Sunday, February 15, 2009
Musical Questions – Scott Houston
I’m very happy to have another excellent musician for our Musical Questions series this week. I’ve known Scott Houston since he moved west to the Bay Area to play in Carrie Bradley’s great band, 100 Watt Smile; & I came to know Scott as a witty & down-to-earth guy who was a fantastic bass player & also a lot of fun to hang out with—for a while Scott was my Pitch partner for some mad card games at the Dovre Club, when that delightful old Irish bar was still in the Mission. My one musical regret about Mr Houston is that Scott & Eberle & I have never been able to line up our stints with Chris Leone’s Spurs of the Moment; we’ve had a chance to jam with Scott, but never play a gig with him; something to look forward to down the line. Scott provides us with the following biographical blurb:
I currently play steel guitar with Oakland's The Mighty Lynch Pins; have previously picked and plucked with a variety of bands, most notably with 100 Watt Smile, led by Ed's Redeeming Quality's Carrie Bradley. In addition to these musical endeavors, I’ve spent eight years on the management team at San Francisco's Rosebud Agency supporting artists such as John Lee Hooker and J.J. Cale; & in addition to my current work with the Lynch-Pins, I serve on retainer to Chris Leone's Spurs of the Moment.
Be sure to check out the Mighty Lynch Pins in the video below (from The Bruce Latimer Show) after reading the interview—I love their sound. Without further ado: here’s Scott!
Was there a childhood musical experience (either listening or playing) that you believe influenced you later or led you in a musical direction?
There wasn't a lot of music in my house growing up. My dad had four or five Johnny Cash LPs and my mother had a stack of 45s from her childhood, mostly Elvis type things, and that was about it. Seeing Johnny Cash and June Carter when I was about 10 is a great memory but I don't think I got excited about music until my mother confiscated my “Wild and Crazy Guy” Steve Martin record. She thought it was too profane for a little kid and said if I gave it up she'd replace it with any album I picked. I got Rumours by Fleetwood Mac. I was just in love with that album, the songs and the sounds, especially the bass sounds and all the harmonies. It really hooked me into pop music for many years after.
What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to play &/or compose music?
When I was 13 or so, I got my first guitar. The deal was that if I got the guitar, I had to take lessons. I ended up with a mean teacher who was a classical guitar player, complete with the little footstool and sheet music. He would berate me pretty aggressively and slam music books a lot while I was running through my lessons. I put the guitar away for a few years after a few months of that. It really zapped the fun out of playing.
Do you have any superstitions connected with performances (or with the composing process)?
I don't have any. I love the idea and the poetry of superstitions, but they have never come naturally to me. It's always a good idea to buy a good sound man a beer though.
What comes first: music (melody or chords), lyrics, title, concept, etc?
I don't write a whole lot so I try to be consistent with what I do come up with these days. The Mighty Lynch Pins (my current band) call me a “George,” meaning I may have just one or two songs per album but they are usually halfway decent. I've usually written by just building on ideas that naturally come out, usually with words and music arriving together. We've done a few songs in the Lynch Pins where we take a random phrase and build a song out if it. I'm not used to taking an approach like that but I like it very much and it's pulled a few decent tunes out of me.
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?
Arrangements are definitely my area of interest in pop music, especially considering the power of the bass player to spell the chords and create dynamics. But with the more country stuff I've been doing on steel I tend to not think about arrangements much at all and do a lot more improvisation. To be playing solos is a whole new thing for me and I'm having so much fun winging it.
What attracts you to a certain song—what makes a good song?
Sometimes it's an interesting arrangement or even something as small as an interesting sound. At a basic level I am attracted to upbeat songs with clever lyrics. I get turned off by really introspective or moody music unless I get a good twist at the end. To me a song like “When You're Smiling”is the best sort of song there is-it's musically interesting, the lyrics are smart and straight forward, and it is uplifting. What could be better?
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?
The vast majority of shows are a good time. I think playing with Chris Leone's old timey band the weekend we played seven full length shows in 30 hours, several of them in 90 degree sunlight, would have to be up there as most memorable. It was more torture than fun but memorable!
When performing how much are you focusing on communication with the audience, & how much on the other members of your band?
I have to say I am usually oblivious to the audience when I play since I get into the music so much. Come to think, that is probably why I don't get stage fright. This is a big weakness for me and something I really need to work on.
Any instrument that really intrigues you that you’ve never gotten around to learn? What’s interesting to you about this instrument?
I've played with a lot of fiddlers who I really admire, in bands with Carrie Bradley and Andy Happell and a lot of the old folks shows with Morgan Fichter. It is a remarkable instrument to me because the players seem to find themselves such unique voices and because it travels so well between genres. I'm trying to learn the mandolin, but that's about as close as I'll get to the fiddle in this lifetime. I don't want to drive my cats insane with learning the fiddle.
What’s on your playlist these days? What are you listening to?
My ears broke about seven or eight years ago and about all I can listen to now is western swing and old country. Loosely speaking, 1955 or so seems to be a cut off point for me, and things that are much newer than that don't grab me as much. Maybe it is because that old music was recorded live and had such a natural swing to it that seems to have been pummeled out of contemporary music. I thought Bruce was pretty awesome at Super Bowl halftime though.
Where do you see yourself in relation to music right now? How has your relationship to music changed over time?
Working in a non-musical capacity for many years for some well known artists really cured me of wanting to be a rock star. It may be the hardest career there is to maintain beyond a few years unless you are addicted to life on the road. It's interesting getting older with music, where it fits into your life and what you want to get out of it. So many peers long ago put their instrument in the closet, but others are playing more that ever. I can't picture not playing. I'm fortunate to have always been able to find situations with strong writers, so I'm happy with the music I have the opportunity to play. The right thing always seems to come along at the right time.
Where do you place yourself in relation to a musical tradition or heritage? Could you talk a bit about musical influences?
Learning the non-pedal steel guitar has been an interesting challenge and has required digging into the musical past. I'm still just a beginner [editor's note: pretty doggone good for a beginner] but it is great fun seeking out all the recordings by the great players of the past. Even though they have very distinct qualities, the pedal steel pretty much killed the non-pedal before 1960 hit. There are some amazing players playing the non-pedal today, but outside of some niche music it is still a pretty obscure instrument to the general public.
Do you have any advice for people who are starting out as performers &/or composers?
A friend of mine has a daughter in a high school music program. They had a well-known jazz musician (odds are that it was a Marsalis) visit the school and there was an opportunity for parents to ask questions. One of the parents asked, “Would you please tell my son the importance of having a backup plan in case his music career doesn't work out?” The musician responded, “Telling your child to have a 'backup plan' is the best way to kill any potential for success. If they have a passion to succeed, they should be encouraged. 'Backup plan' tells them they can't do 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?
Make sure to keep everything polished. If you hit a sour note, blind them with the shiny.
Thanks a bunch, Scott! I defintiely commend that last answer (as a resonator guitar guy). Stay tuned, because there are more Musical Questions to come!
Photo of Scott is by Niana Liu; thanks for making this available.