Posted: March 6th, 2011 | Author: Vicki Ambinder | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, Interviews, Musician Resources | 5 Comments »
The following is Part 3 of my conversation about performance with TRAVIS BOOK, upright bassist and vocalist for Sugar Hill recording artists The Infamous Stringdusters. I spoke with Travis in Lyons, Colorado on July 25, 2010. More recently, the Stringdusters earned a Grammy® nominationin the Best Country Instrumental Performance category, for their recording of “Magic #9″ from their latest album, Things That Fly.
This interview has been posted in three weekly installments. In this installment, Travis discusses how he experiences other people’s performances . — VA
Do you get stage fright?
Travis Book: Not anymore.
Why do you think that is?
TB: Well, I’ve never really had stage fright – I used to have pre-gig anxiety. But I don’t know why I don’t get it anymore. I think it’s just that I know what I do is good. And it’s not for everybody, and I’m sure that people can be very critical of what I do. But I really like my music, and I trust the people that I play with, and I feel good about it. So, you know, again, if people aren’t into it, that’s totally cool. I’m less identified with the music that I play now – I think that may be a big part of it for me, personally, too. I feel less identified with it – it’s not who I am. It’s just a part of what I experience in the world. And if it doesn’t go well, that’s ok. If people don’t like it, then that’s fine, too. Because I think it’s all going to work out the way it’s supposed to.
Do you guys have a pre-show ritual that you do?
TB: We developed one lately. We’ll put our fists together and do a little, “Yeahh!” We all just try to get together and get on the same page. That’s about it – we don’t really do anything specifically. We have been trying to get everybody to get in a circle together and look at each other, and just tie our energy together real briefly before we go on. But that’s sort of recent – the last six or eight months, we started doing that. A recent development.
How did that start?
TB: I don’t know. Someone just did it at one show, and it was really fun. It just felt good to bump our fists – you know, like a bunch of guys, “We’re going onstage, we’re going to do this together. “ You know, you can’t go up there and do it alone, it takes every single person. So it’s like, “Put in the fists, look at all the hands.” You know? “See all your brothers around you. We’re all going to do this, let’s go do this.” And then we walk up onstage and we do it.
What gets you excited when you see what you consider to be a great performance?
TB: It’s just people who are totally original and genuine, just being themselves, playing music that’s true to their experience. And people that feel comfortable, because any time anybody’s at all uncomfortable onstage, it makes me uncomfortable. And it’s like a direct correlation: as uncomfortable as they are, is about as uncomfortable as I am watching them. And I also can’t watch people that don’t like each other, and I can tell – you can’t hide that. You can fake it all you want, but I see right through that. So I just want people to just be themselves, and do something original, and enjoy themselves, and be comfortable.
You must get to see a lot of music.
TB: I do, I see quite a bit of music, but I don’t see as much as I should. You know, I don’t really pass a lot of judgment anymore on music, because being a professional musician ruined my experience for a long time. I couldn’t just watch things and enjoy them for what they were. I was always trying to figure out what was going on, or learn something from it, and a lot of times, also, in bluegrass scene, I was being judgmental. And that’s because I was insecure, you know? I was watching other bass players and being like, “Hey, I can’t do that.” Or, “This is cool.” Or, “This is not good.” Or whatever. I was trying to identify it.
I think the shows that I like the best are the shows that I see that are my friends playing, people I have personal relationships with, because I have a real attachment to it. Just in general, it’s fun to watch people have a good time, but I’m getting better at just allowing music to wash over me, and not thinking as much about whether it’s “good” or “bad”. I tend to just watch people experience their own music. And that’s been really liberating.
But I don’t know, I don’t get as excited about music as I used to, because I kind of am into all of it. Like, I’m so psyched that people are out here picking, and I don’t really want to sit around and listen to a bunch of people play beginner banjo, but I also love it for a few seconds because it’s so cool to hear people figuring it out, because I understand the beginner mind. And I also understand what it’s like to be a professional musician – it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, there’s no magic there. We’re all human, and there’s only a few of us that are just absolute geniuses. So I like to watch people and, like, “Ok, cool, I like that music”, and then I go for a hike or do all the other things that interest me a lot.
Do you watch much video of yourself?
TB: Yeah, I’m just not interested. I guess I should probably watch – it would probably help my performance, for sure, to watch myself. And I tell my students to listen to themselves and watch themselves. I’ll listen to myself sometimes, but I don’t really watch myself. Because I’m conscious of becoming sort of like an “actor” – I try not to act. I’ve done some of that onstage. Like, I had a philosophy at one point of, even if I’m not having a good time, I’m going to act like it. And that was part of my path to learning how to just have a good time all the time, but it was really uncomfortable for me to be faking it – it felt sort of unreal. So I don’t really watch myself anymore – I don’t think about it. I don’t consciously try to perform like anything, I just try to pay really close attention. And it always makes me so happy, it makes me smile to watch people enjoy it. And listening to my bros absolutely rip – because they’re so good, you know? – that makes me happy enough, and that’s the performance, just me being present.
You do look very happy to be there, and you have a really comfortable manner. You’re very grounded, but you’re not stuck or static or closed, you know? You’re grounded but you’re flowing. Do you experience that? Do you feel like energy’s flowing through you?
Do you consciously notice that, or is that just how it is for you?
TB: Yeah, I think I notice that sometimes. But it’s also just how it is, I think.
Has it always been that way for you?
What do you think accounts for that coming to be?
TB: Life experience. Self-evaluation. Learning to move through the world. Increased understanding, or an interest in understanding how this all works, how best for me to move through the world, what I’m called to do – all those things, all that sort of self-evaluation that everybody’s got to do at some point, you know?
Some people never do.
TB: Yeah, some people never do, and that’s probably too bad. But I think that playing music, and the experience of being onstage, and life, have really sort of joined – it’s all sort of the same thing. You know, teaching people how to play bass has taught me a lot about the interconnectivity of everything. The mind is such a tricky thing – you’re mind’s got a mind of it’s own, and it does whatever it wants. I’m treating it like it’s a tool, sort of like my bass is a tool and it’s something that allows me to play music. I’m not necessarily “Bass Player”, that doesn’t define me, it’s just something that I do to express music. And ideally, my brain is just something that I use to function and to create things and to do things, but I don’t need it all the time. Getting it to turn off and be able to just kind of accept that when you label things as good and bad, it just raises problems and you set up a dichotomy, and then you have to decide which side of the fence you’re on or whatever. It’s sort of like, there’s no reason to have a good or bad show, you just go have a show and let it be what it is. And learning that about life has taught me that about music.
And also, I went through some really hard times where I had really bad shows, and I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t having a good time, and it was mostly just sort of a lack of perspective and presence – I wasn’t really paying attention. I sort of had my mind somewhere else. I was thinking about things – thinking about how nice it would be to be at home, or thinking about the guy who’s asleep in the front row of the bluegrass festival, or whatever it was – little things that would take me away from what was the easiest thing to be tuned into, which was just what was going on. And not being concerned about what’s coming – just sort of go up there and do your thing.
How do you get that to happen for you in the studio?
TB: I don’t play well in the studio. I don’t know, the problem with that is it’s all so permanent – there’s people listening, there’s so much pressure. Even though live shows are recorded, I still feel like I’m going to play it and it’ll be over, and it’ll just be sort of gone. I don’t get a lot of session work, partly because I’m just like a dude, I’m not like a crazy-good bass player. The studio isn’t my favorite place in the world.
Is there anything you want to improve in yourself as a performer?
TB: Yeah, I want to improve as a bass player. I’d like to be able to sing a little bit more consistently, too. But as far as the way I feel onstage, the things I say, stage presence – all the stuff that’s performing that’s not musical – I want to continue to grow as musician, but I haven’t had a bad show in, like, six months, because I have an awesome time. And it seems like the audience is pretty much right there with me. So I think what I’ve got going now, I’m satisfied with it. It’ll change. It’s an ongoing experience to practice – being onstage and being comfortable and playing music is an ongoing practice. So I’m sure it’ll evolve, but I’m not trying to do anything different at this point. And that’s because I feel so comfortable doing what I do, that I don’t want to change it necessarily.
TB: Cool. Mission accomplished!
Thanks again to Travis for taking the time for this in-depth conversation about performance. I highly recommend to my readers that they experience a Stringdusters show. Please also visit the Stringdusters’ web store or your local independent music store to check out the Stringdusters’ band and solo recording projects. – VA
Posted: February 27th, 2011 | Author: Vicki Ambinder | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, In The Zone, Interviews, Musician Resources | No Comments »
The following is Part 2 of my conversation about performance with TRAVIS BOOK, upright bassist and vocalist for Sugar Hill recording artists The Infamous Stringdusters. I spoke with Travis in Lyons, Colorado on July 25, 2010. More recently, the Stringdusters earned a Grammy® nominationin the Best Country Instrumental Performance category, for their recording of “Magic #9″ from their latest album, Things That Fly.
This interview is being posted in three weekly installments. In this installment, Travis discusses getting into the zone, both as an individual performer and as a band . — VA
How do you experience the audience as a performer? What does that energy feel like to you?
Travis Book: It’s like a two-sided coin, where the audience is all of the experience on the one hand, like the most important thing, and then on the other hand, they kind of don’t matter at all. And what I mean by that is that I don’t really take responsibility for their experience, and that’s the part of the coin where they don’t really matter – they don’t really matter to my experience. They do affect what I do, because I do want to entertain them, and I want them to enjoy themselves. And on the other hand, on the other side of the coin, they are every bit of the experience. The more the audience is open and is with us and is present in the moment, the less they’re thinking about another show they saw that was better, or the band before that was better, or what they wish we would be playing – the more they’re just there and letting it wash over them. And that might be talking to their friend, or it may be dancing. It may be singing along, or it may be getting a beer. But the more that they can just sort of be there and be enjoying themselves and just being in a positive head space, the better it is for us, and it’s everything for us.
We sort of stopped playing sit-down shows, because people would get in these comfy theater chairs, and they’d be totally digging it, but we couldn’t tell at all and there was nothing coming back. You’d get done with a show and they’d stand up and they’d clap and they’d want an encore and they’d buy lots of records, but the whole experience wasn’t the same as when people are doing what they really want to do. And a festival’s a prime example – at a festival, people can just sort of do their thing.
I taught this thing called “Getting Comfortable Onstage”, and I tell people, you know, you really owe it to yourself to figure out what you want your music to be like, or what kind of statement you want to make, and rehearse that, because that’ll help ease your nerves – being prepared is one part of it. But then when you go up onstage, you have to understand that as long as you’re doing what you set out to do, or, rather, as long as you’re being present, playing music or acting or anything, you have to believe that what you’re doing has intrinsic value. And if people don’t get it, if people bring their preconceptions in, or if it just hits them wrong, there’s nothing you can do about that.
I tell my students, if the audience doesn’t like it, well, fuck ‘em. There’s nothing you can do about that. The only thing you can maybe do is you can sell your soul to the devil of kitsch and cliché, and you can try to fire people up in some way that you’ve heard before, but if that’s not genuine to your experience, there’s nothing that you can do about the audience.
So that’s a really roundabout and confusing answer. On one hand, I need the audience, absolutely, to be a hundred percent on the same page with me for us all to have a great experience, for it to reach its true potential. But if the audience isn’t with me, if they don’t get it, it doesn’t really affect me anymore. And that has been a revelation. I mean, that’s just sort of a life philosophy, you know? If people don’t like you, well, it has nothing to do with you. And it’s absolutely the same thing when you go to perform. As long as you’re true to who you are, if they don’t get it, that’s totally fine. To each his own.
You’re in a situation where I would imagine that generally you’re showing up where people are psyched to see you, where the table is set for you in a nice way?
TB: That’s true.
And it’s nice to get to that point in your band’s career.
TB: Yeah, it’s easier to feel this way when you know that the people that hire you know what they’re getting, and most of the people that come to your show know what they’re getting.
You’re not struggling to win them over in any way.
TB: We still play a ton of free shows in parks, or we play to tons of people that have never heard us before. We’re just starting to get where people even know who we are. But there’s still a lot of people out there that have not heard our band. So there are still times where I have to combat that need to make people like it, or feel the pressure of having to succeed, having to play a great show. Sometimes the shows aren’t that great. But I always have a really good time. That’s the only thing that I can control – I can prepare, and then I can have a really awesome time.
