Keith Rowe 

Interview by Dan Warburton, January 2001 


Keith Rowe: I attended Art School in Plymouth, and it was a very provincial art school, but the great thing was that the other guy in my painting group was Mike Westbrook! He was older than the rest of us and was interested in forming a jazz group, and I became involved in that. It had lots of wonderful names like Hieronymous Bosch and the Burgers or Emily Stomp: Music in a Modern Manner! (laughs) I didn't play guitar before that. My family weren't musical at all. We had a radio in the house, so I was brought up with that. I didn't have any formal lessons; for about five years I spent about four or five hours a day listening to Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery. I could do reasonable imitations of all those people. But as I've said many times elsewhere, that was at odds with what I was doing in the painting class, which was about finding out who you were, what you had to say. As somebody in the Scratch Orchestra (was it Ian Mitchell?) once said, "art school is like five years of developing your quirk." In the painting class I was finding out who I was, making the kind of paintings which were uniquely mine, in a way which was uniquely mine, but with the guitar I was just slavishly copying American guitar players. This was late 1950s, early 1960s.

Dan Warburton: What kind of painting were you doing?

I abandoned the canvas and worked on hardboard, using house paint from Woolworth's.. In the end my paintings came down to about three colours, which they still are today, I guess. Postbox red. Stripes. Trying to get away from the aesthetics of taste, and from what you were supposed to do. But I had to learn to paint like Sickert too; I did a completely classical Arts course. You know, naming parts of the body in Latin and that kind of stuff, studying Gray's Anatomy..

Do you still get pleasure looking at classical painting?

Oh yes, I love it! For me, then and now, Caravaggio was an enormous influence. That idea of revolutionary vision that you find in the plastic arts is for me one of the most important things one has in life. The visual arts have always been ahead of music, and might well continue to be. Though when I hear people like Toshimaru Nakamura, or Otomo Yoshihide, they're working much more like painters. In the AMM we've always worked much more like painters. That means we're able to concern ourselves with aspects of life that I don't ordinarily understand. Maybe composers or piano players of the highest order can concern themselves with these aspects.

Back at art school though did you already sense there was a link between your own painting and the music you felt you would go on to create?

I ditched the painting in the end. The commodity aspect of it. It seemed to me that a painting was a kind of very elaborate bank note, a kind of commodity. About 1961 I kicked that into touch. With music I didn't have the commodity, I didn't have the luggage of the canvas. I hit the guitar and made a note, and the note disappeared into air, I didn't have anything. It was completely fluid. I could constantly change it. I really enjoyed that. I was still playing the conventional way, in a kind of synthesis of Charlie Christian, Kessel, Jim Hall. There were no real crazy guitar players to copy at that time.

Did the early free jazz filter through to you about that time?

There was a basement of the art school (called Potters Bar, for some reason), and being in Plymouth we had lots of American aircraft carriers or warships that would visit. So you'd have like three thousand men, including black American jazz musicians. There was the American tuba player Howard Johnson who would come and play, so at the age of like twenty we were playing a lot of American jazz music. It was quite weird, learning to swing, learning how to syncopate. In Plymouth we really benefitted by having a jazz critic called Peter Russell who ran a record store, and he was very well-informed on a wide variety of jazz. We used to hang out there and listen to Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman. "Tomorrow is the Question" was very important, and the Mingus stuff with Dolphy.

So how did you make the quantum leap from Wes Montgomery to Keith Rowe as we know him?

In painting school, you have to find our who you are, what is unique about you, what you have to say. You can't take a canvas and paint a Georges Braque, or a Picasso, someone else's paintings.. it's an impossibility. One of the great lessons for me was the professor pointing right into my nose saying, "Rowe, you cannot paint a Caravaggio. Only Caravaggio can paint Caravaggio." Suddenly trying to play guitar like Jim Hall seemed quite wrong.. Who am I? What do I have to say? I probably thought about that for between five and eight years, just constantly reflecting on how to do it, and, in a flash, I found the solution. Look at the American school of painting, which was very provincial in the 1800s: they really wanted to do something original but didn't know how to do it, the clue was to get rid of European painting, but how could they ditch European painting, what did they have to do to do that? And Jackson Pollock did it - he just abandoned the technique. How could I abandon the technique? Lay the guitar flat! All that it's doing is angling the body [of the guitar] from facing outwards to facing upwards - the strings remain horizontal, the strings are the same.

