Music Is Good: A Conversation with Bill Frisell

At the FJ, we’re always figuring out who the best writer for a story would be. And when the artist is someone as interesting and eclectic as jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, the challenge becomes a bit tougher. Who can you find to do an original interview about Frisell’s thoroughly original music and not succumb to all the usual clichés (“Americana,” “landscapes,” you know the rest…)? The answer for us is Danny Barnes.

Barnes is a banjo and guitar master and the former leader of Austin’s acclaimed Bad Livers. As evidenced by this interview from the Fretboard Journal 4 (Winter 2006), he’s not a bad interviewer, either. [Note: Frisell fans should also check out our Winter 2008 issue, where he does reporting duties for us, interview his hero, Jim Hall]. -JV

Danny Barnes: A lot of times you end up using a backline amp, what do you do you with an amp that you aren’t familiar with? How do you get your sound out of a backline? Watching you work, it seems effortless.

Bill Frisell: Sometimes you just have to go with it. I usually ask for [Fender] Deluxe Reverbs. That’s not even what I have at home but it’s the closest thing to a low powered 1 x 12” speaker that you can get. I remember how, 20 or 25 years ago, I only had “my amp” and that was the only amp that I ever played through. And if I ever went to a gig where I couldn’t play through it, it was absolutely traumatic. I couldn’t play. It was almost worse than not having my guitar. But then, over the years I just sort of gave up. First, it’s a feeling of complete surrender to whatever the thing is, and disgust and depression and everything [laughter], but then you just move on through it and you learn. And then it ends up being a positive thing not to have to have exact, precise things. In the end you end up discovering all these things—maybe it will cause you to play in certain ways or limit you in certain ways. I ask for these Deluxe Reverbs and I get them maybe half the time … So I still get a twin but they’ll misread the thing or get something weird. I guess it’s more consistent now.

DB: When you said you had an amp that was “your amp,” what was that?

BF: Like that one over there, that Gibson [Explorer GA-18]. That’s not the exact one, but I’ve had that amp for almost 20 years. And before that I had another one. A really small, sort of old ‘50s Gibson amp that I was just comfortable with.

DB: Didn’t Jim Hall have a Gibson amp that had two different speakers in it?

BF: That’s a GA-50. I actually have one of those. It’s incredibly cool. It has a 12” and an 8” speaker. It’s from the early ‘50s. And there might even be some sort of primitive crossover in there, something. It has a huge bottom end but it’s also real clear. It’s an amazing amp. All those records with Art Farmer, Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins—all those records of the ‘50s and ‘60s—that was the amp. But [these days] it’s also incredibly hard to keep in repair.

DB: When you were learning, were there any particular books that got you to a new place? The Nicolas Slonimsky book or any textbooks?

BF: I played clarinet in school. That was my first instrument, and everything I did on that was just looking at music and reading. The guitar came along later, and I learned it on my own in the beginning. It was just playing by ear, playing along with records and playing with my friends. The whole way I came about playing music on the guitar, in the beginning anyway, was a completely different path. Clarinet was this real intellectual thing: I’d see this note on the page and then I learned how to push the right button to make that happen. With my guitar playing, I met [guitarist and teacher] Dale Bruning at the very end of high school, and he helped me to bring the two things together a little more. There were these books that I used, I think they were saxophone books, maybe by Lennie Niehaus. They were exercises written for saxophone players — certain kinds of phrases and slurs, jazzy-sounding saxophone solos. And I guess that was a moment where I was kind of bridging that gap from just playing by ear to being able to read on the guitar. I went through all those books. Now I have shelves full of books that I mean to do stuff out of, but they’re all just waiting around for someday.

I think I got more from records, trying to write down saxophone solos and trumpet solos. Miles Davis or Sonny Rollins. Although all the stuff from further back, what I did with the clarinet, I think that all filtered in there, too.

DB: I know you like to study. If you could, is there someone you would study with, even if they aren’t alive anymore? And what would you work on?

BF: That’s so gigantic! There are things I’ve read, like Coltrane going over to Thelonious Monk’s apartment and teaching him a song. And he just starts playing a song and playing it over and over again — that’s how they learned the music. Or, what did Blind Willie Johnson sound like when he was sitting right next to you? If it comes out like that on the records — it kind of rips your spine out even being that far away from him — I just can’t imagine! There are so many people. There are thousands of people who it would have been amazing to be near.