How easy is it for you to access the zone as a member of the band, and how easy is it for the band to access the zone? Is that something that you can bring on, or does it just happen and you just have to enjoy it when it happens? The more you tour together and play together, do you feel like more of that is within your control of bringing it on?
TB: I see it as a practice, just like music is a practice or yoga is a practice, and it’s ongoing. And it gets easier to identify the things that keep me from that space.
What are they?
TB: Self-doubt. Or expectation. Or over-indulgence, you know? I used to party really hard when I played, and I don’t as much anymore because it has the potential to sort of turn on me and make me real self-conscious. It’s really just self-evaluation – it’s not being able to sort of be the listener. Whenever I get outside myself, it’s really easy. It’s sort of a tough question, but I think those are the things that get in my way.
So how do you experience the zone? What does it feel like to you when it happens?
TB: It’s just effortless – that’s the best way to describe it.
Do you appreciate it when it’s happening?
TB: Oh yeah.
And do you notice a difference in how you’re working with your band mates when it happens?
Do you feel like it’s kind of a contact high? Do people catch it from each other?
What is it like when that happens?
TB: These are good questions – these are hard to describe! I don’t know how to explain it.
I can tell you that everybody I interview struggles with questions about this topic.
TB: Yeah, this question is really hard! I don’t know, because when I’m in it and I start to think about it is when I leave it. So I’ve always just sort of tried not to worry about it too much or think about it too much. Can you re-phrase the question and give me another crack at it?
We were talking about the contact high version of the zone, where somebody in the band gets it, and then someone else catches it from them, and then the whole band is in it. And you as an individual can get in the zone, and then you might be able to do things that you didn’t even know you could do. But it also seems like the band as a whole can get into that space. How does that happen, and what does it feel like when it happens?
TB: There’s sort of almost like a hierarchy of needs when you’re onstage, like being able to hear what you need to hear, or if you can’t hear what you need to hear, total acceptance of not being able to hear it, putting that behind you. Any other things that could stand in your way, any other issues like someone else being in a bad mood, or someone not listening – I mean, for me, I’m in the zone when I’m listening, when my attention is completely outside myself and I’m the observer. The best seat in the house, that’s how I like to see it. And I think that the band can only achieve that when everybody is listening, and it’s hard because some people think that that’s more important than others, and some people, it’s more natural than others to participate in that way – to sort of drop their preconceptions about how things should go, or worrying about their instrument or their hands, or any of that stuff.
That’s part of the hierarchy – you have to be able to not worry about yourself physically, or your mental space. The thoughts sort of stop, and it just becomes presence and observation. And when I’m really feeling it, I’m able to feel like I’m playing my ass off, and singing exactly what I would want to sing, and I’m not even doing it – I’m watching myself do it. You know, there’s been a few times when I’ve been on the stage, and I’ve literally felt like I was in the audience.
I know exactly what you mean.
TB: And when I sang, I was blowing my own mind.
Yeah. “Look at that guy!”
TB: “How am I doing this? This is so sick!” And I was looking out into the audience, and they were, like, “Yeah, this is ridiculous!” And I was, like, “Yeah, this is awesome!” I felt like I was standing next to them, and we were looking at each other like, “This is sick! Yeah!” You know, we were hanging out. Because I’ve been that guy in the audience, right? So I think that’s when I feel like I’m in the zone, and I don’t know how I get there – I always just try to appreciate wherever I’m at, at the time.
It’s sort of like varying degrees. For me, I get a little closer as my needs are met. And sometimes I walk onstage and we just start, and we’re all sort of there, and it’s like a miracle, you know? But other times, you have to try to bring some of the guys in. Someone’s head’s a little behind, they’re a little too much in their own brain, they’re thinking about their instrument, so you’ve got to go over there and kind of engage them, bump into them, smile at them or something and be, like, “Dude, you’re not with us. Come on, man, come over here and hang out.” And that’s partly what the moving onstage does – you’re moving, you’re thinking about your spatial positioning, it distracts you from playing, so then you can just play, and you’re listening, you get by someone and listen.
To be continued…
Posted: February 17th, 2011 | Author: Vicki Ambinder | Filed under: Getting On Stage, Great Performances, Interviews, Musician Resources | 10 Comments »
The following is Part 1 of my conversation about performance with TRAVIS BOOK, upright bassist and vocalist for Sugar Hill recording artists The Infamous Stringdusters. I spoke with Travis in Lyons, Colorado on July 25, 2010. More recently, the Stringdusters earned a Grammy® nomination in the Best Country Instrumental Performance category, for their recording of “Magic #9″ from their latest album, Things That Fly.
This interview will be posted in three weekly installments. In this installment, Travis discusses the elements that contribute to the Stringdusters’ dynamic and highly entertaining live performance experience. — VA
When did you start getting the sense that you wanted to perform? How did that realization come to you?
Travis Book: I don’t remember a specific moment, but I do remember just sort of an underlying need for attention. And also – and it’s something that I’ve worked on, because it was difficult in my life – sort of a need for drama in my life. I think I started by acting out in class, and acting out at home. I wasn’t a really difficult kid, but I was an only child, so when I went to school and I got to be around kids, I found that when I was funny, and made an ass of myself, really, I got a lot of attention – both positive and negative. I think when I was in middle school I had detention, like, thirty-seven times I had to stay after class – and I think I may have had a crush on the teacher and not realized that’s what it was. But I’d say that was the first time that I can think of myself really craving attention, and feeling comfortable when people were paying attention.
I’ve found that some performers are incredibly shy, and the stage is the only place where they feel like they aren’t shy. It sounds like that’s not the case for you – that you don’t have any problem being the center of attention, just in general.
TB: No, and I still get into it in varying degrees. But it was something, I think, that grew out of a lot of insecurities I had.
TB: That’s a good question – just wanting to be accepted and have friends. And when you’re the center of attention, you’re The Man, you know? And I think that was mostly it – it just felt good to have people laughing and enjoying themselves. And being able to share that – that was something else, I think. I maybe didn’t realize it, but it’s always been really appealing. The thing that I liked so much about music, when I got into the music scene, was that, you know, I could hang out in the campground, and it wouldn’t necessarily be a performance, but it was like this shared experience with the people who were hanging out and watching. And people would coast in, and all of a sudden if a jam was really happening, and we were really doing something compelling musically, or if we were sort of performing a little bit, you’d get done with the song and you’d look around and there was people five deep and they were cheering because there was something sort of magical that happened there. And that’s not necessarily performance, but it was this sort of shared experience, which is a big part of my performance – trying to share something and make everybody a part of what’s going on.
I’ve often thought that it’s kind of a primal thing, like the cave dwellers sitting around the fire passing along the oral tradition, the enhanced experience – or the sharing of the common experience, the lore, the wisdom.
TB: Absolutely. And when I first started playing, I would learn tunes from older guys. And I was hanging out with guys that were fifty years old and retired and super-wealthy, and there were thirty-year-old dirt-bag ski bums, and we were all part of the same scene, and we all had this really common thread – which is a beautiful thing about bluegrass and acoustic music, and just the music scene in general.
Are you intentionally the front man of the Stringdusters, or did that just sort of happen?
TB: It just sort of happened. And some shows I’m more the front man than others. We have a really organic approach to the entire experience. We just try to be sort of present, and if you feel like getting up there and saying something, you do, and if you don’t, then that’s fine also. We used to do what most bluegrass bands do, which is talk between every song. We stopped doing that. We make chunks on our set list and we try to run the songs together, because the music is what’s really most important, and then when we actually say something, it can be something that’s compelling, and we can use it as a tool to sort of accelerate the energy in the show. Whereas, a lot of bluegrass, you get this tune rocking and the fans are loving it, and then you stop, and you’re, like, “Heyyyy, so-and-so’s from Denver…yaaaay!” And then you’ve got to start all over again. So, we’re using the talking as either a way to make it a low point, or as an opportunity to push it even higher, to get people really excited and engage them and communicate in a very real manner. And I think some of the guys in the band are more comfortable with that than others, so it’s just sort of been a natural progression for us.
One thing I love about what you guys do is how things are so fluid up on the stage, how you’re like a constantly shifting amoeba up there. How did that come about?
TB: We started out as a bluegrass band, playing in front of six microphones, you know? We started to think the sound would be better, and it would be cooler, if we could be plugged in, because mics have feedback issues and that sort of thing. So we started plugging in, and we were still using mics and we still had monitors on the floor, but you have to stay close to your monitor to be able to hear. So we figured out that in-ear monitors would be better, because we could hear better and there wouldn’t be feedback issues. So we got those, and then the dobro player, once he found he had good pickup tone, he ditched his mic – and all of a sudden he could move around. And I was already moving around, because I had my pickup on my instrument, and I had my microphone in the instrument. And so even though the bass is hard to move, you can actually move. I wasn’t grounded to a microphone and I wasn’t dependant on that monitor, right? So we realized that once you started ditching the mics, it cleaned up the stage and it allowed us to move around, and because we weren’t trapped to the monitors – we had the in-ears.
So ditching the mics became our mission, and about two years ago we got our sound guy who travels with us, and all of those things came together and we started playing without microphones. And therefore all of the normal rules of where you would normally stand, all of a sudden you could basically stand anywhere, unless you went to sing. And it allows this really amazing thing where, you know, if you’ve got six guys standing at the front of the stage and one guy goes to take a solo, you may not have any idea who it is, unless you can immediately identify the banjo or the instrument that’s playing. So now the singer, the center of attention, is encouraged to stand up at the front and everybody gathers around them. And it allows us to hear each other and play with each other, and it makes things much more interesting. And it makes it easier for the audience to know where to send their attention.
So the long answer to your question is that it happened really organically and sort of by accident. And we realized not long ago that it was super-cool. We started doing it just because it was fun to engage your energy with a different person onstage. And I noticed that people tended to pay attention to what I was paying attention to, you know? And if I zone out, people zone out, and if I look at them, they look at me, and if I look at the soloist, they look at the soloist. It’s not that everyone’s paying attention to me, but, you know, you’re sort of sweeping around the stage and someone directs your attention somewhere, and then you get tuned into what you’re supposed to. So it just sort of happened naturally, and I think it’s one of the best things we’ve got going for ourselves right now, that the stage show is so dynamic and different and interesting every time.
Do you feel that the individuals in the band are all on the same page in terms of performance styles, and if so, what do you think it does for you as performers and as a band to be on the same page?
TB: I think it’s everything, and we haven’t always been on the same page. We’re more on the same page now than we ever have been. That is to say, when we started out, everyone had all this different experience. We had all kinds of experience playing onstage, but not together. And we didn’t really know what it was going to take to make us successful, or even what we were going to be like when we finally put ourselves together – what we were going to turn into. And so everyone’s personalities changed. I think being in a band has challenged us more personally than it has even musically. And obviously it’s challenged us musically – we’ve all done more growing musically in the last five years than in the prior fifteen – but personally, we’ve all really come around to finding a really peaceful way of being together and communicating,
There’s times where I almost feel it’s almost like we’re a monastery. You know, we had a couple days off, and we were hanging out in this beautiful place, and there’s guys sitting up on the porch hanging out, there’s guys doing yoga down in the yard, there’s a couple of guys meditating, a few guys playing music, and everyone’s really relaxed and open. And when we can go onstage and everyone’s got that same attitude that, you know, the most important thing is that we have a good time together and we respect each other and listen to each other, then it becomes really good and we become more of the same person. So our personalities have become really similar, and we all want the same things out of the show.
When we started out, there was a real big thing in bluegrass – you have to play well, and there was this expectation that you’re going to sound a certain way and that you’d be competent in your instrument in a certain way. And we were fortunate that we could sort of hang with any bluegrass band. But it was almost like we were as tight as Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, but we were as loose as Yonder Mountain String Band. Or the Grateful Dead or Phish, maybe, is an even better analogy – a band that was open to new experiences but also could play together, and knew that when it was time to play we could play.
So it’s been an ongoing evolution of how we play together and how we listen to each other. But learning to respect each other, ultimately, is the most important thing. It makes it really easy. When your focus is on listening to and loving the people you’re onstage with, then you don’t really have to worry about performing, because that’s the best kind of performance you can give as a musician – just to be present and enjoy yourself.
I’m always talking to my clients about being present, and working with them on relaxation techniques and ways of re-gathering your focus and “being here now”. And it really shows when that’s not the case.