Was the radio part of your concept?

No, that came later through the connection with Cardew and John Cage. But Duchamp was already an influence in art school though, and the radio is an objet trouvé, a found object, like Duchamp's famous urinal in the Armoury show. I used to discuss Duchamp with John Surman, who was down there [in Plymouth] too. Eventually we moved to London - John Surman and I got on the train at Plymouth and we went to stay with Mike Westbrook in Notting Hill Gate.

You don't appear on any of the early Westbrook albums, but it seems you were already making yourself known as something of an innovator..

In the Westbrook band I made a New Year's resolution not to tune the guitar anymore. As the months rolled on, the guitar became more and more out of tune. Westbrook would give me scores, and I would cut out images from magazines, and fruit pie packets and glue those onto the score and solo from the fruit pie covers..

What did Mike think about this?

Well, he got very angry! (laughs) He knew I wasn't mucking about; he knew I was a pretty sincere character. I obviously held him in great respect, and I still do. But, you know, in big bands, you've got the Basie band where everybody has really good chops, and the Ellington band where Duke tried to integrate the character of the musicians into his compositions.. I think Mike was much more along those lines. He obviously grappled with the problem of trying to fit me in. But eventually I left.

Did you already know Eddie Prevost?

I knew Eddie a little, through Lou Gare (who of course had been with me in Westbrook band). Eddie and Lou played in a sextet or something, boppish type band.

When did you first run into Cardew?

About 1964. He was writing "Treatise". He'd just written music for a John Sharkey play at the ICA in London, and he was looking for musicians to play his material, play material derived from graphics and ideas, conceptual things.. He was looking for someone who had visual training, who was willing to experiment, and someone who was willing to play. At some stage Cardew came round and we immediately became friends. I think I met him through Alan Cohen, a big band arranger for Joe Loss, or someone like that (he did "March of the Mods", remember that?). I was in Alan's big band with John Surman, and it was much more experimental.

Were you still playing fruit pie packets?

Yes, I think I was. Alan had a more diverse background - he knew about Webern, for instance. I used to babysit for him and listen to his Webern records.

So when you collaborated on Cardew's theatre music for the ICA play, you were already familiar with the idea of the graphic score.

Yes. I'd thought about it by then for nearly eight or nine years, and I think I'd developed a pretty strong observational power to perceive things as they really are. With Cardew we did some of those. The Earle Brown pieces, "December 1952", the "Folio" pieces. Nothing written out, because I was a hopeless reader. It'd take me ages to learn something. Pavlovianism is not what I'm about.. too many filters, too many bad memories..

What other objects were you using at the time?

Oh, if I look at the photographs there's everything from fire alarms, screwdrivers, electric drills, all kinds of guiro objects, scraping objects, steel rods.. I played cello too: cello is roughly the same string length as the guitar. I've always been interested in the arpeggione, a kind of Spanish hybrid instrument with aspects of the guitar, viol and cello. You could pluck it, or bow it, or use a plectrum.

Was Cardew interested in jazz?

Fascinated by it. Thelonious Monk, for example, was a great piano hero of his, but he [Cardew] just couldn't do it, couldn't swing! He couldn't get that idea of the thing you learn working inside a rhythm section for four or five years. He could click his fingers and swing.. he always sounded like a metronome! (laughs) Of course, politically too, it was much closer to his idea of people's music.

Was the political dimension in Cardew's music already developed when you started working with him in 64?

I think it was. It was inherent in his family background, in the Confucianism that his father followed. In Cornelius ['s work] there's a seamless line of humanity, which is expressed in different ways, sometimes discreet and subtle, at other times very crude. I never ever heard Cornelius tell anyone what to do. In a world which you could describe in general terms as contaminated, by all kinds of issues like money, fame and fortune, Cardew was one of those very rare people who you look to with absolute integrity. A man of absolute integrity. One of the difficulties that people like Cardew, Eisler, Shostakovich, and Christian Wolff have struggled with, is how do you deal with the politics of your life, the things that are happening around you.

How did AMM come about?

Like many things, through frustration, in a way. There was Eddie, Lou, me and Lawrence Sheaff, the bass player. Cardew came later.We were visual artists who also played musical instruments. We wanted to move on from what jazz was about. We were inspired by what black American musicians had done, but we found the jazz form terribly limiting. AMM was based on a philosophy whereas free jazz was based on performance of music. We knew what we wanted to do. Invent a music that would be ours - AMM music. Music that would fit into no category. We were outside the scene of improvised music. We still are. We've always been perceived as arrogant (maybe you have to be to say you're going to invent a new music), though personally I've never felt arrogant in my life.

But you did feel apart from the other prime movers in improvised music at the time, John Stevens and the SME, for example.

There was no contact between us and John. There was some kind of contact between Lou, Eddie and Evan Parker. Evan's the only musician of that scene who's played with AMM. Derek Bailey turned up to our concerts, I seem to remember. But Derek's probably as ignorant about AMM as I am about him! One important difference between AMM and the other musicians is this question of repertoire. I don't think I know of any other group that set out to work without a repertoire, before AMM. That was a central part of what we were about, and that's a very very significant part of what we are about. Much more significant than people realise. A seismic shift in mentality in music. Other players got into playing freely, way before AMM, way before Derek! Who knows when free playing started? You can imagine lute players in the 1500s getting drunk and doing improvisations for people in front of a log fire.. the noise, the clatter must have been enormous. You read absolutely incredible descriptions of that. I cannot believe that musicians back then didn't float off into free playing. The melisma in Monterverdi must derive from that. But it was all in the context of a repertoire. I think I've tried to live the whole of my musical life without a repertoire.

What do the letters AMM stand for?

The letters AMM stand for something, but as you probably know it's a secret! You have to remember that the beginning of AMM was quite complex. It still is complex. It's given me enormous pleasure to have such a long, musical association.

You and the Rolling Stones..

I'd prefer to think of the Borodin String Quartet! (laughs)

Many people erroneously believe that Cardew was a founder member of AMM.

No, I invited him. This is also a unique thing about AMM, in that we didn't invite improvisors to join us. Rohan de Saram isn't an improvisor; Ian Mitchell had never improvised before; Christopher Hobbs and Christian Wolff had never improvised. Apart from Evan, we never chose people with a proven track record. We always took someone who had to find out what it was for them. A blank sheet of paper. John Tilbury finally joined AMM in 1981, though he'd played with us off and on before that. We always thought that AMM should be three elements. If it's two elements, it's not AMM. There have been versions of AMM with only two people, but I don't consider that as AMM.

But I remember seeing you at CCAT, Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology in 81 or 82, and I'm sure John wasn't in the group.

About that time we did do duo gigs, yes. But we always thought there should be three elements. In AMM philosophy three is four: the three players plus the group itself makes four. It's like the Chinese story of the man drinking a glass of wine in moonlight whose shadow becomes the third member of the company. AMM's a quartet with an invisible member. AMM is very narrowly focused in its activity. I'd say my work is very narrowly focused. I think that's important, because in the musical arts, particularly in classical music where people are paid to play like Mozart one night and Schoenberg the next night, well.. I'm not saying its like prostitution but there's an element of that. It wouldn't happen if it wasn't for the money. The idea is the more versatile you are the better; if you can play both ancient music and modern music that's somehow better than just being able to play modern music. Whereas in painting, Mondrian just basically did the same thing. Even after the seismic change of going to live in America, the lines just thickened up a bit! I like that. I like the idea of working on something all your life.

Do you go back and listen to old AMM recordings?

Yes. I think some of them are impenetrable. And that's their greatness. "The Crypt". The uncatchability of "The Crypt" makes it one of the most important recordings not just for AMM, but for that period. For me it's like a late Beethoven string quartet. I remember the performance vividly. The recording captures the room perfectly; it's a recording of people performing music in that room. "The Crypt" is like a Petrus wine.. it took an incredibly long time for it to be drinkable. It's very tough. It took thirteen years for it come out. And now decades later it's still drinkable! The "Newfoundland" album is more for early drinking.. (laughs)

You mentioned earlier several "political" composers, such as Eisler and Wolff (and Cardew of course), who wrestled with the problem of writing "music for the masses". To a certain extent, their solution was to simplify, reintroduce basic rhythms and singable melodies, whereas AMM music to me seems to have more in common with Luigi Nono's work, in that it remains uncompromisingly difficult, impenetrable, even, to use your word. How do you square that with your political ends?

