Jim McAuley


Interview with Nate Dorward
Summer 2006


photograph by Steve Elkins

One of the quieter but more significant debuts of 2005 was Gongfarmer18 (Nine Winds), a solo acoustic guitar recital by LA guitarist Jim McAuley. Its soundworld is at once stylistically omnivorous – drawing on Delta blues, classical guitar, knockabout freeplay and much more – and rigorously pared down, as if McAuley were more concerned with the emotional essence of those styles than about imitating surface features. His only prior album was Acoustic Guitar Trio with Nels Cline and Rod Poole, a surprisingly lyrical and meditative offering from Derek Bailey’s Incus Records. Like James Finn, McAuley has had an intensely dedicated but often thwarted musical career; in the following interview he discusses the circuitous route to his belated debut. The interview was conducted by phone in April 2006, and later revised and extended by email.

Can you say a little about where and when you were born? How did you get started playing guitar?

I was born on a farm in Kansas in 1946, but we soon moved to the suburbs outside Kansas City. My family wasn’t especially musically oriented, although we were all expected to play piano. In fact, my mother in her youth had played piano in a silent movie theatre in the little town in Kansas where she grew up. So we all had piano lessons; I had piano lessons starting at seven, which went on till I was twelve or so. That was probably the first exposure I had to improvisation, because my piano teacher played a big theatre organ at this annual livestock show in Kansas City. And that was all improvisation. So he was teaching me jazz harmonies; he really sparked my interest in the harmonic aspect of music and improv, and encouraged me to do a lot of stuff on my own and find my own voicings for chords. And then he made the mistake of telling my mother that I might actually have some talent in music and maybe I should pursue it as a career, and she was just horrified at the thought of that. My father wanted me to be a dentist – or anything involving business would’ve been OK. He was a businessman; we shared practically none of the same aspirations, values or politics. He was certainly not supportive when I registered for the draft as a conscientious objector.
So, anyway, piano lessons were the beginning of my exposure to playing music. The younger of my two sisters, Karen, was a big fan of Les Paul and Mary Ford – this was back in the 1950s when they had their own TV show and they were really popular – and so I was exposed to Les Paul. The first true record collector I met was our neighbourhood’s ice cream man. He’d go round to the little bars where they had jukeboxes, and he would collect 45s that they were throwing out. He played me “King Bee” by Slim Harpo, and that’s probably my first ecstatic moment responding to guitar. That and Mickey and Sylvia – they had a song called “Love is Strange” with just a killer guitar lick, and I have very lucid memories of that being a real turn-on. Years later I learned my first jazz guitar chords from Mickey Baker’s Guitar Method, not knowing at the time it was the same Mickey from that record!
I was a late bloomer on guitar; I didn’t start till I was 17. My parents didn’t want me to have one, and a friend of theirs took pity on me and gave me a guitar that was out of their basement, that he had had just lying around. And that’s the Marquette guitar that I played on Gongfarmer18. That was my first guitar, and I’m still playing it – it’s a wondrous instrument. I have had other guitars in the interim, and the steelstring I use now is a Collings that I got about six years ago, but I like the Marquette as a prepared guitar – it’s got that old, plunky sound. When I first got the guitar I started learning on my own by transferring some of the stuff from my piano studies onto the fingerboard. After about a year I started formal lessons with Joe Cozad, who taught at the Conservatory of the University of Missouri in Kansas City. That was mostly sightreading and classical technique.

Did you play electric?

The music that turned me on right when I was starting was basically acoustic blues, and I was into that fingerpicked Piedmont style which has shades of ragtime and blues, and the Delta styles too, slide and stuff. I was into Mance Lipscomb and Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt, Lightning Hopkins and all those folks. At the same time I was studying classical guitar, so it was all fingerstyle guitar. It seemed so much more intimate to play with your fingers. There’s nothing between you and the strings, not even a pick. And I just found that I could get a lot more expression and different tonal qualities using my fingers. So that’s what I was basically into, and that didn’t translate so well onto electric guitar.
When I got to LA I was called on to play electric in a lot of different situations, like studio gigs and playing in various rock groups. And I always played electric with my own group, The Gongfarmers, in the '90s. I own a '66 Telecaster and an old Gibson 175 which I’m hoping to return to in the foreseeable future – I love playing electric, even though it requires a radically different approach than the acoustic.

What about other stringed instruments, like banjo or mandolin?

I was into banjo, basically the old-timey frailing style, not bluegrass. I have a lot of other ethnic American instruments like my dobro, but I also play a little bit of Senegalese kora. I studied oud, and continue to study it. I play a little charango from Peru, one that’s made from an armadillo shell. So I have an interest in all kinds of music; I’m not especially virtuosic on everything, but I still invested a bit of time in learning how to play a lot of different things. I went to CalArts in 1990 and got a master’s degree in composition. They have a real strong ethnomusicology department. So I further developed my interests in that way – I don’t know if it comes out in my music that much, although I think the things that I’m learning on oud, as far as theoretically, are finding their way into my music. For instance, the techniques of manipulation and modulation of the various makams – Mideastern scales – can be heard in pieces such as “Eyelids of Buddha.” Since there are no chord changes per se in Mideastern music, the harmony is implied by the bass notes – drones – and their relationship to the melodic line. In terms of Western music, it’s somewhat akin to playing modally. I’ve also adapted some of the rhythmic concepts, or cycles, to guitar playing.

