By John Malkin | Santa Cruz Sentinel | July 27, 2022
“Hellbound Train” is the new double album from extraordinary guitarist Steve Tibbetts. His music is energizing and calming while moving across terrains of cascading 12-string guitar to explosive electric distortion and feedback. As always, Tibbetts is accompanied by the driving, tribal rhythms of Marc Anderson.
Tibbetts fashioned this anthology from about half of the 10 albums he’s recorded for Manfred Eicher’s ECM record label, a relationship that began about forty years ago. Tibbetts told the Sentinel Hellbound Train isn’t exactly a “best of” collection, but songs that flow together in a new way. The album includes music from Northern Song (1981) Safe Journey (1984), Big Map Idea (1988), The Fall of Us All (1994) and other albums.
Tibbetts is based in Minnesota and has also recorded sublime albums with Norwegian fiddle player Knut Hamre and Tibetan Buddhist nun Choying Drolma. The Sentinel recently spoke with Tibbetts about bad reviews, becoming a nurse during COVID-19 and his creative process.
Explosive and prayerful
Q: “Your sound palette is vast. Some of your music is intense and wrathful and then there’s a lyrical, prayerful side. Tell me about your wide range of expression.”
A: “As far as expressing a range of emotions from the sublime to the wrathful, it’s not very well thought out,” Tibbetts explains. “You just have to have your hands on the instrument a fair amount and decide it’s time to make some music. You need to stick with it. As Marc said to me, ‘Music is very labor-intensive work.’ With some records I’ve limited myself quite a bit. The albums that Marc and I did with Choying Drolma, our job was to try to stay out of the way and to dress the songs in the appropriate garb, so to speak. So, there is a time for limiting oneself.”
Tibbetts adds, “A couple of days ago I was completely befuddled by music I was working on. I’d created this great architecture of sampled drums and Marc playing shakers and I thought, “Now here comes the electric guitar. It’s coming in for a landing. It’s going to be great.” I had two marshalls wired together and my protective earphones on. And there was nothing there. It didn’t work at all. My idea of creating a wrathful presence failed completely. I thought, “I can either go home, go to the gym, visit my daughter or I can play acoustic guitar for a while.” Well, the acoustic guitar worked with the material. I put a great deal of compression on the guitar and it had a nice bite and it felt good; the physicality worked well and was appropriate. I left that day being very happy.”
Q: “Some musicians avoid their bad reviews. Forty years ago, you took bad reviews and created a Burroughs-style cut up text that you included in your promo package when you were trying to get record labels interested. And ECM signed you!”
A: “Yeah, they thought I was crazy to use that as part of my promo package, but it made them laugh and then it made them get on the phone,” Tibbetts says. “Hans Wendell said, ‘Look at this guy and his package. Listen to this weird record.’ I like bad reviews because they can be so honest and vicious and funny at the same time. You don’t see them as much anymore. The music publishing industry is so inbred. There’s a lot of what producer Joe Boyd called ‘log rolling’ where you praise other musicians because you’re probably going to run into them at some point.”
Tibbetts recalls, “One reviewer wrote, ‘With Manfred Eicher’s superior production Steve Tibbets’ new album Northern Song sounds like a brand-new Amana No Frost instead of my old GE refrigerator. Maybe if they showed me where the icemaker was…’ I read that standing at a newsstand and began to sweat and my heart started beating hard. I thought, ‘You’ve got to buy this, cut it out and save it.’ Many years ago, I picked up a copy of Guitar Player magazine and the cover story was ‘One Hundred Obscure Guitarists You Need to Know.’ Of course, the temptation is to think, ‘Am I going to be in there?’ And I thought, ‘How interesting. You’re afraid you’re going to be in there. And you’re afraid you won’t.’ That one I just put back on the rack and said, ‘Let’s let that one go.’ ”
Nursing in the age of COVID-19
Q: “After your mother passed away five years ago, you started working as a nurse during the pandemic. Tell me about this part of your life.”
