Interview with Trey Gunn by Mark Butler

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Submitted By: Mark Butler (mhb at uk dot ac dot bham dot cs)

"The Robert Fripp String Quintet" - Sunday 20th June 1993

(Excerpt from Nottingham Guitar Festival Brochure)

"Robert Fripp, ex-King Crimson, inventor of Frippertronics and founder of Guitar Craft, is universally recognised as a major force in the guitar world today. Renowned for his innovative playing he is in great demand; this year alone sees him working with the likes of Brian Eno, The Grid and The Orb as well as his recent collaborations with David Sylvian. The Robert Fripp String Quintet is his latest project and features Robert Fripp on electric guitar, Trey Gunn on Chapman Stick and the Californian Guitar Trio, Bert Lams, Paul Richards, Hideyo Moriya, playing amplified Ovations. All these players have a background in Guitar Craft and have all been members of The League of Crafty Guitarists.

Trey Gunn is from Texas, and recently he has been touring and recording with David Sylvian and Robert Fripp. Trey has a background as a bass player and a guitarist before taking up the Stick. The California Guitar Trio began work after the last tour of The League of Crafty Guitarists. Now based in LA, the trio travel extensively with their own work, as well as assisting with the Guitar Craft programme around the world. Their first CD has recently been released. The Robert Fripp String Quintet began life with several dates in the USA last year and went on to play Japan where they did a live concert on TV. They are scheduled to release their debut CD in September. The music itself reflects the bands' diverse influence with everything from the rockier sounds of Frippertronics through to the intricate ensemble playing and hypnotic rhythms of The League of Crafty Guitarists. It will delight all die hard Fripp fans as well as those coming to his special brand of music for the first time."

The concert was amazing. Frippertronics (and Guitar Craft) on record is sometimes described as haunting. To hear Robert, Trey, Bert, Richard and Hideyo perform live was incredible. I'm stuck for words to describe it - I found the concert an intense and moving experience. I just hope Toby Howard (who edits Discipline) who was also there can supply some details of the concert. Trey was playing a 12 string oak Grand Stick. His playing was phenomenally clean and controlled, and he manages to get a deep, church organ like tone from the bass register on his Stick. One piece in the concert (The Chromatic Fantasy) was solo Stick, he played some very fast lines using two hands on the melody register of the touchboard. He was also using an E-bow on some of the Frippertronics pieces.

I was lucky enough to attend the Guitar workshop Robert Fripp organised on Saturday the 19th of June and explained the Stick list to Trey Gunn. He was very interested so he kindly consented to do an interview before the sound check for the concert on the Sunday. This interview is exclusive to the Stick List and Discipline.

M: So how long have you been involved in music?

T: In music? 26 years.

M: And what other instruments apart from the Stick do you play?

T: Play now - nothing. I started on piano when I was about seven, then I played violin a little bit when I was about eleven or twelve, then I switched to acoustic guitar, then to electric bass which I kept up for maybe eight or ten years, and in the interim also went back to the guitar, acoustic guitar, and then kind of switched from bass to electric guitar for about five or six years before picking up the Stick.

M: Out of all those instruments, probably the piano, in terms of it two handed technique is closest to the stick (Trey starts to interrupt) ... Yeah?

T: In a way.

M: Do you feel you gained from starting on piano, or do you feel you've gained more from starting on the guitar?

T: I don't know. The way I see it is I spent about fifteen years getting ready to play the Stick.

M: If you were advising a Stick player to get a more conventional background on another instrument what would you advise?

T: The Stick. I think time is too short, that if that's the instrument you want to play that's the instrument you should play. At the time I first became interested in the instrument I wasn't able to give it the time and the dedication that it needed. I even actually drove from Oregon down to Emmett's house to buy one, and realised when he couldn't sell me one that it just wasn't the right time. Then several years later I was going to buy one again and I realised it wasn't the right time. When it finally was the right time, I put the guitar in the case, put the bass in the case. This is the instrument I play, if you want me to play this is my instrument.

M: So how long have you been playing Stick now?

T: Five and a half years.

M: And what particularly brought you to the Stick? What inspired you to take it up?

T: I suppose the real answer to that question is music brought me there. It wasn't my intention directly. Looking back, I suppose my life was preparing me to pick up the instrument but at the time I didn't know that, until I actually got it in my hands, everything I'd been trying to do for the last eight years on the guitar was for the stick. I didn't realise that there was obviously something larger going on.

M: In the band tonight, how do you see your role? How does it differ from that of a bass guitarist?