Let's return to the 1960s. I take it that it wasn't long before you decided that music was going to be your career.

Yeah. I ended up getting a degree in psychology when all was said and done, at the University of Arizona, but by the time I was graduating my life orientation had changed rather radically. At the time I was in a group, and I was a partner in a store-front coffeehouse in Tucson, Arizona. I broke with academic life and began full-time musical life, right as I was graduating. And I was playing in this folk-rock group and playing a little more traditional music in other contexts. Plus I performed a lot at the coffeehouse, and it became kind of a meeting place – groups that were on tour would come by and jam after their shows, so I got to meet a lot of people that way. This was in the days of Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish and the Doors. In my senior year I had an opportunity to play in Linda Ronstadt’s band; but my parents didn’t want me to quit school so close to graduation. I’ll never forget my mother’s comment: “Linda Ronstadt? She’ll never amount to anything!” That, fortunately, was the last time I yielded to parental pressure and/or advice.

Did you come across John Fahey then?

Yes, that was the period – the late 1960s. The thing that intrigued me about him, that made him unique among fingerpickers, was his absolute refusal to ever develop material – he would either repeat something verbatim or just morph into some other piece rather than do variations. That and the austerity of his style, his avoidance of virtuosic display. To me this is the essence of the American Primitive thing. I know my music is sometimes compared to his, but I don’t really identify with that movement, as much as I may admire Fahey individually.
I was also somewhat into Robbie Basho, and I loved 12-string guys like Fred Neil and Tim Buckley. And I was just starting to get more into jazz through people like Larry Coryell – Lofty Fake Anagram with Gary Burton – and John McLaughlin, a very big fave, both with Mahavishnu and with Miles. I think my first ever jazz album was Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith, followed by Brilliant Corners. I connected with Monk’s music in a big way right from the beginning, like most people I suppose.
In the classical realm, I was basically bi-polar: I had been getting into Bach and Renaissance composers through classical guitar – I love counterpoint – and at the same time listening to a lot of 20th-century stuff... I have very little interest in the entire 19th century. And during my university years I was very taken with John Cage and the composers in his orbit. I practically wore out my copy of Silence. His philosophy meshed with the zen teachings of Alan Watts – who was a major figure in my life at the time – which in turn meshed with my extensive use of psychedelics.

When did you make the move to LA?

I came out in 1969. The folk-rock group I had, Mouse, had a record deal on Capitol. We were doing, like, Phil Ochs and Tim Hardin songs as well as original material. Our single was doing very well, strangely enough, and we came to LA – we were going to do an album. Immediately our drummer got drafted, our lead singer fell in love and ran off somewhere, and so I was kind of stranded in LA, and that’s how I ended up here.

How did you support yourself – just through your music?

Yeah, well, it was a different time. For instance, on the record deal we were given an advance on a record that never got made. The labels at that point did not know who to invest their money in. They recognized that rock had great money-making potential, but they were clueless about what would be popular. After Mouse I started working as a duo with a singer, Tommy Burns, and we would throw together rock bands to play gigs. I remember a couple of times we used Jeff Simmons from Zappa and thus became a blues band for the night. So there was money around, and it was sort of like the “fat of the land.” When I first came to LA in ’69 I had a regular straight job, but that was basically the last one I’ve had.
There was a producer and arranger named Don Costa, and he himself was a guitarist. He heard me play, and unlike a lot of guitarists I could read music. I was about 23 or so, playing in all these sessions. My first one was with Pat Boone. And Frank Sinatra – I can be heard on Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back, his so-called “comeback album,” as well as some other sides. For me at that age it was surreal. Don always liked to use at least three guitarists, so there would be these guys, you know, Howard Roberts, Barney Kessel, Tommy Tedesco, and me – what’s wrong with this picture? Though it was disillusioning and a little disheartening to see these great jazz guys strumming a C major chord on a Donny Osmond tune! So that kind of stuff: Trini Lopez, Eydie Gorme, Vic Damone, etc. Recently I was driving somewhere in my car and I had on the local college radio, KXLU, which has probably the only interesting music in LA on it, all kinds of music – it’s punk and new music and jazz and reggae. Anyway, I heard this classical guitar with a familiar tone, and I suddenly realized it was me playing on an old Perry Como song! Of course, they were playing it as irony.

So things were going pretty well. But I gather that at this point you left LA to spend some time in Europe. What happened, exactly?

I had the duo right after Mouse broke up, and we had a deal with a record company called Cyclone Records – they went bankrupt. I got really pretty fed up with what was going on in LA musically, and also the music business. I think I was probably sensing that even when I was doing more or less something that could be within the realm of commercial music, number one, it wasn’t really commercially viable, and number two, it wasn’t really where my heart was. Also the drug scene was turning ugly. The promise and optimism of the psychedelic era disappeared in a haze of cocaine and downers. I participated, but for some reason – maybe my heart wasn’t really in it – I never got addicted. (I saved my addictive personality for alcohol.) But my musical partner at the time and other friends were drug casualties. The LA scene got very surreal in a bad way. I really needed a change of scene. In any case, I left for Europe when I was 24, and I was in Paris and later Ibiza, Spain, for about a year.

