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Mike Ragogna

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What's It All About: Chatting with Pat Metheny, Jonathan Elias, and Viva Voce

Posted: 06/17/11 12:17 AM ET

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A Conversation with Pat Metheny

Mike Ragogna: Pat, your new album is titled, What's It All About, a line from the song "Alfie," one of ten cover songs you recorded for the project. Since this is an unusual approach for Pat Metheny, can you go into what this new album is all about?

Pat Metheny: Well, this whole thing is of baritone guitar, which is the instrument that is featured on this record--for people who don't know what that is, it's a kind of guitar that sits between a conventional guitar and a bass guitar. It's an instrument that doesn't really get used that much, and kind of for a practical reason. It's a little bit muddy sounding if you use it in its conventional tuning--down a fifth from a guitar. About ten years ago, I was experimenting with a baritone guitar, and I remembered a way of stringing and tuning it that a guy had shown me when I was a teenager in Missouri where I grew up. I ended up recording, basically, an entire album of improvised pieces that night in that tuning, using that guitar. From that time until now, that's been a pretty solid part of almost every live presentation that I've done--playing something on the baritone guitar. That night, I didn't exactly understand it, but with ten years now under my belt, doing a lot of playing with it, it's something that has emerged as a pretty significant voice for me.

One thing that I had just never done until now--because I play so much of my own music, I'm always writing my own stuff, and lately it's been very complicated stuff--I've never done a record of playing other people's music. I was just at the end of a tour. I did one hundred forty concerts last year and I just started playing some of the songs that I would play to warm up with at sound check, but I did it into a recording device that I have here at home, which we all have now, and you can do pretty quality recordings in a non-studio environment. The result of those recordings is this record. It's ten songs that are just songs that I love for various reasons.

MR: Now, you won a Grammy in '01 for your previous solo acoustic album, One Quiet Night, right?

PM: That's right.

MR: And that was also done with the baritone guitar.

PM: Yes. That's actually the record I was referring to a second ago. It's funny because at that point, playing solo guitar was just something that I had not done a lot--not because I don't like it--because I've been so involved in playing in ensemble settings and playing more straight ahead jazz, and the solo stuff didn't come up that much. That record sort of broke down that wall--not that it was necessarily a barrier--between me and playing solo a lot. I've done various other kinds of solo records over the years. I did New Chautauqua in the '70s, which involved overdubbing, and another one a few years later, Zero Tolerance For Silence, which also had some overdubs. Then, Secret Story started as just a solo record too, and then I kind of expanded out from that. One Quiet Night was the first record where it's really just me playing guitar, there are no overdubs, and it is what it is. This record follows that same line.

MR: Of the songs on this album, which resonate the most with your life? Obviously they all do, but are there any that are part of your life story, associated with something that happened to you?

PM: Well, you're right that all of them do in some way or another. One thing about it that I would say is I understand these songs have a very powerful cultural connection in a lot of ways. Every one of them was a top forty song at one point or another, and some of them are songs that we all know in a way that is just sort of ingrained...we grew up with that stuff. For me, it's notable that there is some kind of musical twist in each one of these, something about the chords or something about the way the form is set up that is attractive to me from a musician's standpoint. It sort of goes a little bit beyond my personal memory of it. In direct response to your question, there are two songs on there, "Pipeline," and "Girl From Ipanema," which are two of the first three things that I ever learned on guitar. So, I've really lived with those songs for more than forty years now, and the significance of that is certainly not lost on me. In fact, both of those versions are, in a way, probably two of the most extreme diversions from their original forms of anything on the record.

MR: Plus I loved your use of silence--those spots where you're just taking a break or a breath. They really added to the beauty and originality of the track.

PM: Well, that's great, I appreciate that.

MR: Another of my favorite songs from that era is "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be." I remember as a kid how haunting it was the first time I heard it on the radio. Now, that's a Carly Simon song, so do you have a fondness for singer-songwriters?

