Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Visionary Guitarist Glenn Jones Reflects On His Work Up To, And Including "The Wanting"
Before setting out on his solo career, guitarist Glenn Jones put out nine albums with the Boston-based psych band Cul de Sac over the course of their 20 year history. The band's discography includes collaborations with Damo Suzuki (of Can) and guitar legend John Fahey. Mr. Jones has been playing guitar since he was 14, and he is a 30+ year devotee of the so-called “Takoma School” and "American Primitive" school of acoustic steel string guitarists. He also has written extensively on the steel-string guitar’s leading figures, including John Fahey and Robbie Basho.
In 2004, Jones released his first solo album, This Is the Wind That Blows It Out, and he followed the release with a month-long tour of Europe with the late guitarist Jack Rose. Mr. Jones then went on to release his follow-up, Against Which the Sea Continually Beats, in 2007, and Barbecue Bob In Fishtown in 2009. This year, in addition to writing the introduction to Dust To Digital's box set of early Fahey recordings called Your Past Comes Back To Haunt You, Thrill Jockey has issued the latest album by Mr. Jones called The Wanting. The record is a collection of original compositions for solo acoustic steel string guitar, six-string, 10-string and bottleneck, and 5-string open-back banjo.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Jones at length about his career. Here is our discussion:
First, when did you start playing guitar?
Glenn Jones: I began harassing my dad for a guitar after hearing Jimi Hendrix’s second album, Axis: Bold As Love, in 1967. At the time you could buy records in supermarkets, and the weekly flyers they sent out, advertising whatever potato chips and soft drinks were on sale, also hawked the latest pop records. The anonymous reviewer of Axis wrote (for the Grand Union supermarket chain): “On his new album, Jimi Hendrix gives you a guided tour of Hieronymus Bosch’s vision of Hell.” I said to myself, “I have to hear that!”
My dad bought me my first guitar, a Harmony, a few months later, for $45.00. The first song I learned to play was “House of the Rising Sun.” The second song was one I made up myself. For a couple years I learned songs out of the Dylan, Cream, Doors songbooks I picked up at Victor’s House of Music, in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
What other artists and / or albums inspired you early on as you began learning to play?
Glenn: Besides being a fan of some of the rock and folk music of the time, I also began listening to records by Stockhausen, John Cage, Harry Partch, Captain Beefheart and others. It wasn’t long after I got that guitar that I began trying unconventional things with it. I laid the it flat on my bed, stuck the microphone of my little reel-to-reel tape recorder inside it, and cranked up the input level till it distorted.
I found that my mom’s Thanksgiving gravy ladle, when threaded between the strings at a certain fret, was practically a perpetual motion machine. With a little nudge it would go “dee, doo, dee, doo, dee, doo” while feeding back, for minutes on end. I made tapes of this stuff when I was 15 or 16.
A decade later I discovered AMM and Keith Rowe’s “guitar on the table-top” approach, wherein he played the instrument with kitchen utensils and the like, and realized I’d been onto something without knowing it. (This led to the invention of the Contraption, a prepared lap steel guitar played with a potato masher, which I used in Cul de Sac.)
But the most affecting discovery for me, as a neophyte guitarist, was the music of John Fahey, which I first heard in 1970 or ’71, and Robbie Basho, who I discovered a few years later. (Fahey also got me listening to country blues.) I was soon tinkering with open tunings, and attempting to play fingerstyle instead of with a flat pick.
When would you say you began to develop your own voice and write your own music?
Glenn: In terms of developing my own voice, I don’t think that happened until I was in my thirties. Listening to the tracks Fahey recorded as a teenager for Joe Bussard’s private Fonotone label (reissued on Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You, a box set I produced for the Dust-to-Digital label), I’m amazed how fully formed Fahey’s aesthetic is right from the get-go. Over the course of that set you can hear him becoming a better guitarist, and a better composer for guitar, with each session. For me, it took years to find something that felt like it belonged to me.
You formed the band Cul de Sac in 1989. Can you talk about how the band formed and got started?
