by Brad Cohan
It’s summertime in bucolic and peaceful Kerhonkson, New York, and Jamie Saft—the intrepid piano and electric keyboards titan and John Zorn and Bad Brains collaborator—is deep in his element. The musical polymath is sipping on an espresso in his kitchen while cooking up a tasty breakfast spread for his children, far away from the hustle, bustle and noise of New York City where he originally made his indelible mark in the downtown avant-garde jazz and experimental scenes, one that still reverberates today.
Resembling a Hasidic mountain man with his epically long, flowing beard, plaid button-down, cargo shorts and hiking boots, Saft, deep in the woods and with a gorgeous mountain-lined backdrop, is about to head down to his home studio he calls Potterville International Sound. It’s in this very studio where Saft has expertly crafted and manned the boards over dozens of recordings that have helped define the free-improv, experimental and jazz realms and beyond. A healthy chunk of that output has found a home on the UK-based RareNoise label, where Saft serves as de facto one-man house band, producer and engineer.
For Saft and RareNoise, 2017 has been highlighted by one of the best jazz records released in the past year courtesy of an improbable unit if there ever was one. As The New Standard, Saft, alongside the rock-solid and swinging rhythm section of legendary bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bobby Previte, followed up their stellar 2014 debut by welcoming a fourth member into the fray: punk rock godfather Iggy Pop. Over the dozen tracks that comprise Loneliness Road, Saft puts on a superhuman clinic of melodic keyboard majesty as he massages, strokes, pierces and stabs the black and whites with an unmistakable cosmic and shapeshifting voice informed by classical music, blues, jazz and rock. Then there are the three haunting, unforgettable tunes Iggy lends his smoky growl and sexy strut to on the album. Slipping into the guise of grizzled, punk lounge singer, Pop’s caustic vocal turns ache and bleed with a bluesy sleaze only he can pull off, backed by a jazz piano trio.
Saft, flanked by a stash of guitars and vintage keyboards, is reflecting on his ever-mushrooming impressive body of work. 2017 alone saw Loneliness Road and its antithesis, the Seinfeld and Grateful Dead-influenced Serenity Knolls, a duo record of ambient country improvisations with guitarist Bill Brovold, and She Moves On by South Korean vocalist Youn Un Nah, a record Saft produced and served as bandleader on, amongst myriad other projects, and ’18 is already promising a heavy slate.
Saft recorded and played on Midtown Tilt, the forthcoming second record by Desertion Trio, guitarist Nick Millevoi’s group with bassist Johnny DeBlase and drummer Kevin Shea. He’s also part of Mike Pride’s I Hate Work (the drummer’s reworking of tunes from hardcore punk outfit Millions of Dead Cops for piano trio), plus he’s celebrating the new year early with the just-released Path Heart Traverse by Lou Reed guitarist Chuck Hammer.
If that’s not enough, Saft is gearing up for the January release of his latest RareNoise effort, a solo piano joint fittingly titled Solo A Genova that may well be the culmination of the pianist’s sonic journey. The covers-filled set manifests Saft’s obsessive fandom for his beloved heroes, serving up spiritual and freethinking versions of songs by Bob Dylan (this is his second foray into the Dylan songbook, following 2006’s essential Trouble: The Jamie Saft Trio Plays Bob Dylan [get it from Amazon]), John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, ZZ Top, Curtis Mayfield, Charles Ives, Miles Davis and Bill Evans and more. The hodgepodge collection of tunes—and the mind-bending way Saft reimagines them—make Solo A Genova a glorious peek into the music that made Saft realize his vision quest.
In our interview, Saft went deep into his Dylan obsession, collaborations with icons like his recently deceased neighbor Roswell Rudd, John Zorn and Bad Brains, his ambient country record with guitarist Bill Brovold, how Iggy Pop brought Loneliness Road to a whole other level, and much more.
Let’s start with your Dylan obsession. You saw Dylan a bunch of times recently.
Three times in the last few weeks. It was fantastic. I saw two shows in Kingston and I saw the opening show of the tour in Portchester at the Capitol Theater. I was like five feet from Bob on the first night of the tour. It was really great.
Did you go backstage this time?
There’s no sense in going backstage at Bob. Bob never hangs. I did get to spend some time talking to Tony Garnier, his musical director, at one of the Kingston shows. He was super sweet. I’ve met Tony many times before; I hung out backstage with them a few times. But he was talking to a friend of mine, so I went over and I was standing there and at a pause I just said, “Tony man, I just gotta say hello, I’m Jamie.” I said, “I’m Jamie” and he said, “Jamie Saft!?” I was like “Yeah.” He was like, “Man, I was just listening to your record with Steve Swallow this afternoon on the bus. It’s amazing, man!” I was like, “Oh my god, Tony, man, I’m so honored that you were listening to my record!” Then I said, “I don’t know if you remember but we hung out a couple of times backstage at the Beacon.” He was like, “Of course I remembered. You gave me your music of Bob Dylan CD.” I was like, “Wow, man!”
