Thollem Gets Back on Stage

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on so many artists the past 18 months, but when everything began shutting down, Thollem McDonas was at the front of my mind. McDonas is the traveling musician, having crossed the country (and world!) countless times to perform, speak, record, collaborate, and everything else in between. Sidelined since March 2020, Thollem and his wife, Angela, headed back out on the road this month with Thollem playing his first show on August 25th in Berkeley. I’m thrilled to present this recording by ACVilla of that concert here, plus an interview with Thollem about the past year and a half and what’s ahead. 

Thollem will be in Santa Fe, New Mexico on Friday, September 18th and the rest of his upcoming dates are on his website HERE. In the meantime, be sure to check out his Astral Traveling Sessions (presented with Astral Spirits) because it’s full of absolute gems.

First off, how have the past 18 months been for you? As things shut down and shows/touring were canceled, you were one person I thought of immediately, and can only imagine how different it’s been compared to what you normally would have been doing.

Thanks for thinking of me when the pandemic hit. My partner ACVilla and I flew from Miami to Lisbon on March 11th for what was two and a half months of shows and workshops and residencies. Within an hour of arriving all of the Portuguese gigs were canceled and it quickly became apparent that nothing else on our tour was going to be possible. We were there for 10 days before flying to New Mexico to spend the pandemic with Angela’s mom. I took a pretty direct hit financially, obviously, and we really missed all the experiences we were set to have, all the old friends and new, yet unknown, friends. But we put it all into perspective as we are all doing. We were very fortunate in many ways, and it turned out that the high New Mexican desert is a pretty good place to be during a pandemic. I wrote and recorded a ton, including a mastered album of songs that aren’t published yet as well as discovered and mixed and edited recordings for this crazy series on Astral Spirits. We also did a lot of gardening which was a lifesaver for us. We got vaccinated early on because we were considered caregivers and started traveling around the west in our van again in April.  

You just kicked off another cross-country tour this week, but you all are doing it differently now that you sold your vehicle! Tell me a little about this change and why it’s so important to you all to make it.

There are multitudes of reasons why this is right for us to do now. We were moving in this direction in 2019 and then everything screeched to a halt, so we’re doing it now. This time we are taking Amtrak across the country. We sold our van that has been our home for the last 5 years and condensed our lives into one backpack each. We bought a 10-ride special offer that Amtrak was offering back in June and started booking a tour knowing the parameters were that we needed to get from the west coast to the east coast on 10 rides. So far we’ve played the Bay Area, Santa Barbara, L.A., and Flagstaff. Then Santa Fe, Albuquerque, KC, Chi, Plymouth (IN), Detroit, and NY Oct. 2nd, then we fly to Europe Oct. 3rd. I’ve spent my life driving around this country and it was time to move on from that for a variety of reasons, but mostly because we are always trying to figure out how to lessen our footprint all the while being able to travel as artists. I think it’s crucial for artists to travel, for artists, for communities, and for the health of the world. We’ve only been in cars a few times so far in the last 10 days now. We’ve been taking the bus to get to and from the train stations. Of course, touring by train is normal in Europe but not at all here. So we’re hoping to create a model that other musicians might like to utilize in their own ways. Maybe get the attention of Amtrak and the Dept. of Transportation and convince them that they ought to offer discounts to musicians who would tour by train. Who knows what’s possible! 

I really like this statement: ” I think it’s crucial for artists to travel, for artists, for communities and the health of the world.” It feels more pertinent, more important now than ever. I’m wondering if you could just expand on this a little bit more.

As a traveling artist, I gather the energy, ideas, values, and experiences of others along with me, and incorporate them into my work and through many highly engaged conversations and actions. It’s a consistently stimulating life, ideally with varieties of people supporting and healthily challenging each other. It’s a life that creates, most often, symbiotic relationships that are deep and lifelong. I often think about how much I continue to grow as a musician and a human as I travel. All of the challenges and all of the variety! For the community, traveling musicians and artists, and bards have always been a crucial way for ideas to travel. We have the internet of course, but that’s nothing like the focus that happens when people are dedicated to the music that night, the musicians traveling in, the venue, and the audience all sharing this communal experience not only with their fellow local peoples but with a band that comes from somewhere who is also bringing their world with them as well as all of the worlds they absorb along the way. That’s just the start of my answer…

How did it feel to get back on stage and perform with an audience again for the first time in a while?

