Tashi Dorji’s new album is a provocative encapsulation of national anxieties

THE REVOLUTION WILL BE IMPROVISED: Longtime Asheville-area guitarist Tashi Dorji didn’t have a "grand anarchic moment" while making his new album, "Stateless," but his playing was nonetheless informed by reflections on his activist heroes. "I don’t need to be in a punk band to be rebelling against the state,” he says. Photo by Brian Connors Manke

Last year, for one of the first times in his life, veteran Asheville-area guitarist Tashi Dorji realized he was thinking too much about playing his instrument rather than simply playing it.

Dorji emerged across much of the last decade as one of the country’s preeminent and most electrifying improvisers. Tapping the aggressive energy and radical politics of punk and metal inside free jazz’s high-wire act of composing in the moment, Dorji has built a hyperintuitive internal language for guitar, far beyond its quotidian norms. He plucks, pops and grinds against electric or acoustic strings, then bounds or plows between fragments of slanted quasi-chords. His melodies are gnarled like knotty branches if they’re not broken into bits — his textures sometimes evocative of a salvage yard splintering cars into sheet metal. It’s jarring, enthralling and, as he’s happy to admit, polarizing.

“This music is not meant for creating entertainment,” Dorji says, smiling as he sits atop the gray wooden bridge that crosses a creek at the end of a long mountain driveway on the edge of Madison County. Clad in black jeans and a black long-sleeve T-shirt, Dorji waves at every neighbor and names them as they pass.

“As I grow older, I know my music is not just for performance or making money or achieving anything, really,” he continues. “It’s a purely intimate practice, aligned with my core philosophical ideas, like anarchic tendencies.”

Inspired wandering

Three years ago, Drag City — one of indie rock’s most fabled labels and a longtime vanguard of its more esoteric fringes — approached Dorji about making a new album. For 30 years, the label has famously released music by post-rock architects Slint, Kentucky bard Will Oldham, rapturous harpist Joanna Newsom and producer-extraordinaire Jim O’Rourke. What, Dorji wondered, would Drag City want with his abrasive abstractions?

“I make this music because I don’t have to go through the process of aesthetics — I play, and it instantaneously becomes something,” Dorji says. “But I was trying to impress the label — like I had to make some ‘badass’ guitar record. I remember thinking, ‘This is so stupid.’”

Still, for two years, Dorji faltered and waffled, sending disconnected improvisations to Drag City co-founder Dan Koretzky and trying to tease out what would work best on such a prestige imprint. Koretzky told Dorji to stop and to capture whatever excited him. During a surge of inspiration, Dorji asked his friend Patrick Kukucka to record him in the wood-floored dance studio above the French Broad Food Co-Op, where he worked part time in downtown Asheville. He’d previously strummed his guitar in the room a few times during breaks and liked its acoustics — but that was the extent of his preparation.

The result of that single 90-minute take is Stateless, 10 tracks of acoustic improvisation, broken into suites with titles like “End of State” and “Now.” The album name refers to Dorji’s lack of stateside citizenship and the liminality that status entails, plus his desire to live in a less hierarchical world.

One of Dorji’s most accessible but paradoxically challenging albums to date, Stateless is a wordless manifesto that interrogates our national failures and reimagines a better, more collective future. The playing is often frantic and occasionally hopeful, with Dorji sometimes repeating notes or themes like speed bumps on the path to liberation. It’s hard to imagine a more frank or urgent encapsulation of these anxious American hours.

“I didn’t have this grand anarchic moment for Stateless, but when I start to play, that process is happening. I’m thinking about [early 20th century anarchist] Emma Goldman or [late ’90s political hardcore band] His Hero Is Gone or Black radicals,” Dorji says. “Those thoughts supplement the improvisations. I don’t need to be in a punk band to be rebelling against the state.”

Existential improvisations

Dorji, 42, was born in Bhutan, a country about the size of Maryland that’s landlocked by Tibet to the north and India to the south — its vast mountains flanked by a dense forest canopy. Alternative rock and mainstream metal captivated him as a kid, painting a romantic picture of the U.S. as an ideal land of defiant artists. “I had a parochial vision — rock ’n’ roll, Smashing Pumpkins videos, red-headed kids, cars,” he remembers, laughing at this expired naïveté. “‘Oh, that is where music happens, and I want to be there.’”

After chancing upon Warren Wilson College in a university catalog, he mailed a handwritten entreaty for admission and, four months later, received a scholarship offer. Soon after Dorji arrived in Western North Carolina in 2000, his view of the U.S. warped just as it bloomed. He dove into underground metal and leftist politics — dual passions that dovetailed through their examinations of American injustice. When he started to discover improvised music, he saw an open platform where he could forcefully express such ideas. And the genre’s lack of form and permanence — you play anything, and the sound soon vanishes — appealed to his Buddhist past.

“I was always told to go to monastery and practice, but I’m not good at meditation or reciting old scriptures,” Dorji says. “This music is the closest I can get to my home and my culture — its ideas of impermanence or emptiness. This is the only way I’ve ever gotten close to that spiritual realm.”

Dorji’s music is, by nature, opportunistic: He responds to novel situations — say, the way a concert hall sounds or an audience interacts with him — in real time, funneling the moment into the music and responding in turn. He’s an avid collaborator, too, maintaining steady duos with percussionists Thom Nguyen (MANAS) and Tyler Damon, and making one-off records with the likes of Deerhoof’s John Dieterich and Isis’ Aaron Turner. Listening to Dorji, you also get the sense that he’s memorized every inch of his guitar, mapping it in order to reroute its sound. But he rarely practices.

“This music is not present in a way — it sparkles and disappears,” he says. “It doesn’t really exist. The volatile nature of improvised music makes me more inquisitive. What’s the opposite of encountering?”

Given that elusive ideal of creation, the pandemic has presented new existential challenges for Dorji. How do you respond to new settings, for instance, when you’re at home? And how do you interact with a crowd of one? Or how do you maintain a tenuous career built on touring when the end of the driveway is as far as you momentarily roam?

Dorji has confronted that last challenge through the online music platform Bandcamp, where he sells enough archival improvisations each month to make his mortgage payment. (A recently released duet with bassist Luke Stewart is enormous and intricate.)

As for making new music, he seems content to admit that now is not the time. While his partner, Meredith Bliss Silver, attends graduate school, he’s home schooling their two children, Jetsun and Talice, and considering ways to prepare his family and community for scenarios of ecological or economic doom. When he’s ready, Dorji knows the guitar — and his desire to consider how he sees the world by playing it — will remain, a sort of new folk expression for these unraveling times.

“My involvement with life right now is teaching my children and growing with them every day, so not having motivation to make music doesn’t feel hollow,” he says. “Improvisation has become such a vital force for me that I don’t see it as separate from my life. It lives in me. I can play anytime.” tashidorji.bandcamp.com


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Grayson Haver Currin
Grayson Haver Currin has written for NPR, Pitchfork, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and more. He was the music and managing editor of the Independent Weekly in Raleigh for more than a decade. He now lives in Hot Springs with his wife, Tina, and so many pets. Follow me @currincy

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.