Innerviews - Music Without Borders
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Scott Henderson
Roots and branches
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1999 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.

For most bands, assembling material for a record is an arduous task. It’s often an endless, painstaking process of sorting through ideas, directions and personalities to arrive at a mutually acceptable goal. But what happens when the challenge evaporates and things become too comfortable? Do you retrofit the sonic architecture or knock it to the ground?

Those are questions guitarist Scott Henderson and rest of Tribal Tech pondered when contemplating their latest record. For nearly 15 years, the blazing fusion quartet has represented a healthy, towering redwood in a forest beset by smooth jazz rot. But despite eight successful records, they felt it was time to shake things up. Rather than rely on compositional prowess, they threw caution to the wind and shacked up in a Los Angeles studio to record nothing but improvised music for two days.

Unsurprisingly, the group came up with the goods. Anyone that’s caught them live understands why. Together, Henderson, drummer Kirk Covington, keyboardist Scott Kinsey and bassist Gary Willis exemplify all that’s good about their beleaguered genre. They possess an impressive collective ability to seamlessly shift through a wide variety of styles, ideas and changes that few contemporaries can match.

Although the record was borne out of volatile circumstances, Thick ended up as one of the most satisfying Tribal Tech records to date. It’s full of the high-voltage jazz-funk-rock interplay listeners have come to expect, but it also features some extended dark and sinuous atmospheric passages too. It’s a refreshing example of what fusion purveyors are capable of delivering when they’re not saddled by marketing or radio concerns.

Henderson, 44, takes a similarly uncompromising approach on his two solo albums which explore the blues, his first musical love. Both 1994’s Dog Party and 1996’s Tore Down House are modern examples of electric blues with a twist. The latter album, featuring Thelma Houston on vocals, is a particularly fine showcase for Henderson’s harmonically-diverse and largely-improvised approach. His is an elastic blues that stretches each tune’s boundaries with diverse influences and humor without smothering them.

Throughout the course of Henderson's career, some of those influences have asked him to join their bands. He’s served as a sideman for the likes of Chick Corea, Jean-Luc Ponty and Joe Zawinul. Henderson looks back at his tenure with the greats as education and inspiration for his muse. But those days are over. Today, he travels down his own path. And if the perennial guitar magazine poll awards are any indication, his followers approve.

In this laughter-filled interview, Henderson discusses the making of Thick, his passion for the blues, working with the greats, and of course, Troy McClure. You may remember him from such films as The Boatjacking of Supership ‘79 and Hydro: The Man with Hydraulic Arms.

Thick marks the first new burst of Tribal Tech activity in two years. Are things rolling smoothly after the long absence?

The record’s selling really well. I’m pretty happy about that. Things were so crappy with the last record because Mesa/Bluemoon just didn’t do anything for us. The marketing and promotion sucked. So, it took us two years to do another record. And in the U.S., it’s pretty tough to tour without a new record. In Europe, we’re able to keep working without one.

Why is a new record a prerequisite for touring the States?

A big part of any tour here is marketing and having a record in the store. Record companies try to get record stores to pay for half the advertising for gigs because it’s selling both the venue and the record. With the right kind of promotion and marketing, that can really work to the benefit of the artist. It encourages people to come to the gig and if they like it, they go back to the store to buy the record. Without a new record to promote and a label saying "We’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that, we’re gonna do the ads," the club owner sort of goes "Hell, if they’re not gonna spend any money to make this gig happen, why should I?" And then they might only put a little blurb in the free paper and it becomes a word of mouth gig—which we’re used to anyway. [laughs] Word of mouth is kind of our life because we don’t get much radio play. Europe is much more happening for this kind of music than the U.S. is, unfortunately.

Do you have a theory on why that’s so?

It’s the media’s fault for not giving progressive—for lack of a better word—music equal time on the airwaves. It’s not that I hate Kenny G or the smooth jazz people. I hate the media because those guys get all the airplay and people like us who do more progressive music get none. But, like I said, it’s totally different in Europe.

Tribal Tech gets bona fide radio play in Europe?

Yeah, unbelievable isn’t it? [laughs] We actually are getting airplay in Europe. And not just on college radio, but commercial radio stations. When I was over there doing a press tour for Thick, I went to many, many radio stations. That’s how good it is for us over there. Escapade, our label over there, was able to get so much press for us that would be really unheard of in the States. I mean, I went to Madrid and did 15 interviews in one day with newspapers and radio. It’s a different scene. They really appreciate jazz. It’s amazing to see the radio playlists because they’ll play John Scofield, Allan Holdsworth, John McLaughlin and straight-ahead stuff too from Miles, Charlie Parker and all those guys. They’ll also play some really crazy progressive music—tripped-out dark stuff.

It’s amazing how North American record labels and radio will blame the audience for the contrast. You always hear hilariously twisted words from them like "Well, audiences here aren’t embracing that music." They totally absolve themselves from any responsibility for the state of popular music.