What brought you to Paris?

An absolutely incredible guitarist that had been in one of the incarnations of one of my bands here in LA was back in Paris, Marc Tallet. I recently got in touch with him through the internet, and he’s a serious composer now. We were both into classical guitar and we’d play Bach duets and things, and he also oddly enough won the Nashville five-string banjo competition when he was here and could also play Django solos verbatim! He was into all kinds of music – we had a lot in common. And so when I went to Paris we were living together, I was staying at his apartment. His partner when I met him here was Michel Marceau, the son of Marcel Marceau. He was a pop singer also living in Paris, and when finally it wasn’t working out staying with Marc, Michel and I started hanging out together, and we had an apartment in Paris for a few months. We did some recording together, and we did some recording with his father which was very ... misguided, I think. Someone had convinced Marcel Marceau that he should put out a pop album of singing, that kind of European sentimental music. Marc and I provided the backup on it, and it was actually the most happening part of the project – we were doing classical guitar, two-part arrangements of these songs. I don’t think that ever got released.

The story of your recording career!

Yes! Some of the rock records with Michel got released, however. And then we later lived in Spain for a while together. The island of Ibiza has a reputation as a disco-destination for the European jet-set crowd, but my experience there was quite the opposite. I played bass in a rock band that performed for tourists, which provided enough money to support our rather spartan lifestyle. We lived in one of the old white-washed farmhouses that dot the landscape. It had no electricity, gas, or running water – our bathroom was an outhouse – so the daily routine involved chopping firewood, drawing water from the well, etc. But the relative isolation from pop culture created a perfect environment for personal music-making. There was a wooded area near our house where I spent many solitary hours getting next to my guitar... playing to an audience of sheep! Then at night some friends would inevitably drop by and we’d build a fire and jam. That whole experience had a huge impact on my own music and my approach to guitar and improvisation.
I came back in ’72, then returned to Europe with my future wife Nika later that year. The time in Europe was just a brief period but it was a very meaningful one to me.

I’d imagine the music scene was quite inspiring.

Yeah – for instance, Steve Lacy had a little ongoing workshop jam session at the American Centre in Paris, so I would hang out there. I had a classical guitar teacher there who had studied with Segovia, so I was still on the dual path of jazz and classical guitar, but I was more interested in contemporary stuff than in the standard Spanish romantic repertoire, and improvising. The one through-line of my experience of playing guitar is that I’ve always been happy improvising. I still pursue classical guitar from a technique standpoint – Bach’s music, for instance, is a great workout and endlessly fascinating to play.

So you returned permanently to the States in 1973.

Yeah. I had a sense of a renewed ... (searches for the right word) enthusiasm. I got married in ’76, and this was a period when I started becoming aware of people like John Carter and Vinny and Nels and the scene in LA. I was still getting some recording sessions, but I really wasn’t pursuing it at all and you really have to to stay in that game. I was just playing my music in my room – I was moving towards more outside stuff, and mostly I had made a pact with myself that I was going to pursue my own music. And in LA that’s hard to do when you’re not in a readily identifiable niche or genre. Because I think even more than some cities LA is very oriented towards whatever’s commercially viable, and the audience, at least in that period, tended to be more set in their ways. And I don’t think it was until maybe the 1980s when the punk thing started happening in the clubs that it opened up more for underground stuff.
Around 1976 or so I had a contract with Takoma Records. At that time John Fahey wasn’t involved in the business end of the company, in fact I never really met him. Takoma’s office was next door to the venerable McCabe’s Guitar Shop, which served as a performance venue on the weekends. I believe the idea was to record a live album at McCabe’s – Takoma had recording facilities with cables running to the McCabe’s stage. But this was just prior to when they were purchased by Chrysalis Records. We had signed the contracts and we were all ready to go; Denny Bruce was set to produce, who had produced Leo Kottke and various people. And so I was very thrilled and excited. But then they sold the label and they just cut their whole roster of artists in half, and of course I was on the wrong half! So nothing ever came of that.

You were involved with the LA microtonal music scene around this time, I believe. Could you say a bit about this?

