Innerviews, music without borders

Michael Hedges
Inspiration and Imagination
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1994 Anil Prasad.

Michael Hedges

This interview with was conducted in support of a chapter on Leo Kottke in the Innerviews book. It primarily covers Hedges’ observations on Kottke, but also contains several other gems of note. For biographical information about Hedges, please visit another Innerviews article titled "Savage mythology."

What first comes to mind when you think about Leo Kottke?

I was in New York City in 1973 and I had just sort of left Oklahoma for the first time after high school. I was on a short tour with a college band in New York. We were playing in churches. I went to a college which is sponsored by the Disciples of Christ Church. So, in New York City, I’m a boy from Oklahoma. Where do I go? To the record store and try to find every record of steel string guitar I can. Everybody said this 6 & 12 String Guitar record by this guy Leo Kottke was the one to get. I guess I was never the same since. I started writing and becoming aware that it was possible to maybe make one’s living or make a record based on all steel string guitar. I’ve got some [John] Fahey records too, but they just didn’t touch me like Leo touched me. It was like he was more modern or something. So, that’s what started me out.

Leo was my first and only steel string fingerpicking guitar idol. Ten years later, I got my record deal, but in between that time, I had all his records. I'd get 'em as soon as they came out. I had fantasies about meeting him. Once, I went to see him in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He was playing at the college there and I took my guitar with me and snuck backstage. I had my hand on the dressing room door when the security guard got me. [laughs] That was probably in ‘75. Ten years later in ‘85, after I had that incident, we had our first gig together. I felt like my dream is coming true. Then we did one USA tour together. We did about 30 shows I guess and we got to play some of our tunes together. He’s one of my good friends now. One thing about Leo is that he’s got so much soul, but he’s also got so much rhythmic drive. You just can’t beat him. He’s a real groovemaster. And you'd never want to beat him. [laughs] You just want to listen.

What is it about 6 & 12 String Guitar that you were particularly fascinated by?

It wasn’t so much that it was Leo at that point, but it was just here’s a guy who was playing steel string guitar solos and they were like modern compositions, rather than folky stuff. [Folky stuff] is fine, the tradition is fine, but here was a guy that was making a new tradition. I first heard the album in 1974. You don’t get that stuff in Oklahoma. So, hearing it for the first time was just sort of a revelation that this can be done! There’s somebody else in this world. It’s like I’ve found a soulmate. Leo was my only inspiration for years. I’d listen to him all the time. It was awhile before I started listening to other people. Probably Ralph Towner was the next guy I latched onto. I really liked that album Road by the Paul Winter Consort that he played 12 string and nylon guitar on. But Leo was the first acoustic guitar hero of mine.

Michael Hedges

Describe how you and Leo hooked up for the Strings of Steel tour in 1988.

Leo didn’t want to call it that. [laughs] I don’t know why. It was my idea, but I said "Okay Leo, what do you want to call it?" He wanted to call it Tour ‘88! [breaks out into laughter] We did a double bill at one point and the show worked. At that point our agents said "Hey, we could probably get more people to a duo show than we could for either one of them solo." So, the business got us together. Now, we talk fairly often. Once every couple of months, we’ll call each other and catch up. I really liked Great Big Boy and I love the vibe on Rickie Lee Jones’ new record [Traffic From Paradise which Kottke guests on]. She produced his new record and it’s probably gonna be great.

What did you make of That’s What? Leo took a bit of heat for that record from critics and fans because of his use of six string bass. Personally, I thought it was brilliant.

I liked that album too—with the trombones. That’s a cool record. I listen to that a lot! It’s funny, I don’t even think his wife liked it.

What are some of your favorite Kottke albums?

Dreams and all that stuff—he’s got this tune "When shrimps learned to whistle" on it. I like the one with the bowler derby on it too—Ice Water. I like all of them in fact. He’s just an original. He's got so much integrity, depth and groove and he's just a sweet, sweet man. I can’t say enough good things about him.

Have you considered making a record with Leo?

