Here is my conversation with multi-instrumentalist, world-touring musician, prolific record producer and recording artist, and multiple Grammy nominee Mike Marshall.
Mike began his illustrious career as a member of the original David Grisman Quintet, joining the band in 1978 at the age of 19. Since then, he has been one of the most innovative, respected, and well-traveled string players in the world of instrumental music, appearing on hundreds of recordings while expanding the horizons of American acoustic music to include many classical and international influences. Please see the bio on Mike’s website for more information on his remarkable achievements and collaborations. Mike is a treat to spend time with, and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much during an interview.
One of the reasons I really wanted to talk to you, Mike, is I love the way that you seem to just plug into the joy – it just seems to come spilling out of you. And I’m really curious to hear how you do that, or why you think that is. Where does it come from for you?
You know, I get people saying that quite often, and sometimes I’m not quite sure what they’re even talking about, because I’m just up there being myself. And, of course, I am overjoyed with all of the people I play with. I have a general feeling of amazing good fortune. You know, if I go down the list just this year, it’s pretty insane who I get to be onstage with. Darol Anger, Väsen, Paul Kowert, Alex Hargreaves, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile – I mean, the list is kind of a who’s who of string music today. Real inventers, real creative people, but also people who really know the roots of the music that they came from. I forgot Danilo Brito, and Jovino Santos Neto. It’s kind of ridiculous, actually.
So there is that general feeling of joy to be living at the same time as some of these people. Everybody wonders what it would have been like to jam with Django Reinhardt, or to listen to J.S. Bach improvise, and most of the people I play with, I feel like I’m getting to have that kind of live experience. So that’s something to be pretty happy about, I think. And then there’s the added dimension of the audience, and their involvement.
How do you experience the audience? What does it feel like to you?
You know, that part’s really easy – it comes very naturally to me. Maybe early on in my career I worried about whether the music I was playing was too intellectual for certain kinds of crowds, whether it be a festival where people are drinking and dancing in the dust, or a loud bar, where it might not be the optimal setting for the kind of music I’ve chosen to play. But over the years, I’ve realized that there’s a way to approach almost any live situation and embrace that crowd and that scene, and include them in what it is that you’re trying to get across, and still be 100 percent true to your artistic vision, but include them in the party. It’s really important to me that it happens.
Can you give me an example of how that comes about for you – where you’re being true to yourself but you’re letting the audience in?
It might just be a simple introduction to a tune, because we play instrumental music – it’s like, what does it mean? You could name all of those tunes “Opus 1”, “Opus 2”, “Opus 3”, you know? But for whatever reason, we give them titles. If it’s “Borealis”, a tune I wrote with Darol, it has a story to go with it, and it hopefully helps people give them some visual reference. A historic thing about maybe where it was written or what it meant for us can be helpful, I think, to bridge that gap.
And then there’s during a song, where a great lick or a great break or something is going to amp things up for the audience and for you, where it’s going back and forth, the energy’s running in a cycle…
Are you one of those performers who’s in touch with that energy as it’s cycling through?
Yeah, I mean, I feel like there’s two planes of reality going on almost simultaneously – two, or six, you know? But certainly there’s the whole issue of you being able to play your music, and play it as well as you can, and that whole internal struggle of trying to play something that’s difficult, or trying to push yourself improvisationally to another place, or trying to really be synched up with the musicians onstage and to be totally centered on the music.
At the same time, there’s that dialogue going on with the audience and that energy that you’re talking about flowing back and forth. But one can be a distraction to the other, I find, and for me it’s about keeping a balance between those two trains that are both running simultaneously in the same direction. If you get yourself too caught up in the audience and the feeling of what’s going on with them and me, and how do I look, you can miss a beat, right? You can get too distracted from what you’re there to do. At the same token, if you get too self-absorbed in your little world and you’re staring at your navel, then you’re not really in the room with all those people, and they came there to be with you. So I’m conscious of both things.
How do you keep focus? I know that’s a struggle for a lot of people, to learn how to put the focus where it needs to be. Is that something that gets easier with a lot of experience, or is that something that you’ve always had?
It’s something I’ve had to a certain degree, but it can come in and out of focus, depending on the situation. If I’m playing something that’s really difficult, for instance – I tend to play a lot of challenging music, so this is an area where you have to be really careful of nerves, and conscious of them, to be alert enough to play what you’re there to play, but not so freaked out that you freeze yourself. So a lot of it has to do with who I’m playing with. There are certain kinds of musical collaborations that are just like water – I mean, it just flows, and there’s just no “work” feeling to it.
Like you and Darol, for instance?
Yeah, well, that’s a funny one, because we’re really good at a certain kind of playing, especially improvising together – we can do that really well. But, I have to say that when we play as a duo, and I’m 50 percent of the sound, and you just have a mandolin and a fiddle, we have to work really hard, and be super-focused on that music to pull that off. Whereas, playing with Väsen is like being thrown into a river that’s flowing, and there’s so much other water around you that’s carrying you that if you just stand up there and hardly play anything, it’s fine, you know? You’re not going to screw that up.
When did you feel that you were at a level to play on the national stage? How did you come to that realization, or was that kind of a gradual thing?
It was gradual, but it ramped up rather quickly. I started taking guitar lessons when I was 12 from a local guy down the street who played all the different string instruments – this was in Florida – and he also played a lot of different styles, just played all of them a little bit. He wasn’t a heavy virtuoso, but he was a great teacher. And I’ve always been grateful to him – his name was Jim Hilligoss – for kind of just pointing me at a whole bunch of musical plates. And he had me reading out of the Alfred’s Basic Guitar Methods, and saying the names of the notes and counting out the time and studying music theory.
But at the same time, he started a bluegrass band, and had me playing bass and mandolin and banjo and fiddle, and playing by ear, and going to jam sessions with real Southern old-time musicians – country musicians who would have Saturday night jams at their house. So I sort of got both sides of music training going, simultaneously, early on. And we all started a little teenage bluegrass band at that time, called The Sunshine Bluegrass Boys – we had peach-colored double-knit suits and a Winnebago with our name painted on the side of it.
Hey, a Winnebago, huh? Nice!
We would go to these festivals all over Florida and Georgia and enter the contests, or eventually we were getting hired to play. And that was the early ‘70s, when the Osborne Brothers, and Jim and Jesse, and The Lewis Family – all these bands were playing festivals, and there was endless jamming all weekend long. So I just sort of got thrown into this whirlwind of Southern music, even though I wasn’t from the South. But that was a very exciting time, because you had Tony Rice and J.D. Crowe and groups like The New Grass Revival were just forming – the second generation – and The Country Gentlemen, who were pretty modern at that time, and lots of experimenting going on in the music scene. And I just got really swept up in the whirlwind of the excitement of traditional music but also something super-creative going on.
I read the Tony Rice biography [Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story, by Tim Stafford and Caroline Wright], and it describes how you basically showed up at his door and said, “I want to play music with you,” and he took you in. And I was thinking, certainly the music was new and changing direction, but it seems that the performance style was as well – what you were doing on the stage – not just the music.
Yeah, everything about it was shifting. The best example I have is the first New Grass Revival album cover.
Oh, sure, yeah.
It kind of says it all, you know? It was the ‘60s – it just sort of blasted into traditional music with the force of a nuclear explosion. And it sent a whole bunch of people back in time, studying the roots of the music, and you end up with a Bruce Molsky. And it sent a whole bunch of other people kind of out into the stratosphere saying, “Wait a second, I come from this tradition, but what is jazz? And how does that relate to this? And what is Indian music, and what is improvisation, based on where I am and what my tradition is? How do I stay true to my tradition and yet push at these boundaries?”
And when you think about how it’s presented on the stage, you’re going away from this sort of stilted, stand-in-one-place presentation.
Yeah, gone are the matching outfits! So it’s a political statement as much as a social statement. You’re connecting with a different kind of audience. I went out to the West Coast, and San Francisco was such a hip place. And here were these guys just kind of holed up in a house in Marin County, working on their intricate, crazy new music – all day long, eight hours a day, just playing together. It was a real sort of West Coast “Big Pink”. [Note: Big Pink was the house in West Saugerties, New York that was shared by The Band members Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, where The Band prepared to record their debut album, Music from Big Pink.] They worked for a year before they cut their first record, you know? So, yeah, it was maybe connected somehow to the whole West Coast psychodelia and Grateful Dead scene, in that you just walked onstage in a t-shirt and whatever you were wearing that day.
And the way you were onstage, too?
Yeah, you know, it was Grisman with his antics – a crazy wild man with a beard who moved all over the stage. Tony Rice was always the antidote to that – stood stiff like a pillar. But I’ve come to realize now that if you’re playing the guitar, the acoustic Martin guitar, you kind of have to do that – especially the way he plays it. But the focus was on the music – it wasn’t really about presenting a show in terms of acrobatics.
What do you think about the school of thought that if you make a big show of looking like you’re working really hard, then the audience is going to think you’re doing more amazing stuff than if you make it look easy?
Well, that’s true and not true. I can really see both sides of that, because when I think about Tony Rice at one of these festivals, getting up and playing his “Shenandoah” or something…
…and he’s just standing there…
…he’s just standing there, and people do end up just going out of their minds. Because there’s so much that goes into this question of performance, because people are referencing off of their memories, when they’re hearing a band, as much as their eyes. And so sometimes you just walk on the stage and people applaud, because they’re so happy to see you. They’re happy that that performer is finally in their town. And as soon as he opens his mouth and you hear the sound of that music, then you’re just swept into that world. Because of the recording thing, you’ve spent all this time with those CDs, and now you’re really hearing it live, and it’s a little bit different but you’re totally focused on it. And I think as a recording artist, after you get a lot of years behind you, you’re really at a different kind of advantage than an upcoming performer who’s just getting started with that.
You’ve got some built-in “cred” that comes with you when you walk out there.
Yeah, you hear Pete Rowan sing, and it’s so Pete.
He’ll talk about Bill Monroe…
Here comes Bill, here comes that song that you’ve heard a million times…
…“Walls of Time”…
…and it’s totally cool! That’s exactly why you’re there. So does he have to jump around to get your attention? No. He’s just standing there being Pete. Or Tim O’Brien – god, just hear him sing one note, and you’re, like, that’s why I’m here. And so this question of performing for the audience – I think that our generation, in fact, of those new acoustic pickers who decided to not wear the matching polyester suits anymore, like the ‘60s generation, kind of thumbed their nose at that whole idea of jumping around, creating anything that had to do with a Las Vegas-type show.
Have you noticed, though, in the newest generation, there is quite a bit of that going on?
Yeah, things are shifting now! And the focus has changed. Since the post-Grateful Dead times, there’s now a need to fill that void that the Dead left. And that’s a different thing – that’s a party. As a band, you are in charge of creating the event that’s really a dance. It’s, get those people up and jumping and get them dancing. I’m thinking Yonder Mountain [String Band] and String Cheese [Incident], that generation of rootsy musicians. And that event calls for a whole bunch of things. First of all, it calls for volume – you have got to be loud. And so on go all the pickups.
So we’re talking about two different needs, different kinds of entertainment events. One is the people are actually there to sit quietly and listen, and it’s a little closer to classical music or jazz, or even old-timey music and bluegrass the way it was. And the other is a holiday – it’s a giant event, and it’s a party such that people are prepared to really jump around. And so as a performer, the demands on you are very different in each of those situations.
Do you feel that you have mastery of your instruments?
I have a certain degree of it. And, of course, no matter how much of it you have, you’re able to see the next mountain. Because all that climbing one mountain gives you is a vista to see the next. And so it’s an endless journey, one that nobody can ever get to the end of.
That’s so interesting to me, because most of us mere mortals would look at your playing and go, well, he can do anything.
Well, it’s not anything – I mean, there are limits. There’s just the basic physical limits of how fast your fingers can move. And maybe that’s a good thing, because I’m not sure people could hear much faster than Chris Thile!
Or the action on the mandolin can get any lower...
Right! But there are so many things to strive for in music. There’s the technical, and there’s the emotional, and there’s the compositional. And to improve in all of those areas is just a life’s work. And the kind of access that all of us have now just opens up the realm of what is music and where should it go next, and what’s my tiny little part in that.
How are you answering those questions?
I just try to make the most of each day, you know? I wish there were many more hours in each day, and every day I try to work on something. There’s piles of things here that are going to happen, maybe – I’ll get them together eventually. And that includes specific tunes that I’m working on, usually Bach or something challenging – classical music. Or tunes that I’m trying to write but I haven’t completed, or projects that I want to record and I have to put together all the pieces that it takes to make a project.
At the same time, there’s the endless floating demon of the music business, and how that all fits into paying one’s rent and living in the world. And it’s a challenge that everyone has, living in this kind of capitalist society with these kinds of demands. It’s difficult to find a patron you can go live with like they did in the old days, or a church, you know, who you can just write music for and they’ll take care of all of life’s necessities! So you dance through all those different things, and at the same time you push yourself – try to make a living and try to push yourself as an artist.
What’s the best advice that you got coming up – specifically around performance?
You know, it might not have been something somebody said, but I can point to a couple of people who, just seeing how they did it, said everything to me. And I would say that that’s probably some combination of John Hartford, Vassar Clements, Sam Bush, Glenn Gould, and Bobby McFerrin.
All of them, for me, embody that feeling of letting yourself go and not being in the here and now, or being totally in the here and now and not caring about what people think – not being embarrassed by looking like an idiot. Being totally comfortable in your own idiot-ness.
Do you ever watch video of yourself?
No, I hate it – it drives me crazy. I can’t watch that stuff.
Do you have a sense of what is going on, even if you’re not really paying attention to it?
I have what I think is going on, but when I watch a video that’s not what I see!
What do you think is going on, and how is it different from what you see?