PM: Well, I really have a fondness for a certain kind of musical craft, and you find it in a lot of different places. It has to do with melody writing. I've done a lot of stuff that is very abstract, I've done a lot of busy, complex stuff, and I've done all kinds of things from the most improvised to the most written. But kind of at the core of all of it is this whole sense of melody being this elusive ingredient that gives things the particular flavor, I think, that people associate with me. That, to me, is also the rarest thing to find. It's easy to be kind of melodic, but to have a melody that has a sort of inevitability that so many of the great songs have is something that I admire wherever I can find it. It could be in a singer-songwriter, it could be in a Monk tune, it could be in Bach, it could be anywhere. That quality of really deep melodic content is something that I sort of have a deep hunger for.

MR: There are artists like Randy Newman, Paul Simon, and Joni Mitchell who you've spent some time with on the road, and you recorded a few things with, right?

PM: That's true.

MR: You and Lyle Mays went out on the Shadows And Light tour with Joni.

PM: That's correct.

MR: Pat, earlier in your career, they were labeling you as "new age," whatever that is or was. I think it's because you were so inventive and progressive they really couldn't box you, they couldn't genre-fy you as pure "jazz." What do you think about that in retrospect?

PM: Well, almost all of those things are marketing terms that have absolutely no meaning to me to tell you the truth. (laughs) I've been around long enough now that I've seen a billion terms come and go. That particular one is one of the goofiest of them all, but there are a million other goofy ones--"fusion" was one that people used for years. Mostly, they're used by people in a pejorative way, to me. It's either a marketing thing or a pejorative thing, and it's mostly a meaningless thing to me because I don't really think like that at all. There's never a point where I'm thinking, "If I'm playing a Steve Reich piece, this is classical, and now if I play a major chord, this is folk." To me, it's music, and music is sort of one big thing. I really don't even understand any of that stuff. When people start talking about that, I'm like, "Okay, well, I don't even know what you mean." So, all that stuff is a little lost on me.

The best thing you could say about it is that it's superficial or superfluous to the actual notes, and I sort of live in the world of, hopefully, good notes. The currency that I trade in is ultimately answering to a much longer view of what music actually is, that goes forward and backwards. When I'm talking about good notes, I'm talking about Bach, I'm thinking about any point along the way where people have been able to understand music to a degree that allows them a fluency that I think is transcendent to any style anyway. If I think about Herbie Hancock, yes Bud Powell comes to mind, but so does Ravel--there's a connection in both ways. There is so much talk about music that doesn't have too much to do with music, it's more about the culture in a way. I have to say that for the entire time I've been around, I've never had even the slightest interest in that. I'm really just trying to play good.

MR: Nice. Okay, you admired Wes Montgomery, Ornette Coleman and The Beatles. How do you get from there, to having your innovative--I don't mean to throw another term at you, but I believe you're an innovator. How do you get from those types of influences, to the type of guitar player that you ended up being?

PM: Well, you're right--Wes was huge for me. When I first started, like most people, he was such an influence for me that I really tried to play like him. The first couple of years, I played with my thumb, and I don't think anybody could have loved Wes more than I did and still do. There was a point very early on where I realized, if I really looked at it, what I loved about Wes was that he had found his own voice. He had found something that was uniquely his, that was completely built on his own experiences, and his own sensibilities about sound and music. I thought, "Well, if I like this guy that much, then I should go deeper than just the top level of trying to sound like him." Why not use him and the other people you mentioned as an example of not just what they did, but the whole idea of expression and artistry in music being a deep, honest reflection of who you are and where you come from, which is the thing that really unifies all of the really great musicians that I can think of. That, I think, ultimately almost always manifests itself in some sort of originality.

