by Phil Freeman
Erik Deutsch is a keyboardist whose last two albums, 2009′s Hush Money and the brand-new Demonio Teclado (available tomorrow), put him in a pretty fascinating space, somewhere that’s part soul-jazz, part rock (he covers Neil Young‘s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” on the new disc), and part Donald Fagen. A track like “Funky Digits,” also from Demonio Teclado, can sound startlingly like something Steely Dan might have included on Pretzel Logic. He’s got a real feel for the blues, too; Hush Money featured some stinging guitars—”Black Flies” featured a sputtering, grimy solo by Jonathan Goldberger that recalled Marc Ribot‘s work with Tom Waits in the mid ’80s.
It’s not all raw funk and bluesy roar, though; Demonio Teclado, released on Deutsch’s own Hammer and String label, also includes soft, murmuring ballads like “Creeper,” a showcase for trumpeter Jon Gray. Of course, the searing guitars are back, too, particularly on the Neil Young cover, which has all the melancholy power of early Crazy Horse. Deutsch has put four tracks online so listeners can make up their own minds; enjoy!
Here’s the transcript of a brief conversation we had a few weeks ago.
I heard Hush Money and liked it, and I like this one, too—the band is different on this one, so tell me why you changed between records. Was it never a working band?
You know, that’s part of it. It was a working band in that we did shows in New York City, but that band never played as a full band outside New York. And for touring and even playing in the city these days, economically you’ve gotta make hard decisions. And that band was just too big to drag around, in general. The band also wasn’t really functional as a bar band, which is the reality of New York—a lot of times, you are playing in places where people are talking; it’s not a concert setting all the time. So it kind of came to me that, one thing I wanted to do was to have a band that could function in a bar setting, a band I could bring on the road. Of course as soon as I start making records, I want to—I love big sonic power, so I start adding stuff and it still ends up being a sextet or whatever. But it’s a band that can work as a quartet, I’ve been on the road a number of times now with bass and drums, Ben Rubin and Tony Mason, and Jon Gray on trumpet. So as a quartet it’s great. We’ll do a tour in Colorado as a quartet with Glenn Taylor on steel guitar, so it works as a trio, quartet, quintet, it’s part of the switch. And the other thing is, just moving to New York, you meet so many great musicians, you make new friends, and I’m just so into the musicians here, I want to play with all of ’em. So it’s fun to switch it up.
The material for this record—was it all written in a burst, or was there stuff you had sitting around?
Usually the way I work is when I make an album, there might be one or two songs left over, so let’s say—like, “Funky Digits” was a song I wrote before I recorded Hush Money, probably about a month before, but I kinda decided it just wasn’t gonna make that record. And then in that next year following the release of Hush Money, as we played the songs from the album, the songs then get to be one, one and a half, two years old, which for me is too long. So in the year following the release of Hush Money, when I was touring around playing those songs, I was actually writing all new songs. That’s kinda been my process, so in that year, I wrote all those songs for Demonio, most of ’em, and then I went in to record it, maybe threw one in at the end, and the same thing—maybe a couple didn’t make it, and by now I have another whole batch of new songs. I have another record right now, and I’ll start touring with these Demonio songs, and then I’ll probably get sick of those and we’ll make a new record.
Was there one piece you wrote that sort of consolidated the album in your head, like ‘OK, this is the kind of album I’m making’?
No, I don’t think there was one piece—”Funky Digits” started it out, and “Getting Nasty,” the opening track, although it’s a cover [of an Ike Turner song], it also kinda set the tone for where I’m heading with the band. And those two songs I did perform when I was touring, doing the Hush Money songs, as well, so they were in the set list early and I think they kinda set the tone of what I wanted to do. I wanted a groove band, a little bit more of a bar band. Of course, my songs, I don’t pretend that they’re generic, they always have a journey to them, and I hope there’s an intellectual quality to them, but I kinda built off those first two and came up with the album. It all started from there.
The intellectual quality you talk about—Hush Money kinda reminded me of Steely Dan or Donald Fagen’s solo albums.
Okay! I like it. I’ve heard that before actually. And that’s a neat comparison—I can dig that. We all hear so many things, and we all have so many influences these days, that it’s a natural instinct to compare, you know, a little bit of that, a little bit of this, and it’s fun to make those connections. People have said the fast shuffle on “Funky Digits,” that’s a real Steely Dan kind of thing. I’ve heard that a whole bunch of times. And Tony Mason is definitely a Steve Gadd fan. I would say that’s one of his biggest influences, top five easy. And that’s where you get the sound of a band a lot of times—someone might say, ‘That sounds like Led Zeppelin,’ well, that could be just because the drummer sounds like John Bonham. ‘Oh, it sounds like John Coltrane,’ because the drummer sounds like Elvin Jones. A lot of times you hear it from that drum chair, and with Tony playing those Steve Gadd kind of grooves on those songs, that’s probably where some of that comes from.
Hammer and String, that’s your label? This is a self-released album?
Yeah, Hammer and String is just my website, it’s a name I picked out ten years ago. Mark Galleo, my buddy who played drums on Hush Money, he came up with it, ’cause he built my website, and he said, ‘Do you want your website to be your name? Or it could be something else,’ and I’ve always liked that idea and I’m glad he gave me that idea. So yeah, I’ve self-released this. I’ve looked into labels, but just didn’t have anyone dying to put out the record and didn’t feel like giving up everything to try and put it somewhere that it wasn’t meant to be.
Especially since labels can agree to put something out and then wind up sitting on it for years—I mean, these days, I’m getting records from labels that were recorded in 2007. I can only imagine how insane that must drive musicians.
Yeah, I would be really sick of my music if it was that old and just coming out, you know? I would love to be part of a label family; I just haven’t found the one that’s the right fit. And in some ways I feel like one of the most important things about putting out these records, maybe the most important thing for me, is to make sure it gets out into the world and gets noticed. And the best way for me to do that is to do it myself, I think. To own it, to be able to give it to lots of people, to sell it for what I want to sell it for, a reasonable price, and to be able to hire my own publicist who I think is really gonna care about the music.
So how much time do you spend on the road in a given year? How many gigs are out there these days?
Well, for me it’s about half the year, but it’s not so much my band. It’s more working as a sideman.
Who do you play with?
Well, last year was a lot of—last year was a real mix. There was some Steven Bernstein, Theo Bleckmann was in Europe for a CD release tour, I was in Europe with Jessica Lurie, Shooter Jennings, Rosanne Cash, and then I was in Spain. I work a lot in Spain, I was with a Spanish band in Barcelona. Working with my band in Colorado and California, with Scott Amendola—a pretty wide range. This year it looks like it’s gonna be over a hundred dates with Shooter.
So you’re his touring keyboard player?
Yup, and we’re really close friends. I helped him put together the new band, which is all New York guys, all friends of ours, and I played on both the records that will come out this year. I’m really, really proud to be part of that band and to support Shooter. He’s amazing.
That’s cool. It seems like there’s a generation of young, interesting country guys now—him, Jamey Johnson, Hayes Carll…
Yeah, I think so, Shooter’s thing is Triple X, and to explain it from his perspective, it’s for artists who are too country for the rock stations and too rock ’n’ roll for country radio, and there’s a lot of ’em. And I can really relate to that, cause that’s what my music is like. It lives in between the genres, for sure.