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Joseph Shabason on Why His Album is Scrappy and Improvised Rather Than ‘Perfect’

Welcome to Soundfly’s brand-new interview series, Incorrect Music, curated by guitarist, singer, and composer Lora-Faye Åshuvud (of the band Arthur Moon). In this series, we present intimate conversations with artists who are striving to push the boundaries of their process and craft. 

By Lora-Faye Åshuvud

Toronto-based saxophonist Joseph Shabason has an “incorrect” process in the sense that he rejects chops-oriented sax tradition. By pulling his instrument through pedals and effects, which makes it impossible to take a “solo” — at least, as we are accustomed to hearing it in the (mainstream) jazz idiom — he instead crafts music that manages to cull dissonance from satisfying harmony to braid brass and wood with circuits and knobs.

Shabason’s debut album, Aytche, drops via Western Vinyl on August 25. It’s both warm and anxious, smart and impulsive — a real triumph of virtue over virtuosity.

Where can I get the best post-show snack in Toronto?

If you are playing in the West End, I would say Poutini’s… I have spent many a shameful 2:30am slamming poutine into my face after a show.

You moved quickly into the rock/pop idiom in the various projects you involved yourself with after finishing jazz school (Destroyer, DIANA) — does this new record feel like an extension of that movement or more like a homecoming? Or both?

I’d say both. It really feels nice to play jazzier instrumental music again, especially because it’s combined with all the ambient influences that I’ve been enjoying these days. After I graduated school, it took me a long time to not associate playing the saxophone with “chops” and speed. Looking back on my early twenties and seeing the level of neuroses and guilt that I felt around practicing and trying to be “the best” saxophone player feels super messed up. I’d hear other sax players whose sound I liked and instead of being excited, I’d get jealous and self-conscious — which is gross!

To be honest, I think that’s why I took such a long break from writing music that even involved the saxophone. I felt such disdain for the instrument and how it warped my interaction with music. It really wasn’t until I started playing with Destroyer in 2010 that I started to enjoy the instrument again…. So yeah, this record feels like a healthy expression of my love for the saxophone as well as all the other kinds of music that I’ve been enjoying over the last 12 years, minus the guilt that used to weigh me down.

+ Learn more on Soundfly: Write better pieces of music with a more thorough understanding of the foundational elements of composition and one-on-one help from professional advisors in Introduction to the Composer’s Craft. (*discount code below!)

What is the best mistake you made while creating Aytche?

I would say that the best “mistake” I made was asking Nick Bragg to play guitar on the song “Smokestack” (his nickname). Initially, the entire record was supposed to be this mellow and tranquil sonic bath.

When I asked Nick to play I figured that he would send me back some takes of gentle atmospheric EBow guitar playing (which he is incredible at creating). Instead, I got this raging and aggressive pass of distorted guitar that completely obliterated the mellow song that I had sent him. At first, it almost seemed like a fuck you, but the more I listened, the more I realized that it broke up the album in this wonderful way that feels completely unexpected.

To my ears, the song almost acts as a palate cleanser. Instead of drifting away into a sonic cloud for 50 minutes, “Smokestack” tells you to wake the heck up!

“I needed to hobble the saxophone and, in doing that, turn it into something that felt new and vital.”

When you’re composing, how do you know which dissonance is the right dissonance?

If I want to keep listening to it, it’s probably the right dissonance.

What were you listening to when you made Aytche?

Gigi Masin, Jon Hassell, Midori Takada and Haruomi Hosono, the Blue Nile, Lester Young, Jennifer Castle, Prefab Sprout, Sade, Donald Fagen

You talk about “robbing the sax of the ability to shred by effecting it and turning it into a dense chordal instrument.” How did you become interested in subverting the chops-oriented, fast-soloing approach to sax music?

Like I said before, my relationship to the saxophone got pretty unhealthy after I graduated from university. When I started listening to Hassell and Masin I had a real “aha” moment [and] realized that I could use horns in a way that was textural rather than chopsy. Once I started to really explore that further, I feel like a whole style of playing opened up to me that felt new and healthy and free of any emotional baggage — which is exactly what I had been looking for! I needed to hobble the saxophone and, in doing that, turn it into something that felt new and vital.

You wrote, recorded, and produced Aytche yourself, but there were a few other musicians involved. How do you incorporate other artists’ sensibilities into a project that is so personal in its process and subject matter?

The greatest lesson I learned as a bandleader was from Dan Bejar (Destroyer). The reason he is so incredible to work with, and why he makes such great music, is because he really curates the musicians he works with. He lets them all know that he trusts their input. Instead of micromanaging each part and each player, he lets each musician do whatever they want. The end result is that you feel really valued and uninhibited when it comes time to record.

I took the same approach with this album: All the players are people who I’ve known for a long time and whose playing I love. I gave them pretty minimal production direction and just let them do their thing; no more than a few takes for each song. The end result feels spontaneous and honest to me rather than a record that’s manicured and precise. There is a time and place for those kinds of records (God knows I love me a Steely Dan and a Talk Talk), but I really wanted Aytche to feel improvised and scrappy rather than “perfect.”

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Hear a Never-Before-Seen Dexter Gordon Piece, Played by 8 Different Artists”

What is the role of the studio in the writing process? Are you composing, recording, and editing a song in separate phases, or do you tend to have all three happening at the same time?

I would say a bit of both. I am always balancing levels and finding the right sounds as I go, but when I’m tracking, I like to go for spontaneity and volume of takes. [Then I] come back to the songs/takes weeks later and listen and edit with fresh ears. I also find the actual mixing process to be a pretty transformative one. I was lucky enough to have my friend Roger Leaves at BoomBox Sound mix Aytche, and having his ears and mixing skills on this album totally brought it to life.

“I really wanted Aytche to feel improvised and scrappy rather than ‘perfect.'”

Photo by Colin Medley.

Finally, what’s next? What did you learn in the process of making Aytche that will inform or alter your approach to the next set of compositions?

I’m actually in the middle of recording a new album. Aytche taught me that recording an album can be easy, slow, and fun rather than a stressful clusterfuck (which is how every one of DIANA’s albums has felt). I’m really stoked to explore a whole bunch of new flute and percussion sounds as well as the bass clarinet and a bunch of ’90s digital synths. I’ve written five songs already, and I will hopefully have a new album by the end of the summer.

It’s a wonderful thing to feel that you have the space and time to explore new sounds and make as many mistakes as you want without any looming deadlines or expectations, so I’m gonna just keep on my grind and keep having fun. Plus, I’ve bought a whole bunch of new gear and some really great mics, so this new album is gonna sound like a million bucks!

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Lora-Faye is an award-winning composer, guitarist, and singer who performs under the moniker Arthur Moon. She lives in NYC, where she was born and raised.

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