All About Jazz: August 2006
This is the truncated version of this interview that appeared in print. Go here for a longer version that appeared on the web in November 2006.
By Rex Butters
all about jazz: Some of The Mentones' roots go all the way back to The Ash Grove.
STEUART LIEBIG: A lot of stuff goes back to The Ash Grove because that's when I was 14 and we used to get our parents to drive us down and check it out for Johnny Otis, Lightnin' Hopkins, and all these other people we used to go see down there, so everything sort of came out of that. We used to see The Persuasions. Great club. Too bad it had its problems. Seemed to burn down a lot until it became The Improv. Go figure what that means. Someone didn't like Ed Pearl. We used to go see Albert King a lot.
aaj: How long had you been playing when you started with Les McCann?
SL: I started playing when I was 14. I started on bass. I also bought a guitar because it's good to know chords. I fell in with some people who were hanging with Les. There was this dinner/community jam session thing, and there was this girl who wasn't very good playing bass in it, and I said, "I'll bring my guitar along." There was another guy who played bass sometimes. I thought I was just going to go out for the summer and be a roadie, but he said, "You're bringing your instruments," and I said, "Yeah, I always bring my instruments."
First stop, we go to a music store. They say come along, and then they ask me, "What do you think of this guitar," and I say, "Yeah, it's alright." And they say, "Well, make up your mind. You're playing through it tonight!" I didn't know any of the tunes. He just put me on stage and I just had to wing it. It was pretty trippy. It was pretty abrupt. I'd played a little with him before. He did this one tune on this record that I played both bass and guitar on. Then I ended up doing the band thing. There was another guitar player, so I was playing backup guitar. Les was trying to get him to do a certain kind of solo on this tune, and the guy couldn't do it because he was trying to play all this hip shit. I ended up playing a bunch of solos, which tweaked the other guy, so he ended up quitting. I got a friend of mine on the gig, and I was still the rhythm guitar player. It was all very strange. I was just turning 20, so that was '76. I probably went out in June of '76, and I lasted until about June or July of '79. Then I went back to school.
aaj: Where did you go to school?
SL: I studied double bass at Cal State Northridge. I did pretty much the whole classical thing. I had an upright bass and I used to get together with John Beasley every Sunday morning and play McCoy Tyner tunes. But that's completely different from playing with a bow, and trying to play all these intense written parts. I could read chord changes, but I couldn't read a whole mess of notes, so I had a huge learning curve when I went to school. They reamed me when I got there. "You shouldn't be doing this. You should leave and become a janitor." By the time I got out, they were saying, "That's the best senior recital we've heard in a long time." I'm so obstinate, I just had to show them they were wrong about me.
aaj: How did you hook up with Julius Hemphill?
SL: Alex. Alex recommended me. We were playing in Wayne Peet's Doppler Funk. We had a 9Winds record. We used to these shows that were crazy. The band was Wayne, Nels, Alex, Vinny, John Fumo, sometimes a trombone player, and me. Not a bad little band. We'd do these gigs that were complete throw down. The LP had some great writing on it.
aaj: Who else played with Julius Hemphill?
SL: The first incarnation was Julius, Jumma Santos, Nels, Alex, and me. The second incarnation was those five plus Bill Frisell. The third version replaces Bill Frisell with Alan Jaffe. We only played a few times in the states: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Minnesota. I did a Lincoln Center gig with him - with his large band. I was sort of a disaster. It was right in the middle of a recording session, and I flew out, but I didn't really have my shit together. My amp blew up. It was a big disaster.
aaj: How did The Mentones get together?
SL: I had seen Tony Atherton when he played with Bazooka at the Alligator Lounge. Later, when I'm putting together The Mentones, I'm thinking he's really raw and I want to put together a really aggressive band. So I asked him if he knew anyone chromatic harmonica players who can play Ornette Coleman. He says Bill Barrett. So I tuck that into the back of my mind. Then I ran into Wayne Peet, asked him the same thing, and he says Bill Barrett. I tracked him down, had him come over. We played and hit it off really well. I played on some things of his. We've been doing this band, four or five years. Bill's got this incredibly open mind. He's very sponge like. For a guy who has three kids and has to worry about everything that goes along with that, he's very focused on learning and deconstructing things to see how the music works. I turned him on to a lot of the Anthony Braxton stuff, especially the solo alto stuff, so Bill's trying to figure out how to do that on chromatic harmonica. I'm not sure anyone else has ever thought about doing these things on harp. He's really stretching the envelope as far as I can tell. A lot of guys look at what he's doing and say, "What?" Either they're incredulous, like, "Wow that's amazing," or they're incredulous like they can't get out of their box on how interesting he really is. And I've known drummer Joe Berardi for a long time. When I was thinking what drummer I could get to do The Mentones, I thought of Joe, and he's the perfect guy. Plus, he rocks. We goad each other into excess.
aaj: What inspires The Mentones' material?
SL: "Chatterbox": I was thinking of a John Lee Hooker thing called "Madman Blues." The guys I was thinking about a lot with this band were Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf. There's a little bit of George Jones and Hank Williams, and Roscoe Holcomb in there too. There's a little Freddie King. "Double-Blade Axe" is "Crosscut Saw" by Albert King. It's all based on Albert King riffs. "The Single-Double Two-Step" comes from George Jones. It's "Feeling Single, Seeing Double." "Manchild Hustle" is a tribute to Charles Mingus. The whole idea behind The Mentones was, I was getting really into the blues thing and then I was listening to the Atlantic Ornette box. And said, "Well, this shit's the blues." Nowhere Calling is based on James Ellroy's The Big Nowhere. It's all L.A. man.
aaj: What's kept you in Los Angeles all these years?
SL: Part of it is, I spent two or three years on the road when I was in my early 20s, and I found out being on the road could be really boring. This is in the '70s. It didn't thrill me. If I could tour Europe a lot, I'd do it. I've thought about moving to New York, but now I have two kids. Family's kept me here a lot. I had a grandmother whom I adored, and I wanted to be around. She died, and now my mom lives six blocks away. I have roots here. And I think L.A. has a lot to offer. There's a lot of high quality players here, and the people here are into it. You can get them to do stuff, and you do stuff for them. And I've said it before, if I had to take all this crap through a New York subway system, or try to find parking in downtown Manhattan, it's a complete pain in the ass. Seriously. Ever go to one of those gigs where Alex has the eight hour drum setup thing? You can't do that in New York. You go to a rehearsal studio and everything's provided for you. Here, people bring a whole mess of stuff because you can get around fairly easily. I think L.A. has a certain amount of freedom New York doesn't.