Taking the Saw to Extremes

Montclair's David Coulter talks about odd instruments.


David Coulter

Courtesy of David Coulter

David Coulter is widely regarded as one of the world's foremost saw players, if not indeed the best, and he's also an accomplished composer and producer. And he plays other unusual instruments, such as the didgeridoo. For more than 30 years, the formerly London-based musician has collaborated with the likes of Yoko Ono, Tom Waits, Kronos Quartet, Beck, and many others. He has even managed to get a gig playing mandolin and fiddle with The Pogues. Still, the versatile musician's calling card is his ability to deftly bend a saw to make music like no one else. A newly minted Montclarion, Coulter is making his go in the Bay Area. I caught up with him recently and was able to check off yet another item from my bucket list: Interview with a saw player.

Paul Kilduff: How did you become quite possibly the undisputed heavyweight champion of the musical saw?

David Coulter: Heavyweight for sure. I suppose I've always been drawn towards slightly unusual instruments. I've always been fascinated by the stuff you don't see everybody playing. When I first met the Kronos Quartet, I was playing the didgeridoo back in the day. That was a big thing I did for many years. I've always specialized in playing slightly unusual instruments. The saw came originally from a love of playing theremin. The theremin was invented at the turn of the last century by a Russian composer.

PK: Yes, I've heard of it.

DC: Yeah, you would have definitely heard of it. An instrument maker called Leon Theremin invented it. He famously had a niece called Clara Rockmore who became quite well known as a player. It's got that very similar tonality to it, very ethereal. I'm drawn towards the mysterious and ethereal. I suppose with the saw, originally I'd heard it as an instrument featured on soundtracks, movie scores.

PK: Right, it's always been used for stuff like horror movies.

DC: Kind of '50s B movies. That's kind of, in some respects, what I've had to fight against.

PK: I guess that's what most people think of if they know anything about playing the saw.

DC: They think it goes ooo-eee-ooo-eee-ooo, which it can, but it can do lots of other things as well. I suppose what I've always tried to do with it is to bring it into a performance arena where I just like to try to turn people on to new sounds. I suppose what I've done with the saw is I've taken it to quite an extreme level. I take it very seriously. It's not like a novelty. It's how I earn my living. It's what I do.

PK: Do you think it will ever be taught in music conservatories?

DC: No, I don't actually. Funny that. However, if it were, I'd certainly consider going for the gig.

PK: That'd be a pretty sweet faculty position, right?

DC: There have been stranger things. Interestingly enough, I've taught a lot of people to play the saw. I suppose one of the things I enjoy is that sense of adventure and experimentation. Not worrying about painting myself into a corner. If I paint myself into a corner, I find another corner to paint myself into.

PK: What's the deal with your saws?

DC: The tradition of the instrument is allegedly coming from two places. Some people think it stems from the Appalachians here in the U.S.

PK: That's what I would have thought.

DC: A lot of people think it comes from the forests and woods of Scandinavia. It's also highly possible it comes from both. I would strongly wager that the first time somebody thought of the saw and said, 'Wow, what an incredible sound,' it was accidental. I'm pretty certain it would have been somebody who threw a saw down on the ground and it went boing. And somebody thought, 'That's not the regular sound I expect to hear when I drop a saw. I wasn't expecting it to make quite such a pleasant boing. I wonder if I can control it.' The actual instrument itself is basically just a blade. The physics of it is it's a steel curve, and then, depending on the thickness of the steel and the way you play it and what you play it with, it makes different sounds. The main principle of it is it's a carpenter's wood saw that's gripped by the handle between your knees. And you hold the other end of the blade between the fingers and thumb of your left hand, if you're right-handed as I am. Then you have to make an S-shaped curve in the blade and use a bow. I use a double bass bow. You bow the back of the blade. Obviously you don't bow the side with the teeth. You'd get through rather too many bows. You'd be surprised how many people ask that question, so I thought I'd save you the embarrassment.

PK: I appreciate that. Thank you.

DC: The saw that I play, you would have seen me play numerous times because it's the one I've recorded live with for years and years and years. It's by a company from East Troy, Wis., and they're called Mussehl & Westphal. Back in the 1920s, they were selling loads, hundreds and hundreds.

PK: For musical purposes?

DC: Yeah. In theory, you don't actually need a saw. You can just do it with a piece of steel.

PK: How many saws do you own?

DC: I'm a bit sad. I sort of collect them. I have quite a lot of them.

PK: Fifty?

DC: Oh, no; I've probably got a dozen.

PK: I understand you're also quite the ukulele player.

DC: I'm always drawn to things nobody else is into. I start playing it, and within five years everybody is playing it.

PK: You're a trendsetter.

DC: I'm ahead of the curve.

PK: You know how banjo players get heaps of abuse from other musicians? Does that happen to saw players?

DC: It's even worse. What line do you never hear in the music business? 'Is that the banjo player's Porsche parked outside?' You could equally say, 'Is that the saw player's Tesla parked outside?'

PK: So you can substitute saw player in every one of those jokes?

DC: For anything. Spoons as well.

PK: Ever played the washboard?

DC: I totally have. That's actually quite straight for me.

PK: Not challenging enough?

DC: Washboard, smwashboard.

PK: There's not enough variation in tone on the washboard?

DC: No, but I think that's basically what music is, isn't it?

PK: Sounds?

DC: It's hitting things and scraping things and rubbing things affectionately.


Editor's Note: This story appears in the June edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

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