Sunday, March 1, 2009

Musical Questions – John Hayes

OK, it’s me, wearing my “guest musician” hat. A quick note on the clip at the bottom of the post—it’s a version of the traditional tune “The Cuckoo” that I recorded in 2007 while testing out some new recording equipment. Hope you enjoy it. Also: I’m expecting some more interviews back from other musicians, so there will be more posts in the Musical Questions series; please stay tuned.

My musical career in a nutshell: Played piano from age 8 on; had relatively brief childhood experiences with the sousaphone, the saxophone & the soprano recorder; more or less stopped playing music in any systematic way about age 18, but played piano recreationally from time to time while plying the poetic trade. Took up guitar, which led to banjo & uke; played music with my wife, Eberle Umbach, & Lois Fry for McCall-Donnelly Drama Troupe theatrical productions; was part of forming the Alice in Wonder Band in 02 with several wonderful musicians; played in The Blue Notes, a piano-bass-drum trio with Bill Shore & Eberle
— also spent time playing electric bass while wearing a tux in the Tyler Vance Band, playing at McCall area resorts; Eberle & I later performed as a duet: Five & Dime Jazz. We played at weddings, parties, other functions, recorded soundtracks for Alpine Playhouse theatrical productions, & had a weekly restaurant gig for some time. As the Bijou Orchestrette, Eberle & I began composing & playing music for silent films (two Nell Shipman films: Back to God’s Country & The Grub Stake); The Grub Stake score was commissioned by the Idaho Film Collection in 05, & our recording of our score provides the soundtrack for this film on their DVD collection of all Shipman’s extant films (we’re on vol. 3). Also, Eberle & I have also been proud Northwest members of Chris Leone’s loose confederation of like-mind souls, the Spurs of the Moment: I’ve played guitar, uke & banjo at various times with the Spurs. Am now going back to my musical “roots” performing old blues starting this spring, mostly on the senior center/nursing home/assisted living circuit, probably mostly solo, but with Eberle (& others?) joining in as schedules allow—will keep you posted on that right here on Robert Frost’s Banjo.

Was there a childhood musical experience (either listening or playing) that you believe influenced you later or led you in a musical direction?

I listened to music almost obsessively as a kid—folk singers, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Mitch Miller, the whole nine yards. My sister’s older than I am, & I picked up a lot of music from whatever she was into at the time—I followed her trajectory thru show tunes to the New Christy Minstrels to Baez & Dylan & Tim Hardin & Phil Ochs. I also sang a lot, but let’s just say this became very problematic around the time my voice broke; I have a deep voice, & overnight went from the little lad soprano to a bass or at least very low baritone—for years I had major problems orienting my voice to my ear or vice-versa. But there were positive experiences, too: I had a wonderful piano teacher—Mrs Underhill—who really was a friend to me, & was there to help when I finally started to practice & actually improve.

What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to play &/or compose music?

Truth be told, I’ve battled a certain defeatist or “fear of failure” streak in myself for many years, & I guess various youthful experiences led me to believe that I‘d never cut it as a “real” musician. I remember telling friends (half jokingly) during my poebiz days in Charlottesville that I’d rather be a musician than a poet; yet for quite some time when opportunities came up, I avoided them. It wasn’t until I got to know Dani Leone & other folks in San Francisco with a sort of “do-it-yourself” musical aesthetic that I was able to start putting that behind me. But the biggest impetus for me really getting into music has been my relationship with my wife, Eberle—always the better musician, but always encouraging & always finding ways for us to play music together, even when I really couldn’t play a lick. The moral of the story is: if you’re afraid to fail, you’re certain never to succeed.

Do you have any superstitions connected with performances (or with the composing process)?

Despite being a rational sort of guy from one standpoint, I also have tons of superstitions—I’m intent on the “no hat on the bed” thing all the time, but especially before shows, & as Eberle said in her kick-off interview, I insist that we have Buffy the Buffalo with us. One time we played a wedding & forgot Buffy; I didn’t realize until after the gig that Buffy wasn’t in one of the bags, but I just couldn’t focus on the music that day—I felt lost thru the whole gig: simply couldn’t concentrate. We’ve never been at a gig without Buffy the Buffalo , before or since.

Do you start thinking about arrangements as soon as you’re learning a song you’re going to cover or only after you’ve learned it at a basic level?

Nowadays, I’m just doing old tunes, so it’s all covers—no composing. But whether it's a cover or a composition, I’m pretty much “hands on”: when writing songs I’m working on fills & riffs & melodic ideas I can add in without straying too far from a given chord shape—same now when I’m working out back-up or breaks for traditional tunes. I used to think this was “wrong,” somehow—perhaps because it came relatively naturally, & I’ve found that a lot of musicians, myself included, tend to feel that whatever we do naturally isn’t what we should be doing—a big mistake,
in my opinion these days. Then I learned that John Fahey worked in a similar fashion when he was composing or working out arrangements of old tunes, & that sort of gave me permission to do this without worrying if it was “the right way.” More importantly, it got me to thinking that there are a lot of “right ways” to do things musically, & we shouldn’t under-value “doing what comes naturally.”

