Waves Across the Pond: an Interview part 1

The “Waves Across The Pond” event is just a few days away! Steve Lawson & Lobelia will be here in Newburgh Tuesday afternoon, and then we’ll head over to the Wallkill River School to do the Workshops. I’ll just say again how thrilled and excited I am to have a chance to meet and work with these fine folks. For more info ’bout the project, go to the official project page.

As preparation for the performance part of the project, I contacted Steve via web-chat over Skype to discuss what we might play, either song-wise or conceptually.

What followed was a really cool “dual-interview” – where we both got to ask questions of eachother, exchange ideas, and talk about everything from our personal musical histories to concepts for group improvisation. I think it’s freakin’ Awesome.

Here’s the transcript, albeit slightly edited, in 2 parts. This is part 1:

STEVE: [interview starts] Neil, you’re clearly proficient in a dizzying array of musical styles and environments – did you start as an improvisor, or in a stricter classical school?

NEIL: I started with classical, young age, Beethoven & all that.

STEVE: did you break away from that, or stick with it and do both when you discovered jazz and prog?

NEIL: I’ve always maintained the classical thing. It tied well into my “prog” interests, and that led me to jazz – after a fashion.

STEVE: With prog rock, did you start with it in the more traditional ‘rock music plus classical virtuosity’ sense, rather than the jazz/fusion Mahavishnu end of things?

NEIL: Definitely the former. Although straight up rock held no interest for me back then.

One of the reasons I wasn’t interested in rock because there were no – or very little – keyboards. Unlike prog – “ELP” etc.

STEVE: right! When was that? Did you get into ELP first time round, or are you too young? 🙂

NEIL: 1st time around! I think I got Trilogy 1st, right when it came out. 🙂

STEVE: Keith Emerson must’ve been a revelation for a classical pianist discovering popular music…

NEIL: You’ve no idea. I didn’t understand half of what he was doing but lord, it felt good. Like Rock’n’roll is supposed to feel, I guess. lol!

STEVE: for sure! It seems that now so many boundaries have been smashed, it needs to mean something else… you can’t be radical just by playing Mussorgsky in a rock trio any more 🙂

NEIL: No you certainly can’t, tho it’s still really fun. 🙂 The other thing that caught my ear were these strange tunes by Billy Preston – “Space Race”; and Deodato’s “2001”.

STEVE: So who were the gateway bands into jazz and fusion for you then? Weather Report? Mahavishnu?

NEIL: I had a friend in the early days who was a Charlie Parker FANATIC. We’d get baked (yes, I said that) and listen to Bird for what seemed like days. I didn’t get it, at least not very much of it. But Prog led me to Mahavishnu. From there it was back to Miles (electric) – and then backwards to Bebop. I got the big picture all of a sudden, about how all this music is connected.

STEVE: aha! That’s really interesting. So you went back to BeBop? Did you study jazz harmony at all? And did the ordered nature of bop make more sense to your classical brain than the openness of what was starting to happen in fusion at that time?

NEIL: I’ll answer that question like this: The first time I heard a Hendrix Record, I didn’t like it. It was ‘too open’. In the beginning I preferred the tightly knit arrangements of Mahavishnu to the “we always solo & we never solo” approach of Weather Report. I’ve gone completely the other in the last 15 years; now I’m trying to reconnect with my “roots”.

STEVE: good answer! Did the openness bother you because it didn’t make sense, or because it just sounded like there wasn’t any thought going on? It’s always interesting how people perceive a lack of rules…because Hendrix’s songwriting was often very simple, it was the stuff on top that made it magical…

NEIL: That’s awesome. I had very narrow tastes until my lovely wife, who’s a singer songwriter herself, introduced me the amazing artistry that is songwriting. Before then, I’m somewhat ashamed to say – I had no interest. Can you believe it? It was like “what the heck are these guys playing? They’re just noodling around.”. I REALLY didn’t get it, lol.

STEVE: Of course 🙂 We all have very narrow taste, in the grand scheme of things. I was fortunate enough to listen to John Peel – a DJ on BBC Radio 1, who played pretty much anything, from extreme hardcore punk to electronic, world music, singer/songwriters, prog, reggae… he changed my life 🙂

STEVE: Did you listen to any indian music back then? did that make sense?