Jazz is a form that kind of demands that. We have entered an era in the last twenty years or so where the idea of having to come up with your own thing in jazz has been somewhat relaxed because of the conservative movement that happened with really young musicians, which is still a little bit of a mystery to me. To me, jazz is a form that is sort of unforgiving, in a way. People think of jazz in a nostalgic way--lots of times, it gets used in black and white pictures and all that stuff. But the actual form itself is amazingly unreceptive to nostalgia. It's a form that really needs new thinking all the time, and rewards new thinking. So, I've been really committed to that as a way of operating, trying to push things, and trying to ask hard questions of myself and the musicians that I play with, to go deeper into things, rather than just sort of doing tributes to this or that. I don't think the world really needs reminding how great Miles was, how great Monk was, or how great Duke Ellington was. Those guys more than speak for themselves through their recordings and also through their general legacies. To me, the idea would be to try to, in our own way, reflect back to the world what we see, the same way the people we admired the most did during their time.

MR: Beautiful answer, and you've been rewarded for your pushing the boundaries in music with at least eighteen Grammys. It seems like you're always having to push the boundaries, with all of these collaborations--with The Pat Metheny Group, collaborations, and with your solo recordings. Of all of these kinds of configurations, what environment do you find yourself the most creative in, and what are you happy with the most?

PM: Well, one thing about my particular spot in things. I notice that I'm one of those people that if you ask any five others, they're going to have a completely different idea of who I am and what I've done. I'm sort of hard to place on the spectrum. I also have an awareness that the people who really love the trio stuff I do are not that interested in the group. The people that follow the film score things are maybe not that aware or interested in the robotic stuff that I did recently. There are very few people that see it the way I see it, which is sort of one big thing. Actually, it's the "one big thing" part of it that I probably am most satisfied with--it's not any of the individual parts.

My sense of the world is, of course, this one of incredible stratification that we're all experiencing in the sense that people who are interested in a certain thing can now find a million niche places to go and look at just that, and they don't necessarily have to look at the whole picture in their lives. I'm sort of more interested in the whole picture and trying to express over the course of the opportunities I get as a musician what that whole picture is. There isn't any one part that stands out for me. It's more the integration of all those disparate things into this thing that people can, I think, always identify as being me, whether it's playing bebop or a Carly Simon tune. That, to me, has been the goal, and that's what I'm still working on--trying to find a broad sense of how to be a musician in this very complicated world.

MR: Nice. I have to ask you, how do you play the forty-two string Pikasso guitar?

PM: It's not easy. It's an instrument that I requested somebody make for me--Linda Manzer, who is a great guitar builder in Canada. Once she cracked the idea, on a technical level, of how you would do something like that, it took me about four or five years of staring at it just to figure out how to even tune it, you know? It's been an ongoing thing, to try to figure out what to do with that instrument, and "The Sound Of Silence" track on the record is sort of new territory for me--it's the first time I've tried to play sort of a conventional song on it.

MR: You also have that guitar synth. I guess you started out with the Roland GR-300, and now, there is actually a setting on the Roland JV-80 called, "Pat's GR-300."

PM: I guess that's like the ultimate tech compliment there. That is great.

MR: These are guitarists that became popular after you who sometimes they feel like they're in your zone, people like Daniel Lanois. When you listen to his music, is there a kinship going on at all?

PM: Oh, I love his music. I think he's great. In terms of the chronology, I think we must be pretty close to the same age. He's somebody that I've kind of observed across the hall, so to speak. We don't really have too much interaction, although we both have used Brian Blade, the drummer, a lot for various things. No, I'm a big fan of his. He's great.

MR: Who are some of your other favorite contemporaries?

PM: Well, I'm still pretty excited about the incredible work that has been done by the generation of guys just immediately older than me. I'm talking about Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Gary Burton, and Jack DeJohnette. That group of guys, for me, is an unbelievable crew, and to me, that's the standard of musicianship that really maintains across the boards in terms of what great really is. A lot of people get called great, but you start talking about Keith or somebody like that, that's great. It's like looking at a Bach score or Mahler--that's really the standard for everything.

MR: And you do get to play with these guys on occasion, don't you?

PM: Well, I came up in Gary Burton's band, which is probably the best possible place I could have ever ended up, and the fact that I got to start playing with him when I was about eighteen is probably the luckiest and best thing that ever could have happened to me. I was around him and Steve Swallow at a very formative stage, and I really am so grateful for that.

