Music is Good: An interview with Bill Frisell
At the FJ, we’re always figuring out who the best writer for a story would be. And when the artist is someone as interesting and eclectic as jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, the challenge becomes a bit tougher. Who can you find to do an original interview about Frisell’s thoroughly original music and not succumb to all the usual clichés (“Americana,” “landscapes,” you know the rest…)? The answer for us is Danny Barnes.
Barnes is a banjo and guitar master and the former leader of Austin’s acclaimed Bad Livers. As evidenced by this interview from the Fretboard Journal 4 (November 2006), he's not a bad interviewer, either. -JV
Danny Barnes: A lot of times you end up using a backline amp, what do you do you with an amp that you aren't familiar with? How do you get your sound out of a backline? Watching you work, it seems effortless.
Bill Frisell: Sometimes you just have to go with it. I usually ask for [Fender] Deluxe Reverbs. That’s not even what I have at home but it’s the closest thing to a low powered 1 x 12” speaker that you can get. I remember how, 20 or 25 years ago, I only had “my amp” and that was the only amp that I ever played through. And if I ever went to a gig where I couldn’t play through it, it was absolutely traumatic. I couldn’t play. It was almost worse than not having my guitar. But then, over the years I just sort of gave up. First, it’s a feeling of complete surrender to whatever the thing is, and disgust and depression and everything [laughter], but then you just move on through it and you learn. And then it ends up being a positive thing not to have to have exact, precise things. In the end you end up discovering all these things—maybe it will cause you to play in certain ways or limit you in certain ways. I ask for these Deluxe Reverbs and I get them maybe half the time … So I still get a twin but they’ll misread the thing or get something weird. I guess it’s more consistent now.
DB: When you said you had an amp that was “your amp,” what was that?
BF: Like that one over there, that Gibson [Explorer GA-18]. That’s not the exact one, but I’ve had that amp for almost 20 years. And before that I had another one. A really small, sort of old ‘50s Gibson amp that I was just comfortable with.
DB: Didn’t Jim Hall have a Gibson amp that had two different speakers in it?
BF: That’s a GA-50. I actually have one of those. It’s incredibly cool. It has a 12” and an 8” speaker. It’s from the early ‘50s. And there might even be some sort of primitive crossover in there, something. It has a huge bottom end but it’s also real clear. It’s an amazing amp. All those records with Art Farmer, Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins—all those records of the ‘50s and ‘60s—that was the amp. But [these days] it’s also incredibly hard to keep in repair.
DB: When you were learning, were there any particular books that got you to a new place? The Nicolas Slonimsky book or any textbooks?
BF: I played clarinet in school.
That was my first instrument, and everything I did on that was just
looking at music and reading. The guitar came along later, and I
learned it on my own in the beginning. It was just playing by ear,
playing along with records and playing with my friends. The whole
way I came about playing music on the guitar, in the beginning anyway,
was a completely different path. Clarinet was this real intellectual
thing: I’d see this note on the page
and then I learned how to push the right button to make that happen.
With my guitar playing, I met [guitarist and teacher] Dale Bruning
at the very end of high school, and he helped me to bring the two things
together a little more. There were these books that I used, I think
they were saxophone books, maybe by Lennie Niehaus. They were exercises
written for saxophone players — certain kinds of phrases and
slurs, jazzy-sounding saxophone solos. And I guess that was a moment
where I was kind of bridging that gap from just playing by ear to being
able to read on the guitar. I went through all those books. Now I have
shelves full of books that I mean to do stuff out of, but they’re
all just waiting around for someday.
DB: I know you like to study. If you could, is there someone you would study with, even if they aren’t alive anymore? And what would you work on?
BF: That’s so gigantic! There are things I’ve read, like Coltrane going over to Thelonious Monk’s apartment and teaching him a song. And he just starts playing a song and playing it over and over again — that’s how they learned the music. Or, what did Blind Willie Johnson sound like when he was sitting right next to you? If it comes out like that on the records — it kind of rips your spine out even being that far away from him — I just can’t imagine! There are so many people. There are thousands of people who it would have been amazing to be near.
DB: What was happening in your life at the time when you thought to yourself, “Man, a career in music is going to work for me”?
BF: It wasn’t actually like “this is going to work for
me” because that thought hasn’t happened yet. But I remember
a real clear moment when I decided that I don’t care, I’m
going to do this. I had been out of high school and I was in Denver.
