On compilation album To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1 you can hear the wear and tear in Alabaster dePlume's saxophone. The damage his favorite instrument sustained during a tour makes it impossible for the British artist, jazz musician, poet and activist to play certain notes. These broken tones characterize one of the most impressive, emotionally naked releases of 2020. Tones that – despite their battered state – make words superfluous. Even though dePlume's previous album Corner Of The Sphere relied heavily on the power of the spoken word.
Written by: Jasper Willems
Photos: Chris Almeida
Alabaster dePlume does not do superficial formalities. From the moment we have contact via Skype, he doesn’t hold back. His motto "Have you been looking after yourself?" comes up early. With deliberate intensity, he immediately disrupts the rigid division of roles between interviewer and interviewee. Disrupting just to be able to disrupt is not for him, however. dePlume wants to stimulate as much as possible and gain inspiration from its discussion partners. That requires committed two-way traffic.
"People force the idea that we only decorate things with our work. That is a dangerous thought. We do not 'decorate' the world at all. We have a responsibility."
For someone accustomed to the role of the questioner, this interaction feels somewhat unfamiliar. Whether you make music with him or exchange words, hiding is not an option with Alabaster dePlume. “What do people need?” he asks at one point out of the blue, speaking from his mother's home in Manchester. I feel my head shifting swiftly. Out of a sort of half-panic, I utter the word “love”. For some reason I told him about an interview I once had with Jenny Hval, who said at the time that love and romance are held hostage by capitalism and Hollywood. That limited image may blind people to a "higher" form of love. I shrug my shoulders in shame that I dare to take a position within our conversation. That is normally not my role.
DePlume reassures me: “No, no, that was beautiful. I ask these kinds of questions so that I can think for myself. That's my job. A question doesn't think of itself, see what I mean? I like to ask questions. To artists, or to people who are involved with art in a certain way. Sometimes we forget that we do things for people. We forget that we are all responsible for what is happening in the world right now. People force the idea that we only decorate things with our work, just to pass our time. At first, I thought it was tragic that people view our work that way. Now I don't think it's tragic anymore. Now I see it as an attack. As aggression. It's a dangerous thought. We don't "decorate" the world at all. We have a certain responsibility. Hence the question: 'What do people need?'. I loved that you answered my question with 'love'. Personally, I think of the word 'courage'. The main ingredient of courage is fear. You cannot summon courage without fear. The next time you feel fear, say to yourself, “Now I have everything I need to be brave.”
DePlume says he was encouraged by a friend a few years ago to go to a Russian sauna with her. He reacted fiercely at first. “I had never been to a sauna before. I was mentally unwell at the time. I was afraid I would hurt myself. Of course I don't want to go to the sauna! Then I thought to myself: why am I so afraid to go to a sauna?, and I decided to go anyway. I felt saved. And I found myself returning to my own body. At the time I was so ravaged by my own thoughts, my fear and my spirituality. I realized that those things were suffering because I wasn't present in my own body. I acted as if I had no body.”
Was the fear that dePlume was feeling because of the awkward situation that presented itself or something more hidden? “I cannot give a simple answer to that question. I didn't want people to see my body: it had to do with things that happened long ago, choices I made and actually still make. I ran from myself. I think many decisions are made from this mindset. It actually influences our behavior on a daily basis.”
What role does the stage name Alabaster dePlume play in this? “A stage name is just nice to have. It allows you to fully explore and magnify certain feelings. If something happens onstage that makes me unhappy, at least I can say: 'That wasn't Angus Fairbank, that was Alabaster dePlume. I can blame that bastard.'
Fun as activism
Alabaster DePlume. That name in itself already has a kind of musical cadence. You imagine a kind of court jester from Wales as Robert Graves could have described in his book The White Goddess. A peddler of the folkloric word. His flamboyant appearance makes it happen somehow. However, it turns out the actual origin of the name is somewhat less imaginative. “I was walking along Brook Street in Manchester when I was 17 in the middle of the night. A car drove past me at a very impressive speed. Two guys leaned out the window and quickly shared their thoughts about me, and in particular, my clothes. They just had little time to share everything with me, because they drove by so quickly. All I heard was noise. That noise sounded like 'Alabaster dePlume'. I personally couldn't argue with that.”
