May Artist Feature: Michael Foster

(Photo by Peter Gannushkin)

Michael Foster is a saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist working in the fields of free improvisation, noise, free jazz, graphic & video notation, performance art, and other forms of weird music. Foster utilizes extensive preparations of his saxophone, augmenting it with amplification, objects, balloons, drum heads, vibrators, tapes, and samples as a method of subverting and queering the instrument’s history and traditional roles. Michael is incredibly busy working in New York, as evidenced by the long list of upcoming performances and record releases. An extensive interview follows (scroll down).

Upcoming Performances:

  • May 18: Vital Joint: Michael Foster-Ted Byrnes Duo
  • May 27: 49shade: Michael Foster, Javier Velez, Michael Evans
  • May 28: 5min solo at Academy Records for David Grollman’s 5min5set show
  • June 8: TBA at Crown heights Bottom Bell Haus
  • June 11: Solo at The Glove
  • June 12: TBA at Artichoke Pizza
  • June 17: performing Richard Kamerman’s 17hour (maybe longer?) modular score
  • July 8: The Ghost (New Haven)
  • Late July tour with Ben Bennett & Brandon Lopez in the Northeast US

Upcoming Record Releases:

  • Michael Foster-Ben Bennett Duo: In It (Astral Spirits, Summer 2017)
  • Michael Foster, Ted Byrnes, Jacob Wick:Token Breeder (Claimed Responsibility, summer 2017)
  • Michael Foster Solo: title TBA (Jouissance du Rien, fall/winter 2017)
  • Michael Foster, Ben Bennett, Ben Gerstein: Artmouth (is that the title?) (Smeraldina-Rima, fall/winter, 2017?)
  • New York Review of Cocksucking: Total Cruise Worship [tape] (Copy For Your Records, summer 2017)
  • While We Still Have Bodies, title TBA (fall 2017?)
(Michael Foster Solo, live at Muchmore’s, 3/4/17, photo by Peter Gannushkin)

Interview with Michael Foster at New Revolution Arts, February 26, 2017

Cisco Bradley: How did you get into the path of being a musician?

Michael Foster: Around the age of 15 I finally started actively enjoying music after already having been very invested in film and Japanese literature. On a whim I decided to learn an instrument, trumpet seemed appealing but I quickly learned it was too difficult but saxophone seemed close enough and was considerably easier to get a skronk out of.

I was too old to take jazz classes with the kids in the beginning music classes but there was an amazing teacher at the school, Ralph “Buzzy” Jones, with whom I studied privately. I still consider him my mentor. He practically played every woodwind from bassoon to hichiriki to saxophone. He was in a lot of different groups, doing Motown, gagaku, free jazz, etc. (He actually went to high school in Detroit with the Kenny Millions)

Our lessons started out simple enough until I told him I’d just listened to Ornette Coleman. He laughed maniacally and told me to check out Albert Ayler. So I grabbed some Albert Ayler stuff from a record shop and felt totally overwhelmed. His playing and ensembles sounded so brutally vulnerable and that terrified me. I didn’t feel emotionally prepared for it at all.

So, next lesson, “Hey Buzzy, I listened to Albert Ayler.” He laughed, “And what did you think?”

“Intense.” He laughed again and said, “Alright, cool. Try again.”

So all week I listened to Albert Ayler. I remember sitting at a desk during a free period, with no distractions, just listening and I started crying. I finally heard it. Next lesson, “Buzzy, I think I really heard Albert Ayler.” He started laughing and said “Well, there we go!” He then told me I had to check out Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses and other way out there stuff and I guess from there I was “on the path.”

I was also very blessed to be very close friends with the late pianist Austin Peralta in high school. He was the only person who’d play music with me, and was also into fucked up music and movies, and close to Buzzy. I sat in on a lot of music classes and was regularly ridiculed for my technique (or lack thereof) and the ‘weird’ art I was into. Music education (and communities) has a serious problem with unchecked machismo, sexism, homophobia, technique fetishism, and an overabundance of small minded people, but without the support of Buzzy and Austin, I would’ve given up a long time ago.

Cisco Bradley: Where did you grow up?

Michael Foster: I grew up in New York City until around middle school when we moved to L.A.

Cisco Bradley: I know you didn’t go to music school. What was the next step after high school?

Michael Foster: I went to Bard College because I had a lot of intense interests in very specific things, like Japanese literature, film, ethnomusicology, critical theory, music, etc. I ended up studying mainly in the Electronic & Experimental Arts program with Marina Rosenfeld and Richard Teitelbaum.

