Lin Culbertson

Tom Surgal

I just decided to up and interview Lin Culbertson and Tom Surgal of White Out because when their Red Shift CD came out back in 1997, I bought it due to Ecstatic Peace / Forced Exposure hype and I was NOT disappointed. Of course it inevitably got relatively shelved, but I just pulled it back out and it's been in my player for days on end all over again. The opening title track was always my favorite, this 20-minute low-level crop-duster that just pitters and patters and gracefully swims along, brought to several authoritative points by Ms. Culbertson's incredible analog synth playing and space voice, brilliantly buoyed throughout by the drumming of Tom Surgal (the only other full-time member of White Out) and David Nuss from the No-Neck Blues Band. I've also got White Out's Drunken Little Mass album, with Jim O'Rourke as the third member instead of David Nuss, and it's pretty top-notch as well. Anyway, back in '97 or '98, when I was deep in the throes of "Red Shift," I had a few beers one night and I decided I would use my newly installed "e-mail" capabilities to try and e-mail some "celebrities." The first two that I e-mailed, in that random internet kind of way, were Terence McKenna (he wrote back) and . . . . Lin Culbertson. She wrote back too, and with all this listening I've been doing lately, I figured what the hey, I should e-mail her again and ask White Out to do an interview for BLASTITUDE!!!!

How did White Out form and what has your career as a band been like?

LIN: White Out came about by kismet. I acquired an analog Pro-One synth and just started experimenting with Tom one day. We recorded the jam and played it for a bunch of people. Our approach seemed very fresh at that time — a stripped down unit of synth and drums playing improv in the free tradition.

TOM: Well, basically, Lin and I had been living together for years, we were both playing with other people, so it was just inevitable that we would ultimately end up playing together. I hate to categorize what we do as a band as career. We’re not that mercenary in our intent. If you are asking me to comment on the experience of playing in White Out, that’s another matter. I would just say that I derive infinite pleasure from performing with this band. To be able to play out and record with musicians of such high musical caliber as Lin and Jim is nothing short of ecstasy.

Where are you from? How did you get into music? What inspired you to stay in music? How did you meet?

LIN: I am originally from Madison Wisconsin. I was introduced to music at the age of 6 through piano lessons. I guess it took, as I have been playing keyboards ever since. Music is sustenance for me. I can’t imagine not playing or writing music in some context. Tom and I met a long time ago at CBGBs. I think it was a Big Black show.

TOM: I am from Manhattan, New York. I didn’t get into music, music got into me. I grew up in the cultural epicenter of the world, music was everywhere, it permeated my being. Music is a gift, it’s its own greatest reward, I stay in it because I love to play and I love my band. My bosom buddy musician/actor friend Richard Edson (Sonic Youth, Konk, Stranger Than Paradise, etc.) introduced Lin to me in front of CBGBs at a Big Black show.

For Lin: Where does that jamming synth style come from? How did you come to incorporate the synth and sing over it?

LIN: I have been experimenting with free improvisation since I was a teenager. Listening to albums by The Soft Machine, Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy, and other jazz musicians sparked my interest. I realized that there was an exciting potential to free music and it really appealed to me. Brian Eno in his Roxy Music incarnation and Suicide were also major inspirations. My style derives from turning on the power and then just letting it rip. I don’t consciously think about what I am doing. I guess that’s the point. You want to get to a place of not thinking. The singing just sort of escapes my vocal chords. All of a sudden, I notice I’m singing. It is a natural progression within the improvisation.

What was it like working with David Nuss on the Red Shift album?

TOM: That was cool. David was this speed metal transplant kid from Texas, when I first met him. He was really into expanding his musical horizons. He was just getting into doing improv. He brought a lot of enthusiasm to the proceedings. He was an artistic convert, excited by the possibilities of this new avenue of creative expression, which lent that record a kind of raw, unbridled quality.

LIN: Fun. Playing with two drummers creates a lot of energy to move through. I play percussively, and usually connect with the drums when I am improvising, so having double drums was exhilarating.

What was it like working with Jim O'Rourke on the Drunken Little Mass album?

LIN: A totally different energy, delicate and introspective. Jim is a very sensitive improviser who really listens and reacts in an unexpected and original way. It’s a blast to play with him.

TOM: Working with Jim was awesome. We really hardly knew him at the time of that recording. I had done a show with Thurston and him previously, and was really struck by the sympathetic nature of his playing. “Drunken Little Mass” will always be of great sentimental and artistic value to us, because it marks the first time that White Out and Jim ever played together, and of course we’ve been playing and recording together ever since. In addition to that, Jim has subsequently relocated to New York, and has become one of our favorite people and a close and valued friend.