TB: Right. I tell my bass students, playing music with other people is a lot like meditation, where your attention will waver from where it’s supposed to be. You know, thoughts arise in meditation, but you don’t harp on yourself for having thoughts. When you recognize you’re thinking, you just bring yourself back to the present. It’s the same thing with music. When you recognize that your attention is too much on yourself, when your attention is somewhere other than what’s happening in the moment – who’s singing, who’s soloing, what’s going on in the audience, any of those things – your attention can be a lot of places other than be in the present, but you just bring yourself right back there, and then the music all of a sudden will just sort of congeal.
To be continued…
Posted: November 28th, 2010 | Author: Vicki Ambinder | Filed under: Interviews, Musician Resources | No Comments »
Here is the fourth and final installment of my interview with multi-instrumentalist, world-touring musician, prolific record producer, and Adventure Music recording artist Mike Marshall. You can find additional information about Mike at the beginning of the first installment. –VA
Are there things that you are afraid of as a performer – things you tend to shy away from doing? Or are you turned on by fear – do you go towards fear?
Mike Marshall: You know, I don’t know. I think we all have our comfort zone. I mean, there are things I don’t like – I don’t like really loud music, so I don’t know if that’s a fear, or I’m just trying to save myself! But I think you have to be in your comfort zone. And yet, I’ve spent my life pushing myself. But you have to push yourself in degrees – you have to step into that unstable part of marshland when you’re actually ready for it. And so I suppose there are some things that I’m not ready to do yet. I’m not sure if it’s fear, though – I think it’s practicality! I know what my boundaries are.
When you were starting out with David Grisman, that must have been kind of scary at times.
MM: Yeah, for sure that was. And I think of those days, and I think about how much of a thick skin that gave me early on. I mean, I moved here [to the San Francisco Bay Area] at age 19, and immediately, the same week that I arrived, all those guys went down to L.A. to record the soundtrack to the King of the Gypsies movie, with a full orchestra and Stéphane Grappelli and Tony Rice and Ray Brown on bass – I mean, it was ridiculous. And I just got thrust into that, and then three months later we were touring and playing Carnegie Hall. So I guess having those kinds of experiences gives you, then, a reference so that nothing can flap you.
Did you get stage fright during that time?
MM: Not really. I mean, there would be moments here or there where I’d be thinking, “Dear god, this is unbelievable.” The first time I saw the [David Grisman] Quintet live, I was in the band. So, you know, that pretty much did it. It was, like, ok, where do we go from here? And the same with Stéphane Grappelli. I remember when we toured all over England with Stéphane’s band – with Martin Taylor on guitar, and Diz Disley and all these guys, and then we were playing, and then we’d all jam at the end on a couple tunes.
Well, we went over to the Continent, and arrived in Brussels without his band, and we were now going to back up Stéphane on all these standards that he was playing, and no rehearsal. He was going to arrive at 7:00 for the 8:00 show, and we had to get there, and then had maybe two hours to work on all this music. You should have seen us scrambling – it was unbelievable. And then I look down in the audience, and there’s Toots Thielemans in the front row – one of the greatest harmonica players, but also one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time, and I was playing guitar. And then the next night, we’d be in the south of France, and there would be a whole group of Gypsies down in the front, and Stéphane would get so mad. He’d go, “Zose are Django [Reinhardt]’s relatives! Zey always come to ze shows. I hate zis!” And I’m thinking, “Ok, so we’ve got Django’s cousins down in the front row checking out the guitar player tonight. Relaaaaax, chill, have a good tiiiiime!”
“What could possibly go wrong?”
MM: And then you got [Mark] O’Connor – you know, O’Connor’s on guitar, and Darol [Anger]’s on fiddle, so, you know, what’s that do to Darol’s inner strength? And then Mark gets up and plays “Tiger Rag” with Stéphane. It was just a very hot environment – very charged. And so I think that being around those kinds of energy fields kind of toughens you, and makes you understand that you actually don’t ever die from these experiences. You think you’re going to, but in the end, you walk off the stage and you haven’t fallen to pieces! So the next time you’re in a situation like that, you’re kind of built for it or something. I reference off that, playing with Hamilton [de Holanda], playing with Chris [Thile] – how are you going to flap me, if you’re a mandolin player? How are you going to throw me off my game, when I’ve had those guys, you know, sword fighting?
You know, I’ve seen you play with Thile a number of times, and a number of times I’ve been in the front row…
MM: Oh god…
…and I don’t even know how to describe it as an audience member. I find myself sweating, just because I’m working hard, too, you know? And maybe people who aren’t necessarily needing to parse what you’re doing musically aren’t sweating as much.
MM: But you’re actually trying to take it in.
Yeah, I’m trying to keep up with what’s happening with theory, and what’s going on with the emotional expression, and how you’re talking to each other musically. And that happens in the recordings as well, but of course it’s a whole different thing when you’re seeing the communication between you two, the little micro-filaments that are waving in the sea as you’re catching what’s going by. And it seems to me that it must be a combination of energizing and draining at the same time.
MM: I think it’s mostly energizing. Yeah, I remember coming off the stage on all those tours feeling completely jacked up and ready to rock. It gives, it doesn’t really take away. Really inspiring, and kind of mind-boggling – again, getting back to that feeling of feeling super-lucky to get to have these experiences, and get to play with these musicians and be in the same place. Because if you think of, like, [Brazilian mandolinist] Jacob do Bandolim recording at the same time as Django Reinhardt, but they never got to meet, you know? What would have happened?
And I feel like we’re living in a time, now, when all of that is possible. The whole world is right there, available to us, and it’s so easy to reach people and just tap them on the shoulder and go, “Hey, I love what you’re doing – you wanna play?” And that’s an amazing thing we’re experiencing right now. I think it’ll probably be looked back on as kind of messy, because there’s lots of combinations going on that don’t work, too, and people who aren’t really studying traditions and yet they have just enough access to kind of tap into it a tiny bit and show us a shallow version of it. But, there are some great contacts being made, and music is being seen as one thing, which it actually is, instead of being divided up, either socially or whatever those things are that divide. The dividers are never musical – from my perspective, anyway, music is just sitting there being music, and usually the things that separate it are social.
And it seems that part of our DNA is always to need a live performance experience.
MM: No question. I mean, one of the greatest things about the demise of the recording industry is that it’s given value, now, to the live experience, because that is something that you cannot get, you know, you can’t make a copy of that and send it to your friend’s iPhone, you actually have to be there. So I think a lot of great artists are turning to that and saying, “Well, you know, there was a music business before there was a recording music business, and there will be one after, if this thing is going to lose all its value.” It won’t, I mean people will still record, but it just won’t be where they’ll make any money – it’ll become a promotional tool or what have you. And that’s ok, because as musicians, we can float to the next thing. Like I said, if the Church needs us to write a play in 1700, “All right, I can do that”, Bach says. I mean, I have to admit I prefer the stuff he wrote when he was in Cöthen [Germany] working for [Prince] Leopold, who wanted all the instrumental music. But I did come to those cantatas, finally, and I’m loving them.
There’s so much there.
MM: Oh god, just hundreds – it’s ridiculous. But if you get the people who are recording them more recently, in smaller ensembles, it can be really wonderful without all that vibrato, without the operatic singing. There are arguments now that his ensembles in those churches were singing one to a part, so there are some recordings of it that way, which is really wonderful, that stuff that folks in Amsterdam are doing great things with.
Do you find that it refreshes your horizons, your sensibilities, to get out and go to different countries?
MM: Oh god, it’s the whole thing. That’s the other gift that music has given me – it’s taken me all over the world. That’s something I would never have been able to do without it, so it’s an amazing experience. And then to delve deeply into – or, you know, deeper than you can living in Oakland listening to a CD – to actually see some of these musical styles in their native environment, that’s when you really pick up what it is.
How do you experience the cultural differences in the audiences? Do they have different vibes in different places?
MM: Oh, for sure – no question about it. Caterina [Lichtenberg] was saying that she thinks the American audiences are the best. I mean, we are a very relaxed society. I think because we’re so new as a culture, and because we had to kind of deal with lots of different kinds of people who were bumping up against each other from the beginning, we’re so tolerant of differences, compared to most other places.
Some of us are, anyway.
MM: Yeah, I know – it’s not across the board. But, you know, we just did a bunch of concerts on the East Coast, and they were house concerts, so they were super-intimate – I mean, literally just talking to the audience, and they were talking back to us during the show, that kind of vibe – which is so different for Caterina, who grew up in this classical German world, playing in the church, and you might talk once. But she’s a gabber – she always talked a lot in her shows, and it offended some people – they were, like, “Why are you always talking?” But we played this show in Germany and we just did what we did, and you could just feel that our relaxed-ness was almost making the audience uncomfortable, because it was so different than what they were used to. But then you’d crack the ice and you’d warm them up, eventually, and they came around by the end of the show. But there was that initial, “Wow, ok, we’re in a different place here – let’s work this and see if we can make this happen…”
“Let’s see if we can tap into the universal human experience here…”
MM: That’s what everybody wants – that’s why they come. But oh, man, there are these obstacles, sometimes, to get through it. And then, I was just thinking about Japan. We went over there with the Montreux band, and they were just sitting there and they’d clap after the song – no whooping, no hollering – it’s like, Japan. But then I realized, they clapped for a really long time after each song – like, slightly uncomfortable – to where it’s like, “Ok, it’s time for you to stop clapping now so we can play the next song…” And then, the encore after encore after encore – they just wouldn’t stop clapping. And all through the show, we thought we were dying, because it just didn’t feel like the typical – oh, I know what it was, nobody was clapping after a solo. So you’d do some great improvised solo, and in America everybody’s clapping for every solo, and in instrumental music that’s, like, seventeen times a song. And here we are in Japan, and nobody’s clapping for solos. “Oooh, we’re dying,”
Like it’s disrespectful to interrupt you, or something.
MM: It probably was that – you know, you want to hear, you don’t want to mess up the experience of the guy next to you.
And all the clapping afterwards is like the all the bowing that keeps going on and on, and no one knows when to stop bowing.
MM: Exactly! And it was like, “You changed my life.” “Really? I thought you were sleeping…” So, yeah, there’s definitely some cultural things there. But I think it’s all getting mooshed together – people are getting much more like each other.
The world’s getting smaller.
MM: Unfortunately. I think we’ll probably lose some juice there. And hopefully it doesn’t mean we’re all going to be shopping at Kmart – even though that’s what they want.
Where do you want to go next, as a performer?
MM: I want to go back to Brazil, and then to Argentina, and then, when it’s all over, find a little place in northern Italy. Oh, southern Italy would be ok – a little cabin. I would like it to become simpler. I live on the property of a church, a little Episcopal church – I live on a hill up above them. It’s lovely acoustics in this place, and I sometimes fantasize about the audience coming to me.
Well, Levon Helm did it.
MM: Yeah, I would just do regular shows in this place – you know, a hundred people every month – at a very high ticket price!
You know, I would love to be able to perform Bach more often, and have it be really a deep, meaningful experience for me and the audience, and not a treacherous one for me. But I don’t really have those kinds of aspirations, to push the performance envelope in that way. I think that I’m pretty happy with how things go – I just want to do it more. I want to do exactly what I’m doing, with some of the musicians I get to play with, as often as I can.
Thanks again to Mike for being so generous with this fascinating and lengthy conversation. He’s a treat to spend time with, and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much during an interview. I encourage my readers to take any opportunity to see him perform live – if there’s a more joyful performer out there, I really don’t know who it is. Mike’s discography is so voluminous and varied, it’s difficult to point a first-time purchaser in any particular direction, but there’s a nice selection at the listening page on his website that can help you decide. Enjoy! –VA
Posted: November 21st, 2010 | Author: Vicki Ambinder | Filed under: Interviews, Musician Resources | No Comments »
Here is the third installment of my four-part interview with multi-instrumentalist, world-touring musician, prolific record producer, and Adventure Music recording artist Mike Marshall. You can find additional information about Mike at the beginning of the first installment. The final installment of our conversation will be posted in one week. –VA
Is there a difference between the person you are when you’re getting ready to walk on the stage and the person you are when you’re on the stage? Are you aware of anything that’s different, or a heightened sense, or anything like that?
