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Colin Stetson: Saxophone Player, Nerd, Coolest. Guy. Ever.

Colin Stetson, the indie rock king of the saxophone, has finally released his new album, History of Warfare Vol. 2: Judges and it’s indescribably good.

I realize that it’s my job to explain why it’s so incredible, but I felt that going to the source would be more efficient. Luckily, he and I met about a year ago at Cincinnati’s Music Now Festival, a 3-day concert series hosted by the members of The National in order to Promote Contemporary Music in the city… which is necessary. So I contacted Colin for a Nerdist exclusive. He’s played with literally all of my favorite bands including –but not limited to –Bon Iver, LCD Soundsystem, The National, Arcade Fire, and TV on the Radio. So I knew he was cool but I had no idea how perfectly he’d fit into the Nerdist community, especially once we got on the topic of comic books, dungeons and dragons… oh, and, yeah, music.

Growing up on Hendrix and the Beatles, Stetson took the nontraditional route to make music without all the “gunk,” discovering the saxophone’s true minutia. This definitely shines through in Volume 2. “Things are fully formed. I spent 2 years in between the records refining the way I play and becoming more efficient at the act of playing.” A very satisfying feeling, I’m sure.

His craft is definitely characterized by his physically grueling compositions. The act of playing has never seemed as challenging as it does in a Colin Stetson song. He has to blow REALLY hard for a REALLY long time into this REALLY big saxophone, and it looks exhausting. So after watching him live, I vowed that if I ever interviewed him, I would ask him the notorious cliché, “So, do you work out?” He explained that because of the way plays the instrument, he must constantly practice. “I always make sure that if I’m playing a show that lasts an hour, I need to practice for at least 2 hours. But these days, I make sure I’m practicing even more than that, so it rounds off to about 4 hours of playing to make sure I’m tip-top and to keep things evolving.” He must REALLY like music.

Sometimes, this physicality surfaces throughout the album. In songs like “Red Horse”, and “Clothed In The Skin Of The Dead,” you can hear the deep breaths needed for Stetson to keep from passing out. “We didn’t use the breathing mic for everything. I like to have the breathing element in play. I like to have it boosted simply because its human. Breathing is just another signifier that it’s alive.” A very refreshing outlook on music. He continues, “I really wanted to pick up and isolate every sound that’s happening and then make our choices later so we can figure out a hierarchy of what the sounds will be in the final mix.” In an age where everything sounds so fake and manufactured, Stetson is focused on keeping his music “alive.”

There is a story being told in this album; It’s a very cinematic piece. Stetson doesn’t see these songs as “stand-alone;” they each tell a different piece of the story. “Something like ‘Red Horse’ is really aggressive and confident, and at that point in the arc… without getting too specific with this ridiculous narrative I have floating around in my head… it’s just a point in which we’ve already sunk down to our lowest, and that is when a conscious decision is made to rally. For instance, when we get to ‘Dream of Water,’ there is that sense of forward momentum and the sound is mixed more clearly. Everything down to the nitty gritty, it’s calculated.”

I tried nudging him more about this story. It sounded so interesting and so different than your typical pop-album. He may or may not have revealed his future plans of releasing a graphic novel based on the images he’s created in these compositions. In this part of the conversation, I think there was a good long silence. I remember thinking, “This is the coolest man in the world.  I’m not allowed to hold him to it, but if you ever run into him on the street, I think some peer pressure for this comic book is warranted. We then wove between topics, including his adolescent love of Dungeons and Dragons, revealing that, yes, he is indeed a “Sci-Fi kid” but has also “gotten down to some ‘Party In The USA.'” He owns a deluxe box-set of The Lord Of The Rings and has friends in the video game development community.

Colin Stetson, thank you for being so awesome. Nerdist welcomes you with open arms.

Download “A History Of Warfare Vol. 2: Judges” NOW and see him tour with Bon Iver later this year!!!

Image: Constellation

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  1. Lee Benningfield says:

    I love experimental saxophone music. Anyone who plays the bass sax is practically a demigod in my eyes. Thanks for sharing this.

    For those of you who don’t do iTunes, here are some alternate links:
    Amazon MP3: