I met Mike the 24th of October 2001 in Amstelveen for a chat after two special performances he had just done with his band in Groningen and Amsterdam.
:: Tell me about the Oosterpoort gig. I wanted to be there really badly but couldn’t make it.
‘It went really OK. We did two of ’em. The first night was the ‘Nonkertompf live’ album, are you familiar with that album?’
:: You bet. What tunes of that album did you guys play?
‘We played 24 selections from that album. It was about 90 minutes long, based on many different themes from Nonkertompf. Let me show you the source.. (grabs sheet music) Here’s all the songs that we did (shows binder with tidy looking charts) It was a really special evening. We were asked by Co De Kloet of NPS radio to do a live performance of ‘Nonkertompf’ which initially as you know was an album that I played all the instruments on. But he wanted me to score it for eleven pieces. Seven of those were easy to figure out because ‘Beer For Dolphins’ had already been playing some of the material of Nonkertompf live and I was excited about the opportunity to work with my band on an extended project like this. So seven of the eleven were us and the other four were Dutch musicians. That were recommended to us by Ko and by his co-producer and the people they found were really incredible. Amazing musicians. Bart Van Lier on the trombone, the first time I’ve ever heard of him, but I know he’s a very well known, well respected trombonist. Jan Willem van der Ham is respected I think in both improvisation and sort of modern classical world. Oene van Geel, the violinist, comes almost from a French, Jazz, violin style but with a lot of other influences, really, really wonderful. And then Ruben van Roon, on sounds and textures and effects and grooves, the mixture of all these personalities together was really inspiring for everyone. We came a long way very quickly, we had four days of rehearsal to learn 90 minutes of music and it went very, very well. Everyone was comfortable.’
:: The charts look really neat, too. That must help in a situation like this when there’s not too much time.
‘Everyone had their own folder of charts, and that helped. But not all the pieces had charts though, so some pieces had to be described..and all the musicians were very familiar with that kind of discipline, it doesn’t have to be just a thing on a page and that tells you what to do, they’re all open to any number of working methods. So we just crawled along for four days and it happened and it worked and it was cool. (laughs)‘
:: Did I understand correctly that you wrote all the arrangements during the Vai tour?
‘No, actually most of the arrangments for this were written on my couch in my living room. I started thinking a lot about the pieces while I was on the G3 tour. I never actually got around to doing the writing, I did a lot of thinking and my intention was to do a lot of writing, but it just never came out. I wasn’t inspired for some reason. As soon as I got home and started relaxing, after the G3 tour, all the music arrived really, really quickly.’
:: Did you have to change some of your tunes in a drastic way to fit the different format?
‘Since I had to work really fast I didn’t have time to sort of imagine all the possibilities. I just had to kind of go with the first idea that I had with all of these things. So I would look at the back of the album cover and see a song title and first thing I would do is like see, do I wanna bother arranging the song, cause I couldn’t do all 35. So I just let, 21, 22 of the titles jump out at me, I didn’t question why. I said, ‘OK, you come on too!’ (laughs) And gradually, I put a pile of arrangments together and when I was actually doing the writing, I was just thinking about what do I think would be fun to hear. I would ask myself that question with every choiceI had to make and whatever the answer was, I went with it, because I didn’t have any time to question myself (laughs) So it’s a very kind of a free form, very natural, sort of a funky performance piece, because it doesn’t sound super contrived and thought-over a million times. It sounds pretty loose and pretty fun.’
:: After that gig there was a gig for Dutch radio in Amsterdam. What was that all about?