So he was listening to one of The New Standard Records?
I don’t know if he was listening to the first record I did with Steve and Bobby or the most recent one with Iggy. I didn’t get a chance to talk to him too much further about it because the show was happening and he had to run in a minute. But he was so beautiful. We talked about playing. So, the Dylan shows were fantastic, great to talk to Tony for a while, Bob sounded incredible, as usual. It’s always a super-inspired, forward-thinking presentation, man. Every time I go see Bob, I’m just blown away at what a high level he continues to do it on. It’s not even coasting on the merits of his great music. It’s so deep, still. Every night he’s making these subtle tweaks and changes.
Yeah, it is amazing! Even within the confines of this never-ending tour, where he does almost the same set list every night he’s making interior changes every night, in the same way that musicians like Bill Evans would make—not big exterior changes—like, these are subtle, inside-the-music things. He’s always working on different parts, changing the relationships between the instruments. When one instrument used to have the lead voice in a tune, suddenly it’s totally opposite, you know? They’re just playing the background and the other guy is leading, or Bob is leading with a new melody. For me, it’s so deep, man. Every time I go, I’m just blown away. Even when the show is not his best show, it’s always fascinating.
Do you bring that Dylan aesthetic to your own music?
Absolutely. He’s improvising and he’s changing and developing the music from the inside in the exact same way that great improvisers do. I try and bring that same ability to manipulate things every time I approach a piece of music. So that’s the same in the studio, that’s the same with live. I love to have things really malleable and change with different situations. Every venue is different. Every day in the studio is different. The musicians are in a different mood, the sounds are subtly different, and so you have to adapt. That’s the art of the improvise.
Do you regard Dylan as an improviser?
Absolutely. At the absolute highest level. He’s consistently redefining the parameters of his music. He could just coast on all these amazing songs. But he still, at 75, is changing his music, developing his music. For me, he is absolutely an improviser. Absolutely. His sets have these really defined shapes that he then keeps manipulating but there’s certain things. He’s been opening with the same song for years now, “Things Have Changed.” But then after that, he always plays either “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” or “To Ramona.” “To Ramona” is one of my favorite songs of all Bob. I named my daughter after that song, my oldest. My daughter Delia is also named after a Bob Dylan song, “Delia,” and Isaac is named after the concept of the binding of Isaac, which is “Highway 61.” ‘God said to Abraham, give me a son.’ Isaac was the son. All three of my children are named after Dylan songs, obviously [laughing].
Do you listen to jazz at all?
Never, never. I do love Alice Coltrane. John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Miles Davis. I love jazz. I’m not averse to listening to it; I just don’t choose to listen to it that often. I love Bill Evans. Pharoah Sanders, I love Pharoah. I go towards the spiritual jazz. That’s always been my thing. I love Monk, Bill Evans, obviously Miles.
But when you listen to music you’re listening to Bob and Joni, and Jimi, and Stevie.
I’m always listening to rock music.
Not classic, but yes. you could put most of those people. But yeah, Jimi, Dylan, Stevie Wonder, tons of reggae, Bob, Tosh, Bunny, Tubby and the Itals. That’s kind of what I listen to. For my whole career, I have a very broad template of music that I do. Everything from free jazz to rock to reggae to classical to “jazz jazz”. There’s a million different styles of music and some of the music that I make is pretty intense and pretty cerebral. When I go to listen to music, I want something that’s as mellow as can be; ZZ Top. Joni. It instantly transports me to a relaxed place. When I listen to music recreationally, it’s purely to relax and chill out. I listen to reggae, Joni, Bob, the simple things in life. Jimi is really super satisfying for me. I’ve always been a huge Jimi Hendrix fan.
You don’t really post that much [on Facebook] about Jimi, but ZZ Top, and Dylan, for sure.
A little about Jimi I post. At New England Conservatory where I studied music in college, my senior recital was a large ensemble Jimi Hendrix concert with two drummers and Mat Maneri playing electric violin and a singer, a large group with Cuong Vu, Chris Speed and all those guys were in it. It was all the music of Jimi Hendrix. After studying with Joe Maneri, really abstract music and these really 25th century methods of improvising and of constructing sort of modern music, the most radical thing to me was to do the music of Jimi Hendrix concert.
Bad Brains fall into that realm and you play with those guys.
