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Babbling Brook a compendium of articles reviews and interviews

Michael Brook Interview
from the Varsity Review
3 March 1997
[archived here without permission]

The following interview took place at 5 p.m. Monday, March 3, 1997 in The Red Lion, a pub located on Jarvis Street in Toronto.

DW: Let's go back to the beginning. What was the musical landscape in Toronto like when you were playing with Martha & The Muffins in Toronto?

MB: I did play with the Muffins once here, but mostly I just toured with them. I played more with bar bands here. It was a pretty good scene, I mean, if you wanted to play in bars. There wasn't much of a music industry, but there were a lot of good musicians, and a lot of places for people to play, a lot of good, original talent.

At what point did you decide that you needed to leave Canada to pursue a musical career?

I guess about '83. I'd been working with John Hassell and Brian Eno, and kind of felt that there wasn't much of what I wanted to do that I could do here. I fit into the cracks of the industry, generally, and I needed a place with a bigger music industry. The choice was either America or England. Brian was setting up a management and publishing company; he said they would manage and publish me if I wanted, which I did. So I felt that the best thing was to move to England.

One of the things you're best known for is the Infinite Guitar. What events lead up to the creation of the Infinite Guitar?

I saw Bill Nelson playing at the El Mocambo, and he did this little thing with a device called an E-bow. I thought, 'oh, I'd really like that kind of sound.' So, my girlfriend went up to his manager and said, 'What is that thing, and where do you get it?' And he gave us the name of the place. So, I sent the money away, and waited.. and waited.. and waited -- the guy lost my order. But I had booked into a studio to start recording what became my first solo record, so I thought 'well, maybe I can make something that will kind of work like it.' Because I knew a bit about electronics. So, I worked on some things and did make something, it worked fairly well, and then my E-bow came, after I finished the recording. The Infinite was better for what I wanted to do, so it was kind of through accident, sort of.

What guitars had you been using, primarily, before you had the infinite guitar developed?

Well, the Infinite Guitar isn't really a guitar, it's just something you do to almost any guitar. So I've just been using ordinary Strats, nothing particularily special. But then I had a guitar heavily modified for me so that the fretboard was scalloped away, so I could play it a little bit more like a Sitar. I've been using that guitar ever since.

You speak about playing your guitar like a Sitar. You are very well known for your collaborations with world music artists such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. According to media accounts, Khan speaks no English, actually sings in Urdu. How did the two of you communicate during your collaborations?

Fairly simply, and through translators. But, you know, in lots of ways there is not a lot of communication, frequently, there is not a lot to say. You just say 'I would like you to sing on this' (laughs), you play them a piece of music and they say, 'oh, not a good key'. And you change the key, or they say, 'okay, give me a tape. I'll go away and think about it.' And then they come in and sing on it. And then we maybe say, 'well, how about if we try it differently.' Sometimes he wanted to multi-track his voice, or I wanted him and his brother to sing a part together.

You don't talk about the intention at all; it's a fairly nuts and bolts level discussion, which works. It means that I don't participate in what the lyrics mean, or anything, because I don't know what they mean usually until after the fact. It's actually not a problem at all; it actually sort of makes it efficient.

Which leads me to another question. A lot of instrumentalists take the lyrics, they interpret them for themselves and find a feeling to get wrapped into, then produce the instrumental. Did you produce the instrumentals first, and then present them to Ali Khan in this case?

It was a three or four stage process. I had the musicians come in, recorded a bunch of music, then took short sections of that, and looped them onto a tape for a half an hour or so -- because Nusrat really likes to sing for a long time. Then he would sing for as long as he wanted, sometimes three takes of 28 minutes each.

My original plan was to then take what he had sung, and then just fit it back into the original band tracks. What had turned out was that there was always something in that little section that I'd lose, that he was responding to quite a bit, it wasn't present in the rest of the track, or the track went in a different direction, when you have live musicians playing. Then what I did was, usually, took those short loops and added to and manipulated them, added extra musicians, things like that.

Editing down the vocal track for the final take, was that where it became a difficulty, not knowing what he was singing?

Well, it made it more laborious. What I had to do was transcribe them phonetically, and look for matches. And then say, 'okay, well this is this verse again, so it's okay if I chop this out.' Because, in the first record that we did together, I made some non-sensical edits, and I wanted to try and avoid that. So I tried to keep sections of lyric together, or paste from one sentence going into the next sentence from different takes.

