If you have any time for tense, startling improvisation, Both Will Escape (Family Vineyard) is 2016’s record to beat. Recorded in spring 2015, it captures the thrill of discovery as guitarist Tashi Dorji and drummer Tyler Damon play together in a studio for the first time—and for just the third time in any setting. Their sound is not without precedent: its jagged edges and unpredictable turns recall the drums-and-guitar duo of Han Bennink and Derek Bailey, and Dorji and Damon occasionally achieve a sandblasting intensity on par with that of Rudolph Grey’s Blue Humans. But if you’ve only heard Dorji’s mostly acoustic solo LPs, with their clarity and deft use of empty space, his fluent manipulation of feedback, loops, and volume will come as a revelation.
Dorji attributes the difference to circumstance. “Recording is very intimate for me, and acoustic guitar makes sense,” he says. “I am interested in the details of what I can do with the guitar, texturally speaking. Something about wood, resonance, strings, vibrations—I cannot get enough of it. I do not know if it was a conscious decision that we made about playing loud and heavy. When we play, it moves in and out from being loud to quiet. All I can say is that we let it happen—sort of a rhizomatic effect?”
The music’s intuitive ebb and flow testifies to an empathy between the players that’s founded on parallel experiences—which you might not expect a man born and raised in Bhutan to share with another who’s originally from Cincinnati. Each was drawn into a succession of musical subcultures after moving away to college, and each developed his identity as an improviser in a local scene far removed from the acknowledged centers of such activity.
“When I first came to the U.S.,” Dorji says, “my first live musical experiences were at local punk shows.” He moved to the States in 2000 to study philosophy and political science at Warren Wilson College near Asheville, North Carolina. “Witnessing these live shows was a complete life-changing experience for me. I had never seen such energy, anger, and laughter in music—it seemed like anything was possible and anyone could make music. The anarchistic nature of the music making and the collective ethos completely captivated me. That feeling of excitement and danger is why I still play music.”
Dorji’s contact with punk taught him the rudiments of DIY music production, but he didn’t discover what kind of music he wanted to play for another five years. That’s when he happened upon a concert by a local free-improv duo, which in turn led him to plunge into the recorded history of improv and free jazz via file-sharing websites. He became part of that community, playing shows at venues such as the now-defunct Asheville storefront Apothecary and self-releasing his music on cassette—his first label project, a self-titled LP on Hermit Hut Records, came out in 2014.
Damon, on the other hand, grew up in a rock ‘n’ roll household. “It’s mostly what my parents played around the house, although they are open to a variety of music and were always encouraging, especially as my listening habits changed and broadened,” he says. “They recognized my interest in music and completely enabled me to discover it for myself. At that age I was already fascinated with drumming and would build makeshift kits from things around the house and play along to recordings on headphones. I got my first real instrument around age nine or ten, a Pearl snare drum, and I was probably doing my best to play along to Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy.”
In school Damon played in the concert band and the drum corps, but much of his musical education came from skateboard videos. “I spent all of my money at record stores, went skateboarding, watched skate videos—many of those have a wealth of great music—and downloaded as much as possible. Just hearing so much, having my mind constantly blown. I don’t skateboard anymore because most of those injuries don’t jive with playing the drums, but I do feel like the improvisational nature of street skateboarding had an effect on the direction my playing went in as well, if only conceptually.”
After moving to Bloomington for college in 2005, Damon got a job in a record store. “Heath and Jason at Landlocked Music turned me on to Cold Bleak Heat and the Thing.” The former, a quartet of saxophonist Paul Flaherty, drummer Chris Corsano, trumpeter Greg Kelley, and bassist Matt Heyner, made two CDs for Family Vineyard in the mid-2000s; the latter, a trio of reedist Mats Gustafsson, bassist Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten, and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, still tours and records today.
Fandom turned into practice as Damon began playing around town and made connections with the likes of bassist Darin Gray, multi-instrumentalist Keith Jost, and Chicago-based reedist Mars Williams. “It was cool to find music that read as very intense, but not necessarily aggressive,” he says. “It was far more expressive than what I was accustomed to. Playing it felt intimidating and impenetrable at first, but I was privileged to receive a lot of encouragement from peers and elders alike. Playing improvised music was satisfying to me in a way that I hadn’t experienced before, a feeling that remains difficult to put into words.”
Damon and Dorji first played together in spring 2015, and they’ve released some of their earliest encounters on the tape Live at the Spot +1 (Astral Spirits) and on Both Will Escape. They’ve toured twice already in 2016, first in a trio with Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen and then with Asheville-based drummer Tom Nguyen, who has his own project with Dorji called Manas. The Dorji-Damon-Nguyen trio played in Chicago in July as part of the Astral Spirits Festival, but Dorji and Damon have yet to play here as a duo—this Friday’s concert at Elastic is their first visit. Local sound artist Jen Hill and electric jazz quintet Test Flight open.