Tashi Dorji is a riveting improviser, whether working alone or with kindred spirits like Mette Rasmussen or Tyler Damon, on electric or acoustic guitar. His playing has a violence to it that may reflect his musical past in punk rock, but also, intermittently, a liquid lyricism that suggests at least a passing acquaintance with blues, folk and even classical traditions. He, himself, shakes such considerations off, admitting that all the sounds he’s ever heard are in there somewhere, but if he stopped to think about them and where they came from, he wouldn’t be able to play at all.
Dorji’s music exists in the now, the exact moment when it leaves his fingers. Playing is, for him, a kind of spiritual practice, as necessary as eating and breathing and just as instinctual. His latest album, Stateless, was recorded in about an hour and a half, Dorji laying down track after track, pausing only to retune in idiosyncratic ways between bouts of playing.
Dorji was gracious in telling Aquarium Drunkard about his childhood in Bhutan, his introduction to American music via cassettes, his punk awakening and the Derek Bailey album that showed him the way towards free improvisation on his guitar. Yet, in many ways, our conversation reflects Dorji’s discomfort with verbalization and categories, as the artist continually pulled back from analyzing his work, saying that it’s as much about the physicality—or the way it feels to play the way he does—as anything else. | j kelly
AD: What do you mean by the title, Stateless. Were you thinking about the immigration crisis or maybe more on a personal level about having lived in so many places?
Tashi Dorji: Yeah, I think there are many different ways to approach the title. I was thinking more of the idea of looking at society without states. A stateless society.
AD: Would that be a good thing?
Tashi Dorji: Society without a state. Yes. I’m looking at it more from an anarchist’s perspective. The meaning is also about the way that I live. People that live in kind of a hybrid existence. Like kind of a liminality. The boundaries of state, for musicians, don’t make any sense. It’s kind of a fluid, horizontal idea.
AD: I was reading about your beginnings as a guitar player and it’s really a mix of what all kids do — which is learn to play from records — and some unique aspects like your family’s background in Bhutanese folk music. How did you process that as a young player? Did you reject your family’s music or did you like it and try to incorporate it or did you just try to keep it separate?
Tashi Dorji: I grew up in Bhutan. I grew up mostly in small towns, but in the rural traditional music is everywhere. The form of traditional music that I was really drawn to was the monastic music, which involved a lot of percussion.
It was always a separate thing, traditional music, I saw it more as the music of my mother’s generation. It definitely wasn’t something I wanted to learn when I was growing up. But I was interested in monastic music when I was growing up because it involved a lot of colors and costumes and masks. It’s different from the traditional folk music.
AD: I think most people aren’t that familiar with the music of Bhutan or with Bhutan itself. How would you describe it to an outsider?
Tashi Dorji: I can’t really speak for the tradition. It’s like Tibetan music. The traditional music has a lot of vocals, and it’s very minimal. There’s a lot of dances that involve singing. This is the folk music that the peasants and farmers sing. And then there’s the monastic music, which is more like a Tantric Buddhist music, with mask dances. A lot of it is just telling the Buddhist canon stories that are disseminated through all the forms of performances.
AD: Isn’t it almost impossible for foreigners to go to Bhutan?
Tashi Dorji: Not really. It’s very possible, but it’s expensive. I think there is a tariff that foreigners have to pay to get in. The government has tried to limit the tourism so that our culture is protected. The country is so small, our population is so small, that the people and the government are trying to maintain the culture. I think it was a smart move.
AD: It must have been a real culture shock for you to come to the United States for college. What was that like?
Tashi Dorji: I was always very inquisitive. I grew up in small cities. My dad worked for the government, and I was very much interested in Western music, meaning mostly American. Even though the stuff that I was getting was very mainstream, to me it seemed very foreign and amazing. These were cassettes, a lot of cassettes, stuff like that. So, I grew up listening to a lot of Western stuff, but nothing underground. I grew up listening to grunge and reading about American underground music through music journals.
AD: Tell me about getting into punk rock. It’s definitely not what you’re doing now, but I kind of hear it in the violence of the way you play sometimes. Do you think it’s still in there?
Tashi Dorji: Yeah yeah, totally. For me, it was one of the first openings into American underground music and my political aspirations. Going to shows in town and listening and getting blown away by the DIY underground — It really was influential. I think whatever I play, it’s implicated in so many things, even besides music.
It’s also movement, finger movements, and dynamics and timbre. That, obviously it comes from listening to a lot of different music. And heavy music is definitely something that’s always been impactful to me. Heavier music. I saw that in improvised music, Albert Ayler and artists like that, there was a heavy emotional that is definitely present in punk rock and in underground metal.
AD: I was thinking that in some ways your music is not so much about the notes as about the energy behind them. It’s not about melody. It’s about the sound that your hand makes on the strings and on the body of the guitar, that’s all part of it.
Tashi Dorji: Yeah, I’m not interested in musical aesthetics. I’m not creating a sense of aesthetics around how I play. It’s more about playing improvised music as a part of a lifestyle, kind of a practice. It’s such a part of my life as a human being. I breathe and live by playing this music. It’s how I view things in the world. My perspective is built upon it. I like the idea of that horizontalism, that non-hierarchical view of things, of spontaneity and unknowing. I don’t know if that makes sense.
