Yes- And’ing From Here to Zambiland: A Surreal Conversation with Col. Bruce Hampton (ret.)
YES-AND'ING FROM HERE TO ZAMBILAND:
The first rule of improvised theater is "no denial". One must always agree
with the fundamental reality of what another actor is saying. For example,
if he says "I have a cake" and indicates, through mime, that he does, one is
not to deny him. One does not say "no, that's not a cake, that's a bowling
The way this manifests itself is through a rule called "yes-and". One agrees
with what the previous person says and adds to the picture. "Yes, you
do have a cake and it’s got neon green icing on it."
Col. Bruce Hampton is a strange cat. Since the late 1960s, Hampton has been a wonderful
exemplar of what was once lovingly referred to as "anti-music". From The
Hampton Grease Band through The Aquarium Rescue Unit, The Fiji Mariners, and – most recently – The Code Talkers, Hampton has expressed his surreal worlds
through florid onstage bursts of dadaist babblings.
The most complete document of Hampton's ravings comes with the release of
Mike Gordon's "Outside Out", in which Hampton portrays an other-worldly
guitar "out"-structor named… Col. Bruce Hampton. In its own way, the film
is a manifesto, and gives the viewer the most, er, realistic sense of just
what the hell Hampton is talking about.
The best way to react to Col. Bruce is by yes-and'ing what he says. Little
can be gained by trying to write him off as a lunatic. It is far better just
to surrender to the cause and see what he has to say. His theories are
disconnected from the everyday language of music. As such, it seemed
perfectly reasonable to just commit to the idea of a surreal world and
formulate questions based on the yes-and technique. In other words: agree
with whatever Bruce said and formulate the next questions based on that.
That was the plan anyway. Sometimes, there was little to do but nod in
Even at his most nonsensical, there was still a pattern, a sort of logic, to
what Hampton had to say. Midway through the interview, for example, he began
to babble about "stale salt logs". This particular bit of nonsense can be
traced back to a song called Six on The Hampton Grease Band's "Music
To Eat" album from 1971. Hampton could also be heard reciting the same poem
at various Aquarium Rescue Unit shows throughout the early 1990s (usually in
conjunction with the Cheese Frog chant). There were other
In the late 1960s, John Lennon was asked if he thought The Beatles' personal
guru, The Maharieshi, was "on the level". Lennon responded by saying he did,
but he wasn't sure what level he was on. For all of his circus barker acts
and astrological con-man shenanigans, Col. Bruce Hampton is either a
complete liar or a total genius. If he does think and exist in the
terms expressed in this interview… then, goddamn. If it's all just an
elaborate scam, then more power to him.
The crossover point, I think – the tenuous connection between reality and
Zambiland, the mythical world that Hampton often speaks of – is Col. Bruce's
memory. When I showed up at the back of the Code Talkers' tour bus, Hampton
remembered my birthday and other things revealed in a previous conversation
earlier this year. His memory allows him a better facsimile of the past than
most anyone. Thus, he is able to talk with equal authority about the
tangible world and the surreal one, allowing them to intermingle.
Midway through the conversation, Hampton slipped into something resembling
order, beginning to actually talk about music. Perhaps. The connections
between his apparently sensical talk about music and his irrational talk
about Zambiland are strong, making a stronger case for the feasibility of
Part I: The Scene
JJ: You’re in a house, in a room, what do you see?
CBH: A pipe organ.
JJ: Do you sit at the pipe organ?
CBH: Yes, but I sit left of center.
JJ: Why do you sit left of center?
CBH: 'cause it's closer to more black keys. Nothing against
white keys, just more black keys left.
JJ: What do you prefer about the black keys?
CBH: They're not the opposite of white. Black is a color,
where white is the absence of color, just like music – actually – is the
absence of sound. Sound can wash clothes. (Laughs.)
JJ: How do the black keys and the white keys reflect that?
CBH: That’s odd. I think I just said it, yeah.
JJ: Would you like to play the organ or do you leave the organ
CBH: No, I play it. I play mostly the left side.
JJ: What do you play?
CBH: I play themes. Mostly themes.
JJ: That you’ve written?
CBH: No, I just improvise. And all left-handed.
JJ: What do you do with your right hand?
CBH: I take it and open what's inside the right-hand side of
the key box. And then there's a plethora of messages and there's a lot of
metal, which I sell in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I open it and take
metal to the middle of the Atlantic.
JJ: How do you get to the middle of the Atlantic?
CBH: Canoe! And I do it by my feet. I can feel the current on
my feet. Always a canoe. The difference between heaving a canoe and eating a
canoe: heaving a canoe makes sense, eating a canoe… well, that's up to
JJ: What kind of supplies do you bring with you?
CBH: I crave supplies. I bring faucets and ointment. And I
generally love supplies. I crave supplies.