I mean, I’m just there enjoying the time, and trying to play as well as I can, and I’ll see things. Like, why do I do that silly thing with my leg? What am I doing? I’m tapping completely out of time! What the hell is that? And, of course, I have no memory of doing it. And maybe that’s a good thing – maybe that’s where we should be. So that’s why I can’t watch it. I’m not really there, you know, when I’m playing. Music should be taking you out into the other dimension.
What percentage of the time do you think you’re in the zone when you’re playing?
Interesting question. Boy, it varies greatly from band to band. And you can slip in and out from moment to moment.
What kinds of things make it easier for you to get in the zone?
Well, it depends on what you’re talking about. I’m mixed about it being the ultimate expression of a perfect performance – you know, that this person was totally in the zone, and that’s why this music is affecting us the way it is, or that’s why this performance is so great, because this person went in the zone and stayed in the zone the whole time. I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. I think that music is so complex, that one man’s zone is another man’s, “Oh, god, you gotta be kidding me!” And so the audience is part of that, you know, that they’re maybe giving you license to go there or not.
I’ve been incredibly moved, and thought that somebody was hitting a really high place in their performance – somebody who I had maybe seen play many times, and thought I was seeing one of the highest expressions of their art – and then gone backstage and them just be completely depressed because they thought they were just crashing and dying.
And the same thing has happened to me, where I’ve been onstage just thinking, “Oh, god, I just cannot get it together! What is wrong with me?” and then go backstage and somebody comes back there and says, “That show changed my life.” And so I’m realizing that I’m not necessarily a good gauge of what the hell’s actually going on here, and I’d better just shut up and do my job, and go out there and try to play as good as I can, and enjoy the melodies, and enjoy the experience, because somebody might be loving it.
Do you think there’s some amount of letting go of needing to control the situation that may play into that?
Well, you know, this is again that dance – that’s those two trains again. One train is complete control, because you’ve got to be in tune, and you’ve got to be in time, and you have to remember the notes, and you have this list, this checklist of things that for every single millisecond has to be checked off, right? And at the same time, you know that the only way you’re actually going to be able to do all that stuff is if you forget about it. There must be layers in the brain – I mean, that’s where practice comes in, where you can get the notes so far under your fingers that you know they’re going to be there, and now you can start thinking about, well, what do I want to do with these notes? How do I want to really play them, now that I know they’re going to come out?
So then you can start thinking about the other dimension of expression. And I can also start to listen to the other musicians onstage – hello, there’s other people up here! – and place my notes in relationship to them, and surprise them, and have them be a part of the interaction, and have the audience see that.
And it must be so interesting for you to be constantly mixing up who you’re playing with, and the material, and the kind of material.
Yeah, that’s a challenge. I mean, there are months where I am playing, like, six completely different sets of repertoire, with whole different demands on me. You know, one is Psychograss – ok, all those David Grier melodies and Tony Trischka bizarre tunes. Then here comes Hamilton de Holanda from Brazil – you know, he’s just an absolute monster, and lived in that [choro] tradition his whole life and is ready to tear my head off. And then here comes Thile, and we have to remember all those tunes that we wrote three years ago that are impossible.
Yeah, that are impossible when you’re at the top of your game!
Yeah! And then I’m playing classical music with [wife] Caterina Lichtenberg, and it’s all about appropriate Baroque interpretation. And so you just try to get yourself ready, try to do your homework so that you can have fun with it.
How do you prepare for a show?
Well, it’s triage, you know? It’s whatever thing needs the most work at the time. You know, I’ve got a tiny bit of an open space right now because I don’t have a show for a few weeks. I have the Turtle Island String Quartet – I’m playing shows with them now, and there’s some very challenging music there. So I’ve got about three weeks to get that music together, so that’s what I’m working on at the moment. At the same time, Caterina and I are working on the 15 two-part inventions of Bach, and I’m playing the left hand on the mandocello and she’s playing the right hand on the mandolin. And it fits perfectly on the mandocello.
But I’ve never really had a cello lesson – I just grabbed that instrument and just started playing it, caveman style, and invented a few things and figured out my own music, wrote tunes on it, and played a little bit of Bach here and there. But to play all these things? Oh my god, you have to have complete control of the whole instrument, and shift in and out of bass clef and treble clef. And learning how to shift on a cello, you have to shift many more times – even though it’s tuned in fifths, you have to shift a lot more than on a mandolin or fiddle. So it’s opening up my head to that whole world. And it’s great – it’s like a big, long-term challenge, and we won’t record it probably for a year because we’ll want to perform it a bunch.
And your sense of scale would be so different.
Yeah. We played three or four of them in concert, and had a ball – it’s going to be great. But I really have to have this stuff under my fingers. Because on top of the notes, and the challenge of playing the notes, is Caterina’s concept of how this stuff should be phrased, and where the accents should be, and how to do the trills and the cadences.
Do you ever think about taking cello lessons?
