This interview took place in Berkeley on August 3, 1978. It was conducted, transcribed and edited by Henry Kuntz, with final alterations made by “Trans.”
HENRY KUNTZ: MAYBE YOU COULD BEGIN BY TELLING ME SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND.
DAVEY WILLIAMS: I started out at age 12 playing what later was called “rock,” then got interested in blues and types of strange music, whatever I could hear, but it was all mixed up, blues and everything, whatever the hottest kind of guitar that was available to me to hear was. But it kept leaning towards blues, and I spent my college years, which weren’t spent in class, in a band called “Walla De Gumba,” which included people who later wound up being in “Trans,” and in the Johnny Shines Blues Band. Then the blues thing started petering out about ‘72 or ‘3 and getting replaced by jazz and what was later called “free music.”
HENRY: SO BASICALLY YOU’RE A SELF-TAUGHT MUSICIAN?
DAVEY: Yeah. I had a few key people to show me certain things about guitar, a country and western guitarist who showed me chords, and Johnny Shines, but mostly just a lot of experimentation. I learned a lot from playing with La Donna, too, about theory and what I was actually doing in relation to classical harmony and all that.
HENRY: LA DONNA?
LA DONNA SMITH: Well, I started playing piano when I was 7 and went through at least ten years of it, then in my college years I started searching for a smaller instrument, which is how I arrived at strings. I really had a feeling for viola, so I started studying it.
HENRY: SO YOU MUST HAVE PLAYED DIFFERENT KINDS OF CLASSICAL MUSIC?
LA DONNA : Oh yeah. I did piano recitals and all that kind of thing when I was growing up, played in the orchestras, and in the Praetorius Consort, an early music consort. Then I went through a rock and jazz period. And about the time I was getting bored with that, I met Davey and we started improvising. Davey and I also played together in the University Jazz Ensemble.
HENRY: DID YOU GET A DEGREE FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA?
LA DONNA: I have a BM and an MM in composition, and I wound up teaching electronic music for two years there. It was a jumping off point in a lot of ways.
HENRY: HOW ABOUT YOU, TED?
TED BOWEN: I’m the buckwheat baker of the group. I don’t have any musical background. In 1972 a friend gave me a tenor saxophone and that was really the first thing I did with music. So I honked around on that for some time. Then a friend came back from the army, he had a clarinet and we honked around together and recorded some things, some real abstract things that just came out.
HENRY: HAD YOU LISTENED TO A LOT OF MUSIC BEFORE THIS, OR HOW WAS IT THAT YOU WERE INTERESTED IN PLAYING AT ALL?
TED: I hated music until I was about 17. I didn’t like the radio or anything. Then I listened to a few odds and ends, but never really liked any commercial music. I really got into Beefheart when I first heard him, and I feel some connection with the freedom that he played with. Even though I hear it’s very structured, it seems as though he himself plays free within the structure.
HENRY: WHEN DID YOU START PLAYING BASS?
TED: About ’72, the year before my daughter was born. I started with electric bass. A friend who was in “Trans,” Tim Reed – a songwriter and episcopalian – had a lot of songs written, and I played bass and worked on songs with him. But that kind of died down and we started experimenting. Tim played flute and a plastic Sears folk guitar which, until its recent death, produced some of the greatest guitar moments in history. Then one night we got together with Davey and La Donna, and right off the bat the music worked.
HENRY: WHEN WAS THAT?
TED: That was in ’74.
HENRY: AND THAT WAS THE BEGINNING OF ‘”TRANS,” WITH YOU THREE AND TIM REED?
LA DONNA: Yeah, but there were a lot of people playing together in different groups, though that was a particularly strong one. Also, there was Adrian Dye, an organ player, who’s on some of the earlier “Trans” tapes. There was/is a harp player too, Anne LeBaron. And we also experimented around with Roger Haggerty who plays reeds.
TED: The whole thing was very auspicious. It didn’t seem as though there was any unusual thing going on. Looking back on it, I see that all these people were in separate places in Tuscaloosa playing strange or different things and very quickly discovered the presence of others. It was a real emotional unleashing.
DAVEY: A lot of people first discovered new instruments and at the same time just total abandon in the way that they played.
HENRY: SO AT WHAT POINT DID IT OCCUR TO SOMEONE THAT YOU WERE PLAYING GOOD MUSIC AND THAT YOU MIGHT WANT TO PRESENT IT IN PERFORMANCE?
LA DONNA: When I met Davey, I realized there was something there that we could present in performance, and we did. The first thing we did together was a duet concert.
HENRY: AND THIS WAS A COMPLETELY IMPROVISED SITUATION?
DAVEY: Oh yeah.