Those are really the only two releases I know of yours, and that's over a six-year period. Are there any 'lost albums' out there? Any vinyl?

LIN: We are on a compilation curated by Elliott Sharp and released by the Electronic Music Foundation called “State of the Union”. We are on an anti-Bush compilation by Passive Aggressive Records that should be released soon.

TOM: Well, we have a new album coming out. It’s a collaboration with Jim and classical percussionist William Winant, which I regard as our apotheosis to date. As far as the dearth of White Out material, I don’t know man, you gotta play out for a while, establish your sound, and build an audience before you put something out. Plus there’s the obvious budgetary constraints. Yeah we’ve done a couple of other tracks for some compilations. No unfortunately there is no vinyl, because of economic necessity we’ve been forced into the digital realm, the medium of Satan.

For Lin, How about Quasi Sutro? Did you ever put anything out besides that cassette on Freedom From? For Tom, any items in your discography besides the White Out and various projects with Thurston Moore? Do you play in any other situations?

LIN: Quasi Sutro seems to work very slowly. There is a fair amount of material right now, so maybe there will be another release soon. I have played in many, many bands in the past, but most of the material is out of print.

TOM: Well, I played with Rudolph Grey and the Blue Humans for many years. In the course of that band I collaborated with Charles Gayle, Arthur Doyle, and Wilbur Morris among others. That particular union sired at least 2 albums and some singles. I also played on a Lydia Lunch record and some other stuff that doesn’t leap to mind. I play in many other situations, but it is always in the context of White Out. White Out is by inherent nature a cooperative that revolves around the core nucleus of Lin and me. Frequent other collaborators include Jim, Thurston, Mike Watt, and Nels Cline.

What interests do you have outside of music?

TOM: I am a filmmaker and that interests me greatly. Although I don’t really perceive film as existing outside of music, for me they are inexorably intertwined. I have directed a variety of music videos for bands like The Blues Explosion, Gary Young, and Pavement. My latest effort is a Dogma inspired video for Sonic Youth, in which I employ actors to portray a fictitious band on tour, arguing in a van, with Sonic Youth on the radio.

LIN: I have too many interests demanding my attention. I take photographs and recently have started making some experimental videos. I also do illustration and graphic design for dosh.

I always like to ask this (you can leave some blank): Last 5 records listened to, last 5 movies watched, last 5 books or magazines read.

Listed in chronological not qualitative order.

Nick Drake “Pink Moon”
2. Matmos “The Civil War”
3. Excepter “KA”
4. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan “Master Musician of India”
5. Xenakis “La légende d’Er”

Y Tu Mama Tambien dir. Alfonso Cuaron
2. My Life Without Me dir. Isabel Coixet
3. Dirty Pretty Things dir. Stephen Frears
4. Les Destinées dir. Olivier Assayas
5. Aberdeen dir. Hans Petter Moland

1. Issue Magazine #7
2. “Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism” Daniel Pinchbeck
3 . “Welcome to the Desert of the Real” Slavoj Zizek
4. “City of Night” John Rechy
5. “Idoru” William Gibson

It’s all too much of a continuum. I can’t remember any specific order, here are some salient recent samplings.

Ulrich Gumpert Workshop “Echos Von Karolinenhof”
2. Todd Dockstader “Quartermass”
3. Cheikha Remitti “Ghir El Baroud”
4. David Stoughton “Transformer”
5. Gal Costa “Cantar”

Later August Early Spring dir. Olivier Assayas
2. Orphans dir. Peter Mullan
3. Innocence dir. Paul Cox
4. Te Amo dir. Sergio Castilla
5. Aberdeen dir. Hans Petter Moland

“Sermons and Soda Water” John O’Hara
2. “Love with a Few Hairs” Mohammed Mrabet
3. “West of Rome” John Fante
4. “An Unspeakable Betrayal” Luis Bunuel
5. “Kicking” Leslie Dick

Plans for the future, announcements for the present, strategies for getting Bush out of office, anything else you'd like to say?

LIN: I am ready to help the opposition mobilize for any candidate who has a chance of defeating George W. I am numb from the constant attempts by the Bush administration to dismantle our current social and environmental programs. Then there is the insanity of the Iraq War... For White Out, a new recording has been completed and we plan on playing a lot more shows in the near future.

TOM: I mentioned our new album, and there has been some talk about us touring more extensively, but you know man, we’re improvisers, we never plan on anything. Bush is a war criminal who should be dealt with accordingly. DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. I’ve probably said too much already, I should just shut the fuck up and let the music speak for itself.