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Destined: Will Guthrie

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Dusted profiles the promising Australian improviser Will Guthrie.

Destined: Will Guthrie

“Maybe my music is not incredibly unique or original, but it is always striving to be!” offers Will Guthrie. If Guthrie’s music isn’t “incredibly unique or original” yet, at least he's got a huge head start on most of his peers. At the age of twenty-six, he has already been involved with the Australian improvised music scene for ten years, and he’s created an impressive body of work built around droning, abrasive sounds created by percussion and electronics.

The beginnings of Guthrie’s musical career are familiar: “I started playing drums when I was about thirteen. My brother exposed me to his three favorite bands: Led Zeppelin, The Who and Pink Floyd.”

Soon, however, his interests took a hard left turn. “I became obsessed with modern jazz and free jazz. Looking back, I was really attracted to the complexity of jazz.” Guthrie studied privately with Graham Morgan, who played with the obscure ’70s fusion/prog act Jade Warrior, and with trombonist/flutist Adrian Sherriff. He also took lessons with Miles Davis' legendary drummer Tony Williams.

While Guthrie’s current interests may have grown from his studies of jazz, his recent music is, at best, tangentially connected to the jazz tradition. Even the instruments he uses are unusual: in addition to traditional drums, he plays junk and electronics, as well as homemade instruments created by Melbourne-based musician Rodney Cooper. “Rod makes beautiful instruments out of steel that use many springs and are often amplified by chambers. My last one was constructed on half of a 44 gallon drum.” Guthrie and Cooper are, it turns out, kindred spirits who have both spent lots of time exploring drains. “Most of [Cooper’s] instruments have that kind of sound and feel about them, the way objects sound underground with the natural reverb of the drains.”

Guthrie's recent projects (the solo Building Blocks, Bridges with Matthew Earle and Adam Süssman, and the 3” CD Hills Hoist with guitarist Greg Kingston) explore a noise-based aesthetic more abrasive than but not dissimilar to the recent work of Keith Rowe. All three were released on Antboy, a label run collectively by Guthrie, Earle, Süssman, and Kingston.

In addition to helping run Antboy, Guthrie also organizes concerts in Australia, and he helped establish a weekly improv showcase at the Make It Up Club in Melbourne. His biography claims that his efforts “focus on developing an original Australian improvised music identity, relevant to [its unique] environment and era.”

To Guthrie, Australia’s identity in the worldwide improv scene is still a work in progress: “Australia is still a relatively young country, and although there are many incredibly individual artists in experimental/improvised music and all other art forms, I don't know if I could say the Australian improvised music has its own sound in the same way you could say about Tokyo at the moment.”

But there are lots of signs of growth, Guthrie says, signs that include innovative local musicians such as Robbie Avenaim and Jim Denley, and the recent efforts to bring foreign improvisers to Australia. “There is a concert promoter who is bringing in many interesting musicians from overseas, [such as] Taku Sugimoto and Ami Yoshide, and often the What Is Music? Festival, and more recently the Now Now Festival [allow Australian audiences] to hear many great international acts.”

Still, Guthrie isn’t sure he’s going to stick around much longer. He’s currently in the midst of a lengthy tour, with stops in Japan, England, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. “I've spent twenty-six years living in Australia and I was getting a little frustrated. Basically, it felt like the right time for me to leave Australia for awhile. Maybe I'll stay in Europe, maybe not.”

Wherever he ends up, Guthrie will be in good company. On the tour, which he booked with the help of several Australian musicians, he had or will have performances with the likes of Tetuzi Akiyama in Tokyo, John Butcher and Chris Burn in London, and Maja Ratkje in Amsterdam. He’s carrying a small set-up, “just a mixer, some different microphones and a small bag of percussion and objects,” even though he’s not sure when he’ll return to Australia.

Whether he’s residing in Australia, Europe or Japan, though, Guthrie likely has many years of playing and organizing ahead of him. He’s a young player with lots of promise; whatever the newest developments in the next ten or fifteen years of improv are, it’s a good bet that Guthrie will be right in the middle of them.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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