It’s sort of the same concept with what I listen to. I spend so much time in the radical zone, sometimes the fundamentals really speak to me in a way that isn’t always the case in my musical life. A lot of times it is, and I feel so lucky to play with so many of my heroes, like the Bad Brains, man. That to me is also a music that I would listen to, to relax. Having listened to that music my whole life and now to get the chance to play with those guys and to learn from those guys is really one of the great pleasures of my whole musical career and my life. It’s like a dream, it really is. It’s amazing, and those guys are such a constant fountain of positivity, positive energy and that PMA. In the face of all adversity and hatred and difficult times, the Bad Brains still stand as this incredible voice for positivity. For me that’s such an honor and I learn so much every time I talk with those guys, every time I sit with those guys, and especially when I get to make music with them. There’s a level of investment from everyone involved: the audience, the crew, the band, the venue, everybody is so invested in that moment, that experience of a Bad Brains show that you transcend on a level that is very rarified. I don’t get that feeling always when I play music. It’s like a good drug. It’s like this positivity high where everybody is so invested in that moment and needs that transformative musical moment. Music is about transformation. Music can transcend spoken language. It’s something deeper than what we can express with words. It goes to that much deeper more fundamental place of human spirituality. A lot of us find the spiritual in that music, and especially with the Bad Brains, where people just need that release of that transformative moment of music that Everybody, all energy just goes towards that moment. Then…there you are! It’s happening, and it’s like the whole place is levitating.
Are you partial towards the reggae/dub stuff of the Bad Brains rather than the hardcore?
I love it all, man, and what an experience to be a part of it. I only really play on the reggae dub stuff but just to be on that stage with those guys and experience it, and to hear them play those songs that were so influential to my entire generation standing right in front of you with the SVT, with Darryl’s bass amp literally vibrating right next to you. You hear the power of that and how influential it was. There are so many bands that were deeply influenced by that energy, and by Doc and Darryl’s riffs. They were so fundamental to the development of modern music and modern rock music and heavy music. To be even a peripheral part of that is just quite an experience. The other thing is, when you play reggae music with musicians who have lived that their whole lives, there’s an incredible realness and power to that. The music actually has real meaning, deeper meaning. It is just like a trance-like state. You’re suddenly totally transported from your daily grind of life into this transformative musical moment where the energy is focused on that transformation in that moment.
You play reggae and dub with New Zion, then you’re doing it with the masters, Bad Brains. That must be pretty deep.
It’s such a great honor and it’s such a learning moment for me. Every time I play with them, they’re playing on such a high level, it’s so intuitive. That music just comes alive when you play with a rhythm section like that and with legends like that. I’m very fortunate to have experienced that in many different areas of music. In jazz music. I’m so lucky to have played and made records with the absolute legends of the music: Wadada Leo Smith, Roswell Rudd, John Zorn, Bobby Previte, Steve Swallow. Those guys are delivering on the master level much in the same way that Bad Brains are and Doc and Darryl and Earl are in the heavier music.
Do you think when you’re playing with New Zion then when you’re playing with Ban Brains, it’s just no match since those guys are the masters?
Honestly, for me, New Zion was a way for me of accessing that transcendent state of consciousness through music and so I just took the musics that I loved the most, that were most dear to me: reggae, spiritual jazz of the ’70s, Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, and I put those two things together. I always tried to show the upmost respect to all the musics that become a part of my world. But it’s really crucial to me to constantly show that respect in my records. I don’t know if I’m allowed to call them “groundbreaking” but I think those records are something really different.
New Zion, you mean?
Yeah, no one’s really done that: put the reggae beats together and the trance-like states that you get from dub and reggae with those grooves, with the sort of harmonic world of the spiritual jazz. That to me was a really obvious connection. Alice Coltrane sounds just like Bob Marley to me. They access that same higher state of consciousness. It’s all about the meditation and finding that transformative space for your mind that exists maybe outside of spoken language. For me when I was young and coming up, the jazz that spoke to me the most were things that were in this sort of trance-like state. Thelonious Monk was a deep example of a broad harmonic palate but deeply in the service of the trance-like state. The way he would dance and spin and he was accessing a higher state of consciousness. Alice Coltrane, that was something that really spoke to me, too. Probably one of the most influential records of my musical youth was Pharoah Sanders’ Thembi, which had all these really gorgeous grooves juxtaposed against free jazz. Totally free sections and then groove sections. Thembi and things like Astral Travelling, and then there’s another song that was really the crucial harmonic basis for New Zion Trio which was, and I think this is the first time I’ve ever said this in an interview, so it’s the scoop, man (laughing)! It influenced my harmonic sense for New Zion just as much as Pharoah Sanders’ Thembi—“Why Can’t We Live Together” by Timmy Thomas. Timmy Thomas was a soul and R & B singer in the ’70s. Man, you gotta hear Timmy Thomas. You do know this song, and I’ll tell you how you do know this song is that Drake sampled it for “Hotline Bling.” It’s this static bass line, like the reggae thing. He’s just pedaling on C but he’s got this whole harmonic thing that’s moving over the top with a trance-like groove. This is literally the inspiration for New Zion Trio. This and Pharoah Sanders. Yup. And, like, the sonic space that Alice Coltrane accesses. That meditative, with improvised. So heavy, the fucking heaviest.
