Photo by Ashley Larson
I am a longtime fan of your work with Band of Susans, but to be honest I wasn’t aware of your solo work until I heard “Perseverance and Grace”, and it’s quite a corker of a record! I understand that its genesis came out of celebrating your 60th birthday last year. What inspired you to look to your past for this album?
Thank you for the props on P and G! It’s the follow up of my first solo album, Western Holiday, which came out in 2014, when I was 58 and a half! That was preceded by a 15-year hiatus while I left active playing and went back to school and became a physician. Then the movie It Might Get Loud came out in 2009, and the itch to play again was suddenly overwhelming. So from 2009 I was getting up to speed on guitar, writing and exploring, and here we are!
I don’t know if you’ve hit 60 yet, but from 58 on, it did feel like a looming milestone; one of taking stock of the past and calculating the future, as in “ how much time do I have left to do the things I want to do?” That should be an everyday question, but turning 60 really brought it on. It was irresistible to me to try to get a second record out by that landmark, which was in late October 2015. Well, it didn’t quite get out, but the record was done by then, so the need was satisfied.
There seems to be a resurgence in interest lately in the late-70s, early-80s Minneapolis punk scene – Bob Mould put out one of the best albums of his career this year, the Suicide Commandos are back in the studio for the first time in 38 years, and the Replacements’ story finally got the treatment it deserved in Bob Mehr’s great biography. You worked pretty closely with legendary Minneapolis producer/bassist Steve Almaas on the album – what was it like growing up in that scene and working with Steve again?
Growing up in the late 70s Minneapolis scene felt like being one of the cool kids in school, hanging out with people everyone seemed to want to know. I felt like the Longhorn Bar and that music scene were the center of the universe. It was exciting and invigorated.
After the Commadoes split, Steve Almaas put together The Crackers with me on guitar, and later with Mitch Easter as well. The band moved out to NYC in the summer of 1979. From there we played the city, toured the East Coast a bit, and made an EP. After the band split up Steve and I were in passing but not close contact for many years.
Then the urge to make music again hit, and I had the beginnings of 2-3 songs. I immediately thought of Steve as the absolute best person to help me get things moving. My initial idea was to record 4 songs for video with me on guitar in a band with a singer, to post to Youtube—that was the beginning and the end of my plan. I e-mailed Steve out of the blue and he was intrigued, immediately broadened the horizon of the project to: 1. Must make an album. 2. Must be both singer and guitarist. Working with Steve has been as productive as I thought it could be, and more. He has the great ability to see what a song’s potential might be despite a rough demo or a half-formed idea. He has been defining, encouraging and nurturing at the same time and his work as both producer and player have been irreplaceable.
To those who know you primarily from your work with Band of Susans or your work in Rhys Chatham’s guitar-orchestras, your playing on this album might surprise them – it’s very rootsy, grounded and Americana-indebted (particularly on songs like open “Cowgirl Clothes” or “Tornado”). For lack of a better word, it’s very “buoyant”. I assume that your playing continues to evolve – what influenced the songs and your guitar work to take this direction?
The songs themselves have come out of a couple places—one is the realities of city life and my work life, the other is out of my experiences out West, riding at dude ranches, listening to the wranglers, going to the rodeo. I hear the guitar work as directly progressing out of my playing with Rhys, and with the Susans. When I started playing again I gravitated towards open D tuning and fingerstyle to give my playing a fullness that I was used to getting in a multi-guitar band setting. The open D droning undercore pushes the songs along, and I’ll admit I’m sloppy sometimes just to pick up a little dissonance along the way…..
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?
You are right about the children aspect—I am pretty proud of them all! On Perseverance and Grace it’s Cowgirl Clothes. I think……don’t get me started…….
Your “day job” is as an oncologist in New York City, but you’ve remained involved in both the art and music worlds. How do you strike the balance between meeting the needs of your job (which I have to imagine is incredibly taxing) and nurturing this other, creative part of your life? As a bit of a professional polymath, is there an area of music or art which you haven’t delved into that you would like to explore?
Oh man, I have little art projects that pop into my head and I just write the ideas down, and hope if they bother me long enough I will make something out of them. I also want to have a cooking blog, but can’t seem to fit that in yet. As of now, playing guitar and writing songs has become part of my routine. There are many times when there IS no balance; patient needs are number one. But that is not all the time; it has worked for me to write a couple songs, then demo them on GarageBand and then get a framework down of drums and scratch guitar and vocals in the studio, and chip away at them piecemeal. But I think most of the time, people make time for the things they REALLY want to do, and if you didn’t find the time, it wasn’t that high on the list. I tell myself that all the time.
What’s on tap for you next?
Going to be playing live this fall in the New York area, rehearsing with a great band! CP Roth on drums, Amy Madden on bass, Tom McCaffrey on guitar, Melody Rabe on vocals. I can’t wait to translate these songs to live performance! And the writing continues—I have songs in various states of doneness, working on the next group of 16 or so to decide what to put out next, in the 1-2 year range. Art and video along the way!