As far as arrangements go, I used to do a fair amount of work on instrumentation with the Alice in Wonder Band, & these days if Eberle wants to learn one of the songs in my repertoire, I usually have an idea of what I’d like her to play, but we always settle on whatever actually works—even if I’m thinking flute & she ends up playing kazoo!

What attracts you to a certain song—what makes a good song?

I once quoted Swedish accordionist Lars Hollmer’s description of himself as a “romantic son of a bitch,” & I suppose I fall into that category as well. Emotion is a big factor in what draws me to a certain song. There’s a lot of emotion in a good melody, & in vocal pieces there’s emotion in good lyrics—not cheap emotion, but feelings that are complex &/or just plain powerful. & I like music that moves me physically as well—not necessarily with some ponderous backbeat but with actual rhythmic motion. As far as songs I perform, my voice has limitations, tho with work & with help from Eberle, I’ve learned to work within these limitations. So, while I’d love to sing a song like “You Go To My Head,” I’m better suited to sticking to old blues & country. Those styles match my voice much better than a lush old standard.

Any one or two of your performances stick out as more memorable? Any one or two incidents during a performance that stick in your mind?

We (Eberle & I) performed our score to Shipman’s Back to God’s Country at Claremont-McKenna College back a few years ago. Our good Shipman buddy, Idaho Film Collection Director Tom Trusky flew in with a copy of the film, Claremont-McKenna film professor Jim Morrison was graciousness itself, & we were having a blast with our pal Audrey Bilger, who’s also a prof there, & was the one who facilitated the gig. Then the film started. Now as some of you may know, film projectors these days run 24 frames per second. However, in the days of the silents, projection speed wasn’t standardized—it changed from one film to the next, & even changed within a given film. We’d composed our score to Back to God’s Country with the film running at 18 or 19 frames per second (can’t recall which), & both of our scores are timed pretty exactly in many spots. All the sudden the film started rolling & Eberle & I realized that something wasn’t right—we were playing in good tempo, but things were moving really fast. The funny thing is, we adapted well—on the fly & with very little overt communication. Somehow we were really in a groove with each other that evening, which is good because we were changing stuff left & right. That was quite a workout—but it was over faster than usual! & I could sense the audience was digging it, which they were—given what was going on, that made me quite elated as we played.

But there have been lots of great memories—the Alice in Wonder Band’s first show at the Alpine Playhouse in 2002; the Wonder Band playing in San Francisco in 2003; & perhaps my favorite show all time, a Bijou Orchestrette show with a screening of Nell Shipman’s Back to God’s Country at the Grove Hotel in Boise for the Western Literature Association in 2006.

When performing how much are you focusing on communication with the audience, & how much on the other members of your band?

I’ve always felt like I’m sensitive to audiences, ever since my poebiz days doing a lot of readings. This can be a good thing, because sometimes I’m just dead sure the audience is right in it with us even tho there’s no distinct indication—remember, Eberle & I have done a lot of background type music, including playing scores for silent films, so sometimes the link with the audience is kind of triangulated. Having said all that, tho, the absolute best thing is to be in a groove with your fellow musicians—if you are in that groove, the odds are really strong the audience is getting what you’re trying to put across. Music is aural communication, & you have to learn how to listen to the folks you’re playing with, & how to communicate with them.

Any instrument that really intrigues you that you’ve never gotten around to learn? What’s interesting to you about this instrument?

I’ve really tried my hand at more than I probably should have already! I know I’d be a better guitar player if I’d stuck to that single-mindedly rather than dividing my guitar time with ukes & banjos & mandocellos, etc. But the one instrument that has intrigued me is the cello. I love instruments in that low but melodic range, & the bowing is a lot more melodic than anything you can do with a guitar or other fretted instrument. Eberle has an upright bass student who bought a decent cello for a ridiculously low price, & he left it with us for a week or two to look over. I played it a bit—loved it—but realized that, unlike fretted instruments which aren’t too hard to keep picking up once you’ve played a few, this would really be starting at square one all over again, & I decided I just don’t have the time to put into it.

What’s on your playlist these days? What are you listening to?

Lots of old blues & old-time music in general. Very much into the Memphis Jug Band, Dave Van Ronk, Reverend Gary Davis, Rory Block, Mississippi John Hurt. But I haven’t turned my back on the jazz stuff: still love Fats Waller, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Mary Lou Williams & Thelonious Monk—lots of blues there, too. For what it’s worth, I tend to listen to music in a different way than before I played as much—I can’t really take “background music.” If it’s playing, I have to be focused on it. Otherwise, I’d rather have silence or be playing myself.

Where do you see yourself in relation to music right now? How has your relationship to music changed over time?