MR: This is a more personal question than not, but who came up with that incredible title, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls?

PM: That's funny--that's a great transition because that title was a Steve Swallow song that nobody played. It had a very brief life on one record in the '60s or something like that. When Lyle and I did that record, we had this sort of extended piece that needed a great title, and I thought, "Man, nobody knows Steve's tune, and that would be the perfect title for this." So, I called him up and said, "Steve, can we use your title," and he was like, "Sure, no one is ever going to play that other tune." He was very gracious about it. That title really sums up a lot about Steve Swallow's sense of humor. He's got a million things like that.
MR: Pat, do you have any advice for new artists?

PM: My advice to young musicians is always the same, which is to try to be around people who are a lot better than you are. If you're in a band and you're the best guy in the band, you're in the wrong band.

MR: Nicely put. Thanks Pat, this has been really terrific. I appreciate you sharing your time and stories.

PM: My pleasure.

Tracks:
1. The Sound of Silence
2. Cherish
3. Alfie
4. Pipeline
5. Garota de Ipanema
6. Rainy Days and Mondays
7. That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be
8. Slow Hot Wind
9. Betcha by Golly, Wow
10. And I Love Her

Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney


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A Conversation with Jonathan Elias

Mike Ragogna: Jonathan, Who are some of your early musical influences?

Jonathan Elias: I would have to say Debussy and Stravinsky and The Doors. As a kid, I was a bit of an oddball with a passion for classical music. The Doors really got me into rock music at 12, they were my first concert. So, I constantly rode the fence between the classical world and the rock world. Still do.

MR: What are some of your biggest jingles and what was your involvement?

JE: Well, the first thing I had done in college was the Alien teaser trailer. I went on to write the MTV logo in 1980 and have literally written thousands of commercials since then. Some of the pieces that are more famous include the Columbia Pictures logo, Nike Move and the Yahoo Yodel. I would have to say that some of my more favorite pieces have been the many Nike collaborations that I have done. What's interesting about my work is that I have gotten to experiment on the commercial front a lot and I have actually used that in some of my record and film work. Nike Move became the inspiration for a record I did called American River which was nominated for a Grammy.

MR: What were some of your favorite scores to work on and do you have any
behind the scenes stories?

JE: Well, when I was 22, I met John Barry and he took me under his wing for many years. He introduced me to the concept of film scoring. He introduced me to Duran Duran on A View to a Kill where I worked with them on the title track. My first film, Children of the Corn, will always have a soft spot for me. Working with Robert Downey, Jr. on the song "Smile" for Chaplin was fun and we've had a strong friendship ever since.

MR: What is the creative process like for you? Is it spontaneous, do you
write every day, or do you schedule time to write? Is it all three?

JE: It's all three. But every day I write something. I don't really do much else very well, so I figure I better play in my sandbox as much as I can.

MR: You co-wrote "I Do What I Do" for the movie 9 1/2 Weeks that became an Atlantic single. Did you ever feel a calling for songwriting hit singles as opposed to having occasional crossover projects?

JE: Not really. I like writing songs and when I went on to work with Duran Duran and Yes and Grace Jones, I co-wrote with all of them. But, I truly like long-from and short-form classical crossover compositions, which is, I think, what I do best. I still occasionally write songs, but it really taps into that 16 year old heartbreak side of me.

MR: Nice. What was it like producing Duran Duran, Yes, and Grace Jones? Any stories?

JE: There are so many stories from each. Firstly, it extended my view of the world by bringing me to Europe for several years. Duran was particularly fun as they were a huge band in the day, and their circle included Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, so I found it to be an amazing opportunity. I still have fond memories of the work and I'm still friendly with all the guys, particularly John Taylor. My experience with Yes wasn't a good one. The internal friction was a nightmare and made me decide I didn't want to be a record producer when I grew up. I wasn't a good babysitter, though I am still close friends with Jon Anderson, the singer, and he appears on my new record. I really respect his creativity. I found the rest of the band to be quite petty.

