Steve Tibbetts November 2006
Joined: March 26 2004
Topic: Steve Tibbetts November 2006
Posted: November 22 2006 at 03:15
I started playing guitar at the age of six to get attention. My father was a union organizer in Danville, Virginia and professor of labor law at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and he used his 12-string to get attention. His job was to drive all over the state of Wisconsin and give evening seminars on labor law and union strategies to very fatigued shoe and boot workers. To get their attention, and to have a little fun he would pull his guitar out of its case and they would all sing union songs. "Union Maid", "Drill Ye Tarriers Drill", and so on.
There were a lot of union and church sing-alongs at our home as well. People from the university and our church would come over and, after dinner, they'd break out instruments and sing for hours. Banjos, guitars, bass, dulcimers, mandolins, whatever anyone had. It was smoky, out of tune, and fun.
Whenever my dad opened his guitar case conversations would stop and people would wait for something. I noticed this. When someone opened up a guitar case and pulled out a guitar they might as well have been pulling a sword out of a stone. The room was magnetized. This was not lost on me, the smallest and most sports-challenged kid in school. I wanted one of those guitars, but an electric one.
My dad and I fought over this. He said he would buy me an acoustic guitar, but not an electric one. I couldn't understand why, and whined persistently for six months. Finally he said, "Well, with an electric guitar, what are you going to play at a beach party?" That stopped me. There was no answer to that one. I didn't stop to think that beach parties were rare in Madison and that there were few prospects of me galvanizing teen beach-goers in some Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello fantasy.
After many months we compromised on an acoustic/electric model, in case the beach option came up. He bought me a Gretsch Single Anniversary hollow body guitar and an Epiphone amp with the condition that I take lessons. My friend Greg Wallace, who had a very shiny Japanese electric guitar with 8 pickups and 30 switches on it immediately brought his camera and guitar over and we took pictures of ourselves posing heroically with our new guitar/swords.
I took lessons at a music store called Ward-Brodt. In those days music stores made most of their money selling band instruments. The store floor at Ward-Brodt was a sea of brass instruments, marching drums, and sheet music. But they were one of the first stores in Madison to sell a few electric guitars, and that's all they had, a few. They kept them in an alcove off to the side along with a stack of amps. All the amps and guitars were jammed in there, very concentrated. The hot spot. Vox teardrop guitars, Gretsch, Hofner basses, Kustom amps with sparkley Naugahyde covers and some abomination called a "2x4" that was just a plank of red wood bristling with pickups and switches.
Lessons took place in the back storerooms, so while we were waiting Greg and I would surreptitiously crack the cases of new, unsold guitars. I remember being overwhelmed by the varnishy smell and sight of a Fender Coronado guitar in a plush red case. We opened the case and gasped. The power and the glory--it was a Wildwood model--made from the wood of trees injected with green and orange dye as they grew. It looked like a guitar made from an oil slick. Fender only made them for a year or two.
All the freaks and self-styled musical revolutionaries hung out or worked at Ward-Brodt. Adam Mickey was the electric guitar curator. He had a ponytail. He had an earring. We stared at his ponytail and earring. Later Adam moved to San Francisco and joined a band ("Lamb" or "Faith"--I can't remember) and made an actual vinyl album that came out on an actual record label. His little brother showed it to me. Gasp. We all immediately started growing our hair out. Grow, hair, grow.
There was no rock music on TV. It was all Ray Coniff, Robert Goulet, Edie Gorme and other crooning lounge lizards. When something with electric guitars was rumored to be on afternoon TV our school would partially empty out. Everybody went home to see Blue Cheer on the "Mike Douglas Show." (Who booked that?) We engaged in heavy parental negotiations to stay up late to see Jimi Hendrix on the Dick Cavett show, Janis Joplin on some other late-night show.
We patiently sat through Topo Gigio (the talking mouse-puppet) and the ever-present plate spinning guys on the Ed Sullivan Show to get to the occasional rock band playing in front of a goofy backdrop (big birds for the Byrds, airplane models for the Jefferson Airplane, and so on).
Greg and I formed a band. I needed more gear. My mother had won a set of books by asking a question of the "Great Books" column in the Capital Times. She wrote in and asked, "What is existentialism, anyway? Is it a fad?" They answered her question and put her picture in the paper, pointy black glasses and all. Then they sent her about 25 books, great books, a series. Plato, Pascal, Socrates, and others.
I thought I could do that. I wrote into the "Tell Me Why" column and they bit on my question. ("What do bees do in winter?") I won a set of encyclopedias (not very good ones), they came over and took my picture amidst the books, and put it in the paper with a short article. The very next week I made my mother take me and the encyclopedias down to the Buy/Sell shop where I swapped them for a fuzzbox and another speaker. I still don't know what bees do in winter.
Greg and I found a drummer (Doug Ross) and practiced in our basement. We were very loud. To this day, when I am home shoveling snow over the Christmas holidays, some elderly neighbor, also out shoveling snow will totter over and say, "How did your parents ever put up with that? Veblen Place just shook. It just shook." I asked my father about that and he said, "Well, we knew where you were." Did they ever.
I learned that if you had a guitar and played in a band it was quite OK to have an attitude problem. People expected it. That was handy. Later, in my twenties, I learned that if you were a composing guitar player people also expect you to be spiritual, or tortured, or spiritually tortured. Also handy.
