Alan Licht and John Colpitts Talk the Art of the Interview

On the new book Common Tones and incorporating writing within a larger practice of music making.

I first met Alan Licht at a friend’s party in the ‘90s in Brooklyn. I was a fan of his band Run On, loved his guitar playing and had booked them a couple times at the Knitting Factory. But he had a wider reach throughout the New York experimental music scene — he’d released a handful of solo albums, had improvised and recorded with Rudolph Grey in the Blue Humans, and had just published his first book, An Emotional Memoir of Marth Quinn with Drag City Records. His first two Minimalist Top Ten lists were already being passed around the scene. 

Alan was intimidating then (and now): a lanky, ripping guitarist, fiercely intelligent, with a slightly dour, dry sense of humor. He is steeped in the history of experimental music in all forms. His 2007 book Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories was the first full length overview on the practice (reissued recently in an expanded edition Sound Art Revisited). He has also produced a book length interview with Will Oldham, countless liner notes and has written lucid, fluent features for Wire Magazine for years. Starting in 2000 and lasting seven years, he booked Tonic, the bastion of experimental music in the Lower East Side, hosting countless legendary shows in that modest space. 

When I learned that a new book, Common Tones — which collects some of his most important interviews — was about to be released by Blank Forms, I thought it would be cute to interview him in a similar format. But once I received the book and started digging in, I realized my folly. Licht’s preparation for these interviews is Herculean. He would ferret out unique and revealing moments of revelation from artists who had long become jaded to interviews. Alan’s subjects seem uniquely at ease with his handle on their careers and work, which leads to some tremendous conversations. It’s an essential book for artists interested in a certain strain of New York experimental music and art, and includes talks with Lou Reed, Greg Tate, Tony Conrad, Henry Flynt, ANOHNI, Alessandra Novaga, Milford Graves and many more. (He recommended a few books that inspired Common Tones: Jonathan Cott’s Back to a Shadow in the Night and Kristine McKenna’s The Book of Changes and Talk to Her. Check those out too.) I was also eager to speak with Alan about incorporating writing within a larger practice of music making, something I’ve tried to do for the last 10 years. I met up with Alan in person, outside during the pandemic, in the back garden of the Devoe Street Brooklyn Public Library. Our conversation is edited. 

John Colpitts: It’s a great book. Congrats.

Alan Licht:  It took me 25 years to write. [Laughs.] 

John: The depth of your preparation for these interviews is intimidating. 

Alan: I never think of myself as a journalist. I think of myself as a historian. All the people in the book have a history to them. It’s key to know more about the subject than they know about themselves. I also try to figure out what someone is doing subconsciously as opposed to what they’re doing consciously. 

For someone like Lou Reed, I made an investment in researching his career. I pointed out to him that he had Ornette Coleman play on “The Raven,” and had Don Cherry playing on “The Bells.” He was like, “Come to think of it, ‘The Bells’ starts off the exact same way that overture on ‘The Raven’ does.” It had never occurred to him. And frankly, it hadn’t occurred to me. So there’s a certain amount of psychoanalysis-lite going on with this, and if you can take it to the next level it makes it worth everybody’s time.

John: Is your title Common Tones referencing drummer Art Taylor’s book of interviews with jazz musicians called Notes and Tones [1977]?

Alan: I don’t know it. The title is actually taken from a John Adams piece called “Common Tones in Simple Time.” As I see it, I have something in common with all these people and they all seem to have something in common with each other, even if they don’t realize it.

If you get into the first Velvet Underground record, it presents you with all these different doors. Behind one door is Andy Warhol, pop art, and this whole contemporary art scene. Behind another door is La Monte Young and the avant garde music scene that John Cale was participating in. You open another door and it’s Delmore Schwartz and contemporary poetry. It goes on and on. You can approach Lou Reed from all these different vantage points or you can expand out from Lou Reed to all of these different areas.

John: When did you start the writing part of your practice? 

Alan: I sent an unsolicited review of Coda by Led Zeppelin to Creem Magazine in 1982. They did not accept it. I was always into Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus and Greg Tate. There were little fanzines I got involved with more when I was in college. I was an avid fanzine reader and I would correspond with some of them. Then Black To Comm asked me to start writing for them.

John: How does writing dovetail with your music career?

Alan: Other than just being interested in both things. . . I feel like when you come up with the perfect way to phrase something, it’s the same as coming up with the perfect phrase in music. Another part of it is trying to reconcile wanting to improvise with wanting to have a through composed or a finished thing. An interview is partially improvised because you go to it prepared with a list of questions or topics to cover, but you don’t know exactly what you or the other person are going to say.

Based on what the other person says, you’re going to respond with something that you didn’t think of beforehand. You can draw the exact parallel to music, right? With improvised music, you record it, then you go back and you start editing it and you move things around. Then you’ve got this finished thing that originally was just an improvisation. So it’s reconciling the questions, “Do I want to be an improviser? Do I want to be in a rock band? Or do I want to do both?” Doing interviews is a way to improvise and there is a certain amount of preparation.

Before meeting [your subject], you don’t want to just be a fan. You want to engage with them because you have something in common with them.

John: Right. It is a Venn diagram between you and the subject because you participate in the art world, the rock world and the improvising world.

Alan: Take Vito Acconci. He’s a well-regarded figure in the art world, but he was a huge music fan. So for him to be able to talk about music with someone who’s equally knowledgeable about it and was also knowledgeable his work was great for him.

John: Writing is part of the way that I make money. I don’t make a lot, but it’s part of it.

Alan: Oh, yeah. It’s another revenue stream. When you’re in our area of the music business, it’s all about multiple revenue streams. You don’t make a living from just selling records and not necessarily from just going on tour. You gotta have some other kind of income. 

