On paper, the idea of combining cello, beatboxing, and guitar seems like an improbable mix, and maybe even a recipe for gimmicky disaster. And the members of Saltee know it: Terrell “Carnage” Woods, the trio’s breathtakingly inventive beatboxer, even jokes that “We should do a song called ‘Shouldn’t Work.’” But thanks to its formidable talent and improvisational skills, the group makes magic instead, weaving classical, hip-hop and Robert Fripp-style experimental rock with a dazzling musical alchemy. In advance of Saltee’s release show for its new four-song EP CrossPolyNation May 12 at the Cedar Cultural Center, Woods, cellist Jacqueline Ultan, and guitarist Mike Michel talked to The A.V. Club.
The A.V. Club: You’ve all been heavily involved in the Minneapolis music scene for many years with different groups, but how did this particular trio first get together?
Jacqueline Ultan: In 2008, Chris Thomson, who was running the Rogue Buddha iQuit series, asked me to do a solo set. And solo is not that interesting to me. I really love to collaborate. I’m a twin, so I’ve been collaborating ever since I can remember. These guys came to mind, and immediately I felt really excited about it.
AVC: Saltee has a pretty unusual and striking combination of instrumentation. What made you think of putting those sounds together?
JU: It just made sense to me. I’m really into the funk, and those guys are super-funky. Obviously my playing exhibits a lot of classical stuff, but I’m coming from so many musical references, it just made sense to me.
Mike Michel: With improvisers, if you hear somebody, you’re not thinking of the outcome. You’re saying, “I just want to play with that person, even if it’s just for an hour.” There’s an intuitive impulse that you’re going to connect with that style. That’s the origination of Saltee. A respect for each other’s sound, and a wish to merge into it.
AVC: How do you find common ground?
MM: I have a scientific response to that. You’re dealing with three frequencies that actually shouldn’t work together. The electric guitar was made for the frequencies of the kick-drum and snare-drum crack, just the way they merge. The cello, a lot of the time, is in the same range as the guitar. It works beautifully, but our three frequencies, just where we are in the equalization mix, shouldn’t work. That sounds horrible—I shouldn’t say “shouldn’t work,” but they can tangle with each other. What we’ve all learned to do, through years of improvisation, is find the space. The good news is, we can all be who we are—still! And it was never really a struggle.
AVC: The three of you do share a lot of qualities as musicians—for example, a penchant for approaching your instruments unconventionally. Mike might hit the guitar neck with his palm, or Jacqueline might pluck the cello strings in a way you don’t see in classical cello.
TCW: And there’s nothing conventional about beatboxing, is there?
JU: There’s a je ne sais quois. We just connect—and you don’t connect with everyone you play with. If we got a different guitarist and a different beatboxer, it would not be Saltee. There is that mysterious element. It comes from who we all are as people, as spirits, as musicians, that comes together in this trio.
AVC: All three of you are also able to carry the melody or the rhythm at any point in a song, which means any of you can suddenly shift into the lead in a way that’s surprising and exciting, if momentarily disorienting.
JU: That happens totally organically.
TCW: That’s a disorientation for you, but we’re not disoriented onstage. It’s knowing where your space is—but knowing where your space is sometimes means giving it away to somebody else.
JU: It’s about listening.
MM: It’s very much a jazz ideology. Taking turns, and not hoarding.
JU: But it’s also different from jazz to me, in that it’s not about solo features.
TCW: [Nods.] It’s not about that. More of what we do is collective—if you look at a song chart of ours, you’ll see 65 or 70 percent playing together, and the rest of it is solo within that structure. Part of that is, the way it works shouldn’t work because you’re dealing with three leaders. We’re all alpha musicians. So on stage, there’s no posturing, there’s nobody trying to overbearingly outshine the others. I would say, the main issue is how to make sure all of us are heard in the mix. To me that’s a small price to pay to have a group like this.
JU: We all listen to each other, and we all have strong opinions, but it’s a team decision.
TCW: Nobody ever says, “That’s not gonna happen.” But if Jacqueline wants something to happen, it’s going to happen. Maybe not 100 percent to her vision, but it’s going to happen. Same thing with me. There’s a percentage as far as getting what we want that works for us. And that’s hard to come by! Especially with three leaders. I feel like we’re all masters of our area of musicianship, and that’s going to sound cocky but I don’t give a fuck. [Laughs.]
JU: We’ve been working hard for that mastery for many, many years.