Besides buying more and more gear, we invested heavily in psychedelic lighting (both Greg and I had income from paper routes). Black lights. Strobe lights. If we washed our white shirts in Tide and wore dark vests it looked like a bunch of glowing arms playing music under black lights. We thought maybe playing under the right lighting would enhance some state of mind related to music-making.
Failing that we would put down our instruments and set the strobe light to flash every 1/2 second. If we jumped up and down in sync with the strobe it looked like everyone was levitating. This was great fun until the time Greg landed on the neck of my Gretsch hollow-body electric. Crack. Just as well. I got a Gibson SG then, a real electric guitar. No beach parties with that one.
Our first great humiliation as a band was at the James Madison Memorial High School Rock Festival. This was in the wake of Woodstock and our set list reflected it. We played "Soul Sacrifice" by Santana, some Who songs, some Blind Faith, and (my moment) "I'm Going Home" by Ten Years After. It didn't go that well. The next day, sitting in homeroom, Mark Gongieu, who I thought was cool said, "You guys were great last night." Hopefully, I said, "Really?" He said, "No. You were terrible." He went into detail about why we were so terrible.
After that we wrote our own songs. We were inspired by the extended pieces bands were writing. Concept music. Rock operas. Different time signatures. Dynamics. We were inspired by "Thick as a Brick" (Jethro Tull) "Tommy" (The Who) and by our new-found interest in psychotropic drugs.
Madison, being a college town and self-styled crucible of revolution had powerful, clean drugs and they found their way to the suburbs, or the suburbs would bike downtown to the revolution and find them there. We had a good gang of freaks, intellectuals, non-jock types, and budding musicians. We spent many magical evenings in each other's company, heads filled with LSD-25. I'm not sure how I'd feel or will feel about my kids taking mescaline or acid, but it was wonderful for us. A universe of color and sound opened up. Our minds engaged each other in ways that have kept us life-long friends. Intelligent company, a warm summer night, good music to see, bikes to ride, and clean blue microdot. We'd go downtown and see the block party or riot or both, get tear-gassed, ride to our homes, pretend to go to bed, sneak out, meet somewhere, and walk all night. We'd look for Mescalito. One person would take the Don Juan role and the other would play Carlos Castaneda.
There was a lot of music coming through Madison and a lot of bands in Madison. More that the big guns (Hendrix, Clapton, and Jimmy Page) I think I was more bent around by what I could see in town. Gary Geisler, Mark Hambrecht, and Jim Pharo were my age and my competition and I stole from them. Further up the ladder were the road bands that came from Chicago and Milwaukee: Short Stuff, The Siegal-Schwall Band (Jim Schwall with his DeArmond pickup taped to an acoustic guitar) and especially Harvey Mandel. From Appleton was a band called Soup with an amazing guitar player (Doug Yankus) and in town was a brilliant guitarist from the band Tayles (Bob Schmidke).
I left Madison to go to Macalaster College in St. Paul. Starting college life in 1972 was like showing up at a party 2:30 AM. The revolution was over.
Before I left my father gave me his twelve-string Martin and my Grandpa's guitar, a 1912 Gibson. The Gibson is the guitar I'm holding on the back cover of "Yr." When my dad gave it to me I took it out of the case and did some high hammer-ons ala Harvey Mandel. He said, "That's probably the first time that guitar has been played above the third fret."
I played lots of acoustic guitar in my dorm room. Towards the end of my junior year a guy named Scott Stevens told me he had a two-track tape recorder that had overdubbing capabilities, a "Howard" reel-to-reel. He lent it to me for a long weekend. I barricaded myself in my room and, sleepless, overdubbed everything that made a sound in my room. The water coming out of the tap. My keys. Clapping. Playing my desk. Many guitars. At the end of a few days I had a nice little piece of sound sculpture and a flat hairdo from wearing my vise-like Koss headphones around the clock. A friend knocked on my door, distraught over her finals and moving plans. I asked her if she wanted to listen to what I had recorded. She lay down on the floor with the headphones on, I spooled the tape, played it for her, and waited anxiously. When it was over she got up, took the headphones off and said, "That was just what I needed." I was thrilled.
In my senior year the music department put in a small electronic music studio. It had a four-track Dokoder, an EML 101 synthesizer, one battered microphone, and a tiny mixer. The studio was put in the only space available; a large closet where the Macalaster pipers would store their kilts and bagpipes. (Macalaster has a Scottish sort of theme). Even though the electronic music studio smelled like sweaty kilts it was heaven to me. I finished up my fine arts major and spent the last year in that studio. That's where I recorded my first album.
You can read all about that time at : http://www.frammis.com/firstbio.htm
I worked as a board operator on the overnight shift at Minnesota Public Radio for about five years. My job was simply to tend the station in downtown St. Paul, since all the programming came from Collegeville. I listened to a lot of classical music during the night.
I would eat my bag lunch at 2AM, up in the newsroom with whomever was around. Bill Tilton was a frequent MPR night owl. Bill had spent some time in jail for burning up Minnesota draft records. In jail he studied law, and on coming out became the only convicted felon to pass the bar exam in Minnesota. He worked for legal aid, made public-interest programs for MPR, and made frequent forays to Africa. He told me that being in jail for awhile inspired him to now forgo sleep, work at night, and travel everywhere. He showed me photographs of Africa (one of them is the cover of "Safe Journey") and sent me postcards from strange places. I determined that I would go stranger places and send him postcards in return.
