When you think of Alex Winter, there's a not-insubstantial possibility that you will think of him in terms of a character he's played a few times in the past - Bill S. Preston, Esq. - and if you should happen to think of him in those terms, then you might also reasonably think of him as being a heavy metal fan. But Alex is not Bill, of course, and while Alex does indeed appreciate the merits of rock, as well one might when they've helmed a documentary about Frank Zappa, Mr. Winter is also a jazz fan, and that's the genre in which he landed when he selected the Record That Changed His Life: A Love Supreme, by John Coltrane.
By coincidence, Winter was in the midst of doing press for a music-centric film when Q reached out to him, which provided him with an opportunity to briefly chat about that project as well - the new film Destroy All Neighbors, streaming now on Shudder - which has a surprising amount of prog rock to its plot - but for the majority of our conversation, he talked about how he found his way into the John Coltrane catalog, why he particularly loves this album, and why he believes that others will be able to appreciate it a lot more readily than many other jazz LPs.
First of all, thanks for being willing to do this feature for us.
Thanks for asking! It was a fun question. I don't think I've answered that actual question. It's funny, but I did the Zappa doc, and so many people asked me what my favorite Zappa records were, so I had to really think hard about that, because he made so many. But I don't think I'd ever stopped to think - gun to my head - what I would call the most life-changing album for me. So good question!
Well, to start from the top, what's your music background in general? It's pretty well-established that you're a huge music fan, I think, but have you always been one?
I've always been a big music person. I played bass guitar for a long time in bands and things like that. My brother's a professional musician, and my parents were modern dancers. They did a lot of choreography to original compositions. So I grew up in a household with everything from rock music to avant-garde classical to jazz... Well, not actually much jazz, which is what's interesting about this record. Kind of everything but jazz. But a lot of rock, a lot of classical, and some blues in terms of what my brother was playing - he's a rock/blues player - and a huge appreciation for music. I was born in London and have very early memories of really having my mind blown by the Stones. This would've been, like, '67 or '68. I was born in '65, but when I was old enough to actually remember putting records on and wanting to listen to them, they had a copy of Through the Past Darkly, that one in the octagonal cover, that's one of my earlier memories of loving a record. So I grew up mostly a rock fan and classical. And punk, because I grew up largely in the '70s, so a lot of my friends were in punk bands, and that became a big thing, punk and new wave, from the '70s and into the early '80s. So that was kind of my background.
Were you in any bands yourself early on?
I was in several bands. I was in a synth band in high school. We were pretty serious, making demos and writing a lot of music. Then I was in a band when I got to L.A. when I was doing the acting, and we used to tour and play out. That was more of a rock-styled band. We played all over the place, and we'd play regularly at clubs in L.A. Sometimes as a duo, with me and a piano player, sometimes with a whole fairly large band. Playing out is a big thing. As I said, my brother is a musician and has been his whole life and plays in a lot of bands, and I just went to see him play with his band in St. Louis, actually. It was a lot of fun. So, yeah, music has been a very big part of my life for my whole life.
So how'd you find yourself going down the Coltrane rabbit hole?
I think because - if asked what was life-changing - I grew up with so much classical and so much rock, and I had so much exposure to it because my mom was a modern dancer who ran a company and also was a dance professor at Washington University in St. Louis. So there was a lot of exposure to music. We had chamber music, quartets at our house playing sometimes, and I was getting a pretty sophisticated musical exposure from a very young age. But jazz was really not a big part of it, other than when I got a little older, when I was in high school, my mom started working at William Patterson College, running a lot of the events around the jazz department there, which was very prominent. It was, like, Rufus Reid and a lot of pretty big people. And I started getting into, like, Albert Ayler and some of the more avant-garde guys, which led me to my Zappa love.