NEIL: I had a few Ravi Shankar albums – not sure where I got them – but it was Mahavishnu that got me into indian classical music. Plus, my bassist from the A. Animal (Conrad) group went off to Ali Akbar School of Music to study Tablas. He came back and tried to teach me everything he learned.

STEVE: wow! That must’ve been quite a schooling

STEVE: Did that change your view of improv?

NEIL: Yes, but the willingness to experiment coupled with not worrying about “if you know what you’re doing or not” has always made for interesting music. 🙂

STEVE: I guess McLaughlin made it easy to compare prog structure with indian freedom just by listening to Mahavishnu and Shakti

NEIL: It expanded it in different directions….

NEIL: McLaughlin’s magic was to combine serious post-bop harmony with open modal improv and indian rhythmic structures, which can be frighteningly complex.

NEIL: I grok that shit big time. 🙂

STEVE: ha!

NEIL: So – Have you always been a bassist?

STEVE: I started in classical too, on violin and trumpet – but was appalling at both of them. Had given up by the time I was 13, and for my 14th birthday I got a bass guitar. I was rubbish at that too, but was at least interested in it, and spent a lot of time seeing how many weird noises I could get from it…

NEIL: Violin & Trumpet, wow. At parent’s urging – or was it something you wanted?

STEVE: I wanted to play both violin and trumpet, but didn’t want to play the music I was given – a large part of my motivation to make music teaching mean something comes from just how bad my violin and trumpet tuition was. And my classical interests moved to the more progressive end – Messiaen, Bartok etc.

NEIL: So you’ve had an unusual approach to the bass right from the beginning.

STEVE: Yeah, I guess so – I was in a band to start with, but left when I broke my arm.

And then I just got a distortion pedal and tried doing solo versions of Pixies and Jesus And Mary Chain songs, strumming chords, and making a big noise!

NEIL: “Pixies” & “Jesus & Mary Chain” is actually after my time; I’m not that familiar with that music, expect in terms of the history. What band were you in when you broke your arm?

STEVE: oh, just a crapy school band – we didn’t even do any gigs. We did a cover of White Room by Cream, and Substitute by The Who. That was about it. I was awful 🙂

My second band was more interesting – I found friends who couldn’t really play, but were interested in making an odd noise, and we formed a band and started gigging. It was largely indie rock, but with a strange experimental edge, and a large dose of unintentional incompetence 🙂 The Pixies were a REALLY important band for me. I’ve often described their album Doolittle as Sargent Pepper for late 80s indie kids 🙂 JAMC were massively influential… blending the anarchic mess of punk with an amazing sense of melody. Both were really surf-rock influenced… but at the same time, I was listening to Stanley Clarke and Weather Report. I had really wide listening taste at the time.

NEIL: How did you find yourself getting into looping?

STEVE: Looping was an interesting journey. Before looping, I was tapping a lot. Trying to do the Stuart Hamm thing, with melody, bass and chords. But, like most people who head down that path, it looked great if you were watching me play, but I sounded like two really mediocre bassists duetting.

NEIL: 2 mediocre bassists, lol. Were you using effects as well?

STEVE: some delay and chorus, not much processing..But I really wanted to be able to play whole pieces. I was strictly a 4-string player back then, so struggled to play chord melody stuff; and then read an interview with Michael Manring, who talked about looping, and a light was switched on. it made so much sense. So I started experimenting with just the 2 second looper in my ART processor.

NEIL: What year was that?

STEVE:…this was probably 95…and in 97, I’d started writing for Bassist Magazine here in the UK, and was doing gear reviews, so I requested a Lexicon JamMan to review

NEIL: I think I bought my Lexicon JamMan around the same time… 🙂

STEVE: I got the last one that Lexicon had in the country, but wrote the review anyway, even though no-one would be able to buy one – I just wanted to be able to keep hold of it. Then I paid Lexicon for it instead of sending it back…and it had 8 seconds of loop time. 🙂 Which after 2 seconds felt like MONTHS. I fairly soon upgraded it to 32 seconds, and it fast became my main way to realize my musical ideas. I was in a quartet that was fashioned after Shakti at the time, even though I’d never heard Shakti… spanish guitar, elec. violin, tabla and bass..