T: Well, I suppose the main answer to that question is often I'm not playing the bass at all. Maybe on a fifth of the tunes there's actually a bass part played by me, or picked up by someone else, or there isn't a bass part. On several tunes I play only the melody side even with an octave up so I'm the solo instrument. On one piece in particular I'm the only instrument and I'm playing the top side. I'm using the top side a lot, which seems to be becoming my speciality.

Funnily enough though, people having been saying the bass sounds more like a bass guitar than a Stick. I'm not sure whether I like that or not, the way they're perceiving it. My interest was in getting a really good bass sound out of it, as I rarely hear the Stick with a good full bass sound which can compete with the bass guitar. My aim with the instrument is to bring the sound of it up to the professional level, so that it plays in tune and it sounds good enough so if Adrian Belew's not playing the guitar part I can play it on Stick and it's going to sound just as good. If Tony's in the group it's going to be the Stick or Tony playing bass, so I aim to have a good sound and I haven't really found that before in Stick music. Stick solo on its own, you don't have the association with any sound, and you just accept it for what it is but when you put it in to a rock context, the bass should sound really full and kick you in the stomach. On the latest record that I've done with David Sylvian and Robert Fripp to my ears it's one of the best bass sounds I've ever heard.

M: Coming back to the fact you and Tony are playing in King Crimson, are you going to play Stick at the same time?

T: I've only played with Tony for about two hours, and that was with Robert, Jerry Marotta, Tony and I, and Adrian wasn't there. It was just a jam, we weren't working on materials specifically. I'm sure we're going to do some double Stick stuff, and with bass because he really enjoys playing the bass. I think the Stick for him was an alternate instrument, for me it's my main instrument. For him it's bass, then stick and keyboards probably. I'm looking to a lead role and texture role and also what I think will be a baritone role, and I haven't the faintest idea what that's going to be yet.

M: What advice would you offer a Stick player who like yourself has decided to take the stick as his sole instrument?

T: Depends on what they want to do. Maybe a more specific question than that?

M: Particularly because so few people play the Stick, and there is no formal method or standard repertoire, or teaching, or even role in the band for the Stick player. What avenues do you think people are missing? When you see other Stick players play, how could they improve?

T: Okay, there's a couple of questions. I'll answer the last one first, but don't let me lose the first one. The first thing I noticed about Stick players, myself included, is the posture they play with totally disrupts any chance of music happening. They always bend their head way, way forward and are crouched entirely closed on the instrument. It's almost unanimous. Jim Lampi is probably the only person I've seen who doesn't do this. I don't really know what I look like - I try to stand with my chest open and my face forward. I think it really suffers. The posture you adopt while playing and the way that you breathe is transmitted through the music to the audience and that pretty much says it clearly, they're going to breathe the way you breathe. Whether you know how you're breathing or not, if your breathing's constricted they pick it up without looking at you. It's in the sound - it's true. So I think just physically, there's a lot to be discovered that nobody knows yet and that's actually how to the play the instrument. When I first picked it up, the first thing that struck me aside from the two handedness of it, that splits your body in half, is that you should learn to play this instrument without looking at the fretboard. What a great opportunity if somebody picked it up and said "I don't have any gigs for two years, I'm going to learn to play this instrument without looking at the fretboard."

M: But, because of the way Emmett teaches the Stick graphically in Free Hands, looking at the fretboard is probably the first intuitive way that most players learn to play.

T: Yeah, I don't really know his approach. The book didn't have any particular use for me and I never took a lesson with Emmett. I've spoken to him on the phone, but I've never studied with Emmett. To make that leap in to not looking is a pretty big one because you have to put your fingers right in the right spot and you want to get on with it and play so that's probably why nobody has done it yet. I don't do it, but I'm working towards that now. Your hands are smarter than you think. And what was the first part of the question? What would I suggest? I would suggest the same things I'm continually trying to suggest to myself, when I have the time I will do it. I only have pockets of time to practice. The instrument is so primitive right now, as far as not so much the construction although the construction will undoubtedly improve over the years but just the relationship of the players to the instrument is at a primitive, Neanderthal stage. In a hundred years, more players will come to the instrument and there will be an appropriate body of technique. Right now players need to do what is considered by some people the really boring work but actually it's not, it's essential work of looking at how the hands play the instrument and dissecting all the combinations of the fingers on the instrument to get a really good pure tone which stays in tune. As far as music goes, I think people should learn to play Bach and whatever people can find what he's written which works on the instrument, so far everything I've tried acts as if it was written for the Stick.