HENRY: WHEN DID IT OCCUR TO YOU THAT YOU MIGHT WANT TO GET HEARD BY PEOPLE OUTSIDE OF ALABAMA OR OUTSIDE OF YOUR IMMEDIATE COMMUNITY?
LA DONNA: Once we realized we had a group together, once it got settled down with Ted and Tim Reed and Davey and myself and Jim (Hearon), and even Adrian (Dye), there were things like grants floating around, and one we looked into involved going to Poland to play, but that never actually happened. And then we got invited to go to Memphis, so we played in Memphis at the Memphis Art Academy.
HENRY: DID YOU GET ANY GRANT MONEY TO PUT YOUR RECORDS OUT, OR HOW IS IT THAT THEY CAME ABOUT?
LA DONNA: Well, you can’t get a grant to put a record out, you have to get a grant to do a tour, so we did a tour of Alabama towns.
DAVEY: Then we spent the reimbursement money on the record, but it also involved a considerable outlay by one of the people in the group. Then someone else in the group put up the money for the second record.
HENRY: HOW MANY COPIES OF EACH RECORD HAVE BEEN PRESSED, AND HOW ARE THEY SELLING?
DAVEY: We pressed 500 copies of each, and they’ve been selling in trickles. About half of the first record is gone, and the new record’s only been out for two months now.
HENRY: WHERE DID YOU PLAY IN NEW YORK, AND WHAT WAS THE RESPONSE TO YOUR MUSIC THERE?
DAVEY: Well, La Donna and I went to New York in June to record some things with Eugene Chadboume and John Zorn and two other musicians, and incidental to that we did two duet gigs at “Someplace Nice,” a living room type space near St. Mark’s Place. The people who came were mostly the young New York free musicians, mainly white, and their friends. Incidentally, John Dahl is the person who runs the place and he donated the space to us for the concert, and it was a nice environment to play in.
HENRY: WHAT WAS THE REACTION TO WHAT YOU DID?
HENRY: WAS THERE ANY CRITICAL REACTION OF ANY SORT FROM THE PRESS?
DAVEY: Not as far as we know.
LA DONNA: The third night we were there we performed with Johnny Coley who’s a poet from Birmingham, Alabama who improvises spontaneous thought, paragraphs, etc.
HENRY: DID THAT WORK VERY WELL?
DAVEY: Oh yeah, it always works well. It’s not like beat poetry and it’s not sound poetry either.
TED: He’s not like a musician and he’s not like a poet, and it’s not all feedback that he comes out with. It’s just right there.
HENRY: IS IT DRAMATIC SORT OF STUFF?
LA DONNA: No, he talks in a monotone, smokes a cigarette, and sits or lies on the floor, and we stop and he’ll come in, or else he’ll say his thoughts while we’re playing. And it gets very integrated and like improvisation, and that’s what the point of it is.
HENRY: DOES HE DEAL WITH ANY SPECIFIC SUBJECT MATTER?
DAVEY: No, though he does talk a lot about how he wishes he could go to sleep.
HENRY: I WONDER IF WE COULD TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR CONCEPT OF TOTAL IMPROVISATION, AND PARTICULARLY WHAT SIMILARITIES OR DIFFERENCES YOU MIGHT SEE BETWEEN YOUR MUSIC AND THAT OF THE ENGLISH MUSICIANS WORKING IN THIS AREA?
TED: We don’t ever have a lot of balloons coining down in any performance.
DAVEY: There’s no concept, hopefully, just a way of working that’s understood by all three of us, something beyond words and beyond a need for explanation or criteria. It changes. It’s fluid. There’s no pre-structuring.
HENRY: NOW, DEREK BAILEY’S IDEA OF FREE IMPROVISATION HAS A LOT TO DO WITH TRANSCENDING PARTICULAR MUSICAL STYLES OR IDIOMS. SO THAT THE IMPROVISATION SETS UP ITS OWN CRITERIA AND TAKES PLACE SOMEWHERE OUTSIDE OF THE CONVENTIONAL MUSICAL DISCOURSE. I WONDER HOW YOU RELATE TO THAT?
DAVEY: One divergence from that idea, and it’s something Bailey was talking about too in something I read by him, is that you have this non-idiomatic thing, but actually that becomes an idiom as the methodology becomes more widespread. But we aren’t really anti-stylistic and, to me, neither is Bailey. You can hear Bailey and right off, you know that’s him, or somebody imitating him. And so, it’s not actually non-stylistic or non-idiomatic.
LA DONNA: It often uses other idioms as collage material.
DAVEY: We try to be very inclusive about everything, but that’s because you have to be completely open to the results of it, even though we obviously have things we like to hear better than other things.
HENRY: WHAT KINDS OF THINGS ARE THOSE?
