PAT METHENY INTERVIEW
'Jazz is great - it just smells funny,' quipped the inimitable Frank Zappa once upon a time. If this is indeed the case, then Pat Metheny has got some of the sweetest smelling jazz around. And with his gorgeous tone, infectious rhythms and a never-ending desire to break new ground, Pat's new album 'Secret Story' may well be his most cohesive musical statement to date.
'"Secret Story" is a culmination of everything I've done so far with the exception of straight-ahead jazz. It includes introspection as a possibility and it may well be sadder than '89's "Letter from Home" but I think the main thing is that it's very personal. It's also the biggest record I've done in terms of scope. People keep calling it "the solo record", which I guess is true 'cause as well as writing all the material in the early stages I played almost everything myself. Then I started expanding on it with other musicians until it became this massive "thing"... Yeah, I think it's the most introspective record I've made but it's also the biggest - and that's an odd combination.
'The album has a narrative structure. The whole project started with the tracks "Antonia" and "The Truth Will Always Be" which I wrote for the Ballets Jazz de Montreal in '88. I knew they were going to be the end of the story so I worked backwards from there. There's an established underlying structure to it but only in a very abstract sense - it's not as specific as a recurring three note motif. The only other record I've done that's something like this is "As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls" on which the title track was a twenty minute piece. To me, "Secret Story" follows an arc-shape with a beginning, middle and end.
'I worked with a wide range of people on the album - harmonica soloist Toots Theilemans, vocalist Akiko Yano, drummer Steve Ferrone, the Cambodian Royal Palace Choir as well as my own group - but everyone did their parts very quickly. What did take a lot of time was the intensive level of detail - there's a lot of sounds there and a lot of subtle things going on that take a few careful listens to appreciate. To me, a production record like this only works if you have a certain number of levels of information simultaneously giving signals to the listener about different things. Obviously, in my case there's the improvisational aspect of the soloing but I wanted that to be offset with an "orchestral web" going on underneath that includes not only the orchestra but all the synth stuff that I did beforehand - all that stuff would be interesting on it's own. Plus, I put a lot of noises in there - I really wanted it to be a thick, dense and noisy record with lots of subtle sounds happening throughout. I really see the record as a collage - there's an awful lot of things tacked on to other things but an underlying base like a mural that holds everything together.
'Every single track was difficult to capture on tape - it's probably the most difficult record I've had to make. The guitar playing was particularly difficult - not from a technical aspect but from the emotional point of view. To get the level of emotion in order for these tunes to do what they are supposed to do was really difficult in the studio environment. Lots of times when you're in the studio with a limited budget you just simulate the emotion but that wasn't for me this time - what went down on tape was the real thing. I managed to get down to the place inside where I needed to be in order to play those solos. It's funny 'cause I see it more as a composition album than anything else but I also think I got some of my best guitar playing ever on it.'
'I recently counted that I've written about 150 tunes that have been recorded. That's a lot! When I sit down to write a new tune I have to find some new angle for a starting point - it may be a specific feeling or a theoretical device. In "Cathedral in a Suitcase" I started with the idea of exploring the rhythmic possibilities of threes over twos; in "Sunlight" I started with "how many keys can I get into one song?" I don't care what it takes to get started - the hardest part is always writing the first note and I'll do whatever it takes to get going.
'I actually write almost all my music at the piano 'cause you can play melody and chords simultaneously. It's also easier for me to think - the guitar fretboard is such a mess and so illogical! Plus, when you write on the guitar you often end up with stuff that sounds like guitar music.
'After "Letter from Home" in '89 I kinda took a little break from the band to do a straight jazz record, "Question and Answer". I think I probably play better on "Question and Answer" than on " Bright Size Life" just because I'm older and more experienced but the "Bright Size Life" trio had something really special. Of course, now it has even more meaning because Jaco [Pastorius, bassist] is no longer around. He played so well on that record and it's so exposed that you can really hear him - it was one of his best performances on record.
'For "Question and Answer" I used the Ibanez Pat Metheny Model Prototype - I didn't use my usual Gibson ES175 'cause we'd been playing in Edinburgh and all the instruments needed a week to clear customs so I had to use the one I was carrying around with me which I plugged straight into the board. Otherwise, I still use my 175 nearly all the time.
'To get my sound on the 175 I use flatwound strings and the tone control turned almost completely off. I used to use some chorus but so many people have used that sound that it's almost become a cliché - as you can hear, I don't use any chorus on the new album. I realize that was part of my sound but I don't think it was the most important aspect. Some people make the mistake of thinking the sound is everything. More and more, I'm just using the regular guitar, direct with some reverb and a few repeats.
