INTERVIEW: Trey Gunn talks to Mark Butler
From: Mark Butler (mhb at uk dot ac dot bham dot cs)
Subject: INTERVIEW: Trey Gunn talks to Mark Butler
Thanks to Mark Butler for the following interview with Trey Gunn.
"The Robert Fripp String Quintet" - Sunday 20th June
(Excerpt from Nottingham Guitar Festival Brochure)
"Robert Fripp, ex-King Crimson, inventor of Frippertronics and founder of
Guitar Craft, is universally recognised as a major force in the guitar
world today. Renowned for his innovative playing he is in great demand;
this year alone sees him working with the likes of Brian Eno, The Grid and
The Orb as well as his recent collaborations with David Sylvian. The Robert
Fripp String Quintet is his latest project and features Robert Fripp on
electric guitar, Trey Gunn on Chapman Stick and the Californian Guitar
Trio, Bert Lams, Paul Richards, Hideyo Moriya, playing amplified Ovations.
All these players have a background in Guitar Craft and have all been
members of The League of Crafty Guitarists.
Trey Gunn is from Texas, and recently he has been touring and recording
with David Sylvian and Robert Fripp. Trey has a background as a bass player
and a guitarist before taking up the Stick. The California Guitar Trio
began work after the last tour of The League of Crafty Guitarists. Now
based in LA, the trio travel extensively with their own work, as well as
assisting with the Guitar Craft programme around the world. Their first CD
has recently been released. The Robert Fripp String Quintet began life with
several dates in the USA last year and went on to play Japan where they did
a live concert on TV. They are scheduled to release their debut CD in
September. The music itself reflects the bands' diverse influence with
everything from the rockier sounds of Frippertronics through to the
intricate ensemble playing and hypnotic rhythms of The League of Crafty
Guitarists. It will delight all die hard Fripp fans as well as those coming
to his special brand of music for the first time."
The concert was amazing. Frippertronics (and Guitar Craft) on record is
sometimes described as haunting. To hear Robert, Trey, Bert, Richard and
Hideyo perform live was incredible. I'm stuck for words to describe it - I
found the concert an intense and moving experience. I just hope Toby Howard
(who edits Discipline) who was also there can supply some details of the
concert. Trey was playing a 12 string oak Grand Stick. His playing was
phenomenally clean and controlled, and he manages to get a deep, church
organ like tone from the bass register on his Stick. One piece in the
concert (The Chromatic Fantasy) was solo Stick, he played some very fast
lines using two hands on the melody register of the touchboard. He was also
using an E-bow on some of the Frippertronics pieces.
I was lucky enough to attend the Guitar workshop Robert Fripp organised on
Saturday the 19th of June and explained the Stick list to Trey Gunn. He was
very interested so he kindly consented to do an interview before the sound
check for the concert on the Sunday. This interview is exclusive to the
Stick List and Discipline.
M: So how long have you been involved in music?
T: In music? 26 years.
M: And what other instruments apart from the Stick do you play?
T: Play now - nothing. I started on piano when I was about seven, then I
played violin a little bit when I was about eleven or twelve, then I
switched to acoustic guitar, then to electric bass which I kept up for
maybe eight or ten years, and in the interim also went back to the guitar,
accoustic guitar, and then kind of switched from bass to electric guitar
for about five or six years before picking up the Stick.
M: Out of all those instruments, probably the piano, in terms of it two
handed technique is closest to the stick (Trey starts to interrupt) ...
T: In a way.
M: Do you feel you gained from starting on piano, or do you feel you've
gained more from starting on the guitar?
T: I don't know. The way I see it is I spent about fifteen years getting
ready to play the Stick.
M: If you were advising a Stick player to get a more conventional
background on another instrument what would you advise?
T: The Stick. I think time is too short, that if that's the instrument you
want to play that's the instrument you should play. At the time I first
became interested in the instrument I wasn't able to give it the time and
the dedication that it needed. I even actually drove from Oregon down to
Emmett's house to buy one, and realised when he couldn't sell me one that
it just wasn't the right time. Then several years later I was going to buy
one again and I realised it wasn't the right time. When it finally was the
right time, I put the guitar in the case, put the bass in the case. This is
the instrument I play, if you want me to play this is my instrument.
M: So how long have you been playing Stick now?
T: Five and a half years.
M: And what particularly brought you to the Stick? What inspired you to
take it up?
T: I suppose the real answer to that question is music brought me there. It
wasn't my intention directly. Looking back, I suppose my life was preparing
me to pick up the instrument but at the time I didn't know that, until I
actually got it in my hands, everything I'd been trying to do for the last
eight years on the guitar was for the stick. I didn't realise that there
was obviously something larger going on.
