Interview with Buck Curran
The first question is always the classic one: how does it start your love and interest for guitar and what instruments do you play or have you played?
When I was a child my father had a classical guitar and took private lessons in our home and along with my parents record collection (which was very eclectic) all of it fascinated me to no end. I spent much of childhood intensely listening to all their records: from Chuck Berry, Simon and Garfunkel, Elvis, The Ojays, Peter Frampton, to Tim Buckley, etc. However my interest in becoming a musician first developed through my love of singing. As a child I would sing everywhere I went and eventually joined my elementary school choir (though I was incredibly shy back then). With regards to playing guitar, there was one record in particular that really drew me in and set me to dreaming of one day learning to play. It was John Williams recording of the Bach piece ‘Gavotte en Rondeau’ (Luite Suite No. 4 in E major). It sounded like such beautiful perfection to my young mind…all that music coming from one musician playing a single guitar. And to listen to that piece of music today, it still strikes me as otherworldy with it’s joyful yet somehow melancholy feeling…it really moved me on a deep level and inspired me to play. Another big moment was seeing Jimi Hendrix on the TV. He performed a visceral version of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode live during his Berkeley concert from 1970. I was completely blown away and knew right then that playing guitar was what I wanted to do with my life. Guitar, Voice, wind instruments (Flute in particular), Harmonium, and banjo are the instruments I play and feel the most connected to, I’ve also spent most of my life writing poetry, so the poetic-lyrical part of music is of equal importance to my music.
Shall we talk about Robbie Basho? You have released two records tribute for him, We Are All One, In the Sun and the lastBasket Full of Dragons, have you ever met Basho? How did you decide to produce these tributes?
Sadly I never met Robbie Basho. I discovered his music from hearing Will Ackerman talk about him in a video I saw many years ago. Basho seemed like someone who I could relate to musically, but in the 90’s it was very hard to find his recordings because his music was so underground. When I finally heard him, I instantly connected to his singing and lyrics, and that is what has interested me the most. Of course I absolutely love his guitar playing and appreciated discovering his love for Pandit Ravi Shankar and his deep connection with Indian Classical and Persian music. Shankar was a student of Allauddin Khan who also taught sitarist Pandit Nikhil Banerjee. Banerjee is one of my primary inspirations whose ability to convey mood and emotion through music on the sitar is trascendent. When I began producing the first Basho tribute in 2007, I was talking with Steffen Basho Junghans, Jack Rose, Glenn Jones and a few other key musicians. There wasn’t a lot of support in the World for Robbie’s music and, as is the case now, his work is overshadowed by the music of his contemporary John Fahey. As I dug deeper into Basho’s catalog, I fell in love with it so much that one day it dawned on me, that perhaps I could organize a recording to pay tribute to Basho with some of my friends and musical collaboraters (singers and guitarists who I knew might appreciate Basho’s music). Even though I started the project in 2007 it didn’t see release until 2010. It was very difficult organizing everyone and getting the tracks together. The main reason for Volume 2…there were some major things I felt I didn’t get to explore with the first tribute (primarily featuring certain players who didn’t make it onto the first album).
Your last record Immortal Light has a beautiful picture in the cover, you said to me that “is actually the blue skies around Pluto…US space probe just took the photo last year as it was approaching the planet. Astrologically though Pluto symbolizes change and rebirth…so perfect for the album.” Your record is a mix a fingerpicking, folk, blues… how would define it and your music?
Genre description seems almost impossible in contemporary times, because there’s just far too many genres and sub-genres. I do however feel connected to the term Folk music for what it implies. As well, I like the term psychedelic music. I make music sans drugs but always strive to create music that invokes (whether acoustically or electrically) a psychedelic experience. Nature, the Cosmos and being a part of it (with all of it’s elements) after all is the greatest psychedelic experience. Oceans…rivers, water, are also very specific, powerful and important inspirations for me. My music is an extension of all these things and that is how I would define it. I discovered that photo from a friend of mine, initially thinking it to be a full eclipse of the moon. When I inquired further with her, she told me it was actually Pluto. I recently saw a documentary on the New Horizons space probe launched by NASA in 2004 that took the photo. The probe just flew by the planet this year, travelling 3 billion miles in 9 and half years to reach it’s destination. It’s amazing to think how unique this photo is, and more amazing to realize that it even exists. I’m grateful that NASA granted me permission to use the image. The astrological symbolism of Pluto was another element that just completed the entire project that became ‘Immortal Light’. Thematically ‘Immortal Light’ is about dreams, unrequited love, death and rebirth, survival. It’s a very personal record.
