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The Guitar (1) – I have a Martin 12-string that my father gave to me. (…) It’s an old guitar, now. It has a peculiar internal resonance, as though it has a small concert hall inside of it. I try to bring that quality out by stringing the guitar in double courses. In other words, instead of stringing the 4 lower strings with octave courses, I string them in unison. It makes it a lot harder to play, but with double courses I can draw out overtones if I’m willing to really physically engage the strings.

 

The favourite guitarists? It’s not a discovery often made, no matter how much guitar music hits your ears. Neil Young, wizard – electric. Ralph Towner, wizard – acoustic. Yes. And when I heard Steve Tibbetts for the first time, it was a revelation: Northern Song (1981) followed by Safe Journey (1984). All those singular albums, among them Big Map Idea (1989) and Full Moon Dogs (1994). 

I’ve been returning ever since. Always returning.

Tibbetts‘ albums only appear sporadically. You wait in anticipation for the next one. Some very interesting side projects pop up on other labels along the way, while in the meantime ECM always offer a kind of constant companionship. (It’s worth noting here that Northern Song was the only album produced by Manfred Eicher – no introduction necessary.)

A unique sound-world created from St. Paul, Minnesota. A guitar sound you recognise after seconds, never formula. The thrill comes from just listening, and letting  go. And now, LIFE OF. Steve Tibbetts, Marc Anderson, Michelle Kinney, the inner circle. What made me quite so addicted to this music? Honestly I’ll never really know. This confession of not-knowing puts a bigger smile on my face than evocative pictures of distant worlds. 

 
 
 

 
 
 

Michael Engelbrecht: Steve, at first, this photo with the turkeys … a walk through the woods?

 

Steve Tibbetts: This is my back yard in Minnesota.The turkeys arrive around 9 in the morning and cluster outside, gobbling. They are out there right now, talking to each other. There is a bird feeder above them, hanging off of a balcony, so they scratch around in the snow and leaves looking for bird food. The turkeys are quite tame, and they associate our bipedal primate family with food, so they sometimes come running and making sounds when they hear the back door open. Sometimes rival gangs of turkeys go to war in our back yard. It is really something to see and hear. At those time their raptor past is revealed. 

 

Michael Engelbrecht: LIFE OF is vintage Tibbetts, all compositions are credited to you, I think, for the first time ever. It is more on the quiet side, like NATURAL CAUSES, but with its own darknesses and edges.

 

Steve Tibbetts: Yes, it’s of a piece with the last album. They’re relatives. 

 

The Guitar (2) – The frets on my guitar are worn almost flat. There are some tiny intonation issues and places where strings buzz against frets. I took the twelve-string to Ron at St. Paul Guitar repair. He looked the guitar over. He picked up the guitar and sighted down the fretboard. He said, “The frets are flat. There might be some buzzing or intonation issues. Do you like the way it sounds?” I said, “I love the way it sounds.” He handed the guitar back over the counter to me and said, “Then I won’t fix it for you.”

 

Michael Engelbrecht: Looking at the titles, they seem like a collection of people from your life and times. What made you combine the pieces with certain names?

 

Steve Tibbetts: A lot of the songs have a similar feeling to them. I let them cross-pollinate. In order to more easily distinguish them I gave them names a few years ago, and I used the names of friends and family.  Some of those names started influencing the music.  It was a little spooky, but I played along with the process. Some names have more than one reference in my family. For instance, there are several women named „Alice,“ two named „Joel,“ and so on. One of the Joels died last year, another is still living. This sort of thing can give the music a peculiar resonance. „Half of ‚Joel‘ died,“ I might think to myself. This is typical of the managed insanity inherent in the artistic process. It is good to use any upwelling of meaning and emotion you can find, but you have to maintain due diligence and stay sane. 

 

Michael Engelbrecht: „Life of Carol“ – is there a story?

 

Steve Tibbetts: No story, I’m afraid. It’s just another guitar circling, circling.  