Mike Marshall: Well, certainly a heightened sense. Adrenaline kicks in, and I love that focus, I love the feeling of, “Ok, we’re gonna go do this – let’s go!” and how it focuses your attention into this beam of light on the music and you have to be totally there, and of course juggling all the balls, but also focused. Yeah, it’s a wonderful feeling to feel it coming on.
Do you feel that there are things you do differently now as a performer than when you were first coming up? Like, is your philosophy different, or is the way you present yourself different?
MM: You know, I think it’s more about being old enough to totally relax. And having played so much music for so many different kinds of people, in so many countries and different venues, that I feel a certain kind of confidence that everything’s going to be ok, and that I can find a way to communicate with that crowd and help them come along on this journey, this two-hour journey that we’re going to do. So probably the main thing that’s changed is the relaxed feeling.
Do you ever get in situations where there’s just too much of a train wreck and you just can’t get past it, or do you feel like that’s not even an issue for you?
MM: Are you talking about in a show, where the show is just dying?
MM: No. You know, I don’t perform in situations where that’s possibly going to happen. I mean, the people I choose to play with, the kinds of venues I choose to play, I’m in a really lucky spot now where that doesn’t happen. I mean, I might end up in a jam somewhere where everybody’s getting onstage and it just turns into bedlam, but it’s not my show.
Yeah, like those festval jams at the end of the night.
MM: Some of those are cool – Sam Bush getting everybody up there – but you know what that is, so you go in with those expectations. It’s a photo op more than anything. You really don’t need 12 guys chopping backbeats on “Salty Dog Blues”, but let’s do it anyway!
Now, I know that you’re into cooking, and I was thinking about cooking as a performance art, and also cooking as a sort of shared experience, and that has a lot in common with music, it seems.
MM: I’m very mixed about that. I’ve been getting kind of bummed out lately – I don’t have a TV, so I’m kind of disconnected with the Food Network, but every once in a while I’ll put it on in the hotel, and they’re starting to turn cooking into a sporting event, like a boxing match.
Oh, definitely. But I’m thinking more in terms of cooking for your friends.
MM: Right, and I was just going to say, that totally flies in the face of the whole reason I love it, and the kinds of experiences I want to have are of the shared experience of people being together. And yes, I want to get better and better at my craft, and I love it when people swoon, but I’m learning that that’s not necessarily the focus of the night – that the focus should be on the people being together. We need that so badly in our society that I don’t want to turn this thing around. I get to do my “show” when I play the mando.
But I think there are things in common in terms of, you have a skill set, and you improvise…
MM: There’s no question that there’s tons of overlap.
…you have taste, you have sensibility…
MM: You have tradition that you’re drawing from, but you also have experimentation and invention, and you have balance of flavors and textures. And you have the flow of the night. That’s sort of the final challenge that I’m struggling with. I hang out with some really great chefs. I don’t know whether you’ve read some of my bio where I’ve traded lessons with the guy from Chez Panisse [Michael Peternell]?
MM: Well, now we’re like best friends, and we get together a couple times a week with our families, and it’s just ridiculous. And this is him cooking home-cooking – he’s not doing giant soufflés and flaming things, he’s just cooking up a pasta, you know?
Which is sublime, I’m sure.
MM: Oh god, what he can do! What’s really inspiring and a big challenge for me now is to really understand the timing of an evening, and how to control that and yet be relaxed.
A lot like music, huh?
MM: Yeah, it’s the same thing we do when we play. We’ve got all these years of experience of doing it – which he has with food.
Do you find that it informs you as a musician, what you’re learning, trying to learn this skill and how to put it all together?
MM: Absolutely. I think anything you do reflects back into your music-making, and it’s completely connected. It’s all probably just vibrational stuff, you know? Painting is vibration because it’s color, and probably taste is, too. And the arc of an evening has a rhythm to it. It’s all part of the same stuff, I’m sure – not to be too New Age-y about it! I’m really interested in this idea of tradition, though. Because I think as musicians, it’s easy to get sort of caught up in the “right” way to do something, and I’m always shining a light on the fact that Bill Monroe – even though we think of him as iconic and the end of the story for bluegrass – that he was the most inventive and most creative of all the bluegrass musicians, and created something completely new for us, and combined things that had never been thrown together. And now there’s this idea that you have to play it a certain way, and I think there’s a danger in going there.
I mean, I appreciate people studying and doing their homework, and I hate it when they don’t, for sure – and in cooking, there’s a lot of relationships there, because you have something called “Italian food”, and it’s iconic. If you’re going to make a pesto, it has to have this and that and the other, and if you’re going to do food from this region it cannot have these ingredients. And that’s kind of B.S., in a way, because Italians didn’t discover the tomato until 1492 – or the pepper, or corn, or the potato. So somewhere along the line, somebody went, “Whoa, this is cool – what can we do with this?” and got excited and combined this new ingredient with traditions from their region and ingredients from their region. So there was that invention spark. And I’m living my life in that, trying to find those moments where new things can come together and something really magical can happen. But of course the way I do that is to go back 300 years and study Bach!
You do a lot of producing, and you produce for young artists.
And you’re out on the circuit, and young artists are watching you.
And you’re passing along some traditions, and you’re imparting your words of wisdom. What kinds of things do you keep coming back to there?
MM: Well, I love this idea that I’m part of some continuum, this “passing down”. I studied from the people I studied from, and now there’s a generation coming up behind me. I’m very flattered by the fact that they seem to have learned some things that I’ve done. And yet I feel a part of them, and want to continue to play with them and be a part of that. I mean, we’re all young, we’re all old. I have as much fun playing with Alex [Hargreaves] and Paul [Kowert] as anybody I play with. And I’m inspired and learning from them now – now it’s going back the other way, because there are things that Alex Hargreaves does harmonically on the fiddle that I haven’t a clue. I mean, he studied some very deep shit, and not only studied it, but he understands it and it’s in him, it’s his harmonic language. And so I’m picking his brain now, you know? Enough about him telling me how important my CD was to him when he was 12. It’s like, let’s hang out and I’m going to point at your hands and go, “What the hell is that?” So it should go both ways, and I hope it continues to the end of my life, this idea of learning – I’m kind of obsessed with it.
And it’s kind of mentoring, in a way, too.
MM: Yeah, I mentor them, if not musically, perhaps things around how to arrange a piece. And all the experience I’ve had in the studio, I can help get through a recording session smoothly without people freaking out and keep the vibe nice – I’m a “vibe police” guy. And that only comes with experience – you can’t buy that in a bottle, you have to make all those mistakes. When people ask me to produce a CD, they ask, “What do you do?” And I want to tell them, “Well, I keep you from making all the mistakes I made.” When there’s a Y in the road, and they’re going, “Well, if we went this way it could be like this, and if we went that way it could be like this…”, I know to tell them, “No, don’t go down there – there’s briars and monsters and snakes…”
MM: Yeah! But they don’t know that yet, you know?
And obviously they’re going to need to trust you along that line, although some people insist on making their own mistakes anyway.
MM: That’s true. I’ve had to walk away from a few and say, “Well, gee, I coulda told you…
“Don’t want to have to say I told you so, but…”
MM: Right, I know, it’ll help to do that. But this is the cooking thing, you know: “Mike, you’re such a good cook!” Well, if you had any idea how many times I’ve blown it – but from all those tiny moments of making mistakes comes the wisdom. Like those onions, if you can smell them, get them off, get them off! Don’t even turn them down – take the pan away.
Yeah, otherwise, everything’s just going to go downhill from here…
To be continued…
Posted: November 14th, 2010 | Author: Vicki Ambinder | Filed under: Interviews, Musician Resources | 2 Comments »
Here is the second installment of my four-part interview with multi-instrumentalist, world-touring musician, prolific record producer, and Adventure Music recording artist Mike Marshall. You can find Part 1 here. The third installment of our conversation will be posted in one week. –VA
Do you feel that you have mastery of your instruments?
Mike Marshall: I have a certain degree of it. And, of course, no matter how much of it you have, you’re able to see the next mountain. Because all that climbing one mountain gives you is a vista to see the next. And so it’s an endless journey, one that nobody can ever get to the end of.
That’s so interesting to me, because most of us mere mortals would look at your playing and go, well, he can do anything.
MM: Well, it’s not anything – I mean, there are limits. There’s just the basic physical limits of how fast your fingers can move. And maybe that’s a good thing, because I’m not sure people could hear much faster than Chris Thile!
Or the action on the mandolin can get any lower.
MM: Right! But there are so many things to strive for in music. There’s the technical, and there’s the emotional, and there’s the compositional. And to improve in all of those areas is just a life’s work. And the kind of access that all of us have now just opens up the realm of what is music and where should it go next, and what’s my tiny little part in that.
How are you answering those questions?
MM: I just try to make the most of each day, you know? I wish there were many more hours in each day, and every day I try to work on something. There’s piles of things here that are going to happen, maybe – I’ll get them together eventually. And that includes specific tunes that I’m working on, usually Bach or something challenging – classical music. Or tunes that I’m trying to write but I haven’t completed, or projects that I want to record and I have to put together all the pieces that it takes to make a project.
At the same time, there’s the endless floating demon of the music business, and how that all fits into paying one’s rent and living in the world. And it’s a challenge that everyone has, living in this kind of capitalist society with these kinds of demands. It’s difficult to find a patron you can go live with like they did in the old days, or a church, you know, who you can just write music for and they’ll take care of all of life’s necessities! So you dance through all those different things, and at the same time you push yourself – try to make a living and try to push yourself as an artist.
What’s the best advice that you got coming up – specifically around performance?
MM: You know, it might not have been something somebody said, but I can point to a couple of people who, just seeing how they did it, said everything to me. And I would say that that’s probably some combination of John Hartford, Vassar Clements, Sam Bush, Glenn Gould, and Bobby McFerrin.
MM: All of them, for me, embody that feeling of letting yourself go and not being in the here and now, or being totally in the here and now and not caring about what people think – not being embarrassed by looking like an idiot. Being totally comfortable in your own idiot-ness.
Do you ever watch video of yourself?
MM: No, I hate it – it drives me crazy. I can’t watch that stuff.
Do you have a sense of what is going on, even if you’re not really paying attention to it?
MM: I have what I think is going on, but when I watch a video that’s not what I see!
What do you think is going on, and how is it different from what you see?
MM: I mean, I’m just there enjoying the time, and trying to play as well as I can, and I’ll see things. Like, why do I do that silly thing with my leg? What am I doing? I’m tapping completely out of time! What the hell is that? And, of course, I have no memory of doing it. And maybe that’s a good thing – maybe that’s where we should be. So that’s why I can’t watch it. I’m not really there, you know, when I’m playing. Music should be taking you out into the other dimension.
What percentage of the time do you think you’re in the zone when you’re playing?
MM: Interesting question. Boy, it varies greatly from band to band. And you can slip in and out from moment to moment.
What kinds of things make it easier for you to get in the zone?
MM: Well, it depends on what you’re talking about. I’m mixed about it being the ultimate expression of a perfect performance – you know, that this person was totally in the zone, and that’s why this music is affecting us the way it is, or that’s why this performance is so great, because this person went in the zone and stayed in the zone the whole time. I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. I think that music is so complex, that one man’s zone is another man’s, “Oh, god, you gotta be kidding me!” And so the audience is part of that, you know, that they’re maybe giving you license to go there or not.
I’ve been incredibly moved, and thought that somebody was hitting a really high place in their performance – somebody who I had maybe seen play many times, and thought I was seeing one of the highest expressions of their art – and then gone backstage and them just be completely depressed because they thought they were just crashing and dying. And the same thing has happened to me, where I’ve been onstage just thinking, “Oh, god, I just cannot get it together! What is wrong with me?” and then go backstage and somebody comes back there and says, “That show changed my life.” And so I’m realizing that I’m not necessarily a good gauge of what the hell’s actually going on here, and I’d better just shut up and do my job, and go out there and try to play as good as I can, and enjoy the melodies, and enjoy the experience, because somebody might be loving it.
Do you think there’s some amount of letting go of needing to control the situation that may play into that?
MM: Well, you know, this is again that dance – that’s those two trains again. One train is complete control, because you’ve got to be in tune, and you’ve got to be in time, and you have to remember the notes, and you have this list, this checklist of things that for every single millisecond has to be checked off, right? And at the same time, you know that the only way you’re actually going to be able to do all that stuff is if you forget about it. There must be layers in the brain – I mean, that’s where practice comes in, where you can get the notes so far under your fingers that you know they’re going to be there, and now you can start thinking about, well, what do I want to do with these notes? How do I want to really play them, now that I know they’re going to come out? So then you can start thinking about the other dimension of expression. And I can also start to listen to the other musicians onstage – hello, there’s other people up here! – and place my notes in relationship to them, and surprise them, and have them be a part of the interaction, and have the audience see that.
