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Spaz of All Trades 

Weasel Walter sneezes and a new song comes to life

Wednesday, Mar 14 2007
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It wouldn't be a stretch to describe Weasel Walter as a one-man scene. The local composer/multi-instrumentalist and leader of no-wave jazz-metal combo the Flying Luttenbachers boasts a musical resume that includes dozens of bands and projects over the past 15-plus years, many of them released on his own ugEXPLODE imprint. If you've gone to any shows over the past four years, there's a good chance you've heard his music, either with the Luttenbachers, one of his many other bands (XBXRX, Curse of the Birthmark, Contradiction, and the Weasel Walter Quartet/Sextet), or in small, one-off improv performances with the likes of Henry Kaiser, William Winant, MX-80 Sound's Bruce Anderson, and other notables from the worlds of jazz and experimental music.

Accordingly, it's difficult to sum up Weasel's musical career in one tidy statement. "It's kinda weird talking about what all I've done, because I don't really stop and smell the roses," he says. "I just try to work my nuts off constantly and not look back." His Web site (at www.nowave.pair.com) lists nearly 20 former and current groups as well as collaborations with another 20-plus, encompassing styles that range from neo-grindcore (7000 Dying Rats) to manic free jazz (the WW Quartet) to goofy faux-glam (Vanilla) to subversive classic-rock karaoke (the Chicago Sound). "I think about the continuity [in] my body of work, and the unifying concepts seem to be velocity and urgency," says the wiry 34-year-old, who, with his rapid-fire speech, acerbic wit, boyish countenance, and kinetic gestures, seems closer to 24.

The velocity and urgency of Weasel's music reflects his own high-octane personality. Before relocating to Oakland four years ago, Weasel was the pulse and guiding force of Chicago's "No Wave" scene: a loose collective of bands including the Scissor Girls, Math, Duotron, Quintron, Lake of Dracula, Zeek Sheck, and Bobby Conn, which by the mid-'90s had evolved into something close to a full-fledged movement. With boundless energy, fueled mostly by candy and junk food (unlike many of his peers, he didn't drink or use drugs), the spindly raconteur produced recordings, wrote for fanzines, designed flyers, organized an improv night at a local bookstore, brought like-minded bands to town from other cities, and promoted shows at underground performances spaces like the legendary Milk of Burgundy, all the while unveiling new, disparate, and challenging music projects seemingly every month.

Raised in Rockford, Ill. (birthplace of Cheap Trick), Christopher "Weasel" Walter came to Chicago in 1990 to study music at Columbia College with the late jazz legend Hal Russell. With his craggy, 1940s hipster-bebop-junkie voice, Santa Claus mien, and love of free jazz, the mischievous sexagenarian was a dynamic mentor. In late 1991, Weasel cajoled Russell and fellow classmate and saxophonist Chad Organ into forming the Flying Luttenbachers, taking their moniker from Hal's birth name, Harold Luttenbacher. Future MacArthur "Genius grant" winner Ken Vandermark would replace Hal on sax shortly before Russell's death in the Summer of 1992.

It was during this time that Weasel, who'd originally played guitar, bass, and clarinet, among other instruments, began to approach drumming and composing with greater discipline. ("Instruments are tools," he says. "I consider myself a conceptualist first, a composer second, and an instrumentalist last.") He'd continue to play drums in every subsequent incarnation of the FLs, leading the group from behind his kit like a punk Louis Bellson, through its transformation from free jazz to no-wave skronk-rock to death metal, and the singular amalgam that the band is today. Last year's Cataclysm LP (ugEXPLODE), the group's 15th album to date, finds the common grounds of aggression and complexity that exist between death metal and the music of free jazz modernists like Peter Brötzmann, turning up the heat until they meld into one scorching, phenomenally dense blast of sound.

Staking his claim in the nascent Chicago No Wave scene of the early '90s, Weasel was as ubiquitous as he was physically unmistakable, with the stage garb he'd donned since his adolescent punk days — a shaved head with gelled-up hair-antennae, black waistcoat with tails, like a zombie orchestra conductor, and whiteface makeup with football-player marks — causing him to resemble Adam Ant (the cartoon character as well as the Brit new-wave-pirate) crossed with a quarterback from Jupiter.