The people that I see at Tribal Tech concerts, I doubt they’re listening to top-40 radio. But I’m sure if there was some hip shit on the radio for them to listen to, they would. I’m sure some college stations are playing good music, but it’s pretty hard to find on your mainstream stations. I don’t even own a radio anymore. In LA, you have a choice of totally traditional, straight-ahead jazz—mostly with singers—or young guys playing smooth jazz on the Wave. That’s the choice. You’re not gonna hear Tribal Tech on the radio in LA, I can pretty much guarantee you that.

What do you think it would take to create change in commercial radio programming?

It would take someone with a lot of money. It’s all about money. Somebody would have to literally own a radio station and do it themselves—like a guy who gets a wild hair up his ass and says "I’m going to open up a jazz club and have all kinds of cool music in here." And then it usually lasts a couple of months because he finds he’s not making any money and closes it down. Maybe that’s what would happen to a radio station. The guy would have to be willing to spend money and not be in it to make money but just to present good music to people. In the United States, I don’t know what kind of profitable business you could have playing music the majority of people don’t listen to. I do know one thing for sure though and that’s exposure is the key. If you’re not exposed to any other kind of music than what you hear on the radio, you’re not going to go to the concerts to hear those kind of bands. You’re not going to be aware. Most of the music we listen to is progressive kind of stuff. It’s an acquired taste. I know I didn’t like jazz when I first heard it. It takes awhile to develop your ears to appreciate it. Without the exposure, it’s much harder for that to happen.

Joe Zawinul told Innerviews that from a larger cultural perspective, he believes America is in a downward spiral. Do you agree?

This is the country that would rather show someone getting their head cut off than show breasts on TV. What does that say about America right there? It’s ridiculous. So, thank God for Europe and thank God we can go there and play gigs, because if we just had to play here, we’d be in big trouble. [laughs]

Thick sounds fresh, yet it also has an old school fusion vibe to me. What do you make of that impression?

That’s cool. I’ve got no problem with that. We do what we do and we don’t really try to categorize it. We just let the music speak for itself. We don’t even talk about it. We talk about movies. [laughs] We just play and whatever comes out is what it is. It’s due to the fact that we all have a variety of influences. So, when we play together—especially when we jam—you’re going of hear a little bit of everything. Kinsey’s influenced by lots of guys including Zawinul and Herbie Hancock. Willis was once pretty influenced by people from Jaco to Rocco Prestia. I’m more influenced by Johnny Winter. [laughs] I don’t know where I fit into that picture.

Why did the band choose to go with the all-improv route for Thick?

We had done so many records the same way year after year and I was getting bored with that. I would be at home writing my four tunes and Willis would be at his home writing his four tunes and we get together, rehearse, go out and play for a couple of months, go into the studio, record it, do the overdubs, mix, master and by the time it’s all over, you never want to hear the stuff again for the rest of your life. I thought it would be different to freshen up the approach and treat the album like a gig where we jam a lot. After doing that for so long, we get a high ratio of good stuff to bad. And it worked. We were able to go into the studio and have some good jams. The album sounds fresh to my ears. It’s a new, organic direction that shows off the way the band can interact together musically, rather than a record that shows off one guy’s compositions.

Compare jamming in a studio environment to jamming onstage in front of a crowd.

You get more of a colder vibe in the studio, but we usually have people in there listening to us. We have our friends in there and try to make it like a live gig. We make a party out of it. Whenever you put yourself in a jamming situation with other people, the key is to be flexible and open-minded about what’s going on around you. So, if a composition takes a different turn than you expected and it’s a better turn than what you had in your head, you have to go with the flow in favor of what’s better. And when you have four guys working on the same page that know what’s good and bad or what’s better or worse, they can make a jam sound like a composition.

I imagine you can guys can pretty much read each other’s minds at this point.

That’s one good thing about keeping a band together for a number of years. I look at other guitarists who have changed their bandmembers album after album and in a way it makes me jealous because I always kind of looked up to that. They’d make a record with horns and then one with percussion and then another with a guitar, bass and drums trio. It’d be something completely different every record, whereas with Tribal Tech, we’ve maintained the same vibe record after record. Maybe it’s not quite as variety-invoking, but it does really help you understand each other.

But there has been significant progress. Thick is a very different animal from the first Tribal Tech album.

Oh God! [laughs] The first Tribal Tech record sounds so stiff to me because I had come out of bands with Jean-Luc Ponty and Chick Corea where the music is very structured. Plus, I didn’t have a band that was going on the road all the time. So, I basically had a studio band in town that would just rehearse the music as much as we could and basically play it down as we rehearsed it. So, what we got is a very structured kind of thing. I’ve been moving away from that, especially after joining Joe’s [Zawinul] band and realizing that things could be loose and still be really good.

Did you have any trepidation about booking expensive studio time without any pre-written material to work from?

