The abstract vigor of Tashi Dorji and Tyler Damon

The improvisational guitar-drums duo plays September 15 at Arts + Literature Laboratory.

Photo by Julia Dratel.

Photo by Julia Dratel.

Guitarist Tashi Dorji and drummer Tyler Damon, who will play together on September 15 at Arts + Literature Laboratory,  both work in an improvised-music world where picking up new collaborators on the fly is routine. What's unusual, though, is how quickly their work together has become a central focus, and how reliably each seems to inspire fierce, dynamic playing from the other. They first played together in March of 2015, but have already collaborated on several releases and toured together extensively.

The 2016 album Both Will Escape captures the duo's first time playing together in a studio, and it's completely improvised. Dorji, best known for his intricate and contemplative solo-acoustic work, plays electric guitar here, veering between eerie, clanging texture and distorted sheets of sound. On the tracks "Two Rabbits" and "Gate Left Open," Dorji has a way of making melodies emerge from chaos. Damon's playing throughout creates space and suspense—he keeps the closing track, "Kudzu Weave," tumbling ahead with a touch that's as explosive as it is delicate.

The duo's live sets together can be just as volatile and abrasive as Both Will Escape, and sometimes more so, but not at the expense of curiosity or emotional interchange. Since they began working together, Damon and Dorji have put out two live recordings as a duo. They also collaborated with Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen on the August release To The Animal Kingdom, and Damon joins Manas, Dorji's collaboration with drummer Thom Nguyen, on another recent release, III. They are already sifting through additional live and studio recordings in hopes of releasing another duo album this December.

Both players are serial collaborators and still have a lot going on outside their work together. Damon is gradually working on a new solo release. He played on Chicago project Circuit Des Yeux's upcoming album Reaching For Indigo, and will join the band on tour later this fall. Dorji's plans for the fall include collaborations with James Jackson Toth of Wooden Wand, guitarist Bill Nace, and composer Annie Lewandowski. Damon, who lives in Bloomington, Indiana, and Dorji, who lives in Asheville, North Carolina, spoke with me in separate conversations before beginning their current tour. They discussed why their collaboration has become so intensive in such a short time, and how they distance the intensity of their music from aggression.

Tone Madison: Tyler, you and Tashi have only been playing together for a couple of years, but you're already spending a lot of time touring and recording together. Does it usually take you longer to get that invested in a collaboration?

Tyler Damon: It depends on how well I think the collaboration has gone and how well the other person does, I suppose, or also just availability. It definitely seems weird to the extent that Tashi and I play together as much as we do, because Asheville is about eight hours from Bloomington, but it seems worthwhile to make the effort to make that work. The first person to really bring me into this world, a bass player from the St. Louis area named Darin Gray, Darin and I haven't had the opportunity to play to much together since November of 2015, but he definitely served as kind of a mentor figure to me. He was my introduction to doing a lot more pronounced improvising. Before that I was playing in different types of bands that weren't as rooted in free improvisation. We were probably improvising on some level, but it was maybe more rock-oriented or formalist in a certain regard.

Tone Madison: You mostly started out playing in punk bands, right?

Tyler Damon: Yeah, all sorts of stuff. I was also really into metal when I was a teenager, and I've played in some indie-rock kind of bands over the years and I've played on different friends' records. Bloomington is kind of small in a certain way where there are some kind of scene distinctions that you could make, but more often than not they cross-pollinate and we just end up with everybody playing in 10 bands or whatever. I'm sure Madison is probably similar in that regard.

Tone Madison: When you started getting more into improvised music, was it a natural thing for you to incorporate some of the intensity of rock drumming into that world?

