This interview with Steve Raegele took place by email in November 2009.
Tony Reif: What’s your formation in music? Did you go through the usual rock infatuation as a teenager? How about the guitar, when did you start playing and what interested you about the instrument?
Steve Raegele: My primordial musical experiences mostly involved the band KISS. When I was 7 or 8, I had a next-door neighbor who was probably 13 or 14 and was a major KISS fan. He made me a mix tape and I was hooked. I got into a lot of other rock and metal as a result. Motley Crue, Ratt, Ozzy, Quiet Riot, etc. KISS is known as a sort of musical gateway drug, you know. Around that time there was lots of great pop too, so I would listen to the Police, Michael Jackson, Toto, Lionel Richie. Kids listened to the same stuff as adults back then. We didn’t really have the crap they market to kids now. I mean, it may have been crap, but it was the collective crap, not market specific, focus-group crap.
I didn’t pick up a guitar until maybe the end of sixth grade, as I spent most of that year trying to play the cornet. I had a good sound, but I had trouble reading. From that point on I played guitar and tried to learn as much as I could from records and the information I could glean from a friend who was a young rock guitar prodigy. I can thank Travis Cardinal for lending me his first Les Paul knock-off and showing me the opening riff to “No More Mr. Nice Guy” by Alice Cooper.
I finally got serious about music in grade 10 and enrolled in all the music courses my high school offered. I was also jamming with friends in a band we called the Spines. It was myself on guitar, Nick Fraser on drums, Pemi Paull on violin and Nathan Morris on bass. We fancied ourselves the perfect amalgam of Funkadelic, Ministry, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. We may well have been! We just jammed all the time and I learned how to try to make the most of a musical situation. Nick was so precocious, and Pemi would write these involved tunes with adroit melodies and shifting meters. I could barely play guitar at the time, so dealing with that stuff was a crash course. I was also playing in my school stage band (big band) and the band director gave me the phone number of a young guitarist named Justin Haynes. He was 17 and I was 15! I called him and started taking lessons. He was great. He really inspired me and gave me a lot of encouragement. He hipped me to Jim Hall and helped me to try to play bebop. I remember when I finally got the head to “Donna Lee,” being so satisfied, then realizing that that was just one piece of the puzzle. Now we had to improvise? I never really took to bebop wholeheartedly as a language, but I certainly took a lot away from it, whether I like to admit it or not. I think the Jim Hall/motivic development thing struck more of a chord with me than the doctrine of bebop ever did. It’s an eloquent language though and I admire those who speak it well.
TR: What about formal schooling? Did you study jazz performance and/or composition? When did you move to Montreal and how did things change for you there – what parts of the Montreal scene did you find most congenial?
SR: After a while Justin said I should try to study with someone else, as I probably needed to immerse myself more in the nuts and bolts of jazz pedagogy so I could go study at university. I started coming up to Montreal to take lessons with Bill Coon, which was great because he really got me doing more solo transcriptions and mechanical things like patterns and sequences that you need so people think you can play jazz. Good stuff.
I then got into St. Francis Xavier Univeristy in Nova Scotia and went there for one year. That was pretty weird. Really good faculty down there, but at that time it seemed like the wrong place for me to be. So I came up to Montreal again and started studying at Concordia with Rod Ellias. That was 1995. Roddy got me into Ralph Towner and Bach. Not that I’m a specialist in either, but I definitely benefited from the immersion. We would play two-part inventions together and I got some of that Ralph Towner finger stuff together. He would also critique tunes I’d written and we’d get into sound, etc. The biggest thing about that time was that I was in a city and could play with people both at the school and in the city. St. FX was pretty isolated, so it was quite a contrast. I think I played one gig the whole year there. In Montreal I started gigging and scuffling almost immediately. The learning was exponential. At the end of school I went out on a cruise ship and played for a few months. That was surreal, but it was where I realized that all the jazz schooling in the world wasn’t necessarily going to prepare me for every musical situation as a guitarist. I did great on the combo sets and Big Band sets, but was a bit adrift, as it were, when it came time to play a county tune. I learned a new appreciation for the craft involved in commercial music styles. It also began my fascination with Steely Dan/Donald Fagan and other smooth styles that have now come to be known in the hipster domain as Yacht Rock. For the record, I haven’t stopped listening to Hall and Oates since I started in 1983.