That inspired New Zion?
100 percent. This is where New Zion comes from, is this. And it’s that positivity, that PMA, that same shit. It’s right in here, it’s in every Alice Coltrane record, it’s in every Pharoah Sanders record. This is the level of respect for music and for the transformative power of music that I always bring, especially with bands like New Zion. That is essential for me.
New Zion was about that trance-like state accessing higher states of consciousness through music. You find that in Bad Brains, in the best of roots reggae and dub, in all the great spiritual jazz of the ’70s and honestly you find that in all great jazz. You hear that in Sunday at the Village Vanguard with Bill Evans, you hear that at both “Live” at the Village Vanguard and “Live” at the Village Vanguard Again! with John Coltrane, you hear that in many Miles Davis records of every kind, even acoustic ones. All the classic quintet stuff accesses this higher state of consciousness. It’s just blatantly there. It’s in Bad Brains, it’s in Vladimir Horowitz playing someone else’s music—it can raise us all up, can lift us up to, like, a better place. That to me is essential to every record I make, to have that kind of transformative energy. I try and put that same level of depth into records that I produce and records that even I just play on as a sideman. I’m always pushing people to take it further, especially in the studio. Live, you benefit from interaction with your audience and so that can always raise you up and give you power. But here in the studio, you’re looking towards something far down the road and how do you construct this thing? I’ve been so lucky to live in a studio for decades now. Every day I make records, that’s what I do. I try and think about that when I’m playing live, when I’m here in the studio, when I’m producing, when I’m writing is: How can we push this? How can we make this deeper?
Let’s talk about how Iggy Pop wound up on Loneliness Road and that interview Ben Ratliff did with him for Rolling Stone. That was a trip.
With the Iggy Pop interview in Rolling Stone on his 70th birthday, man, that was so beautiful and Ratliff was so smart to not include anything I said, really [laughing]. Just take what Iggy said because Iggy was so incredibly articulate and he spoke about the process of making this record and his process of developing his lyrics for that record on such a high level. I never could have expressed it that well. He is a true master. There’s another example of someone like Bob Dylan. Obviously, Iggy hasn’t written the body of songs that Bob has but Iggy’s been influential in modern rock music for decades. He’s such a total legend but musically he’s absolutely on the highest level. It’s undeniable when you hear that what a virtuoso he is. His delivery, his command of his instrument, his intonation, the way he articulates, his phrasing. I really believe that his phrasing on that record is on the level of a Sinatra, phrasing wise.
And the three tracks Iggy contributes to on Loneliness Road, he just killed it.
All three tracks, Iggy just got so inside the music. He also gave us only his first take of each track. He said he did many takes after his first take but the first takes really had the juice. That’s what he said in the email to me! He said, “You know, I did a number of takes after these but the first takes really had the juice.” He said he spent months sitting in the sun room in his house in Miami in this nice chair. He has a really nice chair and he has a little boombox and he just sat and worked on these three tracks for five months, down there, just developing his trips. So, he said when he got to the studio, he didn’t even need a lyric sheet or a music stand, he was just ready to blurt them out. He had developed them so much after so much work on them, and that is just so obvious from the first note. He just really absorbed those instrumental tracks that we gave him, got deeply inside the music in the same sort of improvising way that we talked about with Bob before. He found a voice and a way to navigate these long instrumental compositions that it’s as if those lyrics were always there. It’s as if they were a fundamental part of the composition.