We were out of there in two days. We’re pros. [laughs] But the scary thing is wasting money. We tried doing this a couple of months before recording Thick and it was terrible—a disaster. It was a failure. We found out why it was a failure and we were kicking ourselves for being so stupid. The problem was that the drums were set up outside of the big room. Even though we had this new concept, we approached recording the same way we always had. The keyboards were in the room with the drums and me and Willis were in the other room for good separation. Then we realized "Uh oh, this is stupid. This isn’t working." So, the next time we tried it, which is when we did the actual record, everyone was in the control room except for Kirk and he was pressed so far up against the glass that he was only two feet away from us. It felt like being onstage and it worked. There’s something about eye contact, proximity and playing music. There’s a vibe we need.

Describe the editing and overdubs that took place after the main sessions.

There wasn’t that much actually. Pretty much every tune was a first take. There are maybe four or five tunes we didn’t use. Most of the studio time was spent getting tones. That’s how it is for most of us. The music happens really fast and it’s done. It’s just getting the tones that’s really hard. That eats up more hours than everything else. Also, getting a good mix so we can hear each other really well is something we spend time on. Playing the music takes however long it takes to play the music. That’s the easy part.

What was done after the fact?

We were FedEx-ing ADAT tapes for awhile. We also got together at my house after the music was done, listened to it and picked the music apart. It was like "Here’s a section that isn’t really working. Let’s delete that. Here’s a section where the guitar is playing something, but I can do something that would be better. I like part of the melody, but I could create something hipper here." So, we just toyed around with it, layered some stuff on top, took some stuff out and put some stuff in. We just messed around with it for two weeks, circling ADAT tapes until it became what it is. That was really fun. It was overdubbing and composing at the same time. Normally, when you’re overdubbing, you’re just trying to play a part better that’s already there. With this music, I could play whatever I wanted. It was like painting on top of the music. It made overdubbing fun.

Do you wish the band had taken this approach earlier?

We couldn’t have done it before because I don’t think we had the confidence. We’ve played a lot of gigs together, but we didn’t do a lot of jamming from scratch until three or four years ago. We don’t do it onstage sometimes because you often run into rooms that are real echo palaces. You can’t jam unless the sound is perfect. The only way you can jam is if you hear each other well. So, when you’re in a small, tight room where the sound is really great, you’re more inspired to jam.

Did the final result derive from a relatively democratic process?

It was more of a democratic process between me, Scott and Willis. Kirk wasn’t really involved after the initial jams. He was sort of out of the loop. That’s why we put "Kirk Covington: Drums and that’s about it" on the record. [laughs] The rest was up to us. What he played on the basic tracks was really cool. Even though we felt there was stuff we played that we didn’t like and wanted to edit out, we felt the drum grooves made for really good compositions.

Do you feel less of a need to stand out as a soloist nowadays?

I would say so. I’m less interested in the guitar in general as I am in making music with the band. I’ve always been more of a team player. What I never got good at is playing solo guitar—studying the shit out of voicings and getting deep into the guitar like Mick Goodrick, Joe Diorio, Ted Greene and those guys. I look up to them very much but I never made that transition. I still try to improve myself, but the majority of my time is spent playing with other musicians.

How has your guitar approach changed since the early days of Tribal Tech?

I’m less concerned about execution and playing things perfectly. I guess I’ve gone back to my blues roots. If it has a good feel and evokes a good feeling, that’s more important than anything else. In the early days of Tribal Tech, I was concerned with executing things correctly. Now, I’m not the least bit concerned about it. If it happens that I execute something really correctly, it’s really just luck.

Describe the current chemistry between the four of you.

It’s really good. When you hang out this long, you become like brothers which also means you fight more. [laughs] We know each other extremely well. We know each other’s dark sides and how to push each other’s buttons to make each other mad. But whatever. For some reason, it works really well musically when we play and improvise. On a good night, it’s really magical. When you can compose music on the spot, it’s a really good feeling. I’m glad I got myself involved in that kind of music making. It’s thanks to Joe [Zawinul] that I really discovered it. I was always about writing songs that were really structured and I’d take my little solo in it. When I started playing with Joe, all the stuff we were doing and all the Weather Report stuff was pretty loose. Then I started listening to Miles for a long time—especially his band with Herbie [Hancock] and Tony [Williams].

You only really started listening to Miles after working with Joe?

