THEM, an interview with Chris Cochrane

THEM, is a collaboration between dancer/theatre maker Ishmael Houston-Jones, writer Dennis Cooper and guitarist Chris Cochrane that was born in 1985 and then revived in 2010. THEM deals with death, suicide, AIDS, longing and loneliness.

Following a successful Kickstarter project, the soundtrack to the CD is now available on John Zorn’s renowned Tzadik label. Cochrane’s harsh frenzies of guitar and distant drones of noise build around Cooper’s sparse and heartbreaking texts. THEM is a harrowing and invigorating listen, haunted but still very much alive.

THEM will be performed as part of the Teenage Hallucination festival at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, from 27th – 29th February.

I spoke with Chris Cochrane about the piece and his musical contribution to it as well as other aspects of his music.

What are you memories from when you were originally putting THEM together in 1985? What was your introduction to Dennis’s and Ishmael’s work?

I was thrilled to be asked by Ish. I had seen him dance before. He and I were involved with a lot of other dancers and musicians that hung out at PS 122 and improvised together. I didn’t know Dennis’s work at all. Ish heard a reading of Dennis’s and was very affected by it and asked him if he was interesting in working together. Ish had seen me play at a club called 8BC run by two fags who later re-located to SF. He said he liked my posture and had never heard sounds like that from a guitar. The east village in the 80’s was a pretty exciting place, lot’s of collaborations between dancers, musicians, poets, actors, directors, you name it, very interesting. I was thrilled because this was the first time that I had worked with two other out people. The scene I was playing music in was musically adventurist, yet very straight, so it was a relief and exciting to be working on a piece that was explicitly gay.

(L-R) Chris Cochrane, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Dennis Cooper

Had you had much experience working with theatre prior to this? What else had you been working on round that time?

My memory is kind of sketchy about this. I’m sure I had played guitar for some other dancers at that point, but not theater per se, at least not yet, at that point. I was very involved with the improvised music scene. I was playing with lots of different players from all of world. John Zorn curated a space called The Saint, not the gay dance club, where many people played. I also had curated a lot of shows and was part of a national organization called Improvisor’s Network. I had made a couple stabs at being in bands, but nothing had stuck. Zeena Parkins and I started No Safety, a band we did together for 8 years, in the fall of 1986, when THEM got some money to re-do the piece at PS, this is when the piece became an evening length thing, with the inclusion of the goat and lymph node section.

How did you work out the score for the piece? Did you have guidelines or a definite mood that you were aiming for? I guess I’m asking about how you work – do you plan things out before hand or are you more of an instinctive player?

So there have been four versions to speak of. This first one in 85, which had a opening riff and that rest I improvised, again at least I think so. The 86 version I keep the opening riff, adding feedback and such and came up with ideas for moods, which were improvised. I wanted the music to sound tough, tender, mournful, I guess. Then some rhythmic figures for different sections. There were a couple of backing tapes I played along with. The next version we did in Toronto, more backing tapes, louder. The new version I vetoed some of the music, re-recorded or added additional things to the old backing tapes, made different pre-show music, but a lot of what I came up with was build on the 86 version stuff. Since it was music from long ago. I felt like as player and composer I had changed and evolved and wanted to update the music, but wanting to build on the forms from the “original” version. The piece is so much about memory to me, this idea seemed essential to what I was after in creating the music.

Going slightly off subject for a moment, I want you ask you about improvisation and how you approach it? Also, when you have been improvising what makes a “successful” piece for you?

I could go on and on about this – I need to think to most concise or messiest way to answer these questions. In college a friend, Doug Henderson and I began think of guitars as objects to make sound with. Fred Frith and Chris Cutler came and performed at Bard College, where we went. This show was hugely impactful. They improvised. It sort of gave us permission to continue improvising. At the same time I’ve always been interested in a huge variety of music, probably mostly listening to what is considered rock. So that’s also influenced how I improvise, sometimes quite loud, though playing with silence and space. Lately very interested in creating drones as a soloist and how to sustain, no pun intended, interest. I also partly became interested in improvising because it was precisely a form of making something collectively; there is no one composer, when improvising with others you making something in the moment together. I’m also always thinking about time, when improvising; how does sound affect time, also each room is different, so in some sense you are always playing the room.

I’m interested in hearing your feeling regarding re-approaching the piece when PS122 asked you to revive it. Were you apprehensive? How did you approach the piece differently? How did your music change?

I was excited at first, then I went to look at the video tapes of the older versions and was not so convinced that we could make something “successful” out of it. But Ish, Dennis and I had some conversations about it and we all thought it was worth the risk. We had a day of auditions and came away with an amazing group of dancers. Which to me surely added a whole new level of energy. I began to think about new music ideas. The new Museum signed on, there was a momentum that just started happening. Ish and I had conversations with the dancers about their experiences with HIV / AIDS, some had been born around the time of the piece. Dennis showed up and stated the piece seemed so innocent. This all changed when we did a dress rehearsal and the goat showed up still warm and very bloody. The tenure changed, we all kind of felt the work we had just made together was creating an intensity of its own.

I’m writing this on the day after the piece won a Bessie award – congratulations! It seems like an appropriate time to ask you to talk about audience/critical reactions to the piece and how they have differed from 1985 compared to the new version of the piece …

Thank-you. We’ve received lots of praise, people have come to several performances, they express being moved, sad; some remember seeing the first version and how this triggers memories of that, that’s very cool, since again I think the piece is so much about memory. Oh, I don’t know, we got listed in 10 best of list in Artforum. The CD itself is mostly getting really positive response. I don’t remember much about responses about the first version. There was one piece in the gay press that just hated what we had done, but I think audiences have almost always appreciated it.

Have you left the piece with different feeling towards it to those that you originally had?

Yeah, I’m amazed that the piece is still generating conversations, that people are being affected by it. It’s incredible that we could bring the piece forward and there’s a resonance to it. I don’t think any of us thought we’d be doing this piece again after we first made. I am thrilled and grateful to be working with Dennis and Ish again. It really has brought Dennis and I back into each other’s life a bit more. It’s curious and exciting to be involved in some sort of inter-generational conversation about how men interact, how we respond to each other, how we respond to death, HIV /AIDS etc … very powerful.

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