Over the past 12 years I have done a lot of interviews for Music Maker magazine with some of my favorite artists. A great opportunity to get some firsthand info and to get to speak to some of my favorite players.
This is an interview I did with Allan Holdsworth for Music Maker magazine on saturday the 11th of may ’96, at his house near San Diego. It was just around the time of the release of the ‘standards’ album ‘None To Soon’. I spent the day at Allan house and studio and in between we had to go to one of the local pubs to fix one of his signature beerpumps. There was more than enough time to speak about music in between, so here’s some of that conversation.
:: Why did you choose to play only Jazz standards on your new album?
‘I have heard people say to me for years and years that they want to steal what I’m doing but they don’t understand the music! On one hand I take that as a compliment, on the other they might think that maybe I don’t know what I’m doing. In essence, my music is the same as Jazz, we improvise over chord changes.It’s just that it ends up sounding different, because of the way it was composed or maybe because I’m an idiot, I don’t know. Piano player Gordon Beck once suggested that I should do an album with more well known tunes so people can hear what I sound like over these tunes. It’s easier to hear in standards because the harmonic structure is easier to understand for people who have listened and played this kind of music before. But I don’t play bebop, I just do what I always do, how strange that sometimes may sound in this context. The other good reason for this choice is that I haven’t written enough original material to fill an album”
:: Can you tell us something about the tunes on the album and why you have chosen to record these?
“We absolutely didn’t want to play all the classic standards everybody is playing already, like ‘Stella By Starlight’. Gordon Beck wrote two tunes. We also play ‘countdown’ by Coltrane and a few tunes from Joe Henderson, ‘Isotope’ and ‘Inner Urge’. Then we do ‘How Deep Is The Ocean’, which has always been a personal favorite, and ‘Nuages’ from Django Reinhart. I definitely didn’t want to do any of my own tunes this time. That way nobody could say ” He wrote that just to make it easy to play over for him’. It’s really the opposite. I find almost all the stuff I compose really hard to play over. I have written songs that were so hard to improvise over, I could almost cry. When I write a song, I think about the harmonies and which direction I want to take the song. I’ll start improvising over it afterwards.A lot of people think that when you write your own tunes you make it deliberately easy on yourself. Believe me or not, with my music, this is normally not the case.”
:: On your new album, the band exists of Gary Willis-Bass, Kirk Covington-Drums and Gordon Beck- Piano. This is a different band than you normally use. Why didn’t you use your own band?
“I did a compilation album a few years ago where guitar players did their rendition of Beatle Tunes. When they called me I had two days left to prepare something. Coincidently, Gordon Beck, a good friend of mine and a great piano player was staying for a few weeks at my place. It was his idea to do a rendition of ‘Michelle’. Now, I’m a big fan of Gary Willis. Especially when he plays swing, he sounds fantastic. I know the conflicts that may arise between bass players and drummers, so I asked him with whom he liked to play and he said Kirk Covington. Funny, because that’s half of Scott Henderson’s band Tribal Tech. We did the song pretty fast and I really liked the way things turned out, so I decided to ask them again for my new album. The problem with my own band is that they’re living spread in all corners of the world. Chad Wackerman is currently living in Australia, Gary Husband is living in England, Skuli Sverison in New York and Steve Hunt in Boston. I can only get them together for a longer tour.In the past things turned out pretty OK, but the last tours we didn’t make a dime. I cannot keep asking these people to play for next to nothing. That’s why I have been looking for some musician’s in the neighborhood for some time now. I’m on the right path with Kirk and Gary, but at the same time I realize it’s impossible to find a replacement for somebody like Gary Husband. It’s also about finding a soul mate, somebody who’s on the same wavelenght.”
:: Why is the new album only released in Japan?