DB: What was happening in your life at the time when you thought to yourself, “Man, a career in music is going to work for me”?

BF: It wasn’t actually like “this is going to work for me” because that thought hasn’t happened yet. But I remember a real clear moment when I decided that I don’t care, I’m going to do this. I had been out of high school and I was in Denver. And I don’t know why, what gave me the confidence at that moment, because I was living alone in this little apartment and I was teaching in a music store, but music was just the only thing in my life. I didn’t have a girlfriend; all I did was practice. And I would walk around downtown Denver and then I’d go practice some more and then go teach at the music store. And every once in a while I’d have a gig.

This was in the early ’70s. It was kind of a dark time, but I was just super fired-up about music, wanting to do it real bad. And I made this decision that no matter what happens, I’m going to keep doing this.

A young Bill Frisell tries out a plastic ukulele.

A young Bill Frisell tries out a plastic ukulele.

DB: There wasn’t a lot at that moment for you, right? It was just in your head? That’s remarkable.

BF: I was determined. I feel like I’ve been incredibly blessed. All along the way, at real critical moments, there’s been someone there to encourage me. Starting with my parents: They were always super supportive of me trying to play music. They never, ever discouraged me. My mom would say, “Son, don’t you think you should get your teaching degree?” but even from the very beginning they were very cool about the whole idea of playing music. A lot of my friends growing up had to be sneaking around just to go play. I never had that problem.

And I had a lot of teachers along the way — like Dale Bruning in Denver. There was another teacher, Buddy Baker, who I had in college: I don’t know if he could see that I was flipping out or something, but one day he just took me aside and said, “You really got something here. You should really keep doing it.” And it was at a moment where in my mind I was thinking, “This is just impossible.” He just sort of gave me that little extra boost there. I met Johnny Smith. I studied with him a little bit at the University of Northern Colorado. It started out as a class — it was like five or six guitar players. Over the course of a semester, every week, there was one less student … people just weren’t interested. I don’t know what all these people wanted. I felt bad for him; he’s this legendary guy and he’s teaching this little class.

And by the end of the semester it was just a private lesson between me and him. I was the only guy left! At the end, he said, “Go ahead and do it.” I feel really lucky that I had those [experiences] because it’s so fragile. If at one of those moments someone said “you suck,” that was all it would have taken to be out of there. I’ve seen people broken like that. Not everyone can be a musician but music is important; I think there’s a reason for it. But I also think that everybody has some kind of music in them, has their own voice somehow. I guess I’ve seen those moments and I’ve been discouraged a couple of times, too, so I know how that feels. It’s a drag when people aren’t allowed to just get on with it.

DB: How do you think living in New York changed the way you view music?

BF: That’s a deep question. I guess when I started to get serious about thinking that I wanted to play music for a living, it seemed like that was the place that I knew I had to go to at some time, but I was incredibly intimidated by it. I grew up in Denver and felt comfortable there. I knew that New York was a place I had to go to but I was really afraid of it. So I went to Boston. When I felt like I was ready to leave Boston, I had played in New York a couple of times, but it was still so intimidating just to live there. I went to Belgium and met my wife [artist Carole d’Inverno]. And after a year of being in Belgium, time was up. I had to go and Carole was willing to go with me and help me out and support me. So we moved to New York and she did all kinds of jobs while I was playing weddings and doing whatever kind of gigs I could get, just to be there.

DB: How old were you?

BF: Twenty-eight, it was 1979. Living in Belgium, I had made a couple of records, really under the radar. I had recorded a couple of times and did one tour with some more name kind of guys. I played on one ECM record and I played on a Chet Baker record [Chet Baker–Steve Houben (Philippe Defalle)]. I started to get a couple of little things happening, but I wasn’t anywhere close to being able to pay the rent.

So when I got to New York, I worked. There was a cleaning service where we would go and clean either stores or someone’s loft. I remember there was a chocolate factory; it was horrible work. At first it was like paradise, like I Love Lucy… I went in there and there was all this chocolate and I started eating all these things. After about 20 minutes, I was sick and then I had to actually do the work and clean the caramel that was stuck to these machines.