AD: Can you talk a little bit more about horizontalism? What does that mean to you?
Tashi Dorji: That there are no directives or standards. What’s the word – rules – around how this should be played.
AD: Interesting. I’ve read that Derek Bailey’s Standards was a turning point for you. Can you tell me about that and what it was about that record?
Tashi Dorji: Yeah. Very much. When I started hearing free jazz, mostly improvised music, a lot of that music was oriented around a quartet of bass, sax, drums and maybe trumpet. When I discovered free jazz, I was trying to find out who plays free jazz guitar. Who else? And somebody had suggested Derek Bailey. I stumbled upon Derek Bailey’s Standards at a record store in Maine. It was in a pile of $5 bin CDs. And I bought the CD, and it was kind of this moment, you know. I listened to it and was, wow. It was pure beauty and an astonishing sound that I think I’ve always kind of wanted to hear. It really blew my mind. It literally opened me up to be interested in playing as a soloist.
AD: It seems like in some ways it would be easier to do free improv by yourself, but it would also be easy for it get stale if it’s just you. How do you feel about that? I know you’ve done a lot of collaboration. This one is just you by yourself. What’s the difference?
Tashi Dorji: I started playing improvised music on my own, because I was just trying to figure it out. I think there’s really no rule. It can be with everybody and anybody and nobody. I definitely love collaborating and it’s challenging. It’s one of the most challenging ways to navigate – playing with people with different instrumentations. To me, and this is just my personal, I don’t think there are hard and set rules as to who you play with. I’m fine playing alone. I love playing alone, but I love playing with people. Especially with percussionists. I really like percussion.
AD: What is it about percussion and guitar together that you like?
Tashi Dorji: I think it goes back to heavier music and punk rock and – maybe it goes back into my traditional, my cultural origins. The belonging that comes with – a lot of monastic music is percussive. There’s a lot of drums in my culture.
AD: The way that you play is very percussive.
Tashi Dorji: Timbres are really cool to discover.
AD: This current record is all acoustic guitar and I gather you had been playing electric for a while before this. What made you want to unplug?
Tashi Dorji: Actually, I started on acoustic mostly. There was a phase when I was putting out acoustic cassettes, maybe a couple of LPs, but I’ve always played electric guitar. Then I came back into playing. When I started collaborating and touring, it just made more sense to tour with an electric guitar. It was louder. It was that for the touring aspect. It was more a practical consideration. But as far as playing with drummers and other collaborators, it just made sense because I could play louder and we could hear each other.
AD: That makes sense. What was the mental backdrop to this material? Is there anything you were thinking about or working on or listening to that shaped how it came out?
Tashi Dorji: I guess it goes back to the anarchist, radical disruption, for my own self. Meditating on those ideas and trying to negotiate that through an acoustic guitar was difficult. It’ s more like those pedals on the floor were like for a punk band. I was just more in the frame of how can I have the same sense of fire through an acoustic guitar? But also navigating the danger of now, in the social and political situation. I recorded that album way before COVID hit. But now, it kind of almost makes sense, some of the titles, like “Statues Crumble…”
AD: I was thinking about that track in relation to the Black Lives Matter protests and tearing down all the confederate statues. Was that something you were thinking about? I know you’re in North Carolina which must have a few of those things around?
Tashi Dorji: I think I was thinking larger. Well maybe not larger. The title was more in the sense of the idea of insurrection and revolutionary potential and all this symbols of hegemony. That hegemonized symbols would disappear. The colony would be reclaimed. There were so many different ideas, so many different thoughts, but it definitely had political ideas. My physical tendency towards revolutionary thoughts.
AD: My friend Bill Meyer, whom I think you know, said that I should ask you about your ideas about the decolonization of jazz?
Tashi Dorji: He wanted me to answer that?
AD: He said you had some interesting thoughts on that.
Tashi Dorji: Well, to me, decolonization, I see that as a specifically an idea about indigenous reclamation. It’s more related to Native Americans reclaiming a lot of colonial imperatives. As far as jazz, that’s not my place because I don’t even play jazz. Jazz is a Black tradition.
AD: You could make an analogy to the Black traditions getting coopted by college professors.
Tashi Dorji: Totally…that’s already there. I think there are a lot of younger black music like Luke Stewart and Moor Mother doing jazz and not-jazz, with an intersection of that tradition, reclaiming and empowering themselves. That should happen and that needs to happen. And academia should be taken out of it. Not be taken out of jazz, but out of standardizing jazz towards selected ideas…I love jazz but I can’t speak for it.
AD: What would you call your music? Or do you just refuse to categorize it?
Tashi Dorji: It’s definitely improvised music. That’s the category. That’s just what it is. Improvisation to me, it’s a way of life, you know. I’m not even trying to make this sound all mystical.