JJ: What do you use the ointment for?
CBH: Ointment is used to seal items in case any items need to
JJ: Do items need to be sealed in the middle of the Atlantic,
CBH: Some. If you're in the south Atlantic, there's more need
for sealing because there's less seals. (Laughs.) There's more seals
north, so they don't need sealing as much.
JJ: Which part of the Atlantic are you in?
CBH: I’m exactly in the middle in the south Atlantic.
JJ: So you have it there just in case…?
CBH: I like supplies, don't get me wrong. I like supplies.
JJ: How do you know when you’ve gotten where you wanna go?
CBH: There'll be a sign. Oh, good Lord. There'll be seven
warning signs, and the last warning sign will be pretty urgent. It's real
big. And I take warning to the signs, I heed the signs.
JJ: What are the first six?
CBH: The first six tell the degree of where the water is at a
certain angle. It'll say 32 degrees, if it's waves and stuff, and six
degrees and eight… it's actually between six and eight degrees, the water
JJ: How do you translate that to actually stopping the canoe? And
how do you stop the canoe?
CBH: With my feet.
JJ: With your feet?
CBH: Actually, it's done by the moon. It's lunar-ticks. It's
controlling my feet, they feel the current, and I go with the current of the
ocean with my feet. I stop.
JJ: Is there a specific process for getting rid of the metal?
CBH: (Long pause.) Yes.
JJ: Can you tell me what it is?
CBH: (Longer pause.) Metal will eventually lead to
steps. This metal.
JJ: Physical steps?
CBH: Yes, physical steps. There will be two sides of the steps
made out of wood in an area. Now, granted though, people work in areas,
there's only gonna — I can't complete this sentence. I can only talk in
half-sentences when it comes to metal. It's — (Laughs.)
JJ: Do the steps appear physically out of the ocean?
CBH: Yes, yes.
JJ: Do you climb them?
CBH: Yes. Do you know why? To get food. Food was made in an
area and there are plates and napkins and people and it's amazing
what goes on. You can also enter from the other side, but there's only one
series of steps.
JJ: Interesting. What people are there?
CBH: A guy who owns the place in the middle of the Atlantic,
his name is Jim Shirley. But if his name was James Shirley, it could be a
woman's name backwards; it could be Shirley James. But Jim Shirley is a guy
who looks like Dr. Caligari and he cooks very well. And has wonderful food
in an urban area.
JJ: It’s an urban area in the middle of the Atlantic?
JJ: Where is this in proximity to the water level? Are we above
it or below it?
CBH: It changes constantly. It changes; generally above it.
The two steps are always above it.
JJ: How do they deal with the changes in pressure when it goes
above and below the Atlantic?
CBH: Just like this bus, it has catalytic converters, but a
lot of people get catalytic converters wrong: they think it has to do with
gas. It has to do with leverage. It's like shocks. There are six
shocks and it keeps it above. As long as it's in the flow.
JJ: Who built this place?
CBH: It was built by a group of… I wanna say Mormons.
JJ: Of all people.
CBH: They built it originally. It's been added on to a lot,
but the problem with it, being out there in the middle of the Atlantic, is
that it's got an incredible amount of asbestos and no handicapped dressing
CBH: Nope, so there's not enough states where there are laws,
but we're working on that.
JJ: So there are dressing rooms? Are there performances as well?
JJ: Bathrooms, gotcha. It’s an urban area. Who lives there?
CBH: A woman with blonde hair. We don't know her name, but we
know that she knows where good food exists. I guess she knows how to fish. A
lot of Greek people and football owners. And watch faub builders and fresco
caulkers. Do you know what a watch faub is?
JJ: I do not.
CBH: It's the top of a watch and you close it and you go
"that's a watch faub". F-A-U-B. Do you know what a fresco is? You go to a
wall and there's a piece of art. You can see people caulking the fresco.
There are people up there that build fuselage. I'm actually a fuselage
lover. Crave fuselages. I have 16 fuselages in my house in Spartanburg.
JJ: How long ago did you first come to this place?
CBH: Three or four years ago.
JJ: What did you first go there for?
CBH: I had to sell metal. Not for survival or greed, I sell it
at cost, but I have to sell metal. One intention.
JJ: What happens if you don’t?
CBH: (Whistles.) It gets very ugly in the
universal appeal. Condemned calendar-lema happens: the sensations of being
stalked are illustrated in the cannings in the court — the void of jurist
prudence, so we'll take summer courses that evoke leisure hours back
into the condemned calendar-lema.
CBH: ...when cray became crobe and factories manicured stale
salt logs. Utensil lotion prevailed, then came the sixes and the sensitive
film realized cabbage. Yessir, go ahead, sir. I struck a nerve.
JJ: How long do you spend there?