John: Let’s chat about Title TK, your “talk rock band.” Obviously it’s more casual, but you’re improvising conversations. It’s part of your thing. It’s such a crazy, ridiculous project.

Alan: Yeah. That goes back to what I was saying before about trying to reconcile improvisation, composed music or being in a rock band. It turns out that the solution is to get rid of the music and stick with the between-song banter. Howie Chen is a curator, Cory Archangel is an artist – but both of them are guitarists. So then the common tones, if you will, are the guitar and being interested in music. I was having a conversation with them at a gallery and we were talking about the inundation of bands. I said, we could just go on stage, have a conversation and call it a band. Corey said, I’m going to write that idea down and if two days from now, I don’t think it’s completely stupid, we should do it.

John: The Milford Graves interview in the book is especially powerful. You’d never spoken to him before?

Alan: No. But I’d seen him play live a few times, had just about all his records and was a really big fan. I went out to his house in Jamaica, Queens that he decorated with handmade mosaics. It stood out a mile away. He had a garden in the back. Then downstairs he’s got all these computer monitors set up, which is for the heart research he was doing. There are all kinds of herbs and bric-a-brac hanging off the shelves.

I prepared extensively, did a lot of research, went back and listened to all the records, and brushed up on what he had been up to recently. I wasn’t sure if anybody had asked him about certain things. This guy’s getting on in years — someone’s got to ask him about Lowell Davidson [pianist who Graves recorded with in 1965].  

John: You’ve said that you edit and rewrite more than you tweak your recordings. Is that still true? 

Alan: It’s easier to do that with writing than it is with recordings. Recordings are pretty well thought out to begin with and writing — like I say to Greg Tate in the book — is just getting all the ideas out, organizing them so it’s coherent and then stylizing it. So it’s more polished or more imaginative. The first draft is prosaic and then as I go over it I polish it off. An article is in much worse shape to begin with then than any recording would be.

It would be more accurate to compare it to the writing of a song and doing the demos beforehand. I wouldn’t say that I do more revision on writing than I do on a piece of music. It would be pretty much the same. Both require a lot of revision.

John: Do you have a daily practice with writing?

Alan: Only if I’m working on something. If there’s an essay or an article to do then I work on it every day. The Will Oldham book [Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy] was a week of interviews and then probably three weeks of transcribing. And then it was like a year of editing.

John: A year! Did you transcribe everything? 

Alan: Yeah. I don’t like transcription services because they don’t know all the proper names. I have to go back and fix stuff and at the end it’s not saving that much time. I’d rather just do it myself. Transcription services leave the “ems and ums” in and you have to take them out. If I was a two finger typist, it might make more sense, but my typing skills are decent. I like transcribing to be honest. I find it kind of fun.

John: We have a similar experience with booking a club. You booked Tonic and I booked the Knitting Factory in ‘96 and ‘97. I loved the Rhys Chatham interview and the connection between Tonic and The Kitchen, where he booked. Do you have a sense of what scene you were supporting at Tonic?

Alan: It wasn’t one scene, although some people felt that it was. Some people thought it was John Zorn’s club, which was a misperception. The booking policy was anything goes.

That was true of Tonic and that was true of the Knitting Factory to begin with. When I first started going to the Knit in the late-’80s, it would be all kinds of free improv stuff, but also touring indie bands. It’s safety in numbers when you’re opening a club. It’s not a nonprofit, but it’s catering to all this kind of marginally successful music. It becomes this big tent for all of it because none of it can sustain a regular seven night a week club on its own.Then ultimately even that can’t sustain itself without being bolstered. 

Tonic is a whole other conversation — the ins and outs of what happened behind the scenes. 

John: You should write about that! 

Alan: That’s another example of looking at music from another angle. I came away from Tonic with a much better understanding of what’s involved in presenting live music. You can’t always get a sense of that when you’re on stage.

John: My naïveté was wiped away by my experience at the Knit. I would call the ticket desk, “So how many people bought tickets last night?” It’d be like, 16. When I started I thought if the music’s good, people will come see it. That’s just not true.

Alan: The other thing I should really say is — back to Common Tones and writing — before meeting Michael Snow or Tony Conrad, to some extent Tom Verlaine, Lou Reed, Ken Jacobs, Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Phil Niblock, Rudy Wurlitzer, and Milford Graves — you don’t want to just be a fan. You want to engage with them because you think you have something in common with them. I spent lots of time listening to [guitarist] Allan Holdsworth. It never occurred to me to interview Allan. I don’t really care about talking to him about what strings he uses. I love Jeff Beck. I would never want to interview him.

John: Why?

Alan: Because I don’t have anything in common with Jeff Beck except that we both play guitar. If he’s not playing guitar, he’s fixing cars or something. I’ve seen him live. He’s completely mind blowing. I don’t have anything to say to Jeff Beck. But all these other people, I felt like I had something to say about their work. With Jeff Beck I’m not going to say, “You’re an awesome guitarist.” He already knows it. Like, why bother?

John: If he’s insecure, maybe he’d appreciate that.

Alan: I don’t have any insight into Jeff Beck’s music. I enjoy listening to him play guitar — me and like a million other people. Like you said, this is all feeds into my own practice. I’m getting inspiration from their work and based on the research, there’s some level we can engage on. It goes beyond just someone who’s listening to a record or watching a movie. 

Common Tones is out today. 

(Photo Credit: Miro Myska)

John Colpitts, aka Kid Millions is a drummer, composer, drum teacher and writer based in Queens, NY. He is best known for his work in the experimental rock band Oneida and his percussion group Man Forever. His latest album with Oneida, Success, is out now on Joyful Noise.