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Published: 2002/04/23
by Charles Dirksen

Kimocks Musical Development: An Interview With Long-time Friend and Collaborator, Mike Babyak

In the earliest stage of its development in the 1970s, Kimock’s guitar artistry exhibited a brilliance seldom heard. Even as a teenager, Kimock performed expertly on guitar. The following interview with Mike Babyak, who has been a friend of Steve Kimock's since the 1970's, sheds light on Kimock’s unique style and genius. Mike Babyak is a clinical psychologist on faculty in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. He also plays in his own jazz and blues band called Triple Fret. Steve Kimock’s web site is at www.kimock.com.

I hope you find the following exchange between Mike ("MB") and me ("CD") about the influences and artistic growth of one of improvisational rock’s greatest musicians informative.

CD: Mike, thanks for taking the time to answer questions about Steve’s musical history and background.

MB: You’re welcome. Glad to be able to do this.

CD: How did you first meet Steve?

MB: Just one of those lucky coincidences that life throws you sometimes, I guess. The first time I actually saw him was the spring of 1974, when I was 16. A friend had invited me to come see this really cool guitar player named Steve Kimock, who was playing with a local band called Open. Steve was 18 at the time. We went to the show and it turned out to be quite a profound experience for me. He already had this sort of mystical, charismatic thing going. Here was this little guy with a huge matted and tangled afro, no shoes, and really long fingernails on one hand. He was playing a gold top Les Paul through an old blackface Vibrolux. He sat in the corner, almost behind the band, head down and eyes closed almost the whole time. It was like he was in a trance. The part that really amazed me was that he also mouthed every single note he played, as if he were singing through the guitar. My friend explained to me that Steve wore his guitar every waking hour and that he was so completely in touch with it that he knew exactly what was going to come out before he even played a note. Later, of course, I realized that this is true for all great players, but at the time I thought it something of supernatural proportion. The band was doing all originals, sort of in the vein of Yes. But instead of imitating Howe, he sounded something like Roy Buchanon crossed with Jimi Hendrix, alternating between piercing trebly solos and that very clear round sound that Hendrix got on Axis.

The most memorable part of that night, however, was Steve’s speech at the set break. It was a college dorm party, and not a single person seemed to be listening to the band. In fact, the crowd was so loud that you sometimes had trouble even hearing the band. After the first set, Steve stepped up to the microphone and gave this impassioned speech about how this music was his life and that they should all please try to listen. It really didn’t have much impact on the crowd, but it did serve to further our belief that this guy was something very unusual, something very cool. I didn’t actually meet him that night, but the image of him with his eyes closed, mouthing all the notes was quite burned into my mind.

CD: Sounds like he’d endorse those "Shut Up and Dance" stickers that are out there in the community these days.

MB: No doubt. He was always very serious about what he did and I think he just wanted somebody—anybody—to share some of that. The summer after that show, the same friend who took me to the show started taking lessons from Steve. Until then we had been tinkering with the guitar in the attic for a few years, learning basic blues, trying to cop King Crimson licks, etc. My friend had decided to get more serious and study with Steve. One day the friend asked if I wanted to sit in on a lesson with Steve and of course I said "Sure!" I had my black righty strat (strung upside-down, of course) with me, but I was so intimidated that I kept it in the case when they started. At some point, Kimock said, "well, let’s hear what your friend can do." I can still remember how absolutely terrified I was. I took my strat out and Kimock asked me to play a couple of major scales. So I played a bit for him and for reasons that I will never understand to this day, he really liked it. From then on, I spent almost every day with him for the next couple of years. We would play all day, scales with the metronome first, then some time on sort of improvisation and new ideas, then ear-training games. Beyond that, we also talked about art, philosophy, general life stuff. It was an incredible experience. Even though he was only a couple years older than I was, he seemed to know so much more about everything, not just the guitar.