Alabaster dePlume draws heavily from these kinds of random incidents. Whether it's words or music, almost everything he releases comes from interactions that aren't thought through or logical in nature, but rather emotional. Expressing what you feel at that moment, whether it is a primal scream of happiness or an improvisation, has a right to exist in his work. While still living in Manchester, dePlume worked for the charity Ordinary Lifestyles, a non-profit organization that supports people with mental or social disabilities. Here he meets Cy Lewis and Lee "Shredder" Bowman, two friends with whom he hangs out a lot. Together they do vocal exercises, improvisations and activities with only one goal: simply because it feels good to be able to express yourself without a filter. “We were in a circle of sometimes thirty people. In the middle there’s the person with the hat. Hold the hat in the air and the group gets rowdy; hold it down and people whisper. Point at someone and the rest of the group stops. You can do so much with people who express themselves freely. It's an energy and mentality that I want to bring out clearly in my music.”
When people express pleasure or happiness, they are often too unrestrained to think about it: often those moments are too banal or chaotic to tie a rope to them. Those are exactly the situations in which dePlume switches on recorder of his telephone. “I remember when 'Song Of The Foundling' originated in the car. I was driving and we then started to sing freely without thinking what exactly we wanted to sing. It was pure pleasure. Later you listen back to those moments and you think: 'Gosh, I can write some chords to this, or come up with a countermelody. You are, as it were, sampling your own fun.”
The recordings that dePlume kept on his phone were the inspiration for the sessions he organized in London. He devised situations in which the music could come into its own as pure and uninhibited as possible. For example, he linked musicians with diverse backgrounds and playing levels; sometimes with an audience, sometimes in seclusion. Some of the material that appeared on dePlume's debut Peach was recorded in a gigantic dining room; participants were allowed to throw all kinds of funny instructions into the opulence. If someone thought the music should sound like you had a big hangover, the rest of the players embraced it wholeheartedly.
“By playing with a new company every time you challenge yourself again and again. I'm a little bit addicted to it."
Although DePlume is the designated band leader, his playing is not exactly leading. Rather the opposite: his saxophone sounds vulnerable, like a voice bursting with emotion. The players improvise without one dominating the other, as if they are trying to keep a sputtering campfire alive together. dePlume's artist biography describes this way of making music as a form of activism; the collective over the individual. But actually this work has no concrete agenda: it is warm, open-minded and unbiased, and therefore sometimes a bit uncomfortable. Titles like 'If You're Sure You Want To', 'What's Missing' and 'Whiskey Story Time' feel like snippets of a very intimate personal conversation that you pick up by chance. You just don't dare to get involved, because otherwise you disrupt the whole vibe. That also explains why dePlume personally dedicates the record to Cy and Lee.
“It is an expression of courage and stubbornness, childishness and fun. And, in a sense, politics too. That feeling is exactly what I want to convey,” he says. “It's inspiring to me when people first meet in music. A bit like Sun Ra Arkestra did: linking more famous players with a great track record to less seasoned musicians who are active within a small circuit. Both can learn something from each other. I have a very playful mission.”
Design the vibe
Five years ago, dePlume joined the Total Refreshment Centre, a cultural incubator and studio space in London's Dalston, frequented by artists such as Shabaka Hutchings, Moses Boyd and Snapped Ankles. “I was relatively new there,” he recalls. “When I organized my release show for Peach, I was barely familiar with the space and the people who were active at Total Refreshment Center. I wasn't even sure if the show would turn out well, but I put a lot of love and energy into it. Fortunately, it went very well, and I entered the community of Total Refreshment Center. They asked me if I could do a show like this every month. At first I thought that was stupid: why would I want to put on the same kind of show every month? I'm not a concert promoter, I'm a musician.”
