Elliott Sharp's music is a rich fusion of guitar noise, angular electronics, blues and acoustic balladry. Interview by Steve Holtje. This article originally appeared in The Wire 136 (June 1995).
During a conversation before a recent appearance by his group, Carbon at New York's Knitting Factory, Elliott Sharp quotes Ornette Coleman's dictum that there are only two musical categories: music the words and music without words. Listening to the group's set, I am reminded of another useful, if overgeneralised dichotomy: music about notes versus music about sound (which of course harks back to Albert Ayler's pronouncement that "It's not about the notes anymore"). Sharp proved his membership in the later camp by standing on one leg for over five minutes straight so that the other leg, crossed ankle-to-knee, could function as the bell mute for his soprano saxophone.
Though he plays soprano and tenor saxes and bass clarinet, Sharp is better known as a guitar player, whether on a normal model or his doubleneck guitarbass, the self-designed 'slab', Hawaiian guitar, dobro or lapsteel. His long, thin fingers flutter and scurry along their necks, producing spiralling sonic squiggles that avoid any hint of noodling, always moving purposefully. And he usually has as many projects, whether live or studio-based, being issued, collaborated on, shopped or birthed, as he has fingers.
Last year his blues trio Terraplane (with bassist David Hofstra and drummer Joseph Trump, both frequent collaborators) finally released an album. If it seems surprising that someone so identified with the avant garde should immerse himself in instrumental covers of tracks by Otis Rush, Sleepy John Estes, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James and others, remember that as blues musicians attempted to carve out an individual sound within the tight constraints of the genre's structures and instrumentation, they sometimes produced the most sonically experimental popular music, using tunings that moved beyond the tempered scale, and idiosyncratic playing techniques. Sharp's fine distinctions of tone are conveyed with a 1935 Rickenbacker lap steel and two Fender Stratocasters, one of which he built himself; he credits its special sound to 1972 General Motors lime green metal flake paint.
Shortly after finishing the Terraplane album, Sharp was working on Carbon's seventh album Amusia. The record continues the group's trademark merger of avant sounds set amid rock structures (with Sharp growling and shouting his lyrics) but covers a broader stylistic range. Sharp allows a greater degree of collaboration distinguishes the record from previous Carbon releases. "There are a few pieces that are co-composed," he says. "We were on tour in Europe and had two days off and I'd had some ideas for generating material. We had a number of songs for the record already, but I wanted some more material and have it be generated from rhythm tracks. The studio STEIM in Amsterdam that Nic Collins is the director of gave us a free day in the studio, which was very generous, with the use of an engineer. After I thought about it for a while, I wondered if some of the blues playing, in a slight way, had rubbed off on parts of it."
Sharp's most recent release is Boodlers (an early 20th century term for counterfeiters. "All the [song] titles have to do with money in some way." he explains). The record was recorded with a pair of ex-NYC stalwarts who now live in Portland, Oregon, six-string bassist Fred Chalsnor and drummer Henry Franzoni. This duo lay down brutally direct grooves which Sharp sometimes entwines his guitar lines in, but more often uses as a backdrop for billowing sonic clouds which occasionally explode into frenetic, spiky shards of dissonance, while his computer manipulations sometimes lending the grooves a choppy feel. The session was fairly spontaneous, Sharp recalls. "We played for three hours. There was some pre-planning of ideas and feeling, and of course I edited it down. It was tightened up, or loosened up in some cases, on the computer. The computer became as much a part of the process as it ever has, here and on Amusia."
The opening track on Boodlers is called "Acid Jazz Payback", of which he says, "There's very little Acid in Acid Jazz. I was trying to remedy that." On "Buckshot", the repetitions and pointed guitar tone bring Robert Fripp to mind, but a more vicious version, a rabid Doberman sort of Frippertronics rather than the trained, restrained German Shepherd of the original. Sharp's tour-de-force is the 20 minute "Boodlerama", a kaleidoscopic journey through the museum of guitar tones which climaxes in a maelstrom of the kind of 'skronk' guitar style which Sharp helped pioneer alongside the likes of Arto Lindsay.
Della Scaife, a Downtown NYC vocalist who uses Sharp's trio as her backing group, says, "I think he's very versatile and has a great ear. Elliott Sharp can do anything he wants; in a lot of realms he can hear what's needed. I'm really lucky to have stumbled onto him accidentally. I could still be trying to get the sound I want with someone else". Currently, Scaife and Sharp are shopping a demo tape around. In the meantime, he has a Techno CD coming out on Community 4 under the name Tectonic, and has started working on an acoustic duo with Queen Esther, the young black vocalist whom Sharp has recently added to Terraplane's line-up.
Sharp wants to clear up a misconception some old school Wire readers may have from the magazine's previous feature on him (way back in Issue 53). The interviewer took at face value a Sharp comment about the influence on his music of composer Morton Feldman, who Sharp studied with in the mid-70s at the University of Buffalo. As any comparison of their respective styles should show, the two are poles apart. Sharp says Feldman's attitude was defined by two things the composer said to him: "Improvisation . . . I don't buy it" (imagine a thick Brooklyn accent), and, "You put too much sociology in your music. Music has to be listened to in red plush seats. Your music has to be listened to on the floor."
Terraplane is released by Homestead (through Southern), Amusia by Play It Again Sam (through Vital), and Boodlers by Cavity Search, PO BOX 42246, Portland, Or 97242, USA.