But we’d clean all these loft spaces or apartments. I don’t know how the company did it, but it was all musicians doing these jobs. It wasn’t that fun, but at least you were still with guys you could relate to. And, pretty soon, some guys I knew from Boston hooked me up with some wedding thing or this or that. And I finally got sort of a regular gig out of by LaGuardia Airport with this singer. But it was like five sets a night, playing pop music. I was doing jam sessions and stuff, gradually meeting more and more people.

That’s the thing: I knew it was the place where I could meet people. New York is a long subject. Two things were going on: You go there to sell yourself so people can hear you there, and you go there to meet people and connect. That’s where stuff was happening and where a lot of the musicians I wanted to play with were. And it was also a place of a lot of input. Every day I was hearing new stuff, meeting new people. But it was hard to live; I never even made it to New York! I was actually living in New Jersey. We couldn’t even afford to live in New York so we lived most of the time in Hoboken.

Bill Frisell. Photo by Annie Marie Musselman.

Bill Frisell. Photo by Annie Marie Musselman.

DB: So you could just take a train into the city?

BF: But I always had a car. That was the other thing, I was driving everywhere. I’d be carrying my amp and stuff all the time. But after a couple of years I started to meet this guy, that guy…

When I was in Belgium, one of my teachers from Boston, Michael Gibbs, had asked me to do a tour in England. I went to England to do this tour and I met Kenny Wheeler, Eberhard Weber and Charlie Mariano, these bigger-name guys. And then when I went to New York, the same guy asked me to do this one gig at this club called Seventh Avenue South. And there was drummer Bob Moses. Steve Swallow was playing bass. These were like heroes of mine. I remember Bob Moses liking what I was playing, so he would ask me to start doing gigs. And through him, I met Julius Hemphill. And it’s just that sort of one thing leads to another thing.

Pat Metheny was also in Boston when I was in school. He was just a couple of years younger than me, playing in Gary Burton’s band. I’d go hear him play all the time, and he’d come and check me out. And then, a few years later when I’m in New York, he recommended me to play with Paul Motian. They had been playing together and Paul asked Pat if he knew any guitar players, and Pat said, “Yeah, there’s this guy Bill.” Paul called me up, and I still think of that as a bam kind of moment.

Things switched from where I was playing weddings to where I was playing music. I felt like I was being myself more. That was really one of the biggest moments — that one phone call. And it turns out that he’s been one of the biggest influences and inspirations in my whole life. I’m still playing with him; we just did a record two weeks ago. For 26 years, we’ve been playing together.

But after about 10 years of being in New York, I was just kind of burnt on the whole thing. It was constant input, all the time: hearing new stuff and everything is moving super fast everywhere you go. My daughter [Monica Jane] was born in ’85, and I was just getting burnt on the energy. There was too much going on. I felt like I needed to process what I had been intaking.

Another thing that was messing with me was that my parents had moved to North Carolina. I’d go down to North Carolina and visit my parents and we’d go to these fiddle contests. I wasn’t playing that music but I was hearing these people play stuff that nobody was playing in New York. Folks who had lived there their whole life were playing the heaviest music I’d ever heard! Before I got to New York, I was like, “[New York] is the center of the universe. Everything that’s happening is happening there, nothing is happening anywhere else.” And then I started noticing: What about this 80-year old woman who I heard playing banjo and she’s playing the weirdest stuff I’ve ever heard? And she’s never even been to New York! I started thinking that there was stuff going on everywhere: in Europe, Japanese music, stuff in Africa. My awareness started spreading a bit.

When you’re in New York, everyone is putting down the West Coast all the time. Then I went out to California and I was like, wow. I’ve never heard anybody play like that before. I just started hearing people all over the place who sounded amazing.

My friends Wayne Horvitz and Robin Holcomb had kids at the same time we did. We were living in the same apartment building in New Jersey, going through the same things, trying to figure things out with our kids and where we wanted to be. And they came and moved out here [to Washington state], and we came to visit them. And about a year later, we ended up moving out here.


Bill Frisell and Danny Barnes in conversation. Photo: Jason Verlinde.

DB: How did living in Seattle affect what you were doing?