I’d always be open to it, but I’m kind of on my own path right now. My new record [Road To Return] is done and it’s all done by me. It’s all flute, programmed drums, bass, all kinds of guitar, synthesizers and 80 per cent of it is vocal.

The rumor is that it may even be somewhat radio friendly.

I’m not going to kiss ass to any textural format, but if radio wants to play it man, I won’t stop them.

I understand that before you made the record, you decided to really woodshed and try to evolve even further than you already have on the guitar. You’ve become very serious about flute and piano too.

The minute that you know how to play guitar, that’s when you should start reassessing everything. To me, it’s a discovery every time you pick it up. And like Yo-Yo Ma said, "What works one day will never work the next." If I go into a situation saying "You know, I can play," it’s not going to turn out as good as "I wonder what I can do now?" I let life be my teacher and then that’s pretty good. The flute and piano—I’ve always played them. I’m trying to build up my chops. Most of the time, I’ve been an intuitional player and that’s great, but I thought it would be fun to get a little bit more of the traditional musicianship skills—you know, hone those a little bit and let your imagination work with those tools. Sometimes it’s fun to just play like a normal musician for awhile—normal note reading like a conservatory student or studio musician—and see what comes of that. Just try a bunch of different stuff. So, that’s what I’ve been doing. Trying new things, trying new textures and seeing what happens.

How do you think Leo has influenced the guitar world as a whole?

The fact that he’s recorded steel string solo guitar albums is the biggest influence I think.

Do you believe there was a stigma attached to recording or performing as a guitar soloist prior to Leo making waves?

Were there any steel string guitar albums that were any good [before Leo]? Maybe so as accompaniment, but not solo—except for John Fahey. But like I said, Leo was more of a modern guitar player than a traditional guitar player. There’s nothing wrong with being traditional, but what’s wrong with a new tradition? [laughs]

As you’re well aware, there have been music critics who say what you and Leo do on the guitar is more about chops and novelty than it is about creating new traditions. How do you react to those sorts of claims?

I like to think of all of my songs as novel, depending on which way you take the novelty part. [laughs and pauses] I just write music, you know? It’s so simple that I don’t think about what it is. I don’t try to define it when I’m doing it. But that’s what critics are supposed to do and that comes after the fact, so I shouldn’t really pay any attention to what critics say. They’re analyzing something I’ve already done. I’m already probably busy doing something else.

Both you and Leo have roots in folk—certainly much more so than any affinity with new age. Yet both of you are signed to labels associated with that stuff. Do you ever have any concerns about public perception as a result of the way they market your work?

Well, that’s just what it is—marketing. That’s all it is. [laughs] Neither Leo nor I sit down and think "Okay, I’m going to write a new age song today!" [laughs] We’re just writing music. I feel we’re pretty close in opinion too. It’s only marketing. Who’s to say where you would rather be in the record store? Like, five years ago, nobody would ever go to the folk bin that was kind of stuck in the back—if there was a folk section at all. But up at the front, there was a big new age section for the yuppies. Are you gonna piddle around with the pennies you’re going to make with every 15th record store that happens to have folk? Or are you going to cash in on the yuppie trade? Well, if it’s just marketing and I don’t have anything invested into it, sure, I’ll take the money because I’m not peddling the stuff.

What about the potential legitimacy and acceptance of this music in higher circles? After all, there are precious few artists marketed under the new age banner that are taken seriously as composers.

I’m not worried about it. [laughs] I’m not worried about my image. To me, marketing doesn’t affect the pock marks in the CD. The place that it is in the record store is not going to change the music and to me, that’s what speaks. I'll go wherever I need to go in the store to find Leo's records. I don't give a damn where I find them. Sometimes I’ll find Leo in rock, sometimes in folk and sometimes in new age. To me it's a real compliment that people don't know where to put him. That’s cool. Brian Eno? Where do you go for him? Where do you go for Richard Thompson?

Michael Hedges

It has to irk you sometimes.

Oh, I suppose sometimes it has because there’s so much trash now in the new age bins. But you’re going to find trash in all the bins. So what if you’re in rock? You might be stuck in between some really trash bands. That’s okay.

Michael Manring’s new record Thonk—a really crunchy album—has been suffering from the exact situation we’re talking about.