Yeah, I hadn’t listened to a lot of Miles before that. I went backwards in just about every way. I started listening to Jimmy Page, Richie Blackmore and Jimi Hendrix before I heard Albert King, Albert Collins or Muddy Waters. Same thing in jazz. I had heard Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock, but I hadn’t heard Charlie Parker. So, I went backwards and discovered the old stuff later. I really became a big bebop fan, especially Miles’ band with Wayne [Shorter]. So, I kind of loosened up my concept a lot as a result. Nowadays, that’s the most important thing to me—to play music that has serious interplay between musicians. That’s what jazz means to me. That’s what it is. It’s not about a guy up there playing a solo. I’ve seen so many guys—guitarists and saxophonists are the most guilty—just stand up there playing their shit. And they would play that shit no matter who’s on bass or drums. That just bores me. I want to hear somebody react to someone else. I want to hear someone play something because of what someone else played. That, to me, is the key to making music. That really became clear when Tribal Tech started experimenting and getting good at it because we weren’t good at it at first. Now, we’re older and have played together so much that it works almost all of the time.

You’ve been a core member of three bands led by jazz legends. Let’s get you to reflect on each one of those experiences starting with Zawinul Syndicate.

Working with Joe Zawinul is the best sideman experience I’ve ever had in my life. I can’t imagine how anyone could have a better sideman experience. It taught me so much on so many levels. It was really fun. It used to bother me that Tribal Tech would be labeled a Weather Report-influenced band, but the fact that Willis worked with Wayne [Shorter] and I worked with Joe—I don’t see how we could play music and not be influenced by it. Kirk played with Joe briefly too. When I was in Joe’s band, he didn’t want me to use the bebop vocabulary, so I tried to avoid bebop licks. I tried to play more bluesy and melody-oriented. He didn’t want to hear "scooby dooby dooby" because he already did that. It’s the same with jazz drummers. He didn’t want them to use a jazz vocabulary. Joe can be a hard guy to work for. Luckily, when I worked for Joe, he was pretty cool man. He let me pretty much do my thing and didn’t yell at me a lot. That’s why I stayed in the band four years. We had a pretty good working relationship. He’s a great fucking player. It’s ridiculous.

You were in the first incarnation of the Chick Corea Elektric Band too. How did that compare?

Chick is one of those "Play my notes and I’ll throw you a bone once in awhile" band leaders. That, to me, is the epitome of a classical jazz gig. He’s an amazing composer and really interacts well with soloists. He’s doing that a lot more with his new band. But when I was in the band, it was pretty much a more commercial version. I think I was playing in the band at the wrong time. What he was doing was more geared to smooth jazz, so it was a very structured gig.

What about your tenure in Jean-Luc Ponty’s group?

Jean-Luc is kind of the in the same classical vein. It’s more classically-influenced jazz music. All the parts were written out. There wasn’t really any comping. You were playing parts while someone was soloing. There’s nothing wrong with it. It is what it is. I just prefer stuff that’s looser and more organic in which you can make up your own stuff when you want to. Maybe it’s not as responsible. [laughs] Sometimes you can have a night when you’re improvising a lot and it sucks. It’s not going to be the same every night, but I think it’s cool that the audience in Detroit might hear a completely different thing than the audience in Pittsburgh. It ends up being a gig just for them. Why should the concert be the same as in the next town?

Tribal Tech was without a label for two years before Thick. How difficult was it for you to shop the band in North America during that time?

There was no interest. I called majors and minors. It was basically clicks on the phone. "Hello, this is Scott Henderson." Click! [laughs]

Doesn’t your name carry any weight with these people?

I don’t really know. Some of them seemed to know who I was, but when I sent them Reality Check, Face First and Illicit—the last three Tribal Tech records—nobody was interested. I knew some of the artists these labels had and most of them were a little more commercial than us. I’m sure they saw us as a no-seller, so they wouldn’t do it. It’s not true though. We sell a fair amount of albums for the kind of music we do. But I never got into a conversation with any of the labels. My experience was you send them a CD and you usually never hear from them.

Unbelievable. After all, Tribal Tech is one of the longest-established fusion bands in the world.

Yeah. Willis and I have been together since 1985. The first record was in ‘86. The current four-piece has been together since ‘90.

Apparently, that kind of longevity doesn’t mean anything these days.

I guess not. To our fans it does though. We still have a lot of fans and that’s the one thing to be thankful for.

In the end, Escapade saw the light though.

Yeah, Escapade liked it. Joachim Becker is a fan of avant-garde music. He doesn’t like structured music. When he heard we were going to do this jamming kind of record, he was really excited about it. He heard us do it at a gig and was impressed by it. He wanted us to get that organic thing on a record. Then Zebra licensed it. They have an option to put whatever Escapade releases out in the States.

What do you make of the smooth jazz insurrection?

It’s jazz for people who don’t like jazz.

I’ve never understood what it has to do with jazz period. It’s instrumental adult contemporary pop. They piggyback the word "jazz" onto it as a way to give it an undeserving legitimacy.

I don’t think it has anything to do with jazz either. It’s basically top-40 without the vocals and a certain saxophone sound instead. It kind of disturbs me that people even call it jazz. Just because there’s no singer, they call it jazz. I think Led Zeppelin was more jazz than that is. If you listen to Led Zeppelin live, they were more of a jazz band than anything you hear on the Wave. They were improvising, extending and jamming. I sort of feel they were the first fusion band.