Marina taught this amazing class called ‘Electro-Acoustic Ensemble,’ which was basically a totally open class for free improvisation or alternative methods of music-making. So each class you’d have to attempt to make music with students of completely diverse musical backgrounds. So you’d have a conservatory cellist in between someone playing his parent’s old radio and a
bass player in a punk band. This class, unlike any other music class I’ve taken, was totally judgement free and committed to mutual respect and listening.

Cisco Bradley: That’s beautiful.

Michael Foster: Yeah. Some of the deepest lessons about listening, strategy, and the fundamentals of music making took place in that class.

Cisco Bradley: So it was really a place for exploration?

Michael Foster: Totally. All the freaks were finally together and didn’t have to justify themselves to the normy bros that litter music education.

Cisco Bradley: You have a very strong personality in music, if I may say. Do you think that was always there? Was that nurtured in the ‘Electro-acoustic Ensemble’ class?

Michael Foster: Definitely. I was learning my instrument by playing with people who played reel to reel tapes, turntables, iPods, broken glass, etc. By learning how to make music with people like that in a judgement-free zone, you learn to find different ways of communicating.

My goal was to be able to play music with anybody, and by taking the route that I took I found that became a lot more possible than if I’d buried myself in jazz pedagogy or whatever.

I was also booking a lot of weirdo shows at Bard. I booked Weasel Walter a bunch. I shared a bill with Weasel late in college and after he asked me if I was moving to New York and to let him know when I got to town.

Cisco Bradley: When was that?

Michael Foster: Maybe it’s 2012. One of my first shows in the city was at Zebulon with Weasel, Tom Blancarte, and Steve Swell, which I was totally freaked out about because those guys are so heavy.

Cisco Bradley: Were you playing in the Marc EdwardsWeasel Walter Group?

Michael Foster: Yeah, I was in that. I was in that group for a few different incarnations.

Cisco Bradley: That was an amazing, underappreciated band I think.

Michael Foster: When Marc and Weasel played drums together it was especially bonkers.

Cisco Bradley: Yeah.

Michael Foster: I also went to school with Leila Bordreuil. She’s been my best friend since college, and our duo has been happening since I was a sophomore and she was a freshman.

So when I moved to New York and I was doing duo with Leila, the Zombi Jazz, and the thing with Weasel and Marc.

Cisco Bradley: So when did you release the duo record with Leila? That was based on six or seven years of playing together?

Michael Foster: Yeah. It just took us a while before we recorded something properly.

Cisco Bradley: And what were you guys doing? Do you remember?

Michael Foster: Started off as all acoustic improv stuff, lots of imitation, ‘hot potato’ etc. But soon we both got into amplifying our instruments, probably because we were inspired by all the great noise shows happening on campus at the time.

Cisco Bradley: One of the bands I saw you play with a few times… I don’t think I’ve ever talked to you about, is the band While We Still We Have Bodies. Could you talk about that band? It’s such an interesting band. I have never heard anything like it. Everybody in that band I feel is underappreciated in certain ways. The musicians each have their own personality, but then something happens when you all come together.

Michael Foster: Ben Gerstein calls it “Merging”. Yeah, that band is pretty crazy. You know, it looks like a free jazz quartet but it actually sounds more like ecstatic field recordings. Anytime I play with them, when it’s done I’m totally non-verbal, awkward, weird, confused, hallucinating… Anything goes in that band because there’s a lot of trust and mutual respect.

Cisco Bradley: How did you get to that level of trust?

Michael Foster: It felt immediate. From the first session it was clear there were no limits.

Cisco Bradley: Did you talk even conceptually about what you might want to do with the band or is it one of these things you just came together?

Michael Foster: We just jumped right in. Sometimes it’s about throwing sonic detritus into the situation. Because everyone’s so iconoclastic and idiosyncratic that I have faith knowing they’re going to be entirely committed to whatever bizarre musical choice they make, whatever it is. Even if it’s a visual gesture, they are fully committed to it.

Cisco Bradley: So you said you have some material of While We Still Have Bodies to be released?

Michael Foster: Yeah, a really fantastic recording done at The New Museum that we’re still mixing but hope to have out by the end of the year.

