Sunday, November 9, 2008
Musical Questions – Dale Fisk
Dale Fisk has been a musical fixture in Southwestern Idaho since the 1970s, & to say the music scene in these parts is greatly enhanced by his presence would be an understatement. Dale is a talented singer & songwriter, & a red-hot picker on both mandolin & guitar. One of his two current bands, Hotwire, is really a showcase for hot pickers, since it features not only Fisk, but also Utah flatpicking champion Dave Hunt on guitar, & Idaho flatpicking champion Dennis Maggard—in this incarnation playing 5-string banjo, on which he’s equally impressive. The group has a rock-solid foundation from upright bassist "Whale" Szezepanowski. Hotwire was formed in 2005; they appeared on a billing with renowned bluegrass mandolin player Rhonda Vincent at Darrington, WA Bluegrass Festival in July 2007.
Dale’s other current project is the very enjoyable Highway 95. This band was formed in the late 90s & features a number of talented local musicians: Dennis Maggard is again present on the banjo, Kathryn Wert plays guitar, mandolin, Dobro & sings, Wendy Carson plays guitar, keyboards & sings, & Anna Fisk plays bass. Guitar player Denny Minshall & others have also played roles in this fun ensemble. Their repertoire is mostly country/bluegrass oriented.
Past projects for Dale started with the country rock band Red Eye in the Boise/Nampa area in the mid 70’s; this band later was re-named Snake River as they wended their way thru Black Angus restaurant lounges across the great Northwest. Snake River re-formed in Seattle in the late 70’s, & again toured throughout the Northwest. In the very late 70’s, Dale moved back to Council & formed Homestead, another country/rock band that made the rounds of Southwest Idaho bars (a comment on their gigs, not on their personal habits) until the late 80’s. Dale has also been a prime mover of the Council Mountain Music Festival, which he first organized in the early 00’s.
Besides his musical talents, Dale also is a local historian who’s published two books: Landmarks—A General History of the Council, Idaho Area, & The P&IN Railroad. He also is a proficient scrimshaw artist. Be sure to check out Dale’s website here—you can hear mp3’s of several songs at that site.
Was there a childhood musical experience (either listening or playing) that you believe influenced you later or led you in a musical direction?
My early musical influences came from three places: 1) Church. Although I didn’t especially like the music, I was exposed to group singing every Sunday. 2) Radio. My father listened to country music—all the golden oldies like Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, etc. 3) School. We had basic music classes in the early grades and I played trumpet for two years in 4th and 5th grade, which was a good introduction to written music.
An influence of a different type came when I was around 13 or 14. I was goofing around singing a theme song from a TV show, and a girl I liked was impressed enough to tell me she thought I was a good singer. That flipped a switch in my ego, and the rest is history.
What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to play &/or compose music?
A lack of formal training. There was no one to teach me to play guitar, so I never took a lesson. I’m almost completely self-taught on any instrument that I’ve played, expect the trumpet.
Do you have any superstitions connected with performances (or with the composing process)?
No. Never occurred to me.
What comes first: music (melody or chords), lyrics, title, concept, etc?
Almost always melody first (often before I even know what the song should be about), along with the chords that can guide the direction that the melody takes.
What attracts you to a certain song—what makes a good song?
Mostly the melody. I seldom listen to the lyrics unless they are obvious—partly because I often can’t understand them, and partly because they are just less important to me.
I like interesting intervals and chord changes. Just what those are is impossible for me to put into words. But I do like large intervals, as opposed to more monotone melodies.
Any one or two performances stick out as more memorable? Any one or two incidents during a performance that stick in your mind?
The first time I sang in public was with my brother in front of the church congregation. One time while playing on the road with a band in Pendelton, Oregon, after we finished a creative version of the "Orange Blossom Special" (using some trick fiddling with two fiddles) a woman jumped up and down and flopped around on the floor screaming at the top of her lungs, “That was the most amazing thing I’ve EVER heard!!!” Best compliment I think I’ve ever received.
In my first days of playing in bars, desperate for a gig we were playing at a sleazy biker bar in Garden City. Some guy rode his Harley in through the back door and revved it up. It was deafening!
When performing how much are you focusing on communication with the audience, & how much on the other members of your band?
I mostly concentrate on what I am doing—both the feeling I’m putting into the music, and the technical proficiency. I listen to what the other band members are doing in order to stay with the timing and to try to augment the total sound—mostly concerning creative rhythms and my volume. I don’t necessarily think about “communicating” with the audience. I guess I feel that if what I’m producing is the best I can produce, the audience will appreciate that. At the end of a song is when I notice the feedback from an audience, except when people are dancing or laughing (or shrieking in joy in some cases) in response to the music during the song.
Any instrument that really intrigues you that you’ve never gotten around to learn? What’s interesting to you about this instrument?
The fiddle has always intrigued me, and I’ve learned to play it to an extent, although never to the level I wanted. Also the cello and viola. All are such soulful, vibrant, deeply resonant instruments when played well. I’ve toyed with the Dobro, lap steel and pedal steel to a lesser extent and really like their sound.
What’s on your playlist these days? What are you listening to?
I discovered Tim O’Brien a few years ago. What an amazing musician and singer! He’s at the top of my listening list. I also love the Waybacks, especially live as opposed to recorded. They have changed members in the past year or two and have changed their sound too much. Generally I listen to a variety of music, but my favorite type is hard to categorize; I guess it’s folk/rock, or bluegrass with a rock twist—anything interesting and melodic.
Where do you see yourself in relation to music right now? How has your relationship to music changed over time?
There was a time when I was burned out on music after playing 6 nights a week, 5 hours a night for months at a time. Part of it was that I was not being challenged and not being creative—singing and playing rhythm guitar, which come easily. I stopped playing almost completely for a few years. Then I came in contact with a few people that I enjoyed playing with and got enthused again. I like rehearsing with my bands as much as I enjoy performing. I guess it’s being creative and working on building the sound that I like. A few years ago I took up the mandolin. That, in addition to working with some really talented musicians—the best I’ve ever worked with—inspired me to work hard at improving on mandolin and guitar. That has been very fulfilling. Also, I bought a very expensive mandolin, which sounds incredible and enhances the joy of playing exponentially.
Where do you place yourself in relation to a musical tradition or heritage? Could you talk a bit about musical influences?
My deepest roots are country and hymns. That’s what formed my musical foundation. Next in line is rock because I listened to it in my teen years. Anymore I can’t stand listening to what passes for country music for very long—so corny and unsophisticated at times. Sometimes it’s too limiting to play country or bluegrass; I like the freedom to create new rhythms, feelings, etc. Stepping outside the box is often my goal.
Do you have any advice for people who are starting out as performers &/or composers?
Practice for short periods every day is more productive than long practice sessions once a week. Work with people who are better musicians or more creative than you are; that has major benefits. Ask them questions; learn from them. The Internet has incredible learning tools; take advantage of them! There are some amazing computer programs too. There are recording programs that are inexpensive and can help you develop your skills and creativity. Instructional videos can be a great way to learn.
Speaking realistically, few people learn to read music anymore—at least for guitar and a number of other stringed instruments. Tablature is more common. Not that learning to read is a bad thing. I learned to read for violin to some extent, but lost the skill because I didn’t use it.
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?
Wow, after all the above questions, I think I’ve exhausted my quiver of thoughts on the subject.
Thanks, Dale. There won't be a "Musical Questions" post on November 16th, but the series will return soon, so please check in!