When we were living in Silverlake in the mid-’70s, music theorist and microtonal instrument builder Ivor Darreg lived literally down the street from us. Nika had met him through a friend prior to our marriage. His house was stacked to the ceiling with salvaged electronic parts, copper wire – he wound his own pickups – music manuscripts, charts, tapes, and instruments-in-progress. He created mostly stringed instruments, like his long-stringed beam instruments, amplified cello, or four-sided “hobnailed newel posts.” In his younger days he had invented a keyboard oboe, which was like an early synthesizer, as well as an electric drum, which was essentially some relays connected to a keyboard. Anyway, we would occasionally drop by to hear his latest creations, which inevitably triggered a discussion of the relative merits of various tuning systems. Unlike most microtonalists, Ivor never championed a specific system. He liked to say that each mode had its own mood, which he would demonstrate by playing the same piece in different tunings. He envisioned a music which could incorporate different intonational systems and even modulate between them within a single piece. There is a posthumous website for Ivor as well as a CD of his compositions called De-twelvulate! I’m only sorry Ivor didn’t live to experience the Internet; he loved corresponding (I have an “Ivor box” filled with letters and cassette tapes) and email and mp3s would have revolutionized his world.
Through Ivor’s circle of friends we eventually met Erv Wilson, another unsung hero of microtonalism. He was living communally with a wildly diverse group of artists and musicians, including Danny Elfman and actor Hervé Villechaize (before he found fame on Fantasy Island). Erv would speak of his childhood in rural Mexico and hearing melodies in his head that he only later discovered were microtonal. He developed an elaborate system for manipulating scales and creating what he called “hexanies.” Primarily a theorist rather than composer, he’s literally in the history books for his microtonal keyboard designs and his tubulongs, which are 31-tone mallet instruments. I studied briefly with Erv – he even built me a set of tubulongs – but Kraig Grady and Rod Poole were more closely associated with him and are the foremost exponents of his teaching.
I originally met Kraig at LA City College, where we were both studying theory and composition. His current work makes use of mallet instruments tuned to the slendro scale, which I believe is Javanese. He can fill a room with the most exquisite overtones imaginable. I feel that he and Rod, who uses just intonation, are doing the most beautiful and significant work to be found in the microtonal scene today. Unfortunately, artists who produce music on such a personal and intimate scale are usually overlooked by the general public. I would encourage anyone who’s interested to check out Kraig’s anaphoria.com site (which also houses the “Erv Wilson archives”) or Rod’s solo recordings ... Death Adder is a personal favorite. And of course the established masters like Lou Harrison, Ben Johnston, LaMonte Young and Harry Partch are a great introduction to microtonalism.
My connection with the microtonal crowd was short-lived, though I continue to play one of Ivor’s original Megalyras, which he gave me when he moved to San Diego in 1985. It’s a six-foot-long wooden beam instrument with fifteen strings tuned in roots and fifths. The lowest note is C below contrabass E. I’ve developed my own playing style using my fingers, metal bars, mallets and bows. I will bring it to a gig when space allows.

Is microtonality a major part of what you do now?

I’ve since gotten back into microtonalism via the oud, and of course with the trio Rod Poole plays just intonated guitar. And so it’s more a matter of having those sounds in your brain and getting comfortable with them, and of course when you play with slide you always have those possibilities too. Sometimes when the trio would play we would get into a freeform microtonality – we would invent these weird tunings and just deal with whatever came out. There are certain intervals that just feel very comfortable, very organic-sounding. And I know if you were a purist, Guitar Trio would probably be anathema, because it’s mixing two tunings, just-intonation and twelve-tone equal. But for me that issue is entirely academic; I just like to revel in the sound. It’s really thrilling to be sitting there playing between Nels and Rod with all those overtones dancing around!

So you’re not much of a purist, I take it, when it comes to microtonal theory.

I like the music itself to be the best argument for the theory; I like the music to sweep you away and then you say, “Oh gosh, that must have been microtonal,” but it created a world that was compelling in itself without all the theoretical explanation. I think music should work on its own terms.
But if a process or a theory is integral to the enjoyment of a piece, I want to be able to hear it. In a lot of “process music” – I’m thinking of mid-century serialism in particular – the elaborate processes have no recognizable connection to the actual sound of the music. Boulez and Stockhausen come to mind. Compare that to, say, Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room – great piece. You can actually hear the process happening, it’s not theoretical. It’s like my problem with a lot of microtonalists: they get so deep into their systems and theories that the music becomes secondary.

OK, so let’s rewind to the 1970s. Since you weren’t gigging much at this time, how did you get hooked up with the players on the LA avant-garde jazz scene?

I met Nels and Vinny at exactly the same time because they were playing a little duo concert at a bookstore here. I just introduced myself and got to know them a little bit, and I’d go hear them when they were playing, but I never was close to them in terms of playing together musically. When I met Nels I called him a few days later and said, “I’m the person who met you at the bookstore, and I want you to know I’m playing at” – I was playing some venue downtown. And I mentioned that I was going to do something on Marxophone. It’s an antique turn-of-the-century Americana instrument, like a keyboard autoharp. Twenty years later, when Nels was curating a new music series at the Alligator Lounge, I approached him about playing there. We had not been in contact all that time, but when I introduced myself, he said, “Oh, Jim McAuley, the Marxophone player!”

When did you encounter John Carter? I gather you were his student for a time.

This would be about 1980, around the time of the Dauwhe album. He just totally knocked me out. When we first heard him play solo, Nika was literally crying it was so beautiful. And so right away I wanted him as a mentor, and Nika convinced me to just call him up. He had a school here called the Wind College, which was him and James Newton and Charles Owens, and I think Red Callender was part of it. We’d have these so-called lessons, which weren’t really about learning how to play guitar at all but mostly just talking and playing a little bit together. He was just very warm and generous to me in terms of sharing his knowledge, very gracious and genteel and softspoken, and simultaneously classy and downhome.

What do you remember about the lessons?