‘Well, actually on Saturday, the night after the ‘Nonkertompf ‘ live show there was a ‘Beer For Dolphins’ show also in Groningen. And that was fantastic because it allowed us a really precious opportunity to come to a new part of the world, where we’ve never played before and demonstrate in two nights, two very different sides of what we do. And both nights were very different. The ‘Beer For Dolphins’ show, most of us agree, was the best show we’ve ever done. We were all very inspired after working a week with the Dutch guys and very just.. relaxed and in a comfortable mood. The audience was great, everything was just great and Groningen was just magic. Then came Sunday (laughs) After 3 hours of sleep we had to get up and go to the TV station to be on this show and first thing that happens is, you have to sit on a couch for 50 minutes before you do anything. We’ve all had 3 hours of sleep or less, it was me, Brian Beller on bass and Evan Francis playing flute. There are really good shots of the three of us sitting on the couch (pretends falling asleep on his chair – sighs -laughter) Brian’s got his big black sunglasses and oh man..Finally, it was interesting because I didn’t understand what was being said by the gentleman who was hosting the show, when he was translating my remarks. He would ask me a question, I’d say something that maybe took 10 seconds to say and then he would translate for what seemed like a really good long time. And I’m thinking, wow, he really wants people to understand what I’m saying, that’s great and then afterwards I found out that that wasn’t quite the case (laughs) But, you know,we got to play a little bit of this piano piece called ‘Haugseth’, that’s gonna be on the next album ‘Wooden Smoke’ and it’s a very pretty little piece that felt like good sunday morning music to do for Holland, so I enjoyed it. We also did a radio thing on sunday after TV, we went to ‘Kink Radio’ and did three songs live there and that was a lot of fun. Yesterday I did a guitar clinic in Bochum, Germany. A Taylor acoustic guitar clinic. I’m doing these appearences on behalf of Taylor guitars for a few months now, with Brian, my bass player. We show up at a music store and perform acoustically and talk about Taylor guitars and we had a really nice clinic at a store in Bochum, Germany, Beyers Music. The room was packed a we had a really fun time. Everything we’ve done on this trip has been a lot of fun, sometimes it has been really weird like the TV show, but at least it’s fun. We’re being really well treated, there’s kind of a level of acceptance and welcome for me here that’s not quite so obvious in the U.S.’
:: You have such a divers background, playing many different instruments,having all these different music styles under your belt, how did that develop?
‘When I was extremely young, still living in Long Island, New York.I remembered it as being an extremely musical household. Neither of my parents played musical instruments, but my dad sang and whistled all the time. He would often make up new words to the songs that he was singing. It was musical and it was funny at the same time, I think that sunk in pretty deep.’
:: You must like Weird Al Yankovic then.He made a career out of that concept.
‘Well, nothing against him, but I don’t spend any time listening to him. I know he’s talented and cool but, I just don’t listen to him.Anyway, we would have parties all the time, we had a big family, they would come over screaming, drinking and having a really good time. And we would be playing music on the stereo in the front room and I just loved it. We would play this music really loud and everybody would have a good time. As soon as the music was turned on, everybody started having more fun and I realised, wow, this music is powerful. Everyone enjoys himself more when the music is on. I started getting more into music, singing, making up songs and stuff and my parents noticed. When I was seven years old they got me a little electric organ. I understood the keyboard, it made sense to me graphically, so I started playing melodies on it right away, make up stupid songs and things. I was a big, big Beatle fan, maybe it was most of because of the Beatles that I wanted to play the guitar. So when I was 11, my parents gave me a guitar. I had keyboard lessons when I was growing up, but I never had any guitar lessons. I would get my hardcore musical knowledge like,this is a C major and that kinda thing on organ and everything that I learned on the organ I would try to transfer over to the fretboard. Which made sense to me. The fretboard, each string, was like a seperate keyboard to me. I could kinda make sense of the fretboard pretty easily. I just would teach myself melodies and listen to a lot more music, I started hearing progressive rock when I was 9 years old, like Emerson Lake and Palmer and I was an organ player, so that music really struck me. I was like, wow, not only can you play an organ, but you can play really weird shit on it! You can play fast and scary and odd harmonies and things and the music is going all over the place and all these musicians are doing it together, perfectly. I never heard anything like that before, so I became a big fan of Emerson Lake And Palmer and Yes and that kind of music when I was very young. That really appealed to me, the structure of it, just the precision of it. And then Frank Zappa, you know, showed up and that put it all together. The music, the humour, the