The Daily Tar Heel

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Friday December 3rd

Q&A with saxophonist Colin Stetson


Colin Stetson is a saxophonist who has worked with artists including Tom Waits , Bon Iver , Laurie Anderson and Arcade Fire . But he doesn't play just any sort of sax: he most regularly plays massive baritone or bass saxophones. The Daily Tar Heel's Diversions Editor Allison Hussey talked to Stetson about recording and striking a balance among his many musical endeavors.

DIVERSIONS: What made you want to record your material live?

COLIN STETSON: The music itself — I’ve been performing music and writing music for years before I ever got down to recording it. So the recording was just sort of an extension of what the music already was. If you’re making music that doesn’t rely on any sort of technology to create it, then recording shouldn’t all of a sudden start to use overdubs and pedals and things to create it. It was really just a question of capturing everything that was there to begin with.

DIVE: Have you found any other big challenges with recording?

CS: I don’t think so. No more than there ever are. The challenges are finding the right space, the right engineer, the right microphones, the right approach. Placement of microphones is really paramount when it comes to what I’m doing, because it dictates how isolated are the sounds you’re going to get. But ultimately, it comes down to the performance, just making sure that you are prepared enough to give a good performance.

DIVE: For a solo performer, you play an unusual instrument. You’ve been playing for a long time, but what originally attracted you to it?

CS: I’ve been playing since I was 10, so I don’t know. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to play that instrument, and I had been playing it since that point. My experimentation with it has been developing over many years. The solo music started to happen when I was 19, that’s when the first glimmers of what would I would eventually start to write came about.

DIVE: Along with your solo material, you regularly work with a lot of different artists. How do you balance touring and recording with all of these other people with writing and touring on your own?

CS: Scheduling is difficult, and at times it’s been easier, but really, for the last several years, it’s been pretty outrageously busy. But in terms of balancing, that’s never really been a question for me.

I’ve always enjoyed having more of a variety of outlets to explore, so having the solo project has always felt more — my musical voice always felt more comprehensive and more satisfied when I would have some element of a group of collaboration on the other end. That’s kind of how it’s always been, and that the collaborations have been varied and many, but I like it that way.

DTH: Have you found that having so many different collaborations has pushed you to change your own writing?

CS: Oh, I’m sure that it has. I can analyze some things and listen to them with a certain critical ear, even if I’m going to find that they’re very direct references to other things that I’ve been doing at that given time. Maybe they’re veiled, you never know consciously at the time, but you can certainly draw the correlation.

DTH: Has there been any particular one that’s exceptionally stood out?

CS: I’ve been really lucky to have done a lot of things that have been really important to me. The recording with Tom Waits was and is kind of my favorite collaboration — not only just in the music, but also because it was a thing that I had really dreamt about and wanted to make happen for years before. 

But the work that I’ve done with Bon Iver has been incredibly satisfying and exciting, and I’ve been really proud of everything that we did with that record and with that tour. Everything I did with Laurie Anderson recently, both the work for her music and for mine has been pretty spectacular. I could kind of go on and on. I tend to enjoy myself in most of the things that I get to do.

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