Tyler Damon: Yeah, but a lot of that intensity, I think, also comes from some training I had in drum corps as a teenager. Playing in marching bands definitely has taught me how to play really intensely and really loud, so if it wasn't punk and rock music or metal, it was marching band that really brought that out of me, I think. And also, when I was being taught jazz playing, or at least the limited education I have in that world, I was always taught this really light approach, which to me now reads more as dynamics. But at the time I was hearing these drummers like Art Blakey and Elvin Jones who were obviously immensely talented, totally killer drummers, and playing very intensely, but that's not the way I was being taught to play [jazz]. I would say it really could have come from any of those places, but yeah, rock music definitely had its influence on me in that way. But I don't ever want it to come across as aggressive or macho. I'm so not into that, which is why I probably have all but quit listening to metal and most punk music. Obviously these days there's a lot of trends away from this hyper-masculine and macho attitude in those musics, but by and large the aggression aspect doesn't interest me. But I do like the intensity.

Tone Madison: It's an interesting time right now, because there's still a lot of great rock music being made, but it definitely isn't a dominant force anymore and that's kind of...totally fine.

Tyler Damon: So much of what I had heard, let's say I was a teenager and I was playing in one of the first bands I ever played in when I was 14 or 15 years old and we're playing some covers and things like that, and then you find out that these people who are touted as rock heroes are actually just, like, horrible people—people that you would never want to model yourself after at all. That's a really complicated thing in art in general, but definitely the rock archetype, the rock star, the older I got and the more I got into politics and things like that, I veered away from those attitudes really strongly, just because I don't believe in that at all. But I like the energy, you know?

Tone Madison: The music you're making with Tashi now obviously has a lot of intensity to it, so where is that coming from?

Tyler Damon: I should probably make some sort of distinction there...I think both of us, on some level, are experiencing the same sort of daily rage that a lot of people are experiencing right now in this country because of the prevalence of fascism that's being revealed. I am perfectly comfortable with that sort of showing through in our music in an abstract way. That is a rage I'm comfortable with, that's an anger I'm comfortable with, but in no way am I seeking to highlight more patriarchal notions of those things. The distinction I'm making is between this very stereotypical masculine hardcore kind of energy—even though I liked plenty of that music when I was younger, but I just never identified with a lot of that message, so it's cool to be able to hijack the vibe of it or whatever and turn it on its head into something that I think is more positive. Something that's affirming and ecstatic more than just rage.

Tone Madison: In the course of playing together over the last couple of years, how do you think your musical relationship with Tashi has evolved?

Tyler Damon: I really feel as if our music is quite democratic, for lack of a better word. I've never felt like anything Tashi is doing is stepping on what I'm doing or vice versa. It just comes together really naturally and we don't have to talk about it too much. Maybe occasionally we'll talk about exploring some sort of more abstract notion in our music or talk about something else that we like—"let's try that thing," or "maybe we'll start with this sort of energy tonight"—but try to keep it in an abstract realm that is still sort of rooted in that spirit of improvisation. That's always been present from the beginning, because we both had an idea of where the other one was coming from based on whatever other associations we have or our solo work.

I kind of feel like we're just honing in on this thing that we do together. It's hard for me to imagine playing in any other way in Tashi. It really just comes out of me and I've never had such an intense emotional experiences on tour with regards to the music I'm playing, because we push each other really hard when we're playing, and it kind of does enter some sort of meditative zone where by the end of it the amount of energy that may have been expended, I'm not always prepared for it. I've definitely had moments on tour where I start crying near the end of tour. It's not because I'm sad and it's not because I'm overcome with joy either, it's more of just like this emotional release that I'm having. I can't really explain it beyond that. It feels like it just has to come out. I'm kind of addicted to playing with Tashi because I feel so creatively satisfied in that moment. It's exactly what I want to be doing. I'm interested in all sorts of other things creatively, but it feels really nice to occupy that space.

Tone Madison: Tashi, how do you think the nature of your collaboration with Tyler has changed?

Tashi Dorji: The first meeting was purely unexpected, because we had never played together and I had barely heard any of Tyler's music, but I'd heard of him via the internet of something and I saw a post of him playing with Ken Vandermark. It was pretty dynamic when I first played with him. I think stylistically we have solidified or figured out how to play towards each other and with each other and against each other. Otherwise, I feel like it's still unpredictable, and it's still volatile and still kind of fresh in a lot of ways.