How long a process did that involve?

Well, it would take a day to transcribe one song sometimes -- it was really labour intensive. And it was quite high pressure because I didn't know how long it would take to finish a song, and I really wouldn't know what a song was until it was finished. The record company were saying 'how much longer?' and I said, well, I don't know -- it seems to take about a week a song, but I don't know.' I couldn't predict, because composing was happening at the same time as the mixing. But... we got it done.

In an interview with Exclaim, you described your music, saying that you strive to "create a trance-like state of mind." What experiences do you draw out of yourself to find that musical inspiration? Is it a case of picking up your instrument and jamming or, in fact, something that you calculatedly write?

It's usually picking up and instrument, and playing something that seems to work that way, and then trying to refine that and get as much of that into the music as possible (Turns to Gerry Vogel, Polygram rep, notes that the music in the bar is really distracting).

Also, I'm more interested in exploring the more energetic side of things as well these days.

How so?

I suppose, not always trance-like, but more visceral, more body-type music; which I think is in Night Song a bit.

It does have a very energetic feel to it.

Yeah. I still like the meditative, trance-like bits, but I want other feelings as well.

As a producer, writer, and performer, you are heralded as much for your collaborations as you are for your solo work. What do you look for when considering coolaborative projects?

I suppose, that they've got high-quality, a kind of compatibility, and that I can do things that they can't do and they can do things that I can't do, so that we're all bringing something to the table. It's also kind of what opportunities present themselves. I'm doing a collaboration now with an Irish singer, Iarla O'Lionaird. We're doing two albums: one is a traditional Shawnose, which is unaccompanied solo voice, and then we're doing a collaborative album. And there it's just that he's just got a killer voice. When I met him, I just thought, 'I'd really like to do something with him.' But, you know, often people say, hey, would you like to work with this person and you think, yeah, they're good, I'd like to work with them.

How did you make Iarla's acquaintance?

Through Real World, that's who we're doing it for. He's a singer the Afro-Celt Sound System, do you know them?

No, I do not.

It's a kind of Irish / African combination. He signed to Real World and I think they felt that he could do both traditional and... the collaborative stuff we are doing is not particularily ethnically oriented, at this point.

What are the essential differences between Indian music and Western music?

Well, my impression (and I might be wrong) is that the big achievement of Western music is harmonic, chords and so on; that's not a big part of Indian music. Indian music is much more interested in ornamentation, how you bend from one note to another, and it usually never changes key, which is an integral part of Western music. I think Indian music is also maybe, generally, more small ensembles of either solo or small groups.

I would say the main thing is that Indian music is primarily melodic and stays in one key, Western music is much more harmonic and, I suppose also, maybe there's a greater diffusion between high and low art in other cultures, so that, although there is classical music, in India it's quite popular. Whereas here, classical music is more formal, more minority taste, and more elitist.

By mere virtue of going to a performance, you have to pay for the symphony.

Yeah, which is, in England anyway, a huge form of welfare for rich people. Whereas popular music is self-supporting.

Before you moved from Canada, you took a music course at York University. What initially turned you on to music outside of the western influence?

The very little exposure I had to Indian music instantly caught my ear. I think it's because I have a weak harmonic sense, I can't analyze chords, or things like that so, in general, jazz is a mystery to me. I think it was partly that, and I like the textural component of Indian music, there's an ambience approach to introductions in the pieces of music that I like a lot. It's a very emotional, passionate, and yet not dumb, music. And sometimes, you know, there is dumb rock, that appeals to the dumber side of people. Not always, by any means.

It was the first time I had encountered something that could say, 'well, this is music that affects your body, but also your spirit. Maybe soul music tries to do that, as well. But, in a way, we're quite a bit more subdivided, so we have classical, serious music, that you listen to with your head and then we have dance music, or rock and roll or whatever, that you listen to with your body. I suppose I was immediately attracted to the fact that those things were not mutually exclusive in music of other cultures.

Recently, you've been scoring movies: Heat, The Fires Of Kuwait, & Albino Alligator. What are the differences in your approach in, say, doing an instrumental album of your own, and doing a soundtrack?