M: In the band tonight, how do you see your role? How does it differ from
that of a bass guitarist?
T: Well, I suppose the main answer to that question is often I'm not
playing the bass at all. Maybe on a fifth of the tunes there's actually a
bass part played by me, or picked up by someone else, or there isn't a bass
part. On several tunes I play only the melody side even with an octave up
so I'm the solo instrument. On one piece in particular I'm the only
instrument and I'm playing the top side. I'm using the top side a lot,
which seems to be becoming my speciality.
Funnily enough though, people having been saying the bass sounds more
like a bass guitar than a Stick. I'm not sure whether I like that or
not, the way they're perceiving it. My interest was in getting a really
good bass sound out of it, as I rarely hear the Stick with a good full bass
sound which can compete with the bass guitar. My aim with the instrument is
to bring the sound of it up to the professional level, so that it plays in
tune and it sounds good enough so if Adrian Belew's not playing the guitar
part I can play it on Stick and it's going to sound just as good. If Tony's
in the group it's going to be the Stick or Tony playing bass, so I aim to
have a good sound and I haven't really found that before in Stick music.
Stick solo on its own, you don't have the association with any sound, and
you just accept it for what it is but when you put it in to a rock context,
the bass should sound really full and kick you in the stomach. On the
latest record that I've done with David Sylvian and Robert Fripp to my ears
it's one of the best bass sounds I've ever heard.
M: Coming back to the fact you and Tony are playing in King Crimson, are
you going to play Stick at the same time?
T: I've only played with Tony for about two hours, and that was with
Robert, Jerry Marotta, Tony and I, and Adrian wasn't there. It was just a
jam, we weren't working on materials specifically. I'm sure we're going to
do some double Stick stuff, and with bass because he really enjoys playing
the bass. I think the Stick for him was an alternate instrument, for me
it's my main instrument. For him it's bass, then stick and keyboards
probably. I'm looking to a lead role and texture role and also what I think
will be a baritone role, and I haven't the faintest idea what that's going
to be yet.
M: What advice would you offer a Stick player who like yourself has decided
to take the stick as his sole instrument?
T: Depends on what they want to do. Maybe a more specific question than
M: Particularly because so few people play the Stick, and there is no
formal method or standard repetoire, or teaching, or even role in the band
for the Stick player. What avenues do you think people are missing? When
you see other Stick players play, how could they improve?
T: Okay, there's a couple of questions. I'll answer the last one first, but
don't let me lose the first one. The first thing I noticed about Stick
players, myself included, is the posture they play with totally disrupts
any chance of music happening. They always bend their head way, way forward
and are crouched entirely closed on the instrument. It's almost unanimous.
Jim Lampi is probably the only person I've seen who doesn't do this. I
don't really know what I look like - I try to stand with my chest open and
my face forward. I think it really suffers. The posture you adopt while
playing and the way that you breathe is transmitted through the music to
the audience and that pretty much says it clearly, they're going to breathe
the way you breathe. Whether you know how you're breathing or not, if your
breathing's constricted they pick it up without looking at you. It's in the
sound - it's true. So I think just physically, there's a lot to be
discovered that nobody knows yet and that's actually how to the play the
instrument. When I first picked it up, the first thing that struck me aside
from the two handedness of it, that splits your body in half, is that you
should learn to play this instrument without looking at the fretboard.
What a great opportunity if somebody picked it up and said "I don't have
any gigs for two years, I'm going to learn to play this instrument without
looking at the fretboard."
M: But, because of the way Emmett teaches the Stick graphically in Free
Hands, looking at the fretboard is probably the first intuitive way that
most players learn to play.
T: Yeah, I don't really know his approach. The book didn't have any
particular use for me and I never took a lesson with Emmett. I've spoken to
him on the phone, but I've never studied with Emmett. To make that leap in
to not looking is a pretty big one because you have to put your fingers
right in the right spot and you want to get on with it and play so that's
probably why nobody has done it yet. I don't do it, but I'm working towards
that now. Your hands are smarter than you think. And what was the first
part of the question? What would I suggest? I would suggest the same
things I'm continually trying to suggest to myself, when I have the time I
will do it. I only have pockets of time to practice. The instrument is so
primitive right now, as far as not so much the construction although the
construction will undoubtly improve over the years but just the
relationship of the players to the instrument is at a primitive,
neanderthal stage. In a hundred years, more players will come to the
instrument and there will be an appropriate body of technique. Right now
players need to do what is considered by some people the really boring work
but actually it's not, it's essential work of looking at how the hands play
the instrument and dissecting all the combinations of the fingers on the
instrument to get a really good pure tone which stays in tune. As far as
music goes, I think people should learn to play Bach and whatever people
can find what he's written which works on the instrument, so far everything
I've tried acts as if it was written for the Stick.
