A Dozen Hellbound Questions from The ECM office
1a. What was the original impetus (if you can remember back that far ;-.)) for this anthology?
Over dinner with Manfred I asked him if I could make a compilation CD package to send to writers and radio. He said, “Sure why not? What will you title it?” I said, “I’m not sure, but I’d start by sorting it into acoustic, electric, and whatever sections.” He thought for a minute and said, “Can I have some of your spaetzle?” I said, “Sure.” While he was eating my spaetzle he ruminated. “Acoustic, electric, hmm….acous-tibbetts, electric-bitts, exotic-tibbetts.” I used versions of those titles, made a 3-CD package, sent one to an old friend at ECM to request licensing permission and he said, “I think we should put this out.”
2a. What was the criteria for inclusion—how did you select the pieces?
2b. Is this The Best Of Steve Tibbetts?
It’s not exactly a “Best of.” It’s “The Best Steve Could Do.” That’s meant in the most positive sense. I made samples of the first and last 10 seconds of my compositions, mapped them out across the keys of three keyboards, and made labels with post-it notes and stickers. Then I played the end of a tune with the beginning of every other tune. This took a long time. An old friend of mine, David, stopped in for a visit and looked at the riot of stickies covering the keys. He said, “What the hell are you doing?” I told him. He thought for a moment and said, “You have too much free time.”
Songs I thought would work together seamlessly didn’t. What would fit together? I played the ending of every song with the beginning of every other song until a plot started to reveal itself. David visited again a few days later, looked at the bloom of post-it notes and said, “Still at it?” I explained my reasoning about the stories and chapters and the plot revealing itself. He thought for a moment and said, “You work alone too much.”
Some of the compositions just don’t work well outside of the album they live in. Yr is its own thing. Chö, Å, and Selwa exist in their own world. The same is true for most of Natural Causes and Life Of. Those compositions don’t prosper well outside of their own habitat.
Artists can put images or music together, and think, “Well, that’s pretty good. That works.” But the next day when you flip on the lights and get to work it’s often clear that you’ve been performing experimental art taxidermy. You tried to put a cat head on a fish. It just doesn’t work. The artist has to be a good listener. The artist has to be able to listen for that little bell, the sound an artist friend of mine calls “the ring of truth.” The artist has to be aware when the little bell is silent.
Hellbound Train came together easily; the edges welded themselves. The sequencing makes sense, has the ring of truth, is true to the burning thing, furthers the narrative, and fulfills similar inscrutable aesthetics.
3. In terms of representation there is a lot more music from Big Map Idea, The Fall of Us and A Man About A Horse than from either earlier or later albums. The collection hones in on middle-period Tibbetts. Can you say something about your musical/artistic development in this time? It seems to coincide roughly with the period when you were traveling for the Naropa Institute.
–Djamkaret means “Rubber Time”–
Working jobs in new cultures meant I needed a mind receptive to other ways of thinking. Money is a challenging, highly loaded subject in any culture. I had to hire people in Asia and I made some clumsy mistakes; Minnesota social conventions didn’t translate. Being aware of the possibility of black magic isn’t an everyday concern when hiring contract labor in St. Paul, but Wayne Vitale told our group that in Indonesia it was something to be conscious of.
A side effect is that a kneaded, rubbery mind can set the stage for new ways of thinking about music. I didn’t have to try; my mind was already malleable from having to work with visas, transportation, government officials, food, proper attire and comporting oneself with some measure of dignity. New ways of absorbing music and sound just snuck in.
5. You are known as an inventive guitar player, trying new tunings and techniques to achieve previously unknown chords, shapes and sounds. How do you develop what works for you and your pieces or are the pieces themselves sometimes a result of new tunings and chordal/modal discoveries?
About 20 years ago I settled on the tuning I use for electric and acoustic guitar, dropping the A string down to a G and the low E string down to a C. On acoustic and electric 12-string I use that same tuning, but with everything dropped another whole note. That gives me a nice drone on the low strings. It also means everything tends to be in the same key, but that doesn’t concern me so much. A lot of the world’s music stays in the same key.