Yeah, I’m definitely going to. I was working on the Bach 1st [Cello] Suite today, and I’m definitely going to go see a cellist and talk about fingerings. I’ve got a lot of questions. It changes everything – the way you finger something changes how the accents fall, and it’s just really important.
And you’re not using a bow!
Well, yeah, there’s that! Hey, maybe that’s the problem. I thought I had a bow with this – I’ll have to look in that case again! Yeah, you have to pluck every note. In a way, the right hand’s ok – I’ve got that kind of down because that’s where I’ve lived my whole life. It’s the left hand that’s very interesting. You use open strings to shift up the neck, and there’s some logical things. And, also, this is piano music. So there’s certain kinds of arpeggios that are just triads, but god, they don’t lay worth a shit on an instrument tuned like this, but maybe on piano they just fall right out of the sky. That’s probably the case. But I love a challenge. It seems like I’m the kind of guy who just has to have something like this to work on.
Is there a difference between the person you are when you’re getting ready to walk on the stage and the person you are when you’re on the stage? Are you aware of anything that’s different, or a heightened sense, or anything like that?
Well, certainly a heightened sense. Adrenaline kicks in, and I love that focus, I love the feeling of, “Ok, we’re gonna go do this – let’s go!” and how it focuses your attention into this beam of light on the music and you have to be totally there, and of course juggling all the balls, but also focused. Yeah, it’s a wonderful feeling to feel it coming on.
Do you feel that there are things you do differently now as a performer than when you were first coming up? Like, is your philosophy different, or is the way you present yourself different?
You know, I think it’s more about being old enough to totally relax. And having played so much music for so many different kinds of people, in so many countries and different venues, that I feel a certain kind of confidence that everything’s going to be ok, and that I can find a way to communicate with that crowd and help them come along on this journey, this two-hour journey that we’re going to do. So probably the main thing that’s changed is the relaxed feeling.
Do you ever get in situations where there’s just too much of a train wreck and you just can’t get past it, or do you feel like that’s not even an issue for you?
Are you talking about in a show, where the show is just dying?
No. You know, I don’t perform in situations where that’s possibly going to happen. I mean, the people I choose to play with, the kinds of venues I choose to play, I’m in a really lucky spot now where that doesn’t happen. I mean, I might end up in a jam somewhere where everybody’s getting onstage and it just turns into bedlam, but it’s not my show.
Yeah, like those festival jams at the end of the night.
Some of those are cool – Sam Bush getting everybody up there – but you know what that is, so you go in with those expectations. It’s a photo op more than anything. You really don’t need 12 guys chopping backbeats on “Salty Dog Blues”, but let’s do it anyway!
Now, I know that you’re into cooking, and I was thinking about cooking as a performance art, and also cooking as a sort of shared experience, and that has a lot in common with music, it seems.
I’m very mixed about that. I’ve been getting kind of bummed out lately – I don’t have a TV, so I’m kind of disconnected with the Food Network, but every once in a while I’ll put it on in the hotel, and they’re starting to turn cooking into a sporting event, like a boxing match.
Oh, definitely. But I’m thinking more in terms of cooking for your friends.
Right, and I was just going to say, that totally flies in the face of the whole reason I love it, and the kinds of experiences I want to have are of the shared experience of people being together. And yes, I want to get better and better at my craft, and I love it when people swoon, but I’m learning that that’s not necessarily the focus of the night – that the focus should be on the people being together. We need that so badly in our society that I don’t want to turn this thing around. I get to do my “show” when I play the mando.
But I think there are things in common in terms of, you have a skill set, and you improvise…
There’s no question that there’s tons of overlap.
…you have taste, you have sensibility…
You have tradition that you’re drawing from, but you also have experimentation and invention, and you have balance of flavors and textures. And you have the flow of the night. That’s sort of the final challenge that I’m struggling with. I hang out with some really great chefs. I don’t know whether you’ve read some of my bio where I’ve traded lessons with the guy from Chez Panisse [Michael Peternell]?
Well, now we’re like best friends, and we get together a couple times a week with our families, and it’s just ridiculous. And this is him cooking home-cooking – he’s not doing giant soufflés and flaming things, he’s just cooking up a pasta, you know?
Which is sublime, I’m sure.
Oh god, what he can do! What’s really inspiring and a big challenge for me now is to really understand the timing of an evening, and how to control that and yet be relaxed.
A lot like music, huh?
Yeah, it’s the same thing we do when we play. We’ve got all these years of experience of doing it – which he has with food.
Do you find that it informs you as a musician, what you’re learning, trying to learn this skill and how to put it all together?
