Saturday, March 3, 2012

Interview w/Garth Stevenson

"It's all about the journey. The music is a part of it, but the way there is just as important."
-Garth Stevenson

I sat down with Garth Stevenson last summer at Wanderlust, Lake Tahoe and enjoyed a lengthy conversation with him over some hot tea and a plate of Lydia's Organics. We talked about everything from his growth as a musician to animal songs. He will be contributing live music to classes and hikes again this year at both Wanderlust California and Vermont. I highly suggest making it out to one of his installments if you'd like to experience true meditative, musical magic!! -Brooke Kettering

B: When did you start playing bass?
G: I started playing bass when I was 14. I was playing piano in the high school jazz band, and the bass player quit, so my teacher made me play bass.

B: So you started on piano?
G: I started piano when I was really young, but like most Canadian boys I was much more focused on hockey than piano lessons.

B: Were you that into bass when you started?
G: Yes, I still remember the day I found a dusty old upright bass in the attic of my high school music building. There was something so much more mysterious about this old instrument then my Yamaha electric bass. In no time I quit the hockey team, found an excellent teacher and started practicing 10 hours a day.

B: Did you want to be a musician or did it just happen?
G: No, it just kind of happened. One thing led to the next.

B: Did you have other ideas of what you would be?
G: My entire family is in the medical field—dad’s a doctor, mom’s a nurse, younger sister's a doctor and older sister...a nurse. So, medicine was the plan until I found that dusty old bass.

B: Were they like, “Oh, that’s not a job!”?
G: No, they were actually really supportive.

B: So you went to Berklee, that’s pretty much the best music school right?
G: For some things, yes. It was a great place for me to go. A lot of the people I work with now went to school with me there. It’s definitely a good community builder.

B: Were you in an orchestra?
G: No, Berklee’s more geared toward jazz, rock, pop.

B: How does bass fit into that?
G: Berklee was just like the real world, everyone needs a bass player. I played so much that I eventually developed tendonitis and had to focus on composition studies for a year.

B: What was your first project?
G: My first band was an improvised music trio named TAQ that was based in Poland. The pianist Marcin Masecki and drummer, Ziv Ravitz became my real music education. We developed so much as musicians and people in the three years we toured in Poland. That's also where I started using reverb and looping pedals.

B: Have you been doing the looping technique for a while?
G: Seven or eight years. I was working on the ambient experimental sound in New York and then started touring with Sonya Kitchell, which was more of an acoustic folk rock sound.

B: Were you into the music or was it more because it was a paying gig?
G: I was definitely into it. Playing Sonya's songs every night taught me about song form and how to create a simple and effective bass part that really serves the song and feels good. It was the perfect contrast for the experimental concerts I was doing in Brooklyn. In a way, I combine these two worlds in my own music, sound and experimental textures with song form.

B: When did you start incorporating bass into yoga?
G: Exactly three years ago here at Wanderlust. I was here on tour with Sonya. Jeff Krasno, who’s one of the founders of Wanderlust, pulled me aside after Sonya's set and told me he had been listening to my first CD, Alpine, and thought the music would fit well with yoga. He's always been a great ideas guy. I never imagined playing bass in a yoga class but I said “okay let’s give it a try,” and he put me with Elena Brower, who’s from New York, and we totally hit it off. The two classes we did went really well and when I got back to New York we called each other and since then I’ve been playing on a weekly basis with her.

B: Did you just figure out how to play alongside her, like increasing the energy of the music when the class needed more energy, etc?
G: Elena walked over to me before class and smiled and said "Hi!". That was it, no instructions. It reminded me of the jazz gigs I used to play in Boston when the piano player would shout out the name of an obscure jazz standard on stage and I'd whisper "I don't know that one," and he would just smile and start playing. So I just took that here goes nothing bass instinct and applied it to playing with the class and it went surprisingly well. Out of the hundreds of musicians I've played with there are only a handful that I have a truly deep and nearly telepathic connection with. It's very rare and special. I felt that connection instantly with Elena.

