The Interview: 

Clayton Thomas: Keeping in touch with optimism

Words Brittney Mikrut
Image Clayton Thomas

In honour of all the work our curators have done to give artists an event to showcase their creativity, we sat down with Clayton Thomas to learn about him, his experiences and what he has done to help extend the stage to those who want to be heard.

The NOW now is a semi-regular festival of experimental and improvised music held at 107. The next concert will be on March 14th, featuring Christina Wheeler, Hani Abdile, Melanie Eden and Clayton himself.

Curators Play: Ecstasy is on March 16 & 17. It features live performances from AñA Wojak, The Fundamentalist Bass Orchestra, Sydney performance collective Whip It, Ruby Biscuit and more.

For a little background:

I’ve lived a weird split life where I started my professional life as a writer and went straight into working in advertising. At 24 I started playing bass. It’s pretty rare to start that late and make it into something that takes you around the world, but it was the thing I’d do and get to make money doing it. Now I’m back in Australia working as a writer again, not in advertising, but working for charities and non-for profit organizations.

Why did you decide to take up the bass?

I saw a gig in New York, Sunny Murray Trio with Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker, then decided that night that it was what I was going to do. I got a bass the next day from my friend Dave Reboi and started having lessons with Wilber Morris the week after. And then I just wood shredded for months at a time in New York and started doing shows the following year, which turned into doing festivals the year after that.

When did Europe fall into all this?

I think 2001. I met Peter Kowald, one of the most revolutionary double bass players of creative music in the world and I was having lessons with him in New York. We became friends and he invited me to his home in Germany. I wanted to go to Berlin because Tony Buck was there, as well as other various musicians that I love. So I went there with Clare, who I started the NOW now with, then went back there on tour in 2004 and fell in love with Berlin. That is very easy to do because it’s—I mean it must be really annoying for Australians to hear the idea that Berlin is so fucking amazing, but it’s just so accessible and so many people are able to commit to their life vision, and it’s just so exciting to see that. And it’s relaxed and cheap. It was a radical city with really bad coffee. So that’s how Europe turned up, and then I moved there with Clare in 2007 and lived there for 8 years.

What was your typical day like in Europe?

I had a really fucking phenomenal experience. It’s one of those cliché things were I just played all day. I could easily have two to three rehearsals a day then go play a show—and I did that for years.

It was through doing that that suddenly it turned into festivals and touring. So the typical day then shifted into living on a train and going 17 hours to a gig then playing 2 hours and being that touring musician and a low-key one.

It’s such a weird independent life as a bass player, its very organic. You’re traveling by yourself a lot. My life was going in between bands. You’d have two to three shows with one group then everyone else would go off to do their thing and you’d go on to the next group. Improvised music, unlike most other performance acts, is a really independent thing where there’s this big community that’s porous and you move through that, constantly building new combinations. I’d easily have a hundred bands in a year.

You seem to always be starting festivals, how did that come about?

Well I started the NOW now, which was a concert series here for a year before it wove into what it is now. Then in New York I started another concert series, as well as in Berlin. It’s just part of what independent musicians do, you just have to make the things happen that you want to see happen. It’s not like a giant sort of resource or capital rich object – this is a community object and your job is to find the space, work out how to get something to the people and get an audience there. It’s not like we are dealing with giant issues, we’re dealing with issues of quality and community. That’s kind of what is happening at 107. It’s so lovely for us, that this space is available, accessible and they love what we do. It has really humanistic aesthetic targets. It’s trying to represent a relatively unspoken voice in the city, which is really beautiful.

You once described The Now now as a festival for “outsider” music. Can you expand on that?

For everyone that doesn’t have anywhere to speak, we allow that somehow. The NOW now festival has changed every year. It started off really as a purely improvised music festival, which is essentially the weird Frankenstein child of jazz and contemporary European music. But then that was also a beacon, a little flame, to everything else – like outside punk, people who do DIY electronics, those who don’t otherwise play music in a strict sense that allows them to work in other idioms. People came to the gigs going “oh what are you going to play” and suddenly the whole thing opens up and you’re working with dancers and with songwriters and pop poets and people who have an interest in what improvised music stands for politically.

Now for one of your many “claims to fame.” Tell us about the world record you set for the longest double bass solo, played in the grounds of MONA in Tasmania.

24 hours straight. The longest bass solo—it was also the longest solo concert in history of that kind of thing. It was just a whole experience that no one else really has ever had, which is pretty amazing. I guess outside of ritual things, it’s just the kind of thing we don’t do. Western musicians don’t do that shit; that’s what was beautiful about it. I don’t consider myself a Western musician. I consider myself as a musician in the universe. That was an experience where I felt so connected to, somehow, weirdly, the rotation of the planet. That was fundraising for the festival.

The festival doesn’t get any funding—we haven’t applied for it in the past two years. Funding is an interesting issue. It’s like, do you want to ask money from a government that spends money on concentration camps, for example. It’s a really complicated subject. So I was like, this year’s festival is coming up and I’ve two months. Then basically in a half hour I conceived and started the fundraiser, and within five days we raised the original target. It was just a moment when an idea had its own energy.

What do you hope people get out of the NOW now festival?

A sense of alternative opportunity and options to what the world is throwing down our throats. Even in the world of music, I’m not sure that we really realize the impact of the quantification of what music is in our lives. What does it sound like when you put on the radio? What does it mean? What does it do to our perceptions? And it’s so limited these days and in Australia we have so many limits on what exists in the live music context. If the NOW now can represent anything, it’s to give voice and opportunity to people.

And Curators Play?

I think the Curators Play series is amazing in terms of what it has done. What we the Curators have developed is a platform—what’s our subject, how do we speak about it and how do our communities respond to the idea of the subject? This time the subject is Ecstasy, which is such a great broad thing. It’s nice to have a creative space, a place where people know they can come and do really exactly what they want to do, and not be in an environment where they have to compromise that. That’s what I hope and what I know they get. They get to come and feel supported by an audience; that’s my primary thing with the festival and the series. It’s a place to come in and present 100% of what you want to do. Hopefully it’s a fresh experience from that side of view and from the audience’s point of view.

Final thoughts?

I want to stay in touch with incredibly optimistic acts and the act of being optimistic and improvised music is my best way to do that. It’s to go—what’s the potential of this moment? You have to be fucking optimistic to engage in that. Then, therefore, hopefully it spreads.

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