What does improvisation mean for your music research?
Improvisation means everything to me. Long before I could even play guitar, I would sing or create melodies in my mind. When I first got a guitar, I would just pluck notes and listen to them sustain or find notes on the fretboard that would create sympathetic overtones with other strings. With dynamics each time you hit or sustain a note, it’s different. That’s what interests me. I’ve always had a hard time playing cover songs (though I’ve learned a few) because I can’t stand repititon and really crave exploration. As I got further into playing, I fell in love with the Blues and most of the players I listened to as a kid (Eric Clapton with Cream, BB King, Hendrix) were improvising. I knew that was the direction I was headed in. In the early 90’s when I discovered John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and Pandit Nikhil Banerjee…their music had those blue notes (coming out of pentatonic scales) but it transcended the convention of I, IV, V Blues progressions. Their explorations still inspire me today. A great example of my own improvisations would be ‘Sea of Polaris’ from the new album. All the orchestrated electric guitar voices on that piece are improvised in the moment over the acoustic foundation.
What’s the role of the “Error” in your musical vision? For “error” I mean an incorrect procedure, an irregularity in the normal operation of a mechanism, a discontinuity on an otherwise uniform surface that can lead to new developments and unexpected surprises…
Much of what I do musically comes through improvisation, so there is always the risk of error when playing live. I mostly compose away from the instrument so there is a disconnect between the instrument and the music that is created in the mind. But playing an instrument is very much a physical act, so too much time away from the instrument can be a detriment to peformance (though it does keep things fresh (like the feeling of moving in the dark or through uncharted territories) which I like. As well, I stopped playing in standard tuning years ago and moved into playing the guitar in low alternate tunings. However, when I’m moving around in those various drop tunings, I don’t try to find standard chords or use standard scales…prefering instead to just listen for colours and moods that are created as I explore. Alternate tunings also make the guitar resonate and sustain in unusual ways. There are lots of overtones which can inspire music. I’ve built my own acoustic guitars that are perfect vehicles for this kind of musical expression. The last important factor with my music that a lot of people overlook is that I produce, engineer/record, and mix All my music (also Arborea) and it’s done with very minimal equipment. And mixing in particular, is just as important as capturing the sounds on record (it’s more like painting or sculpting with sound) so when I record, the room or environment, and the mic and placement of the mic in the room in relation (the spaces between) to the voice(s) or instrument(s) is Vital! In other words, I never record in isolation booths! With my recording of the Nashville duo ‘The Rushings’ for example (those sounds): what you are hearing is the reverb in their kitchen, and the distance between them relative to their distance from the mic. I always find, in each different place I record,each space has it’s own signature/unique set of timbres and it’s been important for me to capture that.That way of ‘Field Recording’ is quite an opposite reality to that of most albums recorded by major labels over past decades, where everything has/is produced in a very controlled environment. I’d definitely say my methods of recording are irregular procedures that have produced unexpected surprises and led to some very unique and organic music.
Let’s talk about marketing. How much do you think it’s important for a modern musician? I mean: how much is crucial to be good promoters of themselves and their works in music today?
The most important thing is to get out and play gigs. The more gigs you play, the more you will promote your music in an organic way or grass-roots way. And if you are going to be a professional musician you really have to commit yourself 100% and do music fulltime. As for self promotion in contemporary time, most musicians have to do it on some level, because if you don’t have a label who has a decent budget for promoting and marketing, it’s going to be impossible to reach a decent audience, develop a fan base, and sustain a career. Unfortunately most artists are too self conscious and horrible at self promotion. Things were no different throughout Robbie Basho’s career. I’ve heard interviews where he talked about the struggle of getting his music out there to be heard or reviewed. And it sounded like he was quite sad about it too, because he was completely dedicated to being a musician and being taken seriously as an acoustic guitarist and composer.
What did happen to Arborea duo? In your last record you still play with Shanti...