The issue you raise is so complex, it's a five-day seminar. (Pause) With the Scratch Orchestra it was fairly clear; you could see the ethos of collectivity, lack of leadership, lack of centralization. That was very obvious. It's much less clear with AMM. AMM is a leaderless group, certainly, but the politics is within the counterpoint. In the AMM there are probably hundreds of categories of counterpoint which are highly political. One of the many counterpoints in the AMM is the difference in physicality; clearly Eddie is the most physical, John is in between, and I'm the least physical. There's a level of gearing. As you know, with amplified instruments it's very different. I can make a shatteringly loud sound by a move which is much less than a millimetre. That type of gearing produces a very different type of physicality.

You've said elsewhere that the radio introduces into your music certain aspects of daily life, which has political connotations, of course. How has your use of the radio in performance evolved over the years?

Originally I played the radio directly into the amplifier, and later on I got a very basic mixer and put it through that. Then I found a way of actually passing the signal through the guitar pickups, so it becomes part of the guitar. I've become probably more interested in degraded sounds, not working with very fine material. I'd never buy an expensive radio. I prefer the cheap ones. That goes back to the political thing we were talking about. Having a very expensive guitar when people in other places are very poor I find an obscenity. I don't like that. I use a cheap wooden imitation of an American model.

Your use of radio seems to involve a certain amount of serendipity.. Is it luck? The fact that when I saw you play in Cambridge College of Arts and Technology back in the early 80s your radio just seemed to land on someone saying "I suppose you're wondering what we're going to do now.."

Well, I don't want to go into this too deeply.. (laughs) The start of AMM was quite a complex chemistry of ideas, ideas deriving from Gurdjieff, Taoism, Buddhism. I studied under a Buddhist monk called Sangharakshita, I studied form, perception, meditation. What I wanted to be able to do was look at something and understand it, or to be able to understand the relation, the tension between these two things (searches around for objects on the café table), between the corner of this [ashtray] and that round thing [the back of the chair].. I wanted to be able to walk into a space and immediately comprehend what the space was about. To be able to talk to you now and have part of my brain listening to what that coffee machine is doing or what that person is saying over there.. Part of Taoism was being able to do the right thing at the right time. You develop a sense of what to do. The classic example is you're walking down a street and stop to tie up your shoelace just as a brick falls off the building and lands where you would have been. Cardew was very strong on that; he would take students on a walk down the road and just have a running dialogue with them, analysing the street, the architecture, the verticals, the horizontals, the way the wind or light affects the colour of a building. I believe the use of the radio is something like that.

So while you're playing you monitor local or national radio stations?

I only do that occasionally. Normally I'll just turn it on, and deal with it. Deal with what's there. It's an objet trouvé again. You mention Cage as being important regarding the use of the radio. What did he have to say to you when he finally heard you play? I remember we did a concert in Buffalo, New York (Cornelius was a Creative Associate there just before Feldman, or maybe at the same time as Feldman) in this old car factory with deep snow everywhere, and there were four people in the audience. One was Cage, one was David Tudor, one was Allen King, the Canadian film maker and the other person we didn't know! Cage was very supportive. We didn't talk about music though - we talked about everything else but music, the issues of what it means to have a musical life. He think Cage would see the radio as a way of introducing melody.. To this day, the left hand is the melody hand on the guitar. I'd only operate the radio with that hand, or I would always have it on that side, at least. I set up the table with the melodic things, pitch changers and the like, on the left, and the volume and duration equipment on the right. There's a purity of position. Although it may seem very freewheeling, it's not at all. I'm hemmed in by an enormous amount of constraints.

You also used pre-recorded tapes at one time.

At the very first sessions of AMM I used pre-recorded tapes of Beach Boys, things like that, played enormously loud. It was our version of the "sheets of sound". We would play it as loud as we possibly could and try to climb over it like a wall. It was a barrier to get through. Later, I only ever used pre-recorded tapes at periods of disruption in the group's development, or for example when Cardew died, when I did a performance with Phil Minton which incorporated a recording of Samuel Barber's "Adagio".