 

The Guitar (3) – I try to play the guitar for one or two hours before recording. Something needs warming up. Maybe the back of the twelve-string needs to be physically warmed up, or my fingertips need a certain pliability. At some point the guitar settles down and the little concert hall inside opens for business. I like the physicality of playing 12-string. I don’t use a pick. If I’m drifting off to sleep at night and feel my fingertips throbbing I know I had a good day.

 

Michael Engelbrecht: There‘s a kind of discreet tension between some more introspective moods, carefully developed dynamics – and the haunting picture on the cover with the „army of cats“. 

 

Steve Tibbetts: Yes, just open up the back door at the right time of day and you’ll see turkeys and ghosts waiting and staring. 

 
 
 

 
 
 

Michael Engelbrecht: Are you making use of meditation or other tools to stimulate creativity?

 

Steve Tibbetts: The process of creativity is really hard to talk about: where does creativity come from? How does artistic vision and inspiration arise? It is a nearly tangible experience when inspiration finally does come to visit, but it’s still very ephemeral and vapor-like.  To go one step further and talk about a meditative influence on the creative process would be a bridge too far, I think. One can only speculate. An interesting thing however: sometimes an apparent spiritual or creative awakening is not at all meditative or serene in its manifestation. Look at „A Love Supreme“ or, especially, „The Inner Mounting Flame.“ There’s a kind of violence there that seems exactly right. Be leery of anyone who speaks with authority about practices of meditation and their impact on the creative process. Be afraid, be very afraid.  

 

Michael Engelbrecht: The music seems to be more centered around sound and texture than around melodies, for example. It seems to circle around an invisible center …

 

Steve Tibbetts: Part of that is my being easily satisfied with circular musical logic. When I worked in Southeast Asia I got used to music that didn’t really go anywhere. It always folded back on itself and it seemed right that it did so. I wish I could compose a piece of music with real changes and progression but I don’t really know how to.  

 

Michael Engelbrecht: Your love for your acoustic 12-string guitar is a life long affair. It is a familiar sound that never gets too familiar …

 

Steve Tibbetts: I remember an interview many years ago with Nana Vasconcelos where he talked about the berimbau which is, as you know, a 1-stringed instrument – a bow, a wire, a stick and a shaker. He said he found new sounds every day on the instrument. I feel the same way about this 12-string. There’s always something new, or something old that refines itself. I can’t take credit for a good sounding instrument.  

 

Michael Engelbrecht: There‘ s such a special balance between the rhythmic parts of the music and the drone fields (of sampled sounds, Michelle‘s cello sounds etc.) Remember Miles Davis, in his electric period 69-75, also had, inside the whirlpool of energy, those stop-and-go passages inside the music. Of course it is a very distant parallel, but in your pieces here, one can also observe a lot of moments where the music seems to hold its breath, stand still, before moving on, and back again …

 

Steve Tibbetts: Yes, I have a copy of „Get Up With It“ at the studio; „Rated X.“ Badal Roy plays tabla. I think that may have been more Teo Maceo than Miles. It’s always special when a great artist works with a visionary producer.  

 

Mixing – The small concert hall in the guitar encouraged me to seek out a large concert hall to mix the album in. The Macalaster College music department kindly let me bivouac in their concert hall for an evening. I set up two pairs of mics: one in the center of the hall, and one pair in back. It worked well to allow a room’s ambience to settle around the piano and percussion. The natural acoustics of the hall helped the guitar settle into the piano.

 
 

 
 
 

Michael Engelbrecht: Apropos piano, you have played that instrument on „Natural Causes“ for the first time. Was the reason for that to keep the spirit of the beginner awake who has, according to Zen teaching, at times more fresh choices than the highly virtuoso & professional „approach“?