(Michael Foster, live at Spectrum, 10/18/16, photo by Peter Gannushkin)

Cisco Bradley: Good to hear. Let’s talk about The Ghost. It seems like it’s gotten a good reception and you’ve played a ton. How did that band get started? I’m also interested to hear about the ideas behind it.

Michael Foster: The idea for the band started a few years ago after I lost several close friends, including Austin Peralta, and felt conflicted about my focus while playing because my mind was preoccupied with grieving. So I tried to imagine a musical and creative space where I felt I could be musically present while grieving, and maybe even channel these people in the moment
somehow.

I also was feeling very uneasy being queer/gay and involved in a musical scene where queerness seemed completely absent, invisible, or looked down upon. Being ‘out’ to my friends was easy, but being ‘out’ in my creative community felt far more difficult thanks to the homophobia, heteronormativity, and machismo that plagues various experimental music scenes. So with this project I wanted to find a place where I could process this grief and develop a personal aesthetic for my sexuality that’d hopefully also tell the homophobes and macho heteros to go fuck off. I felt the traditional sax/bass/drums trio offered me the chance to re-contextualize the free jazz aesthetic into something queer.

Cisco Bradley: What are the band’s influences and how has the music evolved over time?

Michael Foster: Yeah. Well, it changed a lot because now it’s a different group and people play very differently.

In terms of approach/aesthetics/structure, I was really influenced by a lot of noise, Harsh Noise Wall, Charles Gayle, the film “Cruising,” Derek Jarman, Jean Genet, and a lot of queer theory I was reading at the time, especially Leo Bersani (Homos and Is The Rectum a Grave? ), David M. Halperin, and Jose Esteban-Munoz.

One artist whose work is especially influential to this project is Richard Ramirez, of Black Leather Jesus, Werewolf Jerusalem, Anal Drill, etc. He was maybe the first experimental musician I found whose work was aggressively and unapologetically influenced by his queerness. His album covers are notorious for their images of gay BDSM, and the music is loaded with samples of gay porn, which gives the work an inescapably queer context.

His body of work is massive and filled with pseudonyms but his approach tends to focus on very gradual development of huge noise wall textures. So, The Ghost would practice things like making a ”harsh noise wall” (HNW) with our acoustic instruments. A sustained but subtly morphing sound that is so thick that is like a wall of sound. I still practice long tones to HNW so I can generate an acoustic tone that is (hopefully) that thick and filled with different nuanced timbres. We’d think about how we can re-contextualize “free jazz” and queer that aesthetic in a way that becomes something more idiosyncratic, gradual, and erotic.

Cisco Bradley: The lineup for the Ghost has changed recently. I’m kind of curious where you’re heading with that project next.

Michael Foster: Nathan Cross from Astral Spirits , the tape label in Austin, reached out to me to say he said he loved the last record we put out on Tombed Visions and really wants to put out a full length LP. So that’s next. But the direction like aesthetically?

Cisco Bradley: Aesthetics and everything.

Michael Foster: The group now is Zach Rowden on bass (of Iancu Dumitrescu’s ensemble and various projects) and Derek Baron on amplified/acoustic percussion and drums (of Mega Bog, Speaker World,
duo with Christian Mirande, etc).

The previous incarnation (with Henry Fraser & Connor Baker) was more predicated on fast cuts and high energy. This incarnation is more focused on amplified/acoustic textures and slower development that’s more about “edging” than catharsis.

Cisco Bradley: How do you queer sound or how do you queer music? Have you developed a methodology?

Michael Foster: This is a tricky one to really pin down to any specific strategy or approach, which I guess is par for the course when discussing ‘queerness’. Sometimes I think of it as a total embrace and re-contextualizing of ‘failure’ and/or a certain incongruence, whether that’s through a musical (or visual/euphemistic) gesture or simply the element of surprise, stupidity, camp, etc. Other times it’s a matter of asserting an overtly queer context via sampling or something ‘obvious’.

Cisco Bradley: So how do you queer the relationship with the audience?

Michael Foster: I’m not sure if I can provide a totally satisfactory answer … but for what it’s worth something I often think about it in relation to this question is the exchanged power dynamics with the audience and how you position yourself in relation to the content.

Cisco Bradley: So if The Ghost was sort of one of your ways of sort of coming out in the music scene in a certain way, what would you say the reception has been? How is it to be queer out in the scene?