When you do a soundtrack, it's a very collaborative process with the director, which I like. In a way, it's something to almost hide behind. If you do a solo album, you're kind of saying to the world 'okay, I think this is good, what do you think?' And then you wait.

When you do a soundtrack, you basically have the director there and you play them it and say, 'well, what do you think?' and they say 'Great! Fine. Done. Can you make it a little more this, or a little more that?' Or they say, 'No. It gives away too much. It needs something different.'

And so the whole feedback is so short, it's within a matter of hours sometimes; it's a much more immediate and rapid responding situation. That's a nice change. And, also, the only thing they care about is the emotional impact of the music. They don't care if it's in tune, in time, they don't care if it's distorted -- they don't care about any of that, they don't even hear any of that. And that's not a criticism, they just sort of say 'no, it doesn't feel right' or 'it's too menacing, or too threatening' or 'too happy' or whatever. And that's the other thing, that they speak in fairly emotional turns; it's a nice change, to not think of it in purely abstract musical terms.

Are you ever given rough cuts to follow?

Oh yeah. We're totally with that. They give you a video of how far they've got with the film and then they keep sending you new ones. Yeah, I just do it totally to picture.

In the case of Albino Alligator, the last track on it, the vocal was added by Michael Stipe on "ill Wind". You co-produced that with Flea, though it doesn't sound anything that one would imagine Flea producing, given his funk background. How did that collaboration come about? Was that for the film, or was that one of the songs inspired by the film?

Well, it was for the film but it was done very much towards the end of everything else. Kevin wanted to have a song for the closing credits. He approached Michael to sing it; originally Michael was going to write some lyrics for the opening credit music, but he just couldn't write. And he tried. I sent him some other things, he tried, spent about a week and said that he just felt dried up, and that maybe we should do a cover. He suggested "Ill Wind" but he didn't feel confident enough to sing it by himself, and he'd always wanted to work with Jimmy, so he suggested Jimmy Scott. And then, coincidentally, Michael was talking to Flea, who is a friend of his, and had just produced a track of Jimmy Scott's, so he suggested that we get Flea involved, because he'd worked with Jimmy before, so Flea did and we did it together. It was great. Really good people to work with. Flea's a really good musician, and he's interested in a wide range of things as well. I think, from his recorded output, you might not get that impression.

I think that's the case with a lot of popular musicians.

MB: Yeah. And it's partly because they have to stick to one thing to make momentum in that area. He's got a really wide range of interests, as does Michael.

On the soundtrack, there is music for the film, and music inspired by. How much music did you write for the film, and how much did you create to complete the soundtrack?

There's actually nothing that was done to finish off the soundtrack. There are two that were done for the film, but then were dropped because they decided not to have the music there, or they cut the scene. And then there's some music in the film that didn't really work with an album, as just sit down and listen to music. A lot of it, I kind of added to it afterwards, or extended, because in the film they are often like 20 seconds long; it felt too jittery, just jumping with these 20 second pieces of music, which I think worked in the film but, when you take the film away, it sort of felt like something was missing. So, I would often extend them and add stuff to them. But I don't think there was anything that was done... it was all strongly related to the film, but it wasn't like looking at the film and saying 'gee, that makes me want to write a song or something like that.

You tour infrequently, according to past press accounts. Do you have plans to have any live dates in the future?

I'd like to. I don't think it's economically practical at this point. Nusrat and I were going to do a tour but, because we were going to work with a band, we had to do gigs concentrated within a certain period of time, and his health wouldn't allow him to perform that frequently. Iarla and I may try to tour on the album that we're working on now. We'd both like to do that, and we could sort of do it as a two-man, or as a band; some of it's quite accessible stuff: songs in English, so that may happen. When I do solo touring -- I wouldn't mind doing more of it, but it's really hard to make it so it doesn't cost a lot of money. The last time I did an opening for Sylvian Fripp, and that worked really well because they got an extra musician in their band and I didn't have to pay to go on tour. It worked out for both of us.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add to this interview?

Not really, other than I would want you to stop watching T.V. We were talking about this, it's so bad. I don't mean that the quality of bad, it's just that the effect of it is really bad. I'm not particuarliy political or a social activist. I say this I guess because I've been in a hotel all week, and I don't have T.V. at home. Just seeing it, I sense the really bad propaganda.