Saturday, July 9, 2016

INTERVIEW: Brian Cullman

Photo by Bill Flicker

I was previously unfamiliar with your work and story, but “The Opposite of Time” is a really nice little record – sly, mature and contemplative, it sounds very much like a cross between some of the classic 70s-era British pop and folk scene touchstones (John Martyn, early Dire Straits) and some of the stuff that was going on in and around NYC and New Jersey in the 80s and 90s.  At the same time, it’s intimately sparse. Can you tell me about its creation and influences?

I wrote & recorded THE OPPOSITE OF TIME pretty quickly. I wanted to make a record that felt like it was recorded with all the players in the same room with each other, which, most of the time was the case. I can hear all sorts of influences there, some conscious, some way below the surface: JJ Cale, The Kinks, Nick Drake, Bobby Womack, Big Star and Nick Holmes along with troubadours like George Moustaki, Paul Siebel and Caetano Veloso.

You had quite an auspicious start to your career as a songwriter – having your stuff vetted by famed 70s music scenester, Danny Fields – and were a bit of a “Zelig”-like presence in several music scenes, hanging out with everyone from Nick Drake and Sandy Denny to Vernon Reid and Robert Quine.  How did you find yourself in such an enviable position?  What are some of your most memorable experiences?

I spent all the time I could hanging out in the Village. The doorman at The Cafe Au GoGo figured I must be one of Tim Hardin’s kids, as I was always there when he played, and I looked about 10 or 11. It meant that for the most part, I was invisible and could slip into clubs or rehearsals unnoticed.

One time, I’d gone across the street to The Tin Angel to wait for The Au GoGo to open. I’d heard that there was going to be a jam later that night, sort of private, but f you knew enough to be there, they’d let you stay. The Tin Angel was packed, unusual for a weeknight, but I was on my own and, as I mentioned before, I looked like someone’s kid who’d wandered off. Instead of turning me away, the waitress asked if I’d mind joining some other people. When I shrugged, she ushered me into the back area and sat me at a long table filled with ….Holy Shit! The Royal Family!!! Eric Clapton & Mike Bloomfield & Danny Kalb & Zal Yanovsky & Eric Andersen & Paul Butterfield & Charlie Chin (from Cat Mother & The All Night Newsboys) and a few pretty girls who probably weren’t much older than I was. I was made welcome, someone ordered me a Coke, and they all seemed flattered & amused that I knew who most everyone was, that I not only had that first CREAM album but had tracked down their first single (UK only - “Wrapping Paper”), that I’d seen The Blues Project play, knew Eric Andersen’s electric remake of his 2nd album, knew that Charlie Chin played banjo on Buffalo Springfield’s BLUEBIRD, and loved Bloomfield’s solo on MARY MARY, especially that one note that tore my heart out, pretty much the same blue note that Clapton plays on I FEEL FREE…the note that opened more or less all the doors I subsequently walked through. They talked about The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix and told each other where to get English style polka dot shirts and bell bottoms and fringe jackets (The Different Drummer, uptown on Lexington, was the shop of choice). I was in heaven.

We all walked over to the Au GoGo. Someone ran around the corner to see if Harvey Brooks could sit in on bass, and I wondered who was going to play drums. And then…Disaster! There’d been a power outage, they had no electricity downstairs at the club. And everyone just stood in the middle of the street wondering where to go now. Someone suggested Road Runner cartoons at The Bleecker Street Cinema. The pretty girls had disappeared, Bloomfield had ducked into a phone booth to make a call, and Danny Kalb bought a paper and was studying the racing section. “Horses", he said to me without looking up. "Ponies and Telecasters. That’s all you need."

A scruffy guy that I’d seen before noticed us and made a beeline for Clapton. He had a guitar on his back, and there was something rough about him, he definitely wasn’t a hippie. Oh, right, he was a blues guitarist, Paul Geremiah. I’d heard a record of his. I hadn’t liked it.

He edged over to Clapton.

"I heard that Blues Breakers album you did", he told Clapton. Clapton nodded. "Where you did that Robert Johnson song? Ramblin’ On My Mind?” He made everything sound like a question. but there was more than a bit of defiance in it, as if he wanted Clapton to prove that he, Paul Geremiah, had never ever heard that record, couldn’t possibly know it. Clapton just nodded politely. He had hair out to here. it covered most of his face, but i could see enough to sense that he was both naturally polite and naturally awkward. The sort of person who’d stand up on the bus to give his seat to an old lady but might step on her feet along the way.

“That version of Ramblin’ On My Mind", he told Clapton. "You got the chords all wrong", he barked. 