Absolutely. I think anything you do reflects back into your music-making, and it’s completely connected. It’s all probably just vibrational stuff, you know? Painting is vibration because it’s color, and probably taste is, too. And the arc of an evening has a rhythm to it. It’s all part of the same stuff, I’m sure – not to be too New Age-y about it!
I’m really interested in this idea of tradition, though. Because I think as musicians, it’s easy to get sort of caught up in the “right” way to do something, and I’m always shining a light on the fact that Bill Monroe – even though we think of him as iconic and the end of the story for bluegrass – that he was the most inventive and most creative of all the bluegrass musicians, and created something completely new for us, and combined things that had never been thrown together. And now there’s this idea that you have to play it a certain way, and I think there’s a danger in going there.
I mean, I appreciate people studying and doing their homework, and I hate it when they don’t, for sure – and in cooking, there’s a lot of relationships there, because you have something called “Italian food”, and it’s iconic. If you’re going to make a pesto, it has to have this and that and the other, and if you’re going to do food from this region it cannot have these ingredients. And that’s kind of B.S., in a way, because Italians didn’t discover the tomato until 1492 – or the pepper, or corn, or the potato. So somewhere along the line, somebody went, “Whoa, this is cool – what can we do with this?” and got excited and combined this new ingredient with traditions from their region and ingredients from their region. So there was that invention spark. And I’m living my life in that, trying to find those moments where new things can come together and something really magical can happen. But of course the way I do that is to go back 300 years and study Bach!
You do a lot of producing, and you produce for young artists.
And you’re out on the circuit, and young artists are watching you.
And you’re passing along some traditions, and you’re imparting your words of wisdom. What kinds of things do you keep coming back to there?
Well, I love this idea that I’m part of some continuum, this “passing down”. I studied from the people I studied from, and now there’s a generation coming up behind me. I’m very flattered by the fact that they seem to have learned some things that I’ve done. And yet I feel a part of them, and want to continue to play with them and be a part of that. I mean, we’re all young, we’re all old.
I have as much fun playing with Alex [Hargreaves] and Paul [Kowert] as anybody I play with. And I’m inspired and learning from them now – now it’s going back the other way, because there are things that Alex Hargreaves does harmonically on the fiddle that I haven’t a clue. I mean, he studied some very deep shit, and not only studied it, but he understands it and it’s in him, it’s his harmonic language. And so I’m picking his brain now, you know? Enough about him telling me how important my CD was to him when he was 12. It’s like, let’s hang out and I’m going to point at your hands and go, “What the hell is that?” So it should go both ways, and I hope it continues to the end of my life, this idea of learning – I’m kind of obsessed with it.
And it’s kind of mentoring, in a way, too.
Yeah, I mentor them, if not musically, perhaps things around how to arrange a piece. And all the experience I’ve had in the studio, I can help get through a recording session smoothly without people freaking out and keep the vibe nice – I’m a “vibe police” guy. And that only comes with experience – you can’t buy that in a bottle, you have to make all those mistakes. When people ask me to produce a CD, they ask, “What do you do?” And I want to tell them, “Well, I keep you from making all the mistakes I made.” When there’s a Y in the road, and they’re going, “Well, if we went this way it could be like this, and if we went that way it could be like this…”, I know to tell them, “No, don’t go down there – there’s briars and monsters and snakes…”
Yeah! But they don’t know that yet, you know?
And obviously they’re going to need to trust you along that line, although some people insist on making their own mistakes anyway.
That’s true. I’ve had to walk away from a few and say, “Well, gee, I coulda told you…”
“Don’t want to have to say I told you so, but…”
Right, I know, it’ll help to do that. But this is the cooking thing, you know: “Mike, you’re such a good cook!” Well, if you had any idea how many times I’ve blown it – but from all those tiny moments of making mistakes comes the wisdom. Like those onions, if you can smell them, get them off, get them off! Don’t even turn them down – take the pan away.
Yeah, otherwise, everything’s just going to go downhill from here…
Are there things that you are afraid of as a performer – things you tend to shy away from doing? Or are you turned on by fear – do you go towards fear?
You know, I don’t know. I think we all have our comfort zone. I mean, there are things I don’t like – I don’t like really loud music, so I don’t know if that’s a fear, or I’m just trying to save myself! But I think you have to be in your comfort zone. And yet, I’ve spent my life pushing myself. But you have to push yourself in degrees – you have to step into that unstable part of marshland when you’re actually ready for it. And so I suppose there are some things that I’m not ready to do yet. I’m not sure if it’s fear, though – I think it’s practicality! I know what my boundaries are.
When you were starting out with Grisman, that must have been kind of scary at times.