Things seemed pretty bad about eight or nine years ago when the GRP scene was raging. But somehow, it’s actually become exponentially worse since.

Yeah, it seems to have. I guess maybe in our violent times people need to be soothed. It’s sort of like a lobotomy you get through the air.

It wasn’t that long ago that a real fusion act could have a sales and radio presence.

I think Weather Report was the last band of their time that could do that. I also think a reason is that they were playing their music at a time when people were smoking more pot and willing to listen. The ‘60s and ‘70s were a really volatile time for music. So much new stuff came out. People seemed to be more open-minded in what they listened to. Now, music is more corporate. I’m just an ex-hippie. I grew up in the time of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Jimi Hendrix. That’s what I was listening to when I was in high school in 1972. What I was listening to was the shit. If any of those bands came along for the first time today, I don’t know if they could make it. People who play non-corporate music are up against way more barriers than perhaps they were back then.

What kind of lifestyle does your music career afford you?

I’m not rich, but I’ve got a lot of tunes out there. I’m finally making some money off publishing. And if I’m not on the road with Tribal Tech, I’m out on the road with my trio. Last year, we were out for five months. This year, it was maybe six months. I can’t complain about that. I get plenty of work. I also teach at GIT two days a week when I’m town. That keeps my chops up. I play all day when I do that. I’m teaching open counseling which is basically an open room where students can come in and play a tune and ask me questions. It’s one-on-one, but there are other people in the room. It’s cool for students to play in front of other people and get critiqued by them. We had nothing like GIT when I was growing up. I was just learning from records. I think I would have progressed a lot faster had I known what I was doing.

What first attracted you to the idea of pursuing the blues for your solo releases?

I’ve played blues since I was a kid. It just happened that when I got signed to a label in ‘85, I was doing this jazz band with Willis. I sort of feel bad about it in a way because I forgot my roots. What I don’t like about Spears, Nomads and Dr. Hee—the first three Tribal Tech albums—is that although the records have nice compositions and playing, I feel like I left my roots behind on them. I was trying to be a jazz musician and I’m not. [laughs] I don’t consider myself a jazz musician. I’m just a musician that’s borrowed from many different styles of music from funk to jazz to country to rock. During the time of Illicit and Face First, I was playing a lot of blues gigs like I always have with my friends. Then someone said "You should really try something besides sitting in on these blues gigs where you’re playing the same old tunes." I said "Well, you know what? I’m going to put together a Led Zeppelin cover band" because I really love Led Zeppelin.

I got me, Kirk and a bunch of friends of mine and we had this really nice Led Zeppelin cover band with a girl named Erin McGuire singing who sounded just like Robert Plant. She also sang on Dog Party. The band got me fired up to listen to some of the old records I used to listen to and more and more I realized that I want to do this just as much as I want to play jazz. So, I decided to do a blues record which ended up being Dog Party. This was five or six years ago. I wrote some tunes pretty quickly and we went into the studio. I just wanted to do it for fun because the Tribal Tech records were serious MIDI records with complicated stuff going on in the studio. It was pretty refreshing to do an album where you go in and play with no MIDI, no computers and nothing high tech. I was really surprised when that record won best blues album in Guitar Player. They were really accepting of me as a blues player.

How much trepidation did you have about making your solo album debut as a blues act?

I was afraid I’d be a laughing stock and no-one would take me seriously. People pigeonhole you to a certain thing. When you make fusion records, who’s your competition? Maybe a handful of guys. You make a blues record and your competition is everyone on the planet! [laughs] There’s only about five million blues guitarists out there. It’s heavy to make a record playing the same kind of thing Albert King played who’s 50 times better than me. That’s really intimidating. But there’s not that many guys doing fusion records. It’s not that I think I’m better than the other fusion guitar players, because there are great ones out there. But with blues, you’re doing the same thing Jimi Hendrix was doing. [laughs] So, I was really scared and nervous. I think Tore Down House came out a lot better. I played with a lot more confidence on that album. Now, I’m doing a third one soon and hopefully it’s gonna burn.

Despite comparing yourself to other blues artists, Dog Party and Tore Down House really aren’t conventional blues albums.

Yeah, they’re not. Dog Party was semi-conventional and Tore Down House was totally unconventional. I felt like I found my niche as a solo artist with Tore Down House because it’s blues played with a Strat. It sounds vintage, but it’s got tunes with more modern harmony and progressions in them. That’s the kind of stuff I write and hear in my head. So, my solo albums are somewhere between Albert King and Tribal Tech. But I wanted to be more like real blues than fusion.

So, what do the blues mean to you?

That’s my roots. It’s the music I grew up on. The blues taught me how to play guitar.

But even more basic than that. What are the blues?