 

Steve Tibbetts: I just wanted to be able to read music a little bit. I read a review of a book about Bach’s „Musical Offering.“ As I recall, the book titled „Evening In The Palace Of Reason“ concerns a challenge from the King of Prussia to Bach. The King presented Bach a theme, a melody, and tasked him with improvising a fugue from it. Bach took up the challenge and played a 3-voiced fugue. The King’s request to create a six-part fugue ex tempore could not be fulfilled by Bach, because the Royal Theme was too difficult for that. The „Musical Offering“ contains a 6-part fugue, elaborated on desk. When I read that, I thought, „Even if I saw the music I wouldn’t be able to understand what Bach had done.“ I wanted to understand. So I began studying with Susana Pinto and she taught me Bartok‘s „Mikrokosmos“ and Bach’s „Inventions.“

 

Michael Engelbrecht: I keep circling, too, a bit. Listening to „Life Of“ you can easily feel something brooding, some darkness, a certain twilight zone. Is the origin for these sensations unknown – or somehow graspable? Echoes from all those „stranger things“ you experienced in Asia?

 

Steve Tibbetts: There is sometimes a sort of credulous enthusiasm to believe in „stranger things“, as you say, especially in Asia. Nonetheless there does seem to be a certain permeability to the fabric of reality in some places in the world. A friend of mine called it „thinness.“ You can look for that in music and art as well. You listen and there is a quiet collapse of duality, self and other. This might sound terribly exotic or over-thought, but if you watch your mind when you listen to music you might witness a kind of melting.

 
 
 

 
 
 

Michael Engelbrecht: After all these years, you and the percussionist at your side, Marc Anderson, did develop a kind of „secret language“ in the studio, not always easy to understand for people you start working with. But Michele Kinney is long enough part of your „inner circle“, I think.

 

Steve Tibbetts: No secret codes. Michelle can make her cello sound like a distant electric guitar feeding back through a Marshall amp. Tony Iommi-style.

 

Michael Engelbrecht: Haha, echoes from Bach and Black Sabbath within a minute. Now, Steve, living in Minnesota: did you follow those cold winter chills that were part of the three seasons of „Fargo“ (I love them!), and the original movie by the Coen brothers? Do you have a favourite TV series at the moment?

 

Steve Tibbetts: Yes, there is definitely a Minnesota way of being that I have grown to love. Very Norwegian, taciturn, reserved. I moved here from Wisconsin in 1972 and this is my home now. I like the way people are here, and I like the devotion to arts, education, and the liberal politics of this state. Some great political figures have come from Minnesota: Al Franken, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Eugene McCarthy, and especially Paul Wellstone. And, mhmm, Favorite TV series: politics and the Scandinavia mindset probably figure into my enjoyment of „Okkupert.“

 

Michael Engelbrecht: I know you have quite a big ECM collection. What was the last discovery or re-discovery inside the new or old ECM releases? I personally re-discovered that wonderful Shankar album „Vision“ with Jan Garbarek and Palle Mikkelborg. When I played it on air, the needle died a slow death and added weird distortions to Garbarek‘s high notes.

 

Steve Tibbetts: I don’t have to re-discover the first 300 albums in the ECM catalog; I’ve never really left them! I have „Dis“ on now, as I write this. Brooding, dark, just the way we like it.

 

Michael Engelbrecht: Wow – this is a lovely synchronicity. Yesterday, on the day you wrote this, I felt the urgent need to listen to an ancient ECM recording, I haven’t heard in years and that didn’t leave my turntable for weeks when it had been released deep in the last century. „Witchi-Tai-To“ from the Jan Garbarek-Bobo Stenson quartet. On the opening track, the Carla Bley-composition „Air“, his sopranino sounds sharp like a tool for cracking ice. Listening to that record now, I‘m still stunned, and not so much on memory lane. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Steve!

 

The End – I still think in terms of albums, even in terms of album sides. I lined up the songs, left to right, and worked with the running order until it seemed to hang together or make some sort of story. I played the ending of every song with the beginning of every other song until a plot started to reveal itself (this is what happens when you work alone—musical plots reveal themselves). Here’s how it ends: The kids went to college. Their parents were sad for a little while, then fine. Ellen lived and is in remission. Grandma died. Grandpa was sad. Everyone else lived as happily ever after as could be expected.

