CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Béla Balogh and Courtney Von Drehle of 3 Leg Torso (Part 3 of 3)

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This is the third and final installment of my conversation with Béla Balogh and Courtney Von Drehle, the co-founders of 3 Leg Torso.  The other two parts were posted in the previous two weeks.  This is a new series I will occasionally feature on this blog: in-depth interviews with successful performing musicians.  -VA

What’s your pre-gig ritual?  How do you get yourself ready?  Do you have a specific thing?  Are things timed out?  Or does it just kind of happen?

Béla Balogh [violin, trumpet]:  I don’t think we have a lot of time to do that.

Courtney Von Drehle [accordion]:  No.

BB:  You know, we set up…

CVD:  We do sound check…

BB:  As far as ritual, we kind of do that thing where we all put our hands on each other’s hands and go “whoo”, you know…

CVD:  Sometimes we do that.  We like to do that, but we don’t always do that.

BB:  Yeah, we don’t have a lot of time…

CVD:  And it’s different for different members of the band, too, because there’s different responsibilities.  And as people involved in the leadership of the business thing, sometimes [the other] guys can go and riff out and do things, but we might not get that chance, because we’ve got other stuff we’ve got to do.  So I wish we did have a ritual, that’d be cool.  But it’s more like, the time pressure to get to the job, and there’s certain things you’ve got to get done, and that’s what we’re doing.  And then we get performing, and once we start performing, its like, ok, now it’s pretty good.

How much do you practice a day?  How much time to you spend practicing, writing, arranging?

CVD:  I generally play most every day, but it’s not necessarily practicing.  I play a lot of music every day, when I’m happy and when I have time.  And some of that ends up being ideas, and some of it just ends up being the satisfaction of playing music.  And if it ends up being an idea, then you kind of work on turning it into a tune.  It sometimes helps to have deadlines and things that say, ok, something needs to be done.  Then something that’s fooling around has more framework to become something.

You definitely exercise different parts of your being and your brain and your psyche around writing versus performing.  Do you find that when you’re writing you’re thinking about what it’s going to be like to perform it, or is it more the piece for the piece’s sake?  Are you writing and thinking as a performer as you’re writing?

CVD:  I don’t think I’m doing that.  I’m thinking about the music and the function of the music, depending on what the flavor of the piece is, or if it’s for a specific application like a film or something, or if it’s, ok, we’re trying to write something high energy here, or whatever those pushes are – but trying to make the music as complete unto itself.  And then sometimes, with Béla and I both, we’ve written things, and then we don’t actually know how to play our part yet, because we’ve just written it on the computer.  Or sometimes, you don’t even have a part yet – you’ve got everyone else’s part, but not yours.

BB:  Yes, right.

And then, of course, there’s a whole difference between performing for an audience and performing in the studio. Do you find it difficult to get that “live” feel in the studio?  On your new album, are you laying down all your tracks separately?

CVD:  This album we’re doing more like that, which is different, and it’s a very weird way to make music.  But as we’ve gotten a lot of distance, it’s awfully interesting to discover what we can do with what we’ve recorded through doing it so separately.  It’s a laborious process to do it this way, but I have been excited by the stuff that we’ve done in the studio afterwards, or just the freedom of, ok, let’s lay down 20 violin solos here and see what we’re going to do.

Béla, what’s it like for you to get your musical message across in the studio as opposed to having the audience to buoy you?

BB:  You know, actually, I do have an audience, and that’s the engineer and Courtney.  And these guys really can inspire me to play cool things, and I think without them it just wouldn’t work so well.  We go in there and we have fun.  We not only have musical fun, but we also poke at each other and joke, and I think that inspires me to loosen up.  I have a real hard time in front of a microphone in the studio.  It’s such a thing that, you’d think, oh, this easy, you just do it until you get it right.  But you keep doing it wrong and it’s going to affect you, and you’re going to say, this next time I’m going to mess it up, too, and that’s why now I’m stressed!  So it prevents you from getting a good take.  But when you see these guys get excited, or they say something like, “yeah, that’s it, move along in those lines”, then it inspires me to do that.

Who are your favorite performers, and why?  Who gets you on the edge of your chair when you see them live?

CVD:  That’s a good question.  I don’t quite have that assembled cast.  I have enjoyed seeing Tim Eriksen a lot.  I enjoyed his humble nature and authentic presence, and his music’s really good, too.  It seems like he was there making an offering to us, and he was saying, “Hey, thanks for coming out for this, because I know it’s an effort to take time and give your attention to this stuff.”  And I liked that.  He was good in a lot of regards, and I’ve enjoyed that.  He’s also a little bit funny, which I really appreciate a little bit of that, too.  What about you, B?

BB:  It’s hard to say, but the truth is that they’re all the superstars.  Not all the superstars.  But, for his energy, Mick Jagger.  He’s just got super energy, he knows how to connect with the audience – I mean, there are thousands and thousands of people out there.  Watching the Beatles – I’ve never seen them, I saw Mick Jagger, but I’ve never seen the Beatles (I’m too young for that, of course) – but their energy, and how happy they look when they’re performing.  I mean, this is pre-’66, right?  So they’re just a real friendly-looking group of guys making fun music and good music.  [Jazz trumpeter] Thara Memory is a performer that, I remember when I first saw him perform almost 20 years ago, I just thought, what a badass.  That guy gets up there, looks confident, is cocky, and knew what he was doing.  That grabbed me.