TR: You’ve performed with some of the more interesting jazz and new music improvisers in Montreal – your myspace page lists “Frank Lozano, Jean Derome, Bernard Falaise, Remi Bolduc, Pierre Tanguay and many more,” as well as the Isaiah Ceccarelli Ensemble and the contemporary music collective Ensemble Kore. You’re also a (founding?) member of Thom Gossage’s Other Voices, a band that’s been around since at least 2001 and that also includes Miles Perkin. Did your trio in some sense evolve out of Other Voices?
SR: While I’m not a founding member of Thom’s band, I have played with them since 2005. It’s been amazing. I think Thom heard something in my approach and he definitely nurtured it. It’s given me the confidence to do my thing, which is (as you astutely deduced) an outgrowth of the trio of Miles Perkin, Thom and myself in Other Voices. I actually thought of calling the band Inner Vices! While playing in OV I figured out a lot of what I want to do with my music, and how music can be made both from the barest elements of structure, or from the most intricate lattice. For me that means having at least some sort of tether to ground the players, rather than a total free-for-all. I love playing free, but it’s not something I want to present to the world as my music. I’m more interested in creating boundaries for the players and seeing how they subvert them and twist them to their particular abilities. Which can often sound very ‘free’. And I also owe a big debt of gratitude to Isaiah Ceccarelli for hearing a whole other side of my playing and wanting to use that in his band. Thank God for drummers!
TR: Who are the guitarists (and other musicians) who have had the most influence on your music, or who have inspired you, and how have they affected how your music has developed over the years? Your mysapce page mentions Wayne Krantz, Abercrombie, Frisell, Jim Hall, but also Jeff Beck and Hendrix. And I hear some Ben Monder in there…
SR: Jim Hall is big. I think he is for most guitarists at this point because he really is the only guy (for me at least) from that era who had his own sound, other than Wes Montgomery of course. So in terms of a model for trying to do your own thing, he’s the guy. Even if one never dug into his approach to sound, that great rhythmic bounce he has, the pure melodicism, etc, one could still say “This guy showed that you can try to not follow.” I think that’s really important. On Sonny Rollins’ “The Bridge” you have this virtuoso tenor player running amok on a tempo, and this guitarist who did not have the speed to try to ape that. So what did he do? He played around the tempo, used rhythm, creativity, to try to make his own thing happen. He didn’t try to play like Sonny. That was important for me to hear. And his later work is really beautiful, too. I love These Rooms and All Across the City from the 80s. Chamber music.
Frisell is an example of someone who realized that he could take a whole bunch of disparate influences and put them all together and it would work. He’s a postmodernist, for sure. But it’s not contrived. His approach is so organic and beautiful. As far as Wayne Krantz goes, he’s been a big factor in how I write and mine my ideas compositionally. What Wayne does in real time as an improviser is scary. I’m trying to tap into aspects of his thing as a writer, and what that has meant is that I now am more likely to see the value in a kernel of an idea and try to expand that, or meld it with another idea, edit something down, and find a way to make music out of unlikely material. If I’m practicing now, I’m more apt to take note of an idea or device I’m working with and pull back for a second and jot it down. Lots of stuff still gets lost to the ether, though.
I cite guys like Hendrix and Jeff Beck because, in the case of Beck, I spent some time trying to learn about his tricks in an effort to incorporate them into my playing. This was about ten years ago when I was making a go at playing commercial music and RnB, and I realized I was a jazz nerd who had very little functional rock cliche playing in me. Cover bands aren’t looking for individuality! Give us the licks, man! And Hendrix is just one of those guys I listened to a ton when I was a kid. I never really tried to play like that. But I know it’s made an impact on my psyche. I also can’t overstate the influence of the whole ECM aesthetic and all those great records from the seventies. I used to play along with Abercrombie records like Arcade, and stay up all night listening to Sargasso Sea over and over again. And those Bill Connors records are totally overlooked. I also listened a lot to all the classic Miles Davis records. Milestones was one of the first jazz albums I had, and I think I could sing every note of that record, if I could actually sing worth a damn. The classic quintet with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter et al was a big part of the jazz years for me. Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil was another one because it opened up that side of jazz composition with all the lydian stuff and the non-functional harmony.
TR: Almost all the pieces on Last Century are compositions rather than improvisations, and you’ve said that in some cases there is little improvisation as such, at least in terms of the thematic material and how it’s developed. Nevertheless, the music feels like jazz in the sense that it feels improvisational – as one listens it seems like the music could go in different directions rather than being determined by the writing. How do you work with Thom and Miles to get this open feeling into the music, and how much and in what ways does their input determine the final result of a piece or a performance?