Looking back on it now, after many years of more formal training in classical music and jazz, and for that matter, in philosophy and science, I’m still amazed at the level of innovation and insight that Steve had already developed by that age. Many of the core elements of his approach to music were already quite established by then. He emphasized attention to every detail of note production, right down to the angle of pick attack, the amount of finger or arm in each attack, careful control over the depth and pace of the vibrato. His system of scales and chords was very novel, based on the logic and inherent symmetries of the instrument rather than centuries of history. He also stressed the notion of playing every note like you really meant it. I remember jamming with him over the changes to Little Wing at some party up on a mountain somewhere in Allentown, and I started my turn to solo very tentatively, even ponderously. A few bars into my solo, he looked over at me with this very withering frown, turned his own amp up to 10, and screamed out a long wailing set of licks. You literally could hear the notes echoing all through the valley. I understood immediately and never forgot the lesson, which actually served far beyond music.

So, that’s the "short" version of how I came to be a student and friend of Steve. When he moved from Bethlehem to the Goodman ranch I still visited him at least two or three times a week until they all moved to California in 1977. With the exception of a few years when I was buried in graduate school, we’ve stayed in touch in one form or another ever since. We chat on the phone every so often and of course we catch up at shows when I can get out to one. It’s almost as though I had just gone out around the block for a loaf of bread and just walked back in. We just pick up the conversation where we left off. He’s as generous and gracious as ever—takes me on the usual tour of his equipment, talks string gauges, new guitars, and then shows me whatever new idea he’s been working on lately. I’ve been very lucky.

CD: KVHW started in January 1998, and SKB started in approximately February 2000. But can you give an outline of Steve’s band history pre-KVHW?

MB: It’s really tough to piece together a precise history, partly because of his penchant for playing with a bunch of acts simultaneously, and partly because some of it happened so long ago now. Here’s a rough bandography, along with a few recollections about each:

1972-74: Big City Music Band. I never saw these guys, but Steve used to talk about them a lot. They were essentially a cover band. He played a ’65 Stratocaster with a Marshall 50 Watt head and 8 10" Celestions, and I think some pedal steel. They covered all sorts of things, stuff from Deep Purple, Ziggy Stardust, Layla, you name it. Kimock had all the styles down and then some. He was already doing innovative stuff like playing both parts of Steely Dan’s Reelin in Years by himself, tuning the high E to D so he could get the easy thirds.

1974-75: Open. Sort of “Yes meets Roy Buchanon.” They did lots of highly arranged, complicated stuff. The drummer in that band was arguably the best he would ever play with till Rodney Holmes came along. I played with the same guy in the late 70s in my own band and he was just remarkable. The bass player was awfully good, too. Still is. Steve played a Gold top Les Paul with a blackface Fender Vibrolux with Celestions, Sho-Bud volume pedal, Colorsound wah, and Fender Vibratone Leslie. He was using pretty light strings at the time and could just fly.

1975-76: John Wesley Dixon Band. Folk rock. Tunes like "Allentown, you got me down," and "the Shit Song." Same gear as above. Not a very good band technically, but it was at a time when Steve was playing around with all sorts of ideas. I remember him throwing a tone row series in at the end of some sort of country blues. It was very loose. He would let me sit in with them from time to time, which was the first time I played with him in public.

1976-79: Goodman Bros. They actually have played on and off together since then, but think they were about done by ’79 or ’80. Wonderful Latin, blues/pop. I think it was about 1976 when my parents drove Kimock and me to Manhattan, so that he could meet Charles LoBue and look at the Explorer, which he ultimately bought. Also played Gibson ES-355 with a Mesa Boogie during that time. The Goodmans headed to sunny California in the winter of ’77. He played a bit more pedal steel in the early California years, turning more to lap steel later. Around the time the Goodmans broke up, he consciously chose to slow his playing way down. He dumped the light strings for big heavy ones, and concentrated on very deliberate melodies. He had been headed in that direction for a long time, but he really took it pretty far. People don’t realize that at one time he was a very speed-oriented player, lots of pyrotechnics, finger tricks. To get an idea of how much facility he had, get a metronome and set it to, say, 156, and tap out four beats per click. That’s the speed at which he was routinely practicing and playing scales and arpeggios. Even now, he’s still relatively deliberate, but he does find occasion to throw in a really fast run here and there.

1979-84: Various bands, including The Underdogs, which was a salsa band with Martin Fierro, and then the Heart of Gold Band. Also various experiments, like switching to bass for a bit. I always had the impression that this was a pretty tough period in Steve’s life, though I’m not certain. I sort of lost touch with him for awhile during this time while I was in school.