Glenn: I’d been in several bands prior to Cul de Sac. All of them, however outré or unconventional their approaches or instrumentation, served a singer and songs. Cul de Sac was an attempt to do something that didn’t depend on a singer for its success, which would incorporate aspects of finger-style guitar, punk electronics, rock-and-roll rhythms, a love for experimentation and sensitivity to dynamics.
We tried not to repeat ourselves. If something worked, we (perversely) tried to avoid doing it again. That meant that we were constantly setting goals for ourselves that were outside our comfort zone, and often failing in the process. We didn’t repeat our failures, either; rather we came up with new ways to fail! But when we failed, I think we failed in interesting ways.
The band's trajectory lasted for 20 years. Some of the band's collaborations included John Fahey and Damo Suzuki (of Can). Without digging through the band's discography together with a fine tooth comb, I'd like to ask you what was most challenging and what was most rewarding for you from that experience?
Glenn: With Damo, we were forced to take risks on-stage, to approach each show as though it had no relation to any previous show, and to really “stick it out,” night after night. Damo’s “no rehearsal / no improvisation / no covers” aesthetic (his goal is to invent brand new songs on the spot) was a challenge, if you took it seriously, which we did (sometimes I think we took it more seriously than Damo did!). It meant there were nights when nothing worked, nothing gelled, and nothing was coherent. And that was, ostensibly, fine with Damo. He accepted the bad nights as the trade-off for trying to reinvent yourself every time you played.
The album we made with Damo, Abhayamudra (which means “fearlessness”), contains those moments where things coalesced, where we met Damo’s criteria and our own. “Baltimore” is my favorite track on that album. While Damo often fell back on what worked best for him, his vocals on this this piece sound unlike anything else he ever recorded, or anything else I ever heard him do, genuinely intuitive and searching.
One of my favorite reviews of the album stated that, “Contrary to [our] claims,” some songs were “quite obviously” prepared in advance. There are things on the record you could be forgiven for thinking were prepared: songs with verses, choruses, even bridges, that are coherent, and sound worked out. They weren’t; and to me, that comment indicates just how successful we could be at meeting Damo’s aesthetic criteria.
Nothing on that album was worked out before we played it, however it sounds. Even when Damo discarded his “no covers” edict and went into “Mother Sky,” we decided, after having played the song a couple times as Damo had recorded it with Can, to treat it, instead, as though we’d never heard it before, and not play it as a cover.
With Fahey, we learned something else again. I wrote at length about the experience of making our album with John (The Epiphany of Glenn Jones) in the album’s liner notes. Suffice to say that I’m very proud of the album, as was John. When I hear it today, I hear mainly the experience of making it, of trying to build something out of the shards of the (probably) less interesting, less honest, album I had envisioned and invested so much energy into. After John kicked the album (as I’d pictured it) to the curb, letting go was not just the only option left to us, but the option that allowed us to make something more magical, and pure, than I ever imagined.
Along similar lines, how would you say your solo work has been influenced by your years with Cul de Sac?
Glenn: There are things I miss; the chemistry that you develop over years with a band; the luxury of having a group to fall back on when you’re having an off night. I even miss that creative frisson that comes of butting heads musically with like-minded, but sometimes bloody-minded, collaborators. But in terms of one influencing the other, a lot of Cul de Sac songs came about in the same way as my solo pieces do: through improvisation, trial and error, and I think my particular sensibility is apparent in both things.
Can you describe your recording and writing process for your first solo album, This Is The Wind That Blows It Out (which is a record that featured acoustic 6 and 12-string guitar instrumentals). Was there a preconceived plan that set the course for the record? Or was it more of an intuitive process?
Glenn: The record wasn’t intuitive. I’d begun playing acoustically around the time we (Cul de Sac) made Death of the Sun. Rather than taking a batch of new songs into the studio to try to capture them on tape, most of the tracks were built up around sound samples, which were then treated, processed, layered, etc. The tracks, in some cases, were so heavily processed that the challenge for me was how to find a way “in” to the material, some of which was quite dense.