weirdness, the desire to do something new, this was very new. I was always excited by things that were new. And Frank’s music excited me more than anything else, I was a huge hardcore Zappa fan the whole time that I was a teenager, then I got the job playing with him and that was really an amazing dream come true. Somewhere along the line there, I found that I wasn’t getting all the answers to the questions just from rock music or rock based music. And I started getting into, in my 20’s, really collecting Miles Davis records and collecting John Coltrane records. I didn’t really understand them yet. I would listen to them and they weren’t speaking to me yet, but I knew that I wanted them and I had the sense that they were gonna come in handy someday. And it wasn’t until really I got into my early 30’s that I, you know, relaxed enough and got into the right frame of mind to appreciate what people like Miles Davis and Coltrane and Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker and all these people were accomplishing and that had a major, major influence on my musical direction over the last 3, 4 years. And then Radiohead also had a major effect on some ways that I’ve have of looking at music over the last couple of years. It’s been a combination, variety of influences, it all starts with the Beatles though. That was the first music I really loved, I went crazy over the Beatles.’ What is it about Radiohead that appeals to you? ‘When they’re all working together, they’re really good at providing an emotionally cathardic sound for people. It’s really powerful, it’s truly emotional, really beautiful. And it has all this rock ‘n’ roll energy and has these amazing chords and soaring melodies and driving, no bullshit rhythms and great sounds. And the songs are simple and beatiful and perfect. And they play them beatifully, you know (laughs) What’s not to love. Radiohead has beautiful songwriting ability. Sometimes a song will be very, very basic harmonically and then pivot around just one peculiar chord, that you wait for that one chord to happen, like once or twice in the song. And the whole songs pivots around those moments, they’re really good at crafting those kinds of moments. There are a lot of bands who have some abilities and do some cool stuff, but to me there are other bands that really interest me that just seem to have some touch of the divine to them, you know. That’s purely an emotional reaction and it’s different for everybody. But for me, the music which is touched by some kind of magic, stuff like Radiohead, Jeff Buckley, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, The Beatles..there’s something else going on there. (laughs)‘
:: Yeah, definitely some magic going on there. People like Stevie Wonder.
‘Yeah, Joni Mitchell, these are my heroes.
:: Although I haven’t heard anything that special like he did.. from the ’70’s.. from Stevie over the past 10 years.
‘More like 20! But you know what, he was on fire, from like 1972 to1976. I think he created enough in that time for the rest of his career! I think it’s unrealistic too.. you know …there’s some people, as they gain success..I’m not accusing anybody particular of anything, but it’s really hard for some people to maintain that spark. You know, the thing that made them wanna create these particular things.’
:: That happens a lot to artists.What’s your explanation for that?
‘I think a lot of it has to do with power and how even the best intentioned people can be persueded by acquiring the power and money. And they loose touch with the pure parts of themselves. And I think it just calls for a very special person to maintain that as they move through that. I mean, yes, acquire influence, acquire famous friends, acquire money, don’t loose touch with the reason why you started doing all this stuff in the first place. Unless your idea was, OK, I’m going to stay inspired and divine only as long as it takes me to make one million dollars and then my plan is to just make shitty music for the rest of my life (laughs) If that’s part of your masterplan, then go for it. But I don’t think that’s the way it was for anybody who was truely important in art, period. And that’s inspiring to me.It’s my desire to maintain a focus on good work all the way trough whatever it is that I do.’
:: You started your own label, Exowax, to release your own music since record labels have a hard time categorizing your music.
‘It was started by myself and my friend Scott Chatfield whom you’ve met, we’ve known eachother for 15 years now and a couple of years ago, in 1999 we decided, let’s go ahead and put the records out ourselves.Cause I’ve been signed with an independent label before that, but they retained the rights to the masters and this instance I have the record company, so there’s that owner ship of the masters and it’s very important to know that this is your work you know, it’s a very nice feeling. It doesn’t make it easy to promote, it doesn’t make it easy to distribute and it doesn’t make it easy for people to find you. But it does mean that you answer for every choice that you make.But you don’t have to answer to anyone else. And we put out exactly the products that we wanna put out and hope that people find out about it and do interviews, fly around and do shows whenever we can afford to do it. And jump up and down a little bit and say ‘hey we’re all over here!’, you know. And it’s working, cause little by little more and more people find out.’