And it must be so interesting for you to be constantly mixing up who you’re playing with, and the material, and the kind of material.
MM: Yeah, that’s a challenge. I mean, there are months where I am playing, like, six completely different sets of repertoire, with whole different demands on me. You know, one is Psychograss – ok, all those David Grier melodies and Tony Trischka bizarre tunes. Then here comes Hamilton de Holanda from Brazil – you know, he’s just an absolute monster, and lived in that tradition his whole life and is ready to tear my head off. And then here comes Thile, and we have to remember all those tunes that we wrote three years ago that are impossible.
Yeah, that are impossible when you’re at the top of your game!
MM: Yeah! And then I’m playing classical music with Caterina Lichtenberg, and it’s all about appropriate Baroque interpretation. And so you just try to get yourself ready, try to do your homework so that you can have fun with it.
How do you prepare for a show?
MM: Well, it’s triage, you know? It’s whatever thing needs the most work at the time. You know, I’ve got a tiny bit of an open space right now because I don’t have a show for a few weeks. I have the Turtle Island String Quartet – I’m playing shows with them now, and there’s some very challenging music there. So I’ve got about three weeks to get that music together, so that’s what I’m working on at the moment. At the same time, Caterina and I are working on the 15 two-part inventions of Bach, and I’m playing the left hand on the mandocello and she’s playing the right hand on the mandolin. And it fits perfectly on the mandocello.
But I’ve never really had a cello lesson – I just grabbed that instrument and just started playing it, caveman style, and invented a few things and figured out my own music, wrote tunes on it, and played a little bit of Bach here and there. But to play all these things? Oh my god, you have to have complete control of the whole instrument, and shift in and out of bass clef and treble clef. And learning how to shift on a cello, you have to shift many more times – even though it’s tuned in fifths, you have to shift a lot more than on a mandolin or fiddle. So it’s opening up my head to that whole world. And it’s great – it’s like a big, long-term challenge, and we won’t record it probably for a year because we’ll want to perform it a bunch.
And your sense of scale would be so different.
MM: Yeah. We played three or four of them in concert, and had a ball – it’s going to be great. But I really have to have this stuff under my fingers. Because on top of the notes, and the challenge of playing the notes, is Caterina’s concept of how this stuff should be phrased, and where the accents should be, and how to do the trills and the cadences.
Do you ever think about taking cello lessons?
MM: Yeah, I’m definitely going to. I was working on the Bach 1st [Cello] Suite today, and I’m definitely going to go see a cellist and talk about fingerings. I’ve got a lot of questions. It changes everything – the way you finger something changes how the accents fall, and it’s just really important.
And you’re not using a bow!
MM: Well, yeah, there’s that! Hey, maybe that’s the problem. I thought I had a bow with this – I’ll have to look in that case again! Yeah, you have to pluck every note. In a way, the right hand’s ok – I’ve got that kind of down because that’s where I’ve lived my whole life. It’s the left hand that’s very interesting. You use open strings to shift up the neck, and there’s some logical things. And, also, this is piano music. So there’s certain kinds of arpeggios that are just triads, but god, they don’t lay worth a shit on an instrument tuned like this, but maybe on piano they just fall right out of the sky. That’s probably the case. But I love a challenge. It seems like I’m the kind of guy who just has to have something like this to work on.
To be continued…
Posted: November 7th, 2010 | Author: Vicki Ambinder | Filed under: Interviews, Musician Resources | No Comments »
I am pleased to present the first installment of my four-part interview with multi-instrumentalist, world-touring musician, prolific record producer, and Adventure Music recording artist Mike Marshall. Mike began his illustrious career as a member of the original David Grisman Quintet, joining the band in 1978 at the age of 19. Since then, he has been one of the most innovative, respected, and well-traveled string players in the world of instrumental music, appearing on hundreds of recordings while expanding the horizons of American acoustic music to include many classical and international influences. Please see the bio on Mike’s website for more information on his remarkable achievements and collaborations. I spoke with Mike on September 20, 2010. This interview will be posted in four weekly installments. –VA
One of the reasons I really wanted to talk to you, Mike, is I love the way that you seem to just plug into the joy – it just seems to come spilling out of you. And I’m really curious to hear how you do that, or why you think that is. Where does it come from for you?
Mike Marshall: You know, I get people saying that quite often, and sometimes I’m not quite sure what they’re even talking about, because I’m just up there being myself. And, of course, I am overjoyed with all of the people I play with. I have a general feeling of amazing good fortune. You know, if I go down the list just this year, it’s pretty insane who I get to be onstage with. Darol Anger, Väsen, Paul Kowert, Alex Hargreaves, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile – I mean, the list is kind of a who’s who of string music today. Real inventers, real creative people, but also people who really know the roots of the music that they came from. I forgot Danilo Brito, and Jovino Santos Neto. It’s kind of ridiculous, actually.
So there is that general feeling of joy to be living at the same time as some of these people. Everybody wonders what it would have been like to jam with Django Reinhardt, or to listen to J.S. Bach improvise, and most of the people I play with, I feel like I’m getting to have that kind of live experience. So that’s something to be pretty happy about, I think. And then there’s the added dimension of the audience, and their involvement.
How do you experience the audience? What does it feel like to you?
MM: You know, that part’s really easy – it comes very naturally to me. Maybe early on in my career I worried about whether the music I was playing was too intellectual for certain kinds of crowds, whether it be a festival where people are drinking and dancing in the dust, or a loud bar, where it might not be the optimal setting for the kind of music I’ve chosen to play. But over the years, I’ve realized that there’s a way to approach almost any live situation and embrace that crowd and that scene, and include them in what it is that you’re trying to get across, and still be 100 percent true to your artistic vision, but include them in the party. It’s really important to me that it happens.
Can you give me an example of how that comes about for you – where you’re being true to yourself but you’re letting the audience in?
MM: It might just be a simple introduction to a tune, because we play instrumental music – it’s like, what does it mean? You could name all of those tunes “Opus 1”, “Opus 2”, “Opus 3”, you know? But for whatever reason, we give them titles. If it’s “Borealis”, a tune I wrote with Darol, it has a story to go with it, and it hopefully helps people give them some visual reference. A historic thing about maybe where it was written or what it meant for us can be helpful, I think, to bridge that gap.
And then there’s during a song, where a great lick or a great break or something is going to amp things up for the audience and for you, where it’s going back and forth, the energy’s running in a cycle…
MM: Uh huh.
Are you one of those performers who’s in touch with that energy as it’s cycling through?
MM: Yeah, I mean, I feel like there’s two planes of reality going on almost simultaneously – two, or six, you know? But certainly there’s the whole issue of you being able to play your music, and play it as well as you can, and that whole internal struggle of trying to play something that’s difficult, or trying to push yourself improvisationally to another place, or trying to really be synched up with the musicians onstage and to be totally centered on the music.
At the same time there’s that dialogue going on with the audience and that energy that you’re talking about flowing back and forth. But one can be a distraction to the other, I find, and for me it’s about keeping a balance between those two trains running that are both running simultaneously in the same direction. If you get yourself too caught up in the audience and the feeling of what’s going on with them and me, and how do I look, you can miss a beat, right? You can get too distracted from what you’re there to do. At the same token, if you get too self-absorbed in your little world and you’re staring at your navel, the you’re not really in the room with all those people, and they came there to be with you. So I’m conscious of both things.
How do you keep focus? I know that’s a struggle for a lot of people, to learn how to put the focus where it needs to be. Is that something that gets easier with a lot of experience, or is that something that you’ve always had?
MM: It’s something I’ve had to a certain degree, but it can come in and out of focus, depending on the situation. If I’m playing something that’s really difficult, for instance – I tend to play a lot of challenging music, so this is an area where you have to be really careful of nerves, and conscious of them, to be alert enough to play what you’re there to play, but not so freaked out that you freeze yourself. So a lot of it has to do with who I’m playing with. There are certain kinds of musical collaborations that are just like water – I mean, it just flows, and there’s just no “work” feeling to it.
Like you and Darol, for instance?
MM: Yeah, well, that’s a funny one, because we’re really good at a certain kind of playing, especially improvising together – we can do that really well. But, I have to say that when we play as a duo, and I’m 50 percent of the sound, and you just have a mandolin and a fiddle, we have to work really hard, and be super-focused on that music to pull that off. Whereas, playing with Väsen is like being thrown into a river that’s flowing, and there’s so much other water around you that’s carrying you that if you just stand up there and hardly play anything, it’s fine, you know? You’re not going to screw that up.
When did you feel that you were at a level to play on the national stage? How did you come to that realization, or was that kind of a gradual thing?
MM: It was gradual, but it ramped up rather quickly. I started taking guitar lessons when I was 12 from a local guy down the street who played all the different string instruments – this was in Florida – and he also played a lot of different styles, just played all of them a little bit. He wasn’t a heavy virtuoso, but he was a great teacher. And I’ve always been grateful to him – his name was Jim Hilligoss – for kind of just pointing me at a whole bunch of musical plates. And he had me reading out of the Alfred’s Basic Guitar Methods, and saying the names of the notes and counting out the time and studying music theory.
But at the same time, he started a bluegrass band, and had me playing bass and mandolin and banjo and fiddle, and playing by ear, and going to jam sessions with real Southern old-time musicians – country musicians who would have Saturday night jams at their house. So I sort of got both sides of music training going, simultaneously, early on. And we all started a little teenage bluegrass band at that time, called The Sunshine Bluegrass Boys – we had peach-colored double-knit suits and a Winnebago with our name painted on the side of it.
Hey, a Winnebago, huh? Nice!
MM: We would go to these festivals all over Florida and Georgia and enter the contests, or eventually we were getting hired to play. And that was the early ‘70s, when the Osborne Brothers, and Jim and Jesse, and The Lewis Family – all these bands were playing festivals, and there was endless jamming all weekend long. So I just sort of got thrown into this whirlwind of Southern music, even though I wasn’t from the South. But that was a very exciting time, because you had Tony Rice and J.D. Crowe and groups like The New Grass Revival were just forming – the second generation – and The Country Gentlemen, who were pretty modern at that time, and lots of experimenting going on in the music scene. And I just got really swept up in the whirlwind of the excitement of traditional music but also something super-creative going on.
I’ve been reading the new Tony Rice biography [Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story, by Tim Stafford and Caroline Wright], and it describes how you basically showed up at his door and said, “I want to play music with you,” and he took you in. And I was thinking, certainly the music was new and changing direction, but it seems that the performance style was as well – what you were doing on the stage – not just the music.
MM: Yeah, everything about it was shifting. The best example I have is the first New Grass Revival album cover.
Oh, sure, yeah.
MM: It kind of says it all, you know? It was the ‘60s – it just sort of blasted into traditional music with the force of a nuclear explosion. And it sent a whole bunch of people back in time, studying the roots of the music, and you end up with a Bruce Molsky. And it sent a whole bunch of other people kind of out into the stratosphere saying, “Wait a second, I come from this tradition, but what is jazz? And how does that relate to this? And what is Indian music, and what is improvisation, based on where I am and what my tradition is? How do I stay true to my tradition and yet push at these boundaries?”
And when you think about how it’s presented on the stage, you’re going away from this sort of stilted, stand-in-one-place presentation.
MM: Yeah, gone are the matching outfits! So it’s a political statement as much as a social statement. You’re connecting with a different kind of audience. I went out to the West Coast, and San Francisco was such a hip place. And here were these guys just kind of holed up in a house in Marin County, working on their intricate, crazy new music – all day long, eight hours a day, just playing together. It was a real sort of West Coast “Big Pink”. [Note: Big Pink was the house in West Saugerties, New York that was shared by The Band members Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, where The Band prepared to record their debut album, Music from Big Pink.] They worked for a year before they cut their first record, you know? So, yeah, it was maybe connected somehow to the whole West Coast psychodelia and Grateful Dead scene, in that you just walked onstage in a t-shirt and whatever you were wearing that day.
And the way you were onstage, too?