CBH: I spend one month, then I go to Fffinland, Helsinki for
two or three days. There are messages there I must get, two or three times a
year. They're messages about the tuvalries in Paris. The reappearance of
certain people in Paris in the year 2001. The separated jesters had no prior
intention and were rejuvenated two hours today and the letters known to man
as "alsed prinem" justified multi-disciplinary therapy… mostly in Finland.
Chanute, Kansas also.
JJ: Who’s sending the cryptic messages?
CBH: Code talkers.
JJ: Code talkers?
CBH: Yeah. They're usually in rain gear. Remember those yellow
stove caps? They'd be in gear.
JJ: Is that how you can tell they're going to deliver a message?
CBH: I can't really tell. I just have to go out of action, not
non-action, but action. (Whistles.)
JJ: What is a typical interaction with one of them like?
CBH: I'm usually with somebody and it's usually like "can I
borrow a quarter?" or something. I've been wrong twice on who they were and
it lasts two or three more minutes longer than you'd think. I've seen them
hiding in areas. I've seen them in burned-out buildings, stalled cars, and
JJ: In the rain gear?
CBH: (Pause.) No. They're in the area. You've gotta get
to the area to go to work. You can ask somebody about an area and they'll
tell you (Laughing) that they’ve gotta be at work in an area.
It's just past Victory Land.
JJ: Just past Victory Land?
CBH: Just past.
JJ: How far out is Victory Land?
CBH: One hundred. One hundred miles.
JJ: From where?
JJ & CBH (in unison): Nowhere is now here.
Part II: Music
JJ: Is there anybody you wanna play with that you haven't played
CBH: We were just talking about it. Thousands of people. We
were talking about it all day. I don't know if I'm capable on a technical or
emotional level, but there are hundreds. Kajou, a great bass player, Kajou.
I'd love to, but I'm not capable: Alla Akbar Kahn, a serod master from
India. A Polish composer named Krzysztof Penderecki. Just hundreds of
people. Otis Rush. Hundreds and hundreds, none of whom anybody knows?
JJ: What would you do with somebody like Penderecki?
CBH: I'd try to keep out of the way. I'll try to keep
way out of the way?
JJ: What would you envision yourself playing? A guitar or a
CBH: Something like that; a stringed instrument. I'd also like
to record with Derek Bailey.
JJ: The guitar player?
CBH: You know Derek? That’s amazing.
JJ: I’ve heard some of his stuff.
CBH: Pretty out there. Derek's a temple man, he's
unbelievable. I dunno. I'd like to play bass on it.
JJ: Have you ever played bass before?
CBH: We were just playing an hour ago. I like to play bass a
lot. I would try to keep out of the way and let them go. They're the true
JJ: What do you get out of playing with other people?
CBH: Learning. Learning what not to do. I like to play
by myself; it's fun as can be, but you don't learn anything. Don't learn
much. It takes a long time to learn little. Just everybody's instructor. I
demand that people have a good time, and the rest of it, there are no
accidents. For some reason, I'm also a stickler for time. Though time is
also free, except in a recording studio. I mean 18% of life is chaos and 82%
is order. When chaos has the aspiration of the ambition of order, then they
JJ: How do you get into the chaos from order?
CBH: You're reading my mind. I try to let the chaos take me. I
don't try to get into it. I try to let it go. And I don't deny it and I'm
not saying you should use chaos at all. It should just be a threat. The
intentionality of chaos should always be there. You should always try to go
JJ: Are there ways to train yourself to be prepared for that?
CBH: That's a great question, Jesse. Yes, there are. I don't
know the answer. I think, actually, learning the forms and getting fed up
and sick of them may be a 20 year process. The formless becomes the form.
What should be becomes what is. It just takes a long time.
JJ: So, if a 15 or 16 year old guitarist came to you and asked
you to be their, I guess, outstructor, what would you tell him?
CBH: I'd say "see our guitar player, he's a great teacher" and
learn from dance, entertainment, baseball. Study life, don't study guitar.
You'll just end up in a rut. When you do it enough; there's 200,000 good
guitar players, and there's 100 great musicians that play guitar, and 30
people that guitar are great musicians that put magic in it. Learn how to
swim and watch a golf ball slice and drop a brick into an office on a
napkin. Be much more well diversified than just a musician. Learn all of
JJ: What should one be thinking about when playing music?
CBH: (Whistles.) To me, music is only intention and the
less thought the better. Just intention. Thought is a tricky thing.
Fortunately, it's a very clever thing in our culture and we don't think very
much. If we do, we out play ourselves because we're so clever. I'm not into
clever very much, I like spontaneity quite a bet.
JJ: Do you prefer meditation or excremeditation?
CBH: The first.
JJ: Any particular reason?
CBH: I don’t know.
Jesse Jarnow's lucky number is 27.