I wrote them not even knowing that Iggy Pop would be involved in this record. The way we made that record was we did it all here at my studio, all analog direct to 2-track, straight to the tape machine. Our first record, The New Standard that came out a few years ago, was engineered also here, also direct to two-track to the tape machine by Joe Furla who’s a Grammy-winning, legendary engineer, engineered “Killing Me Softly,” Roberta Flack, did a lot of work with Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, so many great jazz legends. Joe Furla is just a master engineer who’s since retired from engineering. I called him up and he said, “I’m so honored that you would call me but I’m retired now.” He said he’d just turned down Bob Dylan, that Bob Dylan called him for these Sinatra records to engineer the same thing: direct to two-track. This was around the time of the first one, Strangers in the Night or the other one. So he turned down Bob Dylan and he said, “Oh, I’m retired, I just turned down Bob Dylan, too. He said to me, “It’s been years since I’ve been behind a console so I’m not confident I can do it on the level that I know is required for this.” To engineer something direct to two-track to the tape machine is incredibly difficult, to do it on the very highest level because you’re committing to the final mix while the music is happening, so you’re mixing it immediately. There’s no changes, you can’t bring the bass down or up or bring a phase out or cut anything. It’s a very high level required to do that. Fortunately, a great old friend and colleague of mine, Christian Castaño, who also mixed and did the dubs on Sunshine Seas, the New Zion with Cyro [Baptista] record, Chris and I have been producing records together and making records together for decades now. Chris moved down to South America. He lives in Colombia in La Sierra, far from civilization, which is great. I flew Chris up from Colombia, he came up here, and he just killed it on the direct to two-track mix. He did an incredible job. We recorded the whole instrumental record for Loneliness Road direct to two-track to the tape machine and it was done. It was a fully finished instrumental piano trio record.
How did Iggy actually get involved?
A month or two before we did the sessions for Loneliness Road, the record label guy said to me, “We have some mutual friends in Bill Laswell,” someone who’s worked a lot with Giacomo Bruzzo from RareNoise Records that we’ve been making these records for. I’ve known Laswell for many years through John Zorn and I’ve worked with him a bunch, too. So Giacomo said to me, “What if Laswell reached out to Iggy and maybe he’d be interested in doing a couple or three tracks on this record?” I said, “Sure, go ahead!”
So you thought it wasn’t likely to happen.
Right. Thinking it’s not likely to happen. It’s not that it’s bullshit. It’s a great idea but the reality is that usually these things don’t happen. Laswell asked Iggy if he’d be interested in hearing it and Iggy said “Sure, send it on.” I took the analog reels to Scott Hull at MasterDisk, where I do a lot of my mastering and where we mastered the first New Standard, all analog and Scott transferred them to the computer at very high resolution. We sent files down to Iggy to hear. I just chose three tracks from the record that I thought Iggy would enjoy listening to. Honestly, not even…
You didn’t think, “Oh, these tracks could use vocals…”
No! Not even. You know I approached the whole record, I wrote all the compositions for the record and when we did the session, we just made a record in the same way we always do.
Like the first one.
Yeah! We just took all the music I had and what you hear on both records is basically first takes of everything. It’s very rare that we did a second take. Only if there was some catastrophic problem with the first take. Pretty much everything was first takes. It was a fully realized instrumental acoustic piano trio record. At the very end of the session, I was standing out there in the room. We were finished and people were packing up, and I said, “Oh, I think I was supposed to do something for Iggy to sing on.” But I realized in that moment that making just some backing track for Iggy to do something on would not be the way. I just said, “You know what, I’m just gonna choose some music from this record that I think he’ll like and I’m gonna send it to him.” So we did, and 24 hours later he emailed back and said, “I love this music, I’m definitely gonna do this. I’m doing all three tracks so you managers figure it out.”
Was there any rhyme or reason to how you picked those three tracks you sent to Iggy?
The track called “Everyday” that he wrote these words to that became “Everyday,” to me that was the most important, the dearest composition that I wrote for that record—something really honest. Steve and Bobby helped me realize it on the absolute highest level. They took what I thought was my deepest composition and they just made it much deeper. We had this really strong, intense arrangement of that piece of music that was just so strong. It’s about three minutes long, it’s tight and compressed. It was like a perfect piece. That was my proudest piece from the whole record. That to me what the best. That was the first thing I chose. I was like, “Oh, I’m just gonna send this to Iggy ’cause I love this and I think he’ll love it.” It was not an obvious way that he would write something to it. I couldn’t imagine what he would do with that piece of music. I feel like as working musicians, we work so hard and there’s very rarely reward for that hard work. It’s a difficult life. There are great transcendent moments like when I’m finally on stage with Doc and Darryl and Earl and HR from Bad Brains. That’s one of the great moments of my life. That is one hour out of a year. You don’t always get those amazing transformative moments. But when I got Iggy’s vocals back and I was listening in my kitchen on my iPhone, with my iPhone up to my ear, I put that track on first, “Everyday” and I was just crying with joy in my kitchen. I was just so overwhelmed with the gift that was Iggy Pop. These words and it was so inspired, so inside the music. My daughter said to me, “You know, Dad, when you were listening to that for the first time in the kitchen, I actually saw you laughing.” It really cut through all the noise and the struggle of life and of music life and It got to something so deep and so fundamental. Iggy’s lyrics and his presentation of those vocal tracks on Loneliness Road absolutely restored my faith in humanity. It restored my faith in music. It continues to heal me every time I listen to it. I am not exaggerating.