6. Do the electric compositions work acoustically and vice versa? Have you experimented with this?
I don’t think that would work. The electric guitar and amp I’ve been using since 1984 have an antagonistic electronic relationship that depends on electricity. If I turn the guitar towards the amp, the amp starts to overload and make a frightening ripping sound, like sheet metal being torn to pieces. Electronic storms like that don’t live in acoustic guitars.
The acoustic 12-string has its own world. It’s built a small concert hall inside itself from 50 years of playing. When the wood is warmed up there’s a resonance, an extra voice that I’ve never found in other guitars.
7a. What’s the origin of your interest in drones?
“Tomorrow Never Knows.” When Revolver was released faithful Beatle students played the album incessantly. None of us knew what that sound was that began TNK, but we knew it was the right thing. When I worked in Nepal and Bali I got used to living in the daily world of Tibetan ritual drones and the cyclical steady-state world of Balinese Gong Kebyar, which is drone-like in its own way. Drones and gong cycles were just part of daily life when I was far away from my studio and music making.
Being away from your own music for a few months every year can give your mind a much-needed blank canvas, for better or worse. Your open mind will soak in the drones and cycles. The blank mind-canvas can host sounds you’d rather not be humming all day as well. I lived next to a monastery in Boudhanath that started morning rituals at 4AM, longhorns blasting the first three notes of “Three Blind Mice.” In Ubud I lived by a rooster that crowed Morricone’s theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly at sunrise.
8. „Black Mountain Side“ – Inspired by Led Zeppelin or Bert Jansch?
I didn’t know about the existence of the tune “Blackwater Side” until an educational evening at Joe Boyd’s flat in London. Joe also tutored me on Davey Graham, John Renbourn, John Martyn and, of course, Nick Drake.
9. Of your musical associates, we know meanwhile something about Marc Anderson, much less about the other contributors. Could you say a few words about who they are and what they’ve brought to a specific piece or two. And what kind of vase does Tim Weinhold play?
Michelle Kinney can bow her cello so it melts into the music. She can coax harmonics out of the cello that make it appear and disappear with the 12-string. It’s there and not there. I don’t know anyone else who can do that.
Marcus Wise is my friend and compadre. When I thought I’d take a stab at learning to play tabla in the 70s I sought him out and studied for a few months. Years later Marcus called me at my studio and suggested that I go to what would be one of the most important concerts of my life. When I told him I was sort of busy that night, he said, “You need to go see this. You will go see this.” (More on this here, scroll down to question number 5, towards the end.)
The concert was promoted around tabla virtuosos Allah Rakah and his son Zakir Hussain. I was impressed with the father-son tabla pyrotechnics, but what truly seemed to reorder my mind was the playing of the great Sarangi player Sultan Khan. Sultan Khan sat on the stage and gazed abstractly around the auditorium while drawing deep, almost voice-like sonorities from his instrument. In his hands the sarangi seemed nearly hallucinogenic in its ability to evoke landscape and emotion in the field of consciousness. I felt like I was watching a tableau of the sun rising over the Ganges superimposed on the auditorium’s stage. I thought later that it might not have been as good as I thought, that I’d just been caught by surprise, but the next day Marcus said, “No, it was that good, and I’ll give you a tape of the concert to prove it.” He was right, it was that good, and I listened to the crude cassette over and over. It began to warp my musical brain. It seemed that there was a way to say more by doing less.
Tim Weinhold plays a vase his wife bought to put flowers in. Tim being Tim, he picked it up and played it before it saw any flowers. He’s playing his vase at 3:21 here.
The musicians I work with are people I trust and know almost exclusively through Marc. He’s the musician in town who knows everyone, and who knows who will be right for what I’m working on.