MM: Yeah, you know, it was Grisman with his antics – a crazy wild man with a beard who moved all over the stage. Tony Rice was always the antidote to that – stood stiff like a pillar. But I’ve come to realize now that if you’re playing the guitar, the acoustic Martin guitar, you kind of have to do that – especially the way he plays it. But the focus was on the music – it wasn’t really about presenting a show in terms of acrobatics.
What do you think about the school of thought that if you make a big show of looking like you’re working really hard, then the audience is going to think you’re doing more amazing stuff than if you make it look easy?
MM: Well, that’s true and not true. I can really see both sides of that, because when I think about Tony Rice at one of these festivals, getting up and playing his “Shenandoah” or something…
…and he’s just standing there…
MM: …he’s just standing there, and people do end up just going out of their minds. Because there’s so much that goes into this question of performance, because people are referencing off of their memories, when they’re hearing a band, as much as their eyes. And so sometimes you just walk on the stage and people applaud, because they’re so happy to see you. They’re happy that that performer is finally in their town. And as soon as he opens his mouth and you hear the sound of that music, then you’re just swept into that world. Because of the recording thing, you’ve spent all this time with those CDs, and now you’re really hearing it live, and it’s a little bit different but you’re totally focused on it. And I think as a recording artist, after you get a lot of years behind you, you’re really at a different kind of advantage than an upcoming performer who’s just getting started with that.
You’ve got some built-in “cred” that comes with you when you walk out there.
MM: Yeah, you hear Pete Rowan sing, and it’s so Pete.
He’ll talk about Bill Monroe…
MM: Here comes Bill, here comes that song that you’ve heard a million times…
…“Walls of Time”…
MM: …and it’s totally cool! That’s exactly why you’re there. So does he have to jump around to get your attention? No. He’s just standing there being Pete. Or Tim O’Brien – god, just hear him sing one note, and you’re, like, that’s why I’m here. And so this question of performing for the audience – I think that our generation, in fact, of those new acoustic pickers who decided to not wear the matching polyester suits anymore, like the ‘60s generation, kind of thumbed their nose at that whole idea of jumping around, creating anything that had to do with a Las Vegas-type show.
Have you noticed, though, in the newest generation, there is quite a bit of that going on?
MM: Yeah, things are shifting now! And the focus has changed. Since the post-Grateful Dead times, there’s now a need to fill that void that the Dead left. And that’s a different thing – that’s a party. As a band, you are in charge of creating the event that’s really a dance. It’s, get those people up and jumping and get them dancing. I’m thinking Yonder Mountain [String Band] and String Cheese [Incident], that generation of rootsy musicians. And that event calls for a whole bunch of things. First of all, it calls for volume – you have got to be loud. And so on go all the pickups.
So we’re talking about two different needs, different kinds of entertainment events. One is the people are actually there to sit quietly and listen, and it’s a little closer to classical music or jazz, or even old-timey music and bluegrass the way it was. And the other is a holiday – it’s a giant event, and it’s a party such that people are prepared to really jump around. And so as a performer, the demands on you are very different in each of those situations.
To be continued…
Posted: August 22nd, 2010 | Author: Vicki Ambinder | Filed under: Interviews, Musician Resources | No Comments »
I’m pleased to present Part 2 of my interview with Grammy®-winning Howdy Skies recording artist Tim O’Brien.
Tim has earned an enthusiastic following throughout his illustrious career as a vocalist, songwriter, bandleader, multi-instrumentalist and world-traveling performer. The innovative bluegrass band Hot Rize, which he co-founded in 1978, is still actively touring nationally and internationally, occasionally featuring appearances by their alter-ego western swing band Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers. (See this previous post for additional musings on Tim and Hot Rize.)
Tim’s songs have been recorded by such artists as the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, Dierks Bentley, Nickel Creek, Kathy Mattea, the New Grass Revival, and the Seldom Scene. He has appeared on countless recordings in collaboration with other performers, and he has just released his 13th solo album, Chicken & Egg, which is conveniently available for purchase, along with several other of his CDs, at Tim’s website.
Tim was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule to speak with me about performance during the Wintergrass festival in Bellevue, Washington on February 26, 2010, while I was there teaching a music performance master class.
The first installment of this conversation was posted one week ago. –VA
When you’re in the audience, what are the qualities of a performance that enthrall you?
Tim O’Brien: Well, I don’t know, in a show the performers have so much more going for them than they do with a recording, or even with a video, because they have this sort of visual thing and this one-time-only version of it that’s just kind of like, “Wow, well here we are.” Like, if somebody buys a CD or a DVD of a performance, they go, “Ok, well, we can watch this now, or we can watch it later, or we can watch it again.” They might not ever really pay attention to it. But when it’s the one time, you just tend to be there – I think it tends to draw you in.
So when you think of your favorite performers, why are they your favorite performers? What qualities do they have?
TO: Well, there’s the great instrumentalists that are improvisers, and you’re kind of waiting to see what they’ll do, what they’ll come up with, or just the fascination of someone’s incredible technique – the amazement. It’s like a feat of an acrobat or somebody – it’s exciting. There’s the exciting part. I mean, bluegrass is that way. People go to bluegrass shows to get excited by the music, because a lot of it is fast tempos, and you wonder if they’re going to be able to do it. And so you’re kind of rooting for them, and then you’re excited when they do. It’s like a football game. And there is a sort of competition in the bluegrass thing – sometimes they call it a cutting contest – where you’re trying to play everything you can to show the other guy how cool you are, and the other guy does the same, and then you’ve got to even come up with more. It’s kind of a contest, so there is that sort of sporting thing.
But, you know, when you go to a show, people are on your side – they’ve come through the door with the intention of sitting down or dancing or whatever to your music and your performance. It’s like going into church. Everybody prays a different way. You know, you have silent prayer – it would be ridiculous to think that everybody’s thinking the same thing. Even if they’re on the same prayer, I’m sure they interpret it differently. And yet, everyone has the same intention, which is to get spiritual. And it’s not far off with a concert or a festival. A festival is like a hundred concerts – it’s like you have a hundred concerts over three days, and you never stop – it’s like an immersion in that. So the idea that you’re supposedly going to take time to appreciate art, and you’re going to be entertained – under the guise of entertainment, you’re coming through there – well, really what’s happening, I think, is that people get their own ideas about what’s happening. And then, somewhere along the line, like with song lyrics and a good performance of a song lyric, you’ll strike some kind of nerve that’s common to everybody in the room. Certain songs will do it every time, because they’re just good.
And then also it’s songs that everyone knows – I mean, there’s nothing more sure-fire than that, if you get a song that everyone knows. Like if I play “Gentle On My Mind” [by John Hartford] at a gig, I’ve recorded that song, but mostly I’ve done it since Hartford passed, and that brings up so much context. Everybody in the audience that has heard of John Hartford, everybody that has ever seen him, they’re thinking about him. So you get everybody on the same page, and it’s like that power of everybody getting pointed in the same direction, and you never know when that’s going to happen. And I see performers sometimes that I’ve never seen before and I’m just totally blown away, and you go, “That’s the best band I’ve ever heard.” And it’s just because they took you to that place, I think.
And sometimes it’s the circumstances of the show. For instance, I was in the front row of your Red Knuckles show at the Wildflower Pavilion at RockyGrass (in July of 2009).
TO: Oh, yeah.
And that was, like, the place to be on the planet Earth at that moment.
TO: It was a pretty good moment. Yeah, that was good.
Because everybody was so charged.
TO: Yeah, it was contagious, the mood. But it’s like the public’s perception of it. Like, if I come from Nashville to Wintergrass, they go, “Oh, they came all the way from Nashville. These people came from far away. Well, let’s go!” If I was playing the same music and I came from Tacoma, they’d go, “Oh, yeah, well he’s coming from Tacoma. Maybe I’ll stay home this weekend.”
“He’s a local guy…”
TO: But you set up this kind of condition, and it’s not hard to win in that situation.
But, I don’t know, my perception of that Red Knuckles show was that it seemed like you guys really got to take your leashes off, even though you were doing what was expected of you for that show.
TO: Yeah, what was good was that, well, we have a big backlog of experience together, and so much that we forget it all, and then it was amazing to all of us to see each other do their thing. And those guys are all so funny. And it’s also funny to get a sideman that’s unsuspecting. I mean, Hoot Hester [playing fiddle] knew what we did, but he hadn’t really done this with us before. So it’s a process.
A wild card.
TO: You just put it through this process and see what happens.
But the energy was just flying.
If you could have made a visual representation of the energy that was flying around, it would have been like one of those Pink Floyd laser light shows. It was actually one of the most amazing things I’ve experienced as an audience member in terms of having that sense of being in the vortex – that this is the place to be, right here, right now. What do you think accounted for that energy?
TO: Well, there was no plan. Like I say, we have a lot of context, and we have a lot of common experience as a band. And yet, we were kind of on the edge, wondering what was going to happen next. And we tried some songs that we hadn’t even talked about playing, and that kind of thing. You know, you haven’t played them for ten years or something – that’s kind of fun. And then if it goes well at all, then you’re amazed, so that’s contagious to the band.
I think that the audience picks up on that, when you’re working harder. I find as an instrumentalist, when you play these solos in bluegrass situations, you get more interest from the audience when you’re trying. When you maybe don’t succeed as well other times when you’re so prepared with a solo and it looks easy – it probably sounds easy, and the audience goes, “Well, that’s good and everything, but…” But when somebody kind of grimaces, and they screw up and they try harder, they give them applause for that. So it’s kind of funny.
Do you ever find it difficult to connect to the emotional “nugget” of a song, even when it’s your own song? Do you ever feel that there’s too much distance from what caused you to write the song in the first place?
TO: Yeah, well, some of the songs don’t have a staying power, and some of them just never go out of style, so you’ve just got to go with your heart on that. But then people want to hear songs, and you go, ok, well, I’ll try this one. But at some point you have to sort of say, ok, this is in my bag, or it is not, and kind of be ready for it. I get in the trap, particularly when I’m playing solo – when I don’t have anybody else, and I can’t complain if the other guys in the band don’t know it – and they’ll request these songs, and I’ll say, “Oh, yeah”, and then I play it, and a lot of times I’ll just stop in the middle and say, “Sorry, I don’t remember the rest of this!” And it’s because I’m not into that song, really. I’m kind of past it. And I hear them on the records and I go, “Oh, ok…” And there’s probably some on this record I’m doing now [Chicken and Egg], and that’s ok.
Actually, my buddies in Hot Rize – I think it was Charles [Sawtelle], or it might have been Pete [Wernick], I’m not sure – he said, “You know, it’s like baseball. The best hitter in baseball gets a .400 average – that’s 40 percent of the time he gets on base.” You know, so, you’re doing pretty good just starting and ending together – that’s pretty good! I don’t feel so bad if I mess up, sing out of tune, sing the wrong lyric here or there – it’s ok. Mostly, in the end, we win. We have a good win/loss average.
Well, you must have to maintain a fairly encyclopedic knowledge, especially with all the different jobs you do. I’m sure that a lot of times you’re just kind of flying into a situation, having to just jump into it and be expected to know stuff.
TO: Yeah, it’s an interesting thing, the different situations. I mean, it’s really good, those different situations – like I say, the variety is good. I’m getting ready to do a tour with Mark Knopfler – six weeks, I’m filling in for a guy – and so I get this glimpse into this other world. But it’s like an eight-piece band. I’m usually either solo or with two, maybe three, other guys. And it’s also not me. I was worried about it, that I wouldn’t be good at it. I thought I might get fired after the first week for being not used to being a sideman! But it was good because a couple weeks ago I did a tour with twenty pieces – it was called the Transatlantic Concert. And it was like a revue. But I could play on anything I wanted to play on, as long as the performer heading up that piece was in agreement. And it was a real great thing about contributing to everyone else’s parts, and finding the subtle little thing that might add to it.
So that’s the role that’s coming up, and it’ll be good instruction, instead of being the guy – you know, the other guys are following me, and there’s a little more on my plate when I’m the front man than when I’m a sideman. I’m very comfortable in that role, but part of that job is, you’re the one that relates to the audience in a verbal way – non-singing way – and if you’re the singer, you’re the one that’s speaking to them in that way – with lyrics. Communication. So you’re doing the main front part of the work, and you’re the focus. And it’s a wonderful, very powerful, position. Even in a room with ten, twenty people in the audience, it’s still a powerful thing. And I like that challenge. And, like I say, I like to kind of mess it up and see what happens. And I’ll turn to the guys, if it’s a band, sometimes – you know, we have this set list and we practice and everything – and I’ll go, “Look, we didn’t practice this, but just follow along here, because I just need to break out of the straightjacket.” And then sometimes really good stuff happens. Sometimes it’s terrible, but you sort of have to try.
