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Steuart Liebig Interview – Hidden Treasure Part 2

By Brent-Anthony Johnson

Missed part 1? Click here to view it.

BAJ: What is your vision for your musical voice, and what are you favorite mood provoking devices – musically and compositionally?

SL: Dude, these are deep questions! My musical voice? In terms of my voice on the bass, I’ve been trying to do some different types of things than might be done more regularly. For one thing, I’ve tried to do stuff that’s more chamber music-oriented, where I’ll be playing music with a bassoon, clarinet and flute. It’s an interesting challenge to try to fit in sonically with those instruments. I’ve also developed a bunch of techniques that might be called “prepared bass” or “extended techniques” (you can find information about his sort of thing here: http://stigsite.com/gear_prepbass.html)
I use this to get different percussive sounds, stuff that sounds like gamelans or koto sounds, or stuff that might sound like rustling leaves. I think there’s a lot of stuff that can be done with the electric bass that has not been touched on–so I guess I’m trying to touch on some of those.

Overall, I guess I’m approaching what I do as a cross between an upright bass, electric bass, cello, guitar, synth and drum. Depending on the situation, I’ll try to incorporate any of those.

One of the guys I played with at an early age was a pianist named Les McCann. He got it into my head that one can express something outside of chops or the usual solo/accompaniment paradigm. I’m really grateful for that lesson because it opened my ears up to so many more possibilities.

Conceptually, I’m into the idea of getting out of the standard hierarchy that we as bass players inhabit. So I might play some stuff as straight-up groove, but I also might be the chordal instrument and leave the bass part (if there is one) to the bassoon or a keyboard, or I might just be an equal partner in group counterpoint.

BAJ: Who are your musical influences?

SL: There are literally way too many to list. I mean, I love the funk, ya know? But I also like metal, jazz, classical, blues, country, “ethnic” music, electronica, hip-hop, avant-garde, etc. I guess you could say I’m an equal-opportunity stealer. If you want to get into bass players, I stole an idea from my friend Nels Cline of doing a list of bassists who influenced me–with the caveat that the word “influence” can mean positively or negatively. The list can be found here: http://stigsite.com/bass%20talk_players.html

BAJ: What grounds you in your life? What gives you hope?

SL: Well, my wife and I have been married 23 years and we have 14-year-old twins! In addition, for the last year or so, I’ve been trying to work out a lot more, be in better shape.

Hope? Globally: Humanity has persevered throughout history, so I guess I’m hopeful that this will continue to be the case. Personally: I believe that the process of living, being in relationships and making art make life worth living.

BAJ: Finally, what are one or two musical goals you would like to accomplish this year?

SL: My goals right now are to continue with a new phase in my compositional life that I’ve been moving toward for the last two years. I’ve been getting more deeply involved with learning an open-ended computer sound-creation software called MAX/MSP that I plan to use in different ways. I’ve been writing a piece for improvising string quartet, so I need to finish that. And I need to do some recording of my band Hooked On Lemon Drops. You wanted one or two? Oops! (Laughter)

BAJ: Who are your favorite composers, and why? Also, what’s the coolest music you’ve heard in the last several months?

SL: There’s too much great music in the world. Hmm, composers: Beethoven, Mahler, Stravinsky, Dutilleux, Ravel, Schoenberg, Monteverdi, Lachenmann, Wayne Shorter, Charles Mingus, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill. But you know, I listen to tons of stuff: Louis Armstrong, Public Enemy, Mastodon, Shadow Huntaz, Boards of Canada, Supersilent, the Evan Parker Electro/Acoustic Ensemble, Roscoe Holcomb. Recently my new faves would be this music called Rembetika that was underground music in Athens in the 1920s (kinda like Greek/Turkish blues), an improvising group from Norway called Supersilent, a group of composers called the Spectralists (mostly French and some German) who are combining orchestral instruments with computer-generated sound, and Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem.

BAJ: Tell us about the live Thomasson from “Hooked On Lemon Drops”! One of my favorite tunes of all the discs you sent is the second tune on that particular disc! KILLIN’!

SL: Okay, now that I know which tune you mean. So . . . that tune is on my Fodera 12-string (6-string bass with octave strings). I’ve been listening to a couple of earlier discs by Anouar Brahem, and this tune is sort of a tribute to him and borrows from other Middle Eastern music as well. It’s the first of three parts that make up a piece tentatively called Thomasson 2 (still coming up with real tune names for this stuff). I’ve written about five of these pieces. The whole concept is that each piece has three fairly structured parts that evoke different grooves or feelings, and these are bridged by free improv sections. Each three-part piece is designed to be around 30-35 minutes in total length.