And I don’t know why, what gave me the confidence at that moment,
because I was living alone in this little apartment and I was teaching
in a music store, but music was just the only thing in my life. I didn’t
have a girlfriend; all I did was practice. And I would walk around
downtown Denver and then I’d go practice some more and then go
teach at the music store. And every once in a while I’d have
DB: There wasn’t a lot at that moment for you, right? It was just in your head? That’s remarkable.
BF: I was determined. I feel like
I’ve been incredibly blessed.
All along the way, at real critical moments, there’s been someone
there to encourage me. Starting with my parents: They were always super
supportive of me trying to play music. They never, ever discouraged
me. My mom would say, “Son, don’t you think you should
get your teaching degree?” but even from the very beginning they
were very cool about the whole idea of playing music. A lot of my friends
growing up had to be sneaking around just to go play. I never had that
DB: How do you think living in New York changed the way you view music?
BF: That’s a deep question. I guess when I started to get serious about thinking that I wanted to play music for a living, it seemed like that was the place that I knew I had to go to at some time, but I was incredibly intimidated by it. I grew up in Denver and felt comfortable there. I knew that New York was a place I had to go to but I was really afraid of it. So I went to Boston. When I felt like I was ready to leave Boston, I had played in New York a couple of times, but it was still so intimidating just to live there. I went to Belgium and met my wife [artist Carole d’Inverno]. And after a year of being in Belgium, time was up. I had to go and Carole was willing to go with me and help me out and support me. So we moved to New York and she did all kinds of jobs while I was playing weddings and doing whatever kind of gigs I could get, just to be there.
DB: How old were you?
BF: Twenty-eight, it was 1979.
Living in Belgium, I had made a couple of records, really under the
radar. I had recorded a couple of times and did one tour with some
more name kind of guys. I played on one ECM record and I played on
a Chet Baker record [Chet Baker–Steve
Houben (Philippe Defalle)]. I started to get a couple of little things
happening, but I wasn’t anywhere close to being able to pay the
DB: So you could just take a train into the city?
BF: But I always had a car. That
was the other thing, I was driving everywhere. I’d be carrying
my amp and stuff all the time. But after a couple of years I started
to meet this guy, that guy . . .
DB: How did living in Seattle affect what you were doing?
BF: By the time I left New York, what started to happen was when I played, it meant get on an airplane and go play somewhere. And that just started happening more and more. By the time I left, it started to feel like it didn’t matter where I am because every time I play I’m just traveling somewhere. I still don’t feel like I’m really immersed in any kind of scene here. It’s more like I live here. I wasn’t looking for work; I wasn’t looking for peace and quiet, either. I was just trying to focus better when I come home, to focus on my own thing more. In New York, I’d go away and come back, and there are so many things you want to do. So-and-so would call you to do this and that. And I did that, but I guess I wanted to take myself out of that, just to figure out what my own take on everything was like.
DB: A lot of times I think of you musically as a sort of painter. And I was wondering if you could talk about how visual technique influences your work.
BF: I think it’s coming from the same place [as a visual artist] — that need that we have to make something. I used to draw a lot when I was a little kid. I’d draw hot rods or dinosaurs or whatever. Ed “Big Daddy” Roth . . . I used to love that kind of stuff. I used to copy those monster things that he would draw. There’s something that’s going on in your imagination with that, that fantasy of those cars, and then those monster guys with those huge mouths. I would draw all of that stuff. It seems like music is the same as the instinct to do that. It’s coming from wherever that is in your brain or your body.
DB: The main question I was going to ask you is how you seem to be tied into that.
BF: Well, sometimes I draw stupid little things every once in a while. I’d like to spend more time doing that kind of stuff. And then I also find that a lot of my friends — Jim Woodring, Gary Larson, Terry Turrell, Claude Utley — are into drawing. My wife, Carole d’Inverno, is a painter. I can relate to some of the things that they’re doing with that. A lot of the things that Jim Woodring draws I feel are closer to what I’m trying to do with music than a lot of musicians I know. He’s into trying to find and bring things to the surface that you might see in a dream. I can relate to that. There are things I see in dreams, when you’re half awake or asleep or whatever, where I think, “Wow, if I could just get that to come out in a sound or get it to affect somebody that way.”
