Louis Burdett is a drummer, mystic, and epic weirdo. He got his musical education in the Navy, where he formed a band called FTN (Fuck The Navy). Afterwards, he went deep into Australia’s jazz scene, where his far-out excellence wasn’t necessarily welcome. Rumors that he’d overcooked himself on acid circulated amongst the boy’s clubby jazz scenes in Australia’s major cities, despite the fact that Louis consistently outplayed his bandmates.
Regardless, he departed the Aussie jazz scene for the bush. He’s been exploring self through nature, and the interaction between the two, ever since. Whether playing free jazz high on acid, reading the Bhagavad Gita, or finding the rhythms in the wind, Burdett has spent his life on a wild, spiritual adventure.
So we’re out here in the bush. To start, can you tell us about your relationship with nature?
In my exclusion or my alienation from the music scene, I came and lived in the bush. You can hear the leaves here, that’s the best. It’s better than some of the best ambient music that I listen to on my iPhone. It’s helped me see things beyond this galaxy. There’s so much rhythm and harmony out here that goes way beyond anything anybody can possibly write. No matter how complex. That’s also the reason why John Cage invented that piece of music “Four Minutes and Thirty Three Seconds” (of silence) because there’s so many sounds around. If you were to write them down they would be incredibly complex. The more I experimented with new music, the closer it came to the sounds that nature makes — like polyphony and harmonies and polyrhythms.
Why don’t you feel like you fit in with the rest of Australia’s music scene?
I got pushed away from the jazz scene because I went into this experimental area. I started experimenting with LSD and things like that that made me want to be part of nature in more spiritual ways. People said, “Oh, Louis has taken too much acid he can’t play in time anymore. Louis Burdett can’t play drums anymore blah blah blah.” And things started going pear shaped in that direction so I went up north to get away. I could never get back into the jazz scene because it was very nepotistic. They’d use people that they went to school with, which I guess applies to a lot of jobs, a lot of scenes. They were all rich kids and all the members were mates they went to school with. So as far as the alienation thing, the old school tie thing was part of it. Some people said I didn’t fit in because of the tall poppy thing. They don’t like you if you get too good. I was told by my nephew’s uncle that I was thrown out of a band because I was showing the rest of the band up.
Can you talk a bit about the tall poppy syndrome?
In Australia, there’s this thing called the tall poppy syndrome. You can hear the kookaburras laughing now because that’s how funny it is. It comes right back from the colonial days when England sent their ships full of convicts here and so anybody that rose above their standard — [say] if you are a criminal and all of a sudden you started acting like a posh rich person — you were still scum. That’s where tall poppy syndrome comes from. It exists in a lot of countries, but maybe more so here because we’re so isolated from the rest of the world. I don’t know what a flower’s got to do with it. I don’t know why it’s a poppy. No one was taking heroin back then even though I think it was legal.
Let’s take a few steps back. How did you get into music in the first place?
I didn’t discover music ‘til late because this country is of a colonial nature and restricted other cultures from having an influence until recently. After three years of boarding school — two years in Adelaide where I was born and one year in England — we came back and settled in Brisbane. I fell in love with music on the way back to Australia. I got trumpet lessons but then I switched to drums, auditioned for the navy band and became a full time percussionist. Two years training in the Navy, I learnt timpani and vibraphone and did the whole Australian Music Examination Board and then went to sea. It was not until I joined the Navy that I discovered other music because Australian radio was very white dominated. I heard no black music until I joined the Navy and met this Sri Lankan guy who I formed a band with.
I never knew about your stint in the navy. Can you talk about that?
I had no desire to be in the military, but school was boring and Australia is still a little backward with musical education. The only education they had was the cadet band where I played bugle. They gave me so much homework. I’d finish homework at midnight then I’d get up two hours early in the morning and practice drums or trumpet or both depending on what period it was.
So how did you end up getting into experimental music?
I got out of the navy and met up with a piano player, I did club gigs and Greek restaurants and casino backing acts, things like that. At twenty-one I auditioned for this group from Chicago with Doug Williams and Bobby Warren that was looking for a drummer. I got the gig and was taught about playing music with dynamics. I’d be playing so soft that I’d be miming, and yet so loud that I’d be doing off beats on the Chinese type cymbal. I’d never played with dynamics like that before. It was that education with Doug Williams and Bobby Warren in Powerhouse that also gave me the respect and confidence. There’s enormous respect for drumming in America due to the Afro-American and the Latin influence.
Where’d you go from there?
After a year of playing with Powerhouse, things weren’t going well because of politics. We went through three different managers and I was getting frustrated because we were just on an eighty bucks a week retainer and I was really young and enthusiastic. I just wanted to play music. We did a tour to Perth played at Beethoven’s, I gave the whole band acid which was great fun. It was one of the best musical experiences I’ve ever had. But that’s beside the point, after a while I was getting restless. So I quit and pursued, for want of a better name, free jazz along the lines of John Coltrane, Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
How did audiences respond to your free jazz?