The first thing he told me was, “Well, if you’re going to play jazz, you’d better get ready to experience racism.” Speaking to a white guy, I’m sure what he meant was that jazz had been marginalized because of racism. He considered jazz to be America’s classical music, he considered it to be concert music; he didn’t like the image of the jazz musician with the shades and the joint hanging out of his mouth. And he had that kind of dignity and integrity about him – he would never play something other than his own music, he said, “If you want to hire me to play I’ll play what I play and that’s what I do.” It was the opposite of the studio musician mentality that I had come to loathe.
He showed me a little slip of paper in his clarinet case, which was in the form of a reminder, and it had one word on it: “Style”. He meant that he had a language that was the essence of his playing and that he wanted to always be true to that. He was always unmistakable: from the first note you knew that it was John Carter, and that’s one of the things I really love about him. He was very encouraging to me to write music. He told me that when you practice you shouldn’t perfect your chops, you shouldn’t learn licks for instance, but actually practice the art of improvising itself. And that meant a lot to me too, because it’s hard to do that. When you find something you want to repeat it, you want to duplicate it or keep it in mind for future use. So when I practice, I focus on following the flow of the music in stream-of-consciousness fashion without trying to impose some preconceived idea or structure on it. It’s a process that requires discipline, like the Zen concept of being “in the moment” – even though there’s no place else you could possibly be! John also emphasized the importance of recording practice sessions and constantly listening back to yourself. It’s like a feedback loop that eventually leads to a deeper understanding of your own style.
I should probably reveal the meaning of his “enigmatic alter ego” Wally Blanchette that I mentioned on the Gongfarmer album.... He once told me that whenever he would get a studio gig that conflicted with his contractual obligations to another label, he would play under the pseudonym of Wally Blanchette. I once asked Vinny Golia if he knew about Wally and he said John told him he was an old harmonica player he once knew back in Texas. I suppose both versions could be true!

Did you gig much with Carter? Are there any recordings left from your time with him?

In 1981 I was commissioned to write the music for a short art documentary about artist William Dole called 6 Collages. The project included a small budget for musicians and John was the first one I called. I was amazed and honoured that he agreed to do it. Naturally there was ample improvisation in the score, but also a lot of strictly notated material. The score consisted of six miniatures, one for each of the collages. I tried to create sounds that would resonate with the mood of each image. It turned out really well, I think. I would like to one day release it as a video “extra” on a CD, or at least make it available on the internet. One interesting synchronicity: I had written a five-note theme for the film before calling John. Later, once he was involved, I bought his latest record to get a better sense of his style and there it was – the same five notes – in one of his tunes. And it was even in the same key! I interpreted that to mean that John’s involvement in the project was “meant to be.”
John had many long conversations with my wife Nika. One time he mentioned to her how much he liked my writing, which was really gratifying and motivating to hear. (He also told her one of his musical goals was to one day write a “classy song”.) The one time I actually played a gig with John Carter was in ’87, and it was a very bizarre gig. It was at the Hollywood Bowl; they had a series for children during the summer. So if you can imagine these musicians getting up for a 10 a.m. gig, and we played two shows – ten gigs in all – a whole week of shows. It was John Carter, me on guitar and banjo, because we were showing them blues, Horace Tapscott, Roberto Miranda, William Jeffrey, Thurman Green on trombone and a singer whose name I don’t remember. So that’s when I first met Horace, who’s another LA figure that I really respected.

Did you have much contact after that with Tapscott?

Yeah, he came over to the house once and he came once to a show that I did and I went over to his house a couple times. We weren’t really close but it meant a lot to me, to know these people and to be with them at any creative level at all. I’m still amazed that in the jazz universe the most creative people are usually the most accessible and sharing. Horace always said he wanted to do this piece with me playing 12-string, but it never happened.
Horace was just a wonderfully warm and exuberant human being. Outwardly at least, John and Horace were totally different kinds of people. This created a great dynamic when they would play a club gig together: Horace attacking the piano with joyful abandon; John very focused and soulful and probing. Horace was also very concerned with the community and his social function as a black musician in LA at that time, and he was very much about keeping the music alive and bringing new blood in and getting together with people that were just coming up. And his home and UGMAA – the Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension – were the focal point for a lot of great stuff. (I should add that John was also dedicated to passing on what he called “our American music” and for years was affiliated with the LA schools.)

Aside from the studies with Carter, what were you up to in the 1980s? Were you still doing session work, or primarily focussing on your own music?

My connection to the mainstream “music industry” had come to an end – through mutual agreement – by the ’80s. With a couple notable exceptions, the ’80s is kind of a “lost decade” for me. Some of my inactivity is connected to a major drinking problem which I didn’t come to terms with until my mid-30s. I was a binge drinker, which a great way to screw up your personal life as well as a musical career. Case in point: in the early ’80s I had booked a duo gig with John Carter at LA City College. We had worked up some material and were planning on doing some solos as well. So for reasons only another alcoholic could understand, I decided to go on a week-long binge, ultimately showing up at the gig drunk and unable to play. And remarkably, that wasn’t the lowest point in my drinking career! But finally, thanks to my wife and, I’m sure, the healing power of music, I stopped drinking. (I went to one AA meeting, but I’m not really a “group person.”)
Anyway, I continued to teach and occasionally perform my own music. Fortunately, it was easy to be poor in LA at the time. Nika and I had always lived simply and avoided the trappings of middle class life. I did do a lot of freelancing strictly for money: copy work, arranging for singers, playing in country and rock bands, an occasional union gig. And for four years I received grants from LA Cultural affairs... they funded an educational guitar show that I did in the public schools.
But LA was not the most nurturing environment for free improv. I did belong to the ICA (Independent Composers’ Association) which mounted shows in galleries – in ’87 I did a show at LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) that got an LA Times review. That was the same year as the Hollywood Bowl gig, as well as the birth of my older son. So there were some high points. Listening-wise, I was into the AACM scene, Sun Ra, Braxton, Sonny Sharrock, etc. There was a lot going on in LA in the “legit” new music scene in the early 1980s; there was New Music America, which presented Blood Ulmer and Henry Threadgill’s Air. John was playing in concert halls finally, and there was a series where one night they had Ornette and Leroy Jenkins together; I also remember Lester Bowie playing the Music Center with Brass Fantasy. And it was in 1980 that I heard Derek Bailey perform with Evan Parker here, at the Century Playhouse.

