After reviewing Wanderlust for Blogcritics I had the chance to interview the co-mastermind behind the music, Cliff Hines. (I consider Ian Painter to be the other co-mastermind per Cliff’s interview.)
Your first album Like Mystics of Old was dedicated to all of your teachers, “past, present and future”. Wanderlust appears to be dedicated to the tapestry of cultures and experiences of today (with your note on the inside flap of the CD). What inspired you to create Wanderlust?
Like Mystics of Old was a collection of jazz songs I had written up to that point. There was only one song I had actually written for the [Cliff Hines] Quintet, “Pastels”; the rest were songs I had written when I was younger (“Mystic” was one of the first songs I ever wrote) and were re-interpreted through the lens of the new band. After Like Mystics of Old, I was left with a blank slate and had a very active and inspired writing period. A lot of songs had to do with what I was reading at the time. For “Dresden” I had been reading Kurt Vonnegut, “Interzone” was about Naked Lunch, and “The Path of Arjuna” was about the Bhagavad-Gita.
A lot of songs were also inspired by current events, with “Tehran” about the Arab Spring and “Clouds” about the recent disaster in Japan. Musically, I’ve always been influenced by other styles of world music. There was a good amount of world traveling on our first record (“Nova” was Brazilian, “Tippy Toes” was Afro-Cuban, “Like Mystics of Old” was African) but had more of an electronic fusion sound to it. For Wanderlust I wanted to capture a more earthy and acoustic sound, with the electronics serving as texture instead of form, and focus more on the element of genre-blending.
That must have made recording very interesting. What was that process like?
It all began with a weekend-long session with just the Quintet, with my co-producer and engineer Ian Painter at the helm. We recorded all of the songs with no effects. Instead of creating sound textures with my pedals (as I would do live), I wanted to use the studio as an effect instead. We called some of our favorite local musicians and friends to come in one by one and add a little bit of their flavor to the record.
How did you gather together so many legends and fresh-on-the-scene musicians?
A lot of the people on the record were old friends and collaborators. Khris Royal used to be the fifth member of the Quintet (he plays EWI, sax, and keys on Like Mystics of Old). Rex Gregory plays sax and keys in my rock side-project “Zosimus” and has occasionally filled in with the Quintet. Helen Gillet, Simon Lott II (who has also filled in for a Zosimus show), Jack Craft, and Sebastian Figueroa have all performed on various tribute shows of mine. James Singleton and I have done various improvised concerts together. Oddly enough, I met Kent Jordan through the school system. I was working as a substitute teacher at Lusher, where he is the head of the Jazz department.
Wow, so if everyone came in one by one, how did you create the final result of simulating the ultimate jam session? Were there any songs that were improvised in the spirit of a jam?
There were two songs on the record that were completely improvised, “Dresden Intro” and “Arjuna Intro”. “Arjuna” was an interplay between Dave Easley on slide-guitar (mimicking a sitar), Andrew McLean on tablas, and me (I was creating a drone sound using an ebow on my guitar and a loop pedal, while still improvising with the other two). “Dresden Intro” was interesting because Andrew McGowan’s and Helen Gillet’s parts were improvised independently of each other.
Because of all of the layers [of the various musicians coming in one-by-one] that ended up on the record, this [aspect of the recording] was a very time-consuming process. Many days were spent with me and Ian brainstorming new concepts to try for the record and experimenting with new sounds. A lot of Wanderlust‘s digital noises were courtesy of local drummer Simon Lott II who spent a day recording his cymbals and drums processed through his own rig of pedals. Then Ian and I would sample the sounds and try to fit them into the piece tastefully.
It came together quite well. What is your favorite part of improvising?
It should always be about the music as a whole. I like my songs to be amorphous and open to change. I like to be surprised every night. I like to try and create sounds I’ve never heard before.
Perhaps that’s how you create a sense of fluidity to your tapestry of sound. How do you compose and “weave” such a vast array of music?
Practice, practice, practice. I feel like I am more of a composer than I am a guitarist. I actually have the next three or four records already written out. I have some serious catching up to do studio-wise. One of my techniques as a composer is that I try not to write anything down until it’s time to teach it to someone. My philosophy is this: if I can’t remember it, then it wasn’t worthwhile in the first place. This is a great memory exercise, and it keeps my compositions to a high standard.
