“I don’t have a specific idiom that I’m aspiring to, and I’m not creating some sort of homage or giving a reference point for people to hang onto. I’m just playing whatever’s in my head, literally.”
Tashi Dorji and I share a mutual passion for the guitar as a vehicle for spontaneous creative expression. Although I’m originally from Miami and he is from Bhutan, we managed to converge in the Appalachian town of Asheville, North Carolina at the beginning of the twenty-first century, where we both still reside. Our new album, Expecting (MIE Music), is a collection of acoustic duo improvisations played on nylon strings, which we happened to record as we were both preparing to become fathers. This conversation reflects on the history of our friendship and music, following many a digression, as any improvisation is prone to do.
Tashi Dorji So, how long have we known each other—almost twelve, fourteen years? That’s a super long time. I was a big fan of yours, but I don’t think we ended up playing together until very recently, no?
Shane Parish It’s true. What I remember is this: We were at that gallery space, The Big Idea, and Patrick Kukucka, who recorded our album, told me, “Tashi said he’s going to make you feel really weird.” (laughter) I was like, “What are you talking about?” Then you put Ahleuchatistas’ second album [The Same and the Other (2004, reissued by Tzadik in 2008)], which we had just finished, on the house speakers. So, we’re at this party and my record came on… so I would feel embarrassed or something.
TD I have no memory of that whatsoever! But that’s a nice way to meet people—make them feel awkward about their new music… But we started playing, what, four years ago?
SP Yeah, maybe.
TD That’s crazy how long it took. I was probably, for the longest time, intimidated.
SP Well, I definitely felt like you had something special every time I heard you play, and I was always really interested in your opinion. I would ask, “What do you think? No, what do you really think?”
TD And my answer was always, “That was cool, man—really great.” But it took me a while to actually catch on, because you were already doing things in a singular fashion, and you had your own band and your own sound. I just didn’t know what I was doing back then. It was gradual. I have to say that you, our friend Patrick, and a few other people around that area, that neighborhood where the show space was, it was all very influential—especially listening to you guys and hearing about John Zorn. That was my introduction. You had already been immersed in that kind of musical journey, and I found my trajectory from there. Then, finally, I found the courage to play with you.
SP It’s been really natural, though, so I don’t know…
TD I always had this notion that you knew how to read music, that you were writing, composing stuff. To me, that was such an alien realm, because I was just kind of playing along—playing as playing, not really thinking about learning anything. I didn’t have the faculties to learn. I wanted to play with you back then, but thought I’d have to learn all this stuff and sit down.
SP But I’ve never been a snob about that sort of thing…
TD Maybe, I don’t know!
SP (laughter) No, I wasn’t! I was in a punk band when I first moved to Asheville and we met. I definitely was not snobby. I never really cared about anyone’s technical ability or knowledge of theory. And I remember years and years ago having this conversation, where you were telling me that you went to an open-mic night and played some sort of improvisation based on some Django Reinhardt stuff you were into. There was someone there being all snooty with you, trying to question you about if you knew what you were doing. And I remember telling you, “Fuck that guy! You kidding me? It doesn’t matter at all.”
TD Oh, I do remember that.
SP That’s his insecurity. You’re just doing your thing, feeling inspired.
TD Asheville was a little difficult, but that’s where I was finding live music that I actually liked, outside of punk. And that was such a heavy presence—the punk culture. Improvised music was a very different thing. The only resource was listening to other people’s recordings. Maybe once in awhile you guys played, and maybe the bands that y’all played with were sort of experimental. But it was a very interesting time.
SP At the Apothecary Gallery we did some duo shows together. I think Marc Unternährer had that band come through, the brass band Le Rex from Switzerland. I got really busy for about ten years, where I was curating a lot of free jazz in Asheville and became the sort of sole contact for the world of improvised music there.
TD Like all the “Open Letters”?
SP Yeah, I was doing a thing called The Open Letters Music Series, and I invited you to open that show with Le Rex. We did that together, then shortly after started to play duets with some of that material.
TD I think that was actually one of my first shows playing nylon string and improvising. I was scared shitless.
SP Marc loved you, and still does. He’s a huge fan.
TD I remember being like: Oh my god, this sounds really bad, and those guys are pros…
SP They were super slick. I played that night with a thrown-together five-piece band that didn’t quite click. But I was just trying things, though we were feeling not so great about what happened with that performance—but whatever. That’s how you learn.
TD Were you starting to play improvised acoustic guitar music around then? Were you leaning that way?
SP I was writing a lot of stuff for acoustic guitar, trying to compose complex things that I could barely play. It wasn’t really working for me, then you came along and really encouraged me to put in a lot more work, to just let go, and record more. That’s when I did the Odei album.
TD We did have conversations around then, quite a few.