So the things that you find compelling as a performer watching other performers, it sounds like it’s some kind of a specific presentation style that hooks you in.  And so when you think of yourselves as performers, are you conscious of that, trying to emulate not a particular star but a thing that they do, a way of being, something that you admire that you try to incorporate with yourself, or is it pretty much who you are and that’s what it is, or somewhere in between there?

BB:  For me, I went wireless for a while, and I had just read a book about the Stones, and I was really into the Stones – I mean, throughout my life I had been into the Stones – but I had just read the book Sympathy for the Devil.  And I kind of felt like, you know, I really like what he does, and he’s still doing it after 40-some-odd years.  So I started to feel like, hey, I’m going to be physical, I’m going to move around on stage and try to connect with the audience that way.  And it felt good to me, and I could connect with my bandmates, I could look at them, I could see them, I could move right up to them.  I was in this phase in my life, where I was like, hey, I’m like Mick Jagger on the violin!  But you always get back to yourself at some point.  You can’t be someone else and trying to emulate someone all the time.  So I think that kind of got into me, and maybe some of it stayed in me, and then I move on and think of other people.

CVD:  Actually, when you asked that question, I’m reminded our original inspiring figure was [accordionist] Russ Rossi…

BB:  Yeah, right…

CVD:  …and his outgoing nature and his making a performance of what he did is something that we decided, that’s a good thing.  And so Russ was kind of a formative guy in that way.

BB:  Oh yeah, very much so…

CVD:  So it’s not so much emulating a specific person, but putting yourself out there and going for the entertainment and the fun, and creating that.  And people who do that well, that’s exciting, and people who do that in a way that it seems that some of it is happening in the moment, that’s really exciting when that’s going on.

Is there anything that you want to improve in yourselves as performers? Béla, you mentioned that you struggle with stage fright – is that something that’s still going on?

BB:  Stage fright hasn’t been an issue like it was in the past.  I would pretty much get nervous before every gig in the past – this was years ago – and I was very fortunate to meet a doctor who had heard that I had stage fright, and she said, “I’m going to prescribe you something.”  So I did beta blockers for about a year, and with all the good experiences, I just would remember those good experiences and say, I don’t need these anymore.  I didn’t need them anymore.  There are still times when I get nervous for some weird reason, and it could be a big gig or a small gig, and it’s just a matter of dealing with it.

How do you deal with it?

BB:  I throw up.  Yeah, it’s true.

CVD:  You get wiggy before the gig on those times, but then you say once you start playing, you feel like that goes away.

BB:  Not even that.  Once I step up on stage, then I’m ok.  Yeah, there have been times where I would throw up mere seconds before I’d get up on stage, and I get up on stage and then say, “Hey everybody, how’s it going?”

Some people just can’t wait to get on stage, and some people, it’s torture.

BB:  Well, I think that I can’t wait to get on stage because I want that to be over, I want that feeling to be over.

CVD:  The torture feeling.

BB:  Yeah, well, it’s just like, oh jeez, these nerves, you know?

Because you know what you’re doing…

BB:  I totally know what I’m doing.  I’ve done this stuff a million times.  And the thing is that I don’t know why it is that I have this stage fright.

Well, I think that very early experience you talked about [in Part 1, singing “We Three Kings” as a child] is really interesting…

BB:  Yeah, it could very well be…

I mean, I’m not trying to sound like a psychoanalyst, but it’s very interesting to hear.  Because you think you’re doing just fine, and all of a sudden you…[gasp]…it’s like every performer’s worst nightmare.

BB:  And it’s so rare that I make any mistakes.  I’m serious, I don’t make a lot of mistakes on stage, but that’s also because I stay pretty close to the line.

But you’re highly prepared as well.

BB:  Well, prepared is, I mean, I’ve just done it so many times.  When you asked us how much we practice – I don’t practice at all.  The time that I play my instrument is when we’re going to rehearsal once a week, or when we’re playing gigs.  And most recently, I’ve been playing other instruments just to come up with new ideas, but it’s rare that I play my violin.  You know, I’ve played the violin almost 40 years.  Sure, if I practiced I’d be probably a lot better.

You say you stay close to the line.  Are you consciously feeling like, I’m not going to push it?  Because that’s not the sense I get from watching you at all.

BB:  I know, that’s what most people say.  People also say, “You didn’t look nervous.”  You know, it’s all inside me.  I mean, I do go over the line, but I don’t get risky.  There have been a few times when I got risky.  But one of the members in the band might get real risky and make mistakes.  And I don’t like making mistakes.

So, in my question of what would you like to improve as a performer, would it be the ability to take more risks?  Or is it something else?

BB:  Well, no, I think really to improve as a performer, and I think this is part of performing, is how to get people to buy your CD.  And not just through the music, but by telling them, or asking them, to take your CD home.  I think we’ve really got most of our job done by playing a great performance, but then also, you have to make a living at it.  And sometimes guarantees aren’t enough to help you pay the bills – or the door – so you also have to sell CDs.  And I think that’s one of the things that, at this point in my life, I’d like to improve on, is how to sell more CDs.

What about you, Courtney?

I think it’s a mission – I don’t know about a mission, it’s kind of a bit of a mission statement – but just being who I am, and trying to be that at all times, as much as I can.  And so that’s about performance – the  more I am who I am as I perform, that’ll make me happy.  But it also doesn’t isolate itself to performance, it’s for the whole thing.  To discover that and do it better is the most interesting thing.

Authenticity.

CVD:  Mm hmm.

BB:  Which is really hard for him to come by.

CVD:  Well, that’s because of the people I hang out with!