subtly played, cosmic nuances, the late set proved to be the antithesis - an equilibrium-destroying cacophonous sun ship. Anchored by Surgal’s effortless and feathery ebbing/flowing jazz beats and percussive clatter, Culbertson’s convulsing analog synth swooshes, O’Rourke’s electronic knob-twiddling and Moore’s searing string-bending resonance, this White Out collective established the precedent for now-psych-improv bands like Black Dice, whether they know it or not.

Bassist for Sonic Youth; producer extraordinaire for Wilco, Sonic Youth, Stereolab, Superchunk,; acclaimed solo ventures; erstwhile White Out member. After the show, I find Jim, with equipment and All About Jazz newspaper in hand, crouched down in a corner. Not nearly as accommodating and honest as Thurston, while exuding an overtly pretentious (“I’m in White Out - who the hell are you?”) eccentric vibe, I humbly request his thoughts about White Out.
Jim: White Out bridge a certain ways of improvising that I don’t find with other people; I could say “groups,” but it’s not that -- with White Out it’s “other people.”

[While speaking to Jim, Thurston is exiting Tonic, glances over to myself and Jim and reacts to this writer fishing for more juicy quotes about White Out].
Thurston: Oh, come on!!!

After much prodding and waiting, Lin and I plant ourselves at the hot dog counter at Tonic. With Sex Mob and MTO leader Steven Bernstein’s gale-force trumpet blows percolating in the main space, Tom counting the evening’s earnings, Mark Ibold (Pavement, Free Kitten) stopping by to say hello, Kim Gordon bidding adieu to Lin and Tom, the interview with the elusive White Out is about to commence. If it just wasn’t for Bernstein’s blaring horn, maybe I can hear a fucking thing.

Earlier, When I asked Thurston for a quote about White Out, he claimed you guys are capitalists. Any truth to this rumor?
Tom: He said we were capitalists?? No... we are communists! Our music is communistic - it’s total parity. There is no leader, just followers.
Lin: That’s pretty funny that he would say something like that. Playing this kind of music?...
TS: ...we’re in it for the money!

Thurston also said White Out are the best NYC band besides Liquid Liquid.
TS: Besides Liquid Liquid? Thurston doesn’t even like them.

Red Shift and Drunken Little Mass were both recorded live in concert, not in a studio...
TS: No, no, no...they are not both live. The second one [Drunken] is mostly studio - half studio, half live.
LC: Well the first one [Red Shift] is actually studio (recorded), too.

Ok...I’m embarrassed. My “fact checking” needs some work. [laughter]
LC: They sound live and there are no overdubs. On Drunken, there are pieces recorded from two live shows -- here at Tonic and The Cooler.
TS: We just recorded a third album, which is all studio-recorded and we are just mixing it. That’s with Jim and percussionist William Winant. I used to have a trio with him and Thurston. William played on [Sonic Youth’s] Goodbye Twentieth Century.

What is the White Out process of recording and playing live?
TS: It is completely improvised.
LC: There isn’t even any speaking beforehand... “Ok, let’s start the second one quiet.” Whatever happens...
TS: We try to do it as spontaneously as possible. We don’t even practice - we practice independently and don’t like to get together unless it’s for recording or a show. It is kind of like ceremonial music.
LC: [The improvising] makes it a little more difficult because if we are playing with someone we haven’t really played with before, it can take a minute to figure out where they are coming from.

Is it difficult to adapt to certain players?
TS: It’s all difficult...
LC: ...and different with some people’s styles. One time we played with a sax and that was a little difficult. For me, it was so about the notes that I felt I was stepping on the sax with really strange sounds. We’ve really only played with horns once and guitars once...
TS: No, no - We’ve played with Nels [Cline], Elliott Sharp, Thurston, Mike’s different every time. We try to eschew as many preconceived notions as possible. That was a good show. There were two saxes -- Sabir Mateen and Daniel Carter [TEST]. Sometimes it feels like all other kinds of music are archaic, it’s all so formulaic. This is music of the future, you know? We try to clear our minds of all thoughts before we play. Actually, we have no thoughts...we’re stupid...

