Go West, Loud Man
Weasel Walter has been a splinter lodged beneath the fingernail of a generally peaceable and cooperative Chicago music scene for more than a decade. Through countless lineup changes and radical shifts in musical style, his main band, the Flying Luttenbachers, has upheld a trademark aggression that Walter has often carried offstage as well. “I had that youthful self-righteousness where it’s like, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to do what I want to do,'” he says. “‘If people don’t agree with me, they’re wrong, and I’m going to tell them what the deal is, and if they don’t listen I’m going to smack them in the face.’ I was pretty hellish and I burned a lot of bridges early on.”
Soon Walter will have a chance to burn new ones–in February he’s relocating to San Francisco. It’s a good time to make the move. Nationally, his profile is high: he’s become a key player in the movement he jokingly dubs “brutal prog.” Bands like Lightning Bolt, Orthrelm, Black Dice, and the Locust have begun to combine metal, prog, noise, and improvisation much as the Luttenbachers have done for years. And Walter’s traveling light these days–bassists Jonathan Hischke and Alex Perkolup, his accomplices on the most recent Luttenbachers album, Infection and Decline (Troubleman Unlimited), are gone. (Perkolup quit; Hischke was kicked out.) Walter is touring through February as a solo act, a chancy proposition. “I’m willing to take the risk of sucking,” he says, “because without doing that there’s no progression. I’ve fallen flat on my face quite a few times, but I really don’t care. It’s research and development.”
Walter moved to Chicago in 1990 from Rockford, intent on becoming a “firebrand on the free-jazz scene.” As a kid he was obsessed with all types of extreme music–punk rock, free jazz, contemporary classical–but though he played drums in a few hardcore bands, he found few musicians his age willing or able to accompany him on his more avant-garde flights, so he experimented alone. “I have boxes of tapes of me doing teenage Captain Beefheart covers, terrible lo-fi free-jazz recordings,” he says. “I played with Cecil Taylor in my bedroom.” He wanted to move to New York, birthplace of the late-70s no-wave and 60s free-jazz scenes he’d long romanticized; his parents wanted him to pick a college. When Walter discovered that Hal Russell–the multi-instrumentalist whose NRG Ensemble laid the foundation for the ongoing Chicago free-jazz renaissance, with line-ups that included Ken Vandermark, Kent Kessler, and Mars Williams–was on the faculty at Columbia College, compromise became acceptable. At school, Walter formed the original Flying Luttenbachers with Russell and saxophonist Chad Organ–the name of the band is a reference to Russell’s real surname.
Russell quit the band in the summer of 1992, and Walter reinvented the Luttenbachers as a rock-driven free-jazz group; the roster eventually included Vandermark, trombonist Jeb Bishop, and future Cheer-Accident guitarist Dylan Posa. Walter also began making connections on the burgeoning Wicker Park underground rock scene–some of the bands were dissonant, some punkish, some cabaret tinged, but all were united by their disregard for accessibility. The Luttenbachers began playing regularly with the likes of Trenchmouth, the Scissor Girls, and Quintron at now defunct venues like Milk of Burgundy and Czar Bar; Walter dubbed this circle the Chicago no-wave scene. The Monday-night free-improv series he launched at Myopic Books became an incubator for the city’s thriving free-music scene, giving musicians their first performing opportunities and bringing together players from disparate scenes to improvise. Jim O’Rourke, Jeb Bishop, and Sue Anne Zollinger were among the series’s earliest participants.
“There was an economic setting where the scene could happen, because people were only paying $125 for rent,” says Walter. But within a few years that scene crumbled; the cost of living rose, musicians left town, and Walter disbanded the Luttenbachers because they had become too “slick.”
He unveiled a much darker edition of the band in 1995. “My music turned gravely morbid in the mid-90s,” he says. “The boisterous, obnoxious guy who would ramble on between songs had disappeared. It was like, ‘I mean fucking business.’ From ’96 on, my music was about pushing the audience through the wall, beating them into submission. I was frustrated with everything: I was starving, everyone I knew was getting more recognition than I was, my scene was gone, my support system was gone, I was totally poor, I wasn’t getting written about, my records weren’t getting heard, and I was on the outs with the improvised-music scene. It was like war.” In keeping with Walter’s mood, the new band concocted a strange amalgam of black metal and free jazz that was violent, complex, and loud.
Walter dissolved the group again a few years later. He credits his need to constantly shift personnel to his own creative stubbornness. “I would love Flying Luttenbachers to be a democracy, where everyone pulls their own weight and contributes equally,” he says, “but I guess I’m so forceful about what I’m doing that I naturally take the lead. My bands usually break up when I feel there is an impasse, where this combination of people can’t push it further. I’m a really hard boss, but the only way to get these results is pushing things beyond the comfort zone.”
The Luttenbachers were reborn in the spring of 1998 as a free-jazz ensemble that included bassist Kurt Johnson, reedist Michael Colligan, and, briefly, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. Trauma (released on Walter’s own UgExplode imprint) captures that group’s sound–though no electric instruments are used, the improvisations are performed with a suffocating intensity and velocity. Walter pulled the plug on that incarnation in 2000 and began fashioning the tightly composed sound heard on this year’s Infection and Decline–though heavier than ever, it shifts between difficult time signatures with startling precision. On the current tour he’s playing bass over preprogrammed backing tracks. Walter predicts that the next phase of the Flying Luttenbachers will be more orchestral, using MIDI software.
Walter hopes that San Francisco’s vibrant scene, home to both no-wavish combos like Erase Errata and confrontational noise maven John Dwyer of Pink and Brown, will help nurture this new musical phase. “I’ve wanted to get out of here for a long time, but I never really found a place where I felt, ‘Oh, this is where I should be,'” he says. “Right now I feel like the creative energy for what I’m interested in is there. I think I’m more well received there. It’s a new context. I’m willing to go where the love is. I’m not doing this to be alienated. I’m doing this to communicate with people.”
The Flying Luttenbachers play the Fireside Bowl on November 8.
A story in Red Streak about the murder of Jam Master Jay referred to the ground-breaking DJ for Run-DMC as a “rapper.” That mistake has been popping up in news reports worldwide, but you’d expect a tabloid determined to capture the coveted 18-34 demo to be familiar with some basic hip-hop terms. As one reader wrote in to us: “I thought Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff cleared up any possible confusion in differentiating between a DJ and a rapper in 1988 with their album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.