1984-___: Zero, then KVHW, The Other Ones, SKB. Steve also played and recorded in the last 20 years with many others, including Merl Saunders, Missing Man Formation, Harvey Mandel, Henry Kaiser and YO MILES!, Dos Hermanos, Kingfish, Phil Lesh, String Cheese Incident. Have a look at Kimock’s entry at http://www.allmusic.com/ and you will be amazed at all the recordings he’s on.

So that takes us up to now. The early dates are guesses based on trying to remember whats and whens with respect to my high school graduation in ’75, and by talking to other folks who were in bands with me or Steve, or both around the time. In addition, all dates are marked by playing with lots and lots of people simultaneously, so a lot of the bands really overlap quite a bit in time. For example, Kimock did a brief tour with "Wind Chime" on the PA Holiday Inn chains just before he joined the Goodmans (no, he did not wear a crushed velvet tux, but yes, he played many very cheesy tunes, like "Best of My Love," as well as cool stuff like Zappa’s Wakajawaka). And of course, I will always fondly remember Steve’s performance of King Kong in ’76 with the Bob Klitzner Experience. If anyone knows where to get them, I’d highly recommend trying to hear the Goodmans and the Underdogs. Steve has mentioned pretty recently that the Underdogs remain among his favorite projects.

CD: I’ve never seen any tapes of the Goodmans or Underdogs circulating, but maybe some will be unearthed one of these days. Are there recordings in existence of any of the early 1970s shows?

MB: Not many. I’m pretty sure that copies still exist from some of his solo stuff ca. 1973, including stuff like "Autoharps and Guitars", a sort of Fripp-Enoish sounding thing, with lots of autoharp overdubs, each tuned to big open chords and, I think, pedal steel wailing away over top. I seem to remember he had some of his infamous "extension speaker concerto" stuff on this tape, too. (This is where you’d take the speaker cable from your favorite Fender and unplug it from the main speaker output and put it into the extension speaker. You get his wild fuzzy sound at a very low volume.) There was also a set of recordings of his band, Open, one in the studio, one at a college dorm party. This would have been in 1974. Also, I know there is a copy somewhere of a couple of very neat solo pieces he did when he lived on Union Boulevard in Bethlehem. One was called Max’s Blues, which is an ode to his cat, Max. Max got squashed by a Buick (I still have the sort of stream of consciousness text that he wrote to accompany this). Another piece was called Kittens, which, as you might have guessed, is a musical description of the kittens that replaced Max (I recall that he named one Eek-a-Mouse; whom we called Amos for short). None of these are available for circulation as far as I know. The guy that has them just would rather not distribute copies.

CD: What are some of your favorite, most memorable Kimock anecdotes or experiences from the 1970s?

MB: Oh there are so many, and I sure wouldn’t want to embarrass him. I posted a bunch of my favorites to the [Kimock e-mail] list about a year ago when people were having some sort of tense argument over some nonsense. It was meant to lighten the mood a bit. Here they are.

January 1975, some little basement club in Bethlehem PA. Kimock learns how to do the Rick Wakeman part in the middle of YES’s Roundabout (the fast part underneath the main guitar harmonics theme) and adapts it to one of the tunes his band, Open, is doing. Foreshadowing Eddie Van Halen, he turns his back to the crowd so that nobody will figure out how he does it. Honest.

In the Summer of 1975, in the crumbling basement of Uncle Kenny’s very low rent apartments on Pawnee St in Bethlehem, PA. It was a very creative time. He spent a lot of time listening and learning from recordings there, too. We used to borrow lots of different kind of vinyl recordings and theory books from the local library. It was at this point he really sat down and began to study eastern scales and rhythm, which remains a very strong interest. I think it was where he was first exposed to Lenny Breau. Night after night, we listened to Mingus, Coltrane, Dolphy, Axis: Bold as Love, Julian Bream, the Beethoven Violin Concerto (he used to joke the Yehudi Menuhin had a great treble pickup sound), Holst till the wee hours of the morning. Late at night, sleep deprived, we were completely consumed with the idea of music being a spiritual experience. The stuff just sounded so magical even on a little lousy mono phonograph. We used to just sort of stare at each other after a piece ended, as if to say, “how did they do that?”