That record should definitely win some awards. I want to start a band with him sometime because my new stuff is sounding more raucous and if there's one guy who can cover the basses, no pun intended, it would be him. He's covered all of them.

He’s pretty much without peer in the electric bass world.

Unless you dig up Jaco. But Michael is certainly breathing down his neck.

Speaking of new traditions and legitimacy, both you and Leo have been working with John Stropes on transcriptions and books. It seems this music is beginning to gain academic acceptance. That’s got to mean a lot more than the combined opinion of all the cheap cologne-drenched record marketing men in world.

Yeah, we’re working on a book together. [Rhythm, sonority, silence] I’m just glad that Stropes likes my music. The guitar moves that go along with it are pretty different, so they need to be explained in order to play the music. So, he’s taken it upon himself to do some of this. So, I thought he’d be the best person to write a book with. I’m honored that he would give me that much support. He likes to do it. The book is five tunes and some text—some by me. He did the transcriptions and they’re really note for note. They’re completely right. I never had the patience to get it all down because I’m always changing stuff.

To me, the idea of trying to transcribe your music or Leo’s is beyond complex. You’re both such unconventional players with singular, intuitive styles.

That’s John’s bag. He did it. He loved the music enough to where he filmed it, called me up and asked me about bar 70 in such and such a tune and "Is that a flick or a slap?" He’s totally into it and he figured out how to do it. There’s a certain value to that—to get it all down. But to me, the real value of the book is to learn how to teach yourself how to write. Leo and I are two examples of composers who are writing on the guitar. Just as much as being guitar players, we are composing new music for the guitar. And sometimes new music demands a new technique. If you want to do a certain thing on the guitar, you’ve got to invent something to express that. I flew out to work with John once and he had taught his class how to play "Aerial Boundaries." The whole class played it, two at a time. They each specialized in four or eight bars or something. He also played this tabla loop he made and I stood in front of them and watched them play two-by-two all around in a circle. I was blushing the whole time. [laughs]

I hear you’ve become a motorcycle enthusiast.

I’m just riding my bike. I’ve got a Honda Shadow. If I don’t watch out, I’ll have my eyes on a Harley soon. That’s my biggest inspiration. Yesterday, I spent all day writing a song about the wind. A great way to experience the weather is to ride the bike.

Is this a new thing for you?

I just started. It’s great. I mean, I understand now. I didn’t understand before. I was just living, trying to write music. I just turned 40 on New Year’s Eve and I thought it would be fun to try to do something different. It’s a good marking point to change if you feel like it. So, my outlook is changing. I also thought it’d be fun to try to go to work every day and write—see how much writing I could do. The main inspiration behind this is Zappa. He worked 14 hour days—long, long days. Some people say he worked 20 hours a day. I don’t believe it. But I can believe 12.

You got to spend some time with him, right?

Yeah. I did a cover of one of his tunes last year with Dweezil, his son. He called me up and wanted me to do a version of one of Frank’s tunes, so I did. I did "Sofa" off One Size Fits All. I went down and played it for him. I met Frank and talked to him. He died a couple of months later. I had been listening a lot to his orchestral music and I was thinking "How did he do all of this?" And then I read in one of these obituaries that he worked all the time—he just didn’t stop. So, I thought "Go to work every day. Don’t be afraid of doing it every day." Sometimes artists get into this thing where "Oh well, I‘ve got to be inspired to do this and that." And I kept thinking "Yeah, you get inspired and you write a certain amount of tunes, but do you really want to be prolific and come up with great, great stuff?" And then I read a Zappa quote that said "If you want to achieve greatness, you’ve got to put in the time." [laughs]

Is achieving a similar output level as Zappa now a goal for you?

Sure. I mean, if it wasn’t I wouldn’t be an optimist right?

Does that mean we’ll get more than one new album from you every five years?

[bursts out laughing] Yup. That’s what it means. Well, yeah. There’s a whole kind of mystique that I had about all this record stuff. I’m scared to make ‘em, I’m scared not to make ‘em. Now, it seems to be flowing more. Time will tell.