:: The internet must be a big help for the company.
‘Yeah, it’s been an enormous help, in that a lot of.. I think it’s safe to say that we wouldn’t be able to exist as a record company if it weren’t for the internet. Both in terms of being a direct channel to your following so you can establish a relationship that way, but also the ease that it offers a potential customer to buy something right on the spot and have it delivered to their home. So it’s a mutual benefitial situation, the internet is an incredible tool.’
:: And more money ends up where it belongs, in the artists pocket.
‘Exactly. I’m grateful for people like.. Robert Fripp has been talking about this for years, but more recently more mainstream artists like Courtney Love have been.. and Don Henley and Prince have began to talk about how inequitable the recording industry is. It really is unfair to the people who provide the lifeblood of the industry, which is the music. And this thing were the artists are rising up and taking more control is wonderful, absolutely lovely, it’s almost.. I describe it as ‘essential’, especially in a situation like we have today, that people who have something positive, creatively to contribute to the world and hopefully spread around some kind of positive creative energy in the process, find ways to do it that doesn’t involve a whole lot of interferance (laughs) The important thing is, if you have a message, get it out there.’
:: Can you tell me something about the Vai tour you just did? I think it was a pretty intense schedule, you had to spend like 4 hours onstage a night?
‘Oh, that was actually a while ago. That was the ’96 tour where I had to do the support act, too. The G3 tour that just happened was very, very easy (laughs) The easiest tour I’ve ever done. Joe Satriani was also on the bill and John Petrucci. The Vai show was only 50 minutes long, but there are 2 songs that are trios with Steve and Billy Sheehan and Virgil Donati, so I was only onstage for 40 minutes, the rest of the day I had to myself, it was a very nice paid vacation, but it came at a time when I really needed it. (laughs) But back in ’96 was a different story because that was a Steve Vai headlining tour, it wasn’t G3, it was the Vai tour and ‘Beer For Dolphins’ were the opening act. So, at one point there was.. I think 18 days were..17 of the 18 days were show days (laughs) there was one day off, in 18 days. And I was doing 2 shows a night. So that was very emotionally challenging. (laughs)‘
:: What about the tour when you recorded the double live album for Vai ‘Alive In An Ultra World’?
‘That must have been…early 2000.’
:: Relaxed shows?
‘Yeah, they were pretty chill. I mean, all the songs on that album, we only played enough times so that we could get a version good enough to put on tape and then we’d forget it. (laughs) The music on that record doesn’t have the feel of something that’s been played a million times, it has a very casual feel and I like that.’
:: One thing I really miss on that album is, there are great players in the band, like you and Dave Weiner, but the double live CD only has Vai’s solo’s on it. I know there was some space for that in the live shows, but I feel it’s too bad that some of those interactive moments weren’t captured on the album.
‘Well, there’s actually a piece called ‘Devil’s Food’, where I actually get to play quite a bit on piano.’
:: I was hoping for some guitar interaction.
‘Yeah, it’s not on guitar but I’m getting quite a bit of space there on piano. And.. yeah, I need to hear the album more to know, but I remember thinking that it seems.. it seemed.. reasonably generous and that Steve is who he is, you know. He has a vision of how he wants to present his music and it’s very much focussed and centered around his guitar playing. Almost all the time. And.. I’m down with that. He plays that way. If he wants to make that his choice, I understand why because that’s quite a gift he’s got. But like I’ve said, I’ve only heard the album all the way through one time.Did anybody send you a copy of my new album ‘Wooden Smoke’?’
:: Not that one, but I got the Japanese version of ‘Dancing’. I checked one tune off ‘Wooden Smoke’ from you website. Very cool. Doesn’t sound like your average acoustic album.
‘Let me give you the special edition..it’s got a second disc.(this appeared to be the greatest album I’ve heard in a while, great songs, very nice loose atmosphere) It’s called ‘Wooden Smoke Asleep’, it’s constructed.. you listen to ‘Wooden Smoke’ and then ‘Wooden Smoke Asleep’, it’s a dream you have about the first disc. It’s contains a lot of the same themes from the first disc, but in different mixes and also a lot of other material that isn’t on the first disc. Right now, this is a special 2-disc edition which is available over the internet. We’re actually making the single CD version available in the U.S. starting january 15th. We don’t have a European distribution deal yet, for ‘Wooden Smoke’, but it’s available on the internet.