Why that piece, and not, say, a famous funeral march by Chopin or Beethoven?

I think it's because of its American association. I also played the so-called American pages from Cardew' "Treatise" in the performance. I think the Barber was played at Kennedy's death.

Do you think Cornelius would have appreciated being compared to Kennedy?

Well, music gets used, whether you like it or not.

Cardew's death - accident or conspiracy?

I really don't know.

But you think people in power were watching what he was doing..

Oh, yes, there's no question about that. He was well-known. Various people have said various things.. maybe the most dramatic is Mike Mansfield, writing in I think it was "The Independent", who said something like "it would not surprise me if the shadowy forces of the State had decided that Cardew's time had come.." (Pause) . I don't know. Of course there's a possibility it was an accident, of course there's a possibility he was killed. I used to meet him virtually every week, even in the long periods where we didn't make music together. We met for lunch, we talked about Haydn, Mozart, Alan Bush (laughs).. Just prior to his death he'd agreed to come and play "Treatise" with AMM at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol, the following year.

What did you think of his later pieces, which were really intended for the masses to sing? What did he feel about AMM music, the impenetrability (as you call it) of The Crypt?

What's the most avant-garde thing an avant-garde composer can do? To write music like "Boolavogue"! (laughs) It's interesting, thinking about things like "The Crypt", and "Harsh", the notion of unlistenability and rejection.. If you try to make artefacts which are rejected in the sense that Duchamp wanted them to be, Cardew really achieved that with those later compositions. They are totally rejected, by everyone. Any music lover would reject them. I don't think that's why he did them, but I do think they have that quality. For me speaking personally, that wasn't his forte. I don't like them. Obviously "Treatise" [from the 1960s] is something I've lived with since the beginning; I did the pre-publication pages, he would bring me prints (there weren't even photocopies in those days) from "Treatise", and I would work on the pages, and suggest rejuxtaposition of materials, spacing, in order to make it more playable. I've had that score beside me, I've played that score for nearly forty years.

Do you still approach it differently each time?

I try to be as fresh as I can, yes. I try to approach it like a landscape. There are lots of different ways of reading it; you can read the actual symbols and shapes, or you can read between the symbols and shapes, which would be more of a Marxist way of doing it, or you can do a perverse reading of it, like John White would do! (laughs)

Did you know in advance that your solo concert in Cologne in November 1999 would be released as the album "Harsh"?

No, I only recognised it afterwards when I heard it, when I struggled to find out what it was. Jackson Pollock made paintings and constantly went back to them to try to understand what they meant, if he liked them or if they had any relevance for him. He'd dig them out years later and say, "that's quite interesting.." and add a bit more. I'm quite attracted to that. "Harsh" is something that's very important to me. I wanted to make something that was not very liked, something that was not obviously a well-rounded performance, something which wasn't aesthetic, something which wasn't that satisfying..

Is there an unwritten agreement that Keith Rowe will supply the cover art? Most of your releases feature your own cover art..

In a way, as I described in the notes to "Harsh", it counters what I'm involved in musically, which is a music of non-adoption. Whereas the cartoon culture is a culture of adoption, assimilation, universality. I quite like that idea. What I wouldn't want to see on an AMM album cover is a kind of graphic representation of what the AMM is about. That's not interesting to me. To go back to what I was saying before, the use of the word "harsh" is political; it's about harshness, visible and invisible. Most harshness is invisible; the harshness which went into making our clothes, the poor fucker in Bangladesh who had to make it. Harshness is everywhere; we're supported by harshness. Political harshness, economic harshness, we're all subject to that. That's one of the reasons why I left Britain. The brutality of the Thatcher culture, the tabloidism.. I didn't want my children to grow up with that. The last two years I lived in London I don't think I played once. But on the album I'm more interested in scales of harshness, what the expectation of harshness is, how the music reflects or doesn't reflect what harshness is about. Going out into the vineyard very late on a winter's night, when it's cold, it can feel very harsh, but there's only silence. Harshness is comparative. Something I'm trying to do at the moment is work with difficult knowledge..

"Difficult knowledge"?

