All About Jazz: November 2006
This is the longer web version of this interview. Go here for a longer version that appeared in print in August 2006.
Steuart Liebig has been a mainstay on the Left Coast scene for many years. With a variety of projects ranging from the avant garde to the avant blues, he recently celebrated his 50th birthday with a concert featuring a veritable who's who of the Los Angeles experimental scene.
On July 27th, LA new music mainstay Steuart Liebig curated a Cryptonight in Culver City dedicated to showcasing several of his many diverse compositional creations under the rubric, Steuart Liebig Concerto Night/ 50th Birthday Megalomania. Co-celebrants and performers included the southland A-List: woodwind multi-instrumentalists Vinny Golia and Andrew Pask, guitarist Nels Cline, trumpeter Jeff Kaiser, bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck, violinist Jeff Gauthier, keyboardists David Witham and Wayne Peet, and percussionist Alex Cline, among others. His second CD with the 21st century blues breakers the Mentones, Nowhere Calling (pfMENTUM, 2006), has seen release, with several new projects in the works as well. Liebig chatted in his home rehearsal studio, with a full moon rising over his classic SoCal suburban backyard citrus trees.
All About Jazz: You’re a native?
Steuart Liebig: I was born in Santa Monica-haven’t gone too far from the fold, I suppose.
AAJ: Some of the Mentones’ roots go all the way back to [legendary LA blues/ folk club] the Ash Grove?
SL: 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 King, Johnny Otis, Lightning Hopkins, and all these other people we used to go see down there, so yeah. 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 [owner] Bernie Pearl. We used to go see Albert King a lot.
AAJ: He used to play LA a lot.
SL: Seemed like he did. Seemed like every six months or so. My mom took me to see a lot of weird concerts. She took me to see Sly and the Family Stone at the Forum. She took me see Yes. Iron Butterfly. I’m dating myself really badly. The United States of America. My mom knew somebody who knew those people. My mom was pretty young, she was 23 when I was born. She took me to some rehearsal they had at a loft thing in Hollywood, back when Hollywood was cheap. I saw them at the Ash Grove, and had their record when I was a kid. I lost it or got rid of it at some point and got a vinyl reissue about ten years ago. Probably more like 15 years ago, at Aron’s.
AAJ: So, right from the start you were going to lots of shows?
SL: I guess. Listening to records, all that stuff. My mom was a semi-pro singer, so I used to get hauled around to rehearsals, and play with my war toys outside of her singing Palestrina masses in churches in Topanga. I have always had music floating around.
AAJ: She sang mainly music from the Renaissance?
SL: She was in this band called the Greg Smith Singers who would premiere a lot of the new Stravinsky stuff that came out. She did a lot of modern stuff, too. I think she said they did some Schoenberg stuff, too. They did a lot of different things, but her real thing that she did was a lot of Renaissance and early music. I came by that stuff through her, which I really like-madrigals, motets, the writing’s brilliant.
AAJ: How long had you been playing when you started with Les McCann?
SL: I started playing when I was fourteen. 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 was just a dumb wanna play blues rock, or like Davey Johnston in Elton John’s band. There was a thing where you could just play the big blues rock thing. I did that, and he liked what I did on this thing, so 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 twenty, 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’d 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 [pianist] 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: Was that your introduction to theory?
AAJ: How did the contrabass guitar come into your life?
SL: When I got out of Northridge, I wanted a six-string bass. In certain bands, I was playing 3 different basses with 3 different tunings. So, I went to the NAMM show, played this bass, was completely floored. My mom helped me cosign a loan, I sent off the money and hoped I liked the bass, because it was more than I’d paid for an instrument ever. I started playing bar gigs on guitar to pay for it, so there I was playing “Brown Sugar.” I can fake [guitarist] Keith Richards fairly easily at certain points. The truth is, I don’t really love the sound of the electric bass. The technique is what I grew up with, and a lot of what I hear is based on it.
AAJ: You must have played the Century City Playhouse.
SL: The only time I ever played there was with Wayne Peet, and this other guy I knew from my High School who said I should go to Northridge, a rock-jazz-classical guy, now he’s doing country. He ended up doing a lot of casuals, and got burnt out, so he just wanted to play country music after that. He got me into [composer Krystof] Penderecki. He knew [trombonist] John Rapson, [multi-instrumentalist] John Stephens, and Wayne Peet. They wanted him to play bass on something, and he recommended me. I played with the Joe Dopler Quintet, or something like that. I think they called it a quintet, but there were more than five. That’s how I met Wayne, and I think that’s the first time the Clines met Wayne. I remember talking to them about Wayne afterwards.
AAJ: How’d you hook up with [woodwind multi-instrumentalst] Julius Hemphill?
SL: Alex. Alex recommended me. We were playing in Wayne Peet’s Dopler Funk. We had a Nine Winds record. We used to these shows that were crazy. The band was Wayne [Peet], Nels [Cline], Alex [Cline], Vinny [Golia], [trumpeter] 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, [percussionist] Jumma Santos, Nels, Alex, and me. The second incarnation was those five plus [guitarist] Bill Frisell. The third version replaces Bill Frisell with Allan Jaffe. We only played a few times in the states. San Francisco, LA, 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 BLOC 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? Where did you find [harmonica player] Bill Barrett?
SL: I had seen [woodwind multi-instrumentalist] 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 any 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.
And I’ve known drummer Joe Berardi for a long time. I auditioned for the Fibonaccis when he was in the Fibonaccis. When I was thinking what drummer I could get to do the Mentones, I thought of Joe, and he’s the perfect guy. I really wanted that Harry Partch noisy thing, where it’s prepared percussion, I wanted that kind of action in this. So, he’s playing tin cans, and he has a waste paper basket he plays, stuff on the drums. Plus, he rocks. We goad each other into excess. The horn players look at me like, can we stop now?
AAJ: Tell me 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 Bladed Axe” is “Cross Cut 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 and Seeing Double.” “Rocking Chair” is based on “Rock Me Baby.” “Manchild Hustle” is a tribute to Charles Mingus.
AAJ: What’s kept you in LA all these years?
SL: Part of it is, I spent two or three years on the road when I was in my early twenties, and I found out being on the road could be really boring. This is in the seventies, and a lot in the Midwest, sort of a dreary time. It didn’t thrill me. If I could tour Europe a lot, I’d do it. But if I had to do the late night drives through Oklahoma...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.
AAJ: What’s coming up?
SL: Going to record the next Minim disk in November. Mentones, I have a whole other disc of material written. We’ve really been concentrating on playing material from the second disc. We play some of the tunes from what I consider to be the third disc. We’ll be playing more of those. Maybe a Panharmonicon sighting in September. I have this band, Seconda Practica, which I have two albums worth of material. Anna and I are going to be doing something, I don’t know what it’s going to be. Playing with G.E. Stinson and his things. We’re doing a trio with Jeremy Drake. A lot of grooves and noise.