A lot of people say in order to play the blues, you have to have a really miserable life. I can actually say I do as can most people. [laughs] I think the blues is just really deep, spiritual music, even though I’m not a spiritual guy at all. But when I hear blues, it evokes a feeling in me that’s very deep inside. It’s the music that moves me unlike any other music really can. I just feel something. It’s the music that got me into music in the first place. People shouldn’t forget their roots. The music you learn when you learn to play will always be with you. That’s where you come from. That’s your school. Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Johnny Winter and Carlos Santana—those guys were my teachers.

It’s interesting that they’re mostly white guys playing the blues.

Yeah, but then I wanted to hear where that music came from. So, I started listening heavily to Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Albert Collins and Albert King. Albert King to this day is still my favorite of those guys. So, that’s where I’m coming from.

Does the black/white dichotomy ever enter your mind? The idea that white guys can’t play the blues?

Yeah, well, there’s a lot of people who say a lot of stupid things. But it’s a cliché that never went away. For whatever reason, it’s not even perceived as racist. I’ve had the same kind of vibe in jazz too. There’s a lot of music snobs out there. I am the perfect target for them. I’m white and I play the blues. I’m too loud to be called a jazz musician. I have too much harmony to be called a rock musician. Everyone hates me. [laughs] I’ve had a few hollow-body jazz guitarists give me the cold shoulder which pisses me off. It’s "You’re not a real musician." But I will say that guys like Larry Koonse or Steve Cardenas who play the shit out of the hollow body guitar play gigs with me. We have a great time. There are a few that are playing their standards and chord melodies who, when they hear my vibrato bar, go "Oh, that guy’s not a real jazz guitar player." That’s okay though, because I don’t profess to be one. But it makes me mad. It makes me want to say "Okay, I’ll come over there and kick your ass on ‘Giant Steps.’ Now, you come over here and show me what you can do with a Strat and a Marshall." [laughs] Not that I’ve ever said that to anyone.

Sometimes it makes you feel bad when people turn their noses up at you because you’re not playing a pure kind of music. I’m not ashamed that I’m a fusion musician because I really mix a lot of different musics in what I do. I don’t consider fusion a dirty word. If people call Kenny G fusion, okay, I can see why people will be mad. For me, fusion is just a mixture of musics. Yes is a fusion band with classical and rock mixed together. The Dixie Dregs are a band that mixes country, rock, classical and jazz. Fusion is a fine word. It’s exactly what I do. And I do think that white guys can play the blues. At least some of them anyway. [laughs]

Your brand of blues is infused with a heavy dose of humor. How does that play with the music snobs?

I’m sure some people listen to Tore Down House and go "This isn’t real blues. How can a blues fan do an album like this?" But Bugs Henderson told me one time that people don’t consider his music real blues either because he’s not playing all 1-4-5. It’s just ridiculous to have to purify anything. Some people are like the Klu Klux Klan of music critics. They have to purify everything—pure jazz, pure rock. My music definitely has nothing to do with that concept.

Do you think people take the blues too seriously?

Well, I certainly have a reverence for the great musicians of the past. They’re innovators and I have a great respect for them. But I’m not in that time period. This is 1999. I have to be who I am.

Speaking of humor in the blues, tell me how "I Hate You" from Tore Down House came together.

My next door neighbors play a lot of ‘50s music. Sometimes those bass lines come through the walls and I’d be woken up by "bom ba bom bom bom." I’d be thinking "Man, this is such a funny sound—these ‘50s ice cream changes." I thought they were hilarious basslines and most of the songs start off with a line like "You’re my angel" or "You’re my sweetheart." So, I decided to do something with lyrics that were totally opposite. [laughs]

How did the Thelma Houston connection come about?

Thelma’s bad isn’t she? Fuck, she’s ridiculous. I knew her from a friend who told me she lives in town and is looking to do different projects. When she heard the music, she liked it and knew it’d be a chance to stretch out. So, this was almost a jazz record for her. I didn’t give her a whole lot of melodies to sing. I told her to do whatever she wanted to do and go for it. She came in and killed. She’s great. She’s a really nice, sweet lady. She’s so good at what she does that she almost never has to do anything twice. It’s amazing to see someone do first take after first take and blow you away. You wouldn’t even think about asking her to do it again. When you’re producing, it’s heaven.

Compare what goes through your head when you’re playing the blues versus when you’re doing jazz.

I don’t think when I play the blues. When I play jazz, I have to think. But when I play the blues, I can turn everything off. Someday, hopefully I can do that for jazz. But with jazz, sometimes when I’m playing through changes, I have to think a little bit. I prefer to play music and not think about scales, arpeggios and all that stuff, and just make melodies.

Is it down to complexity?

It’s just down to I don’t practice enough. [laughs] That’s the problem. But whatever. I enjoy playing blues. It’s a music you can play and really let go in. I’m also really into tone. Music is what I do, but tone is kind of my hobby.

Describe your fascination with tone.