By inviting a new line-up to the Total Refreshment Center every month, dePlume kills two birds with one stone. “By booking a new company every time you challenge yourself again and again. In doing so, you ensure that you get to know new people at a rapid pace. It transformed my whole situation.” Constantly playing with different line-ups is something dePlume has been doing ever since. "I'm a little bit addicted to it." In the meantime, he has developed a very special and specific system for live shows. He is eagerly looking for a binder in which he keeps the various playing rosters. These rosters look a bit like that of a football coach who determines the playing positions.
“The top two are shows in Sheffield and Manchester, right behind each other. You see the names of all available musicians and how they relate to each other. Some have been crossed - that means they can't make it that day. Musicians who may have been circled and thus booked. You see certain names connected by lines. You know, I think about a lot of different factors when I draw these diagrams.” Suddenly dePlume interrupts his explanation with another pressing question. “What kind of factors do you think I mean?”
On the one hand, I think of pragmatic things like proximity, playing style and diversity. But some aspects are impossible to quantify: the chemistry between certain musicians, for example, the intuition and energy that a certain group of individuals can evoke in a space. That remains something of a mystery. DePlume nods gently. “The factor I'd like to promote here – my favorite – is the fact that these musicians have never met. I've never seen them play together. I always like to experience that. There is always a certain spark when you don't know someone and you suddenly have a reason to learn that person. You feel each other on the spot. That creates a specific vibe. It also means that people who participate will one day create beautiful things on their own in the future. I see it as my job to bring people together.”
Don't live in fear
To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1 was initially intended as an in-between release as he diligently works on the follow-up to his second album The Corner of the Sphere. That turned out a little different. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver got so moved by opening track "Visit Croatia" that he sampled it for his track "PDLIF (Please Don't Live In Fear)" - a title that echoes Plume's career so far.
Why does this music, most of it recorded five years ago for Peach, now suddenly reach a wider audience? Is it partly related to the current trend? Artists such as Angel Bat Dawid, Shabaka Hutchings, Jaimie Branch and Irreversible Entanglements make modern jazz music with a certain urgency and individualism, just like dePlume. Maybe half a decade ago they weren't ready for a record like Peach? Or maybe it's something essential: the world is now so disorganized and fragmented that it's quite easy to drown in fear and pessimism. Perhaps the tenor behind To Cy & Lee forms a kind of beacon of comfort: a diverse group of musicians who know how to find each other – despite all the disruptors and flaws.
DePlume doesn't really know why his music suddenly catches on. He says that for the first time he is really involved with the music industry. Now that the touring has ended, he can suddenly focus on publishing deals, lawyers, agents and grants. He experiences this new interest as bittersweet. “I was terrified to release To Cy & Lee. And this is what I'd like to communicate to the reader of this piece: I thought it wasn't okay to get a lot of the material out of the dust. Who is this wanker putting out his music a second time? When I made this music I was not encouraged by anyone. Nobody asked me to do this. In the period that I started this, hardly anyone listened to me. I think this is super important to emphasize: the music we have all made is the reason why this article exists. Some of the people reading this story are creators. And maybe they're thinking exactly what I was thinking: "I don't know if the world is waiting for this." Some are waiting for someone else's permission. Trust me, no one will give you permission. The people who did give me permission weren't even that happy that I made Peach. Eight years later I released a compilation with the same shit. Now they suddenly find it delightful! But you have to realize that this music was shelved for a long time. I hope people get inspiration from that. I have invested so much money and effort in an activity that sometimes felt like pouring a carton of sugar into a very large lake.”
Has he ever thought about giving up?
"Are you crazy? Well, sometimes I think: what the hell is wrong with me? The need to do this remains. As long as I keep looking for my fear, I don't have to hide anymore. That's why I say: make your awesome shit. You don't need permission for anything."
Of course Alabaster dePlume gives me one last phrase. “Thank you for living in this traumatic time.”
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.