 

The End (2) – The texts about the guitar, the mixing process, and „the end“ were taken from Steve Tibbetts’ Life Of-page. Steve’s landscape photo belongs to the „thin places of the world“ he’s talking about, and is from Ramagrama, near Lumbini, 2015. This assembly is a truely manafonistic work: thanks to „Joey“ Siemer for fighting the devil in the details, and his sensitive, delicate and tactful design that allows linear and non-linear reading. Thanks to Ian McCartney for giving my small introduction the right groove and sharpness. Thanks to my late English teacher Dr. Egon Werlich who inspired my love for English language and culture (I still have in mind what he told us about the Beatles song „When I’m Sixty-Four“ – and I never got a better introduction to the works of Samuel Beckett (on an existential level, no smart-ass knowledge). Thanks to Hans-Dieter Klinger for cross-checking the Bach anecdote – Steve asked for this. Hans Dieter, former music teacher, once invited Keith Jarrett to play a solo concert in his school in Kronach (German hinterland), and still remembers well how carefully Manfred Eicher had placed the microphones. A week later music history was in the making – The Köln Concert happened! And, to be circling one more time: thank you for LIFE OF, Steve – „Where-am-I-music“ of a rare kind!


 
 

When I had a first glance on Kurt Wagner’s telling essay on the making of FLOTUS, the word „Mancini“ popped up, and I immediately thought of Henry Mancini, the composer of unforgettable soundtracks. After having channelled Frankie „Boy“ Sinatra into ghost town territory, after having composed a new soundtrack for a German silent movie from the 20’s, after some Curtis Mayfield falsetto highs on NIXON – why should the man who, similar to Robert Wyatt, has always been able to give well-known sources a personal touch, not get away with some Henry Mancini mood? I was wrong, Mary Mancini is the name of his wife. A politician. Democratic party. And she plays her part in the album, that’s for sure.

To be honest, I would very much prefer to get lost in a Scottish whiskey bar instead of following the ups and downs of a long-time marriage by reading canonical middle class novels by Updike or Ford (to make a long list short) that were quite obsessed with midlife-crisis-drama and long-term relationship-matters.

But there are exceptions. BLOOD ON THE TRACKS (to name a prize-winning writer), or one of the long Neil Young-songs on PSYCHEDELIC PILL – or Lambchop’s FLOTUS: though there are a few songs here (you could ad hoc call love songs), a lot of the tracks carry you away from any kind of conceptual exloration of the modus vivendi of people who know one another for half a lifetime. And the love songs, by the way, are brilliant.

FLOTUS Is a multi-layered beast, on par with Lambchop masterpieces like IS A WOMAN or DAMAGED (you, dear reader, might have other ones in mind). But here he is, Mr. Kurt Wagner, playing with „auto-tune“, doing „the two-step-hustle“, spending some time in Spain, just a few days before the release of one of the great song albums of 2016. Album of the month in MOJO, album of the month in UNCUT (December issues). So, take your time, and do yourself a favour, read – and listen!

 
 

Michael Engelbrecht: Where are you just now, Kurt, any hip-hop to be heard in the neighborhood?

 

Kurt Wagner: I’m in Castelion, Spain, on my off day which happens to be a bank holiday in Spain. Last night was Halloween. Not much hip-hop in this town this morning but it has yet to wake up.

 

Michael: To open this album with IN CARE OF 856309, is a courageous decision. A slow burner, the vocals quite deep in the mix (sometimes the deep range of your voice placed close to the bass). Words become sounds, and the listener is not forced to do semantics in the first place. An „ambient song“, kind of.

 

Kurt: Making this the first track on FLOTUS seemed to be the only logical place for this track to go. For this particular record I think it introduces the vocal distortions in a confident way, almost relentlessly. The flow of the words and the almost ultra wordy prose makes the case for a certain amount of drift by the listener much in the same way great dense hip hop words work. But also Dylan.

 

Michael: Additionally, you cannot always distinguish exactly between the real voice and the manipulated one.