I set up a studio in a warehouse space with a Tascam 8-track tape recorder, a small mixer, and three mics. I didn't have a reverb unit, so I ran mics and speakers across the hall to an abandoned sculpture studio. That was my reverb chamber for "Yr," my second album, which I put out myself after collecting about 200 rejection letters. Reviews praised the "organic" sound, but it was just the sound of ignorance and lack of gear. The time I spent in that studio taught me how to get as much of the sound I was looking for from just the instrument and the microphone.
"Yr" was sort of a hit. It had many great reviews. I sold some. I got to know my local UPS man well. I made some money. ("Maybe I can make a living at this!") I was always shipping boxes of vinyl around, many of them to New Music Distribution Service in New York. Carla Bley and Mike Mantler started the company when they found it hard to get their label (Jazz Composer's Orchestra-JCOA) into shops. I believe that early on, NMDS/JCOA was the only company who would take the fledgling ECM label for distribution in the USA.
I got a letter from a music director at a college radio station in California who suggested I send copies of "Yr" to Ricky Schultz at Warner Brothers and ECM Records in Munich. Sure. Why not? Ricky called soon after I sent him the LP and said he was on his way to Munich to meet with the ECM staff. At that time ECM was distributed by Warner's in the states. He said he'd "buttonhole" Manfred Eicher, and suggest we do an album together. Fat chance.
Ricky took my record and press kit over. My press kit, at that time, was a William S. Burroughs type cut-up of all the rejection slips I'd received.
You can see it at: http://www.frammis.com/fig8.htm
The ECM staff had a good laugh at my press kit, and Steve Lake (from ECM) sent me a letter duplicating the typewriter strikeovers from my Flying Fish rejection letter. He said no, they would not be interested in putting out my album, but making a record with them would be a possibility.
A few months later Marc Anderson and I found ourselves, to our great surprise, on an flight from Minneapolis to Oslo, Norway. The plan was to record an album in three days with Manfred Eicher and mix it on the fourth. This is how ECM did things. It was alternatively grueling and inspiring. This was a new way of working for me.
I was already a big fan of the label. At our meals out I would press Manfred for details on all the recordings and musicians I was already so familiar with, but familiar with as a fan. I couldn't believe it was happening, that I was in such exalted company and would be part of this label. Sometimes I still can't believe it.
When we finished mixing Manfred called up Jan Garbarek, who lived in Oslo, to come over to listen to the final product. We listened. I hated it. Marc's two congas had gone flat from a major 2nd to a minor 3rd for the final 21 minute song, and the resulting minor second against the tonic made it impossible for me to bring in the tape loops I had planned for that piece. Manfred said, "It's enough, it's beautiful already, more loops would be too much." I was in a foul mood, and at the conclusion of the playback I went out of the control room in a huff to pack up my gear in the studio. Jan followed me out and said in his Norwegian accent, "I think it's good, I think it's a good album." I said, "Doesn't Manfred just drive you crazy sometimes? Don't you ever want to run out screaming into the streets of Oslo?" He nodded and said, "Yes, yes yes. I do not think it would be a good record if you did not feel that way."
I like the album now.
From 1979 to about 1985 I worked in a record store in Minneapolis called "The Wax Museum." I learned a lot about music and the music business from that time. Those years were a fertile time for music in Minneapolis. There were lots of bands breaking out. Working in a store made it possible to go see lots of shows for free. Lots of metal and punk-rock, which I never would have liked unless I had to hear it over, and over and over and over. Joy Division, Roxy Music, Eno and his productions, Stiff records, Pere Ubu, The Replacements, pre-famous Talking Heads and U2. Once after work we all went to see U2 play a club in Minneapolis. The band was barely out of nappies. We'd go see Prince in clubs. We'd hear about his secret club shows first at the record store. The pulse of the cities.
In 1985 I applied for a grant from the Minnesota Composer's Forum. A very nice lady from the MCF called me up at home and said, "You got your grant." I thought I had won the lottery. My girlfriend asked, "How much is it for?" I didn't know. I called back the nice lady and asked. She laughed and said, "Six thousand dollars." A tidy sum.
My grant proposal was to go travel somewhere, record sounds, and use the pitch or event quality of the sound to spark the composition process. Because I had been teaching a recording class at the Naropa Institute in Boulder I knew the school was starting up a study abroad program. The first trip would be to Nepal, and I signed on as quasi-faculty though I never really did anything in that capacity.
Going to Nepal was as good as LSD, and the experience of difficult travel in strange countries changed how I approached many things, including working with my mind. I learned that it was a good thing to go far far away for as long a time as possible. It was good to leave mental baggage at home and to turn one's world completely upside down. It was good for me to leave my guitars at home and let the calluses fall off of my fingers. It was good to get away from the phone, friends, lovers, familiar food, familiar smells, and familiar ways of thinking.
It was also good to travel and record sounds to use in sparking the creative process. "Three Letters" from the album "Big Map Idea" is from that first trip to Asia.
From 1985-96 I traveled all over Asia. I worked for the Naropa Institute and I got a few grants. It was exhilarating to study Balinese drumming in Bali and to hear endless Javanese gong cycles in Java. Sounds were much different far away from my studio and guitars. My passport ran out of spaces for visas. I had more pages put in, and then I filled those up. At my Minneapolis apartment I had a grocery box from Country Store where I'd throw my travel items, always ready to go away again. "I'll be gone for the autumn," I'd say to Marc. "You're always gone," he'd reply.