That also means you can’t “lose” your work, since it’s always with you. As the composer and band leader, how involved are you in the production process for music videos, concerts/shows and your albums?
I am always heavily involved in the production of my various projects. For “Pastels” I worked very closely with The Greenhouse Collective (Zac Manuel, Painter, and Chris Haney) in the development process. I helped with nearly every aspect (from rigging the giant white canvas, painting the instruments and clothes white, etc.). For our new music video “Dresden”, the process was quite different. Animator Tahnee Gehm is a recent graduate of CalArts. She and I had never actually met, but I really liked her work and reached out to her about the project. She and I spent a lot of time sending ideas back and forth and brainstorming the overall concept via phone and email.
It seems you have a vast appreciation for the many facets of making it in the music industry. How has alternating between the varied perspectives of producer, teacher, composer, and musician strengthened you as an artist?
I definitely consider myself a composer first. I feel like that is my mission on Earth. Composers are some of the greatest musicians on the planet; they are the ones who have the greatest sense of melody. If someone can’t write a decent song, how are they supposed to play a decent solo? Teaching is one of the greatest lessons a musician can learn. In order to explain a concept, you have to understand it deeply. You can’t teach something that you only have a cursory knowledge of. Teaching forces you to be truly confident in what you know, and what you don’t know. As a producer, I became a much better listener. Production teaches you to be aware of the smallest details. It also strengthened my knowledge of textures and sounds. Music is so much more than notes, after all.
Yes, definitely. It’s those kind of details that must have come into play when you masterminded three tribute shows (to Prince, David Bowie, and Radiohead), replete with costumes, effects and lots of musicians. What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered with this trio of talent?
The tribute concerts were a lot of work. Not only were we assembling a band of 15-20 super-busy musicians, but we have to learn two sets of music from prolific artists in the time of a month. I transcribed all of the music that we played and served as Musical Director for each.
All three of those artists have a very unique voice and are heavily influential musicians. For these shows, my goals were to study them and try to encapsulate their performances. Musically, the songs of each aren’t very easy, so that was also a huge challenge. The biggest challenge of all, however, was scheduling rehearsals.
That would be quite intense. How did you organize everything?
Sleep was sacrificed. The transcription work was pretty daunting, but once I got into a good work flow, everything came together smoothly. Rehearsals were difficult though because we had to accommodate for everyone’s differing schedules. Oftentimes that meant that I would have to have several rehearsals a week just to get a little bit of time in with each guest artist. Luckily, everyone else was willing to make sacrifices, too. That’s the only way it came together in the end.
Teamwork is definitely the only way to make it in these creative industries (or any profession, really). Was the creation of your band “logo” also a team project? What is the significance of it, with each of the band members sporting different face paintings?
The logo is a concept of Ian’s. He took those pictures to promote the upcoming music video shoot for “Pastels”. We wanted to play with the paint element of the music video as well as the tribal/world element to our music. Ultimately it served to be very representative of our sound on Wanderlust but that wasn’t the original intention.
It’s a brilliant way to encapsulate music as diverse as yours. All the members of your quintet hail from various heritages, and of course you’re based in New Orleans. How much of this multicultural environment and heritage influences your music?
Growing up in New Orleans, you can’t help but bathe in it. On any given night, you can listen to live music spanning a diverse range of styles (if you know where to look). New Orleans musicians are very versatile because they’re always asked to play different styles of music. Because we all have a little knowledge in these various areas, I try to be as authentic as possible when incorporating various genres.
Authenticity is really important with creative projects. In what way have you gathered resources and strength from working in New Orleans (and with such organizations as Live Music NOLA)?
There is a huge degree of brotherhood and camaraderie in the New Orleans music scene not only between the musicians but between the various local organizations. My collaborations with the Greenhouse Collective, Live Music NOLA, and the Positive Vibrations Foundation have always been mutually beneficial. Working together is the only way to get anywhere in this world, and tackling the music industry is no easy feat.
[This interview is continued at the following link, "Part 2".]