A Conversation With... Bill Frisell
Seattle-based guitarist-composer Bill Frisell has over 100 recordings to his credit, including 30 as leader on Nonesuch Records, Savoy and Okeh. Over the years, his work has featured a broad spectrum of collaborators including Ginger Baker, Don Byron, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull, Hal Wilner, Paul Motian and John Zorn. There’s also an abstract reading of John Lennon’s music, All We Are Saying, from 2011. In 2014, Frisell looked back in time at those quirky guitar songs and instrumentals from the ‘60s and retold them on his recording Guitar In The Space Age!. Songs like “Pipeline,” Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” The Beach Boys' “Surfer Girl,” and The Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting” got the makeover. While growing up in Denver, Frisell discovered his love for the guitar through Top 40 radio and the blues influences of B.B. King and Paul Butterfield.
While digging through the archives I found this interview from the summer of 1998 that reveals much about the celebrated guitarist and his free-wheeling jam, Gone, Just Like a Train.
Bill King: Looking at the cover art for Gone, Just Like a Train I couldn't help likening it to the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Is there a connection?
Bill Frisell: Oh, wow! I never really thought about that. There probably is a connection somewhere.
I was definitely around when that was going on. The Beatles were a huge influence on me, but the truth of the matter is I didn't know what the cover was going to look like until a friend of mine, Jim Woodring, completed it. Jim has a strong connection with my music, especially when he draws. The idea was to give him true artistic freedom and just wait to see what he came up with.
We met a couple years ago and soon after that he began listening to my music a lot. As well as doing cover art, he illustrates books and comic books.
B.K: With the use of a volume pedal and the bending of a string, you've created a sound unlike all other guitarists. Did you consciously search for an identifying means of expression?
B.F: Yes, since the day I started playing. I'm still reaching out and trying to grasp this sound in my head. My current sound is the product of 30 years of playing.
I've been taking these incremental steps each day and I'm trying to get to something. Whenever I pick up my guitar, it’s never quite right. That makes me keep searching, always pushing ahead. Even when I'm sitting in my room at home playing, there's always this frustration. It makes me move ahead.
B.K: Your last two efforts for Nonesuch records, Nashville and Gone, Just Like A Train, have been described as, “Americana” in that you’ve been able to create a visual landscape to your music. It’s sort of like looking out the back window of a moving automobile. Are you trying to create an aural picture?
B.F: I don't think it's as simple as that. The process of writing and playing is sort of mixed in together.
This visual thing is in there somewhere, but it's almost impossible to describe when I'm hearing music in my head. It’s my own true way of expressing anything. It’s all really abstract and tied into where I grew up in my life. Whatever is in the music, people can hear, see or feel something different. One person may say that’s a really sad song while another will address the same song as having a lot of comedy in it.
B.K: Blues, jazz, reggae, folk and other music forms all inter-connect in your eclectic compositions. What is the writing process like for you?
B.F: It’s about taking my time, sort of like fishing. My brain is like an ocean and there's all this music floating by. I just sit there, grab these little things and try to piece them together. At times, it doesn't even seem like it's coming from me. More and more, I write down a melody and don't know where it came from, especially as I get older. There seems to be layers of melodies from when I was a kid.
The writing is sort of a slow-motion version of how I play. Playing is immediate, ideas come out without thinking. When I write, I have more time to worry about every note.
B.K: Do you ever get writer’s block?
B.F: Yes, it happens a lot. I have to keep composing all the time. It usually happens when I start up after not having written for a while. It seems like there's nothing there, but after I establish a routine, stuff comes out. What you hear on recordings is actually about a tenth of what I write. I sort of whittle it all down and select the best parts. I usually write on paper. I have piles of manuscripts.
Sometimes I forget about a piece and after rediscovering something, come back to it and make a cassette of me playing it on guitar. Gradually, a few of these things float to the top.
B.K: On Gone, Just Like a Train you've chosen one of the great studio drummers Jim Keltner, and Lyle Lovett’s bassist, Viktor Krauss, to enhance your vision. Were you familiar with the large body of music Keltner had contributed?
B.F: Yes, but not everything. It's unbelievable. Since I got to know him, it's like every other day some other album with him on it surfaces.
I really got to know him through a John Hiatt record. I became aware of him as an individual player through the music. I’d heard him on these recordings, met him and liked the vibe I got through our conversations. That's what made me confident enough to ask him in the first place.
I still didn't know what kind of interaction there would be, but I suspected it would feel really good. The most surprising thing was when we got into the studio, he was constantly evolving. He doesn't just settle into one thing.
There's sort of a stereotypical attitude people have about West Coast session drummers. The prejudicial view is that they seem to play it safe. Jim is the absolute opposite. Every time he’d play something, he’d be shifting things around. He takes a lot of risks. It is a quality shared by the greatest drummers.
B.K: Were there many rehearsals?
B.F: The whole thing was pretty quick. We went to a rehearsal studio for one day and I think we spent two or three hours recording.
B.K: Does it take long for you to settle into a studio environment?
B.F: More and more. It’s always switching gears from playing live to playing in the studio. In the rehearsal studio, you’re without headphones and blasting the music, then you enter the recording studio and suddenly the environment is quite sterile. It can be difficult trying to project through the use of headphones. Sometimes things are set up in an artificial way and you have to imagine what it’s sounding like when you're playing. When playing live, you know that's what it really sounds like.
B.K: How critical do you get hearing your own playback? Can you easily accept a take and move on, or do you labor over every minute detail?
B.F: I'm sort of in the middle. I lean more towards taking fewer track takes. One, two or three; after that it starts to get weird. I tend to use very few overdubs. Instead, I go back and re-record a couple of tunes from the first day if I'm not satisfied with what’s there.
Overall, most of my recordings are documents of the performance of the group and not a pieced-together studio type of thing.