DB: Is it possible, do you think, for a musician to change how he or she is perceived by changing their art? How much of what a musician or an artist does affects how they’re being perceived? Does it have to do with your catalog — if you have a certain amount of stuff that you’ve done, it’s harder to change that perception. Or are you judged by whatever you’ve done last? Can you change how you’re perceived by what you’re doing? Some artists seem to work within narrow parameters, while some artists, like yourself, can put out wildly different projects. How does that work?
BF: I think it’s one of those things we can’t even think about. It’s frustrating to be perceived in certain ways, sometimes it hurts your feelings or it pisses you off. It’s “why do they think I’m doing this when I’m doing that” . . . but I think you have to just shake that shit off you. There’s nothing you can do about how you’re perceived, really. I just think it’s out of our hands. The best thing is just to work on what you believe in and keep going. We have to stay on our own track. It’s a drag when you’re pigeonholed in some way. I’m old enough now that I’ve felt I’ve been put in these a number of times now. I recorded on ECM so they say, “He’s an ECM artist . . . ,” and it’s not taking into account whatever else I’m doing at that particular time. At first I was an “ECM” guy, then I was a “downtown” guy and now I’m an “Americana” guy. And it bugs me, but it shouldn’t bug me. I just don’t like the way it limits what some people might think. Someone might not check you out because you have this name attached to you. Pretty much everything I’m doing now, I was doing before. It’s all been happening simultaneously. And it was happening before I ever made a record or anything. I don’t want to sound like I’m completely misunderstood or that I’m complaining. But so much of the time what is a success for me gets missed — that internal, whatever it is that I’m going for thing. It’s rare that that’s ever noticed in reviews.
DB: Is it OK if I asked you what frustrates you about the music business? I mean the traveling, the math part and the geography part. What are some things that make what you’re doing difficult? And if I asked you what made you happy about it?
BF: The travel has something to
do with it. I don’t like sitting
on a plane. I just went to Japan. I was in New York for three weeks
and that was cool because I was in the same place. Then I went to Florida,
and it took me three planes, like 12 hours, to get home. And then I
was home for about 16 hours and then I got on another plane and went
to Japan. I had to go from Seattle to San Francisco and then San Francisco
to Tokyo. And that was all within three days. From New York, to Florida,
to Seattle, to Tokyo. I got cheap tickets, there’s no oxygen,
all my bodily fluids and my kidneys are screaming “what’s
happening,” all my skin is flaking off my face, I can’t
go to sleep, I’m puking . . . [laughing]. I don’t like
that part. But then I get to play.
DB: That answers both questions!
Early on, I would play weddings to make money. I would go play a wedding
and I’d have to play “Beer Barrel Polka” and I remember
one time I sort of messed up the melody and this trumpet player said
to me, “Man you can’t do that!” And I was thinking “it’s
just a polka,” you know. And he said, “Man, you got to
get that straight! You got to play that right.” And he was
right. No matter what kind of gig it is you’re doing, I think
there are ways of finding positive musical stuff to work on. So long
as you just keep it about the music.
DB: That’s valuable information!
BF: There’s a quote of yours that kept me going . . . soon after I met you, you said, “Music is good.” And that sounds simple but it’s a heavy thing. That’s one of the things I know you were right about. There are so many things that I’m not sure of in the world, but that’s one thing I’m sure of. Music is good. I use that quote a lot.
DB: Can I read you something and see what you think of it? I found this at the Dali Museum. It's called "the Divine Proportion" by H.E. Huntley. And it's basically about beauty and mathematics, that's the subtitle of the book. And in the preface he talks about "discouraging hazards of a career in mathematics." There are four things. And I was wondering if you felt like commenting on these.
BF: Everything totally applies to music! Everything you said there sounds like what’s happening. I don’t know what to say!
DB: I read that and thought I wonder what Bill would think of that?
BF: Can I see [the writing]? Sometimes when I’m sitting there, working on a thing, that’s the best, when you’re just in midst of figuring it out. You just get lost in that world. And you’re not there but you’re in it. You never get to where this dream is of what we’re doing, that’s not it. It’s the getting there part, I guess.
DB: I thought that was interesting. Cause I thought it sort of talked about some of the things you’ve already brought up. But then at the end it wraps it up around an appreciation of music itself, or whatever you’re studying. If you focus on that, everything works out.
BF: You can’t go wrong.