I discovered that the greatest contrast to the electronic was the organic: acoustic instruments, and so Death of the Sun marked my return to acoustic guitar, which I had largely set aside for most of Cul de Sac’s existence. By the time I went in to the studio to start work on what became my first solo album (This is the Wind That Blows It Out) I’d been playing the material live for some time. I was also still performing with Cul de Sac. At the time I saw myself doing both things. I didn’t pull the plug on Cul de Sac till three or four years after I recorded This Is the Wind.
You toured with the late Jack Rose and recorded him as well. Can you describe some of your most memorable and rewarding experiences working together?
Glenn: Doing anything with Jack was rewarding. Playing, and recording, certainly. But just eating dinner, driving to gigs, hanging out, listening to records, he was a joy to be with. Funny as hell, thoughtful, provocative, always honest, as hard on himself as on any of the myriad musicians whose names he delighted in disparaging. I can’t tell you how much Jack inspired me and how much I miss him.
Next to Fahey, Jack had the greatest influence on me as a guitar player, through his sheer and unapologetic dedication to his muse, his single-mindedness, his boundless energy, and his ambition to be the best he could be at what he did. Jack was a great, great guitar player, the best of his generation in my book. But more important, he was a great man, with all the frailties and imperfections and self-doubts of great men. That I lived in the same world with Jack for a brief time I count as one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Against Where The Sea Continually Beats was your next solo album. The tunes draw from many sources and styles. Can you discuss some of your musical influences and experiences that inspired the writing and recording that record?
Glenn: There was nothing really different about the writing process per se, except that I was (I like to think) getting better at it, and coming more into my own as a player. But the recording process was special. It was the best experience I ever had making a record. It had to do with the time of year when it was recorded (end of summer), the place (the island of Martha’s Vineyard), the engineer (Anthony Esposito), and everything felt perfect.
I was relaxed, excited about the pieces, away from the day-to-day concerns of home life, and blissfully comfortable in Anthony’s attic apartment, where the album was recorded. I don’t know if any of that comes through to the average listener, but it does for me.
Barbecue Bob in Fishtown, your next record, combined 12-string guitar and banjo. What inspired you to bring in the banjo for this project? Can you talk a little bit about your history playing banjo?
Glenn: I’ve long loved the instrument, especially as it was/ is played in old-time music, in the frailing or clawhammer style. In an attempt to make it more banjo-like, I once replaced the low E string on a guitar with a high E, so the highest open string was where the lowest typically is. It didn’t really work!
I’d also recently discovered Labyrinths, the 1969 banjo album by George Stavis, and Paul Metzger’s Four Improvisations on Modified Banjo and Guitar, both of which were hugely inspiring. So, when I came across an ad for a cheap 1920s banjo on my local craigslist, I made the leap. I know I don’t play the banjo according to Hoyle. I play it with my thumb and index and middle fingers, as I do the guitar. But if you say you play “three-finger style,” that means bluegrass to most everyone, and I’m not playing bluegrass by any stretch. Neither am I playing it in the old-time mountain style. This suits me. I’d rather have my own approach.
I’d written the two banjo pieces, which eventually appeared on Barbecue Bob in Fishtown (“Keep it a Hundred Years” and “A Lark In Earnest”) but was still pretty shy about playing them out. Jack Rose encouraged me to bring my banjo along on one of our tours, which I did, playing it well, poorly, or indifferently, every night. The best compliment I had from Jack, however, was his invitation to play banjo with him on “Moon is in the Gutter” on his last album, Luck in the Valley.
On your new album, The Wanting, the banjo reappears on a few tunes. Can you talk about these tunes and how you see them in the context of the album?
Glenn: There’s no grand scheme, I just love the instrument, and I think it makes for an engaging contrast to the guitar, both in the way it sounds and in what I’ve written for it.
I read that you consider yourself to be part of a tribe of acoustic finger-style guitar players whose main inspirations are the "American Primitive" or "Takoma School" of guitarists, those centered around John Fahey.
