Although Vincent Gallo has a reputation of being a bit of a hot head at times, during a recent chat with Westword, he was more than gracious as he discussed his current tour, clarified how he and the other three members of RRIICCEE don’t necessarily improvise so much as they “spontaneously compose pieces,” and confided a few noteworthy facts about himself that might surprise people, like how Michael Jackson’s song “Butterflies” makes him cry and how the album Charles Mingus Plays Piano changed his life.
Westword: So, what’s happening today?
Vincent Gallo: I’m running around, organizing cases and repairs of instruments. Just getting things ready for the tour, which is the thing I like to more than anything else: Fix things, organize them, pack them, paint them, repair them.
What instruments are you bringing on this tour?
I just had an image in my mind, because I remember the first time I went fishing -- we called it hunting. We went with a BB gun and some fishing poles with my brother and my cousin. I remember we had to wake up at four o’clock in the morning and get some worms from the ground and pack our bicycles, so that we could tape all our things -- our fishing things and our guns – to the bikes and pack our lunch. And we put plastic bags in our boots to keep warm and dry and all these things. It’s sort of still the same… Once we got to the thing, I didn’t really care if we caught any fish, and we barely ever did, and we certainly were never able to get us an animal. But the preparation was so great.
I’m bringing a Mellotron, a guitar, a bass, a melodica and maybe a lap steel. Eric’s bringing guitars and basses and a lot of effects and drum machines. Rebecca Casabian is bringing some keyboarded instruments, a Hammond B-3-type instrument. And Nikolas Haas is bringing a drum kit, some drum machines and some microphones to specially mike the drums.
As far as what you guys are going to be doing, I know you’ve talked about how it’s not necessarily improvising.
The reason I say that is not be pretentious or to make myself more self-important or to be contrary to other people. Improvisation, when somebody says that to me, if I go to see a jazz band and they’re improvising, they’re improvising around a jazz vocabulary. Basically what they’re doing is wallowing in their own emotional trip, and they’re not transcending themselves at all or the musical vocabulary at all, because they’re sort of wallowing in it. Rock people do the same thing, and, even worse -- the worst of all -- are blues people, because the scale is so distinctive and so cliché.
The reason I don’t say improvising is because since we’re looking to grow in musical vocabularies, and be open to all of them, and hopefully be part of the creation of new ones, then improvisation doesn’t sit so comfortably in that way. We don’t jam. And we don’t really improvise. We’re composing spontaneous pieces, but with an extreme level of conscious behavior. And an extreme level of openness, and trying to be as much as possible the people we really are, not the people that we learn to be. That’s a very complicated theory. It’s a bit of a complicated story.
That means not responding to cabaret or protocol or things that are part of ego and self-glorification and trying to be open. If you believe that you’re so interesting and that you’re in control of it, then your work can never go past you. I believe that I’m a buffoon and just a person, a very simple, small-minded person. And my goal, or my dream or my wish, is always to make things that are better than me and myself and my reasons for making them. And so that’s really where we’re coming from collectively.
What was it about these musicians that made you want to choose them for this project?
As you make your heart more open and you choose to connect with a different kind of energy. And you become more of the person you really are than the person you learn to be, and you’re not coming as much from fear and you’re just trying to connect with a more revolutionary vibration, then people, you start to notice them and connect with them in that way.
And I’ve known Eric for 25 years, but I don’t really know him. I just follow him around and I didn’t really connect with him in the past and both of us have changed a lot, and we really connect now in this way. And I really connect with Rebecca in this way, and I connect with Nik in this way. And by connecting with one another in this way that I feel is more of a reflection of who I am and of the future and of a more beautiful vibration, then I’m moving also as well further in that direction.
You become what you invest in. Whatever you invest in becomes bigger. So if you invest in connecting in things that are coming from love and openness and you’re trying to transcend yourself, then that just becomes who you are, and more of who you are. If you’re connecting in your past and in darkness and compulsion or in fear, then that just becomes more of who you are at that time in your life. So I feel that this is what I deserve and the people that I work with and relate to. And this is what I’m comfortable with connecting with now, which are three other people I find really beautiful and really thoughtful and really open.
As far as trying to grasp what you’re going to be doing tangibly, is there any way you could describe…
I can say this, and I just thought of this just now, if I didn’t tell you that everything we played was completely spontaneous and improvised, you would never know it. So that should give you some concept of what to expect. In other words, we’re there creating very beautiful, simple, sensitive compositions that are organized outside of musical cliché or cabaret. But they don’t sound like they’re spontaneous, so it’s not so obviously abstract or improvisational or disorganized.
So imagine a mix of musical forms, and musical forms that never existed before coming together and piecing together in compositions and sounds and harmonics and moods that are a reflection of the four of us, the place that we’re playing, the time, the feel and a reflection of the audience. It’s very very conscious music.
But hey, we’re just four human beings. Our preferred vision can only move so far. I am stuck within the vision that I can have as a human being, which is not that broad. And I am stuck in somewhat of the clichés of my own level of taste at the time, etcetera, etcetera. It’s not like I’m able to fully transcend myself or Eric or Nikolas or Rebecca is. But that’s the goal and we’re practicing in that direction. We’re practicing moving in that direction every day.
Can you think of any particular composers or musicians or…
Let me say this, because I understand the question, and it’s a thoughtful question. But the surprise answer is this: that none of the music I’ve listened to ever in my life, none of the films that I’ve ever watched in my life would be anything close to what you thought they would be. No one has ever been anything less than shocked or surprised. That’s because I’m relating to that other music and my music in a way that sometimes only understand.
So if I’m listening to Michael Jackson sing the song “Butterflies” off his Platinum record, I tear up. I can listen to that track a thousand times. If you listen to my most abstract, hard, radical piece of music that I’ve ever released, somewhere in that what I’m hearing is that same connection. I’m relating to the same minor chord or diminished chord or change or nuance, but it’s being overwhelmed by this other thing that just comes from my nature that is more of what other people notice.