The part you’ve asked about is the first section of Thomasson 2 and starts off with some spacey textural improv between percussion/drums (Christopher Allis) and keyboards (Wayne Peet), and then segues into a lengthy unison melody played by Bb clarinet (Andrew Pask) and 12-string. Then it goes into time with a bass solo. It’s all pretty much droney D-minor-ish stuff with shifting modalities. Some of the stuff I’m doing is fingerpicking stuff inspired by Ralph Towner. After the solo, I loop some more D drone stuff and we go into a group improv that segues into the next section of the three-part piece.

BAJ: My all-time favorite CD was the “Always Outnumbered” disc. Tell us about how the Tee-Tot Quartet functions, and how preparing a release like it comes together?

SL: I think that disc is one of my more peculiar discs–what does that say about you?? (Need smiley face emoticon here!) Tee-Tot http://stigsite.com/tee-tot1front.html came about as an offshoot of the Mentones, but with a little more country and a lot of influence from ’20-30s music, like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives band. At one point I had thought of doing the Mentones as a quintet with trumpeter Dan Clucas. I decided against that, but then thought it would be cool to have trumpet with slide guitar, so I kept that in mind as a future project. As it turned out a friend, Scot Ray, who used to play crazy-good trombone took up dobro and became pretty monstrous at it. He came into town (he lives in Montana now), so I wrote a few tunes and we got together to play them with Dan and the drummer from the Mentones, Joe Berardi. We all thought it went fabulously well and that it had a great vibe, so I wrote some more tunes. Next time Scot came into town, we rehearsed, did a few gigs and recorded the tunes, then mixed ‘em, I did the artwork and put it out.

BAJ: You work with an interesting assortment of musicians, man. Is there an overall sense of like-mindedness amongst your small musical clique? Or, is it more “catch-as-catch-can” when assembling players? How does it work? Also, describe your view of musical camaraderie from any angle. Finally, how long do players sit with your music before they begin to “hear” what you’re going for musically?

SL: I think the main thing with the community of players that I’m part of is that there are a lot of divergent styles and interests, but that we can all get together in different groupings and make music together. For instance, I’ll play with guitarist G.E. Stinson in groups where he does extended technique guitar plus slamming laptop beats, and I’ll being doing bass with lots of effects as well as laptop-generated sounds; or I might play with drummer Alex Cline, whose music tends to be very cinematic–lots of space, beautiful tonal melodies and long arching forms; or I might play completely improvised music that veers closer to jazz with people like Vinny Golia (who is a prodigious multi-reed player and composer) or Dan Clucas. I just did a gig with two drummers (Ted Byrnes and Rich West) and me–it was interesting (challenging!) being the only harmonic and melodic instrument. The interesting thing for me is that we’re all in the same community and sound different for our own projects, but then play in each other’s bands and change what we do to fit that music.

In terms of my written music, I don’t think it’s that hard, but people say it’s challenging. However, I don’t think it’s the actual written stuff that’s tough, but the fact that I want people to build off the written notes or vibe of the piece when they start improvising. That can take a little bit of time and effort because people’s usual licks won’t always work.

BAJ: You’ve accomplished a lot of music! What’s next for you, and what are you currently working on compositionally?

SL: Thanks, I think I’ve probably written more music and so forth than I have “accomplished” anything . . . maybe I need to be more ambitious!
What’s next? Like a lot of people, I’m just trying to make sure my family and I can get through an “interesting economic time.” Musically, I’m working on incorporating computer-generated sound into both written and improvised situations, and starting on grooves for a band of two percussionists, trumpet, keyboards and bass.

BAJ: Is there any specific technical approach to your instrument that you’ll share with our readers?

SL: Technical approach? Not really. I guess I would say that I’m not into the school that says you should play really lightly and let the amp do the work. I’m more into making the string really vibrate and getting the body of the bass to resonate along with it. I was talking to bassist Mike Pope the other night, and (I think) he and I were agreeing that that’s where the magic of a stringed instrument occurs–where all the tonal nuance, dynamics and artistry come from. I think that people might want to investigate “their relationship with the string”–that is, see what they can get out of the string when they’re playing it.

Also, sometimes I think people key into technique too much, I know there have been times in my life where I have. I think it can be more useful to work on concepts and ideas away from the bass than it is to work at the instrument–sometimes we just go into muscle memory instead of really heading into new ideas. For instance, some of the most useful time I’ve spent is thinking about how I wanted to do something (like soloing, for instance)–after really working on the concept away from the bass, it was easier for me to break some of the habits I had and work I on what I wanted to do, not what I already knew how to do.