 

Kurt: It is true that the vocal processing does balance between the more natural voice and the processed. My hope is by the end of the experience you have either accepted the notion, or turned the track off. It gives you the space to decide.

 

Michael: Speaking of „Auto-Tune“. What is it that attracts you here, from besides of paying attention to your hip-hopping neigbourhood, and the distorted sound of their ghettoblasters? 

 

Kurt: In my case, this machine enables me to to go beyond my limitations as an artist. It can suggest and infer possibilities, it can open up ideas by virtue of its design. And it happens in real time as the source is presented, it’s like a performance enhance for but the mind and the mouth.

 

Michael: I have big fun when reading the lyrics of JFK (“ … We must build a culture of understanding / just shy of the radio: I’m a pharmacist … „) – and simultaneously listening to the song. What has been the inspiration to a song that may have some sad undercurrents. But then, yep, the dancing groove of the second part, me oh my …

 

Kurt: When I was helping my parents move a few years back I was cleaning out their basement and I came across a drawing I made when I must have been 6 or so. It was a picture of JFK at a desk in the oval office with the presidential flag behind him. (the same flag that’s on the FLOTUS record cover). It now sits in my office and I see it everyday and i move it from place to place not knowing really what to do with it. I even made a crude wooden frame for it back then and signed it on the back. I must have been quite proud of it I suppose. I do remember that when I was very young we went to see the eternal flame at JFKs grave in Washington DC and that I am told I broke away from my parents and slipped under the rope that protected the area and made a break for the grave and flame. A U.S. Marine guard had to run me down and return me to my parents. The song was written while looking at and contemplating the drawing.

 

Michael: You often used your small orchestra as a kind of paintbox carefully chosing musical colours, so that it resulted in a kind of chamber folk, maybe with the exception of NIXON. Now starting these songs alone with some new electronic devices allowed you to build up songs from scratch, with no prefigurations by favoured or well-trusted guitar lines. But it still sounds intimate and colourful. Even when a „club feel“ enters. And the long last, most „groovy“, most electronic track of the album sounds so much more contemplative than switching on fireworks-mode.

 

Kurt: With the help of technology I’ve been freed up to realize a song idea in a fuller more complete and complex way. But that said it still needs the human touch to be a Lambchop record or performance. It is that intimacy that Lambchop has with the listener that is one of the cool things about this record. I feel it’s still there in the sound and the songs.

 

Michael: I know that many of your songs start with everyday observations. So, looking at a song like OLD MASTERS, what (the hell) has inspired it? A good example that you don’t need to have the faintest idea of anything to love a song.

 

Kurt: Stay hungry, my friend.

 

Michael: I have been listening to the whole album just about six, seven times now, and I’m very sure that this whole thing is a damned tricky beast. You are never trapped in a formula, e v e r y song has a different and distinct atmosphere. I think you like downplaying this sophisticated element by presenting yourself as a man of certain age looking at the younger generation for doing a bit of trial-and-error stuff.

 

Kurt: I’ve indeed been convinced that in order to move forward through a creative life one has to look to younger generations to see where things are heading. Most but not all people my age tend to settle into a place that is more about the past than the future. Partly because the future for my generation is pretty fucked in a broad sense. So let the children play so to speak and interact with their sounds and ideas. I am in no way a complete idea but rather one that is in need of learning and refining the ideas that are out there and the ones yet to be thought of.

 

Michael: Some lyrics seem to refer to dream activities, at least daydream activities (the scene in the laundry, the special imagery of HARBOR COUNTRY.

 

Kurt: Sorry, no dreams in Harbor Country.

 

Michael: THE WRITER is witty, funny, thoughtful, dark, everything. Shades of a self portrait? Or some musings on polarities?

 

Kurt: It’s a bit of both really, I was playing with the folk form of style and verse and placing it in an electro setting with horns.

 

Michael: Your favourite TV-series of the last years?

 

Kurt: „Last Week With John Oliver“, the best comedy show on current events in the USA right now. No one else comes close.

 


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