When I took up the guitar, I saw myself as playing & singing old country & old blues. It turned out that I had to do a lot of work to get my singing “ready for prime-time” (whatever “prime-time” means in rural Idaho). In the interim, I learned a lot about the guitar & other instruments—especially how to be a solid back-up player, but also how to get out on my own, too. Now I’m looking forward to a new incarnation as a singer of old-time songs—blues, especially, & some old country, too, especially where that intersects with blues (e.g., Jimmie Rodgers). This spring I’ll be doing the senior citizen center/nursing home/assisted living center circuit in this general area, & if that goes well, I may do some busking in McCall & try to separate the Boise touristas from some of their shekels; & there are a few local venues that would make sense for this kind of music.

Where do you place yourself in relation to a musical tradition or heritage? Could you talk a bit about musical influences?

This is a hard question for me. I’ve liked “Americana” music for a long time—I was first introduced to it thru my sister’s folk singer records, & then later discovered it in a different incarnation thru Grateful Dead covers of songs like “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” & “Duncan & Brady” & “You Win Again” way back in the early 70s. I have all three of those songs in my repertoire, tho I can’t say I’ve listened to Grateful Dead any time in recent memory (or even less-than-recent). I listened to lots of rock—various sorts: psychedalia & electric blues from the 60s & early 70s; then a lot of punk—Iggy & the Stooges, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Patti Smith (especially), Tom Verlaine, X, the Minutemen, Johnny Thunders, etc.—but I don’t see this as reflected in my music other than just the concept of “do-it-yourself.” I suppose I come down thru the folkie tradition in some way that included the mind-altering 70s & various other raucous detours before ending up with a resonator guitar playing & singing “Hesitation Blues.”

Do you have any advice for people who are starting out as performers &/or composers?

Spend at least as much time playing your instrument as listening to recorded music. You can get some ideas from recorded music, but a lot of times folks use recordings to beat themselves over the head with the old “I’ll never be able to play like that” shtick. I thought Dale Fisk was right on when he said, “play with people who are better than you.” & play with other folks as soon as you can—which depends a bit on the instrument. You learn at an exponential rate when you play with others. Try to remember: this ain’t a competition—all musicians have strengths & weaknesses; all musicians tend to think: "if only I could do such & such in a certain way." Know why you want to play the instrument (but realize this may change over time). & how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice…. practice is really just very focused playing. & speaking of playing, don’t forget you’re “playing” an instrument—don’t take yourself too seriously.

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?
Why does my wife, Eberle, find it so natural to play in odd time signatures & with accents coming in unexpected places? Answer: I haven’t a clue!


  1. Hi John,
    Really enjoyed this self portrait. I have to say we must be kindred spirits. I absolutely love all the "current listening" artists you listed and would place everyone on your list at the top of mine. Also I appreciated your "self defeatest"comment. I have allowed this attitude to really hinder my own musical expression. Though this past fall I was invited to join a trio with two musicians who are better than I and I am rising up to the occasion.

  2. Hi Craig:

    Thanks. I definitely believe playing with others who are "better," or at least have different strengths really increases one's own musical growth.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this, John. I love that you must always have Buffy the Buffalo with you. And your photo is so great! You have that "I'm too sexy for my shirt" look. ;^)

  4. Thanks Willow-- geez, that's flattering. Nice, because Eberle & I were just having fun when she took the picture. Glad you liked the interview, & also that you're one of Buffy's many fans.

  5. Some nutshell! Thanks for that, it was fascinating.

  6. wonderful!!

    loved learning more of your musical biography and listening and seeing the cuckoo 'show'

    happy belated birthday to ma hayes!!! 93 years young!!! you go girl!

  7. Hi Dave & Kimy: Thanks for stopping by-- glad you liked the musical bio-- & yes, Kimy, Ma Hayes is still going strong!

  8. You truly are a Renaissance man! I am amazed at your abilities both musically and poetically.
    Believe it or not, I saw Tom Verlaine perform at a club in Toronto back in the 1980s. I was not too familiar with him - it was a friend who was the fan, but it was a truly great concert.
    Please direct me to the "Buffy the Buffalo" post so I can see what she?he? looks like.
    I have no aversion to hats or cats on the bed. I draw the line at RATS though.


  9. Thanks Kat:

    Yeah, I was a big fan of Tom Verlaine's music. The only time I actually saw him live was when he was performing at the Fillmore in SF with Patti Smith in the 90s. It was a great show, tho.

    Sorry-- there aren't any pix of Buffy the Buffalo on RFB yet-- something we'll have to rememdy! Eberle talks about Buffy in her "Musical Questions" interview, which you can access from the left hand frame here.

    Thanks again.

  10. Quite meaningful to be reminded that "If you're afraid to fail, you're certain never to succeed." Thank you for that. Now, on to learning more about GarageBand ...

    .. FWIW I hear Patti Smith and the Ramones were big influences on one of my inspirations, U2.

  11. Hey Tomm:

    I got the new mix, & will be listening to it soon-- thanks for sending it along. Interesting about the U2 connection to Patti Smith & the Ramones-- I don't know enough about U2 to completely get that.


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