DAVEY: Clarity. Telepathic clarity, for that matter.
LA DONNA: So that the piece moves. Because we do think in terms of pieces, though often we defy our own concepts about that. But the clarity comes in one sense because you can hear the beginning and end of an improvisation, so you have a kind of enclosure.
TED: One advantage of a beginning and an end is more possibilities for color and change, even though if you did a long piece it would evolve. But it seems as though people get trapped into a mode easily. But it’s not so much that we try to create pieces as that the pieces just happen.
DAVEY: We realize that at a point music can collectively compose itself, in a sort of collective subconscious; our real criteria is simply whether we were playing together or not. And all of the other little stuff we do, like not playing when you don’t feel it, or looking for pieces to happen is just little stuff compared to what we really try to do, which is to let the music play us.
HENRY: ANOTHER OF THE PROBLEMS DEREK BAILEY TALKS ABOUT IN RELATION TO A GROUP LIKE “TRANS” IS THAT HE FEELS THAT AFTER A WHILE, EVEN FREE IMPROVISATION GROUPS TEND TO DEVELOP THEIR OWN SET WAYS OF DOING THINGS, SO THAT THE ORIGINAL REASON THEY CAME TOGETHER, TO FREE IMPROVISE, OFTEN GETS LOST ALONG THE WAY. I WONDER WHAT YOUR FEELINGS ARE ABOUT THAT, OR IF YOU FEEL THAT HAPPENING ANY?
LA DONNA: Well, none of us restricts ourselves to just this trio. Everybody in the group plays with other people. But this is a special format that works well for us and in which we all have enough room.
DAVEY: Also, I don’t think we’re so much trying to explore new musical forms as we’re trying to get really adept at that psychic thing, that psychic phenomenon of improvisation. And as long as the subconscious is governing the whole thing, it’s going to stay interesting – and as long as your abilities are increasing continuously. So we don’t really think much about whether it sounded like what we did last year because I know it doesn’t, because in any developmental thing, it continually evolves out of its own self.
TED: We also go through periods when we naturally slack down in the amount we play together.
LA DONNA: Like we’ll go build a cabinet or something.
DAVEY: We give each other rests, you know, and we’ll maybe not work so hard during some of the winter months.
LA DONNA: And we do play with other people a lot. So there’s a lot of different input.
DAVEY: And we keep doing different things. Like I took up banjo and mandolin, and that changes things. And all of us do the same thing. We personally try to keep the elements involved from being the same.
TED: Power tools, and all that.
LA DONNA: Or we’ll work with the “Blue Denim Deals (Without The Arms)” which incorporates our entire community.
HENRY: WHO ARE THE “BLUE DENIM DEALS”?
DAVEY: Well, there are several groups, actually, who are all pretty much the same 10-15 people with minor changes, but have different emphases. There’s the “Blue Denim Deals,” “Ron Pate and the Debonaires,” and the “Raudelunas” group.
TED: “Ron Pate’s Debonaires” is a comical jazz group that does what Ron calls “punk swing.” It’s a theatrical thing, humorous and biting satire, surrealist vaudeville.
DAVEY: Then the “Blue Denim Deals” is the same people seriously playing large group improvisation. This is the group that everyone originally played with. It was an expanded free jazz type thing that now does free improvisation. But at first it was like everyone searching collectively for stuff and finding it.
LA DONNA: Now “Raudelunas:” it’s not just music, but music and art and theatre and includes everyone that wants to be in the parade in the fall or…
HENRY: AND ALL THESE GROUPS DO ACTUAL PERFORMANCES?
DAVEY: Yeah, but not that much. Once a year…
HENRY: I WONDER IF YOU COULD TALK A LITTLE ABOUT THE SPECIFICALLY REGIONAL CHARACTERISTICS OF YOUR MUSIC, OR WHAT KIND OF ATTITUDES YOU MIGHT BRING TO IT THAT MIGHT BE DIFFERENT IF YOU WERE SOMEWHERE ELSE?
TED: Well, where we are, there’s no pressure from the music market.
DAVEY: And no pressure from peer group musicians because there aren’t any. And not as great an influence or importance of influences as far as the sounds or the methods are concerned because we aren’t exposed to them.
LA DONNA: We’re just not mesmerized with cultural exchange like you are in bigger cities in other parts of the country. You can’t choose, say, to hear an Indian musician play.
DAVEY: So we’re just left more to our own devices.
HENRY: BUT IT SOUNDS LIKE, FROM WHAT YOU’VE TOLD ME IN OTHER CONVERSATIONS, THAT YOU LISTEN TO A LOT OF DIFFERENT MUSIC ON RECORD, EVEN THOUGH IT ISN’T RIGHT AT YOUR FINGERTIPS.