I’ll go back to the first jazz fest that I was gonna tell you about. Myself, Peter Kelly, Brian Brown, Mark Simmons, and Eddie Bronson played completely free form style but no one in Australia had done. The audience just went crazy. It was the loudest booing I’ve ever heard in my life. They were just throwing rotten tomatoes and apples and everything at us. I didn’t really care — you can edit this out if you want — but I’d just dropped twelve mushrooms and I was in a very high space.
Talk a bit about psychedelics and music.
I do want to tell these conservative jazz people and the conservative people that may be listening that this is not necessarily an outrageous thing. I want to remind you that John Coltrane, my spiritual guru at the time, used to drop loads of LSD and play for hours upon hours. It’s not a decadent drug for going out partying. These were times where Baba Ram Dass would write books like Be Here Now and there’d be Timothy Leary talking about the spiritual side of LSD. So I was in a very high spiritual state and and all the tomatoes and shit didn’t bother me. I was so beyond it. It was just beautiful.
What was the Aussie jazz scene like back then?
A lot of the jazz around in those days was pretty lame. It was imitation of Charlie Parker but half tempo instead of 220 BPM. After all, it is the music that came from Afro-American culture and so Australians playing that kind of music are not going to get a handle on it. Just like people that imitate Bach are not going to be playing like Bach. It’s the same with every type of music whether it be black, white, yellow, or green. Green music, I’ll talk about later. New music in any kind was very, very rare in Australia. Funk was very rare. That’s why I don’t think Powerhouse took off because I remember as a young person they never played black music on the radio because it was quite a racist country. When James Brown came here for the first time he was already seventy years old and no one had even heard of James Brown. So it was very cut off from the rest of the world. Very primitive in that respect.
What happened when you left the music scene?
So after dropping out of the music scene I went to England for a year, then I got married and ended up having a kid but that relationship didn’t work out. I spent a lot of time trying to be a father. But I was prevented from doing that, so to cut a long story short, I came back to Sydney and started doing club work. The thing that helped me cope with being separated from my son and being separated from the thing that I loved the most in my life, music, was reading the Bhagavad Gita. I read the Bhagavad Gita and of course Be Here Now and Timothy Leary. The Bhagavad Gita was the main book that taught me detachment. Detachment from music, detachment from having to be someone, detachment from wanting to achieve anything, detachment from any attachment that as humans slow us down in our spiritual evolvement.
What are your thoughts on the direction of jazz?
Jazz became something that your grandma listens to for reasons of nostalgia. That’s when I started playing with punk bands like the Real Fucking Idiots and Paranoia Club because punk had more flavor. Bands like Iggy Pop, Dead Kennedys and Sex Pistols and all that stuff. It was more interesting than jazz because it had that flavor of ‘I don’t give a fuck and I’m just gonna play what I feel and fuck the system.’ It was expressing what you feel instead of expressing something that was written down on a piece of paper or played by some dude 50 years ago. You can’t repeat something and expect it to be the same because that is imitation.
Is all music destined to become conservative?
All music becomes conservative as even the most genius Van Gogh painting becomes conservative: because the nature of humans is marketing. When Van Gogh painted his paintings people didn’t understand that color, that complexity. It’s all about money. The Statue of Liberty doesn’t mean what it is supposed to mean any more. It’s an icon. And that’s what they’re trying to do: sell their product.
Piggybacking off that, can you talk a bit about your spiritual learning?
People are becoming more aware that if we want to really advance as human beings, not just human beings with two arms and legs, but human beings evolved and combined with our spiritual selves, then we want to evolve into a higher level of human beings where we are also spiritual. All these trees around, they’re already there. Trees are some of our best friends and they are already in the spiritual world. That doesn’t mean that they’re stupid because they haven’t been to university. It means that they’re intelligent in a way that humans haven’t discovered yet. People are still discovering that to evolve, one has to be a part of what one is. What we are is a part of the earth. The indigenous people were part of the land — whether it be in Africa, Asia, or Australia. The indigenous people are actually more evolved as human beings than the Western conquerors because they are part of the land.
What are some of your favorite aspects of nature?
When you hear the frogs and the cicadas. Cicadas are lovely creatures that shed their skins, like these beautiful beautiful snakes. I love snakes. One time I lived in this little hut and made a prayer to a snake because I was going back to Sydney for two weeks. I said “Please snake can you come and live here for a while and get rid of all the rats?” And when I got back there was this big long snake and all the rats were gone. I love that. We are all here now because nature is everything. Nature is God. Sorry I hate that word. There is only one and that’s one love. We’re here with nature and nature has taught me so much. Nature is the healer. It is the ultimate healer.
Any other thoughts while you’re on camera or that you want to get off your chest?
There’s one thing that my chest and New York have got in common: we’re a long way from Manly. Oh no, that’s an Australian joke, I can’t do that.
Haha right on man. Thanks for the chat Louis. Let’s go rock sliding.