BF: By the time I left New York, what started to happen was when I played, it meant get on an airplane and go play somewhere. And that just started happening more and more. By the time I left, it started to feel like it didn’t matter where I am because every time I play I’m just traveling somewhere. I still don’t feel like I’m really immersed in any kind of scene here. It’s more like I live here. I wasn’t looking for work; I wasn’t looking for peace and quiet, either. I was just trying to focus better when I come home, to focus on my own thing more. In New York, I’d go away and come back, and there are so many things you want to do. So-and-so would call you to do this and that. And I did that, but I guess I wanted to take myself out of that, just to figure out what my own take on everything was like.

DB: A lot of times I think of you musically as a sort of painter. And I was wondering if you could talk about how visual technique influences your work.

BF: I think it’s coming from the same place [as a visual artist] — that need that we have to make something. I used to draw a lot when I was a little kid. I’d draw hot rods or dinosaurs or whatever. Ed “Big Daddy” Roth . . . I used to love that kind of stuff. I used to copy those monster things that he would draw. There’s something that’s going on in your imagination with that, that fantasy of those cars, and then those monster guys with those huge mouths. I would draw all of that stuff. It seems like music is the same as the instinct to do that. It’s coming from wherever that is in your brain or your body.

DB: The main question I was going to ask you is how you seem to be tied into that.

BF: Well, sometimes I draw stupid little things every once in a while. I’d like to spend more time doing that kind of stuff. And then I also find that a lot of my friends — Jim Woodring, Gary Larson, Terry Turrell, Claude Utley — are into drawing. My wife, Carole d’Inverno, is a painter. I can relate to some of the things that they’re doing with that. A lot of the things that Jim Woodring draws I feel are closer to what I’m trying to do with music than a lot of musicians I know. He’s into trying to find and bring things to the surface that you might see in a dream. I can relate to that. There are things I see in dreams, when you’re half awake or asleep or whatever, where I think, “Wow, if I could just get that to come out in a sound or get it to affect somebody that way.”

DB: Is it possible, do you think, for a musician to change how he or she is perceived by changing their art? How much of what a musician or an artist does affects how they’re being perceived? Does it have to do with your catalog — if you have a certain amount of stuff that you’ve done, it’s harder to change that perception. Or are you judged by whatever you’ve done last? Can you change how you’re perceived by what you’re doing? Some artists seem to work within narrow parameters, while some artists, like yourself, can put out wildly different projects. How does that work?

BF: I think it’s one of those things we can’t even think about. It’s frustrating to be perceived in certain ways, sometimes it hurts your feelings or it pisses you off. It’s “why do they think I’m doing this when I’m doing that” . . . but I think you have to just shake that shit off you. There’s nothing you can do about how you’re perceived, really. I just think it’s out of our hands. The best thing is just to work on what you believe in and keep going. We have to stay on our own track. It’s a drag when you’re pigeonholed in some way.

I’m old enough now that I’ve felt I’ve been put in these a number of times now. I recorded on ECM so they say, “He’s an ECM artist… ,” and it’s not taking into account whatever else I’m doing at that particular time. At first I was an “ECM” guy, then I was a “downtown” guy and now I’m an “Americana” guy. And it bugs me, but it shouldn’t bug me. I just don’t like the way it limits what some people might think. Someone might not check you out because you have this name attached to you. Pretty much everything I’m doing now, I was doing before. It’s all been happening simultaneously. And it was happening before I ever made a record or anything. I don’t want to sound like I’m completely misunderstood or that I’m complaining. But so much of the time what is a success for me gets missed — that internal, whatever it is that I’m going for thing. It’s rare that that’s ever noticed in reviews.

DB: Is it OK if I asked you what frustrates you about the music business? I mean the traveling, the math part and the geography part. What are some things that make what you’re doing difficult? And if I asked you what made you happy about it?

BF: The travel has something to do with it. I don’t like sitting on a plane. I just went to Japan. I was in New York for three weeks and that was cool because I was in the same place. Then I went to Florida, and it took me three planes, like 12 hours, to get home. And then I was home for about 16 hours and then I got on another plane and went to Japan. I had to go from Seattle to San Francisco and then San Francisco to Tokyo. And that was all within three days. From New York, to Florida, to Seattle, to Tokyo. I got cheap tickets, there’s no oxygen, all my bodily fluids and my kidneys are screaming “what’s happening,” all my skin is flaking off my face, I can’t go to sleep, I’m puking… [laughing]. I don’t like that part. But then I get to play.