Bill Tilton got lots of postcards from exotic locales. I liked Asia; the food, the vibe, the long steamy days, and the endless possibilities for strange travel. It was easy to travel with next to nothing. Endless travel under trying circumstances. A friend of mine said, after his difficult trip in Spiti, "I just tried to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and that solved everything."
In 1993 Brian Eno came through the Twin Cities doing an interview tour. He was promoting his album with John Cale ("Wrong Way Up"). His interviews on this tour took place in front of an audience, and he asked to be interviewed by local art/musician types, and so the Walker Art Center asked me to be involved. In advance of the interview he sent out a 6-page letter titled "To the person who is interviewing me." It listed a lot of questions that he'd rather not be asked, which I thought was incredibly arrogant until I read the letter. He had found that, having done hundreds of interviews over the years, many of the familiar questions he was asked led nowhere, and he was rarely asked things that really interested him. For instance, he was often asked about some sound on some album that he had long since forgotten about. "What was the bleeping sound 20 seconds into cut three of 'Another Green World?'" "What's David Bowie like?" He suggested that the interviewer ask him about other things that interested him like, for instance, perfume.
I thought about all the familiar questions I'd been asked over the years.
1. Where do you get your ideas?
Besides just getting ideas from mucking around on guitar I get some by setting up chaotic events in the studio and picking the bets bits. I'll play a certain line on guitar or keyboard, have the guitar or keyboard create midi events, record them to a sequencer, then have the midi events play different samples tuned in unisons or diatonic scales. Then I'll have other musicians come in and play to those parts. Eventually I have something good, and I overdub instruments over that.
Another approach is to record a solo guitar line or drum track and play different instruments to that track. On Monday I'll work out a 12-string line in E. Not listening to Monday's work on Tuesday I'll play a mandolin line in A to the same basic drum or vocal track. By Friday I'll have five tracks filled up and I'll finally listen to them all together and keep what works. It's not like sitting down in a bare white room with a quill pen and manuscript paper. I wish I could do that, but it's not a tool in my toolbox.
A friend of mine, Homer Lambrect, told me about one summer when he decided to do a month of composing. He set things up so he had all his paperwork done, his family out of town, and nothing to do except hold a pen and stare at music paper. He waited, pen poised over the paper. Nothing happened. Nothing happened for a week. He finally decided to give up and refinish his bathroom. That's when things happened. He was flooded with ideas.
I think traveling a long way from home or doing non-music things with your body will have the same result. It's good to put the music tools down and do something that will erase or engage your mind. Go away, remove all the supports that tell you how and why you are. It's amazing to me that guitar and gear-oriented magazines place such an emphasis on gear and guitars and so little emphasis on creativity. What do people do to free up their minds to be creative? How can you use the tendencies and forces in your mind in the service of creativity?
2. How would you describe your music?
It's too bad that the words "fusion" and "progressive rock" have such horrible connotations. How about "post-modern neo-primitivism?"
3. What kind of gear do you use?
I have a friend who is a good amateur photographer. She told me that when she shows someone a particularly good photograph she's taken the response will often be "That's nice. That's really good. What kind of camera do you have?"
Whenever musicians I meet get all wound up about whatever they do or don't have in their studio I point out that most home studios have more and better equipment than the Beatles had for "Revolver." Whenever guitarists get all wound up about whatever guitar or device they do or don't have I point them to Jimi Hendrix's solo in "Machine Gun" from the Band of Gypsys album. He had a guitar, a few amps, a fuzzbox and wah-wah, and he played the solo on that record in one take.
4. How do you get that electric guitar sound?
When the pickups of my Stratocaster are close to the speaker there's some sort of magnetic interference that takes place between the speaker coils and the coils in the pickups. They fight. It creates a ripping, tearing sound. When I took my amp in to have it fixed once the tech called me up to tell me that the transformer in the amp was bent and peeling apart. He asked me if the amp had ever been dropped. I remembered that when we had inebriated help loading out after a gig in Winnepeg that some guy dropped my amp 5 feet off of a loading dock.
That's how I get my electric guitar sound. If there's ever a Steve Tibbetts Signature Marshall Amp, there will have to be an inebriated guy at the end of the assembly line who drops each Steve Signature Model about five feet on to a concrete floor.
5. What are your main influences?
Marcus Wise called me up one day and said, "You should come hear Zakir Hussain play this concert that's happening in town. He's playing with Allah Rakah, his dad." I went in order to see Zakir and his father play dueling tablas. With them was Sultan Kahn, playing a Sarangi, a bowed Indian instrument fretted with the back of the fingers. I had never heard so much color from an instrument in my life. I was stunned and thought that perhaps I had just been caught by surprise by something new. Days later Marcus gave me a tape of the concert, and it was the music, not the surprise. I listened to his playing over and over and tried to imitate the singing, voice-like quality of the Sarangi. The frets ground down on my 12-string and sounded more and more like what I had seen and heard. The frets are nearly flat now. I took it to Hoffman Guitars to have it re-fretted and Ron Tracy said, "Do you like the sound? Don't fix it."
When I was in third grade I needed eye surgery. My right eye would often turn towards my nose and stay there. This was disconcerting to my parents. My ophthalmologist said I had a "lazy eye." I felt bad about my lazy eye.
