Ted Milton, of Blurt: Something Else! Interview

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Ted Milton leads Blurt, a band whose music crosses and merges boundaries. He is a poet, puppeteer and sax player. Blurt have had numerous releases on numerous labels and their music continues to inspire and prove popular across the age groups.

After an almost non-start with Factory Records, they released a set recorded on Armageddon label, were offered a session on John Peel’s radio show and since then have played virtually non-stop in one form or another. Blurt have played with bands like Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and also undertaken harrowing tours under their own banner. Ted Milton has made his own single or two, and the band have spent decade playing music which is now finally being appreciated as the non-genre, non-anything but original music it always was.

Ted’s saxophone playing has been described as “terrible” by those with no ears and “wondrous” by those who can hear. Blurt have come and gone in the consciousness of the commercially minded sellers of music and their music has been different at different times, reflecting the place where Ted’s heart was at the time. Players came, went, stayed but always they have centered on the enigmatic and juxtapositioned-to-society Ted Milton.

After hearing their latest album Bomb – which is a joy, by the way – I decided to catch up with this enigmatic, creative man.

Milton’s earliest years were divided between Canada, Nigeria and England. “We stayed a year or two in Putney,” he said. “I can remember ration cards, the stink of paraffin heaters and the all-pervading damp. Small boys with scabs on their knees on scooters made from two un-planed strips of wood joined by two screw eyes and a nail, decorated with bottle tops hammered into the upright section. En route to Lagos, I recall the blast of hot air when deplaning at Tripoli. In Lagos’ colonial compound, there was the cacophonous croaking of thousands of frogs in the rainy season.”

His musical journey started with “contorted and aborted attempts to abuse a cornet at secondary school – the first of two, I’m proud to say I was expelled from – and failing to work out whether to play a guitar left-handed or right-handed. In 1989, Herman Martin, [a synth player Ted worked with from around 1985] produced a Selmer alto model cigar cutter [sax] from the boot of his Morris Oxford. It wasn’t long before the neighbors sold up.”

On his musical influences, Ted includes “early rock and roll, early Ska, ‘Arab’ music, Oulm Kasoum, Berber, Rembetika, post-Viennese, the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, R&B, as in Howlin’ Wolf, bop including Monk and Miles, Eric Dolphy on alto – this is my latest re-discovery. I just can’t believe how brilliant this man was.”

Ted Milton formed Blurt around 1980 with his brother Jake on drums and Pete Creese on guitar. “We played our first show a couple of months after I’d begun to obsess with the alto,” he said. “My embouchure was so undeveloped it failed half way through the gig, with feeble sputtering sounds emerging. Over the years, Paul Wigens, Nic Murcott, Bob Lieth and David Aylward have played the drums, after Jake left. David has been with the band for over 10 years now and, since Pete Creese left, the guitar has been played by Chris Vine and Steve Eagles [Satan’s Rats, the Photos]. They’ve must have been with me for over 20 years now. I’ve worked intermittently with other musicians – including the 20-plus piece orchestra Back-To-Normal when I lived in Brussels in the late ’90s and one-off recordings here and there. For example, the [1984] single “Love is Like a Violence” with Steve Beresford. Also, projects outside of Blurt include a performance called the Odes, which toured in 2007 with lap-top musician Sam Britton. I also have a show with Sam called In Kharm’s Way, which features interpretations of Kharm’s writings. I recently completed an album with Graham Lewis [from Wire] and Sam called Elegiac. As yet, we have not found a suitable label for this work.” Ted has taken his talents far and wide, including working in France with some improv musicians – including a cine-concert project.

Currently, Ted Milton listens to a range of sounds including Booker T, Ornette Coleman and Bartok. Favorite tracks might include “Green Onions,” “Ramblin'” and Bartok’s String Quartet No. 4, Movement 5. He also jokes that his current “listen to” sounds include the washing machine, the Hoover, 6 a.m. dustbin lorries, sirens and trains. (He has 4 tracks close to his house.)