And, you know, if it’s a train wreck, then chances are people love you anyway.
TO: Yeah, there can be train wrecks. That’s why I say, if there’s an obvious one, even if I might get away with it, I go, “Uh, yeah, I sang that verse already, didn’t I?” And they go, “Oh, yeah!” They don’t mind. But they like it better if you acknowledge that, I think. Because then you’re one of them. I mean, you are one of them, and you get that understood right away.
It’s like, “We’ll get through this.”
TO: Yeah, well, like I say, I could never be the one who didn’t allow the flash photography and the recording, because to me it would be hypocritical to say, “I don’t want that to go out because it doesn’t represent me.” Well, how could I stand myself? I know what I’m doing is bringing some kind of happiness to people, and it’s helping in some way, even if I do screw up. And, in fact, maybe if I do and acknowledge it, it even makes it better. So I’m not saying that you need to mess up, but I think you need to show yourself as a human being.
You know, Rosalie Sorrels – she talks and talks and talks, and it’s not like she has a sort of set thing she’s going to say, and it’s kind of this ramble. It doesn’t necessarily connect to the song. She eventually gets back to the thing, but by the time she’s introduced the first or second song, you kind of get to know her. And that’s the thing – you’re just cutting the ice, you’re taking the barriers down, you’re all trying to get together in a performance. It’s a thing where you meld souls together or something. And, you know, the power, the abandon of that – things can lift up in ways that they can’t when you’re just doing this on your own.
Like I say, I get excited when I’m writing sometimes, and when I’m recording sometimes as well. But getting a group together and sort of leading them into something is really very rewarding, and it’s fascinating. And there’s something mysterious about it that I don’t know. I think I’ve told you everything I can tell you about planning it. But there’s something that happens, and can happen, that’s really wonderful, and that’s what I go back for. That’s why I lose sleep, and cramp up in airplane seats, and eat bad food.
And be away from your family.
TO: And be away from the family. It’s because of that. I think it probably helps me as a friend, as a father, as a husband – this practice. I mean, I think for anybody, doing the best you can makes you a better friend. And I don’t know, you just want to be a solid citizen, and I try to be. But this performing thing, that’s kind of the best thing I can do. If I could invent cures for cancer, that would be good, that would be probably better, you know, stuff like that – or build a bridge, that would be good. But my own particular job is this, and it seems like I can do it. So I keep trying.
Note: Thanks again to Tim for taking the time to have this in-depth conversation with me about performance. I encourage my readers to visit their local independent music store or Tim’s newly-redesigned website to peruse his merchandise, and take any chance you can to see him in concert. –VA
Posted: August 14th, 2010 | Author: Vicki Ambinder | Filed under: Interviews, Musician Resources | 2 Comments »
I’m pleased to present Part 1 of my interview with Grammy®-winning Howdy Skies recording artist Tim O’Brien.
Tim has earned an enthusiastic following throughout his illustrious career as a vocalist, songwriter, bandleader, multi-instrumentalist and world-traveling performer. The innovative bluegrass band Hot Rize, which he co-founded in 1978, is still actively touring nationally and internationally, occasionally featuring appearances by their alter-ego western swing band Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers. (See this previous post for additional musings on Tim and Hot Rize.)
Tim’s songs have been recorded by such artists as the Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, Dierks Bentley, Nickel Creek, Kathy Mattea, the New Grass Revival, and the Seldom Scene. He has appeared on countless recordings in collaboration with other performers, and he has just released his 13th solo album, Chicken & Egg, which is conveniently available for purchase, along with several other of his CDs, at Tim’s website.
Tim was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule to speak with me about performance during the Wintergrass festival in Bellevue, Washington on February 26, 2010, while I was there teaching a music performance master class.
The second installment of this conversation will be posted in one week. –VA
When did you first know that you wanted to be a performer? What did that feel like?
Tim O’Brien: Well, when I started playing music, when I started playing the guitar, it was something that I could do. I had an aptitude for it, and I learned pretty fast, and it was a safe place for a kind of confused 12 year old, you know? I wasn’t an athlete guy, and kind of shy, so it was good to have something that I could do that was good for your self-esteem. But then I did some musical theater stuff, too, later in grade school and in high school, and that was good – I found out I wasn’t nervous onstage, and people enjoyed it, so you get the positive feedback. I think you’ll find that lot of people that perform regularly, they describe themselves as shy, and they don’t know how to fit in. But what happens onstage, see, is you have this sort of theoretically controlled environment where you put your best foot forward, and you can sort of leave out insecurities and leave out parts of yourself that maybe you don’t want. And you get to present this thing in some kind of a controlled way. And then, if you have songs, or if you’re in a play and you have your lines, then you have less question. It’s just kind of a safe place. It’s funny. A lot of people are like, “I would never get up onstage.” They’re not shy in a social situation, like I am, but then they won’t get up onstage because to them, that’s crazy.
So do you feel like yourself when you’re onstage, or do you feel like somebody else?
TO: I do, I feel like myself. And maybe I’m fooling myself – I don’t know if that is me or not.
Do people who know you well see a difference between the person you are onstage and the person you are offstage?
TO: They don’t say anything about it. I haven’t heard too many comments.
TO: Well, actually, I have to think about that, what she would have to say about it. But my kids are that way, too – they’re not afraid onstage, they don’t have any problem with that. But my wife, she would never do it.
I had a funny thing where, I go to this festival in Denmark every year, and there’s a guy that makes mandolins that I know, a friend of a friend – I know him and his wife. And I’d always go and visit him at his instrument booth, and got to know his wife and everything. And he knew my music, but she didn’t. And one year at the festival, I played with Steve Earle, and so she saw me play with Steve Earle – I was in his band for that gig – and after the show, she was a little loaded, but she went, “I had no idea! I’m really embarrassed!” She was really embarrassed that she knew me all this time but didn’t know that that’s what I did. I mean, she knew I played – it’s weird…
She didn’t know you did that, though!
TO: Yeah, she’d just go, “Whoa, I’m just embarrassed. I’m sorry!” I’m going, “What are you sorry about? So, you finally came to a gig. Fine.” To me, I’m the same. I think I’m the same – I don’t know if that’s true or not.
Well, you have a really laid back persona onstage.
TO: Well, that’s another thing – that’s like a Pete Seeger extension or something. He says he doesn’t have fans, he has friends. And, you know, that’s a way of looking at it that’s benign – it makes it easier. I mean, some people think the audience is their enemy, and they have to win them over. To me, they most often paid money to come see you. And maybe they don’t know what you do, but they have an open mind about it. They’ve reached out to you, so that all you need to do is reach out a little to them and everything’s fine.
You know, the thing about the performance, I think, it’s not so much about getting this particular song a perfect rendition, or telling this joke the right way – although there’s those who do that, and they can do that. But to me it’s just about getting people together and sharing a common experience. The audience has their role, and you have your role, but you can’t really get it going without each other.
There’s that energy that passes between the two.
TO: Yeah, it goes back in forth. Actually, I’m so addicted to that sort of thing. You know, you’re up there and the magnifying glass is on you, and it makes you seem bigger than you are. But I think that there’s a real give and take there. It’s really addictive.
So given that, which do you prefer – big or little gigs, eye contact or darkness?
TO: Well, I think the variety is good, because there’s a comfort zone, that sometimes it gets kind of old. So I think the variety is good for that reason.
And you do a lot of traveling, so you get to experience a lot of different cultures.
TO: Yes. Every place you play, every state in the Union, is a different vibe, the way people react. And then you go to Germany, it’s a whole different world. You go to Scotland and England and Ireland, it’s completely different from place to place. I was in New Zealand recently – that was a whole other thing. Luckily, I mostly play places that speak English as their main language. But it’s also true, if you go to other places. Like I was in Italy last year, and they love music. There’s something there, whether they understand all the words or not – there’s something about the music. I don’t know, music, they say that it’s kind of a precursor to language. So I think there’s something there that calls everybody together to some sort of old place, some sort of cultural kind of DNA, a kind of reference or something.
How do you experience being in the zone?
TO: Well, I think that there’s some sort of abandon that all performers hope to reach, and it’s elusive. There’s a certain discipline to putting on the show, where you want to be prepared enough to where you can do it even if you’re in a bad mood, or the sound’s bad, or your strings break, or whatever, you know – you can still go. But I think everybody wants this special feeling that comes up, like when you hear a piece of music that puts shivers up and down your spine – that is what you’re after. It’s like when people go fishing, I think. They might not catch anything, but they’re holding out for that really good time, you know? And I think Bill Monroe was that way – his fans were that way – because he was kind of like Jerry Garcia in that he would not necessarily be good every night.
You never knew what you were going to get.
TO: You didn’t know what you were going to get. But there was some amazing transcendence that would happen from time to time that if you weren’t there for it, you’d be mad, and you’d hear about it. And so, you know, there’s something about that. But I don’t know, getting in the zone, you want to be prepared.
How do you experience it when it happens to you?
TO: I’m just kind of lost – I don’t really think about anything. And it happens every once in a while, but it’s elusive. But it’s the reward. Now, the zone, the real zone that I experience in a bigger way is when I’m writing something, and I’m onto some kind of idea. And I get kind of giddy, and I get kind of excited, and I start laughing, and I go, “This is great!” And then I just wish that would continue, and it doesn’t. It can’t continue, but some glimpses, though – you get enough rewards of it that you keep going for it.
Can you think of a particularly transcendent performance experience that you’ve had, where all the stars were aligned and you just couldn’t believe what was going on, and it was well beyond what you had hoped for?
TO: Well, I’ll tell you one thing came to mind, and I can’t recommend it for anyone. I used to get these terrible ear infections, or earaches, and after a while I got to where I used these ear candles. You know, you get antibiotics and wash out your ear and stuff, but ear candles will draw all this crap out of there, right? So then I was in London and this thing was welling up, and I could tell it was going to really get bad, and it just kept getting worse and worse, and it was the night before we left to go home, and we had this gig. And I never was able to find anything to help. And in looking for ear candles, I went to this herbalist, a Chinese medicine place in that neighborhood in London, and they gave me all these herbs to make tea. They said, “Don’t do the ear candles, it’s only a temporary fix. But if you take this stuff, it’ll fix it forever.” And actually, its true – it hasn’t happened since. But to make a long story short, I was in really bad pain, still, at this gig, and I was with Darrell Scott, and I told him, “Look, let’s just kind of show up and plug in and play, no sound check.” We got there at a quarter to nine and plugged in and played. And after the gig was over, he said, “Man, you played your ass off.” And I remembered, when I looked back on it, that I was able to play a lot better, and it was because I wasn’t thinking about it. I didn’t put any expectation on the gig – I had real low expectations. I was thinking, I’m not going to play very long, I’m going to try to keep my effort to a minimum, blah blah blah. And instead, it just all sort of blossomed out. And the singing was good, and the grooves were better, and the playing was a lot more effortless.
And you experienced it while it was happening?
TO: Yeah. Well, towards the end I did. And I realized that’s probably why – I was distracted. And so that’s kind of a thing with the writing, too – I usually get distracted. You have to trick yourself, almost, into being in the zone. And some kind of stimulant will help you, sometimes, but it’s only temporary. People try drugs and alcohol, and caffeine – and it might help for a while, but it’s not going to help every time. And then it gets to be a crutch, and then you’re fighting the effects of it. So I don’t know.
I guess I try to change up the set list, too, so that it’s not the same every night. And like I was talking before about discipline – like the discipline of being able to do it backwards and forwards, knowing exactly what you could do, and if you were totally brain-dead you could still do the show. And maybe that’s good, because then you’re not worrying about what the next lyric is, or what the next chord is – you know it so well that you can just let it flow. But sometimes I change up the set list just to get out of the comfort zone and try to find something new. But it’s elusive. It’s just as elusive if you do the same set every night as if you do a different set. You know, there’s no substitute for being in practice as a singer – you know, warmed up as a singer and a player.
Sure, being in good musical shape.