Chicago No Wave wouldn't have been the same — or might not have happened at all — without Weasel's unflappable dedication, which often bordered on dogmatic, and could easily be taken as arrogance. He was as encouraging and inspiring to other musicians as he could be cantankerous and shit-talking. And he had few reservations about haranguing his Chicago cohorts — like Vandermark, Jim O'Rourke, or John Corbett — if he thought they were becoming the least bit stale or staid.

Weasel eventually came to realize that his discontent was rooted in the city at large, rather than in the perceived artistic defects of any individual. "One person's hell is another person's heaven," he says of the late-'90s Chicago music scene. The iconoclastic Walter would probably wince at the notion that he was part of the ur-Hipster Nation instrumental in the colonization of Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood (the "Guyville" of Liz Phair parlance), sparking its evolution from seedy barrio to bohemian epicenter to 21st-century real estate bonanza. The changes in Chicago's landscape over the course of the '90s — both musical and otherwise — were what led Weasel to seek new climes in 2003. "I was totally sick of Chicago, on every single level. Despite a few people there [who] I think are great, I hate the weather, the politics, the music scene, you name it," he says with disgust. "I kept going to the Bay Area on tour, and it felt right, so I moved there. It's been good to me."

"When I came here, there was tons of energy," he says of our region. "Between 2001 and 2004, this was the place to be, definitely, especially for noise rock-stuff. Though I kinda came in at the tail end of it," he says sardonically. "The weather's great, too." Weasel acclimated quickly to his new digs in Oakland. "Oakland's kind of boring, which is great for [accomplishing] work. I don't spend my time hanging out at bars anymore," he says. "The town has a great history, though," he adds, citing local notables like Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser, and Mark E. Miller (former sideman to John Zorn and Elliott Sharp), the legacy of Sun Ra's Arkestra (who were at one time based in Oakland), and lesser-known improvisors like bassist Damon Smith and saxophonist John Gruntfest. "I think the local improv scene here is really happening. It's kind of gone through a renaissance. Most of the people I play with live right here in Oakland."

Weasel's move to the Bay Area was the second turning point in his life — not just for his music, but in personal regards as well. "Let's see ... When did I start chilling out a bit?" he asks, half-mockingly. Finding the San Francisco noise-rock scene more hospitable than that of Chicago, he says, "I decided to purge myself of some of the more dissonant aspects of my personality." Referring to his sometimes prickly relationships with other musicians, he observes, "I realized I could keep doing what I was doing and become a caricature of myself, or just shut the fuck up and work." While his musical output, in all its various manifestations, remains as challenging as ever, his attitude is tempered with something different these days — a newfound sense of humility and gratitude. "Where I see myself going is working with more people in the field of improvised music," he says. "The bands I'm in are fine, but I've got to keep adapting musically and playing with better musicians than myself." As for the "uniform": "I've changed the look a bit through the years. Right now it's grey jodhpurs and riding boots, white button-down short-sleeve shirt with green tie. All that other shit was weighing me down too much as my metabolism began to slow," referring to the over-30 family trait he calls "the Walter gut."

Along with another new Luttenbachers album, this year sees a host of other Weasel-related releases: To Live and Shave in L.A. 2's The 300 Dollar Silk Shirt CD, XBXRX's Wars album, his own Early Recordings: 1988-1991 disc, and The Songs of Albert Ayler, a tribute collection featuring Henry Kaiser, who's also performed with the Weasel Walter Sextet. Of the legendary guitarist, Weasel remarks, "He's a fun guy, always full of surprises. Playing with him is a challenge, because he naturally tends to fuck with the proceedings, [so] you can't rely on clichés too long." In addition to some recent, off-the-cuff improv performances with Kaiser, he's also formed a new group with William Winant and Mark E. Miller, called Cellular Chaos.

When he has time away from making tons of music (which is not often) he's occupied with an array of projects: writing liner notes to reissues of James Chance albums; remastering works by Glenn Branca, Erase Errata, and Rat At Rat R ("Sounds a fuck of a lot better now! More balls, less '80s coke-treble," he adds); producing locals like the Coachwhips and Burmese; mixing a Total Shutdown live album; and touring with Lair of the Minotaur. "I guess I'm a jack-off of all trades," he deadpans. Being something akin to a force of nature, that old line about San Francisco weather is apropos to Weasel's music: If you don't like what you're hearing, wait five minutes.

About The Author

J. Niimi

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