B: With the classes you’re doing here, do they assign you to a class or are you just put in a random class?
G: I usually get in touch with teachers I have already played with outside of the festival like Elena, Schuyler Grant and Kia Miller who I met in LA a few months ago.

B: And how did you end up in Antarctica?
G: I was playing in Elena’s class, in NY, and a guy came up to me after class and said, “I absolutely love your music. I want you to come to Antarctica with me in three weeks and score my film" I was like,”…REALLY?!” Then we met a few times, and it ended up being one of the best collaborations I’ve ever done.

B: What was your role in going to Antarctica?
G: Well, the idea was, that I would go down there to get inspired for the film score. But then as it got closer he said, “You know I think you should bring your bass. “ So I said, “Why not?!” So I took it down there (to Antarctica) and got to play for penguins, seals, whales and icebergs.

B: Do you have a goal for your music?
G: Definitely. I’d really love to do more film scoring. And more performing, especially with my solo music.

B: Was this the first film score you’ve done?
G: Yes, and it's not quite done yet. I'm very proud of the music and can't wait for the film to come out.

B: Have you ever collaborated with electronic musicians?
G: Yes as well as video artists.

B: Do you see yourself moving to California?
G: I’d like to one day if my career allows me to compose or tour from any location. But for now, New York still feels right. The whole music community I’ve built up is there and I don’t really want to leave it.

B: Have you been with other bands?
G: Yes, many. A lot of jazz groups and singer songwriters.

B: Is jazz your passion, your niche?
G: I love jazz and it's the genre that taught me how to play my instrument and to listen deeply but lately I've been playing much less jazz and focusing on my own music. The great thing about New York City is that there are so many talented musicians it forces you to specialize and focus on your own sound. I think this is true for all of the arts. There’s no point trying to be good at everything just be the best at you.

B: Do you think you’ll be a bass player forever? Do you have other careers in mind?
G: Well, I’ll be a musician forever. I ’ll always play bass, but I could see getting side tracked for a few years into more piano, or producing, or mixing, things like that.

B: Do you get really creative with distortions with your looping or do you use that solely to add more layers?
G: I used to use distortion and other effects on my bass but I kind of grew…I don’t wanna say grew out of it…I stopped wanting to effect the sound of the bass too much. I was more interested in amplifying the subtleties of the bass mainly through the use of reverb…so it sounds like you’re in a huge hall or under water. It brings out the overtones and "nature" sounds of the instrument.

B: Speaking of underwater, tell me about the humpback whales.
G: Well, humpback whales, whales in general, their calls lie really nicely on the bass because they produce really low notes. You can even tune down the low string to get down there and then if you play really high on the top string, you get these false harmonics, this really high, squeal sound.

B: Do you play humpback calls ever?
G: On the trip to Antarctica there was this famous researcher, Roger Payne, so I bought all his CDs of whale calls and practiced before the trip. One day I gave a concert on the bow of the boat as part of a scene for the film. We were in the middle of a four day open sea crossing from South Georgia to the Antarctic peninsula. I was playing the kind of music you heard in class today—ambient textures with bowed melodies. I thought, ”…I’m gonna play some whale calls. The whale researcher is here, I practiced them.” So I started playing these whale calls and a few minutes later 12 whales came and swam next to the boat and everyone was freaking out. It was so beautiful; the sun was setting. One of the best moments in my life. The funny thing is, the researcher thought it was impossible that the whales would’ve heard me over the sound of the propeller, so it actually started this debate on the boat on whether the whales came because of the music or because it was a coincidence.

B: You should learn other animal calls!
G: Yea, I was trying to imitate the birds today. [During the nature meditation hike on mountain] Do you know if you slow down a bird call it sounds like a whale call? And vice versa.

G: A friend of mine, David Rothenberg, just came out with a book. It’s called “Thousand Mile Song”. He played his clarinet into a microphone that goes into an underwater speaker and he has a hydrophone recording the interactions between his clarinet and the whales. He has really studied the music of whale calls.