Do you consider Bailey an influence on your own music?

Hearing Derek play live was revelatory, as he was the first guitarist I had heard who had no discernable connection to the stylistic conventions of jazz, or any other genre for that matter. Even though I was aware of Webern and other contemporary composers, this seemed to be a personal, fully developed improvisational language that was beautifully expressive and totally his own. And he was certainly playing “in the moment.” I remember at one point he broke a string in the middle of a piece and proceeded to incorporate the broken string into his improv – bowing with it, whacking it against the other strings – as if nothing had happened. And of course the interaction with Evan Parker was amazing – more like synchronicity than actually playing off each other.
Derek influenced me more by who he was rather than what he played. Of course it would be counterproductive to try to emulate his style, but his integrity and single-mindedness were truly inspiring. I was already deeply into exploring my own vocabulary and seeing him was a great reminder that following one’s own muse, regardless of the level of public acceptance, is a viable approach to music-making.
Years later, when Incus released Acoustic Guitar Trio, I got to know him and Karen Brookman on a more personal level, not in person but via long phone conversations. Like his music, he was thoughtful, spontaneous, slightly enigmatic and filled with humanity and wry humour. Rod Poole knew Derek at a much more intimate level, having played with him (and being British himself), and was the one who sent the Guitar Trio disc to him. It is a testimonial to his open-mindedness that he decided to release it on Incus. Almost all the critical reaction to the album noted that it was remarkably mellow for an Incus release... as you can see in his book Improvisation, he’s open to all forms of improv.

I’d like to hear a bit about your shift in direction in the 1990s. You’ve said that you enrolled in a music degree at CalArts in 1990: why did you decide to go there? Who did you study with?

I had toured the CalArts facility in the early ’70s and was impressed with the freedom I saw there as well as their emphasis on world music – they had a beautiful gamelan orchestra – and of course the calibre of the faculty, which even then included Morton Subotnick. So basically, when it became financially feasible, Nika helped me overcome my trepidation about academia and convinced me to go for my MFA in Composition there. Unfortunately, by the ’90s it had become a considerably more sedate place. It still provided access to some brilliant minds, but I soon became aware of the limitations of university training, at least regarding improvised music.
My first day there was indicative of the problem. I had decided to approach Mel Powell about being my mentor because of his jazz background; he had played piano and arranged for Benny Goodman and even recorded with Django back in the day. But when I told him I was interested in improvisation, he said, “that doesn’t especially make me salivate.” So I ended up with a succession of mentors: Frederic Rzewski, David Behrman, Lois V. Vierk, Libby Larsen – it was a real revolving door. But each one had a unique take on composition and it was a very stimulating environment in that sense. And it was refreshing to be around people who actually liked contemporary music for a change!
One semester I wrote a rather sprawling piece for a nine-piece band; James Newton played flute on it. It was a very sad time, because John Carter died the week before the piece was performed, and so there was a pall over the proceedings. I wanted to draw on certain classical musicians and certain jazz musicians, and I would talk to a jazz musician and they’d say, “Yeah, I’ll play it but don’t tell anybody – we don’t go ‘down the hall’” (meaning the classical composition department). There was this real antipathy between the jazz department and the composition department. I’m guessing that doesn’t exist so much now because Leo Smith is part of the composition department. But even within jazz it was not especially forward-thinking music. And even more so among the classical players – even though they had contemporary repertoire, some of them were practicing Haydn and Beethoven, and maybe that’s important but it seems like there’s a lot of other places where you could do that. Anyway, James Newton said to me, “I hope your piece has a lot of improvisation”; and the classical people said to me, “I sure hope there’s no improvisation”.
I don’t know – let’s put it this way: when I listen to music I’m much more interested in the player and their relationship to their instrument and its relationship to their life and their emotions: to me that’s what it’s mostly about. There are a lot of great composers that I enjoy and there are a lot of clever ways of putting dots on paper, but for some reason that kind of gets in the way of the direct expression of the player’s musical personality. When I go to a concert, especially when someone’s improvising solo, it’s just like they’re saying, “Here’s why I play. Here’s what I love about playing music”, and showing you the special relationship that they have to their instrument: their “sound”. And somehow notated music doesn’t have that same effect on me most of the time, although it definitely has its place (laughs).
And it was at CalArts that I began to notice the tendency of academic composers to invest their compositions with a “meta-musical” significance that frequently isn’t apparent in the music itself. It’s what I call the “liner note mentality.” I personally don’t care if some music was written in the throes of a musical epiphany listening to birdsong in the Amazon rain forest if it sounds like shit. I remember when Frederic Rzewski assigned us to write a piece – he said “Write a tonal piece that lasts one minute.” And he gave each one of us a different key to write it in – mine was in C-sharp minor. I wrote a piece that consisted of three chords: C# minor, G# 7th, C# minor, each lasting twenty seconds. The perfect piece: i-V-i. And then there were ten pages of explanation of why it was the most significant work of the late 20th century: its social and political implications, all these absurdly complex serial procedures, which drugs the composer was on, etc. I think it was my most successful student piece. I was even asked to perform it (with the “lecture”) at a couple venues.