Shanti and I have been touring and recording non-stop since 2005…a very long time to stay active and focused on one project. We are on hiatus at the moment and really just need a break, especially from the relentless schedule of touring every year in the US, UK, and Europe. We essentially raised our two children on the road. We are going to slowly work towards another album, but after 5 albums together, we are quite happy to take our time with the next release. In the meantime I am developing a solo career and Shanti is slowly working on her first solo album. I feel that Shanti is one of the very best singers in the World. It’s really an honour to work with her and I will always look forward to anything we collaborate on.
Please tell us five essential records, to have always with you .. the classic five discs for the desert island …
Ah…that’s impossible to just name 5. I’d have to have all these with me. Albums: Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac ‘Then Play On’, John Coltrane ‘Love Supreme’, Robbie Basho ‘Zarthus’ and Falconer’s Arm vol 1, Martin Simpson ‘When I was on Horseback’ and ‘Leaves of Life’, Tim Buckley ‘Goodbye and Hello’. Chris Whitley ‘Dirt Floor’ (all his records really), Charles Mingus ”Presents Charles Mingus’,Ozzy Osbourne ‘Diary of a Madman,’The Doors ‘The Doors’. Singles: Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac ‘Mind to Give Up Living’ (Live New Orleans 31 January 1970), Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac ‘Green Manalishi’ (Live Chalk Farm 1970), Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac ‘Jumpin at Shadows’ (Live Boston Tea Party vol 3), John Coltrane ‘Alabama’, Stephen Stills ‘4 and 20), Jimi Hendrix ‘Are you Experienced’, Jimi Hendrix ‘1983 – A Merman I should turn to be), Jimi Hendrix/Band of Gypsies ‘Machine Gun’, Eric Clapton w/Bluesbreakers ‘Steppin Out’, Martin and Jessica Simpson ‘Wholly in my Keeping’. Ornett Coleman ‘Sadness’ (Town Hall concert 1962), Eric Dolphy ‘Inner Flight, Pt 1 & 2’, Bob Dylan ‘In My Time of Dying’, Sandy Denny ‘Man of Iron’. Sandy Denny ‘Next Time Around’, Jack Rose ‘Tree in the Valley’ and ‘Blues for Percy Danforth’, Laboule ‘Refugio’. I have an ipod with nearly all of these recordings on it, so I’d take that with me. p.s. Daune Allman’s daughter put together a box set a few years ago- Skydog: The Daune Allman Retrospective…that’s some essential listening.
What are your five favorite scores?
Film Scores? Paris, Texas by Ry Cooder. Apocalypse Now, Monterey Pop Festival, Amadeus, Latcho Drom.
With who would you like to play? What kind of music do you listen to usually?
Adele H, Adaya, The Rushings, Arborea, Johanna Warren, Ben Tweddell…all musicians who I am currently working or have collaborated with. There’s a musician out of Portland, Maine Oliver Waterman who is brilliant and with luck we’ll collaborate on something in the future. Dream collaborations: Marshall Allen (Sun Ra), Alicia Keys, the drummer Otto Hauser (Vetiver, Espers), Devendra Banhart, Jessica Ruby Radcliffe, Cat Power, Stephen Stills, Doyle Bramhall II, Neil Young, Asya Selyutina.
I listen to a lot of Classical Indian Music and Free Jazz (late 50’s to about 1965), Blues (primarily from the 1930’s and between 1960 and 1970. I listen to a ton of live Peter Green recordings between 1966 and 1970. American and British folk from the 1960’s and 1970’s and contemporary alternative folk or guitar albums (anything by Jack Rose).
Your next projects?
I am working on an all acoustic field recording project in various old churches and at ancient sites throughout Italy. The natural reverb in those places are utterly unique and beautiful. I want to really interact with the natural elements in each place. I will be working on some recordings with Italian singer Adele H, and plan to record with ‘The Rushings’ a wonderful duo from Nashville (I recently produced a field recording session in their kitchen this past Summer – https://obsoleterecordings.bandcamp.com/album/the-rushings-feat-buck-curran-nashville-west-sessions ). Working with my friend Paolo ‘Laboule’ Novellino is important (beside Jack Rose he’s my favorite acoustic guitar player). I also perform and record with Adaya, an amazing musician from Switzerland. I recorded on nearly every track on her debut album which is coming out in 2017. I’m really looking forward to the release of that album and further collaborations with her. Stefen Basho-Junghans and I are discussing the idea of making an improvisational recording together. So there are many great things in the works.