'Live I still use the same three amps because it sounds better and more inspiring, each one with the same settings - I use the Acoustic 134, an old transistor amp from the '70's that I got used to the EQ on. That goes into a Prime Time 2 which is a stereo digital delay which splits the signal into two sides, each of the sides going into a Yamaha amp and power amp coming out of two speakers on the stage.
'I think the last five records are the best I've ever done mainly because recording for Geffen means a bigger recording budget than recording for ECM. When I decided to leave ECM I put the word out that I was looking for something different. Various companies made proposals - Geffen made the best offer that was appropriate for me. I also liked the fact that it isn't a jazz label - they treat me like any other artist rather than like a jazz guy.
'Whatever style I'm playing - straight-ahead jazz, Ornette Coleman tunes or Pat Metheny Group songs - all music seems to blend together for me, as long as it's music I understand. Those three dialects are very familiar to me and I really don't think there's too much difference between them. I use the same guitar, the same amps and so on. The group thing is the most personal to me because that's my own music.'
Does Pat have a repertoire of favourite substitutions like playing a Super Locrian over a Dominant 7th depending on what style he is playing?
'I don't really think like that. The best analogy to answer that would be one that Gary Burton uses. Sure, I know all these scales and concepts. We both speak English - when you asked me that question you didn't have to think for a second about "well, I have to take this adverb, stick it in front of the verb then take the noun..." All of this relatively complex grammar stuff took place somewhere in the back of your mind. It's the same for me when I'm improvising - I have available all these harmonic ideas that I absorbed way back and coupled with my playing experience I try to keep myself open to draw from all that stuff depending on what seems most appropriate for my musical intention at the time.'
Do these three different styles or dialects each express a different range of emotions or do they all express the same emotions but in different ways?
'Wow - what a concept! I think they have different feelings, sure, and it's also a different kind of aesthetic depending on whether you're playing with a trio or an orchestra. I like a lot of different things and in some ways that's a problem - I wanna do everything! I want to experiment with sound and format as much as I can but whilst still retaining the essential part of what I am as a musician.
'Around the time of the "First Circle" album in '84 I felt I was spreading myself too thin. At that point I thought, "OK, this is my band, this is the sound that we have developed, this is me as a guitar player, I use eight different sounds - steel string, nylon string, 12 string, etc." Rather than continue to expand on these things I decided to go down deeper into all these things that I have already established. "Secret Story" is a culmination of a certain kind of writing that I've been exploring and "Question and Answer" is a culmination of a certain kind of playing. So, the last two records have been pretty definitive for me. I'm not too interested in stretching into new territory now - I just want to explore what I've already done.
'I don't really practise too much now but I always get to the gig at least an hour before the show to have a warm-up. At this point most of the practise I do is in my head - it's more conceptual stuff than physical playing. I never really worried too much about the physical side of it anyway. I don't think of myself as being a virtuoso - I just try to play the ideas that I hear in my head. I have enough facility on the guitar that I can get those ideas out. About seven or eight years ago I crossed into another zone technically - I used to have a lot of trouble playing but now I don't. I still make goofs and miss notes but not too often!
'There have been some significant advances in jazz and music education in recent years. I think music schools like Berklee and the Guitar Institute of Technology can provide a really useful function for an eighteen year old who is considering a career as a musician. You can get an indication of whether you're in the top ten percent or the bottom two percent. I think someone there can learn as much from the other students as from the teachers - it's great to be surrounded by a bunch of people of the same age all interested in music.
'Of course, these schools are often criticised for turning out clones who are very good technically but who have no musical personality. I don't think that's the fault of the schools - it's more a statement on culture right now. Originality doesn't get the reward that it used to. Now, if you sound just like someone else people don't see anything wrong with it. There's even a certain amount of pressure from record companies and the press to do that! Once something becomes established there's a tendency for people to want to recreate it. Personally, I don't think that is satisfying nor artistically valid.
'The group has done a live record which will be out next summer including some old stuff and some stuff that we've only played in concert like "Untitled No 2". We're going to do some dates in Japan and then I'll be in the UK with the jazz trio. I've just played on Bruce Hornsby's new record along with Bonnie Raitt and Phil Collins. We're going to tour the States with "Secret Story" and we might be coming to the UK in Spring of next year.'
This interview was originally published in 'The Guitar Magazine', Vol 2 No 5, August 1992.
Copyright Douglas J Noble 1992
In 'The Guitar Magazine' an irrate David Woodman from London wrote 'Douglas J Noble's pathetic attempt to quote Frank Zappa is disgraceful [see beginning of Pat Metheny interview]. "Jazz is great it just smells funny" when the actual quote on the album is "Jazz is not dead... it just smells funny". Quite a difference.' Gee, sorry David!
For posterity, this quote can be heard on Zappa/Mothers' "Roxy & Elsewhere" (1974/1992) during "Be-Bop Tango (of the Old Jazzmen's Church)" at 6:21.
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