Sounds like you were in the classic square peg and round hole situation! What did you do once the music degree was completed?

Right after CalArts in the mid-1990s is when I started getting out into the world again and playing. There were different things that came together to create a good context for me playing. One of them was having a venue where it was encouraged, Nels’ Monday night series at the Alligator Lounge. One of them was the Internet, which to me changed a lot of things about the process of being in the world and making music and having it heard. Of course sobriety was a factor as well. My newfound enthusiasm for playing out was accompanied by a desire to interact with some of the local musicians that I admired. My first gig at the Alligator was a duo with Sonship Theus, who I had heard with Horace’s group. My older son was taking drum lessons from him at the time. He was an unbelievably talented and creative drummer who, because of various health and personal reasons, was not as active as he deserved to be in the LA scene. Anyway, that was an exhilarating experience playing with him and for the next couple years I attempted to maintain an ad hoc collective of like-minded players. In retrospect, I guess I rather naively assumed that I could pull together musicians from different traditions – jazz, world music, contemporary classical – and that it would automatically gel since they were all individually great players. So I would write pieces for kora, bass clarinet and jazz drummer, for instance. Maybe my leadership skills were lacking, but it never quite measured up to my personal vision for the music, though it had its moments.
Around 1999, I decided to return to my solo playing and get to the essence of what my music was all about. This eventually led to the Gongfarmer18 album. And right at that moment I got a call from Nels that he wanted to put together this trio. He was already friends with Rod, who I didn’t know at that time but I’d known of through the microtonal scene. And what was revelatory about that was when we sat down to play, we went over to Nels’ house, sat down without any prior discussion and from note one I felt, “Oh my God, suddenly I feel totally at home.” We were all different players, but what emerged was a separate thing that reflected our shared aesthetic. And it was so natural and easy and stimulating that I suddenly realized how futile it is to try to force that kind of interaction among disparate players and thought, “This is fine, I’ll play solo and I’ll play with the trio,” and that’s very satisfying.

Could you say a bit about Gongfarmer18, your first solo album? It’s an album that seems very carefully organized, in terms of the balance of moods and styles and choices of instrument, and indeed a glance at the session dates reveals that it was put together over a stretch of time rather than recorded in one shot.

With Gongfarmer and also with the trio record it was really important to have them be studio recordings, number one so I wouldn’t have to think about miking guitars and levels and all that stuff, but also because the sound is so important to me, and we spent a lot of time in the studio trying to shape the sound so it was as natural as possible. And it’s such an important part of my music, just the timbres and the little nuances of sound. For instance, on the very first note of the Gongfarmer album you can actually hear the sound of the string rubbing against the fret. And there are a couple of pieces – “Stately Chords” and “Whisper of Stars” – that are more about the sound of the guitar itself than any musical ideas. So I didn’t want to just release some live stuff – I mean there is that one live cut, “Nika’s Waltz.” Nels happened to be at that gig and after the show said: “You’ve got to put ‘Nika’s Waltz’ on your CD.” Nels has pretty reliable instincts about such things, and since it was a song for my wife and Scott Fraser had recorded the performance anyway, “Nika’s Waltz” made the cut even though it was live.
I didn’t really have a conscious plan for Gongfarmer. I just wanted to go into the studio and improvise on the various guitars – each instrument brings out different parts of me – and I trusted that the pieces would somehow form a kind of emotional continuity on their own. Adding the waltz altered the balance of the album slightly, not because it was the only live cut, but because it was the most structured piece I had recorded up to that point. The other material was pretty abstract – some of it was totally free improv. So the waltz opened the door for the two improvised versions of “Blues for Wally Blanchette,” which are a tribute to John Carter and for me an echo of the “blues gig” we played together at the Bowl. The blues also served as a kind of bridge between the abstract stuff and the more structured material like the “Waltz” and “Eyelids of Buddha.”
Anyway, as calculated as this process may sound in retrospect, at the time it felt totally intuitive. Then at the last moment Nika recommended changing the order of the pieces slightly, and that made a big difference. The pacing and through-line really fell into place, and the music unfolded in this very organic way. Sequencing is everything ... I mean could you imagine Kind of Blue or Sgt. Pepper sequenced in a different order? Fortunately, vinyl did not have a shuffle-play option!

What are you working on nowadays? Is the Guitar Trio still going? Are there more records in the works?