But you’ve had so many experiences in music where there’s been so much positivity, and the collaborations you’ve done.
That’s absolutely it. The collaborations are usually the richest area for musical satisfaction, for personal satisfaction. I always just try to bring respect and humility and positivity to all the things that I do. Iggy, at his level and where he is in his career, did not need to do this.
Yes, he’s made a huge comeback with his most recent record, Post Pop Depression.
He chose to do this.
He’s as popular now as he’s been in years and years and years.
It certainly is a powerful moment for him. What an incredible honor for me that he chose three songs that I wrote to put these words to and give us this gift. It feels like that, man. It’s surreal. I really felt like Iggy is talking to, like, fallen friends. I really feel the spirit of Lou Reed and of David Bowie and all these people who were so central to Iggy’s world and we lost them in the last few years. When he says those words on “Every Day,” the first few lines of “Everyday” to me are so fundamental, essential, critical to survival, to satisfaction, to life, to positivity. The first words in “Everyday” are, “I’m sorry for the loss of time. I’m hungry for the soul that shines in your eyes and all I want to say is, I love you, every day.” Man!
So deep! So beautiful! In a moment in history when there’s a lot of struggle, a lot of negativity, and a lot of bad vibes out there, this just cut through all that shit, right to that PMA space. That’s a gift. I don’t talk about blessings or gifts but that is an actual gift. That’s as close to a blessing as I get. That’s a blessing from a rabbi [laughing]. It’s the same as going to see Bob Dylan, man. I was going with friends of mine and I said to one of them who was also Jewish, “It was great davening with the rabbi with you.” That’s what it is, man. These are our heroes. When I go and hang out with Darryl Jenifer from Bad Brains, that’s like going to talk with the rabbi, man. He always brings so much positivity, so I’ll be struggling with something: career, music, life…He’ll just say, “No, man, you gotta think of it differently with that PMA, that positivity.” You can always turn me around on to a more positive path to thinking about stuff. That’s going to the rabbi. These are my rabbis, man. I did that music of Bob Dylan record in the 2000’s for the Radical Jewish Culture series…
I love that record.
…and I said, “Let me introduce you to my rabbi.” That’s where spirituality is. There’s a central concept in Judaism called “tikkun olam.” “Tikkun olam” means “repair the world,” or transform the world, but repair the world. So, to be a good Jew, you don’t have to believe in anything specific. You do have to work every day in the service of tikkun olam, of repairing the world, making the world a better place. I always try and apply this concept to the music. All great music is in the service of repairing the world. When you hear Iggy Pop come so deeply with lyrics like that, he is working in the service of tikkun olam. A Bad Brains show repairs everybody, all of us were transformed in that moment. You’re absolutely right, I am so lucky to get to study with all these rabbis. That’s why it’s been so incredible to have the heroic Garth Hudson here at my studio and to learn from him. His music was so crucial and essential to my musical development. The Band, the music he made with Bob Dylan, and his method of orchestrating. He’s a master orchestrator of the keyboard voices. To get to study with him and to learn from him and to watch him put things together, I feel lucky that I can ask him really good questions. We get really deep into music quickly. So many of these great heroes are so willing to share their knowledge and their good vibe. I feel so lucky.
What about the other two songs Iggy sung on?
Oh, man, they’re both really incredibly deep. There’s the title track, “Loneliness Road” which has some really incredibly personal and vulnerable lyrics from Iggy. He said in that Rolling Stone interview that he felt some of his vocals presented him as fragile. Normally that wouldn’t really be acceptable. But in this case, it really worked with the music, and so, we’re hearing another side of Iggy that he maybe wouldn’t necessarily have let out to the public before. This very personal, intense, longing in that song, “Loneliness Road.” That was so obviously the title of the record as soon as I heard that song and Bobby Previte said the same thing. It’s Loneliness Road. There’s only one title for this record and it’s Loneliness Road. The thing about Iggy’s vocals and his lyrics is he manages to deliver them in a way that’s both completely sincere and totally tongue-in-cheek at the same time. It’s both things at the same time. He is sincere, and he’s also sort of joking a little bit [laughing]. It’s the whole human experience in a couple of songs. I’m very proud of the rest of the record, too. I think it’s a really great instrumental presentation with these three amazing nuggets from Iggy. The first tune that he sings on the record is maybe the darkest tune. It’s called “Don’t Lose Yourself.” That’s another deep, dark thought from Iggy that’s really powerful. That one to me has a lot of Lou Reed in it. There’s a lot of power in his vocal in that one. That’s the least fragile, let’s say, of the vocals, “Don’t Lose Yourself.” You get a lot of “Iggy” in that track. It just came out so well. Iggy looms large over rock music. He was just as much a personality as he was a songwriter. His energy is what drew me to him. He brings a similar energy to this record. It’s quite astonishing. It’s a level of commitment to music that great improvised music requires. he didn’t just do it. He killed it. That to me shows that he is a master level improviser, a master of his instrument, let’s say.