But, man, when I got to NYU Film School and I had this sort of, like, coterie of buddies in film school, and some friends who had been in punk bands and were now doing pretty successful indie rock. My friend Andy Hawkins from Blind Idiot God, which was a very big SST band, he turned me on to Coltrane, and...I would've been in my late teens, early twenties. College age. And I think it just blew my mind because it wasn't what I thought jazz was. It wasn't really what I thought music was! It was so...essential. And fundamental. And spiritual...and I wasn't a religious person! I think it was when I realized how pure music could be. To me, A Love Supreme is the purest piece of musical composition I can think of, other than maybe certain Bach that I love. I think it's always stuff that's non-vocal for the most part, where you're kind of getting human presence out of the way as much as possible. [Laughs.] But I come back to it more often than most things. I mean, now I have a pretty expansive knowledge and love of jazz - Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and everything else - but this really blew my mind. And I think it's still the reigning champ of modern jazz music and probably one of the greatest contemporary music compositions of all time.
So was it actually your first Coltrane album, or was it just the one that you really latched onto?
I think it was the one I latched onto. Because I was really into Miles. That was kind of my way into jazz. I loved Miles, and I listened to a lot of Miles. I still do. I still love Miles. But I think I listened to the stuff when Miles and Coltrane were playing together, which would be more '50s stuff, and then I heard this and I was, like, "No, this is something else altogether!" [Laughs.] "This is like an alien genius came down!" And I remember recently somebody published Coltrane's musical annotation and compared it to physics and astrophysics annotation. Now my middle kid plays jazz trumpet, he's very into all this stuff, and because I have a jazz musician in the house now, I can see it. I can see the affinity for math and the proximity of math to jazz...and this is like looking at a beautiful math equation that explains the whole universe! That's what Love Supreme is, I feel like.
Coltrane's one of those interesting artists who - even if you don't know anything at all about jazz - you've somehow managed to hear about Coltrane.
Right. I think that's true. I think, like, Charlie Parker, Miles... There's certain people, it's hard not to hear about them. But the funny thing about Coltrane, I think, is that the clichés around him are more about the sort of wailing, cacophonous stuff, the man on the sax who's just going nuts improvising. And you listen to this record or some of the other Coltrane compositions that are similar to this, and it's so graceful and so compositionally sophisticated, and not indulgent and not loud and screechy. So it's really what Coltrane truly is, and not what a lot of the clichés are.
I also think it's a proper jazz album. a lot of people who don't really know their way around jazz just think in terms of specific songs, whereas A Love Supreme is definitely a work that needs to be listened to as an album.
I think so. I've had this on vinyl since my college days, and I've probably moved 400,000 times since then. [Laughs.] Cross-country, transatlantically... And I've never let go of my original Love Supreme. It's a really good pressing. But I have it on CD, and obviously it's on streaming now in master quality if you want. But to me, it is all one composition. It isn't four tracks, it's just one very coherent composition. And if you hear McCoy Tyner or Jimmy Garrison or any of those guys talk about working on this, I think that's how it felt when they made it.
Talking about vinyl copies. I've got this copy of Miles Davis' Sketches in Spain that I picked up at a thrift store, and when I first put it on, I was, like, "This thing is scratched all to hell!" But as I listened to it, with all the pops and the crackles, I realized, "For this album, it actually feels right."
[Laughs.] That's right! Yeah, if I had that version of Sketches, I wouldn't get rid of it, either! I'm that way with some of my albums, even some of the rock. I have an old beat-up copy of Exile on Main Street that hopefully they'll bury me with, because I'll never let it go!
For someone approaching this album who doesn't know anything about jazz, would you say this is necessary a gateway drug into Coltrane, or should they start elsewhere in his catalog first?
I think if you're really into more mainstream or conventional stuff, then I think starting with the Miles and Coltrane stuff might be easier. But this is not a difficult record like some of his later records, like Om and some of the late-period Coltrane records, which I love but can be hard for people to access. This is a very beautiful album. The tracks on it are very accessible, very melodic, not crazy and insane. Even though there's improvising going on in areas, it doesn't sound unstructured or unconstructed. They sound like pieces of music, like songs. And they're just very beautiful. Very tranquil, very uplifting, kind of inspiring music. I think that's the case for any really timeless album. No matter what it is and no matter how sophisticated it is, you can access it. And I feel that way, whether it's Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life or Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks or whatever it is. It's accessible.