TCW: [Nods.] And that’s outside of what we do together. I think our mastery within the group is a reflection of the years of mastery in our own areas beforehand. I don’t think we could come together and play as a group if we weren’t already confident in the areas we’ve already set out to master when we were doing our own thing. We’re all bringing a collective wisdom to the table. It should clash.
JU: It’s something you learn over time, working with a lot of different people. Confidence is really important, but respect is too.
MM: We’re all adults. And later in life is easier.
TCW: This might not have worked if we were 18 or 20. Because we’d probably all have had balls that were too big to back down.
JU: Or not be confident enough.
TCW: But maybe not! I’m a collaborative person, and you are too, so it probably would have worked then. We can have some big disagreements, but the love of collaboration, and that respect, is the thing that trumps everything.
AVC: Do you think it’s harder for an instrumental trio to connect with an audience? Singing can be a more visceral, immediate way to get into a piece of music.
MM: First human instrument, totally.
AVC: And with lyrics, there’s language involved, which offers a different way of relating to a song than if it’s purely instrumental.
JU: Melody has a great power. You know [Leonard Cohen’s] “Hallelujah”? I felt like the melody of that one is so powerful that you don’t need the words. The melody just takes you on this ride. The combination of rhythm and melody—
MM: Rhythm permeates cellular structure, physically.
JU: Listen to the scientist over here! [Laughs.]
MM: The vibrations go through your body and make you feel certain ways. Melody gets you right in your ears, so there’s an instant visualization—it paints a picture of whatever you want it to be.
TCW: We have all of that locked without needing to use words. We’ve got melody that messes with the mind, and the bottom and the rhythm motivates the body to move, and that’s it! We don’t really need a vocalist, because [Mike and Jacqueline] are covering that. And I do a little bit of that too. Very little rap—more vocal sound effects, because I have a vocal effects processor and I try to think of things that would be cool next to those guys without overdoing it.
MM: Also, we try to consciously cover the globe, so we might have Indian melodies and South American rhythms, we might have straight-up New Orleans, southern American stuff, Irish music—
JU: Can I interject, though? I don’t think [blending those styles] started out consciously. At first we were naturally drawn to all those different things, because we’ve all played so much of that.
MM: Right. So it’s somehow making all those things accessible.
JU: That’s why we called this CrossPolyNation, because it’s about throwing everything into the melting pot.
MM: And analyzing it at this stage of the game, since we’re not 22 anymore, it’s like, why are you playing music? Is this all about you and proving your skills? The older I get, the more it’s not about me. The world of music is a separate entity, and playing music is for the people. We’re not up onstage to be self-indulgent, it’s about coming together as a unit to make a song that will translate to an audience. It’s less self-indulgent, for sure. Because a lot of improvisation can be a pain in the ass if you’re in the audience. It’s about getting somewhere, so 50 percent of it can be rubbish until you get to that moment. You have to be careful not to go on and on and on and on. This is becoming less of a free-form band at this point. It’s gearing toward being song-oriented without being too structured.
TCW: We had a song that was 14 minutes on one recording, and we went back and found what was in there that we needed.
JU: We didn’t cut a lot. We don’t do a lot of editing—we recorded [CrossPolyNation] live in the studio, and there are a few overdubs, but very little.
MM: We didn’t do more than two or three takes of any song, on purpose.
AVC: Were the takes pretty different from each other?
TCW: They weren’t super different, no.
JU: They’re always different!
MM: [Laughs.] She’s nailing us. We’re totally bullshitting, and she’s nailing us.
JU: Seriously! They’re always different.
TCW: They’re always played a little differently, but the meat of what we’re doing is always there. Seventy-five percent of what we’re doing is always there.
JU: There’s always the reference of the main groove and the main melody, but outside of that, these songs change every time we play them.
TCW: We’re all saying the same thing, we’re just saying it in a different way.
AVC: What have you not gotten to do musically yet with this group that you’d like to try out?
JU: To me, this is the music I want to be doing. I’m so excited by it. I just want to be able to keep doing it. I want to put out a full-length CD. I want other people to hear it! But if nobody else was listening, I’d still want to be doing it.
MM: We’re going to have some breakdancers at the show, thanks to Terrell. I could see us doing music for a dance company, or for film, performance art, kids’ plays, doesn’t matter. That’d be big.
JU: I’m into that.
MM: I don’t see, though I’m open to it, any guest performers at this point, unless they were something that we didn’t do. Like we thought about bagpipes for one tune, maybe a singer for one tune. But collaboration with other art forms would be cool.