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Published: 2003/03/25
by Josh Baron

Joey Arkenstat: Fict or Faction?

Elusive, nebulous and a bit shady, Joey Arkenstat has surfaced from obscurity into the jamband periphery with bass in hand. Featured in Mike Gordon's Gov't Mule documentary, Rising Low, Arkenstat was lauded by fellow bass players Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Mike Watt (Minutemen) and Me’Shell NdegeOcello as a major influence. How could someone so significant remain so obscure? His look, his sound, his insight, it was just so on point. Indeed, as Dean Budnick wrote in his Relix article on Rising Low, "If Joey Arkenstat didn't exist Mike Gordon would have had to invent him."

Josh Baron-How come, to date, no one has ever heard of you?

Joey Arkenstat- I never wanted to be heard of and that includes up until now. I guess it's because I never really got along with people. I sat in with groups like ABBA, J. Geils, James Gang… this is all really super ancient history. And to be honest with you, I just put the whole fucking bass thing to rest for years. I didn't even play, just here and there for my amusement. I've had somewhat of a spotty career, you could say. I'm working to get my chops back. I'm not at top form. I will never be the player I was in my twenties. I had a motorcycle accident a few years ago and suffered some brain damage. It took a long time to get my ability back at all. I was in a state of amnesia for a couple of months. I never really got back from that. I am 50 some odd years old and I am trying to fulfill myself, not my ambition.

JB- We’ve heard about the New Year’s Eve incident with Gov’t Mule. What happened?

JA- Warren Haynes, he called me up. I've known him thirty years. This was back in my southern days. He asked me what I was doing New Year's Eve. He thought it would be kind of cool if we did a prank. We were going to fake this fight. So he gives me this piece of shit Washburn bass because he said, Don't even bring your instrument.' So I got there, picked up this thing, it was a fucking joke. I failed to realize the effect it was going to have on Gov't Mule's fans. People were asking, who is this guy? I show up on New Year's Eve just to play and fool around with some friends and now people are saying all kinds of shit.

JB- Your sound is very minimalist… Would you consider yourself austere in other ways as well? Do you have furniture?

JA- I am a minimalist and I like having as little around me as possible because musically it's a lot different, the things that you like and the people you respect are two different things. In other words, I am drawn to the minimalist thing, but I love the melodic. The first instrument I ever played was the piccolo when I was a little boy. It was very rigid, and every body had to do something. I still remember my teacher, Miss Prim, I believe her name was. I was handed a piccolo and she said learn how to play this. That's a totally melodic type of instrument, which is weird because I'd be in Utah Provo, copper mines and have the urge to play the piccolo. But all these years later, I feel that the right thing to do is play minimally but I am drawn to the melodic. I would say the most influential people, would be Cecil Taylor's left hand but I would never go and watch Cecil Taylor because that's not my kind of music.

JB- Besides Miss Prim your childhood piccolo teacher, Allen Woody and your father, who else has been a major influence on your music?

JA- I've always been a contrarian. When I got back in the states. I tried to not be influenced. Jaco Pastori- the contortionist. I don't even know his name. I remember hearing him play, he was very inventive. He moved around and I respected that. I like players, when we were kids, we would take pennies and put them on the railroad tracks and watch them get flattened out, and really distorted, and I remember being fascinated with how something as solid as a penny with the right amount of pressure could be stretched out of shape and that was something which always stuck with me. I can still see it in my mind's eye now, seeing Lincoln's face stretched and so I like that in the music too. When I'm watching a movie when they stretch an image, I love that.

I am somewhat of a contrarian. My mind doesn't work that well. I have a brain dysfunction so it's hard for me to string thoughts together sometimes. I respect rap artists. I would never go to a concert, but my mind tells me that's right. Move on back to that one single bass line. I seen this show on the big band line, moving back into that single thing. I think that's what those guys are getting at, and all this superficial bullshit on to, social unrest, social disorder. If they can do that with integrity with some kind of principal theoretical way. I would never listen to that it bores me. I am constantly posed to that dilemma, what I like as opposed to what I know should be.

JB- You were one of this first Americans to realize the hotbed of musical talent in that very cold country known as Iceland, imparting your knowledge through a bass-playing pamphlet you authored. How much of a part do you think you played in bands like Bjork, Sigur Ros and others achieving the success they’ve had?

JA- You'd really have to ask them. I don't consider myself influential. I don't consider myself anyone other than what I'm doing at a particular moment. I don't try to get influenced by anybody and I don't try to influence anybody.

JB- Ever spend time in a Mexican prison?

JA- No, I probably came close a couple of times. I've been to Mexico. If they'd have stopped me and looked into my trunk I probably would've ended up in a jail there.

JB- What can we expect on your upcoming album Copper Mind?

I am keeping that under wraps but there is gonna be some ground shaking. Some unbelievable people are involved if I can get everything to fall into place. I got some demos I'm working on now. I'm sending them out and trying to get people interested and I've had some pretty phenomenal feedback on it. I don't want to talk too much about it. I don't like being on this verge of resurgence. I'm nobody and I was nobody and that's the way I always wanted it to be. I wanted to do this interview to clear up the thing that happened at the Beacon and it just kind of soiled me and I didn't like it. People were saying who is this guy. It pissed me off. I love Warren, I love all those people and I wish people would just get off it. Maybe it was bad choice, I just don't know.

JB- What would your epitaph say?

JA- I do modeling too.

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