DAVEY: But still, there’s a difference in listening to music on records and being around a lot of free musicians or something.
LA DONNA: One thing, too, is that where we’ve been is basically a rural type place. Like there’s only one freeway.
DAVEY: So it’s real easy to be into nature and close to nature without being pretentious and backpacking and stuff.
TED: There’s one place on the river, the Black Warrior River, where we play musettes, and across the river there’s a hill so there’s really a nice echo.
HENRY: WELL, IS TUSCALOOSA REALLY ALL THAT MUCH OFF THE BEATEN PATH?
DAVEY: No, it’s actually on a major trade route between Atlanta and New Orleans, but it’s a college town of less than 100,000 people and not particularly an industrial town. In fact, the industry there is falling apart. It’s one of those towns that during the civil war (in 1865) half the buildings got burned down by the United States Army, and so it’s got that heritage too, that sort of desolate heritage. That’s why nothing’s going on. It all stopped.
TED: The Druid Indians originally lived there – it’s called the Druid City – and they worshiped trees. It’s named after Chief Tuscaloosa, a seven-foot Indian who was killed by De Soto, the Spanish explorer.
HENRY: SO YOU RELATE A LOT TO THIS INDIAN HERITAGE?
HENRY: SO WHAT DOES IT MEAN THAT YOU RELATE TO THE SOUTHERN HERITAGE, THEN?
DAVEY: It means that we’re in no hurry to move off to the city, particularly.
LA DONNA: After going to New York and seeing all that bullshit (commercial, industrial) up and down the coast from Washington to New York, we’re not in any particular hurry to have it. It’s just a lifestyle that’s slow and that’s easy.
TED: It does have something to do with the music, though, in a real oblique way. It’s just that there’s no rigidity.
DAVEY: And it ties into the lack of feeling like you need to be in competition with anything. Because it’s your existence, it’s not a matter of competing.
TED: I’ve noticed how musicians from the city feel like they have to “get through something.”
HENRY: YEAH, I THINK THAT FEELING’S HERE SOME.
DAVEY: But I think there is a new free music occurring in America in general.
TED: Like the baseball game tonight, food, dirty socks.
DAVEY: The way birds sound, trucks, motorcycles, the way mechanical stuff looks and sounds.
TED: Power tools. We had an electric appliance orchestra once, called the “Captains of Industry.”
DAVEY: There was a part where it ended up with three people shaving and a guy on TV shaving too.
LA DONNA: Surrealism has been a very influential thing to everybody in this group as well as other people in our community. The whole idea of automatism as being the basis of action or basis of work, whether it’s painting or playing or whatever.
DAVEY: And it’s the same thing as free improvisation in that the subconscious is the composer of what happens. The musician takes on a sort of mediumistic role rather than “I got this idea, and I want to express it.”
LA DONNA: And religious music is such a powerful thing as far as the spiritual thing connected with it.
DAVEY: There are black churches which are incredible in the south. They’re like large, high-energy improvisations really, not so much just call-and-response as just “get hot.” Certain white churches too. These are like influences, osmostic influences.
HENRY: DO YOU HAVE A SENSE OF YOUR MUSIC AS BEING CONNECTED WITH JAZZ AND THAT TRADITION?
TED: But on the other hand, our music might not be if the Second World War hadn’t happened. Or any number of things.
DAVEY: The instruments we play, the gigs we play, and the musicians we know other places are all because of jazz, and the fact that many jazz listeners sympathize with what we do makes us a part of the jazz tradition. But we don’t necessarily come out of that. It’s not our background.
LA DONNA: Folk music is just as strong an influence.
DAVEY: But we don’t think about that that much. It’s just there.
LA DONNA: Other musical influences are like crickets and frogs and natural sounds that you grow up with. We don’t try to imitate them, but at times you fall into a thing which is repetitive and has to do with that. And that’s part of the whole musical realm.
DAVEY: And one of my favorite records that I’ve been practicing with lately is a record of steam engines, steam locomotives. That’s musical, but it’s not exactly “music.”
TED: My great grandfather, who I wasn’t really aware of until two years before he died, was an incredible bird caller. He could imitate any bird in the forest in the south. And he taught kids all about birds.
DAVEY: My grandfather played musical saw and worked on steam engines; once he built an instrument; he built a whistle for a steam engine.
LA DONNA: My great aunt Ethel taught herself how to play the piano and the violin and could play any hymn in the book just by ear, which proves in a sense that music is something that belongs to everybody. And that’s one reason we wanted to call the new record “folk music,” because the whole thing about improvisation is that it’s the first music.
DAVEY: There’s two ways to arrive at music, I guess, divine inspiration and improvisation.
Henry Kuntz, 1978