It’s like wine tasting. If you have just a little bit, then everything you try is going to taste the same. But the more you drink it and experiment, you realize how different it all is. If you look at tone the same way, it’s like going from this thing where it sounds like a guitar to really hearing the nuances between different pick-ups. Guitar players know what I’m talking about, but maybe regular people don’t.

I think they do, but they may not realize it. When a listener says "I can pick out this guitarist when I hear just one note," it’s not always necessarily because of the playing.

Yeah, because some of it is about the tone. People say I can play through any amp and sound like me because a lot of it is in the fingers too. But a lot of it is making the right choices about buying gear and fitting that all together. It’s a never-ending search. I feel like I’m getting there and I’m really happy with my tone. I feel I can improve it, but I’m happy playing every night onstage. I’m not going through what I used to go through which is having a problem playing because I don’t like my sound. Nowadays, I don’t have that excuse anymore. I can’t blame it on my tone anymore.

You took some shit for Dog Party in terms of all the lyrics being dog-oriented.

[cracks up] Yeah, that’s okay. I don’t care. I’m just a big dog fan and I really have a dog party every year for my dogs. I invite the other dogs in the neighborhood and their masters over. So, we have something like 40 dogs running around the yard. The album cover was a picture of one of my dog parties. We barbecue, people drink beer and play with the dogs. It’s really fun. I’ve never considered myself an innovator, but doing a blues album about dogs is probably the most innovative thing I’ve done. [laughs]

What’s it like to have 40 dogs in one yard?

Well, sometimes they fight, but we have the hose ready in case that happens. [laughs] We have little signs that we put at their eye level that say "No fighting," but sometimes it doesn’t work.

Describe the experience of putting together the Vital Tech Tones CD with Steve Smith and Victor Wooten.

It was intense. We stayed at Steve’s house under one roof for 10 days. We’d compose during the day and record at night. We started out thinking it’d be a jam record. At the beginning, I brought in "Dr. Hee" which I thought would be great for a trio. Then, I thought "This sounds cool. Lets make this a tunes record." It’s more challenging to compose music boom, boom, boom than it is to jam. I’ve never done that to myself before. I’ve always had plenty of time. The tune would be ready when it’s ready. With this, you had to come up with shit now because we’re gonna record it tonight. It was like music boot camp. It was fun putting the pressure on myself like that. I’m really proud of that record even though I don’t like my tone on it. I couldn’t bring all my gear to San Francisco to record. But I’m really happy with how we were able to get the music written and done in a 10 day period. It was really fun working with those guys. They’re really good musicians.

Compare the Wooten/Smith rhythm section to Willis/Covington.

It’s like night and day. The Willis/Covington thing is way softer and more jazz most of the time—I mean stage volume soft. The music is more dynamic. There’s a lot more softs and louds whereas with the Wooten/Smith thing, it’s "Let’s kick ass." It’s a more funk-rock, in your face kind of thing—at least for that particular record. That’s because it was for Mike Varney and he wanted a stompin’ kind of record and I didn’t mind doing that because it’s fun. But Tribal Tech is much more ethereal and mysterious sounding. When Willis plays a groove, you don’t know it’s bass. He’ll put popsicle sticks in his bass strings and other weird stuff. We have a lot of dark and mysterious moments in Tribal Tech and that’s kind of our vibe. That’s the opposite of Wooten/Smith. They pound it down your throat—again, at least on that record. I’m sure they have a sensitive side too. We’re gonna do another record. I want it to be under exactly the same circumstances—we go in there with nothing and compose on the spot. I doubt we’ll ever tour because I think Victor gets two days off a year with Bela Fleck. [laughs] They’re constantly on the road. I hope we get to work with him again later next year.

What was it like for you as a lead guitarist to play with Wooten who is very much an upfront bassist?

It was cool. I think we did a good job making space for reach other. He’s a very musical player. He learns extremely fast. We arranged the stuff in a way that showcased all of us without too much grandstanding and without sounding like we were competing with each other.

You’re attached to the word "tech" in your band names aren’t you?

When Tribal Tech first got together we had one of the first synthesizers. We thought it would be cool to have a synth in the band and that’s where the "tech" part came from. [laughs] It really seems silly now. For the other name, it was because Steve Smith is in Vital Information, I’m in Tribal Tech and Victor’s in Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. So, Vital Tech Tones is a little bit of everybody’s band.

Let’s finish off with the Innerviews word blurt game. I’ll throw out a bunch of names and words, and you tell me whatever comes to mind. First up is Larry Sanders.

Oh man, he’s my hero! That’s the best show that’s ever been on television. [laughs] That’s my kind of humor. That was the most awesome show. You could see me in the audience in an episode once wearing my Illicit t-shirt. Ironically, it was the one where the band leader was causing a bunch of problems for Hank. That was a great episode.

John Coltrane.

He’s another one of my heroes. After I listened to bands like Weather Report and Return To Forever, I was really curious to hear the roots of that music. So, I started listening to a lot of Coltrane and he became one of my favorite players. He still is.