M: The trouble I've had with approaching Bach, is I'm using a fifths and fourth tuning, so if there's a unison line the hands are moving in opposite directions. Your using a variation on the Crafty tuning ...

T: Yeah, it's a mirror tuning

M: So it's in fifths on the melody side, except for a minor third between strings two and three and a whole tone between stings one and two?

T: Yeah, let me just back up on your question, there's another question in there. The tuning that Emmett set the instrument up on doesn't work for me and my feeling is it's only half way there. Putting fifths on the bass, you have a totally new instrument, so I don't know what inspired him to do that but it was obviously a leap of genius. Keeping the fourths on the top side, it doesn't work for me. As I understand it, although I've never used that tuning, there's a logic in terms of geometry between the sides but in my opinion the sides need to be tuned in a mirror fashion because the body is a mirror. I can't really describe it apart from it splits you down the middle in a really satisfying way. It separates you internally and you don't have to use your brain. I haven't used the other tuning so I'm not sure, but you probably have to use the intellect a bit more. And for what you're saying, it just feels right to me to play those unison lines or to play in thirds or it just makes sense inner to outer, outer to inner.

M: But one of the problems of playing in the fifths tuning is you have to make a change in position just to play a scale on the bass and there are different approaches, such as Bob Culbertson with his thumb technique to overcome this. I just wonder whether fifths on the melody might constrict melody ideas because of the bigger stretch. How big are your hands?

T: No bigger than yours! Any change is going to appear to be a restriction but it also brings a whole new world. You can't play blues licks anymore, which is exactly what I wanted to eliminate from my repertoire. But if you want to do something, you can do it. On the Grand Stick, the range is so wide, so instead of your position being a minor third position it's just a fourth across. You have to use all your fingers, and as my understanding is, a lot of people don't do that. The bass side, it's tough though! (Trey laughs)

M: So you don't use your thumbs ...

T: No, I don't use my thumbs. I keep my hands on the back of the neck at all times. I think the main problem is inherent on the instrument, not the fingering, is you can't play a note on the string below the one you're currently on without letting go of the top one whereas pianists can play legato between two adjacent notes. You can trick your way around it, particularly on the Grand Stick because there's so much overlap between the sides, but it's inherent to the instrument, and the bass is like that. It's true not all Bach pieces will work. The Bach pieces we're doing tonight, with the exception of the Chromatic Fantasy which I play on the top side of the instrument, I playing just a bass part with both hands, which reminds me of the other thing I was going to mention about what Stick players should do is that they should play with other musicians. I don't see it as a solo instrument, although you can do that, I have done that and I will do it again, I think essentially Stick players have the possibility of becoming as detached as keyboard players as far as being in time with other musicians and sounding good with other musicians. I don't know that many Stick players, I'm not really an authority on Stick players...

M: Most of the Stick players I know either play bass and play stick a little bit with a band or play stick solo, so I think it's very good to have somebody in your position who a commitment to the Stick, but is playing with a band, and in particular that's why I looking forward to seeing you play tonight...

T: Well, I've been playing five years so my technique really isn't that great but it's pretty good and what I've found is some things which I can do with my left hand alone always sound better if I use two hands on them. The feel is one of the most important things. If you don't get it right, somebody else has got the gig! Somebody else will get to play it!



Toyah Willcox - Ophelia's Shadow

Sunday All Other The World - Kneeling At The Shrine

Trey also played on Brian Eno's new album, Nerve Net, but the tracks he played on didn't make it on to the record but a video has been made to accompany one of the tracks so it should be coming out at a later date.

(Cassette only) Soundtrack for Raw Power (Wind Surfing film)

David Sylvian/Robert Fripp - The First Day "It's got stick all over it, and maybe even Stick players wouldn't know it..., a lot with the melody side, a lot with the Whammy Pedal. That's really great, especially for an octave up. It sounds better than an Eventide harmoniser at $3000. There's a lot of that on the record, and a lot of backwards stick playing, and I co-wrote all tunes" - Trey.


Many thanks to Trey for letting me interview him. It's the first time I've done an interview (maybe the first time a stick player has interviewed another Stick player for a Stick magazine) and I wasn't brilliant at it - note how many questions I started with "but" - I think probably even hinting disagreement is a big mistake to make in an interview - which I must admit I was wincing about as I transcribed the tape. I thanked him profusely, so hopefully it will be okay. Maybe some other people on the list will get something from this, and maybe even try interviewing somebody else ...

Mark Butler mhb at uk dot ac dot bham dot cs

PS I think I need to buy a dictionary .....