Saxophonist Colin Stetson steps into the spotlight | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Saxophonist Colin Stetson steps into the spotlight

He's collaborated with everyone from Tom Waits to Bon Iver

Sax man gone solo: Colin Stetson
Sax man gone solo: Colin Stetson

Multi-instrumentalist Colin Stetson is one of busiest and most sought-after musicians today: He's toured as a member of Bon Iver and Arcade Fire and collaborated with dozens of artists including Tom Waits, LCD Soundsystem, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and David Byrne. But now he's starting to grow in reputation and to tour more as a solo artist — which presents its own set of challenges, especially given his complex compositions, and his physically demanding instrument of choice, the 5-foot-tall bass saxophone.

"Now [that I'm stronger and more experienced] I can push certain things further," Stetson says. "So certain individual pieces have gotten much, much harder, and overall, tours are very difficult just because doing the same thing every night has really become a strain. 

"I've typically done really short tours and I've always been cramming them in between other tours with Arcade Fire or Bon Iver. Now that my tours have been growing longer, here or there I'm like, ‘Fuck! I don't think I should be doing these 14 times in a row.' But that's just another thing to work towards."

Stetson is known for thrilling audiences with the sheer athletic force he puts behind his saxophone. On the heels of releasing his third full-length solo album, New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light, he opens The Andy Warhol Museum's Spring 2013 Sound Series on May 11 — one of the first dates on what promises to be his most impressive and physically challenging tour yet.

Stetson's bass saxophone is a 103-year-old, handmade behemoth that initially took months of conditioning just to work up the strength to play. He employed circular breathing — a technique that allows him to play continually without pausing for breath — and toyed with the recording possibilities of the bass sax in New History Warfare Vol. 1. Then Stetson pushed himself further still on his second solo album, New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, a sonic tour de force that made it onto a number of Best of 2011 lists and earned a finalist nomination for Canada's Polaris Music Prize. 

Refusing to rely on looping, layering, multiple-track or overdub technology in his performances or recording, Stetson instead records all of his songs in a single take, a technique he picked up from his time with Tom Waits. Growling through the reed, slapping the sax's body and jamming the saxophone's keys as percussion, Stetson creates a polyphonic experience often taken for electronic music despite coming from a one-man band.  The result is a sound uniquely its own, pulling from genres as wide-ranging as jazz, gospel, sludge metal, pop and drone.

If Judges was Stetson's Empire Strikes Back, To See More Light is his Return of the Jedi. The conclusion to his New History Warfare trilogy, Vol. 3 has a larger set, more resources and a tighter vision than the earlier two works. Centering on the ideas of isolation, pleading and longing, this album finds Stetson at his most physically fit. It captures the acoustics of four unique spaces (including The Arcade Fire's old church in Farnham, Quebec), and features production by Ben Frost and vocal contributions on four of the tracks from Bon Iver bandmate Justin Vernon.

 "My ability to physically bring new elements to the music and [to] make the music different and speak to different imagery, and the recording techniques, have been more realized," Stetson says. "So everything is just a little bit more with this [album]. The idea was to give this more of a sense of multiplicity and character and range."

Physicality plays a huge role in Stetson's performance and composition: He's as much an athlete as a musician, and getting stronger means being able to write even more complex pieces. While on tour, Stetson has to maintain a strict regimen of yoga, running and breathing exercises in order to stay in shape for performances.

"Making sure I can still even play all the music that I've written to this point takes an enormous amount of time and effort," he says. "If I break for a few days or a week without playing any of [the most recent] music, then it is quite a chore to get back into it, and it thoroughly pisses me off, so I try and keep the maintenance aspect of things pretty constant. But when I was working on Vol. 2, I wouldn't have been able to play any of the work on Vol. 3 just because it was stuff that was beyond my abilities at that point."

Whether in the studio or on the stage, Stetson continues to wage battle, pushing himself to his physical limits and beyond in order to discover new ground.

"The biggest change for me [in Vol. 3] is scope and attitude," says Stetson. "In the first song, it's emerging from a mountain pass, up into a new and very vast landscape. There's a determination and a focus and a resolve. ... For me this is like a war epic, and this is the conclusion."

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