It felt like coming home! My stamina was better than I hoped and everything felt fresh to me. I felt the audience was very emotional about it, and also what many mentioned afterward, to attend their first live concert in a year and a half. I’m realizing a whole new level of significance that music plays in our lives, to our sense of connectedness with each other. I’ve had 7 gigs since this one at The Backroom, and this experience has been similar at every one of them. The pandemic is far from over, however, so I have no idea how long this will be possible. All the fingers crossed! Or, better yet, if everyone just got the vaccination then science could do its job and we wouldn’t need luck!

What are you most hopeful about for the coming year?

This question almost stumped me. It seems more and more likely that unpredictable things are going to occur and get in the way of any plans, or hopes. On one hand, it seems pretty absurd, or even arrogant, to make plans in the face of it all. But I’ve always been aware that I could die today, at any moment, so I always want to soak in the moment I’m in. The future is an abstract concept and tomorrow is always a day away. At the same time, I continue living and I’ve seen many tomorrows by now, so maybe I’ll live to see more tomorrows. And we’ve got things planned until the end of May! This is part of the human condition overall, to be able to hold competing concepts simultaneously, right? Anyway… I am excited about the rest of this tour, then I have concerts set up throughout Europe for Oct, Nov, and Dec, then we’ll be in NM for a while, then back in Europe in the Spring, then who knows from there? As for releases, I have the end of this series coming up in October, maybe self-releasing my songs album (We Call This One Tuesday) in November, I’ll be recording all the vocals for the 5th, 6th, and 7th Tsigoti albums when I’m in Italy, I also have a bunch of new recordings I’ve made this year, mostly duos with a great assortment of musicians. And finally, in August ESP_disk is releasing a solo piano album of mine.

And unrelated, but now that the Thollem’s Astral Traveling Sessions releases are coming to a close, what reflections do you have about the experience of putting those releases together? It’s been a wild ride!

Whew, it’s definitely been a wild ride. Thanks for coming along with me on it! This happened because of the pandemic. All this time on my hands suddenly, and I realized I had a bunch of recordings from the previous year of touring, that I could maybe clean up a bit and publish on my Bandcamp. I didn’t really know how many recordings there were, mostly they are live shows that someone recorded and gave me the files, some just in informal settings and a few in nice studios. I wrote to Nate at Astral Spirits asking him if this sounded like it might be of interest, it seemed like a perfect fit for Astral Spirits, and he wrote back with an inspired response. Drake Hardin has done most of the mastering and Tiny Little Hammers all the layout. Everyone’s just been so cool and inspired with it all, it’s been such a smooth process, really. So, once Astral Spirits invited me to publish this with them I started writing to musicians along the way of my 2019 touring and eventually found there were about 40 different performances that had been recorded. And each month I’ve just been picking away at it. It’s been a crazy puzzle really, and also SO fun. There are 70 different musicians involved in locations all around the U.S., Canada, Italy, and Greece. It’s all freely improvised and each album has unique characters, going in a wide variety of directions. There’s a bunch of pretty famous musicians and many who are underknown. Many listeners have commented that they’ve discovered a lot of musicians that they didn’t know anything about previously. This month’s release is a double album CD that includes an album in duo with Karl Berger and another in duo with Michael Snow. These are two of the most consequential figures in art and music of the last 50 years or. The final releases include a digital download album of segments from 6 different solo concerts, both acoustic and electric, which will be published on CD in March, and a CD in duo with my brother Hafez Modirzadeh. It’s been an incredible ride and also a LOT of work. Angela provided all of the cover art for each of the 25 releases, so there’s visual continuity throughout, and they look stunning all together! All the materials are finished now, whew! Of course, there’s much more I can say about it all, but that’s a pretty good start I guess! 

Can you tell me a little about the piece you played in this video?

I consider these combprovisations like different environments that I return to regularly but always from a different entrance and always looking for something new, as well as revisiting old sonic friends and territories. It was an 80-minute performance that I creatively edited, I think! This was my first public concert, I had played a couple of small gathering house shows along our travels before that. So I didn’t really know what I’d be able to do. I had an outline of ideas and then followed the energy. I played inside the piano a lot in this performance, which is kind of cool because of the position of the camera. I think of a performance (or a life) as one long piece with many different characters and landscapes along the way.

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