Working Without a Net

In late 1998, when he was last interviewed for this column, Terry Callier was prepared to lose his fifth record deal in four decades as Polygram, the parent company of Verve Records, was gobbled up by Universal Music Group. But though he was wary, he was not worried. He’d learned the hard way how fickle the music business could be, and despite the excited advice of friends and family, upon signing to Verve he’d kept his longtime job as a computer programmer at the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center.

But while many artists did indeed get their walking papers after Universal finished digesting Polygram, Callier was spared. He also received an unexpected windfall in November of that year, when Dru Hill’s Enter the Dru–which contained a cover of “The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind),” written by Callier for the Dells in 1971 while he was employed by Jerry Butler’s Songwriters Workshop–debuted at number two on the Billboard 200. It has since sold 2.1 million copies, according to SoundScan. “That was a pleasant surprise,” he says. “It upped my tax bracket more than I cared for, but you have to take the blessings where you can.” He was grateful for it soon enough: in February 1999, after 15 years of service, he lost his day job in a “downsizing.”

With his newly plentiful free time, he finished recording his second album for the label, Lifetime, which was released in Europe in October. He toured there in the fall, playing 20 dates in 30 days and racking up effusive praise in the European press. But in the U.S., the album’s release was delayed by five months–it just came out here on Verve’s Blue Thumb imprint–and the idiosyncratic, intense fusion of folk, soul, and jazz Callier pioneered in the 1960s continues to confound the people who are supposed to sell it. “Even when I recorded for Chess Records people would tell me, ‘Cut a soul album, or cut a jazz album, or cut a rock album, or cut an R & B album, or cut a country album, if you want, but just do one kind of music so we can market it in the correct slot,'” says Callier. “But the music doesn’t formulate in that way for me. You always hear that so-and-so’s music is a mixture of folk, jazz, R & B, and gospel and then when you listen to it you don’t hear that at all. But I think my music is a combination of everything I’ve heard.”

All those threads are tied together by Callier’s seductive singing. Lifetime ranges from the brisk soul of “Nobody but Yourself” to the lilting reggae of “Comin’ Up From Babylon” to the pop gospel of “I Don’t Want to See Myself (Without You).” “4 Miles” is a hard-swinging tribute to Miles Davis; “Love Can Do” is a torchy duet with Beth Orton; and “Fix the Blame,” which he had to argue Verve into keeping, is a seething folkie rant about Americans’ lack of accountability. In a typical twist, that song has already charted on adult album alternative radio.

Callier actually has two new records out right now–the local Premonition label, which has released several other archival recordings by him, has just put out Live at Mother Blues, 1964, an excellent Chicago coffeehouse date recorded prior to his debut on Prestige. His immediate plans include touring the U.S. (he’s been on the road for nearly a month already) and then a return to Europe, but he says he’s also considering taking some computer programming courses, getting back up to speed, and applying for another job. “I’m glad it’s an option I have,” he says, “because the music business is pretty iffy.”

Callier celebrates the release of Lifetime on Saturday with a concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

Trombone Transformer

When a friend notified Nicolas Collins about a faculty opening in the School of the Art Institute’s sound department, he kidded Collins that he might even be able to play his trombone with the AACM if he came. In fact Collins, 45, can’t play the trombone to save his life, but by jury-rigging one to house an elaborate electronics setup he designed in the late 80s, he’s become associated with the instrument. His trombone is basically a processor, with inputs for other instruments and electronics. He uses a small keyboard to control the signal, and a speaker attached to the mouthpiece directs the sound into the horn so he can manipulate it further using the slide.

Before sampling became commonplace in pop and jazz, Collins was using this Rube Goldbergian contraption to collect and wildly transform sounds from downtown improvisers like Tom Cora, Christian Marclay, Ned Rothenberg, John Zorn, and Zeena Parkins. As early as 1992, on his It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (Trace Elements), he was also working with skipping CDs; on “Still (After) Lives,” from the recent Sound Without Picture (Periplum), he assembles a small orchestra to mimic defective disc sounds using acoustic instruments.

For most of the last seven years Collins and his family (he’s married with two kids) had lived in Amsterdam and Berlin. While in Germany he collaborated with Markus Popp, who’s done more than anyone to promote the compact disc glitch as musical building block, remixing a track by his group Microstoria and performing with him and Jim O’Rourke in a piece that was staged across three separate buildings. During his four years in the Netherlands, Collins served a term as a director of STEIM (the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music), one of the world’s most important centers for experimental electronic music. But what he really wanted was a steady job, so when the Art Institute position came open, he jumped on it. “I had one of those mild-level midcareer crises where I wondered if I wanted to be a freelance composer, which is basically what I’d been for the previous 20 years,” says Collins. “Do I want to do this until the day I drop? I thought that a job might be an appropriate career move.” He moved last summer, buying a house in River Forest–“This is the next exotic port of call for us, suburban America,” he says–and began teaching in the fall.

Although he recently played a bit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in conjunction with its 20th-century-architecture exhibit, his gig this Wednesday at the Empty Bottle will be his first real concert since moving here. He’ll perform with Robert Poss, an old New York collaborator whom indie rockers may remember from Band of Susans. On Collins’s recent A Host, of Golden Daffodils (Plate Lunch) he and guitarist Peter Cusack trade licks, with Collins inventively processing Cusack’s string sounds. Poss is a very different guitarist from Cusack–noisier, dronier–but expect the same basic process.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sam Harris.