Cruise ships.

That’s what Kirk [Covington] does. He plays keyboards on a boat. That’s how he makes his living really. He’s a good keyboard player too. He knows every song ever written in every key—even stuff by Neil Sedaka! [laughs] When he’s not on the road with me, he’s got three kids to support. People freak when they hear him play keyboards because he knows so many jazz standards and pop tunes by memory. He can literally play everything without the sheet music or words in front of him.

John McLaughlin.

He’s such a great musician. I’ve always really liked him. He’s a rare guy. When I first heard his music, it was a real revelation because I really feel he’s an innovator. In a way, I’m kind of jealous because I don’t consider myself an innovator at all. I don’t consider many people in music to be an innovator. But he was one of those guys that have the brain power to step into the future and yank it back into the present. Those people are only born every 50 or 100 years. Miles was one. So was Joe Zawinul. McLaughlin is too. He came to our gig in France earlier this year. He was really fun to hang with and it was cool. It was a little nerve-wracking because he’s a monster. It’s not that I was star-struck, it’s just that I listened to him when I was very young and impressionable. I can safely say when I heard Mahavishnu, I had never heard anything like that in my life. He was way ahead of his time like Hendrix was with Band of Gypsies. The audience didn’t know what to think of it. He’s paving the way for what’s to come. I’m not intimidated by him though. There’s an old saying that goes "You’ve got to have enough humility to know you have room to grow. But at the same time, you have to have enough confidence to get the job done." Sometimes, it’s hard to walk the line. I tend to go in one direction and think I don’t have enough confidence. That’s changed quite a bit and continues to. I’m feeling a lot more confident about my playing—especially this year.

Strip clubs.

I never found that much use for them to tell you the truth. It’s like, if you can’t get off, what use is it? [laughs] I know a lot of other musicians like them. I guess you can get a lap dance, but I’m not into public sex. But strip clubs seem to be a drummer’s favorite place from my experience—more so than for other musicians.

Jerry Springer.

I could be politically correct and say he’s a really bad influence on America, but to tell you the truth, I think it’s funny as shit. In fact, when we were doing the Vital Tech Tones record, we watched the Jerry Springer Uncut video you can buy. We laughed our ass off a couple of nights watching it. We’d do our tracks, then go to the TV room, relax, eat popcorn and put on the Jerry Springer video. [laughs]

Troy McClure.

I was so mad. That was the worst thing that ever happened. [The death of comedian Paul Hartman] The Tribal Tech tune "You may remember me" is dedicated to him. He was one of our favorite comedians. He has been for a long time. We’re all huge Simpsons fans. But not only that. We were also huge Phil Hartman fans. He was in so many funny movies. He was amazing. He saved Saturday Night Live for many years. In my opinion, he was one of the only good things on the show. Man, it’s just so horrible to die the way he died—for his kids and for everyone. It’s a really, really heavy loss for laughter’s family.

Toots Thielman.

He comes up with endless non-repetitive melodies. That’s the hardest thing to do in jazz, period. There are a lot of jazz musicians who play their licks and I have mine too, but to come up with totally new melodies and great motivic development without repeating yourself is a lot more difficult than playing licks. That’s something Toots, Joe [Zawinul] and Wayne [Shorter] all have totally nailed.

Ricky Martin.

I know he’s the new pop phenomenon, but I don’t have a radio, so I haven’t heard it. I try to stay away from that world as much as possible. The only pop records I’ve heard recently are my Steely Dan albums. That’s pop music, but I like some of it. I don’t like most pop music. I hear things now and again in a club and I sort of like some of this new dance music. I heard Jeff Beck’s new album and I really like it. I sort of agree with him that when you go into these dance clubs and hear this really hip music, you want to play guitar over some of it. Some of it is really dark and cool sounding. What I can’t stand is the syrupy stuff with too many major 7th chords. I hear a lot of that in pop music which doesn’t really appeal to me much.

John Tesh.

That’s funny. That’s comedy. There’s nothing funnier than stuff that’s not meant to be funny that is funny. It’s the greatest humor in the world. It’s like farting in church. You’re not supposed to laugh at it and it’s funnier than it really is. And what’s even funnier is that people take it seriously.

Dreadlocks.

I’m blessed or cursed with them. There’s a picture of me with dreadlocks on Tore Down House and some magazine gave me the ‘Worst Hairstyle Ever’ award. This was in a real music magazine, I can’t remember which one. They hung it up at school [at GIT] on the bulletin board. I thought that was kinda cool. I was kinda proud of that. [laughs] I just let my hair go and now they’re down to my butt. I just decided to go for it. It’s just the way it grows. I don’t have anything to do with it. I haven’t listened to Bob Marley in a long time. I don’t know anything about that culture. I’m not a pot dealer either. I just have dreadlocks, that’s all. [laughs]

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