Summer of 1975. Wilgruber’s Bar and Grille, Allentown Pennsylvania. In the middle of "the Shit Song" with John Weseley Dixon Band, Steve is attacked on stage by a very fat, very drunk guy. Kimock gets out his can of guitar polish and attempts to spray him in the eyes in defense. Ultimately, all 115 pounds of Kimock drags that big fat drunk out the door and throws him down the stairs of the joint.

New Years Eve, 1976. The Lighthouse, Bethlehem, PA. The Goodman Bros. last gig in PA before departing to California to seek fame and fortune. Frankie Goodman warns, "Don’t get off your tractor, you’ve got to work hard to make hay, don’t let the voices distract ya, shut up and listen to what they say." Brother Billy Goodman had "No Particular Place to Go" with his powder blue strat. Stevie "Rock" Kimock drops to his knees at the end of his solo in "Round and Round" while flashpots go off around him. Men stood on tables, cheering and beating their chests, women wailed ululating woops and rent their clothes. Children wept. (It was a good show.)

CD: Sounds like quite a gig. As you know, Jerry Garcia apparently called Kimock his "favorite unknown guitarist" at one point. Rumors circulated that Kimock took lessons from Jerry Garcia. Is this true?

MB: Not as far as I know. When I asked Steve about this several years ago, he laughed and said, "I wish." Steve always admired Garcia’s playing quite a bit-especially his early 70s tone. But as far as I know, he really never saw Jerry as a particularly important direct influence on his own playing.

CD: From your perspective and experience, who would you say are Kimock’s "direct" influences? Given how subtly musicians are informed by everything they ever hear, I suppose it’s difficult to distinguish between "direct" and indirect or "other" influences.

MB: I suppose to really get a handle on this, you have to make some rough definitions of the kinds of influences there are. For the sake of argument, I might say there are three broad categories of influence. First, there are direct influences, the kind where you actually sit down with the someone’s stuff, learn it, and intentionally incorporate it in your own playing. Then there are indirect influences, where you may have heard the stuff, and really like it, but it really only seeps into your playing by a kind of osmosis, sort of unconsciously and certainly unintentionally. Lots of time these indirect influences just sort of pop up spontaneously when you are playing. You might be doing some sort of improv over a tune and all of a sudden out pops a Clapton lick, and you think, “wow, how did that get in there?” Just sort of happens. Finally, there is something that you might call a shared influence, where you end up sounding like someone or some style largely because you are part of the same culture or have come up listening to the same or similar people. Of course, there’s also the possibility that you might sound like someone out of pure coincidence, or maybe Jung was really right about the collective unconscious and coincidences aren’t so coincidental.

I guess the most important "direct" influence on Kimock in his early years was probably Steve’s cousin, Kenny Siftar. Kenny got Steve started on guitar, and also provided free digs (the infamous Pawnee St Basement) for a while during some very lean times in the 70s ("lean" as in Steve went to the hospital once sick with malnutrion). Early, very direct influences were Johnny Winter, Hendrix, Duane, then McLaughlin. He always talked about a ‘73ish Mahavishnu concert really changing the way he saw things, after a long period of heavy Duane-ness. He always dug Zappa, more from a compositional aspect than the guitar playing. He had lots of the Mahavishnu and Zappa stuff figured out note-for-note and could play it at tempo. I think undoubtedly his biggest hero and biggest influence, however, was Roy Buchanon, for the whole stinging-guitar-out-front thing. You can still hear stuff from Buchanon’s second album, note-for-note, in his current stuff. And of course, he has said a number of times in interviews that he pretty much copped everything David Lindley ever did when it comes to slide. He also has always said that Billy Goodman taught him lots of slide stuff. He really liked Larry Carlton lots, Steve Howe, too, but I think they would be more indirect influences.

Of course there were lots of others who fall sort of in between categories—he liked Clapton a whole lot, some of the great blues guys, listened a lot to Django and Grapelli at one point (though I remember him learning the Grapelli parts note for note rather than the Django parts), lots of Julian Bream and John Williams, Breau, Montgomery. I even remember him digging a Terje Rypdal thing at one point, and at the same time, learning the cadenza from Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Interestingly, with the exception of McLaughlin, he vehemently disliked the fusion guys (at least at the time they were really big), Coryell, Dimeola, Clarke, etc. That may have changed over the years, but I doubt it.