We live in a world where we know there are lots of difficulties. Lots of things we know to be difficult: child abuse, for example. How do we deal with that as artists? Do we ignore it, or do we try to work in some way towards that?

What's your answer to your question?

I don't have any easy answer. I'm still struggling to understand what it means. Feldman is an illustration of how complex that is: he wrote some of those sensitively, beautiful music ever - I mean, listen to "For Bunita Marcus".. wow - but the man was an absolute slob! And he cultivated that! He was one of the most perceptive people, in terms of the politics of music.. So how does that work? Someone so sharp at analysing the situation who's a Brooklyn clothing manufacturer, who writes this.. soft music.. How all that goes together in one package is really difficult to understand. I was listening the other day to Mahler's Tenth Symphony, in the version with the Berlin Phil conducted by Simon Rattle. The guy's just been diagnosed with a fatal heart disease, his daughter's just died and his wife is having an affair with Walter Gropius, and he writes the most beautiful music! The way Mahler Ten starts is just absolutely incredible. How does that work? (laughs) I don't understand.

Now for the first time in several years you've found yourself working not only with AMM but with other people as well. Why do you think you've suddenly become "popular"?

As Ed Baxter puts it, "Time has caught up with me." (laughs) I think AMM music has had an influence. When I go to festivals now I hear much more of AMM in the music than I do free jazz. For myself, I took a decision to break away from being regarded only as a Matchless artist, because I didn't feel it reflected everything about me, in a way.

What's your impression of the other guitarists who play table guitar, play in the unconventional way?

It's become the conventional way! For about ten years I was the only person who played like that. I got an enormous amount of flak from people in London when I used to turn up to jam with other groups, from having the amp taken away to be being forcibly unplugged. Fred Frith was the next person I knew of who actually adopted that way of playing, when he brought out the "Guitar Solos" album on Caroline, when was that, 1974? Now, at festivals it's not too unusual for at least half the guitarists to play that way. There are very few players who play in the eighteenth or nineteenth-century way.

How did you find working with Taku Sugimoto?

I found it very easy. It goes back to AMM, I think, and an understanding of economy. Reflection, philosophy. It isn't necessarily a question of what you do. As Michelangelo would say, "Drawing is making a line around your thoughts." Your thoughts have to be very clear. My thoughts are very clear; Taku's thoughts are very clear.

The Potlatch album "Dark Rags" was recorded on New Year's Eve 1999.. how on earth did you manage to get Evan Parker to be available on that date?!

We had an invitation for AMM to play, and for Evan's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble to play. Unfortunately John Tilbury didn't want to be away from his family on that night, and I think Barry Guy wanted to be in the Swiss Alps.. Everybody wanted to be somewhere else! So we did it as a duo. We played at 6.30pm on New Year's Eve, played until about 7.30, then went to my house and we had a nine-hour meal! Went to bed about six in the morning, got up and went back to Pannonica at about midnight the next day and recorded the second set with a few people there..

How did MIMEO come about?

It was created by a group of promoters, Hans Falb in Nickelsdorff, Gerlinde Koschik in Wuppertal, and Peter Van Bergen in Den Haag, who runs the Festival there. They had a kind of moving festival, a festival that went to three different locations, and they wanted a kind of electronic orchestra. I'm happy with that, the idea that promoters can be creative people too. They wanted it to be led by someone who'd made a breakthrough in the past, somebody from the older generation to pass on their ideas to the younger generation. For me, it was an objet trouvé - I didn't choose the musicians (I wasn't invited to choose anybody) - it was being given an object to manipulate - not in the cynical sense of the word - to exploit.. This is material, what can you do with it? It was easy at the first festival in Nickelsdorff because I was leading the group.

What do you mean by "leading"?

For me that means leading from the rear! (laughs) My role was more like that of a football trainer. Accompaniment. The English are very good at that. Many of the great accompanists have been English - [pianist] Gerald Moore, [guitar and lute virtuoso] Julian Bream. I mean, Bream accompanying [tenor] Peter Pears is.. exquisite. We talked about that with MIMEO.

Did the younger musicians ply you with questions about AMM and Cardew?

No, they plied me with questions about Syd Barrett! (laughs)

When they all get going it makes a hell of a racket.