When I asked Ted what keeps him playing, his answer was succinct. He simply said “addiction,” which says it all really. Milton has his own studio and his hobbies include making books and limited-edition CDs. He also cites literature as one of his hobbies. In between, his life is often filled with Blurt-related adventures.

“Once upon a time, soon after the cessation of the Balkans conflict,” Milton said, “Blurt caught the bus in Zargreb. It was the middle of winter, many degrees below. We made our way through snow-encrusted mountains, mortar-pocked buildings and cemeteries to Mostar. At one point, the bus stopped, the driver dismounted and began thrashing the front wheel with a herculean tire iron before driving on through iced-up canyons, inching along beside vertiginous precipices. In Mostar, we played in a tent where the guitar player’s finger froze. I broke off frozen shards of my breath and sold them as ‘alco-pops.’ All that could be seen of the audience was their eyes, as they were in balaclavas and scarves. They wore gloves and, although their applause was enthusiastic, it was therefore faint. Next morning, the promoter drove us to the railway station without the picnic hamper he’d promised. Once the train started off on the 18-hour journey back to Zagre,b the buffet trolley arrived – only there was beer and no food at all. We got drunk, slept, work up, got drunk, slept, woke up – that shameful cycle thrice repeated. Finally, we woke up back in Zagreb.”

Ted Milton also remembers complaining to their French agent Gilles Yepramian when he had to leave Bordeaux at 5 in the morning to be at a sound check in Paris at midday. His agent simply replied, “Ees rack en rrroool!”

Blurt still tour and recently released Bomb, recorded live at Cafe Oto for Salamander records. It is a phenomenal album and well worth a listen with its eclectic and intriguing sounds.

What is interesting about Blurt – one of many things for this writer – is that back in the day, record companies showed an interest but wanted to dictate how they played. Label execs also said their line up had to include a bass player. Blurt refused and forged their own musical pathway, proving that maverick attitudes can and do work at times – though there have been plenty of times when it felt like the end. Interest from recording companies has come and gone but Blurt have continued their resolute path, which is all their own.

Blurt’s music has been branded “jazz,” “post-punk,” “dance” and “experimental” but, really, any pencil-pusher names cannot define an act like this. Blurt is, well, Blurt – and whilst major recording companies never really understood their music, they made and retain a solid core of followers with a renewed and growing interest. There have been periods when it seemed like Blurt were over but, in 1996, a revival of interest happened and the album Celebrating the Bespoke Cell of Little Ease was released on Bahia. Not commercially popular at the time, it is now a much-sought-after recording.

By the early 2000s, Blurt were back in fashion, and Salamander Records – an offspring of Bahia – released The Fish Needs a Bike: The Best of Blurt Volume 1 in 2003 and The Body That They Built to Fit the Car: The Best of Blurt Volume 2 in 2006. Blurt were re-discovered and a whole new audience tuned into the music. They were asked to play Glastonbury, Recontres Transmusicales in Rennes and some exclusive one-off gigs.

On the art front, Ted Milton enjoyed recognition too with invitations for the Berlin International Literature Festival and to join the series of concerts with “Odes,” organized in the framework of Patti Smith’s art show at the Fondation Cartier in Paris in June 2008. “In Berlin” and their tracks off the “Factory Quartet” got re-released on LTM Records and after nearly 10 years, they even recorded a brand new album titled Cut It, also released on LTM Records.

He continues to put books together and I am the proud owner of the Ted Milton Textbook, which he sent me. Personally, I have found Milton to be enthusiastic, creative in his writings and affable. Blurt, meanwhile, remain enigmatic and inspirational – probably more now than ever – and Milton’s sax playing is a major feature. He was once told by Don Cherry that his playing reminded him of the Ornette Coleman days, and his ability to carve shapes, introduce off-beat rhythm and to accurately place a dis-harmonic note is superb.

Ted Milton is disparaging of his playing yet has a gift of technical displacement and harmonic intervention which is seldom heard in modern players. Coupled with steady and strong support from guitar and drums, the Blurt experience is a musical journey. There may be puppets, there will be poetry and there will be amazing sounds. And finally, Blurt have found appreciation and a(nother) whole new audience.

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