TO: And having rest and being sharp. But it’s good to get away from everything. The contest is to get away from the workaday and just let stuff happen.
Are there things about yourself as a performer that you feel have changed over the years, or that you’ve consciously tried to change, or that you still want to change?
TO: Oh, I’d like to be more consistent.
Consistent how, as a player?
TO: Yeah, as a player and, you know, with tempo and tuning and tone. I have so many different roles that I play that I never really get into that.
How about as a front man? Are there things that you feel that you do differently with your years of experience as a front man than when you first started out?
TO: Well, maybe I’m not as worried about it as I used to be. I used to be real worried about making sure there was no dead air, making sure that I said everything that needed to be said about a piece, or about the persons playing on the stage, or whatever. But I know now that the main thing is to let your guard down. I think that’s the trick for me, with an audience, to sort of let them know, right of the bat, first of all, that I’m fallible. And if I make a mistake, which is inevitable, I will often call attention to it right away, and that kind of cuts the ice.
Sort of like the custom of the host spilling some wine on the tablecloth so that no one else has to worry about it.
TO: Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, it’s that kind of thing. And you poke fun at yourself – you don’t take yourself seriously. You take the music seriously, or the subject matter seriously, but you don’t want to make believe that you’re perfect. I mean, I know people who don’t want any photography during their show – they don’t want anybody to record their show. And I’m thinking to myself, I can understand that, but don’t they like the way they look? Don’t they like the way they sound? Or they want this illusion that they are what they sound like on a record or something?
Or needing to be in control of everything?
TO: Or do they think that they sometimes do sound that way? I don’t know that anybody sounds that way, or is perfect, so I don’t see any problem with that stuff. I mean, the taping, one of the things about that is people think that that means they’re not going to buy their recordings, and that’s one issue that’s a different issue than we’re talking about. But there’s also the issue of, well, if it was a bad sound day, or if I was bad, then I don’t want that to represent me. And yet, to me, that’s who I was that day. So I don’t aspire to that other way – I don’t think it’s possible for me. I don’t have that sleight of hand kind of thing going. It’s more like, we’re here, I’ve got some instruments and some songs I can sing, and I might forget them, but we’ll probably have a good time in the end. The idea that you can be in control of, really, anything – I mean, you can be sort of in control of yourself in certain ways, but you know, let it all hang out, because it’s going to anyway.
To be continued…
Posted: June 28th, 2010 | Author: Vicki Ambinder | Filed under: Interviews, Musician Resources | No Comments »
The following is the final installment of my 3-part interview with Grammy®-winning producer, former A&R executive, and veteran musician Steve Fishell.
Steve’s highly regarded work as a musician includes a 10 year stint touring and recording as Emmylou Harris’s pedal steel guitar player in her Hot Band. As a studio producer, with over 20 years of experience producing hit records for top labels in both the major and indie worlds, Steve’s wide-ranging resume includes projects with Little Richard, Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and The Dixie Chicks. Steve has earned many distinguished awards, including multiple number one records, gold and platinum albums in both the U.S.A. and Canada, a Grammy in 2005 for Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster, numerous Grammy nominations and a Canadian Country Music Award for Album of the Year for Charlie Major’s chart-topping The Other Side. His work in 1994 with country vocalist Pam Tillis on her In Between Dances CD helped guide Tillis to a Country Music Association (CMA) award for Best Female Vocalist.
Steve is also the founder of the Music Producers Institute, which he runs while maintaining his busy producing and performing schedule. As regular readers of this blog know, I had the opportunity to attend MPI’s Todd Snider sessions last December at the legendary Sound Emporium in Nashville. On December 5, Steve spoke with me at length about performance from his unique perspective as a successful musician and producer. For the rest of this conversation, please see Part 1 and Part 2. –VA
When you were Emmylou Harris’s sideman, I’m assuming you did hundreds of shows over those years.
Steve Fishell: I was with her for 10 years. And we worked, usually, summers – usually about three months out of the year – but we would go pretty full-tilt. We did 10 weeks – June 15 to Labor Day was usually the schedule. And that’s how I got into producing, by the way. I’d go, oh, well, I’ve got nine months off, that’s how you look at that, and that’s a privilege to be able to know your schedule’s pretty safe, and you can actually go do other things.
And you had a pretty constant group of folks that were in the band over that period of time.
So you would get that telepathy going.
SF: Well, it was a band experience, yeah. You didn’t feel like you were a sideman, you felt like you were part of a group unit. Because she was selfless enough to share the billing – she would call it Emmylou Harris and the Hot Band – just as Bruce Springsteen does. That really made you feel like you were part of a team, rather than just sort of a side person. There’s nothing wrong with being a side person – I’ve done that before and I’ll do it again, I’m sure. But for her to be that gracious to share billing with us and to allow us, most importantly, to play on the recordings with her – that really made us feel like we were part of something extremely rare and special.
That’s a big deal.
SF: Yeah, that’s a big difference. And thus, our goal every night was to try to recreate the recordings, and to try to present something if not as good, then even better, so that the audience would hear it and go, oh my god, this is the band that played on this record, and this is the voice that we heard on that record, and this is all firing on all four cylinders in a cool way, live. And you know, you’d have good nights and bad nights, but some of the highs were just remarkable, and I can tap right into the way it felt onstage at certain times.
Tell me about that.
SF: Well, you know, you just remember certain shows and you remember how you feel in the moment. You know, a voice is a human entity, it’s not a machine. Emmylou and Stevie Wonder and Neil Young, these voices are not machines, they’re human, and will sometimes have a momentary flaw. And Emmylou, whose standards are really high, personally – she’s singing at a Grammy-level performance at all times. There’s no “I’m tired, I don’t feel like it”, or any of that. This is a religious experience for her to be able to come out and sing in front of people, and so she’s 103 percent all the time. But occasionally, you might draw a breath in the hot Colorado air or something, or a fly might go into your mouth or something weird will happen, and she might miss a note. The amazing thing about the truly great masters is that when that happens, rather than being stunned and thrown off for the rest of the song or the rest of the night, the very next line is stunning, and at a record level, at an absolute Grammy-winning level that blows you away.
And I can remember that happening many times, where Emmylou would miss a note, and then the very next line would be so staggering that the musicians, we couldn’t even look at each other because we knew, we were all gasping, having just heard this incredible recovery. We probably would have welled up in tears if we had looked at each other, because we had just heard her true gift and greatness for ourselves, even though we’d hear her every night. So that’s a special gift, as an artist, to be able to not have your confidence be blown by a mistake. And that’s advice to anybody out there. If you bobble a note or if you miss a line, just move on. Don’t look back. What was his name, that African-American pitcher, he had an expression: “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”
SF: Very good! Satchel Paige – thank you! – said, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” Playing live, if you make a mistake, move ahead. Make the next line the very best that you can be of yourself, and use it as something that motivates you rather than something that intimidates you. And that’s one of the great things I learned from Emmylou – recover and keep going. And that’s what she does, probably better than anybody I’ve ever heard. It’s amazing. Because those next lines would just be, like, oh my god, I can’t believe I just heard that! We’d all kind of look at each other, you know, it was like, “Whoa! Oh yeah, we’re playing with Emmylou Harris.” Because you know her offstage as Emmy, you know, and privately she’s a much different person than she is onstage. But then you remember the artistic side of her, and it’s all right there, and that’s a gift from the heavens. That’s just pure musical genius coming out of the speaker.
Were there times where you felt like things weren’t flowing, things weren’t working, you were all burned out or whatever?
SF: Oh, you always have bad nights, oh yeah – you know, I can’t say how often, but, I don’t know, once a year – where it was just horrible. It usually has to do with a combination of energy and timing. I’ve found that after about three weeks on the road, people just don’t get along. You have to break off a tour for a few days after three weeks – there’s no way to keep going. The fourth week, people are going to fight.
But it can also simply be terrible acoustics. You can be in the mood, but if you get up there and no matter what you play, it sounds half as good as you think it should – so you’re fighting to get tone or any sort of facility or any sort of texture to your sound, you can’t find it – then you get frustrated. And then you stop working as a band, and you become this little individual who’s fighting to survive in this sea of wash-y sound. Then you’re not connecting as a band. It’s really important to play as a band, as a unit, as a team. Everyone’s listening to everybody else. It’s not just about the solo steel guitar guy showing off. It’s, what’s the fiddle player playing right now and how do I embellish that, along with the keyboard player, all in support of this great song and this wonderful voice. So yeah, you’ll have bad nights, you can’t help it sometimes. But they’re probably not half as bad as you think they are. One time we played the Seattle Kingdome opening for Willie Nelson, and if you’ve ever been there…
Yes, it was terrible for sound.
SF: And the stage was in the center, and so the audience may not realize this, but there is a delay. If you hit a snare drum in the center of the Kingdome, it goes straight up and hits the ceiling and comes back down, and it takes about a second and a half for it to go “BOMMMM”, and another a second and a half to go “DOMMMM”, and you hear it back really loud. So if you’d play something, it would go up and hit the ceiling and come back down, and so you were constantly hearing yourself a second and a half later, and it was awful. Mainly it was the drums. So it just became this huge wash – it was like being thrown into a washing machine and being all mixed up. And we would lean into our monitors and peer into our monitors and focus with all of our might, trying to find the beat, because there was no groove. And we had to go for 45 minutes and it was awful, and it was just simply acoustics. So that would’ve been a bad night. Now, I don’t know how it appeared to the audience, it might have been ok, and they probably saw it on the big screen and it seemed ok, but boy, we were fighting each other, we weren’t working together as a team.
I want to ask you about the concept of being in the zone.
SF: I love the zone. I wish I could define the zone.
I assume you’ve had experiences in that, both as a musician and as a producer. How do you experience it as a performer, and how do you experience it as a producer, and are those different things?
SF: It’s simply a state of complete trust in your own instincts, no matter if you’ve been playing for two years or 30 years. You don’t give a damn what anybody else thinks, you know that whatever you play is working right now – but you don’t state it in that way. It’s simply a time when everything’s working, and it feels good, and it’s effortless. We have an expression: turn off your brain. You’re not thinking about what you’re doing, you’re just doing it. You’re going on pure artistic instinct, rather than thinking, ok, I have to move this finger to hit this string. You’re creating, you’re painting, it’s flowing through you and you’re not thinking about the technical aspect of it.
It’s really great when you actually hear the sound in your head, and you make the physical movement to create it and it comes out the way you’re hearing it in your head. That’s the zone. But the zone is mainly about being completely unselfconscious about where you are, being completely unaware of any outside distraction, and being right inside a line that goes right through the song where you’re part of that song and you’re adding a contribution to it – whether it’s as a side person, as a rhythm section member, as a singer. It’s expression without effort. And that is amazing. That’s the zone. Whether it’s good or not is up to somebody else to decide, but you know that it’s pure – in your mind it’s a pure moment – and it’s really a joyous moment. It’s really a happy feeling. It doesn’t happen very often, but boy, if you can get there, that’s a great time to have a recorder rolling, because you’re going to get something really good. You’re going to capture something worth hearing again and again.
How do you get yourself as an artist to a place where you can access the zone more?
SF: That’s hard for me to answer. I’m not trying to dodge the question, but that’s too difficult to answer. If I knew the answer to that, then everyone would be an artist! Believe me, I can tell you there are times when I was asking myself that on a session when I was playing steel, because I’m lost and I can’t find the zone. There are so many different factors to it. It has to do with the environment, confidence, intangibles like what you’re hearing at the time, your mood, rest – but sometimes when you’re really tired you can get in the zone, too, so there are no rules about it. But it’s impossible for me to define how to get into the zone. I think that each person has to find that comfort spot themselves and learn, as they play more and more often, to find that spot more quickly. Usually it takes a singer about three passes to get to the zone in front of a microphone. But when I saw Bruce Springsteen two weeks ago, he was in the zone on the first song. I’m sure of it, because the first song sounded like the encore. It was remarkable. So how do you do that? It’s divine intervention, I think. I wish I had the answer to that one.
Maybe there is no answer to it.
SF: No, I don’t think there is!
Note: Thanks again to Steve for taking the time to have this in-depth conversation with me. Hanging out with him in Nashville for a few days was a real treat. It is refreshing to encounter someone who has been in the industry so long and so successfully but who is still completely down to earth and altruistic. Steve truly is one of the good guys, and I applaud the vision and the mission he brings to MPI. -VA