Saxophone Colossus

Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol. 3 features bleakness, hope, Justin Vernon and Metal

click to enlarge Colin Stetson
Colin Stetson

Colin Stetson is a busy guy. And that’s just the way he likes it.

Speaking by phone from his home in Montreal, where the avant saxophonist extraordinaire has a rare two-week break from his seemingly ceaseless touring schedule, Stetson admits even his down time is spent working on his craft.

“When I’m on break, that means I actually have a little bit of time to be in the studio and record everything that I’m working on,” Stetson says. “There is no such thing as a break, because I have to continue to keep myself in touring shape so I can play the music on tour. It’s a working break. It’s not like I’m sipping margaritas on a beach.”

The music Stetson is playing on his current solo tour largely features songs from New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light, the just-released final entry in a trilogy of loosely connected albums for Constellation Records. The new album is the latest endeavor in a fruitful decade-plus run that has seen the Michigan native move from an in-demand session player for the likes of Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, Sinead O’Connor, TV on the Radio, LCD Soundsystem, David Byrne and The National, among many others, to a dynamic solo performer whose live shows routinely leave audiences slack-jawed.

Stetson is a uniquely physical performer who uses a variety of techniques to deliver visceral, polyphonic soundscapes that seem impossible for one human with a saxophone to emit. Aided by a serious yoga habit, a regular running regimen, a music degree from University of Michigan and nearly 25 years of live gigs, it’s a sound Stetson has been building to with each new recording.

“There is very little music on Vol. 3 that I could have performed physically when I was recording Vol. 2 (which appeared just two years ago),” Stetson says. “The compositions are definitely informed by my physical abilities. 

“Because of the nature of how I create the music and how the music is performed, I can’t write something that requires X, Y and Z physically from myself and then not be able to actually do it. It is timed to my physicality and my condition overall.”

Each of the History Warfare albums was recorded without overdubs or looping (essentially one uninterrupted take), which is an obvious testament to Stetson’s virtuosic abilities. But that’s not to say the album is all him all the time: Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver, with which Stetson has been a touring member) provides vocals on four of Vol. 3’s tracks, each different from the other.

“I always wanted there to be a vocal presence to counterbalance the instrument and my presence on the records,” Stetson says of Vernon’s contributions. “Justin and I had been touring with Bon Iver for these last two years, so it was one of those things that was just a given — the two of us really enjoy working together. His voice is very complementary to my sound and my concept.” 

“It was something to me that was very fortunate because he was kind enough to lend his talents, which are immense,” Stetson says. “It seemed perfect. (Vernon) becomes so many characters and expands the imagery and helps me try to create a more epic, far-reaching, vast musical landscape.”

Here's the clip of the latest release's "In Mirrors" and "And In Truth," featuring vocals by Vernon:

The most surprising of the new songs is “Brute,” which represents a serious, almost sinister shift in tone from just about anything Stetson has ever recorded. It features some of his most rhythmically visceral playing and a guttural vocal delivery from Vernon that clearly was inspired by various Cookie Monster Metal singers. It’s as if David Lynch had recruited them to score his latest surreal cinematic excursion. 

“I’ve been a big Metal fan since I was a kid,” Stetson says. “And people don’t really know Justin is a ’80s Metal fan, so it was one of those things where we got really psyched about possibly collaborating on something that was bringing us both to a much more specifically Metal place. The song exists in this strange netherworld. It all just clicked and I got a goofy smile on my face when we finished it. I think it is hands down the hardest thing I’ve ever written to play.” 

In many ways Vol. 3 is Stetson’s most ambitious statement to date, an emotional, often dark-hued extension of what he has described as his interest in communicating the “utter aloneness” of being a human being.

“‘High Above a Grey Green Sea’ is the one song that reaches back and ties the first two albums together with the third, thematically and in terms of characters for me,” Stetson says when asked about the aloneness comment. “It is the distillation of the concept of isolation and aloneness and the idea of calling out for another (person). Bleakness is inherent in that, but also hope, the two sides of that experience. So, yeah, that particular piece is about that, but I would not say that was the overarching sentiment behind the third record.”

In fact, though Stetson has very specific themes and ideas in mind for each song and album, he’s not interested in relaying them to an audience in an overt way.

“I would never tell them, ‘Well, no, you’re actually wrong; it’s about this other thing, and I’ll tell you why.’ That’s not really what I think that the experience of art should be,” he says. “I’m not telling you a story that happened to me in my life and I’m going to correct you if you didn’t read it right. That’s not art in my mind.”

For a guy whose initial fascination with the saxophone started when he heard Men at Work’s “Who Can It Be Now?” on the radio as a kid, Stetson has come a long way as an artist and performer. And he’s grateful that he’s been given a chance to indulge in his various creative explorations.

“I’ve been playing solo and with bands — Rock bands, Jazz bands, more esoteric stuff — since I was in my teens, and so that hasn’t really changed,” Stetson says. “The thing that has changed is life and age and the fact that I don’t have to work a day job anymore. It’s been a long time since I played a wedding for money.”

COLIN STETSON performs at the Contemporary Arts Center May 14 with Sarah Neufeld. More information:

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