AD: No, I get it. When people say, oh I’ve got a record of improvised acoustic guitar, it usually sounds very different from what you’re doing. It’s usually more of a Takoma kind of thing.
Tashi Dorji: I’m definitely not that. I don’t like categorization. Those are the symptoms of Western canonized music. That tradition of music that I’m not interested in. I move as far as possible away from it. And it’s a predominantly white male centered. There are plenty of white male guitar players.
AD: So, your music, I find it very agitated and dissonant. There’s a lot of very rapid strumming and unsettling, octave leaping note progressions. Does that reflect a state of mind for you? Or do you just like the way it sounds?
Tashi Dorji: In some ways, it’s a state of mind. It’s also shifting…I’m not technically accomplished. I just play. It’s pretty rough and crude. It’s a very physical way of playing. That’s how I started to approach music. That’s what I became more and more interested in. The physicality of the instrument. That obviously can be quiet and loud. I think right now, it’s a subjective thing. Politically, the situation—the way things are— I think it really definitely helps and leads to that tendency.
AD: But given that, sometimes just for a few seconds, I’ll hear something that sounds a little bit gentler, maybe influenced by folk or blues or even classical guitar playing. Are these part of your worldview? How do you see them fitting into what you’re doing now, if they do at all?
Tashi Dorji: Yeah. I played a little bit of the blues, and I do like classical music. I like all types of music. Those sounds come in from everything, every little sound you’ve touched before. They all become a larger sound palette. I’m not necessarily thinking about them. It’s purely just being there in the moment in a state of being. If I think about all of it, if I think about ideas in terms of styles, I don’t think I’d be able to play. I think I would be so confused.
I also think a lot of those things – it’s heavy or it’s a punk thing or even it’s like black metal – I think those are all intersecting and I try to free myself. I don’t know what I’m doing usually.
AD: You have this two part piece called “Now” which I think is interesting because it seems like your music is very much in the moment, exactly the moment when you’re playing. Is that what you mean by now? Or is it intended to be reflection on the larger world and now and what that means?
Tashi Dorji: Yeah, it is all that. It can have many different meanings, but I think now is the music in its immediacy, but also I think I was also thinking in terms of now as like the changes that need to happen now. Like everybody has to stand up and rise up.
AD: So, it’s a protest record. It doesn’t sound like one.
Tashi Dorji: I don’t like the term protest music. But yeah, it’s songs of rebellion. That’s the least I can do. I play music. I’m not an activist. I don’t organize.
AD: Per the recording process, were you improvising on the spot or did you have any ideas before you went in?
Tashi Dorji: All of my records are improvised, collaboration and solo. I recorded it with my friend Patrick Shiroishi. We just went into this studio space, and I recorded.
AD: How long did it take?
Tashi Dorji: It took maybe like an hour and a half or less. He rolled the tape, and I just played. I played in sections. I play like I’m playing a song. There’s kind of a method. I’ll play the first of whatever I’m doing, and then I’ll tune the guitar differently. Those are the ways I section off what I’m doing, just retune the guitar. The tunings are not specific. I just tune it with my ear to what feels like right for the next little bit.
AD: Interesting. I was wondering how things like key and time signature figured into your work, if they do at all. Do you think about those things or do they just not apply?
Tashi Dorji: There are definitely percussive aspects. There are moments of steady time, but I think about it in the moment when I’m playing, like this section here with certain loopy guitar finger picking or whatever, and I’m thinking of that moment, the immediacy, I do that. But then I kind of get distracted. It gets shattered.
AD: You have to blow it up. How does it sound to you now? Do you have a favorite bit of it?
Tashi Dorji: No, I haven’t listened to the record in a while. I have a hard time listening to my playing. When you record something, you just kind of like, okay, I have to start thinking about other sounds. I like the record. I hope people like it, too.
AD: How are you doing with the pandemic and the shutdown and all the stuff that’s going on? How’s that affecting your life and work?
Tashi Dorji: I can’t tour anymore, which is a bummer, because that’s how I make my income. Me and my family, we live in the country, about 30 minutes outside of Asheville in a cabin in the mountains. It’s really beautiful here. We’re really lucky.
AD: You don’t have much problem with social distancing.
Tashi Dorji: No because we’re on our own. We have people on the road, but we’re pretty isolated. We also have a community of friends around here, and it’s really great. There are trails all around.
AD: Do you have kids?
Tashi Dorji: I have three kids. Where you based?
AD: I live in Southern New Hampshire, which is also pretty wild and beautiful. It’s not a cabin. It’s more suburban than that. But I do really appreciate the fact that I have a yard and a garden that I can go out into when things get to be too anxious and depressing. I think it really helps to be outside.
AD: Are you working on anything else now? Going beyond this current record?
Tashi Dorji: Yes. I have a bunch of projects that I want to start working on. There’s a drummer from Switzerland named Julian Sartorius. We’ve talked about doing some quarantine trading. Trading files and playing over them. He’s a really amazing Swiss drummer. I really want to play with him. And me and Tyler Damon are thinking of working on some stuff, too. It seems though that, with the virus, things are getting worse. It’s kind of weird time.