As long as we're talking about music in general, how was the experience of doing the Zappa documentary?
You know, it was really profound. It was very challenging. It was challenging dealing with that much media. Zappa was a thorough collector of his own work, so there was a lot of it. But to be able to immerse yourself... [Hesitates.] I wanted to make a movie about the life of an artist. That was my interest. And while I am a Zappa fan, my interest was really to look at who he was and what the experience of choosing to live his life this way did to him as a person and what obstacles he faced and what consequences. So to be able to live in his artistic world for the better part of six years was an incredible gift. The thing about documentary filmmaking at its best, that I love so much is, was that it was very immersive. And Mike Nichols - the editor - and I, we just lived in his head and in his music and in his compositions. And we had everything. We didn't just have the audio, we had miles and miles and miles of his sheet music that he wrote out himself. So having that in your hands and living with that is also quite profound. So it was a very mind-expanding experience. I had ideas about him going in that were very different when I came out the other end. And then there were some ideas I had that were confirmed by the immersion into his world.
It's always felt weird to me that my entry into his catalog came via Jazz from Hell. I'd never heard anything before buying that on cassette. But that got me in the door.
Yeah, that's really interesting, because I came to him later, too. I remember saying that to Gail [Zappa, Frank's widow] when I met her. I came up in the '70s, my brother's a musician, so I had a lot of my brother's friends who smoked pot over the garage and had a picture of Zappa on the toilet in their clubhouse, but I wasn't a Zappa fan until way after college, and I got to him through Yellow Shark, and Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch, probably, and that era. It was way late. It was the end of his life, really. And then I was, like, "Oh, wow!" And then I went back and got into the Mothers of Invention and really caught the bug and understood and really appreciated what was so great about him.
Before we wrap up, we should certainly discuss the fact that there's a musical component to the project that brought us here today: Destroy All Neighbors, on Shudder.
Oh, absolutely! And one that we took great pride and pleasure in. Everyone involved in that movie has either a musical background or just an encyclopedic knowledge of music. In the case of Jonah [Ray Rodriguez], he kind of has both. But we had Ryan Kattner, who was playing a part and doing the score with Brett Morris from Man Man. and they did a track. It's a very silly, kind of D.I.Y., gonzo movie, but we took lampooning the time signatures of prog very seriously. [Laughs.] And not only did I have Zappa, but I grew up going to King Crimson shows since the early '80s, and I'm a big fan of that stuff and of [Adrian] Belew and [Robert] Fripp and all that. So we certainly knew what we were doing. It wasn't just a cavalier "oh, let's mess with prog because it's goofy." We took it very, very, very seriously.
As far as doing anything music-related in the future, do you have any thoughts about other music docs you might like to take a shot at?
I mean, there's things I want to do. I'm interested at some point - and if someone else does it first, I'd be perfectly happy, just so someone gets it done! - but no one has really covered post-punk in an interesting way, in a real character-driven way. And that really was my era, so that's something I'm looking to do if no one else does it. That interests me a lot, because it gets into the politics and the social climate of that era, as well as the artistic. That's what always interests me as a doc filmmaker: it's one thing to make groovy music, but you're still a human being, trying to figure out how to do that and live your life, and those things often intertwine in interesting ways. I like docs that actually get into that kind of stuff and examine the people and what they're living through.
I've got an 18-year-old daughter, and I just recommended that she should check out 24 Hour Party People.
That's one of my favorites! It's not a doc, obviously, but it plays like one, almost. But, yeah, I love that movie so much. It's great. And it's interesting that you mention that, because when I pitched this, I kind of pitched it as the doc version of that! Because it's very much about the UK as much as it is about the US, what I'm looking to do.