Michael Foster: The reception has been really encouraging, be it positive or negative. For the most part it seems people are receptive to it, and I’m playing to more queer audiences than I did previously, which is really wonderful. I’ve definitely had a few shows that started off with a positive audience response only to turn sour once I turned on the gay porn samples halfway through, which triggered a certain reaction from the audience. Experiences like that and hearing so much sexist and homophobic banter at ‘free jazz/improvised music’ shows has sort of turned me off.

Cisco Bradley: With all this in mind, can we talk about the New York Review of Cocksucking?

Michael Foster: Of course.

Cisco Bradley: So you and Richard Kamerman. What led you to collaborate?

Michael Foster: I first heard about Richard’s work through Aaron Zarzutzki, who was telling me I had to meet this guy. We’d hung out at some shows/parties/etc. but our first show was at a kind of crazy party at my house. We played a really quiet set and he was using just small, unamplified DC  motors which felt great.

Afterwards I get an email from Richard titled “Potential Band Names”. “Well, obviously, we enjoyed playing together so here’s some band names.” and it was a screenshot from an old back issue of Boyd McDonald’s Straight To Hell zine with a list of alternate titles he would use, like “The American Jockey Shorts Journal,” “The New York Review of Cocksucking,” etc.

Cisco Bradley: I’ve seen you perform at least twice, maybe three times.

Michael Foster: Yeah. Weren’t you at the one at 65 Fen?

Cisco Bradley: Yes, which you already released. And the one at the Legion.

Michael Foster: Right. We’re actually releasing that one.

Cisco Bradley: Oh, awesome. That was a killer set.

Michael Foster: Thanks! We’re releasing that one and another show we did recently at HECK. The first two releases (Erectoacoustic Daycream and Such Sweet Shame) were very quiet performances, mostly acoustic or with small battery powered amps, but this next one ( Total Cruise Worship ) is definitely more of a weirdo harsh noise thing. That set at Legion was a bit of a clusterfuck because we couldn’t get the PA to work so we crammed both our mixers into the bass amp and let it get goofy.

Cisco Bradley: If I remember right, Richard is the one that usually either recites passages or speaks. I’m curious just where he draws the material. I assume some of that’s written.

Michael Foster: We trade ideas back and forth. Some material comes from old issues of Straight to Hell, but also unintentionally euphemistic instruction manuals, blog postings, classified ads, etc.

Cisco Bradley: So let’s talk about a couple of your duo projects. So how about your duo with Ted Byrnes?

Michael Foster: Ted Byrnes I met maybe five years ago in L.A. when I was in town visiting my family. I saw him do a fantastic duo with guitarist Han-Earl Park in Hollywood somewhere and I hit him up to do a session and we clicked instantly.

Ted plays this very modified drum kit type setup that’s made up of a lot of junk metals, salad bowls, etc. and his approach is really fast, busy, reactive, and dynamic. Lots of shifting densities with tons of subtle incidental sounds.

Cisco Bradley: And your duo with Ben Bennett?

Michael Foster: Ben’s maybe my closest or most frequent duo partner, along with Richard and Leila. Ben and I met through David Grollman, who thought the three of us would make a good touring trio. So we basically met when the tour started.

The tour was completely fantastic, the music got crazier and crazier and we all pushed each other really hard creatively. Did lots of things I’d never done before in a performance. After the tour, Ben sent me an email and said we should try some duo stuff.

As a duo we wanted to focus on how our instruments could become one another, and switch roles throughout a performance. So how could I be a drum and how could Ben be a saxophone, etc., and push the intimacy and dynamics of the “Sax & Drums Duo” to somewhere else.

We have a few things coming out this year and early next year. We have our second duo album coming out on Astral Spirits this year. We have a trio coming out on LP and CD through a Czech label with Ben Gerstein … And then we’re planning on doing a recording as a trio with bassist Brandon Lopez.

I try to treat all projects with specificity and to make sure I’m not bringing all the same material to each project.

I know that when playing While We Still Have Bodies it requires not only this kind of headspace but also certain objects, vocabulary that might not work in New York Review of Cocksucking. So I really try to focus more on it as a case by case thing and less about like myself and my technique, not getting too comfortable with one approach. This is frequently frustrating but I couldn’t imagine wanting it any other way, especially when all the music I’m involved in is improvised to one degree or another.

Cisco Bradley: Have you ever tried to put something into the mix and had it not work?

Michael Foster: Oh, yeah, definitely. But you try it out, it didn’t work, you fall on your face, try to do better next time, and keep it weird.

Cisco Bradley: Thanks, Michael!