:: The European distribution for ‘Dancing’ is through Vai’s label ‘Favored Nations’, right?
‘Yeah, which is really great. I haven’t been to any shops, so I don’t know yet how.. I do know actually that when we did Groningen, there was a shop nearby that had 4 copys of ‘Dancing’. The night after our Groningen show I went back and they were all gone, so, someone’s buying..! (laughs)‘
:: The ‘Dancing’ album was originally a would-be double album, right?
‘If it were on Vinyl, yes, it would be 2 vinyl records. It’s 80 minutes long. ‘Dancing’, I defenitely want to introduce that to Europe first, because it’s the one that they can actually go out and find in the shops. We had a lot of material and I’ve done long CD’s throughout my career, they always have been really long and I keep saying when we’re ready to make a new record, that this is the one where I’m gonna get it all in a shorter period of time.I never managed it until ‘Wooden Smoke’. But on ‘Dancing’, it’s constructed, you’ll see on the back cover, that the songs are divided into four sections and each section is meant to represent an album side. On the inside of the CD booklet you’ll see somebody holding what looks to be a vinyl copy of ‘Dancing’. I wanted to give it that feeling because 80 minutes is a lot of music. It’s much more than most people have time to sit and listen to. I figured if I divide it up into sides, even if it’s only psychologically, that people will understand that it’s OK, you can turn it off after side two and check the rest out later (laughs). You don’t have to sit here and expect that the only way you’re gonna get the point of the album is to listen to it from start to finish. It’s a collection of songs, it’s arranged in such a way that it does have a message, but it’s also structured so that you can just listen to it a little bit at a time and that’s fine.’
:: There’s some great guitar tones on that album. The opening tune has a great strat tone.
‘Thank you. That was my green strat. It’s such a full sound with the band, with the orchestration that I wanted to keep a lot of the guitar tones clean on this record. So a lot of the chunky rhythm parts are played through with a clean Rivera sound and it just allows the frequencies of all the other instrumentation to come through. It sound tight and punchy and I like it.’
:: Still using the Rivera combo amp?
‘Yeah, the R-100. It’s a 2 x 12″ speakers and a 100 W combo amplifier. It just gots the sound I like. On both clean and dirty channels, it gives me a tone that feels comfortable to me when I hear it in my music.’
:: What did you use here in Holland? Did you take any pedals or preamps with you?
‘All I brought with me were a volume pedal, a wah-wah pedal and a tuner (laughs). The main secret of my tone in a situation like that is to go through the FX loop in the back of the Rivera before I get to the volume pedal, so this way I can engage the distortion on the amp and have the full benefit of the gain, right when I just begin to step on the volume pedal. It’s not like that thing were normally you would have to have you volume pedal up full in order to get the distortion really screaming. When you go through the loop it’s there, right from the getgo, I use that alot, that’s an important part of the sound that I get.’
:: But what amp did you use over here?
‘We managed to get the Rivera combo amp.Which is very important because we were recording and we knew that we wanted the show to be as good as it could be. But we wanted to have a guitartone on the tapes that.. sounded like me.’
:: Are you planning to do anything with those recordings in the future?
‘Well, we’ve been listening to them and we like them a lot. There’s a number of ways we can decide to go. Since we did both the ‘Nonkertompf’ live album performance and the ‘Beer For Dolphins’ show and both of them sound really good and were recorded really well you know, do we release them seperately, do we release them as a Groningen 2 CD set kind of covering that whole weekend and that is interesting to me. So, we’re figuring out what to do.’
:: There’s this great tune on the ‘Dancing’ album called ‘The Brown Triangles’ where you play this nice ‘out’ solo. You seem to hit all the right ‘wrong’ notes.
‘Thank you, cool you noticed that. That is one of my favorite tunes on the album. That’s the closest I’ve ever come in my head to sounding like Coltrane playing guitar.(laughter)
:: Yeah, It’s out there.