My ophthalmologist operated on the muscles of my eyes. After surgery I had to stay in a dark room with patches and bandages over my eyes for a week. There was no light at all. My parents came in and read to me every day, for hours on end. They read "The Five Children" by E. Nesbitt and "Just So Stories" by Ruyard Kipling over and over, at my request. My brain, having no visual input, made a startlingly clear set of visual images to go with the words in Kipling's book. "The Butterfly That Stamped" was huge, glowing, and iridescent. "The Cat That Walked Alone" was two stories high and made of rainbow-hued metal.
When my parents left the hospital the images stayed. They stayed with me through the night, in dreams. When I would wake up I would not be sure I was awake. There was total darkness, and the dream animals still there, right in front of me.
Years later, when I had my own studio and was able to spend a lot of time mixing the music I had recorded I noticed that my mind would always settle on some imagery to go with the music. Sometimes I would follow the imagery, and let it help direct the music. Later, I noticed this sort of thing happened all the time, not just in the mixing stage. Make a sound, see a form. Other artists have told me it happens to them as well. Draw a line, hear a sound.
I had forgotten about the metal cat and the luminous butterfly until I came home from the studio one May evening, this year. My children were asleep and my wife was previewing stories on tape for the kids. She said, "Listen to this." It was Jack Nicholson reading "The Butterfly That Stamped" Think of it--Jack Nicholson's voice, all oily, soothing, menace saying, "Once upon a time..." I listened for awhile and remembered everything.
Two years ago I was working with a couple of friends I had hired to fix up my house. I used my friend Paul's enormous ladder to get up to the gutters to clean them out. My job was to use the dandelion removal tool to flip the decaying leaf-goo-matter out of the gutters. I was up on the ladder, very high. I was as high as Paul, who was on the other side screening in the gutters I had cleaned.
There was a complication in this simple task of mine because I had to clean the gutters up to about ten feet away from an enormous wasp's nest. It was hanging 20 feet over the front door to our house. Paul's advice was to blow up the wasps' nest, but I, being a left wing atheist vegetarian militant pacifist said no. It was a beautiful piece of work this nest, yes it was.
The nest was a bulbous, conical, gray swirl of grain. Bit by bit by bite these wasps had gone deep into the woods collecting bark and pulp, chewing all the way home, spitting it out in a pattern, just so. What a thing, a frozen tornado of potential pain. Immobilized wasp spit. Just waiting.
They were very quiet while I was up there, just a little business going on. I felt we had an understanding, an agreement, the wasps and I. ("Wasps, you hang your pulpy sculpture twenty feet over my front door, leave me alone way up here on this ladder, and I will protect you from Paul, who wants to blow you up.") It was still menacing, in spite of our treaty. I was aware that there was stinging fury just one wrong move away. But I was ready for it, I was dressed up. I was up on the ladder, not intending to get any closer than ten feet from these creatures, and dressed for the part. I had wool pants, long underwear, a winter jacket, a balaclava over my head, goggles and gloves.
The fatal error was the gloves. It was a hot day. I chose my wife's driving gloves out of the box of winter accessories. Very thin material. (How would the wasps know, anyway?) I'm up there, flipping the gelatinous goop out, and it was very hot with all that stuff on. It must have been 90 degrees out.
In looking back I can't figure out what I could have done wrong. I was always ten or fifteen feet away from the little wasp apartment. But something I did made the wrathful wasp sentinels decide it was time to attack.
I looked over just in time to see the beginnings of the sortie--it was lovely, liquid, and slow-motion, just like a car crash. The nest stayed attached where it had been, but it appeared as though an invisible hand had tipped it so that the wasps could pour out like cereal out of a cereal box. They ladled themselves out, dropped down about half a foot, and then adjusted to curve up and head for me, the guy on the ladder. It was an unbroken line, out the spout, down, adjust, and beeline to Steve. Well, I was ready. I saw the attack formation. I was aware, cool, calm. I started to back down the ladder.
Some great power, God maybe, informed the wasps that the ladder guy was wearing very thin driving gloves, and it was possible to clump up on his hands and sting through them. Jesus or somebody had also informed wasp consciousness that it was possible to squeeze under the goggles and sting around the eyes.
At that point I lost my mindfulness. I was only about five feet from the ground and safety, but I let go, pitched backwards, put my hand out and fell. I hit the ground, my right hand leading the way. Bang. I tore off my now-useless wasp outfit, ran inside, and put ice on my face and hand, not aware of my broken wrist bone. Unaware for a few months, actually.
Later that evening we played softball. Paul arrived early at the softball diamond ahead of me, told the story, and Julian called out as I walked up, "Maybe we'll see a little sting in your bat tonight." No such luck, in fact, I was told later by Mr. Bone Doctor that if the injury had been a simple hairline fracture at that point it was probably a complete split after a couple of fruitless swings of the bat. I was 0-for-3 that night. There was surely no sting in my bat.
A year passes by and it's time to do something about the broken wrist bone. Bone-Doctor-man tells me that as surely as the sky is blue I will get wrist arthritis unless this bone is grafted, pinned and screwed back together. Having no medical insurance I have to wait until after a 40 city tour with Choying Drolma and a group of Tibetan nuns to afford this. Strangely, I felt a lot of flexibility and hand freedom in playing guitar on that road trip.
I made a plan. They are planning to slice my wrist open, pin the skin back like a frog in biology class, and drill, screw, and suture things together with bone shavings "harvested" (their word) from my hip.