10. The anthology also marks 40 years of recording for ECM. What’s next in your musical journey?
Right now I’m working on a project with Marc and others. It all sounds good, and the better it sounds, the slower we work.
When that project is finished I’ll move my studio from the building I’ve been in for 36 years to my home. With my children gone I can move a few instruments into the girls’ childhood room and settle into some time with 12-string and piano. I’ll spend time looking out the windows. We live on the edge of a small forest. Visitors include coyotes, turkeys, deer, possums, racoons and lots of birds.
11. ‘Hellbound Train’? In combination with the album cover artwork one could interpret that in many different ways: our planet on a fast track to hell might be one of them. What associations does the title hold for you
12. Where did you find the cover photo?
Hellbound Name: On the album The Fall of us All I lifted the title for the tune Hellbound Train from a Savoy Brown album. When the art director and I were working on the package graphics in the ECM office he turned briefly from his computer screen and asked, “And what is the title for this new collection?” Before I could say, “I don’t have a clue,” another ECM staff member sat down next to us and said, “Hellbound Train; an Anthology.” The art director picked a font and color, typed rapidly, and had the text under the image in 5 seconds. He said, “Looks good.” The first staff member said, “That’s it.” I said, “Seems to work.”
I found the photo in Harper’s Magazine months ago, tore it out, and put it in a large manilla envelope in my top desk drawer marked “cool photos.” I wish I could say the photo had some specific meaning, but, in the way art does, it just seemed to fit. I usually arrive in the ECM office with mocked-up covers and booklets, and the art director quickly sorts the good from the bad and pointless. That happened again this year in Munich. I dumped the contents of the “cool photos” envelope on the graphics table, he picked up the burning wood photo and said, “This works.” He held it up and said, “It’s like the dragon from the cover of your 3-CD set, but now the dragon is on fire.”
The picture could mean something, if you’re given to pareidolia.
The picture could refer to pyromania. As a boy I enjoyed setting things on fire. My next-door neighbor and I set the tracks on fire behind our house. We used turpentine and timed it for the 4pm train. When I was 17 I bought a brown leather jacket at Berman Buckskin in Madison to go with my orange Honda 175 motorcycle. The jacket became my friend and protector. I wore it everywhere. (I’m wearing it on the back cover of “Northern Song.”) Eventually it began to fall apart. I couldn’t bear to just throw my jacket companion in the trash, so we took it to a friend’s beach, nailed it to a plank we’d shoved in the sand, stuffed the pockets with fireworks, doused it with gasoline, and set it on fire. I took photos, developed them, and they went right into the “cool photos” envelope. I showed the prints to Manfred when we were working on the package for A Man About a Horse and he said, “This works.”
The cover could refer to dromomania: There were some years where it felt like life was on fire and the brakes on my train weren’t working very well. If a travel opportunity came up, I took it. I had a hot foot.
Could refer to The Burning Thing. Years ago Marc and I were helping a band mix a demo tape. We were trying to make something out of a weak solo and nothing was working. I said, “It’s not the solo, it’s the player. He’s missing…he doesn’t have…” Marc chimed in helpfully, “The burning thing?” Yes, correct, the “burning thing.” That seemed right.
Northern Song is about as un-fiery as it gets, but it seemed like Manfred picked up on the burning thing, even in the sonically pH neutral Nordic expanse we had created during our time in Oslo. In Munich, looking through prospective cover ideas Manfred held up a photo of burning grass. He said, “This might work. It’s like the music.” (That particular photo ended up as the cover to Paul Motian’s “Psalm.”)
Does it (the cover) correlate to a statement you made many years ago: “Forms appear, then crumble or burn away”?
I’m guessing I was reading some book on Madhyamaka when I wrote those words. The cover doesn’t really correlate to that. Lighting the railroad tracks on fire does.
Other useful quotes:
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell. -Milton
Long accustomed to groping for the elephant, do not doubt the dragon. -Dogen
Thirty people have thirty different opinions and thirty yaks have sixty horns. -Drogpa saying