Finding a band free of obvious fingerprints from their influences is a harder and harder prospect in the 21st century. The cloud of sound each new generation gestates in becomes more pervasive and varied all the time, so the quest to find one’s own voice in the clutter is a daunting one. However, some groups emerge speaking their own language, and San Francisco’s Tussle is surely one of them. An instrumental unit that borders on the realms of electronica and math rock without inhabiting either, since 2001 Tussle has generated an inviting chatter that’s immediately engaging and actively meditative, pulsing and pushing into spaces that open up unexpectedly in one’s listening journey. Rarely ambient, what they do envelops one, an atmosphere to float around in but never aimlessly where one feels adrift.
There is motion, color and yes, emotions galore at work in Tussle’s music, which continues their evolution with fourth long-player Tempest (released September 24th on Smalltown Supersound), as switched-on and lively a non-verbal song cycle as anyone has created this year, a quite alive experience, particularly played impolitely loud through speakers or brought close in ear buds on a brisk open air walk. There’s something about Tempest that beckons one to get into it with them, to travel with “Cat Pirate” and “Moondog” or taste sounds “Lightly Salted” (they have great, evocative song titles). You can’t really dance to it but some kind of motion is demanded from the shot of carbonation it fires into one’s bloodstream.
We caught up with co-founder Nathan Burazer to discuss Tussle’s latest offering, their creative process, and translating their music into the live setting.
You’re one of two constants in Tussle’s shifting lineup.
Yeah, there’s also Jonathan, who was part of the original lineup in the early 2000s. He was a great friend of mine from North Carolina when we moved to San Francisco. We were roommates in North Carolina, and we had an interesting version of what would become Tussle. We had a shared living room with a bunch of instruments set up including a homemade drum kit. So, the soul of what this is has been around for awhile and hopefully it’s still there.
The nucleus of Tussle has remained evident throughout the band’s history. So, what changed when you came to San Francisco? I’ve always felt like Tussle was the kind of band that could only thrive in a place like San Francisco.
Actually, that’s totally true. Of course, coming from North Carolina, we were all blown away by the city in general. One of the things we always used to talk about was how in North Carolina there were the hippies and they were their own separate group, and there were the skaters and the crusty punks but everyone was separated out. In San Francisco it was mind-blowing to see how all these cultures coincided, where you get the crusty skateboarder hippie.
Sure, sure. It’s like the guy who looks like he’d only listen to Black Flag is actually going to see tons of Grateful Dead shows.
Exactly! There’s so many hybrids of these varied subcultures. When you’re not used to it or never knew it existed it kinda blows your mind. That’s probably why our music is such a hybrid and mixture of a lot of different things, too. Really what happened was the music didn’t change that much but our perceptions did.
Right from the beginning I got the sense that Tussle never wanted to be put in a single category.
That’s true and we have really pretty much avoided getting put in specific genres, but what happens is specific bands we sort of sound like get pinned onto us, like ESG and Can, which are huge influences. That was something we had in mind with Tempest. We really didn’t want anyone to bring up those names again [laughs]. We really wanted to try something different, and that’s what led us to working with someone in Scotland.
Something I’ve noticed about all the musicians I’ve met from Scotland is their ability to tilt their minds at music in a different way than most folks. Everything is off by 15-20 degrees from where other people approach things.
[Laughs] That’s true of other Scottish artists, too.
I can see why people who write about Tussle might reference those bands but it’s never seemed as if you guys are actively trying to emulate anyone. What I will say is Tussle goes after music in the same spirit as Can and ESG, letting pieces simmer as long as they need to and always trying to snag interesting sounds. You’re not trying to craft disco dance anthems. That’s especially true of the new album, where everything moves with its own organic logic and nothing is forced.
That’s totally true. In the middle of recording Tempest, which is our fourth album, one of the problems that kept cropping up was one we’ve wrestled with for a long time: How raw do we want this? How cooked should the stew be? We don’t want to overcook it but we don’t want it to feel unfinished. So, we had this philosophical dilemma of trying to figure out when something is done. I had a conversation about this with a tour manager we had on our last European tour, and he was a French guy and his response was pretty French: “How do you know when you’re finished making love? You just know.” That was actually pretty helpful.
It’s almost Zen in an odd sort of way. There is a sense on Tempest that each piece goes on as long as it needs to and no more. Nothing feels overlong, and there’s a general rightness to the pieces on this album. And that’s a big challenge when working with instrumental music outside the stereotypical standard jazz constructions of stating a theme, solos, and then re-stating the theme.
A lot of that had to do with trusting [producer] JD Twitch, who’s a DJ. We looked to him a lot for that kind of timing stuff because there were some things I thought were going on a bit too long. He was like, “No, no, the more hypnotic one needs to run until you get into the environment.” DJs are great at that type of stuff, knowing when to change the record and switch up the vibe.
Delayed gratification is a big part of DJ culture. When the drop or breaks comes, it’s all the more satisfying if they’ve made you ache for it.
JD Twitch is great at that, building up that tension.
What’s the process of putting music together like for Tussle? How much is pre-composed? How much is improvised?
A lot of times we’re all in our own worlds, tinkering on our own in our bedrooms and studios. Sometimes there’ll be an idea we come across – a drum machine pattern, a bass line, a beat – and that’s kind of all we need. Those things can spark an entire song. But there’s also when we get together and we’re just jamming or practicing, and there’s a recorder going the whole time. Any spontaneous creations that occur we can go back and check them out and start putting them together in Audacity or Logic, taking loops and cutting and pasting parts if there’s an idea there. Someone will take the initiative and work on it and send it to the rest of us. From there, next time we practice we try to play it like it’s been put together.
That’s one way, and the other way is we all just slug our way through it in the studio, often mapping it out on a white board, especially where all the different parts are. With instrumental music it is hard because there’s no singer to create a kind of time stamp on various sections. With us it’s like, “Here’s the part where you go, ‘Boom, boom, bap, ooh, ooh, ooh.’”
It’s easy to imagine one getting lost in this landscape.
That’s why we use some of the digital tools and white boards to get everyone on the same page, so we can say, “Oh, you meant that boom, boom, bap, ooh, ooh, ooh [laughs].”
This has to be a little tricky to translate into live setting.
That’s something we’re dealing with now. We’ve taken the new recordings and loosely interpreted them, drawing out the essence of what’s there. There are compromises that have to be made because it’s a completely different experience. There can be a lot going on, and we have to leave some of the textural elements out to hone in on the most important parts. However, some songs are an accumulation of small bits and parts, and those pieces don’t hold up as well live.
Live limits your flexibility to jump around from instrument to computer to sampler to editing deck. In concert, you have to stick with one or two things most of the time or it can get messy fast.
We’ve been using samplers a lot live. We tried using backing tracks on the previous tour but we’re getting more organic. On the last album, we had drum machines holding down various things, but since we have two drummers it’s hard to have a drum machine going at the same time. And we’re not about precision, per se, so there’s a nice overlapping of parts that creates an interesting third part we couldn’t come up with alone. There’s still a few drum machines but for the most part we’re trying to keep things open. Mostly, we’re just trying to have fun.
The human feel can’t be overstated. When you put meat into the equation it just changes things, and largely for the better.
That’s always been really important for us. We’re not interested in creating the super precise, sterile music that’s not uncommon in the electronic music field. We’re really responding to that, trying to bring in human emotion and the human touch, just adding some humanity to this music.