BAJ: Your fretless playing is sublime. What ear-training exercises have you worked with over the years?

SL: Thanks! (I’m now blushing) I spend a fair amount of time doing double stops and chords, and trying to get them in tune. Sometimes it’s pretty brutal and depressing. One of the things that really helped me both with tone and approach to intonation was studying classical upright when I was in college. I ended up with a really great teacher (and bassist/musician) named Ed Meares who really helped set me in the right direction. I really would rather sound closer to an upright or cello than the Jaco paradigm on fretless. All this being said, I just heard bassist Scott Pazera playing a fretless of mine and I was thinking I needed to tone some stuff down (I’ve been working on some pretty aggressive techniques of late).

BAJ: How often do you participate in sessions, if at all? Are there any artists or groups you would dig working with that you haven’t thus far?

SL: I mostly do work with people who are interested in the same basic area of music that I am. I’ve done some session stuff outside of that, but have pretty much gone away from doing commercial music or music that I’m not into. There’s a long list of interesting people I’d like to work with, but I don’t know if I’d be right for them. Some of it just comes down to logistics as I have a family that I need to take care of. I’d like to do some more recording with Vinny Golia, and would like to revisit a band I was in called L. Stinkbug with Nels Cline, Scott Amendola and G.E. Stinson, but Nels and Scott are way too busy to pull that off, I think.

If you want to get into pie-in-the-sky stuff, I’d love to try to do what I do with someone like Bjork, David Sylvian, Thom Yorke, John Zorn or Supersilent. Another dream project would be to reconvene the version of Julius Hemphill’s 1980s JAH Band with Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, Alex Cline and me, and have someone like Tim Berne or Marty Ehrlich take Julius’ (who sadly died in the ’90s) place. I only mention this in case any of the people I mentioned ever see this on the web . . . (lol).

BAJ: Where do you collect the musical images you articulate through your compositions?

SL: Like I said earlier, it could be just about anything: a book, movie, painting, piece of music, walking down the street. I often just catalog stuff in my mind or on a piece of paper, sometimes I write down a sketch of a rhythmic idea or melodic gesture and let it gestate for a while.

BAJ: Who are a few artists/groups you would suggest for our readers to check out?

SL: I don’t know that I would necessarily try to point someone in any particular direction. I think I would encourage people to be inquisitive. Some much of what I’ve learned has been from reading about someone whose work I like and then finding out about their influences or community, and then following up on that. Often I discover someone else whose work I like and then learn about more people. I try to keep an open ear and keep mental notes from conversations about music or listening to the radio. I guess it’s about keeping an open mind and taking the time and spending the energy and time to follow up on things that interest you. Last, I think it’s a good think to seek out things you might not ordinarily be into and see if you like it.

BAJ: What would you do differently in your musical career, given the opportunity to do so?

SL: I wish that I was little less headstrong in my earlier days. Sometimes being headstrong can mean having a strong vision for yourself and sometimes it can mean you’re reacting from fear or hubris–it can be both good and bad. I wish I could take the bad way of doing that out of my past.

BAJ: Identify one aspect of your playing that you truly dig! Identify one aspect of your personality you would trade!

SL: I think I have a pretty good touch and can interact with other players well; that is, I have pretty good empathy with them and listen well–I “play well with others.” Trade in parts of my personality? There are too many things I could trade in and they’re mostly private. See the comments about being headstrong.

BAJ: What haven’t I covered here that you really want to talk about?

SL: I think a lot of times I see people writing about bass playing or other musical endeavors, the focus is on “working” or making a living from playing. For most of us (and I think this is getting worse all the time), making a living playing (not even to say being happy doing that) is difficult at best. I’ve know people who made good money playing and ended up hating it. I’m more interested in having a life-long relationship with the instrument and music, and what I can get–and give–from that. I guess I’m saying enjoy the “art” of music, not just the commerce. We all have to pay the bills, “pay Caesar”. I’ve chosen to do that by having a day job and letting the musical side of things be more ‘art for art’s sake” . . . it may not work for everyone, but it is one way to do things.

BAJ: Thank you for talking with us, Steuart! I truly appreciate your music and playing ability!

SL: Brent-Anthony, thanks for the kind words . . . and thanks for taking the time to do this interview and asking all these great questions. BIG thanks for having me do it! It’s been a very thought-provoking, interesting and instructive process for me. Hopefully it was somewhat interesting for other folks as well.

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