Whatever I’m inspired by has nothing to do with what we make. It doesn’t sound like it. It isn’t influencing it, but I’m connecting in some way energy-wise or taste-wise in something from other things that I’ve heard. I listen to Peggy Lee and Anita O’Day constantly. If you listen to the When record, you would never say, “Oh wow, he sounds like Peggy Lee, or I can tell he listens to Peggy Lee, or I can tell he listens to Anita O’Day.”
But when I’m singing, whatever it is that I enjoy when I’m hearing them, I’m enjoying what I’m hearing myself. There isn’t a musical role model for what I’m doing. There’re only things that have nothing to do with what I’m doing that I enjoy and that I cherish.
I’ve heard you’re a big Mingus fan too.
Charles Mingus, especially Mingus Plays Piano. That album is unbelievable. And if you come and hear us play in Denver if you remember what I said, that I’m relating to the spirit or the energy or the openness of that record, you may not find the phonics or the harmonics or the chord progressions of the voicings or the frequency responses to be similar. But I think you’ll understand that I’m the same person that could write that record.
That’s a great record.
Yeah, it’s awesome. It changed my life.
Yeah, because I found it in a high-end record shop, and it was quite expensive. It was an out of print Impulse recording quite early on, soon after its release. So it was already an 80 dollar record in the early ‘80s. It was an expensive out of print jazz record. And I found a copy for $45, which was two days pay, and I took it home.
It was in a really difficult emotional period in my life. I was still stuck in a lot of unhealed feelings of the past, and I just listened to that record every day and it helped me practice other voices in my head, and to move towards beauty and things that were more thoughtful and more conscious. It was just a very beautiful and important record to me. I come back to it often. If I feel like I need to connect with that energy, I’ll connect with that record, and it means a lot to me.
Do you have any other records you come back to?
Ironically, I listen to a lot of single songs now. I’ve been making a lot of mix tapes, or compilations. So I’ve been scrolling through records, even if I only pull off ten seconds off a record. A lot of them are surprising. A lot of them fall into the R&B category, because I really like sort of the slow jam thing. As records as whole there’s a big range.
A record that would surprise people that I listen to a lot is – and I don’t mean surprised because they’ve heard me say that I like the band, but surprised meaning because it’s a very difficult record to listen to – is Yes’s record Tales From Topographic Oceans. I’ve listened to it so many times.
But then there are really simple records, really straight up simple, pretty vocal records – Beverly Kenny Sings with Johnny Smith. Julie Is Her Name, ya know, Julie London’s record I’ve listened hundreds of times. A lot of R&B records that I’ve listened to hundreds of times. And there are lots of jazz records, especially some Stan Getz pieces that I put on and I listen to over and over, and a lot of vocal records, especially vocal records with a broad range. Mostly Anita O’Day and Peggy Lee.
You used that track from Stan Getz’s Focus record on the Buffalo 66 soundtrack.
That’s an unbelievable track.
The whole album is great.
It’s unbelievablely good. Eddie Sauter is so phenomenal. His compositions are phenomenal. And Getz in his best moments is the greatest of all time, of anybody, period. As a musician, the way that he’s able to connect musically is just unbelievable.
And that tone. That wonderful tone he’s got too.
And that’s a reflection of something in him and his musical vocabulary is really thoughtful and deep, and yet easy.
This might seem like a really silly question, but say if you had to choose between music and film, do you think you could pick one?
My father used to lock me in the basement as punishment. I’d have to come home from school and I’d be locked in the basement until dinnertime, and then locked in the basement until bedtime, meaning confined. I was punished to the basement. I can find creativity and peace and joy and hope and love in everything that I’m doing.
So if you told me for the rest of my life to make a living to support myself I had to clean kitchens, I would be happy and I would do it in the most beautiful, thoughtful way possible, which I had done for five years of my life in the past. If you told me I was confined to only express myself through music, or only express myself through film, I could continue finding ways to express myself.
If you told me that I had to choose, I wouldn’t know how to answer that question because I would only think about survival. I think in more basic ways. I’m not caught up in self worth, so I wouldn’t make either choice. I would do neither. I would worry about being healthy and growing as a person. Doing music or doing film from some other expression or some other desire or some other need, so it doesn’t feel like a choice in a way that you describe.
Are you going to have any visuals at the show?
I don’t know. I was thinking of filming all the shows on Super 8 film, but the people that I offered to come with me with cameras and sound, they just got so caught up in how much they were going to make every day. I mean, isn’t a couple hundred dollars a day enough to come on an adventure like that. I mean, they start talking about their day rate. And I’m just like, aw, forget it. So I don’t know.
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Now that I may be shifting gears and now filming, that I may come up with something, or Eric may, or Rebecca may. Really, this is a collective. This is not a Vincent Gallo project. This is very much a collaboration. Very much. I mean, this is the most integrated mental band that I’ve ever been in, and it’s the most integrated heart band, ya know, emotional and thoughtful band that I’ve ever been involved in. So we’ll see how we all feel.
How is this going to differ than, say, when you were jamming with Basquiat?
I was connecting with Jean on some esthetics and sensibility that was very provocative and engaging and exciting. But we were also caught up in a dark story reflecting a dark mood that was what we were putting out personally. So I think on some levels it confined us to a certain level of growth. And it our best moments of growth that band was one of the most phenomenal experiences of my life, but it felt like it hit a wall at a certain point that nobody collectively could transcend where we had peaked. I don’t feel that way with this band. I don’t see it that way ever. I don’t see us stuck in an old story, or confined by our own, ya know, stories of the past.
-- Jon Solomon