Sunday, December 14, 2008
Musical Questions – Bernie Jungle
I’m really happy to introduce the latest Musical Questions musician, Bernie Jungle. Bernie’s been playing guitar since he was nine years old, & he plays guitar like he was born doing it.
Of course, while Bernie’s exceptional playing comes from years of exploring the fretboard, it also comes from an unusually acute ear & a great sense of rhythm—the latter is a crucial but sometimes underrated element of solo/melodic playing. It’s a testimony to his rhythmic sense that Bernie has also done time as a bass player & a drummer in bands. The drumming is a story by itself: Bernie’s kit is a homemade (by Bernie) contraption called Shirley; it consists of a plywood box (both bass drum & carrying case, circular saw blades (Bernie is also a skilled woodworker & cabinet maker), a colander, bottle caps, a percussion frog & several other bizarrely perfect elements. That’s Bernie & Shirley in the pic. Bernie’s currently playing Shirley in a recording project with Bay Area pyschedelic Americana singer-songwriter Joe Rut & his band Super Burrito.
In fact, Bernie’s been involved in around 20 distinct bands since he started playing with the folkies who played the folk mass at Saint Joan of Arc Church in Library, PA in 1974— & then quickly moved on to rock & roll by joining a garage band called No Outlet. Right now, besides his work with Joe Rut & Super Burrito, he’s also working with Bay Area songwriter & guitarist-violinist Jason Kleinberg in a project called Me3, & with Todd Costanza in a wonderful band called Okie Rosette, which I enjoyed seeing at Café Du Nord during a recent trip down San Francisco way.
& speaking of San Francisco bands, Bernie spent much of the 90s with the great Warm Wires along with B.Mossman, Matt Stahl, Adam McCauley, Peter Altenberg, Jason Kleinberg, & for a year, with drummer Glen Kotche, now of Wilco; Warm Wires’ music is featured on the documentary The Snowball Effect, which is included on the Collector’s Series DVD of the 1994 film, Clerks. He also toured in Europe with Granfaloon Bus, a wonderful Bay Area band featuring Todd Costanza, Ajax Green, Jeff Stevenson, & Jeff Palmer; & as I mentioned in Friday’s “teaser,” he formed one half of The Great Auk with Carrie Bradley, a fantastic pairing of two really talented musicians.
Bernie’s musical odyssey has taken him from Pennsylvania to Florida (a band called The Bottom Line which included ex-Molly Hatchet bassist Banner Thomas) to Cleveland (a quartet of songwriters known as the Earl Rays—after a high school bully, not after the infamous assassain) to the Bay Area & beyond. He has two cds on CD Baby (here & here). But nuff said—here’s Bernie himself:
Was there a childhood musical experience (either listening or playing) that you believe influenced you later or led you in a musical direction?
i used to sit and watch my older cousin, Mike, play electric guitar solos... he was amazing and i'd spend hours watching, then he'd hand me the guitar and i'd get five minutes... it had to be a good five minutes
when i was 14 ys old i went to see Kiss for maybe the 5th time, this time with my cousin at the Indianapolis Convention Center. I was small and we were in the very first row, literally crammed up against the plywood barrier between the sold out crowd and the stage. When the band came on there was this incredible surge forward and i was being crushed against the plywood, it was incredible really. Was so bad that i was smashed into unconscienceness and my cousin and some roadies got me out of there and up onto the stage (stage left) when i came to i was looking out at a sold out crowd of many thousands, to my right was kiss, playing a song, and all the smoke and lights, it was amazing and i knew that's what i wanted. true story, i swear. The roadies took us back stage and let us sit there, sipping water, for another song or two till we got back on your feet.
What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to play &/or compose music?
feeling like my hands are too big, and my fingers too large, there are some chords that i just can't hit... but i've realized i can do what i can, and work around the rest (and fake it)
Do you have any superstitions connected with performances?
sure, for live shows i have a favorite leather writst band, acutally a really wide watch band from the 1970's that brings me good luck during a show. also have some favorite shirly shoes that sound good and just make me feel like i'm in the mood... you know, old brown leather that perfectly fits my feet (shirly is my home-made percussion instrument)
What comes first: music (melody or chords), lyrics, title, concept, etc?
melody first, usually for quite some time, lyrics come later, sometimes unexpectedly. every once in a while when all the stars align, the words and music all come and a song can happen in a half hour but that is far and few between
What attracts you to a certain song—what makes a good song?
something that so completely tells a story, that i feel absolutely transported, through music or lyrics (or both). also, a song that doesn't spoon-feed lyrics and/or ideas but lets you coax them out personally
but also, something that's from the heart, even if it's in a different language, like sigur ros, or no language at all, like the cocteau twins, there's something universal that draws me in, and i just know it when i hear it.
Any one or two performances stick out as more memorable? Any one or two incidents during a performance that stick in your mind?
In ‘84 and ‘85 I was in a band in Jacksonville Florida with Banner Thomas from Molly Hatchet. Audience members were sometimes guys from 38-Special and some of my other favorite southern rock bands. One night, Skynyrds’ Artimus Pyle was on stage playing with me and Banner and then somehow we were joined by Leon Wilkeson (Lynyrd Skynyrd bassist). I think we played a Zeppelin song together, and the Allman Brothers, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed. Was truly amazing and something i'll always remember.