Since Nels has been with Wilco we haven’t played live recently, though we did do some studio recording. There’s also a really solid live Trio set that Rod recorded that I would like to see released called Vignes, but basically we’re each involved in our own projects. Rod has started a record company now, a label called Just Guitar. He has one CD out now and I think he’s doing some vinyl soon. And then I’m doing my thing – I put out Gongfarmer and I’m working on a duo CD now that’s about two-thirds done. I did some tracks with Leroy Jenkins. My love and admiration of Leroy’s music is practically boundless, so I was very honoured to play with him. I had only known him from hearing him all those years ago, though of course I’d followed his career, but I never had really met him until we went to hear him play with Joseph Jarman and Myra Melford in, I think, 2002. I showed him some of my music and we ended up recording some stuff together. He turned out to be as gentle and soulful as his music – very warm and full of creative energy. Then just last week I did some recording with Ken Filiano, who was in town for about a week to play with Vinny, and some of that stuff came out really nice too.
My duets with Leroy were totally free and without rehearsal. We had no road maps or visual cues but, miraculously, we even ended most of the pieces together! Leroy told me he likes to use a very loose structural scheme based on units of twelve, but once we started playing, that concept went out the window, at least for me. It’s an interesting approach though, when you consider that the blues form consists of both three sets of four-bar phrases in the overall structure as well as four sets of triplets – or “swung” eighth notes – within each measure. So twelve is implied at both the micro and macro levels, which might be what Leroy was getting at. But in any case we dispensed with any sense of a solo/accompaniment dynamic in our duets, so the interaction was more like two independent lines which come together as a result of listening to each other rather than through planning. I like that this approach allows for the “magic” moments that happen when you’re not trying to force ideas into the mix.
With Ken Filiano, on the other hand, I came in with certain ideas – tonalities, moods, nothing too specific – and we had a short rehearsal. So those duets sound a little more structured, though of course Ken had a lot of input and his personality definitely comes through. So I hope the finished CD will have the kind of balance between freedom and structure that I aim for in my solo work.

The music you play is pretty hard to categorize - I take it that earlier in your career this wasn’t always accepted by audiences or fellow musicians. Do you find that things have changed?

A musician/filmmaker named Steve Elkins invited me to open for his rock band at the Troubadour here in LA, and there were young kids who came not knowing that I was going to be on the bill, and they really got into it and they really listened. It was a wonderful audience. To me if you’re going to play one of the first questions you have to ask is, “who is your audience?” And it was never the jazz audience, especially in LA, for me. And it wasn’t the folk audience and it wasn’t the world music crowd or the new music crowd. Now I’m finding people are just accepting all kinds of stuff. And I think this kind of postmodern sensibility made what I do a little more accessible to people. A lot of people disparage this period in music; to me it’s the most wide-open and wondrous time.
With Gongfarmer I tried to make an album that I would like to listen to myself. And when I go out to listen to music I like variety and to be taken different places. I would like everything to come out in my music. If you love stuff why shouldn’t it find its way into your music? When you hear someone play, especially solo, they’re showing you who they are and what they love about music and their instrument. Certain things like the blues literally feel good – physically – to play, even though the music is all about pain. One of the many contradictions in music ... it can be heartwrenching and hilarious at the same time; it’s unreal and the most real thing in the world. All those dichotomies tend to just evaporate when you’re in that zone.
At one time my goal was to play publicly just like I play privately. I don’t know if that’s totally attainable – for one thing it presupposes an audience willing to go along for a very personal ride! – but I feel I’m getting pretty close. I try to have just enough structure so the listener can get their bearings, but otherwise I let the music go wherever it wants.

That’s like a point of maximum vulnerability.

Improvising in front of an audience is about as existential as it gets for a musician! People have told me they respond to the emotion in my music, which is really gratifying because that’s the essence of what I’m trying to do. And you have to be vulnerable and open to allow emotion to come through. If you’re trying to impress your audience with your cleverness or technique or whatever, it creates an obstacle to that kind of communication.
It’s funny, I’ve become less ossified the older I am. I’m not judgmental about other people or myself as much as I used to be. It’s hard not to be judgmental about yourself, not to censor yourself.

When you’re young you judge everyone by their record collection.

Yeah, and you’ve got these very rigid standards. I was a real purist, I was a purist about the blues, I was a purist about all kinds of music. But I think at a certain point you learn to just enjoy everything that’s there. There’s more than enough stuff to get through in a lifetime, and if you don’t like it, listen to something else. It’s so hard in any type of creative music or marginal music to get anything going that I have to give credit to anyone who’s bothered to pursue their own muse whoever she may be. And in jazz especially it’s not about fame and fortune most of the time, so it’s coming from a good place. At least I give most people the benefit of that doubt, unless they’re playing smooth jazz. The only music I try to avoid is the snide, jokey stuff, when I sense that the musicians consider themselves hipper than the music they’re playing, that’s it’s somehow beneath them but they’re playing it anyway for ironic effect. The 21st century has enough cynicism already! I guess I respond to music with sincerity and heart, whatever the genre. I like to sense the musician’s physical delight in the act of playing. And when I hear the depth of feeling of a John Carter or the pure joy of a Monk or Ayler, I’m inspired to keep striving for that kind of direct emotional expression.

Material from the original phone interview previously appeared in a brief feature in Signal to Noise 42 (Summer 2006). Photo of Jim McAuley by Steve Elkins, a still from a forthcoming documentary on free improvisation. Audio samples from Gongfarmer18 may be heard at http://www.guitar9.com/undiscov59c.html. Jim may be reached at ultimatefrog@comcast.net. See interviews of related interest with other guitarists: Eugene Chadbourne, Fred Frith, Keith Rowe and Roger Smith.