Name: Warren Walker
Occupation: Saxophonist, composer, improviser, producer
Current release: Warren Walker's (n)Traverse Vol.1 is out via Kyudo.
Recommendations: Dawn of Midi-”Dysnomia”; Notes and Tones by Arthur Taylor.
If you enjoyed this interview with Warren Walker and would like to find our more about his work, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram, bandcamp, and Facebook.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
My Dad was a musician so I was always immersed in music in some shape or form. I took a few piano lessons when I was about 6 or so and then started playing saxophone at age 9 in my middle school wind band. The first song I wrote was on guitar in my early teens as I started a punk band and have been writing/producing music ever since.
My earliest influences were Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers, and George Benson. Pretty much just what was on rotation in my household growing up. Then my Dad gave me John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and that pretty much changed everything for me.
Playing music for me was just a way to spend more time with my dad in the beginning.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
It all started out with just picking up whatever instrument was lying around the house. I didn’t really know anything when I first started out and then my parents decided it was time to get me lessons of some sort.
In my teenage years I was playing in the public school wind bands, Jazz Band, Marching Band, a Swing Dance band (I was the youngest member by about 50 years) and bands I started with my friends. I was just absorbing and enjoying everything.
Then I went to University of Nevada, Reno to study Saxophone and had the pleasure of studying with some incredible musicians notably, David Ake, Peter Epstein, Hans Halt, Andy Heglund, and Francis Vanek, who really pushed all of us to find our own voice.
I then made my way to Europe in 2004. I was busking a lot to cover expenses and this is where I started to really dig deep into what I wanted to say musically as I was just playing solo saxophone hours and hours on the street night and day. Then I moved to Melbourne, Australia in 2005 for a year and made my first “Jazz” album under the band name NeoSenoi.
Then I landed in Shanghai, China for about 7 months playing jazz in an upscale jazz club 6 nights a week doing 3 sets a night and quickly learned what I didn't want to do musically. Finally, I moved back to Paris in 2007 and started making more records.
The process of finding my own voice is still an ongoing one to this day.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I have never really put much thought or energy into this. I’ve always just made music that I want to hear. My goal is to make honest music with intention and just enjoy the process of creating.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
In the beginning it was mostly just about self doubt and always worrying about if people thought it was cool or not.
Now as I'm older I just try to pull my ego out of everything I do. Which still to this day remains a challenge as I’ve always been a very self-conscious person.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I started out on piano and then got into guitar and saxophone.
When I was about 16 I started playing my saxophone through my dad's guitar effects pedals. This was a real landmark for me as it opened up a whole new world for me sonically. I suddenly didn't feel so constrained by the sound of the saxophone as I was always looking for a way to play chords on the saxophone somehow using delays, loopers, reverbs or whatever.
It wasn’t until much later that I started getting into synths. It started out first with the Critter and Guitari Pocket Piano that I was able to play at the same time as my saxophone just using the arpeggiator latch.
Then there was the Make Noise 0-Coast which blew my mind. That's where the floodgates opened. I started using these full time in my bands The Kandinsky Effect, and oddAtlas which then led me to doing solo performances with Sax, Synths, and Effects pedals. My first Coffee and Riffs episode was the first time I documented something solo and kind of lit the fire as well. Coffee and Riffs, Part Seventy (Warren Walker)
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Eurorack. The ability to build your instrument for your own personal needs and sounds is really amazing. It allowed me to look further into timbres and tonal palettes that I don't think you can find anywhere else. I know that everything you do in Eurorack can be done on a computer but the exploration side of modular synthesis is really fascinating as everything is at your fingertips and the limitations posed by them can really make for some amazing results.
If I had to name one module it would be Make Noise’s Morphagene. My latest album (n)Traverse Vol.1 was based entirely around this module.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
As primarily a jazz musician, jamming has always played an important role for me. This symbiotic relationship you develop with other musicians on stage and in the studio is such a wonderful experience.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
It always starts with coffee. No matter what. I'm a total coffee snob
(I even bring a hand grinder and beans on the road) and really enjoy the ritual of grinding my own coffee and making filter coffee. Then I usually grab my saxophone and work on basic technique stuff or turn on my Juno 106 and play some pretty chords depending on my mood.
I have the luxury of having my studio in my home so I just try to create something daily. One thing I always try to put into practice is if I start a new idea I try to finish it to a listenable piece no matter the length or complexity just so the initial idea stays intact. I ride bicycles alot and this always squeezes itself into my schedule.
For me life and music have always been intertwined. I would love to separate them more but it's very difficult when your life revolves around music. Being in nature has always been important to me so I try as much as possible to get outside to ride bikes, surf, skate, or snowboard. Then in turn I try to incorporate all of these experiences into my music
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
My group The Kandinsky Effect was the first real breakthrough. We’ve been playing together for 13 years now and the relationships I have developed with Gael Petrina (Bass), and Caleb Dolister (Drums) is something that I will always treasure musically. We’ve always just tried to explore what was possible in the sax trio format. Gael and I started writing tunes together in 2007 in Paris. EarthQuaker Session Ep. 5: The Kandinsky Effect - "Loops"
It's hard not to mention my most recent work (n)Traverse Vol.1 in this question as well. If there wasn't a worldwide pandemic Im not sure I ever would have had the time to make a record like this one. I started working on this record in April 2020 and it was released roughly a year later. During quarantine I didn't have a chance to go jam with my friends anymore so I started figuring out ways to play with them via the modular synth and the Morphagene module.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I just try to be creative in whatever I'm doing whether it be voicing choices, melodic developments, coffee recipes, cooking, or line choice on a trail or wave. I think our biggest distractions are our telephones and social media. As with all artists now we are really required to be present on social media in some way and I think with all of the notifications and live streams etc. it really takes us further and further away from being present in the creative moment.
I think the best way to enter into the creative state as with anything is just practice. Just try to be in the present moment as much as possible.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
When I look back there are albums that are just on an emotional timeline for me. We all have our albums that represent love or heartbreak or something in between.
I think we need to go back to intensive listening. I feel as if music is more of an afterthought now. The general public is listening to playlists and singles more often than entire albums and never really knowing who they’re listening to. If we can get back to a point where people just sit and listen to an album start to finish without picking up our phones or talking we might be able to cure ourselves of this insatiable need for stimulation.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I love music from all around the world and it all has had some impact on me musically. In a sense we are all just emulating different cultures and societies in today's world because we can literally access any type of music at any moment in the day. As long we are all just making music that we want to hear and not claiming ownership over a style or sound and not just trying to imitate.
Give credit when credit is due but follow your own intuition and make music for the joy of making music and I think we will be ok.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
For me the most interesting overlap is between color and shapes. Music represents certain colors and shapes and vice versa. Anthony Braxton has spoken a lot about this.
I’m currently in the process of looking into this more now as for my solo performances I will be using generative visuals and lighting. Check back soon…:)
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
As I stated before I’m just trying to make honest music with intention and to enjoy the process as much as possible. For me being an artist is just about this search and this constant need to look into the unknown only to find out it was always there but you just weren’t ready to hear it or understand it.
I'm still having trouble with the idea of calling myself an “artist”. I just do it because there isn't much else that I’d rather be doing.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Great question. I’m just here trying to tell my story in some fashion.