SP And I had already done a lot of free-improv stuff in combination with various musicians. But, usually, live I would always have a game plan for the set. Then you and I started playing duets, and we wouldn’t really discuss what we were going to do. We both just played off of alternate tunings.
SP And it felt really natural—letting go and performing without any kind of plan. But my path, it really took longer for me to come around to that space. I felt I had to go through some of my own self-educating on formalism and technique…
SP Yeah. I felt I had to give myself structure before I said goodbye to it, if that makes any sense. Which maybe was inspired by someone like John Coltrane recording Giant Steps before recording Interstellar Space. That’s just my own journey. I don’t really think that’s a prescribed journey. I don’t really care if anybody does that shit. For you, it just comes more naturally… and for me, I had to work to get there.
TD Or the opposite, because as far as technique, I have very little options. Exploring that is going completely into a realm of not knowing.
You know, I loved all the jazz stuff I started hearing, but it was always impossible for me to think that I would be able to play it. More than anything else it was the confidence and inhibition that comes along with formalism and confinement, or the hierarchy, of learning processes that was difficult for me.
SP A lot of that has to do with the institutions and culture of academic music—they can be extremely discouraging and soul crushing. I didn’t go that route either, not at all. Everything has been self-directed, and I think because of that, for me, there was even some self-abuse at times. Now it’s evolved into a very loving gradual approach. Where you just slowly enjoy your work and don’t feel you’re in competition with people in some department somewhere, or that you’re being judged harshly, checking things off a list: Oh, I hear that internalized vocabulary. Oh, there’s a really nice chord substitution there. Oh, look how you fired those series of arpeggios across those substitution changes. It’s like jumping through hoops. That can be a real turn-off. But at the same time, I really love that music. But once it becomes some kind of Ivory Tower or, as my friend Toby Driver says, “jazz jock-ism”—
TD That’s actually probably a good term. I mean, I like watching people play live, watching jazz guitar. It’s great for thirty minutes, but after that it just seems that the looking becomes problematic to me as a player. If I knew how to read music well enough to play these jazz things, I’m sure I would enjoy it to a greater extent. But I’m too far gone age-wise for learning all these complicated chords and progressions and alterations of all that…
SP I had a student come to me recently who was actually very good at that kind of traditional jazz thing, doing it all very convincingly. He was really advanced and young. I wanted to come up with a way to help him out, so I told him, “People want to hear your original music. Nobody cares, really, how well you do that other stuff.” Quitting playing restaurant gigs was one of the best things that happened to my playing, period. I didn’t realize how stifling it actually was to my creativity and also to my musicianship. Now I have this really gradual approach—whenever I perform it’s after a long time of me polishing and growing, as opposed to playing tunes for people who aren’t listening every week. Björk has said something along these lines—about how the audience wants to hear something different, though people always think they want to hear something the same, which is a mistake. The artists that everyone loves are the ones that are doing their own thing. So that’s what I told that student. He sounds great playing Wes Montgomery and Charlie Parker, but I was like, “You really gotta start allowing your own creativity to take over.”
TD I didn’t know what it meant for me as a guitar player when I started putting out stuff. I was like, What does this mean? I don’t have a specific idiom that I’m aspiring to, and I’m not creating some sort of homage or giving a reference point for people to hang onto. I’m just playing whatever’s in my head, literally. I don’t play paid gigs. Playing guitar is such a private thing, so when I actually put out a record or play in front of people it’s so personal. I’m exposing, which feels kind of special. But vulnerable, since it’s literally what I do when I’m sitting on my couch—not necessarily a song, but ideas and moments. But actually, when I perform in front of people these ideas do change, either move forward or back. That’s my process.
SP Okay, but somewhere along the way you got really competent at playing guitar, so how did that happen? That’s an understatement: competent. You’re a great guitar player, which doesn’t just happen. I suppose it does happen if you play every day on your couch. But you learn things by ear.
TD It’s not necessarily a validation, but to have the support of the community where we live… like Chris Ballard of the Headway label who put out my first cassette, who heard this little SoundCloud thing and encouraged me. It took those steps, those people, friends, stepping stones, and this, like, weird human psyche that says, “Okay, I guess people like it, so I will play more.” What really helped me was documenting my sound and letting people hear it.
SP For me, I had already been playing.
TD You had those two solo albums—The Vacancy in Every Verse and Shaking the Phantom Limb [both released under the name Shane Perlowin].
SP I liked the first solo album I made. The second, I don’t stand by it as much. But it was a step on the path.
TD Playing solo guitar was the easiest way for me to navigate some of those techniques or sounds that I wanted to figure out without having to sit down with somebody else. Things were quiet, and the extra work of learning from a teacher is perhaps a longer process. I felt a sense of urgency, and I couldn’t wait for someone else. I needed to play.
Dorji and Parish’s new album, Expecting, is out now on MIE Music.