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Colin Stetson on collaborating with Arcade Fire, Tom Waits, Bon Iver and more

Andrea Warner

Saxophonist (and multi-instrumentalist) Colin Stetson is an accomplished solo artist who loves avant-jazz, free jazz and improv — all on the same stage if possible, as evidenced on his new live EP, Stones, with Mats Gustafsson.

But Stetson also loves to collaborate, and has made himself something of a second home in indie rock and experimental folk outfits. Over the last decade, he’s become the common denominator for a wildly diverse array of musicians who’d probably never even end up on the same Girl Talk record. (Somewhere, I hope, Gregg Gillis is reading this, revving up the laptop and saying, "Challenge accepted!")

Below, Stetson walks us through some of the most standout collaborations of his career, starting with the day Tom Waits called and woke him up, 12 years ago. 

Tom Waits

"About exactly 12 years ago, I woke up on my couch to a phone call from him. For me at that point in my life and career, I had very truly moved to San Francisco because I knew he lived in the area and wanted to, at some day in my life, work with him. I figured if I got close that I would increase the chances of that. And it was just a couple years of living there that chance found me.

"It really was for me one of those defining moments where something happens that you assign monumental meaning to. That meaning for me was that I was doing the right thing, that I was where I was supposed to be, and gave me hope and really drove me to meet that challenge. At that point when you’re faced with a dream-come-true scenario, when you’re given that thing you wanted, it’s like, here, this is what you wanted, don’t blow it. It could have easily gone in the other direction, he might not have liked any of the stuff I brought that day [laughs] and I could be a completely different person.

"But working with him was satisfying on just about every level. Musically it was profound to play that music and be a part of the things that had been so instrumental in making me a musician. As a learning experience, he was very much a mentor: just watching him and his direction and the way he would set up the situations for us to make music were unique and I took a lot from those days in the studio and have extrapolated it all to all these different levels in my own composition, the way that I approach recording and performance."

Sinéad O’Connor

"I performed with her for one show that was probably the weirdest band I’ve ever been in, but also just outstanding. It was for a thing called the Jammies, which I didn’t know existed beforehand, but really does. The Grammys for reggae bands. I was playing a lot with Antibalas at that point and the horn section got invited to be part of this band.

"The band was going to be Medeski, Martin, Wood as the rhythm section, the horn section from Antibalas and then Sinéad O’Connor and Burning Spear heading the group. It was one of those ‘wow’ moments where everyone was so excited. It was both the weirdest band that ever was, but also so great! And to watch both of them perform and to be able to back them up — I’d always been a huge Sinéad fan growing up and to see her do her thing was really phenomenal. Her voice is incredible."

Bon Iver

"That was through [the National’s] Bryce Dessner. He was doing Dark was the Night and they were doing a performance of that at Radio City Music Hall and he invited me to come and play and I was playing with Dave Sitek’s band, David Byrne’s band, but when I got there, I was coming on the stage right as Justin was getting off the stage and Bryce said, ‘Oh, you guys have to meet because you should play together.’ So we met and I remember Justin had this splotch of deer blood on his jeans and I said to myself, ‘That guy’s f--kin’ rad.'’'

Bell Orchestre

"I met Sarah [Neufeld] and Richie [Parry, a member of both Bell Orchestre and Arcade Fire, along with Neufeld] in New York and Antibalas was playing at the same show that our booking agent put together. Antibalas was headlining and Bell Orchestre was playing, which was the other band Sarah and Richie were playing in..."

Arcade Fire

"...We ended up hanging out and Sarah and I started dating and eventually throughout that year, I had come up to Montreal multiple times and was starting to record for Neon Bible [Arcade Fire's second album] and met everybody in the band that way and by the beginning of 2007, I was in the band."

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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