B: So if you were to do a Fourier transform on your “whale songs”, would it look just like that of the whales?
G: You mean if you analyzed the frequencies? It would look similar, but not exactly the same. People don’t even know how whales hear. They think it could be by picking up vibrations through their jaws....whales don’t even have ears. The more I’ve researched them the more I’ve realized they’re such a mysterious, kind of mystical creature. So intelligent. Anyway, this book is called the “Thousand Mile Song” because blue whales can communicate a thousand miles away…they sing at a reaaaally low frequency.

B: That makes sense because the lower waves can travel further right?
G: Yes, and there’s this sweet spot or depth in the ocean that allows low frequencies to travel greater distances. If you were a whale and called out at a shallow depth the sound waves would bounce off the surface and lose energy. If you were to deep, your waves would lose energy when they hit the ocean floor. The other thing whales have done is that, with propellers and sound pollution, they’ve actually lowered their note so they could get underneath the propeller frequencies to hear each other. Amazing.

B: Do you want to talk about your new album, "Flying"?
G: I can't tell you how happy I am to have "Flying" released and in the world. I worked so hard on this album over the past two years. "Flying" is inspired my time in nature, especially Antarctica, and from the music that evolved out of improvising in yoga classes.

B: How many albums have you had?
G: Two. "Flying" and "Alpine".

B: Do you feel any pressure to produce another album?
G: Not right now. There will be a soundtrack coming out with that Antarctica movie, so that’ll probably be the next thing I put out.

G: "Flying" has 14 tracks and is over 75 minutes long. I wanted it to work as a stand alone album but I also arranged it to follow the arc of a yoga class.

B: Have you been playing those songs in the classes that you play live for?
G: I do sometimes but I always adapt them to work in the moment. Generally, yoga classes are about 70% improvised music because I really like contouring people. If their arms go up in the air, the music’s going to change, and then finding these moments to not play. That’s one of the hardest things about music—learning when not to play, or just leaving more space. I try to find this place in the class or feel those individual poses or sequences. There are also these bigger waves or cadences in a class, usually five or six, and I try to let the music end or pause. It’s cool because every class is different. It keeps it fresh and getting back to those improvising roots.

B: When we went on that meditation hike were you playing songs from you’re album?
G: That was probably about 50% totally improvised. I kind of started with the album songs and would go off on tangents. But it’d be kind of silly to totally superimpose something on this beautiful nature environment. It’s nice to be sensitive to the other sounds that are going on. That’s what I love about playing in nature—when you don’t play, when you’re silent, it’s not silent. There are birds and a river, winds and so you’re able to not play as much whereas if you’re in a room, if you’re not playing its just dead silence, which is also nice sometimes. In nature, there’s no one to impress—just you and some trees. I feel like that helped me to develop my style, this musical language, just being in nature, being out there alone so much. It would be silly to work on my jazz. It’s like film scoring—“What’s the perfect music for where I am in Antarctica right now, or Walden Pond or California.“

G: One of our last days in Antarctica they didn’t really need me at the shoot so I hiked off alone for the entire day. That was also one of the best days of my life. I was just alone out there, the sun was setting, there were penguins and whales but there was also this strange musical pressure, “…Here I am at the bottom of the earth, what do I play?!” It’s all about the journey. The music is part of it, but the way there is just as important.

B: Is there ever a day when you don’t want to play?
G: Definitely. It’s usually after I’ve been playing a lot or if I’ve done something really good or really creative or a really good recording session. It’s like you almost need space. It’s weird. You kind of have this relationship with your instrument. Imagine if you went away on some spontaneous trip, a romantic get away to Paris with someone you just met, and at the end of the week you were like, “Hey, you want to come back home to California with me? But tomorrow I need to go to Staples and pay my rent and do laundry…“ It’s like you don’t want to play that day.

Interview by Brooke Kettering, a San Diego based teacher who recently became a YogiTunes Ombassador and contributing writer to our blog~! Welcome aboard Brooke!

Checkout her new profile page and "Flow" playlist

No comments:

Post a Comment