A: “My mother, luckily, had a very fast decline. My part in her dying was mostly to shut up and listen. So, I sat in their apartment. My father is still alive; he’s 101. I listened to the caregivers and I’d hear the words CNA, LPN, RN, BSN. One guy from Ghana was a CNA and I said, ‘What’s a CNA?’ And he said, ‘A certified nursing assistant.’ I said, ‘Do you like the job?’ He said, ‘Sometimes.’ I thought, ‘Maybe this is something I could do.’ One reason was this was basically my job when I worked in Indonesia and Nepal between ’85 and ’97. Much to my surprise, they gave me a card that said ‘Steve Tibbets – Director of Health and Well Being.’ I was supposed to diagnose cholera, amoebic dysentery, bacterial dysentery and giardia. I was sort of a bogus nurse,’ Tibbetts told the Sentinel.
“After my mother passed, I came back to the Twin Cities and looked into taking a CNA course. One of the instructors pulled me aside and said, ‘You know, six more months and you’ll be an LPN and be able to work anywhere you want for twice the money.’ And just like the random quality of music, things move forward. It was very difficult. If you screw up at a job like this, people will die. I was filled with anxiety at a level that was off the charts. This is not playing a C sharp instead of a C. This is making sure that you give somebody the right insulin. My nurse manager said, ‘You could not have started nursing at a worse and more confusing time in the past hundred years, since the great pandemic of 1918.’ She said, ‘Quite frankly, we don’t know what we’re doing. So, we’re going to go to extremes and gown up bonnet, gloves, mask, face shield, booties.’ Everything changed from week to week. I’ve seen a lot more than I want. And I’m OK. I had some great teachers where I work at Shalom Health Care. There was a nurse from Somalia who took me under her wing and said, ‘I’ll show you what to do.’ Even now my shifts are with her and if I come up with a situation where I don’t know what to do, she’s there.”
Q: “I appreciate you doing that work. It helps people directly.”
A: “The real praise goes to the full-time nurses. I don’t know how they do it. I’m just a weekend, evening guy. And then I spend Monday on the couch. Really,” Tibbets pauses. “I couldn’t understand how these women – most of them women – could do this day after day, especially in those first months of COVID. Some of them have an almost religious feeling about it. I don’t have that. I’m happy to help people. I was happy to help my mom and help my father now. But these nurses were worthy of the praise they would get in New York City when people would bang their pots and pans. At that time, we didn’t know if it was airborne or particulate or if it was going to be as bad as tuberculosis.”
Choying and Bonnie Raitt
JM: “Your albums with Buddhist nun Choying Drolma are beautiful and the 2005 concert here in Felton was lovely.”
A: “It’s unusual to go on the road with three Tibetan nuns. You run into all sorts of problems, and absence of problems, that you don’t expect with five guys in a Ford Econoline van,” laughs Tibbetts. “After our gigs in the South we’d get something to eat and we’d end up at a Waffle House. They’d see Marc, Cody (Anderson – engineer) and myself come in and think, ‘Three musicians.’ Then they’d see three bald women in robes and think, ‘This absolutely does not compute.’ These nuns were so tough and strong. They even wanted to drive and we had to draw the line; ‘You don’t have a driver’s license!’ They’d say, ‘We drive in Nepal.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but you can’t do it here.’ At Waffle House you can order your hash browns “scattered, smothered and covered.” One of the nuns insisted on learning how to say that. It was a great moment when she finally said “scattered, smothered and covered” and the waitress wrote it down. Victory!”
Q: “It’s wonderful the ways people learn languages!”
A: “At the San Francisco gig I went on stage to put out water for the nuns. The house was open and the pin spots where on. I could see the stage but I couldn’t see the audience,” Tibbetts remembers. “I noticed this person in front of me and all I could see was this penumbra, this halo of bright red hair. And she said, ‘I’m really happy to see you. I brought my band up to see the show.’ I couldn’t see her face because the spotlights were behind her and I said, ‘And you are?’ She said, Bonnie.’ I said, ‘Bonnie Raitt?’ She said, ‘Yes. I brought my whole band up.’ I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’ I went back downstairs and asked Choying, ‘Do you know Bonnie Raitt?’ She said, ‘Yes, I learned to speak English by listening to ‘Nick of Time’ over and over.’ I thought, “’ell her or don’t tell her?’ I told her, ‘She’s up there at the show.’ Choying kind of went green for a second. And she’s a Tamang from a very tough part of Nepal. She’s a fighter. She then said, ‘Well, I’m really going to do this now!’ She was fantastic. Choying and Bonnie had a nice conversation after the show. She told her, ‘I learned how to speak English from your cassette.’