I would be on ice (as far as guitar playing) for six to eight weeks. So I made a plan. First I would spend about a week laying down some blazing hot drum tracks. I would use the samples and patterns I had from my drum studies in Bali (in 1991). Then I would set up my Marshall guitar amp in the bathroom of my studio (because it's so loud) and run lines to the Matchless and the Pod (guitar amps) and play berserk electric guitar for two nights. "Berserk" because you never know how these surgeries go. Two people died last year in Minnesota from routine knee surgery. I could wake up dead, or without on arm, or with a stump. ("Sorry Steve, complications"). That should inspire my playing a bit. Your last chance.
After surgery, I would go into retreat for a month at a place I know in southern Colorado and be very still for a month. I would not fall on my arm and re-break it like I did in 1974. I would be ready for the itchiness that comes from wearing a cast. I would bring a 12-inch screwdriver that I could work up and into the cast to scratch my arm. Ahhh. I would come back after four weeks and be miraculously healed, four weeks to a brand-new wrist instead of the projected six weeks.
So that's what I did, except I only ended up with one evening for the berserk/inspired guitar tracks. But they were good, and I used them. There are lots of mistakes, pratfalls, and sloppiness. Much of the guitar on this album is from that night. It's sliced, diced, turned inside-out and backwards, and often left as-is. As-was.
I had a complete recovery from the accident. My wrist and hand are fine now.
Every piece in this new album is rich in color and landscape. There's a plot, intention and meaning. Do I want anybody to know the specifics of plot, intention, and meaning? Definitely not. Why not?
I'll tell you why not. In 1973 I took a very nice music appreciation class at college. Harry Hammer, our soon-to-be-deceased instructor led us through his favorite classical music. It was very pleasant, especially at 9 in the morning. Our assignment one Friday was to listen to Smetana's "Moldau" and tell him what we thought it was about the following Monday.
I spent a good part of that weekend prone on the carpet in my dorm room, staring at the ceiling, listening. Sometimes I listened with Sharzhad, an Iranian woman from our class I had a raging crush on. Sometimes I listened alone. It was a fine weekend, and the music filled my mind with all sorts of strange and wonderful imagery. It reminded me of the times I spent listening to "Revolver" and "After Bathing At Baxters" as a 14-year old. I would come home from school and before anyone would get home I would put on one of those records and recline with my head between the speakers. The imagery that unfolded is still tied to the music, to this day.
So it was disappointing to hear Harry's lecture that Monday about Smetana's visual program for the music. The wind instruments that start the piece symbolize a cold stream and a warm stream that eventually combine, form the Moldau, and finally parade through Prague. Getting that information completely destroyed my own imagery, which had involved a desert, an Iranian princess, myself as a centaur, and so on.
I think it's better not to know about the programmatic intentions of musicians and composers. I'm so grateful that the Beatles never made a video to go with "Tomorrow Never Knows." Until my dying day I will have the strange vision of a raft and a river of barking puppies whenever I hear that song.
This album is ripe for another version of the review that I had in the San Francisco Examiner for "The Fall of Us All." It said something like, "The good news about the new Steve Tibbetts record is that it sounds like...a Steve Tibbetts record!"
It's very dense and very layered. There are lots of things in there that hover just under or just over the threshold of audio discrimination. Voices, clapping and more; it's folded in and peeking out.
I made my own sample library. I work for study abroad programs in north and south Asia occasionally. On one of my last evenings in Ubud (in Bali) I dragged the student gamelan set into my room and sampled it, note by note. It was a hot night, so I left the doors and shutters to my room open. There was a rice paddy right outside my window, and lots of bugs, frogs, and twittery things ended up on the samples. It lends a nice, living high end to the sounds.
The big drum patterns were learned from studying in Indonesia. My drum teacher took me to his friend's gong shop the day they were doing a bronze pour. We watched them pour molten bronze into the forms. Afterward, since his shop was closed for the pour he let me sample all the gongs in his shop. The samples included his chicken, who wouldn't stop screeching.
I spent three weeks studying at a retreat center in Vermont. There were about 250 people there. All would read through a particular text out loud before studying it, in this case, the Hevajra Tantra. After about 10 days of this I noticed that people were unconsciously arranging themselves into sort of a chorus. By the second week it was like a symphony of voices: the Vienna Tantric Choir. The men and women would be split an octave, as is usually the case in groups, but people began to find the 5th, the 4th, and even the 2nds and 9ths. Someone would pick up the 6th, and others follow. Some would move between pitches, more and more confidently, unconsciously confident. It was quite beautiful. I taped some of it.
In my studio I took the words and layered them in with the percussion and guitars. I tried moving the voices in and out of focus so that some words were audible and others were not. Eventually I mixed them so that they would fold in with the high end swish of the cymbals and the attack of the percussion.
Synthesesia: seeing sound, hearing colors. The voices roll along the top of the cymbals, hide in the shakers, and whisper along with the gongs. I like playing with the imagery that music forms in consciousness. The voices are like something you are trying to remember but can't.
Most of the drumming is mine, but I had Marc double a lot of drum patterns to cover up my lack of technique and to put some air around electronic drum sounds. After that I asked him to bring his favorite instruments to the studio and we set up one, all-purpose Marc-instrument for him to play. He brought a few cymbals, jingly things, a kick drum he'd found in a dumpster, springs, and lots of percussion toys. I set up two microphones to give him a nice stereo soundstage and rolled tape. I made an effort to confuse Marc by occasionally playing with the reels on the tape machine as they rolled. I'd speed things up or slow the tape down. Marc rose to it, and played beautifully. There's a lot of his talking in there, simply because his first takes were the best ones. Marc starts out playing a little loudly 20 seconds into "Lochana" and says, "Never mind my distortion. You will learn to live with it." Wendy, who stopped by to listen said, "That's what I tell my husband."