Can do. But I find it very easy to listen to. The double album ["Electric Chair and Table"] is recorded in a different way, and mixed in a different way. One of the ideas of MIMEO is to make it as democratic as possible, and that means sometimes giving the material to one member of the group [to mix] and letting them get on with it. I said to Rafael [Toral], "there's the material; do what you will."

For the group's 24-hour concert at Musique Action (2000), you also chose to play several pages from [Cardew's] "Treatise".

That was a different kettle of fish! We had to find music for 24 hours! I didn't even choose the pages - I got Kaffe [Matthews] to choose them. We made a rota, and wrote a chart marked from 1 to 24 and then we wrote in things we'd like to do. We put in lots of different ideas, organised it into shifts.. Some people kept going: I think Jérôme [Noetinger] played for 23 out the 24 hours!

Whose idea was it to play for 24 hours?

Phil Durrant's. MIMEO couldn't exist without email, in a way. Email is absolutely crucial to the way the democracy works. Dominique [Répécaud] invited MIMEO to play Musique Action by sending a mail to Jérôme; Jérôme mailed everybody asking for ideas, and Phil Durrant suggested we do a 24 hour concert, and bang! Within about four or five hours there were about eight or nine emails saying "Yeah! Great!" MIMEO self-selects what it wants to do. Ultimately it needs someone to be a kind of figurehead, someone to take final responsibility, someone who's willing to sign the cheques. As I'm the oldest one, and as I'd had the original invitation to lead it, I've kind of assumed that role. But you can imagine a concert of MIMEO without me, just as you can imagine a concert of AMM without me.

You also play in [N:Q], local group based here in Nantes.

They're local guys who want to push forward with the music, and I'm always trying to push forward too. Nantes is very lively - there are ten or more different groups around here working in improvised music. I try not to dominate any group I play in, as you've probably noticed. I don't like that idea, I don't want to be THE MAN. I don't like the idea of the Keith Rowe Trio or Quartet - for me that goes back to the jazz thing, and I don't like that. I do not like that. I much prefer to work in groups that have names. If you're in a collective or a collaboration then you can't have one person's name on the thing, it seems to me.

What's your take on the current scene of French improvised music?

It's a generational thing: you have to get to Michel Doneda before you find anything interesting. Among the younger players there are lots of interesting musicians: Pascal Battus, Lê Quan Ninh and the people in Toulouse, Jérôme Noetinger we talked about.. there are a lot of young players, and I think that's great. I work with Jérôme a lot, and I consider the Cellule d'Intervention Metamkine as one of the great groups, notwithstanding anybody. I'm very, very, very optimistic about the scene at the moment. I think the music that we're making now has the opportunities to become the leading edge of musical life. I think the last five years, the way the music has exploded, has done something I never thought it capable of.. it's done something jazz wasn't able to do. Within jazz it seems you basically have to perform within the form: if you step outside the jazz form it's not accepted. Whether you're Russian, or German, or Japanese, you basically have to do it that way or it's not accepted. I would have to say I find the French jazz scene utterly appalling. Jazz. It's producing some of the worst music produced on this globe. They should be ashamed; it's an utter disgrace. With improvised music I think we broke a hole in that wall, and the Japanese are able to do it differently to the Australians, who do it differently to the people in Berlin, the people in Vienna, Chicago, Boston..

Do you detect national styles, then?

There are trends, general trends, I think..

The Chicago boys are still very close to jazz - the likes of Ken Vandermark and Michael Zerang seem to be at home playing jazz as well..

Well, they're quite European, aren't they? They're like Europe in the mid Sixties, early Seventies. Today in Europe there's an acoustic school influenced by electronics. Take [trumpeter] Axel Dörner.. the way that electronics can be translated to an instrumental context. How could a trumpet player break through into something new? And suddenly, since Dörner, they've done it! There are four or five trumpet players around who are really doing interesting stuff. Not trombone players. Hardly any saxophone players, with the exception of John Butcher. Violin is yet to make a breakthrough. But I'm sure it's going to come. Someone will crack it.

What have you heard of other people's work recently that you've enjoyed?

I like the Fenn O'Berg album very much. But generally I 'm pretty critical of everything. That goes for AMM too. If Eddie was sitting here now, he could vouch for the fact that during the last two months I've sent extremely abusive (but kind) comments about possible AMM recordings, things that will be coming out shortly.