“My original music is difficult to categorize. Because this album is straight ahead jazz, I was able to sign for worldwide distribution with a pretty big company, Polydor. But two weeks ago, I was informed they didn’t want to release the album in Europe and the US. There’s some new chap at artists relations and he wasn’t into my music or something. I started a lawsuit to get my music back, but that is not likely to happen. It’s Murphy’s Law: Now I’m finally playing something a bigger audience could understand and appreciate and now they don’t get to hear it. In the meantime, I started working on my next album, while my previous album is not even released yet. Murphy rules. For the newer generation of musician’s the future looks brighter, they can record their music at home and distribute through the internet without interference of record companies or record stores.”
:: This is the first album that is completely recorded in your own studio ‘The Brewery’. How did you work?
“While recording the basic tracks, bass, drums and piano, I just engineered. The basic sound is pretty much traditional, drums and bass play swing, I have tried to keep their sound pretty dry. I also played some Synthaxe here and there. Probably the album sounds more produced than your average Jazz album. But that was my intention. I wanted to mold the whole situation to my own thing. Without sacrifying the songs, I hope.”
:: So you didn’t even play along while recording the basic tracks? What about the interaction between guitar and the rest of the band during solos?
“It was not possible because there was just no space to place my guitar set up. Kirk plays pretty loud and it appeared impossible for me to set up my stuff without getting serious signal bleed. I could have played straight in the mixing board through a Rock Man, I did that in the past. But it happens too often in a studio situation that I’m happy with a live guitar solo and then we cannot keep the take because the drummer is not happy. Or vice-versa. That’s why I stopped a long time ago to work like this. In the past, I thought that if a solo was not recorded live, it’s not worth listening to. But it’s nearly impossible for everybody to be happy with the same take as a band in a studio situation. While recording the basic tracks, the drummer was the point of reference. If he was happy, we kept the take. Gary Willis did some overdubs here and there, at home, on his ADAT. That took approximately two days.All in all the basic tracks were finished in three to four days. If I overdub the guitar solo I try to lock in with the music I’m hearing. In the past, the endresult sometimes sounded as if I was just not there. Lately things have been going better and better. It’s still improvisation, and that’s what’s important for me.”
:: I heard you might do thousands of takes before you’re happy with a solo
“Indeed. Usually, I’m not easily satisfied with my playing. First, I always start out by writing a chart for myself with the chord changes of the song and the scales that belong to those chords.I’ve applied that same way of working on my latest standards album, although none of the songs were mine. I don’t approach the songs like a bebop player would do, like: playing his favorite licks over the same chord changes. If I hear someting in my playing that occurs too many times, I try to avoid it. Then I just play long series of solos until I end up having something I’m happy with.”
:: Your solos are often really long, but always interesting. Do you do a lot of Punch-ins?
“Hardly ever. It’s also not possible because I always work alone. You need somebody to push that red button for you. At one point I’ve played so many times through the chord changes that I don’t have to think about the scales anymore. Sometimes I will paste a small segment of a different take over a less interesting part of my solo to fix a solo.And sometimes I might combine some tracks, but usually I don’t. I think it sounds natural when some things are a little bit off.That’s just a part of that solo.But if I’m in an overdub situation, I try to get things as good as possible. Frank Gambale (with whom Holdsworth recorded the album ‘Truth In Shredding’ for Mark Varney -RH) once said to me “My solos are not perfect. I look at them like a Persian Rug.Up close there are a million imperfections, but if you stand back a little bit it looks fantastic”.But just how far do you want to stand back?? Do you have to stand 200 kilometers back to get the right picture? I think Gambale is great, don’t get me wrong. I really like his playing. It all depends on the way your looking at you’re own things. That’s just different for everybody. My problem is that I always want more from myself than I can possibly give. I hear it in my head, but it seems I can’t fully reach it. My head is always ahead of my hands. When my playing gets a little bit better, I can do what I’ve heard in my head before. But right now I’m hearing things which I can’t play at the moment. And that’s always very frustrating. I don’t think it will ever change though. But if you’re able to play anything you can imagine, there’s no magic to it anylonger. Then I would probably be ready with it and just quit.”
