Name: Josh Werner
Occupation: Bassist, composer, producer, songwriter.
Current release: Josh Werner's Mode for Titan is out now on M.O.D. Reloaded.
Recommendations: Alice Coltrane, Turiya Sings; Denis Johnson, Train Dreams
If you enjoyed this interview with Josh Werner, visit his Instagram profile for current updates.
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?
I started writing and producing music in 1994, I was really into dub and and jazz, so I started an instrumental band called the Peacemakers.
I was attracted to the spiritual power of dub, and the intellectual style of hard bop. I wanted to learn the language, to be a part of the conversation, and live the life of a real musician. Some of my influences at that time were Andrew Hill, A Tribe called Quest, Bunny Wailer, King Tubby, Neil Young, Portishead, Massive Attack and D’angelo.
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?
I just strove to understand how my favorite players got their sound. I would learn the songs note by note, copy the inflections, and feel how much space was in between the notes. Flabba Holt, Robbie Shakespeare, Richard Davis, Paul Jackson and Paul Chambers were all players that I learned from.
Production wise I was really into the Hip Hop movement, especially Pete Rock, DJ Premier and the Bomb Squad. As I was learning the bass I started making beats on an Akai MPC 2000XL, sampling records and making beats was a real education at that time. It took perseverance curiosity and technique. Slowly I combined the hip hop production with the dub and jazz styles and techniques, it took some time.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I believe we all have to filter things through our own lens to feel our truth, and we all have that unique creative insight naturally built in. I’ve never wanted to follow anyone else’s norm. I guess that same feeling is in everything I create for myself. I have to feel it on a very deep spiritual level before I can believe in it.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
In the beginning the challenge was about mastering the instrument, and learning the language. There is so much magic in that journey of discovery, but after that period of instant magic ends you’ve got to decide how deep into the art you want to go, because it becomes work which you have to unconditionally love.
My main challenge these days creativity wise is having the physical and mental space to construct what I’d like to create, choosing a project, and obtaining a budget to share the work on a proper scale.
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?
My first bass was an inexpensive one, (G&L L-1000). It was one of Leo Fenders last bass guitar designs, and sort of a forgotten piece. I loved it. I played it for 20 years, I felt like Miyamoto Musashi with a wooden sword, going into battle against better armed opponents. I played that bass so much my thumb is perfectly indented in the side, like a stone carving. That bass was my symbol and reminder that less is more.
I use both analog and digital gear for my recordings. Some of the essential gear I’ve owned through the years would be my Tascam 4 track, Roland Space Echo 555, Logic pro with Laptop computer, Akai MPC 2000XL drum machine, Kawai SX-240 synth and various other drum machines tape machines and mixing boards.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Musicians have certainly profoundly changed me, but never technology. I’m resistant to any gear which would shape my ears the way nature or other artists would.
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?
These (pandemic) days people send me music every week to play on, and its fun to shape the songs early, I prefer if there is less ornamentation and orchestration on the song, so I can shape from the bottom up.
Improvising in person with other humans is the ultimate way to collaborate. Playing free music with no pre composed songs, no chord charts, no safety net is the pinnacle of musical expression for me at this point, and no technology can ever catch up to that freedom of expression.
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?
A fixed schedule is very hard for me, but on my average day not on tour, I’ll start with a strong cup of coffee, maybe play some soccer, eat a big lunch, and start my day with a recording session, or writing and producing some music. After that I’ll have a break, and then paint in my studio. If I have gigs in the city, I’ll learn that nights music, eat some dinner, and go play the show until late. After the show I’ll grab a cab home and watch New York City fly on by.
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 current solo work, Mode for Titan has been an important milestone for me, I’ve had a this all record in mind for years, and always wanted Bill Laswell to be a part of it. It's special because Laswell has been a guide and collaborator for years, and he has given me an opportunity to express myself as a solo artist, painter, songwriter and producer.
The motivation behind it was creating an all bass sonic landscape that reflects the compositional side of the instrument, and the side of me that has something to say which only the bass can convey. The cover art is a painting of mine as well, and its very much a part of the overall conversation.
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?
If I always keep the door open to my creativity, give it precedent, and let it have an important place in my psyche, it can flow consistently. Distractions are always popping up but can actually help me get my mind off tasks that might be bogging me down. Apathy can lead me down some narrow paths as well but its also gold if I get to the bottom of its source.
I try and make music everyday in some way, paint something every day as well, even when its just an exercise, I’ve always got to stay limber for when the inspiration arrives.
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?
Music has always been a healing force, Jimi Hendrix, Milford Graves, Alice Coltrane all successfully reached for it. I’d like to see a new trend of music healing and education, with this new generation at the forefront.
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 do not believe that any music or visual element is off limits to other artists, but if someone is stealing it or disrespecting someone's culture they should be called out, and a larger discussion should occur.
I came up in the 80’s when creating outrage was part of being punk, people liked the kind of music they knew pissed other people off. Nowadays the extreme insensitivity aspect is outdated and rightfully so, but maintaining a bit of balance is key. I like the discussion out front honest, with justice in mind, but I don’t like to see artistic censorship in any form.
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?
Imagination is the engine for creativity, and your senses can aid in the vision, if you close your eyes on the subway, your ears can compose some industrial avant hip hop, if you stare at the ocean with ear plugs you can write a movie score. Focusing on my senses individually helps me get in better touch with them.
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?
If you see your truth as an artist, and decide to live that truth, you are most likely taking a role that is against the flow of society. My truth has been empathic and communicative with others. My approach has been to connect with a unique variety artists who have a truth to share, especially if we are from different worlds. I like to find our common thread, and then express it in my own voice.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music has an infinite vocabulary, so all worlds are explorable, life, death and in between. Words are limited by language, culture and era. Music has the potential to be free from all of that.