Glenn: I can’t easily (or briefly!) sum up the accomplishments of Fahey, Basho (giants!) and their kin. They resist categorization or summing up. They were self-taught players with very personal musical visions of the world, who created worlds of their own. One could spend one’s life (and many of us have) stumping around in those worlds.
Do you have any personal suggestions for new listeners?
Glenn: For newbies, I’d recommend John Fahey’s Days Have Gone By, and Bashovia, the posthumously issued Robbie Basho collection that Fahey compiled and wrote liner notes for. For those interested in a thumbnail sketch, that’s what Wikipedia is for, I suppose. But, really folks, there’s no substitute for experiencing their music for oneself.
One of the most intriguing pieces to me on your new album, The Wanting, is the 17-minute long "The Orca Grande Cement Factory at Victorville" that you performed with drummer Chris Corsano. (The title is an homage to John Fahey's "The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California"). Can you describe your inspiration composing this piece, working with Chris, and your lasting impression of the song?
Glenn: I had a two-part piece that posed a compositional problem I couldn’t solve, mainly, where to go after I’d gone into the B section. Nothing I’d come up with seemed to work. The B section didn’t seem to want to go anywhere, and it sounded best when it simply played over and over, like it would never end. Anything else I tried to do felt forced. Thinking it somehow incomplete, the song went off to the Never-Never-Land of my brain, joining all the other pieces that had, for whatever reason, died aborning.
Reuben Son, who recorded The Wanting, had a poster on his wall of the cover of Gastr Del Sol’s Upgrade and Afterlife. I mentioned to Reuben how much I liked their version of Fahey’s “Dry Bones in the Valley,” which is my favorite track on Fahey’s Old Fashioned Love album, with its B section “. . . that repeated over and over, feeling like it would never end.”
I suddenly flashed on my “unfinished” piece. We quickly recorded it, and, taking a leaf from Fahey’s work, I played the B section over and over, letting it do what it seemed to want to do. Now I had something, but what, exactly, and what to do with it? Eventually I hit on the idea of inviting Chris Corsano, whose playing I’ve loved ever since I first experienced it in person in 2003, to accompany me on the track.
I know that this piece isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but to me, and I don’t know why exactly, it’s heartbreaking. I’ve played the song in concert several times, but only with other musicians (I don’t regard it as solo piece), including Helena Espvall on viola; Yo La Tengo on Yo La Tengo; Susanna Bolle on recordings of trains she made while visiting Italy years ago; David Daniell on processed guitar; Ed Yazijian on electric violin, Pony Bones on banjo and percussion; and Color Guard on a skipping 78 and LP, played through effects pedals.
I read another quote of yours that follows: "The Wanting explores some of the possibilities of open tunings. (I stopped playing in standard tuning more than 25 years ago now)". Can you talk about your playing philosophy, and some of the more surprising and unexpected discoveries that you have made and continue to make by working this way? What are the most rewarding aspects of the process for you?
Glenn: I long ago realized that, in terms of writing, I work best when I don’t know what I’m doing. I’d become so conversant in standard tuning that I was hamstrung by it. Falling back on old habits, I found it very hard to write anything that felt like it was mine. To get to a place where I can come up with something new, I often have to throw out what I know, turn off the lights and feel my way around in the darkness.
My way of “turning off the lights” is to invent new tunings and to employ my own home-made partial capos (that is, capos that bar two, three, or four strings while leaving the others alone) in order to alter the relationships of the strings to one another, so that familiar chord shapes no longer work (or work in very different ways), so that nothing on the fretboard is where you might expect it to be. For me, this is creatively refreshing and stimulates new work.
What I look for in a tuning is one that suggests a color or mood by itself. The writing process, the going into the unknown, is largely instinctual. Navigating that new terrain becomes a piece of music. Very few of my pieces are in the same tuning (two or three at the most). Most tunings are only used for one piece of music, and I have more songs that employ partial capos than songs played without them.
But these are just spurs to my particular creative process. For the listener, it’s my hope that the mechanical or technical aspects of the piece are invisible; that what you hear is the song, and its emotional component.