I get to do this, and I’m doing what I always dreamed about. The travel part is just physically hard. That gets me grumpy sometimes. But you were talking about business. I think anything aside from the business takes time to deal with. As long as I keep my mind on the music, I’m usually ok. Sometimes there’s a lot going on and it’s easy to get sidetracked, just dealing with all the stuff you have to deal with. But I’m lucky that people, are around me who are helping me. My wife is understanding, my manager is a friend… I shouldn’t be complaining about anything. And I’ve been with the same record company for almost 20 years, which is kind of unheard of these days. Somehow I just got with these people and they somehow stuck with me all this time. They’re supportive and they’re sensitive to what it takes to try to keep creative with the music. But whenever it gets away from the music, that’s when I get in trouble. If I just get back into thinking about the music, then I’m always cool. When I start thinking about all the other stuff, I start losing it. Does that answer your question?

DB: That answers both questions!

BF: Early on, I would play weddings to make money. I would go play a wedding and I’d have to play “Beer Barrel Polka” and I remember one time I sort of messed up the melody and this trumpet player said to me, “Man you can’t do that!” And I was thinking “it’s just a polka,” you know. And he said, “Man, you got to get that straight! You got to play that right.” And he was right. No matter what kind of gig it is you’re doing, I think there are ways of finding positive musical stuff to work on. So long as you just keep it about the music.

One time, my best friend had a gig up in Boston. I was living in New York, and he had a gig and it was going to pay 40 bucks. I was going to have to drive all the way up to Boston, but I knew it was going to be great music. And then, at the last minute, someone else gave me a gig in New York that paid like 100 bucks and I didn’t have to drive. I did the gig for 100 bucks. And it was all this bad stuff, all this bad karma . . . I should have just driven up to Boston for the 40 bucks, done the good music and I would have been happier. Every time I’ve done something for some nonmusical reason, I get slapped around. Something weird will happen.

DB: That’s valuable information!

BF: There’s a quote of yours that kept me going… soon after I met you, you said, “Music is good.” And that sounds simple but it’s a heavy thing. That’s one of the things I know you were right about. There are so many things that I’m not sure of in the world, but that’s one thing I’m sure of. Music is good. I use that quote a lot.

DB: Can I read you something and see what you think of it? I found this at the Dali Museum. It’s called “the Divine Proportion” by H.E. Huntley. And it’s basically about beauty and mathematics, that’s the subtitle of the book. And in the preface he talks about “discouraging hazards of a career in mathematics.” There are four things. And I was wondering if you felt like commenting on these.

1. The burden of hard mental concentration is sine quo non. You may have to find that you live with a problem day and night for weeks, giving all that you have of mental resources in order to solve it. No inspiration without perspiration.

2. Your best efforts may be fruitless, despite extravagant expenditure of time and skill, the result may be nil. Disappointment, frustration and near despair are common occurrences of serious mathematicians.

3. You may be lonely. Scarcely anyone will appreciate your work because few will be capable of understanding it.

4. The results you do obtain will always appear to be disproportionately meager in comparison with the effort you expended to produce them. The mountains labored and brought forth the mouse.

He wraps it up like this, “the one true path to satisfaction in a mathematics career is to cultivate assiduously the aesthetic appreciation of the discipline. That pleasure will not fade.”

BF: Everything totally applies to music! Everything you said there sounds like what’s happening. I don’t know what to say!

DB: I read that and thought I wonder what Bill would think of that?

BF: Can I see [the writing]? Sometimes when I’m sitting there, working on a thing, that’s the best, when you’re just in midst of figuring it out. You just get lost in that world. And you’re not there but you’re in it. You never get to where this dream is of what we’re doing, that’s not it. It’s the getting there part, I guess.

DB: I thought that was interesting. Cause I thought it sort of talked about some of the things you’ve already brought up. But then at the end it wraps it up around an appreciation of music itself, or whatever you’re studying. If you focus on that, everything works out.

BF: You can’t go wrong.

Two of Frisell's more unique guitars.

Two of Frisell’s more unique guitars.