Do you shoot the shit with Iggy at all?
Yeah, we talk. He’s so nice.
Did he know who you were?
He didn’t know who I was but he knew who Steve Swallow was. He knew Steve’s records with Carla, Steve’s work with Carla [Bley].
Iggy has done weird jazzy records.
He has. He did a record of French covers [Préliminaires] and he did a record and used MMW on a couple of tunes.
Was that Avenue B?
Yes. But I think this [Loneliness Road] is the first full-on, traditional jazz record that’s he’s ever been a part of, and what a great job he did.
Let’s touch upon the musical partnership you share with your wife Vanessa. You and Vanessa share bands together and she’s appeared on some of your records.
My wife is on many of my records. She sings the title track on Sunshine Seas, she’s on a few of my Tzadik Radical Jewish Culture releases, she’s on a couple of Zorn’s records singing, she’s on a bunch of Cyro Baptista’s records. In fact, there’s one tune on his first record, Beat The Donkey, called “Ama,” that’s apparently a huge hit in Brazil and it’s all the lead vocal is Vanessa, my wife. Actually, Vanessa and I wrote some music for Youn Sun Nah, for her record, this record that I produced recently for this artist from South Korea.
Do you play on that record, too?
Yeah, I produced and played on it. It’s me and Marc Ribot, Dan Rieser on drums and Brad Jones [on acoustic bass]. Vanessa and I wrote one tune for that and then she wrote a bunch of lyrics for some other tunes on there.
And you did a Lou Reed cover, too?
Of course we do! Youn Sun Nah is this really incredible South Korean singer who’s been living in France for almost twenty years now and who really developed a huge following in France. She’s done very nicely in France and in Europe. She called me up in December of this year and wanted me to produce her record, put together a band, put together a body of music and also tour with her a bunch. She showed up two days after we spoke on the phone from South Korea, here at my house upstate. We spent about a month working on developing the repertoire for this new band and new record. I played her thousands of songs of all my different interests musically. We chose some really great music. We have a great Joni Mitchell cover on there, we have an amazing Jimi Hendrix cover that I’m really proud of, “Drifting,” which came out really great with Ribot. It’s amazing. We played Montreal Jazz Fest, Ottawa Jazz Fest and Rochester Jazz Fest. This came out really great. I’m super proud of it.
You were pretty busy in 2017 with Loneliness Road and the record you did with guitarist Bill Brovold, Serenity Knolls. Musically, it’s quite a departure for you.
That’s another really pure expression of positivity and happiness.
It’s basically the complete opposite of Loneliness Road.
You play guitar and lap steel on it.
I’m playing Dobro and lap steel guitar. It’s a duo with Bill Brovold. Bill is an incredible improver and a legend of music from Detroit. Had a band called Larval that was really influential—improvising group of musicians. Bill lives here in the Hudson Valley. We became friends a number of years ago. Bill is a master carpenter, craftsman of wood and he’s just a master human and someone that I love hanging out with and making music with. So, I was looking for something really serene and really chilled out, something that sort of reflected my life up here in the woods.
The music on the record definitely reflects that.
Yeah, it’s totally that space of just total quiet long form improvisations. The first description of that project was “country ambient.” That’ what we were calling it: “the country ambient project.” But “Serenity Knolls” really spoke to me as a title. That’s actually the name of the rehab center where Jerry Garcia passed away. It just had the sound, Serenity Knolls. It sounds so much like “Serenity Now” from Seinfeld [laughing], which is also talking about the same idea. Those are kind of my favorite spaces, including Seinfeld.
Absolutely, that’s the greatest. I wanted to make a record, and specifically something for RareNoise, where there’s a lot of really complicated releases that we’ve done that I’m super proud of like the two Slobber Pup records, the first one with Trevor Dunn and the second one with Mats Gustafsson, and that’s got Joe Morris on guitar on both and Balazs Pandi on drums on both, Spanish Donkey Raoul with Joe Morris, Mike Pride and I, and even Red Hill. These are really intense, abstract records. I’m extremely proud of them but Serenity Knolls is a huge contrast to almost everything else I’ve done for RareNoise.
Aesthetically, it mirrors your existence up here it seems.
Serenity Knolls feels like me sitting at Lake Awosting with my feet in the water, complete quiet, no cell phones, no distractions, just focus. I try to capture the feeling of life here in the country. It’s really different than Brooklyn where I came from. Many of my projects that I’ve realized since I moved upstate, things like New Zion, things like Serenity Knolls, really reflect that kind of placid feeling of living here in the woods and the contrast from the music that I made in Brooklyn. It’s very obvious.