MR: What made you move on to solo projects, why did it take a backseat until 1990's Requiem For The Americas: Songs From The Lost World, and who guested on that album?

JE: I like doing outside projects that are long form. I don't do that many of them as they are a labor of love. Every few years, I seem to put it together between commercials, films and raising kids...its important for me as an artist to continue to evolve. Requiem was my first long-form project. Some of the performers on the album include Simon Le Bon, Jon Anderson of Yes and Michael Bolton.

MR: How did your concept of The Prayer Cycle in 1999 come about and can you describe it? Who worked with you on that release?

JE: I started writing Prayer Cycle right before I had my first child, Lilli. It was me looking at the world and wondering what would be for the future. There was a piece that I wrote for a Nike Michael Jordan commercial, which featured a solo boy. I got a call from Sony records in Germany about it. I sent my sketches and we made a deal with Sony America. Later, a friend gave the piece to Alanis Morrisette who flipped for it and next thing I knew, I was working with one of the worlds biggest pop stars at the time. I already had worked with Nusrat Fateh, Ali Khan, and Salif Keita, but Alanis really helped bring attention to the project in a much bigger way than I had anticipated.

MR: Your latest album, Prayer Cycle: Path To Zero, is a return to your Prayer Cycle concept. It's a benefit album, but who are the proceeds going
to?

JE: Global Zero. It's a non nuclear proliferation organization which seemed appropriate. Records like this don't make a lot of money, but its something and it seemed like the right thing to do. Among their board members are Jimmy Carter, Queen Noor, Gorbachov and Desmund Tutu, how could I say no to that.

MR: Which guest artists join you on this project?

JE: Sting, Robert Downey Jr, Sinead O' Connor and an Irish singer whose nickname is "Howling B."

MR: Do both Prayer Cycle projects fit together as a more complete statement?

JE: Yeah, prayer is what we turn to when we don't know what else to say or how to say it. Especially when looking at heavy subject matter like survival.

MR: Will there be more Prayer Cycle releases?

JE: Im sure, but probably not for another 5-7 years. I've got other, brighter projects in the works. Prayer is a little heavy for me.

MR: What is your advice for new artists?

JE: Be passionate.

Tracks:
1. Atomic Mother
2. Trinity
3. Deliverance
4. Many Suns
5. Devotion
6. Path To Zero
7. Awakening


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A Conversation with Viva Voce's Kevin & Anita Robinson

Mike Ragogna: Kevin and Anita, "viva voce" loosely translates into "living voice." Is that how you would describe yourselves?

Kevin Robinson: We found the phrase meaning "...by word of mouth.." and discovered it had similar enough definitions in many languages, which we thought was cool. Most, if not all, of my favorite music has usually been shared by a friend. Word of mouth.

Anita Robinson: Turns out it has been a little tricky to make sure it gets spelled correctly, there's not an "h" in there, people!

MR: (laughs) How did the band form?

AR: We made some 4-track recordings and thought we were onto something, annoyed our friends and family by playing new bits for them constantly, until finally one of them said, "Start a band already, it's good." Up until then, I had been a part of other people's projects, but never my own thing. I hadn't had the confidence in my songwriting. Kevin has confidence to spare and maybe it spilled over to me.

MR: Who are your influences?

AR: David Gilmour, Mick Ronson, Stephen Malkmus, Nels Cline, Doug Martsch are all some of my favorite classic and current rock guitar players. I listened to a great classic rock station growing up, and it helped shape my tastes without a doubt. It's still there, the first thing I do when I visit family in Alabama is dial it in on the ride from the airport.

KR: Alan Parsons, Geoff Emmerick, Ralph Bakshi, Masters Apprentices, Sonic Youth, The Police, too much '90s hip-hop to list, Yo La Tengo. There's a lot really. Music effects this household pretty heavy on a daily basis.

MR: The title of your new album is The Future Will Destroy You. Will it?

KR: Let's wait and see.