Yeah, for sure that was. And I think of those days, and I think about how much of a thick skin that gave me early on. I mean, I moved [to the San Francisco Bay Area] at age 19, and immediately, the same week that I arrived, all those guys went down to L.A. to record the soundtrack to the King of the Gypsies movie, with a full orchestra and Stéphane Grappelli and Tony Rice and Ray Brown on bass – I mean, it was ridiculous. And I just got thrust into that, and then three months later we were touring and playing Carnegie Hall. So I guess having those kinds of experiences gives you, then, a reference so that nothing can flap you.
Did you get stage fright during that time?
Not really. I mean, there would be moments here or there where I’d be thinking, “Dear god, this is unbelievable.” The first time I saw the [Grisman] Quintet live, I was in the band. So, you know, that pretty much did it. It was, like, ok, where do we go from here? And the same with Stéphane Grappelli. I remember when we toured all over England with Stéphane’s band – with Martin Taylor on guitar, and Diz Disley and all these guys, and then we were playing, and then we’d all jam at the end on a couple tunes.
Well, we went over to the Continent, and arrived in Brussels without his band, and we were now going to back up Stéphane on all these standards that he was playing, and no rehearsal. He was going to arrive at 7:00 for the 8:00 show, and we had to get there, and then had maybe two hours to work on all this music. You should have seen us scrambling – it was unbelievable. And then I look down in the audience, and there’s Toots Thielemans in the front row – one of the greatest harmonica players, but also one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time, and I was playing guitar. And then the next night, we’d be in the south of France, and there would be a whole group of Gypsies down in the front, and Stéphane would get so mad. He’d go, “Zose are Django [Reinhardt]’s relateeves! Zey always come to ze shows. I hate zis!” And I’m thinking, “Ok, so we’ve got Django’s cousins down in the front row checking out the guitar player tonight. Relaaaaax, chill, have a good tiiiiime!”
“What could possibly go wrong?”
And then you got [Mark] O’Connor – you know, O’Connor’s on guitar, and Darol [Anger]’s on fiddle, so, you know, what’s that do to Darol’s inner strength? And then Mark gets up and plays “Tiger Rag” with Stéphane. It was just a very hot environment – very charged. And so I think that being around those kinds of energy fields kind of toughens you, and makes you understand that you actually don’t ever die from these experiences. You think you’re going to, but in the end, you walk off the stage and you haven’t fallen to pieces! So the next time you’re in a situation like that, you’re kind of built for it or something. I reference off that, playing with Hamilton [de Holanda], playing with Chris [Thile] – how are you going to flap me, if you’re a mandolin player? How are you going to throw me off my game, when I’ve had those guys, you know, sword fighting?
You know, I’ve seen you play with Thile a number of times, and a number of times I’ve been in the front row…
…and I don’t even know how to describe it as an audience member. I find myself sweating, just because I’m working hard, too, you know? And maybe people who aren’t necessarily needing to parse what you’re doing musically aren’t sweating as much.
But you’re actually trying to take it in.
Yeah, I’m trying to keep up with what’s happening with theory, and what’s going on with the emotional expression, and how you’re talking to each other musically. And that happens in the recordings as well, but of course it’s a whole different thing when you’re seeing the communication between you two, the little micro-filaments that are waving in the sea as you’re catching what’s going by. And it seems to me that it must be a combination of energizing and draining at the same time.
I think it’s mostly energizing. Yeah, I remember coming off the stage on all those tours feeling completely jacked up and ready to rock. It gives, it doesn’t really take away. Really inspiring, and kind of mind-boggling – again, getting back to that feeling of feeling super-lucky to get to have these experiences, and get to play with these musicians and be in the same place. Because if you think of, like, [Brazilian mandolinist] Jacob do Bandolim recording at the same time as Django Reinhardt, but they never got to meet, you know? What would have happened?
And I feel like we’re living in a time, now, when all of that is possible. The whole world is right there, available to us, and it’s so easy to reach people and just tap them on the shoulder and go, “Hey, I love what you’re doing – you wanna play?” And that’s an amazing thing we’re experiencing right now. I think it’ll probably be looked back on as kind of messy, because there’s lots of combinations going on that don’t work, too, and people who aren’t really studying traditions and yet they have just enough access to kind of tap into it a tiny bit and show us a shallow version of it. But, there are some great contacts being made, and music is being seen as one thing, which it actually is, instead of being divided up, either socially or whatever those things are that divide. The dividers are never musical – from my perspective, anyway, music is just sitting there being music, and usually the things that separate it are social.
And it seems that part of our DNA is always to need a live performance experience.
No question. I mean, one of the greatest things about the demise of the recording industry is that it’s given value, now, to the live experience, because that is something that you cannot get, you know, you can’t make a copy of that and send it to your friend’s iPhone, you actually have to be there. So I think a lot of great artists are turning to that and saying, “Well, you know, there was a music business before there was a recording music business, and there will be one after, if this thing is going to lose all its value.” It won’t, I mean people will still record, but it just won’t be where they’ll make any money – it’ll become a promotional tool or what have you. And that’s ok, because as musicians, we can float to the next thing.