How did you get to do that vision where you decided to play Dobro and lap steel?
It was something really obvious. Bill has a lot of cool house parties and around here in the Hudson Valley there are a lot of really nice house party, salon kind of hangs. People bring their art and make food and somebody plays and somebody does some poetry. It’s very old school and very free, in a way that New York City doesn’t always get to. Everybody’s just too uptight there, everything’s too important, everybody’s too busy staring at their phones to take some time and just talk to some people, have a nice hang. That’s one of the great things that I realized immediately when I moved here: there’s no distractions here. You can focus on what you’re really doing. I can construct music on a much higher level with none of the distractions of New York City. Even when you’re holed up in a studio in New York City, the whole force of that is just pushing in on you. You feel it! You feel the food, the people, the vibe, the pollution, the sound, there’s 30 or 40dB of ambient noise at all times in New York City. When I first moved here and I plugged in one of my Marshalls, and I cranked up some distorted guitar and then I stopped, it was as it I was in a vacuum. It just went “zhhooooop”! I was like, “Whoa, this is a crazy level of quiet that allows me to focus on the details of the music in a really different way.” It’s not that one is better or worse; I’m not saying that country life is the only life. But it’s afforded me some clarity with my music that’s a little harder to access with the crush of New York City around me. I did decades in New York City making records so it was super refreshing to get out here and to get at some quieter music. It’s brought me back to playing acoustic piano that I wasn’t doing for a really long time. In New York City, I was really more focused on electric music. Being here and looking at the trees while I play piano and the dog is outside and my chickens go by and there’s deer and birds and nature…
…very inspired. I did my time down in Brooklyn, decades of hard work. This was something that was good for my family to move to the country and so I did it for that reason. Immediately when I moved I said, “Oh wow, this is nice. really nice.” Fortunately, there’s really incredible musicians here.
Yes, there seems to be a community of musicians here.
Roswell Rudd lives five minutes from my house. We could walk to Roswell’s house from here. There’s legends of music here in the Hudson Valley. So many, Steve Swallow and Carla Bley, Jack DeJohnette, half of the Bad Brains. These are all my neighbors here in the Hudson Valley. Incredibly high level of musicians up here. Beacon is a great hang and specifically Quinn’s is the coolest club. The guys who run that place are super cool, super progressive, what they present is really progressive and really forward thinking. I love those guys. Quinn’s is the coolest, man. It’s a great club, they feed you real good and they take real nice care of you. They’re really about the music, they’re huge fans.
You and Bill also just jam in the woods, too.
There’s something about not playing gigs up here, just doing things that we want to do. So, for instance, I’ve done some concerts in the Catskill National Park behind my house, way back in the woods, five, six miles back into the woods.
Bill and I also did a concert here in Kerhonkson in the woods on the rail trail. That was a seedy release event in the woods. It was amazing and it was really beautiful. We just had a small group of friends there who really wanted to be there. Sometimes the grind of having to bring hundreds of people into a club is not what you want. Lately, playing in America, and specifically in New York City, is really difficult. There’s no money and so rather than grinding, trying to do these gigs that are from an old antiquated model of how you do this, up here we do what we want to do. So, Bill and I decide to do a concert over there in the woods, we just tell some people, everybody just comes and hangs, I actually brought a bunch of my home brewed beer to that concert and I was just giving everybody free beer!
You brew your own beer?
I do! And actually Bill Brovold is a home brewer, too. He also roasts his own coffee. The Serenity Knolls vibe is a combination of the really good strong espresso and some nice decaf to chill them out. It’s like some psychedelic, ambient, weed-soaked jams. Bill and I like to make some really chilled-out music that goes to something more fundamental. It’s not a complex world; it’s quite a very simple world but it’s also allows for a lot of adversity and a lot more difficult thoughts that come wandering in to that music. But the serenity of the whole piece allows for them. So it’s this complex world where, yes. There’s a placid, quiet, serenity knolls vibe, but there’s some, as we say in Yiddish, some ‘meshugas’ in life. There’s adversity and there’s difficulty and it’s so you manage those things, how do you accommodate for the adversity while keeping your positivity, keeping your feeling of serenity around you. Improvising with Bill Brovold really encompasses all those things at one time. He comes from an edgy world of improvisers but he has transformed his sound into this warm, gorgeous, sort of simplicity approach to improvising. That was something that really important to Bill and I in that we didn’t want to do something complex and intellectual; we wanted to do the opposite. It’s just two guys sitting at the lake, improvising some nice tunes in D-major. Later we do one in D-minor [laughing]. There’s nothing “avant-garde” about that record.