AR: Of course, our future is guaranteed--we we will all return to dust. But I'm speculating how all of our re-writing of history and technological choices have added a dark, insidious shadow over that basic truth. Whoa, that's heavy.

MR: But true! What's the creative process like when you write and record?

AR: Lyrics nearly always come last and often get finished the day of tracking vocals, which means a whirlwind of panic for me but it works somehow. I procrastinate on lyrics because the music part comes so easily, and is so gratifying right away. I can come up with guitar melodies and sounds all day, but expressing myself with words is hard. I'm a little shy. I'm also one of those people for whom lyrics aren't as important in a song as melody. But bad lyrics sure can ruin a good song, hate it when that happens!

KR: The recording is part of the songwriting process with Viva Voce, so they're one and the same. The studio is the third member of this band, no doubt. We utilize as many modern tools of the trade as possible, but try to always default to the song, whatever it requires, at every turn. We record quickly by today's standards in an effort to stay in the moment and exactly capture the human event that's taking place right then and there, and not get too caught up in the trappings of modern audio recording time-suck. However, we're trying to create something that's never existed before, so it's a delicate balance.

MR: What's the message of "Plästic Rädio"?

KR: Well, we could candy coat it or not, but some things just aren't getting better.

AR: Something started changing in America during the eighties, FM rock radio started down the road it's currently on, limiting and stifling DJs and becoming, well, boring. The change has been financially great for some companies and artists. But who else has benefited? There is music being made that is as meaningful and thrilling and cool as music in the '60s and '70s. People don't know about it. They can't even decide if they like it or not, they are denied the chance to hear it unless they stumble upon it by chance. My dad was a radio DJ and I spent time at the station with him, helping him cue up records and choosing the playlist. He explained to me what happened in the early days of rock 'n' roll with Alan Freed and payola. But that doesn't exist anymore, right? That would result in mediocre music that doesn't challenge anyone artistically. That would suck. Sure glad that doesn't exist!

MR: (laughs) Your "Analog Woodland Song" mentions the word "analog." How do you feel about analog versus digital sonically?

AR: Oh, there's no message in that song except how good it is to get to the country after a long winter in the city. No analog nazis! We're mixed-media artists in the studio, digital and analog live harmoniously.

KR: The word 'analog' represents something antiquated, original, and undeniably human. The song to me is about capturing an analog moment in life. Although we enjoy our wax player the most, I honestly couldn't care less if music is digital or analog.

MR: Which songs on the album are the best examples of how much you've grown as an act since your first album, Hooray For Now?

KR: "Diamond Mine" and "No Ship Coming In."

AR: I think I sang with more confidence on this album than any one I've ever done. Often, it was into '57 and I just held it, very relaxed, no pop filter, just singing like during a rehearsal. I think "Cool Morning Sun" and "Plastic Radio" really hit the mark we were striving for.

MR: Do you feel that having had an "indie" path to this point has allowed you the freedom to make important creative choices you might not have been able to do otherwise?

AR: I do think we've been able to do things our way and I'm very grateful for that.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

AR: Play as much as possible, so you'll get good at overcoming obstacles during a show--drunk heckler, drunk sound person, drunk band mates. Wait, maybe just avoid playing in bars? Not sure that's really an option.

KR: Write a song better than "The Sound of Silence." Not really advice, more of a challenge. If you can do that, you don't need my advice.

MR: What's in store for Viva Voce for the coming year?

KR: We're going to sell enough records to completely fix the entire music industry.

AR: I think Lady GaGa has already done that, it should be fixed in a couple of weeks, right? FM Radio here we come!

Tracks:
1. Plästic Rädio
2. Analog Woodland Song
3. Diamond Mine
4. Black Mood Ring
5. No Ship Coming In
6. The Future Will Destroy You
7. Cool Morning Sun
8. We Don't Care
9. A Viking Love Song
10. The Wondering Soul

FYI, the new album comes out on June 21st. AOL is also streaming the album on Spinner:
http://music.aol.com/new-releases-full-cds/spinner#/21

 
 
 

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