Can you name other people you would like to collaborate with?
LC: Keith Rowe...
TS: Phil Wachsman, European electronics people...anybody.

TS: I grew up in Manhattan. [Talking to Lin] You didn’t - you were listening to it [No Wave] in Wisconsin.
LC: I saw [Glenn] Branca.
TS: At thirteen, I got really into jazz and when punk hit, I got really into that.
LC: [To Tom] You did, right? You saw The Dead Boys...
TS: ...Voidoids, Dead Boys...I’d also go to jazz lofts and see people like Sam Rivers. When I was growing up places were cheaper to go to.
TS: [To Lin] You were into The Stooges...and you also studied Gamelan.

LC: It’s an Indonesian orchestra - gongs. It’s actually the most incredible, amazing sound.
TS: Lou Harrison, who just died, composed a lot for Gamelan orchestra.

Did Gamelan and jazz contribute to your interest in improvisational music?
LC: I was doing free improv when I was in high school...
TS: All music informs our playing, everything we’ve ever heard...
LC: The idea of doing improvisation is that you have to come to it from some place to go to another.

The music press usually refers to Sun Ra when something is written about White Out.
I know and it’s funny -- I did listen to Sun Ra a lot. But I think it’s because of the analog synthesizer.
TS [to Lin]: Nah, you don’t really sound like Sun Ra. You have your own individual voice. It’s just that you use a Pro-One synthesizer; it’s a cheap umbrella reference. But hey, if you’re going to have a reference, it might as well be Sun Ra!
LC: Yeah! That’s a pretty good reference!

What is your take on the evolving jazz/experimental scene in here in NYC? And where does White Out fit in?
TS: I am more interested in what’s happening in Europe - it’s more akin to what we’re doing and what we sound like.
LC: [White Out] is not really straight jazz.
TS: We don’t have blues inflections, we don’t have any obvious jazz references. We are as much impacted by new music and contemporary classical as jazz. That’s very much what’s happening with people like Paul Lovens, Evan Parker, Peter Brotzmann and Alexander Von Schlippenbach. I’ve discovered these people fairly late in the game. It was like hearing something parallel to what we are doing. So, we are more attuned to what is going on in Europe than what is happening here. But that’s just my pretentious take.

Can you describe the sound of White Out?

TS: Big...bigger.
LC: The sound of White Out? I would say it’s like conversation [Tom chuckles]. I think it’s like speaking voices...
TS: ...really strident tones of voices. [laughs]

You are the core members of White Out. Have you thought of adding a permanent member - maybe Jim?
TS: We’ve been playing with Jim for the last couple of years.

So is Jim an “honorary member?”
TS: He hasn’t entered into a fasting pact with us yet; he hasn’t signed anything in blood. But we know he’s after the big money so hopefully he’ll continue to collaborate with us. It’s just a cooperative -- White Out revolves around us two as the nucleus and whoever we play with is White Out.
LC: It seems nice to have a sort of flux and add a third member. Duos are nice but trios are particularly nice.
TS: Two’s a crowd.

What is on the WO agenda for the future?
LC: No plans...
TS: We have no plans. We have no plans when we play. We have another record and we are really into that. I think it’s the best thing we’ve done yet - best recording. We recorded it at Sonic Youth’s studio and our friend Aaron [Mullan] engineered it and Jim helped out a little with the production. It’s definitely our apotheoses to date. [To Lin] Don’t you think it’s the best thing we’ve done?
Lin: Yeah, I think so.

Thurston said he couldn’t put out your next record on Ecstatic Peace because he has no more money to put out records.
TS: Well, it gets back to the capitalist thing - he can’t afford us anymore.
LC: We need the million dollar advance!

Lastly, this is actually one of the first interviews you’ve ever done as White Out??
TS: What can I tell you? You play this kind of music you get used to being ignored. We’re happy we get nice size audiences and if people want to write about us, that’s fine. And if they don’t, we have no control over that. It’s a hard one for us to comment on. Their loss, our gain.