Tone Madison: And it's only been a couple years, but you've done a lot together in that time. How do you keep it fresh when you're playing together so often?

Tashi Dorji: I think it helps that we don't live in the same city. Tyler lives in Bloomington, I live in Asheville. We go on tour...but other than that we don't really see each other. Maybe twice or three times a year? It depends. I think he'll be touring more, and I have a bunch of other collaborative things that I do. And also, the kind of music we play, as an improviser, I think every time you play together, it's always different. I think keeping in mind the importance of keeping things radical, and keeping things changing and forward, intentionally, I think that helps. There's nothing stable with what we do musically. Everything is just kind of empty, or whatever Buddhistic term or zen-ish—every time we play together it's new and seems to be different. I think that energy's important, that both of us have a very positive and affirming and supportive energy to each other.

Tone Madison: A lot of your other work has been quieter and more minimal compared to what you're doing with Tyler. Were you deliberately looking for an opportunity to play in a different style or explore the electric guitar more?

Tashi Dorji: Yeah, I think so. I have played electric, especially when I'm touring, it's something that I play as much as acoustic. Acoustic was easier for me as far as doing solo releases and it's kind of a more intimate exploration and personal. So I put out a lot of solo LPs on acoustic for that reason, kind of documenting a sense of, I don't know, the personal through guitar. But I love playing electric, and with a drummer as dynamic and prolific and talented as Tyler, it just gives me more opportunity to explore further. And I want to play louder [laughs] and fast and crazy, and I think that's instigated by many different aspects of music and emotive and the political and cultural situation in the present times and the mood in general. I think there's an urgency for music that has that sense of—I wouldn't say anger, but vigor. And you know, I listen to a lot of everything, so punk rock is a heavy influence, and metal, and free jazz...I think that the stuff that I do with Tyler is kind of a convergence of a lot of those ideas.

Tone Madison: Tyler made the point that a lot of the music you're making together has that intensity to it, but he doesn't want it to be driven by macho aggression. Is that something you two have talked about a lot in the course of making music together?

Tashi Dorji: I think we're both non-dudes. I come from a pretty punk, anarchist background. [Tyler and I] are on the same plane. I don't think we have to communicate much as far as that, [though] I think we've conversed about things like that. It's a music of energy and radical healing. It's good to not play with that sense of identifying with bro-ness.

Tone Madison: Has playing with Tyler influenced your approach to your solo work or other collaborations?

Tashi Dorji: I am always working on new stuff, and I'm working on solo demo-ing, and certainly with Tyler, it's obviously a step further into playing differently and hearing different sounds and timbres. It's always exciting to play with Tyler because he's always improving, and it pushes me further. I think it does help. I can't say specifically in what ways, but it definitely helps.

Tone Madison: When you and Tyler tour together, how do you find the performances change over the course of the tour?

Tashi Dorji: It depends. Sometimes we do tend to have some ideas, at least, "OK, you want to start?" and I'll just let Tyler start. We usually have a break where Tyler solos or I solo, kind of in a traditional jazz style but mostly, no, we really don't have any clue as to what we're going to do. [Laughs] And I think that's the beauty of that music, just the elements of danger and surprise keep—that's why this music is radical to me. To me, it's political music. It has a punk element to it. We're going to be gone for two and a half or so weeks, so I think by the middle of it we'll have something solid that we play off each other, but that tends to go away and again, something new happens. It also depends on where we play sometimes and the people that are there—everything affects everything else.

Tone Madison: When you talk about the music being radical or political, what do you hope people can get out of it when it comes to the political moment that we're in?

Tashi Dorji: I think it's the idea that completely displacing people's comfort, and creating music that is challenging, and something that makes people uncomfortable, or makes people elevated—all of those, I think, are pretty political. We're not directly political but we make sure that we mention our stand in certain things. I think to create a space and to radicalize that space in the way you perceive, the way you listen to music, and the way you feel about music, I think that's a pretty radical act.