He also was very directly influenced by lots of non-guitarists, of course, like Miles, Coltrane, Dolphy, Tyner, Mingus, Ali Akbar Khan and assorted Eastern players, and would sit with that stuff, as well as books of exotic scales, for hours and hours.

CD: I find it remarkable that he vehemently disliked the fusion guys (except McLaughlin) at any time, given how the fluidity and melodic sensibility of his playing reminds me of Dimeola. At least a bit. But what do I know. I played drums.

MB: I think his response to the whole jazz thing had to do with his obsession with tone and his love of melody. If you listen to those guys, especially at the time, they were playing very well, but their tone was just not a part of their statementit was just awful. They also rarely came out with anything like a simple, beautiful melody. It was all this fuzzy awful ratatatatatat scale work that didn’t really seem to say anything other than “I have practiced my scales a lot.” I think Steve’s whole retreat away from speed into deliberate melody was a direct response to the fusion stuff. There might also have been something of a social class thing to it, too. I know for a fact there was for me. We were working class kids, but were surrounded in the local music scene by a number of guys from affluent families who went off to get expensive music degrees. They’d come back from school able to rattle off all the mode names and all that stuff, but they still couldn’t play a nice melody to save their lives. We thought it was weird but I guess we might have been a little jealous, too.

CD: I know in a recent interview Steve said he loved the jazz pianist Bill Evans. He also spoke highly of Clifford Brown, Hendrix, Pat Martino, Johnny Winter, Wes Montgomery, the Chemical Brothers, the Allman Brothers, Debashish Bhattacharya (a great Hindustani slide player), Sol Hoopii, King Bennie Nawahi, and Roy Smeck.

MB: I can name even more that he has paid serious attention to. For example, he was raving about the Chet Atkins box set a little while back. I think the bottom line is that the guy basically has this intense curiosity and opennesshe soaks in everything he hears. The difference with him compared to the average musician is that all that stuff he listens to registers in some deep way that ultimately gets re-expressed when he plays.

CD: So as far as you know, Jerry really was not a profound influence on him — this rumor can be put to rest? Sorry to bring it up again. But I know I’m not alone when I say that when I first heard Kimock’s tone, I immediately thought of Jerry.

MB: Well, like I said, Garcia was really not among anybody Steve was particularly interested in or listened to, even after Steve came to California in the 70s, although Steve always said he thought Garcia was good and especially liked the tone Garcia got. "Humbuckers and a Fender with a little reverb," he’d say. That’s not to say he didn’t think highly of the actual music Garcia was playing. He was just into something fairly different. To my knowledge, apart from the occasional cover (the Goodmans did a killer version of Me and My Uncle, for example), he never really sat down with any Dead stuff till the Kingfish gig in the late 80s, and then more seriously when the "Other Ones" gig came along. He told me once that it surprised him when he first got to California and folks compared him to Garcia instead of Buchanon. I think the similarities between Kimock and Garcia, such as they exist, might be traced more to common influences of both of them. There are some very obvious similarities in what you hearclean tone, a little reverb, the half-step bends, and some country-blues licks here and there—but I think if you go beyond that, the harmonic and rhythmic approach is really pretty different.

CD: What about Beck, Gilmour or Knopfler?

MB: Beck (that’s Jeff Beck, for all the kids out there) and Knopfler probably fall into the "coincidental influences" category, if any. Steve always said he liked some of Gilmour’s early stuff, especially the echo-screechy stuff with the stratocaster on Dark Side of the Moon, so Gilmour is probably an indirect influence. In fact, there is a Zero High and Lonesome out there from ’93 that finishes with some particularly Gilmouresque stuff). I think Beck may be a good example of the idea of shared influence. To the extent that Kimock does anything that sounds like Beck, it would be more because they grew up hearing that blues/rock tradition than a matter of Kimock listening to Beck and copping the stuff. However, Kimock did own a powder blue65 Guild Starfire that Beck supposedly once owned, so maybe that counts for something. Knopfler I don’t think figured in at all. He came relatively late in terms of Steve’s core development, so anything that sounds like him is pretty coincidental.