M: The trouble I've had with approaching Bach, is I'm using a fifths and
fourth tuning, so if there's a unison line the hands are moving in opposite
directions. Your using a varition on the Crafty tuning ...
T: Yeah, it's a mirror tuning
M: So it's in fifths on the melody side, except for a minor third between
strings two and three and a whole tone between stings one and two?
T: Yeah, let me just back up on your question, there's another question in
there. The tuning that Emmett set the instrument up on doesn't work for me
and my feeling is it's only half way there. Putting fifths on the bass, you
have a totally new instrument, so I don't know what inspired him to do that
but it was obviously a leap of genius. Keeping the fourths on the top side,
it doesn't work for me. As I understand it, althought I've never used that
tuning, there's a logic in terms of geometry between the sides but in my
opinion the sides need to be tuned in a mirror fashion because the body is
a mirror. I can't really describe it apart from it splits you down the
middle in a really satisfying way. It seperates you internally and you
don't have to use your brain. I haven't used the other tuning so I'm not
sure, but you probably have to use the intellect a bit more. And for what
you're saying, it just feels right to me to play those unison lines or to
play in thirds or it just makes sense inner to outer, outer to inner.
M: But one of the problems of playing in the fifths tuning is you have to
make a change in position just to play a scale on the bass and there are
different approaches, such as Bob Culbertson with his thumb technique to
overcome this. I just wonder whether fifths on the melody might constrict
melody ideas because of the bigger stretch. How big are your hands?
T: No bigger than yours! Any change is going to appear to be a restriction
but it also brings a whole new world. You can't play blues licks anymore,
which is exactly what I wanted to eliminate from my repertoire. But if you
want to do something, you can do it. On the Grand Stick, the range is so
wide, so instead of your position being a minor third position it's just a
fourth across. You have to use all your fingers, and as my understanding
is, a lot of people don't do that. The bass side, it's tough though! (Trey
M: So you don't use your thumbs ...
T: No, I don't use my thumbs. I keep my hands on the back of the neck at
all times. I think the main problem is inherent on the instrument, not the
fingering, is you can't play a note on the string below the one you're
currently on without letting go of the top one whereas pianists can play
legato between two adjacent notes. You can trick your way around it,
particularly on the Grand Stick because there's so much overlap between the
sides, but it's inherent to the instrument, and the bass is like that.
It's true not all Bach pieces will work. The Bach pieces we're doing
tonight, with the exception of the Chromatic Fantasy which I play on the
top side of the instrument, I playing just a bass part with both hands,
which reminds me of the other thing I was going to mention about what Stick
players should do is that they should play with other musicians. I don't
see it as a solo instrument, although you can do that, I have done that and
I will do it again, I think essentially Stick players have the possibility
of becoming as detatched as keyboard players as far as being in time with
other musicians and sounding good with other musicians. I don't know that
many Stick players, I'm not really an authority on Stick players...
M: Most of the Stick players I know either play bass and play stick a
little bit with a band or play stick solo, so I think it's very good to
have somebody in your position who a commitment to the Stick, but is
playing with a band, and in particular that's why I looking forward to
seeing you play tonight...
T: Well, I've been playing five years so my technique really isn't that
great but it's pretty good and what I've found is some things which I can do
with my left hand alone always sound better if I use two hands on them. The
feel is one of the most important things. If you don't get it right,
somebody else has got the gig! Somebody else will get to play it!
TREY GUNN DISCOGRAPHY :
Toyah Willcox - Ophelia's Shadow
Sunday All Other The World - Kneeling At The Shrine
Trey also played on Brian Eno's new album, Nerve Net, but the tracks he
played on didn't make it on to the record but a video has been made to
accompany one of the tracks so it should be coming out at a later date.
(Cassette only) Soundtrack for Raw Power (Wind Surfing film)
David Sylvian/Robert Fripp - The First Day "It's got stick all over it, and
maybe even Stick players wouldn't know it..., a lot with the melody side, a
lot with the Whammy Pedal. That's really great, especially for an octave
up. It sounds better than an Eventide harmoniser at $3000. There's a lot of
that on the record, and a lot of backwards stick playing, and I co-wrote
all tunes" - Trey.
Many thanks to Trey for letting me interview him. It's the first time I've
done an interview and I wasn't brillant at it - note how many questions I
started with "but" - I think probably even hinting disagreement is a big
mistake to make in an interview - which I must admit I was wincing about as
I transcribed the tape. I thanked him profusely, so hopefully it will be
okay. Maybe some other people on the list will get something from this, and
maybe even try interviewing somebody else ...
Mark Butler mhb at uk dot ac dot bham dot cs
PS I think I need to buy a dictionary .....