‘That was played on the SG, actually and that encourages a certain kind of very slippery playing. There’s something about the SG neck that encourages me to slide and slip. What was happening is that our.. the trumpet player on that album, Chris Opperman, was sitting in the studio playing the grand piano, improvising. And it sounded great. So I went out there and started improvising along with him and it quickly became out of control and the other members of the band, one by one, came out and joined us in the studio and the tape got turned on while we were playing. When I get into that kind of particular improvisational mode, I’m not thinking specifically about scales or modes or anything, it’s entirally about just searching for something and trying to find it. It’s not a conscious effort to be anything. It’s more like, for whatever reason, these are the notes that I’m receiving as the right notes to play right now. Sometimes, when you get into a certain place, with improvisation, I feel that the right notes to play already exist and it’s just a question of relaxing and not blocking yourself and receiving them and hopefully they come out through your fingers. ‘The Brown Triangles’ is an example of me doing that. People are suspicious of a word like ‘channeling’, but it’s a good word to use, to describe the process. I just though that that song was a particularly good example of that. It’s just my idea of what notes are good to hear and it doesn’t have to do with how close or not close they are to the tonal center. It’s just choices that you make.’
:: You’ve said in the past you really like ‘clangy’ and ‘dissonant’ music. Any names you want to share that inspire you?
‘Certainly Frank wrote his share of dissonant things, Fred Frith was very inspirational, both as a guitar player and as a composer for small rock instrumentation. Jan Akkerman, I loved his playing when I was very young. Both for his incredible ability and also the peculiarness, the weirdness and the dissonance of his choices and how much attitude he put across. He sounded literally like he was just throwing stuff at the songs (sings fast, short,wide intervallic licks) Thijs Van Leer would write this beatiful little flowing structure and Akkerman would blow over it.’
:: Akkerman has been making a lot of solo albums. His Focus period and his work with Kaz Lux are also great.
‘In the beginning of Jan Akkerman’s solo career he released ‘Profile’. I like that one. It came out while he was still in Focus, it was very much a part of that time. And the rest of his solo albums he released in the 80’s and 90’s.. like we talked about earlier, it’s hard for some people to retain that spark, you know. But defenitely when he was playing with Focus I thought his playing was outrageous.’
:: I’m curious about the ‘Nonkertompf’ recording process. You played all the instruments yourself. Did you use any sequencers?
‘Some of the pieces were written for television. And those pieces were the ones on the album that sound especially orchestral. They have a lot of orchestral samples. So that stuff was played and recorded into a computer. When you’re recording into a computer you have the option of doing some changing to notes and things like that..I did a little bit of that, but didn’t really use it as a sequencer, I would play real time into the computer, so the computer’s playing it back and you have the ability to do some surgery on the performances, they’re real time performances, so.. but it’s not like any music on the album was sequenced.’
:: What kind of sequencing program did you use, something like Cubase or Cakewalk?
‘Let’s see, that was at Lyle Workman studios in L.A. We used Pro Tools for all the editing on ‘Nonkertompf’ and I think it may have been Vision we used for recording the orchestral type pieces. Opcode Vision, is that recording software?’
:: Yes, it is.
‘I think it was Vision. I have a bad memory for that type of thing (laughs)‘
:: Do you have some kind of recording set up at home?
‘No, not really. I have had at various times, like on the ‘Hat’ album, ‘Lightnin’ Roy’ and a number of the other pieces were recorded on 8-channel portable cassette. You know, the porta studio, the Tascam. The first couple of albums and ‘Dust Speck’ both had music on them that were recorded on 8-channel cassette at home. But, since then, everything has been recorded in studios, I would like to get some home recording eqiupment, I think it’s time for me to get that going on again. But I really love working in recording studios, it just excites me a lot.’
:: Especially for recording drums you want to have a real studio with a big, nice sounding room.
‘Even for guitars, because I’m not a huge fan of ampsimulators, I mean, I think that they ‘re good when you need to get something done quickly. But I would much rather place an amp in an interesting room and put a microphone on it.’