Banner was the first really professional musician that I’d worked with and it was amazing to see him play whatever was in his head, music just poured out of him effortlessly.
one band i was in, Warm Wires had so many great shows it's hard to pick one. We put so much heart into writing and arranging but had so much fun wearing goofy clothing or makeup, whatever we wanted, there really were no rules and the last thing we wanted was to look "cool". In the end it was one of the most profound things i've ever done. Fronted by B. Mossman (aka brad pedinoff) who was so generous and inspiring. He'd bring ideas in and we (Matt Stahl on guitar and Adam McCauly on drums) would work them up, turn them inside out, generally just re-form the ideas. We had incredible rehearsals with music that was never recorded, but an atmosphere that i can taste, and that i'll always hold dear.
Playing with Carrie Bradley has been incredible too. Have this vivid memory of sitting around a camp-fire at ocean beach in SF. I was such a big Ed's Redeeming Qualities fan, and fan of her band, 100 Watt Smile. I had learned the lyrics to her song “New Jersey” and acutally worked up a harmony, then sitting around the campfire, asked if i could sing along with her and it was magnetic. I was so smitten and felt like we were both in the same groove. Then years later she and i, around yet another camp-fire, singing her song called "Love," and we knew we had a great musical bond and wanted to do something together. We had these incredible rehearsals in my basement in Oakland where we'd work and re-work songs, and come up with all sorts of great parts. or sometimes we'd have endless cups of tea and cry on each others’ shoulders and that would be our rehearsal. (and sometimes have an amazing show after such a rehearsal)
Also, one of my bands, The Earl Rays, in Cleveland in the mid to late 1980's got to open up for Meat Loaf at the Agora Ballroom. Yes, the same place where supposedly Alan Freed coined the term Rock and Roll.
They did their best to boo us off the stage but we played our full 35 minutes, to deafening cries, and chants for "meat" "loaf" that were louder than our stage monitors. We held our ground, and played the whole set, was really funny and unforgettable.
When performing how much are you focusing on communcation with the audience, & how much on the other members of your band?
i like to think of it as a whole communication between me and other players, and the audience included. When a performance hits that sweet spot, everything is included. (one memorable show even had a fire truck outside go by, perfectly in tune with the violin solo)
Any instrument that really intrigues you that you’ve never gotten around to learn? What’s interesting to you about this instrument?
piano, and maybe especially organ. I love the textural elements, like glue that binds a song together and wow, to play a Hammond B3 through a Leslie Speaker, that would be a dream. And i wish i'd learned how to read and write music. As is stands i have to have a tape recorder handy or the ideas just go away with no way to write any of it down. I've tried and it drives me crazy, like learning another language. And funny how many phone messages i leave myself of song ideas.
What’s on your playlist these days? What are you listening to?
Sigor Ros, Unbunny, Pin Back, Kitka, Manu Chou, Tan Vampires, Metric, Deer Hoof, and Rachel Stevenson's bass lines
if i paid more attention there would probably be more
Where do you see yourself in relation to music right now? How has your relationship to music changed over time?
I used to want a career in music but now not so sure. I mean, i'm not foolish enough to still want to be a rock star, but it would be great to be able to do some touring and playing music where i can. For now though, it's something that i really enjoying doing, something that i do with my friends. Carrie and i are still The Great Auk, and i hope we can write some new material, even East Coast / West Coast as we are now, and next time i’m in NYC i'm sure we can put together a show. Currently starting up a project with Rachel Stevenson, both singing, me on guitar and her on electric bass. I also play guitar in Todd Costanza's new project, Okie Rosette and hope to do some touring in that. I still play my home made drum contraption called Shirley, and just did a day long recording session on Shirley with Joe Rut on a soon to be released EP. On top of all that, i'm mixing a full length recording of songs that i'd written over a long time, and hope to have that mixed and mastered before summer 2009. I'm also playing electric bass in Jason Kleinberg's new band, Me3, playing rock songs for kids. I guess over time what's happened is that i went from wanting to play music with other people to being involved in multiple projects, which is really fun and exciting. What i'd like to do most is to get back into fronting some kind of band and playing more shows and more house concerts, with the aim to just get the songs out there and to just be a musician in the world.
Where do you place yourself in relation to a musical tradition or heritage? Could you talk a bit about musical influences?
As a kid i worshiped Duane Allman, not just in the band with his brother, but in his commitment to music, and in his incredible session work with everyone from Aretha Franklin to Boz Scaggs and the work he did with Eric Clapton as Derek and the Dominoes was amazing. But the Fillmore sessions and what he and Dicky Betts created together was simply sublime. really really loved and still love Deep Purple, old Black Sabbath, but also Blonde Redhead, The Arcade Fire, Sigur Ros, Frank Zappa, Genesis, Nirvana, Led Zepplin, Kate Bush, Elliot Smith, Django, Jolie Holland, and this wonderful and amazing band out of pittsburgh PA called ATS that has been together for like 30 years and nobody knows about them. i guess what i'm saying is that i've been influenced by everything i've heard from heavy metal to bluegrass.
Do you have any advice for people who are starting out as performers &/or composers?
if you're a guitar player, get rid of that crappy guitar. Go out and buy one that's four times out of your budget. You're worth it, you'll save your fingers and your sanity stay in tune and sound freaking great!
Is there a question about music/musicianship you’ve always had a hankering to answer? If so, what is it, & what’s the answer you’ve wanted to give?
people sometimes ask me how i come up with a solo
truth is, i don't know what the hell i'm doing but that's ok
sure i've learned to imitate so many people, so many solos and parts, but then the solo comes up, in the present moment, it's like the flood gates open and you can really do whatever you want and it doesn't have to be Adrien Belew or Frank Zappa, it can just be honest and what it is right now and i think somehow that comes out honestly.
Pic of Bernie & Shirley is by Amy Snyder
THANKS A LOT BERNIE! THERE’LL BE MORE MUSICAL QUESTIONS COMING UP, SO STAY TUNED!