CD: Do you have any idea as to how Kimock manages to get the amazing tone that he does?

MB: Yes, but I’m sworn by a blood oath not to reveal it. Seriously, people ask all the time what gear he uses, hoping, I guess, that if they get the same rig, they’ll sound something like him. It’s not gonna happen, at least in the way that they’d want, because the rig only accounts for a small proportion of his characteristic sound. I know it sounds corny, but the rest really is in the fingers.

If I had to break it down, over and above his note choice, a lot of his sound comes from a very strong left hand, a very deliberate and controlled vibrato, and very precise striking with the right hand. If you listen very carefully with headphones, you will notice that he virtually always picks a note with dead certainty, even at high speed. He almost never misses. I mentioned before, one of the things he really emphasized to me when I was studying with him was that each note was a piece of music unto itself. Almost as if each were a separate being, with a birth and death, and a lifehopefully, a meaningful one—somewhere in between. Sounds a bit metaphysical, but at a minimum it points out that he takes great care in producing a note. It’s kind of like the really great hitters in baseball, who claim to be able to see the seams on the ball spinning as the pitch comes in, almost as if they can see things in slow-motion. I think Kimock has that quality, that ability to see the details of a piece, of even a single note, where most of us would hear the thing with much less high resolution. Of course, playing virtually every waking hour since he was 14 helps a bit, too.

CD: Did Steve ever take formal guitar lessons from anyone? Can he read music?

MB: He was never a great sight reader, but he could almost always peck his way through a piece, and he certainly understands standard notation. As far as lessons go, I think he told me he tried to study with somebody out in California for a very brief time, but I don’t think it was more than a few meetings. I do know that he has had a real interest in studying eastern music more seriously, but circumstances just haven’t allowed it.

CD: How often did you get to play with him in the 1970s before he went to California with the Goodmans?

MB: When I was studying with him, we had a kind of routine. Around noon we’d brew a big pot of coffee and play with the metronome for an hour or so, just scales and arpeggios. I couldn’t really keep up with his speed or his stamina, though. I’d wear out after an hour and he’d go on for at least another hour or so. A bunch of scales, a sip of coffee, more scales, more coffee. Then we’d go over ideas, scales, chords, whatever came to mind. Sometimes we’d play ear-training games, sometimes we’d just jam. Some nights we’d go out and play somewhere. We’d always come back and stay up late listening to something new. I got to play with him just about every day for about a year and a half, almost two years, I think. When he moved to the Goodman ranch, I would still get to play with him once a week or so.

CD: Have you played with Steve since then?

MB Just once in public in the late 80s. After getting tired of playing in clubs and dealing with the whole music business, I went back to school. When Steve visited home once, we snuck out to an open mike and played the whole night with a bass player friend of mine. It was really fun, though I was shocked to find that someone had actually taped it and was distributing it. I was actually a little ambivalent about the tape. I had become a very serious classical guitarist by then, and hadn’t played electric guitar in years. We had just gone out to play for fun. So, it was kind of like finding out someone had taken a picture of you asleep on the couch in front of the TV with your hand tucked in your pants or something. But all in all, I’m glad I have the tape. Apart from that, we’ll occasionally play something for each other over the phone, but that’s about it. I do play a bit when we get together backstage at a show, but all of his guitars are strung the wrong way. Hopefully this summer I’ll be able to bring my guitar to one of the outdoor festivals and we can play a bit—maybe somewhere in private so I don’t embarrass him or myself.

CD: Thanks again, Mike, for taking the time to answer these questions. I imagine other fans will have more questions. Is it all right for them to send you some questions.

MB: It’s been my pleasure. I’ve always wanted to get some of this stuff down in writing before we all get too old to remember any of it. As far as questions go, I’ll be glad to answer anything as best I can. Until now, I had taken it upon myself to try to answer questions on the net that are related to things like equipment, his approach to theory, etc. Recently, we decided to make it a bit more official, so I’ll actually have a separate e-mail address, kmuse@kimock.com, that is for the sole purpose of addressing these sorts of questions. So anyone can send a musical or technical question to that address, and as time allows, I’ll try to answer it on my own, or with Steve’s help.

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