Like I said, if the Church needs us to write a play in 1700, “All right, I can do that”, Bach says. I mean, I have to admit I prefer the stuff he wrote when he was in Cöthen [Germany] working for [Prince] Leopold, who wanted all the instrumental music. But I did come to those cantatas, finally, and I’m loving them.
There’s so much there.
Oh god, just hundreds – it’s ridiculous. But if you get the people who are recording them more recently, in smaller ensembles, it can be really wonderful without all that vibrato, without the operatic singing. There are arguments now that his ensembles in those churches were singing one to a part, so there are some recordings of it that way, which is really wonderful, that stuff that folks in Amsterdam are doing great things with.
Do you find that it refreshes your horizons, your sensibilities, to get out and go to different countries?
Oh god, it’s the whole thing. That’s the other gift that music has given me – it’s taken me all over the world. That’s something I would never have been able to do without it, so it’s an amazing experience. And then to delve deeply into – or, you know, deeper than you can living in Oakland listening to a CD – to actually see some of these musical styles in their native environment, that’s when you really pick up what it is.
How do you experience the cultural differences in the audiences? Do they have different vibes in different places?
Oh, for sure – no question about it. Caterina was saying that she thinks the American audiences are the best. I mean, we are a very relaxed society. I think because we’re so new as a culture, and because we had to kind of deal with lots of different kinds of people who were bumping up against each other from the beginning, we’re so tolerant of differences, compared to most other places.
Some of us are, anyway.
Yeah, I know – it’s not across the board. But, you know, we did a bunch of concerts on the East Coast, and they were house concerts, so they were super-intimate – I mean, literally just talking to the audience, and they were talking back to us during the show, that kind of vibe – which is so different for Caterina, who grew up in this classical German world, playing in the church, and you might talk once. But she’s a gabber – she always talked a lot in her shows, and it offended some people – they were, like, “Why are you always talking?”
But we played this show in Germany and we just did what we did, and you could just feel that our relaxed-ness was almost making the audience uncomfortable, because it was so different than what they were used to. But then you’d crack the ice and you’d warm them up, eventually, and they came around by the end of the show. But there was that initial, “Wow, ok, we’re in a different place here – let’s work this and see if we can make this happen…”
“Let’s see if we can tap into the universal human experience here…”
That’s what everybody wants – that’s why they come. But oh, man, there are these obstacles, sometimes, to get through it. And then, I was just thinking about Japan. We went over there with the Montreux band, and they were just sitting there and they’d clap after the song – no whooping, no hollering – it’s like, Japan. But then I realized, they clapped for a really long time after each song – like, slightly uncomfortable – to where it’s like, “Ok, it’s time for you to stop clapping now so we can play the next song…”
And then, the encore after encore after encore – they just wouldn’t stop clapping. And all through the show, we thought we were dying, because it just didn’t feel like the typical – oh, I know what it was, nobody was clapping after a solo. So you’d do some great improvised solo, and in America everybody’s clapping for every solo, and in instrumental music that’s, like, seventeen times a song. And here we are in Japan, and nobody’s clapping for solos. “Oooh, we’re dying.”
Like it’s disrespectful to interrupt you, or something.
It probably was that – you know, you want to hear, you don’t want to mess up the experience of the guy next to you.
And all the clapping afterwards is like the all the bowing that keeps going on and on, and no one knows when to stop bowing.
Exactly! And it was like, “You changed my life.” “Really? I thought you were sleeping…” So, yeah, there’s definitely some cultural things there. But I think it’s all getting mooshed together – people are getting much more like each other.
The world’s getting smaller.
Unfortunately. I think we’ll probably lose some juice there. And hopefully it doesn’t mean we’re all going to be shopping at Kmart – even though that’s what they want.
Where do you want to go next, as a performer?
I want to go back to Brazil, and then to Argentina, and then, when it’s all over, find a little place in northern Italy. Oh, southern Italy would be ok – a little cabin. I would like it to become simpler. I live on the property of a church, a little Episcopal church – I live on a hill up above them. It’s lovely acoustics in this place, and I sometimes fantasize about the audience coming to me.
Well, Levon Helm did it.
Yeah, I would just do regular shows in this place – you know, a hundred people every month – at a very high ticket price!
You know, I would love to be able to perform Bach more often, and have it be really a deep, meaningful experience for me and the audience, and not a treacherous one for me. But I don’t really have those kinds of aspirations, to push the performance envelope in that way. I think that I’m pretty happy with how things go – I just want to do it more. I want to do exactly what I’m doing, with some of the musicians I get to play with, as often as I can.