I've set up my guitar to play diatonic masses of instruments and sounds I've sampled over the years. Each string triggers a different midi channel, and each midi channel has a scale that doesn't necessarily correspond to the notes I'm playing. Playing an E note on the b-string might trigger an C gong, an A jublang, and so on. You can hear that most clearly at the end of "Red Temple." The 6-string acoustic guitar I played triggered gong samples in real time.
Recording and Mixing
I used my old analog 16-track for a lot of the tracks, and dubbed some things to Digital Performer, a computer music program.
I had the time to mix it and mix it, due to the flexibility of the computer program. There's a trade-off in doing that. I got the beautiful and detailed mix I wanted, but there was none of the tension, release, and surprise that comes from the old way of mixing. The old way: you would set up the board, stick little notes and markers everywhere, and go for it. When you get a good mix that way there are mistakes, but it has a wild and fresh feeling. The mix is part of the performance.
I tried to mix with a reference, as I always do. A stereo reference test. Year ago Marc and I set up a turntable and performed A/B tests between "Physical Graffiti" and our in-progress mix of "Exploded View" just for fun. We hauled in two huge JBL speakers we called the "butts" because the tweeter was deep in the speaker with two ass-like curves coming out, dispersing the sound. It was an enjoyable mix, and it worked out well.
This time I used "Lateralus" by Tool and "Solid Ether" by Molvaer (on ECM, actually) as references. I like the sound of both of those CDs.
But I couldn't seem to get the EQ right on this one. On most CDs these days the high end is incredibly bright and the overall level (especially on the Tool CD) is extremely compressed. I'd switch back and forth between the CDs and the mix, Tool/Horse, Ether/Horse/Tool/Horse, and it always sounded like mine was swaddled in muslin. What to do? The shroud of Turin, I couldn't get it off the speakers. I tried a lot of things, but all of them just seemed to make the music sound brassy and coarse. Not right. I called Lee Townsend, an old friend and ex-ECM worker and asked him what he did. Did he make his mixes sound real bright? He said, "Don't fall for that--don't crank up the treble." So I left it mostly as it was. I left it for the mastering engineer to sort out.
What would I change? I wish I had not been so fascinated with the cut-and-paste compositional possibilities of the computer program. Sometimes the music became more of a technical and visual challenge that an audial one. I was seduced by the process. I wish I had spent more time in basic appraisal of the composition before I went deep into the overdubbing and mixing. Sometimes elements that might not fit together naturally were welded to each other. A donkey's head on a cow. A cat in a dog suit. Deer with claws.
The mix is very cool.
I had a brown leather jacket that I had bought when I was 16. I wore it to go with my underpowered Honda 175 motorcycle. I wore it on the road, to Europe, and all over Asia. I wore it on the back cover of "Northern Song." It was starting to rot apart and had to be retired. Throwing it in the garbage seemed a little heartless. I took it to a friend's cabin on the St. Croix River, crucified it on two wooden beams, filled the pockets with fireworks, doused it with gasoline, set it on fire, and photographed its immolation. The next photos on the strip of negatives were taken in Thailand, so I must have gone to Asia soon after that. Without my jacket. I saved the zipper, though.
In my first trip to Nepal I took about 10 rolls of slide film and accidentally ran 5 of the rolls through the camera twice. They were the best slides. Multiple images were layered in the same picture. It was more evocative of travel memories than a simple picture. Layers upon layers of meaningless and meaningful juxtapositions. From then on whenever I traveled I would often run the film through the camera twice. The photograph with the temples and clouds is a double exposure from Pagan, in Burma. It has the shape of Minnesota, sort of. Another photo is of the Irawaddy River and a boat. Waiting for a boat.
I've worked with Marc for a long time. A friend called me up one evening in 1977 and said, "You have to come see this guy play congas." We went, five of us, to the North Star Ballroom at the University of Minnesota where his band ("Clear") was playing, to about twenty people. Marc was playing like he was possessed. Voodoo-boy. I knew he would be good in the studio. Marc is now the number one call for percussion in the Twin Cities and will be ordained next year sometime as a Zen Priest in the Soto order. True. Marc has played with Taj Mahal, Prince, Robert Fripp, and David Sylvian, among others.
Jim Anton is the number one call in town for bass. Jim is a big guy, and can shave any design he wants out of his beard, since it is so all-pervasive and fast growing. For that reason he can be scary looking if he wants to. That's good to have on the road, but not when crossing the Canadian border late at night, coming home. Jim has played with Jonny Lang, the Rembrants, Shannon Curfman, and many others.
Marc's site is at www.fathands.com Jim, I don't know. Try a search for OurMine, one of his ten or twelve bands.
Marcus Wise works each summer as a mason; tuck-pointing chimneys. He saves enough money to spend the entire winter playing tabla. He tours about four months of the year with Coleman Barks and Robert Bly, accompanying their spoken word performances. He's played with, among others, Sultan Khan, Zakir Hussain, and members of the Grateful Dead and the Doors.