Clapton looked startled. i thought there might be a fight or a showdown. But the roughness in Geremiah was just that, a roughness, not an anger, and the politeness in Clapton was real. Maybe I got it wrong. Show me. That wasn’t spoken. But it was shrugged.

“Here", Geremiah said. And he sat down on the curb there on Bleecker Street, just across from MILLS MUSICAL HOUSE OF MUSIC. Clapton sat down next to him. Geremiah played a couple of different approaches to the tune, I couldn’t see his fingers well enough to know what he was doing, but Clapton could see and nodded. 
"See, on that record, you start off in the first position", he said, "but what Johnson does is turn it around, start in the fifth position and work backwards from the verses. Johnson’s always looking over his shoulder, you know what I mean?” 

The guitar changed hands a couple of times, cigarettes were offered and by now the street lights were on and taxis drove by, and soon it started to rain. And I had to get home. I had school the next day.

A week later I was back in the Village with my best friend, Laurel. She was - and is - a year older than me, but always deferred to me in anything musical. I had dragged her down to the Fillmore East to hear The Byrds and Tim Buckley a few months before. All she could talk about was how scrawny Tim Buckley’s legs were. She shared my devotion to The Butterfield Band and Tim Hardin, but she went out with college boys and knew things about life and sex and the abyss of depression that I had no knowledge of. I told her about my night at the Tin Angel, and I think she believed me. 

Anyway, we were walking along Bleecker Street, past The Figaro, past Pizza Box and The Village Gate, heading to Bleecker Bob’s record store. The waitress from The Tin Angel saw me and waved. See, I nodded to Laurel. These are my people! She just gave me a look. And there was Eric Andersen stepping out of a doorway. I waved to him, but he must not have seen me. I waved again. “Hey Eric,” I called. He turned my way and gave me his version of the look I’d seen on Laurel’s face. 

“Who the fuck are you?” he snarled before turning onto Thompson Street.

I am always fascinated by musicians who are also professional critics and rock writers, and you have written pretty extensively for Creem, Rolling Stone, the Paris Review and several others.  How do you separate that part of you that creates (and consequently, is also a fan) from the critical side?  Does doing one inform the other at all?

I never planned to be a critic. While I was still in school, I was part of a boy’s club at CREEM, where we all were trying to impress Lester Bangs one way or another. But I changed pretty dramatically once I started performing songs myself and trying to make my own records. I realized just how hard it was to get anything done that sounded remotely like what was in my head, and it made me a little more humble…a lot more humble! And made me want to get inside the intention behind the sound. It made me more generous as a listener. And that, in a weird way, made me more open to my own mistakes, allowed me to try things I didn’t know how to do just for the fun of it. Without the possibility of fucking up, it’s hard to make music that’s really alive. And I think that’s what brings out the fan in all of us, the possibility of something that just carries us away, whether there are mistakes or not. At heart, I think we’re all just fans who can’t wait to share our record collections, even if they’re now mp3’s. 

It’s obvious that you put a lot of craft into your work.   What is your songwriting process like?

Every time I finish a song, I figure it’s the last one I’ll ever write. If I’ve done it right, I have nothing left. But somehow, after a while, other songs show up at my door. I don’t quite know how. And I’m not sure I want to know.

I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are asked to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particular proud to have written or one that is particularly special to you?

I think I’d have a different answer for you tomorrow, but today I’d have to say AND SHE SAID from the new album. Not because it’s the best song I’ve written or even the best song on the album, but just because of the way it came about. I was just a day or two away from finishing my record and went home to listen, and it just seemed too moody, too sullen. I’m all for sad songs, but I just sat there thinking it needed a lift, a song where the sun would suddenly break through the clouds and radiate. And I didn’t have that song. I had all the clouds in the world, but no sun. And somehow overnight I conjured up something that felt like The Byrds and The Beatles and Moby Grape and The Beau Brummells, something that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to play for Doug Sahm if he stumbled into the bar I was in. And much of that is courtesy of Jimi Zhivago’s beautiful guitars, Dave Berger’s full on drumming and Byron Isaacs joyful bass; and some of that is just good luck, the planets all lining up in the shape of a big transistor radio. Whatever it is, I’ll take it!

What’s on tap for you next?

A few years ago, I started producing an album for my friend Byron Isaacs. Byron plays bass with me and sings on my album, but he was also a founding member of Ollabelle and spent a long time playing with Levon Helm. His record was just about ready last fall, but then he got an offer to join The Lumineers, and he’s been traveling the world with them full time for the last 6 or 7 months. We got together in the studio last week just to listen to what we have, and if all goes well, I think we can finish it this fall during a break he has. Emotionally, musically, financially, we have to get it out in 2016. 

And I can’t wait to start another album of my own. I don’t want to let that slide.

No comments:

Post a Comment