SR: Well, let’s just say that their input was integral. I wrote most of the music as almost solo guitar pieces. The idea as I brought it to them was that I would play these pieces, and they were to accompany me as improvisers. Over the course of the rehearsal period the improvisations developed, evolved, and became a bit more set. Soon, they had their ‘parts’. There are a few passages where I wanted Miles to play specific pitches, so I would write that, but mostly I trusted that he would come up with something great and it would be him. If I write everything out for the players I think it becomes a little less important who is playing, so long as the performance is accurate. Thom is a very compositional drummer (and a great writer) and I like that he can focus on details of his own performances and improvisations and say “I like that. That’s a part. We’ll keep that.” If it’s good, Thom won’t let it drift into the ether. All that aside, I do have plans to approach it from the other side and be more dictatorial on some new pieces. But never to the exclusion of this way of working. I like it a lot.
TR: Some of the music also has a post-rock quality – Ben Monder talks about its “nice organic blend of the spacious and the angular,” terms which I think could apply equally to some post-rock and some avant-jazz – and then there’s that vague term “new music” that might encompass anything from John Adams to Frank Zappa. Do you feel any affinity with, say Bang on a Can, or closer to home Les Dangereux Zhom, Bernard Falaise, etc.? Or for that matter with hardcore contemporary or 20th century classical composers?
SR: Being around contemporary composers and working in that world has definitely opened up my ears to a lot of things, and I definitely feel an affinity towards the experimentalism and openness of the “new music” side of things, though I never studied classical music or composition formally. My knowledge of the inner workings of music are coming from a jazz player’s working knowledge of harmony and voice leading and a fairly ingrained idea of the root. I’m always fighting this. But I exploit it, too. I’ll often find myself working on a passage or idea and find that I’ve fallen into a bebop hole. So I try to dig myself out by extrapolating so many times that I forget what trope I was in in the first place. I guess genres and styles are convenient containers for a lot of people, especially in this time of excess information and media saturation. People need those parameters to help them make decisions about what to listen to. But I think the problem with genres is that those who immerse themselves in them (which you have to do to be good or ‘authentic’) can become a bit didactic or even messianic. I was definitely that way with jazz…when I was 15! Hopefully I’ve grown up a little. Bernard Falaise is indeed amazing.
TR: You also had your stab at indie rock recognition as guitarist with Besnard Lakes, which I understand wasn’t an entirely satisfactory experience. Did you come away from it with any lessons learned about that music, that world?
SR: I came away knowing that the music ‘industry’ is very, very weird, and that if I’m going to be in it and struggle with it and deal with it, it might as well be my music at stake. Lesson learned.
TR: Your partner Nicole Lizée is a new music composer/sound artist/keyboardist (and was also a member of Besnard) – part of a piece of hers is (re)mixed into “Fight Club the Rabbit” (and what does that title mean anyway?) Have you collaborated with her elsewhere?
SR: I’ve played on much of Nicky’s music that involved guitar. I’m on her record on Centrediscs. She wrote a solo guitar piece that I premiered once that was really cool. A lot of the music she’s written with me in mind is now being performed by other ensembles and guitarists, so that collaborative element is now growing wings and going out into the world, which is great. She’s a truly singular and creative composer, and I’ve learned a lot form the world she lives in. “Fight Club the Rabbit” is a bit of an inside joke between Nicky and me. I just think the idea of a rabbit named Fight Club is ridiculous and the perfect title for that tune.
TR: Could you explain how pareidolia (a psychological phenomenon whereby we perceive significance in vague or random stimuli, such as images in clouds or hidden messages in records played backwards) has become something of a touchstone for your current musical thinking? Without getting completely theoretical, could you talk about how ambiguities of form and perception relate to your composing and playing?
SR: This idea relates back to my fascination with harmonic synonyms (and melodic, as they are one and the same, really…) and how one can extrapolate musical signifiers so that they no longer resemble the original icon. It comes back to jazz, in a way, in that jazz players learn the changes then learn substitutions for those changes, and ways of navigating those chords and tropes. If we keep extrapolating, and the icon becomes more and more remote, are we still playing the same song? Does it even matter? Or is it just a leap of faith, like modern fiat currency? If we all agree that D now equals A, is D not now A? In this respect it is like a code. At this point, if the only people speaking the code are those making the music, what impact does the music have on the listener? This question can be asked of all art music, but one hopes that the judgement of the artist has led the music to a place that resonates regardless of the point of reference. It’s just my process, and I am perhaps doing something that more astute musical minds would reduce to something far more simple. Which, really, it is. At the end of the day, I’m trying to create different reference points for me and my musicians in order to imply structure, and elicit creative improvising.