Criticisms of a musical nature?

The mix. It's just too soloistic - three soloists rather than the group. It's a question of balancing the room mic, basically.

Almost all of the AMM albums are live recordings.. does this mean that there's an archive of unreleased material somewhere waiting to be heard?

There's tons of stuff. The archives are spread around, for security. Some are archived onto DAT. Some of it's not very interesting. Things don't always translate into recording, as you know.. You do a great concert but the recording's not very good. Or the recording's stunning but the concert doesn't feel very comfortable.. We all know this problem, don't we?

Most of the albums you've released are on Matchless. A conscious decision to maintain artistic control?

They could be released on other labels. The fact they aren't is only because of lack of invitation. There's one on RecRec [1966, AMMmusic, ReR Megacorp/Matchless], and one on United Dairies [1967, Afflicted Man's Musica Box, United Dairies UD12 (UK). One track on a compilation featuring Cardew/Gare/Prévost/Rowe/Sheaff].. It wouldn't be any less of an AMM album then if it didn't come out on Matchless. No, not at all. The reason why Matchless was started was because there was no other opportunity for AMM to be distributed. Unless we did it ourselves it wasn't going to happen. It's one of the ironies of this music that if you want to do free improvisation and give concerts, you have to be known, and the only way of becoming known is to have records. With AMM we had a long period where we did no recordings, and suffered from that.

You've never gone chasing gigs as such?

No. In the early days of AMM we did about six gigs a year. About two years ago we only had one. AMM's quite contradictory in many respects. It's relatively well-known and spectacularly unsuccessful! For example, AMM has toured places like Holland and Japan, but we've never done a tour of Britain. People put forward proposals for us to a Network tour with David Tudor, when he was alive. Lots of people applied for AMM to tour. The last time the reasons why we weren't given a tour, and I'm not joking here, was that AMM "were not sexy enough.."! (laughs) We've toured America quite a bit. We toured America quite early on, about 1968. John Cage was very generous, because we ran out of money on that tour, and he and Jasper Johns sent us cheques. I never go and ask anybody for a gig. If I don't play, I don't play. I stay at home for four months. I don't get worried by that. I've done all kinds of things, from dockside labouring to graphic arts in advertising studios. My wife and I have a kind of ongoing joke, will ever a month come when I earn more than she does with her regular job?

How often do you manage to get together with the AMM?

AMM has never rehearsed. We meet up in airports. I don't rehearse. I never practise. I never take the guitar from the case. I only ever touch the guitar in the context of performances, unless I rewire the pick ups.

You don't sit at home in the laboratory as it were saying "this is a cool sound, I could use that in a performance.."

Never, never. That's alien to what AMM is about. One reason why AMM is different from free jazz is that, within free jazz, jazz, and much music in general, people conceive of sounds and (re)produce them in performances. AMM has always been about searching for the sound in the performance. I can honestly say that after forty years I still look at the guitar with absolute terror. I'm terrified of it. I've never got used to it. I still view it as something quite empty. Obviously one has predeliction as to what you're going to do - you can't escape history, you can't escape memory - but I can honestly say, Dan, even now I will discover things I've never done in my life, and I constantly search for that. (Pause) To a casual observer it might sound like something I've done before, and I know it isn't. I'm the judge of that, and I'm pretty severe with myself. I do not like the idea of reproducing something I've done before. I will happen on it, I'll suddenly find myself doing something I've done before..

..and then do you say "Whoa, I've done that before.." and stop, or do you accept it?

I'll accept it, and then quickly counterpose it with something.. stop it abruptly, so something unethical to it..

There is a tendency though for some improvisors to work up a repertoire of tried and trusted sounds which they try and slot into each concert they do..

Well Harry "Sweets" Edison did that [in jazz], and I consider him as a great musician. Listen to him with Billie Holiday.. it's just fantastic. I have no problem with someone who wants to do that, someone who wants to use a very limited vocabulary. But I don't want to do that myself.

Interview by Dan Warburton, Editor-in-Chief, Paris Transatlantic Magazine, January 2001. Other links here at Paris Transatlantic Magazine: Interviews with Peter Greenaway, Eugene Chadbourne and Fred Frith.