Marcus is a real pest. He calls me up and says, "Let's play, I'm coming over." I'm never too sure if I want to do this, until he gets here and we start playing. He plays fast, and so do I. It's fun. Faster! Faster! "Let's try something in 9, but fast." He brings a six-pack of Moosehead beer, and drinks four of them. After two beers he says, "Hey, let's record something." That's how those two pieces got on the CD. Out of 50 hours of recording we had two things that really worked. Finally, after four beers he gets up, goes to the toilet and urinates loudly, leaving the door open. He'll shout out something like "You know why I like Moosehead?" I say, "No, why do you like Moosehead, Marcus?" He says, "Because you can just PISS IT RIGHT OUT." Wow. Talk about pleasure. Now my wife, whenever we go out says, "You know why I like Moosehead?"
"Will you tour?" Probably not. The travel is grueling, the crowds are thin, and there's not much money in it. We've done enough late-night hellbound drives in Ford Econoline vans. Too much driving through the night to gigs in college grills.
I remember Marc asking the four people who came to see us at the "Ahoy Lounge" at the University of California Irvine if they would help us load out. They all helped. I remember a college grill in Tennessee where, when the someone in the kitchen would yell, "Toaster!" I would know that my side of stage was about to go dark, along with my amp.
I remember too many gigs where, after setting up and going out for something to eat, we'd come back to the venue to see far too many parking spaces. Plenty of free parking. Or we'd load in and the promoter would have set up the floor "cabaret style"--meaning: few advance ticket sales, so they set up round tables, chairs, and put those nice candles on the tables: the ones in the red glass holders with the white plastic mesh around them. Very stylish.
I remember a particularly tough drive from L.A. to Winnipeg, climaxing with the confiscation of our truck on the way home by the US Customs Service. Our sound man had left his pinch-hitter on the dashboard. Oops.
I remember one drive in particular, a long one. Salt Lake City to Portland. We had a bed set up in the back of the Ryder truck we'd rented. Sort of a bed. Cody (Marc's brother and our sound guy) would pack the truck after the gig so that the soundboard road case was closest to the cab of the truck. Then we'd put sleeping bags down on it. The only possible problem was that if the driver were to make a sudden, emergency stop the bass cabinets and mid-bins would fall on the sleeping musician. So sleep was not so restful. We decided to drive through the night and sleep for a few hours at a motel outside of Portland. I took the first shift. Drive drive drive. Sometime around 3AM Marc came up to the front of the truck. He poked his head in, then plopped in the passenger seat. He was all mussed up and sleepy looking. He said, "Cody and I were curled up on the soundboard like little mice." Marc thought for awhile. Drive drive drive. He said, "I bet Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette have never curled up on a soundboard like little mice." He was probably right. We talked about the gig. Drive drive drive. He said, "Steve, I like playing music with you, and going on the road with you, and loading in and loading out with you, but I don't like looking out at the first three rows of people and seeing three rows of versions of you."
I looked out at the crowd the next few gigs, and he was right. But they do help us load out."
Hifi Currently testing many NOS vintage valves
Joined: March 08 2006
Location: United Kingdom
|Posted: November 22 2006 at 06:00|
Fascinating, thanks for the interview!
I can only recommend Steve Tibbetts to any prog lovers who are on the lookout for restless and adventurous guitar-playing.
Imagine, perhaps, Steve Hackett travelling through the Himalayas with a couple of tabla players, dreaming of Fripp's most outrageous solos, drinking four or five double expressos in the afternoon, being forbidden to use vocalists, romantic bombast or lullabies, getting sudden visions of Jimmy Page AND THEN RECORDING A NEW ALBUM - voila!
Joined: July 03 2005
|Posted: November 22 2006 at 23:53|
Very good, thanks Olivier!
What a great, original artist! More proggers need to hear his stuff...
"Art is not imitation, nor is it something manufactured according to the wishes of instinct or good taste. It is a process of expression."
Forum Senior Member
Joined: August 07 2006
Location: Neutral Zone
|Posted: November 23 2006 at 00:24|
so many thanx, mr. Oliverstoned!
Forum Senior Member
Joined: July 07 2006
|Posted: November 23 2006 at 04:55|
yeah i like his stuff, have:
Man About A Horse
plannin to get his debut.........like the way he fuses rock minmalism with asian/ethnic influences to create this world-fusion sound without it sounding like world music.......
Joined: November 03 2005
Location: United States
|Posted: November 28 2006 at 22:01|
Thanks for posting this blurb on Tibbetts. He's one of my favorite artists, very creative, immensely enjoyable, and best of all uncategorizeable by today's "put everything in a box" approach. I love his phrase for his music - "post-modern neo-primitivism"! ROFL! Tell that to some music know-it-alls and watch their heads spin.
He sounds like a very down-to-earth person, it would be fascinating to engage in a long conversation with him!
GonG is one and one is YOU
Joined: December 02 2006
|Posted: December 02 2006 at 04:16|
It just doesn't seem enough to say that Steve Tibbetts is a musical progressive. or even a musical genius.Right now there are many fans who agree that Steve's music is sublime, somehow even when it is in your face with it's power and passion.This music comes from another place, a place most musicians would do anything to visit.
The future will make it's mind up about the late 20th Centuries great artists.I think Steve is one of them.
But for now just listen to "A Clear Day and No Memories" form Steve Tibbetts recording "Exploded View".....what beauty lies within. This is gorgeous, gorgeous and more.From the second to the fourth minute is some of the most perfectly formed beauty that music has ever been witness to.This is music for ages, where deftness of touch, timbre to swoon for and the tonality and melody of life prevails.
Feel the skin all over your body tingle whilst this passage transpires.
Edited by No Guru - December 02 2006 at 04:19
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