NEIL: REALLY? But you’d never heard Shakti….? How does that happen, lol! I too have done quite a bit of composing with the JamMan (also upgraded to 32 seconds). Also, I keep having to remind myself about your writing chops – as a writer. You’ve done quite a lot of that from what I can tell. Does it change your listening perspective?

STEVE: that’s a really interesting question.. I don’t know. I’m not sure if I separate out the way I write about music from the way I think about it… It certainly exposed me to more music, and I got to interview and hang out with most of my favorite bassists in the world! There were always MASSIVE holes in my listening. I didn’t hear In A Silent Way till about 2006! Partly because I’ve always been obsessed with pop music, as well as jazz, prog and improv.

NEIL: I hear you – there are still massive holes in MY listening. Stuff i’d heard but never really dug into, classic jazz records….

STEVE: I love the cultural narrative of pop music; its relationship with culture, with growing up…

NEIL: Yes, it’s truly fascinating. My wife Nita & I talk about this stuff all the time, the evolution of music in culture, etc.

STEVE: …so while I was listening to John Zorn and Derek Bailey, I was also listening to chart stuff and obsessing over Joni Mitchell and Bruce Cockburn.

NEIL: John Zorn is one of those “holes” in my listening… but Joni sure ain’t. 🙂

STEVE: Zorn I first heard on a documentary about him. Became mildly obsessed with the album he was talking about on the doc. “Spillane.” It was a bizarre cut-up album, no idea lasting more than a few seconds, with a spoken word narration. Mad shit 🙂 But I was a sponge for new musical ideas.I had so many different motivations for liking music. Some of it was because of how it made me feel, some was because I was interested in the process, some just because it was so extreme.

NEIL: I was always interested in how it made me feel – being able to play music basically saved my life. Not sure if I would have made it through the teen years without it. I recently heard Frisell’s “Billy The Kid”. There’s an idea factory.

STEVE: I know what you mean about teens and music. I first heard Frisell in the 90s…Well, I first heard him on Spillane, but didn’t know it was him!

I’d listened to one of his albums in a shop, and didn’t get it. Then saw him live opening for John Scofield, and it quite honestly changed my musical world. It made sense of so much that was going on for me.

NEIL: I got to Jam with Frisell a long time ago. I auditioned for Percy Jone’s band “Stonetiger”. I don’t think he had his concept yet. I know I certainly didn’t get it (or the audition). But he kept turning up.

STEVE: With Frisell? Wow, cool. 🙂

NEIL: Finally someone gave me “Powertools” and I’ve been a fan ever since.

STEVE: That gig opening for Sco was a revelation. I went for Sco’s band, with Dave Holland, Al Foster and Joe Lovano

NEIL: “ScoLoHoFo” was that band, I think. Frisell’s played WITH Sco a bunch – Marc Johnson etc…

STEVE: …who were great, but it was jazz; it sounded like jazz. It was expertly played jazz; while Frisell played Bill Frisell music. It wasn’t anything. And it was an entirely personal synthesis of everything that was going on in his musical world. There didn’t seem to be any sense in which he was constrained by anyone else’s perception of what he should be doing. It was just a story unfolding. And I was utterly captivated.

NEIL: YES! That’s the real way, the way to yourself – at least what I’ve discovered lately, within the last 10 years.

STEVE: I started buying everything I could find with him on. I got those Mark Johnson Right Brain Patrol records…

NEIL: “Right Brain Patrol”?

STEVE: …and an incredible album called Angel Song, with Dave Holland, Lee Konitz and Kenny Wheeler.

NEIL: Wow, more holes. Ulp!

STEVE: But the revelation with Frisell was all about sounding like ‘you’. I started to tell my students that when I hear a music I love, i don’t want to sound like them, I want to write music that makes me feel the way their music makes me feel, so I need to understand where the story comes from, how music is linked to them soundtracking their world…

END OF PART 1. Part 2 in the next post. 🙂


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