:: You’re using less and less Synthaxe lately. Is that a conscious decision, just to put the instrument aside?
“The problem is the company went bankrupt years ago. So I’m kind of stuck with a dinosaur.The parts are impossible to get and there is nobody to help me out if I have problems. Especially live the instrument is really unreliable so I stopped using it in that situation.In the studio it works fine and I still use it on a few songs per CD. When the Synthaxe was released I wanted to quit playing guitar and just play the Synthaxe. I thought it was an amazing instrument and I still think so. When the company went bankrupt I sold everything. Later I started to miss it. Coincidentally I met somebody who had one and I traded a bunch of guitars with his Synthaxe. Later on that one was stolen in L.A. Bass player Dean Deleo from the Stone Temple Pilots called me a year later and said he had seen the instrument in a pawn shop for $30.-. They tried to sell it as a plastic practise guitar, but it didn’t work because you need three different parts to get some sound out of the instrument, ha ha. Now I just keep it safely locked away at home. I also use it a lot as a composing tool.”
:: What kind of sounds do you use for the Synthaxe?
“Almost all the sounds are Oberheim synths. Great sounds.”
:: I noticed the V-guitar system from Roland in your studio. What do you think of that?
“It’s just a nice toy, that’s all. I use it for one tune on the standards album, but it will never be able to replace the synthaxe for me.”
:: Maybe you can tell us something about your design for a Carvin guitar?
“I have a few prototypes here, it should be released shortly. On the outside the guitar resembles a telecaster, but that’s just the appearance. I came up with a body shape that Carvin did not want to use. They liked to keep things more traditional. The body is alder, with a maple neck and an ebony fingerboard. They are incredibly light, because they’re hollow and they have a lot of sustain. I use just one pick up in the bridge position. Carvin will release the guitar with different pick up configurations to make them attrictive to a wider audience. The deal is that every guitar should have the same quality. I have to be able to go out to a shop and buy the same guitar that I’m using. I’ve wanted to develop an instrument that sounds good, is not too expensive and that has something from my experience when it comes to develop an instrument with a good sound.”
:: What does a day in the life of Allan Holdsworth look like?
“I play almost constantly, but it’s something organic, I don’t have a schedule or something. I play when I feel like it. My major hobby is cycling. The advantage of California over England is that the weather is good here throughout the year and I can always go out if I feel like it. Furthermore, I’m brewing my own beer. I’m trying to get it on the market for a while now, but as always, money is the problem. I’ve also developed my own beerpump. It gets rid of the CO2 in the beer so it doesn’t have any head anymore and it tastes much more powerful. That pump is a huge success here in the neighbourhood. Every pub has one. I’m also building my own power soaks, called the Harness. It’s almost the same thing Rocktron still releases as ‘The Juice Extractor’. But I went into a disagreement with the company and I broke the contract. Their box doesn’t resemble the original in any way. It’s all a matter of mass production. My own, handbuilt power soaks are available in a small amount at local music stores.”
:: Which album is it that you are really satisfied with?
“I’m very happy about my last album, ‘Hard Hat Area’ and also ‘Secrets’, because these were real band albums. We have been on tour for six months before the recordings and the band sounded really tight. I think that spark was really audible on the CD, too. ‘The Wardenclyffe Tower’ was more of a produced studio album with different musician’s on different tracks. I usually don’t like that too much, but there was no other possibility this time. I find it really hard to listen to my older albums. Especially my guitar playing is hard for me to listen to.”
:: I heard some rumours about a UK reunion..
“They’ve asked me, but I’m not interested.They just want to make some fast money with repeating old songs. I don’t like that idea. You know, the older I get, the more I realize I know nothing about music and nothing about life. The only thing I can keep on doing is create and hope to find some answers and to learn something.”