The Ancillary Artist? A Conversation with Steve Kimock
Engimatic and independent are certainly two words that one might well use to describe guitarist Steve Kimock. As of late some would argue that ubiquitous should be added, as Kimock has been much more visible with live releases as well as a steady bi-coastal tour docket. One locale that the Steve Kimock Band has visited regularly over the past few years is Japan, where author Steven G. Shayman lives and works. Shayman’s interview with the artist touches on a variety of subjects including the fanaticism of those Fellow Lovers of Kimock, which led to the quote referenced in the title of this piece.
SGS: It seems to me that you’re here in Japan rather frequently, and or much more than some of the States. What is it that motivates you to travel so far for, sometimes, a single gig, like last year at Fuji Rock Fest?
SK: As an American, growing up in America, you get a lot of, "America’s the greatest place to live, America this, America that," a great deal of which is perhaps true, but if you don’t ever get out of the States, you start to believe that stuff in kind of a funny way, and you start to think all the stuff that’s going on around you is just fine the way it’s going, when obviously that’s not the case. When I traveled to Japan for the first time, I saw what seemed to me to be a culture or society that had found a lot of really kind and wonderful ways to deal with a whole lot of stuff that people in America seemed kind of young at. Just as a person, traveling from one culture to another, it was neat to see those ways, that, just different ways that people dealt with certain basic things, such as you know, transportation, just general interaction, I was really very impressed with Japan and the Japanese people. And the audiences there are fantastic…really fun to play for. And all the rooms that we played in were great rooms to play in, the production was always really together, and the audiences very enthusiastic and respectful of the music at the same time, which is not a combination that you very often see Stateside. It seems to work well for us, musically. (Laughs) We play well there for those folks under those conditions.
SGS: Along those lines, wherever you are, how does your environment suit you and the band? How does the venue affect the playing?
SK: I guess the first thing you need to understand is that the improvisational concept that we’re working with, it’s not like the band (laughs) plays something and then I just, like, spin off and play whatever. It’s a deal where we’re listening to each other and reacting off each other. It’s group improvisation. And so you know that means the quality of the improvisation is directly tied to the quality of the listening environment that the players are in. So if you’re in a room that sounds good, with an audience that’s respectful of the dynamic range, if you have that on your side, then obviously you can play really well. But if you’re playing in some horrible little room with a bunch of people making a bunch of noise, obviously that cuts off about half of what the band’s able to present. So if the production’s not good, and the audience is not really there for the music, that would be a difficult environment for us to do the group improvisation thing.
SGS: On your DVD (Live from the Gothic Theatre), the section on the making of the DVD offered a little insight into a concert coming together, and talking about some of your guitars. How many are you taking on a typical tour Stateside, or Japan? How many do you feel comfortable going out with?
SK: Well, I’m most comfortable, obviously, with my old white Stratocaster. So that goes everywhere, and that seems to handle a lot of the work. So there’s always the white Strat. I like to take the Explorer, whenever I can. In Japan, I’ll bring my steel, my old triple-neck Fender steel will certainly come. It depends how much stuff I feel comfortable playing, you know? If I’m just putting stuff in the truck, we just packed a truck and sent it off to the West Coast two days ago (from home PA), and I think I took like 11 instruments.
SGS: You touched on this in the DVD a little bit, but could you describe how things come together for your shows, if you would, please.
SK: Well, first of all, having done this walking-out-the-door-with-my-guitar thing, and trying to play for people, since I was a young teen and seeing just the general energy and vibe of the shows, I realized pretty early on that it didn’t really have all that much to do with any one person. I realized that everybody was important, and that everything about the room was important, and that a good show could go right down the tubes if you had bad security or if the people working at the door were unfriendly. That would really change the vibe at the show. Or if the people doing the production were uncooperative. I just wound up realizing it takes everybody there, being in a good frame of mind, and cooperating, to create the show, to get the thing happening so that it works for everybody. So it’s kind of nice in a way, because I guess it takes some of the responsibility from me, in a playing-specific way, but really what it does is that if everybody’s doing a good job, then everybody can do a good job. It’s just like that. It’s not about the players specifically to make it happen. It takes the whole audience and everybody that’s working the show, to make it successful, and I always try to acknowledge that, whenever I can, you know.
SGS: In a given show what is the balance between setlist and total improvisation?
SK: 99.9% of the time, I make a setlist and75% of the time that I make a setlist, we actually play it. (laughs) Usually, I’ll have some idea, just about the group, just about the energy, the progression of the night. I mean, I don’t make a list in advance; I wait until I’m at the gig, see the room, look around, kind of get a feeling where everybody’s at, you know, kind of make the list around the available energy…at least the energy that’s available for me and what’s going on.
Usually it’s pretty easy just to get a little vibe for how the general energy of the thing will go. I mean, we might decide just to come out and just go, right out you know. Or we might decide to come out and play a little bit funky for a while, play some tunes first, and get a little deeper into the improvisational space. Or sometimes we just come out and hit it right off the bat, in terms of just getting the big improvisational thing up there first. It just depends, you know. But that’s usually pretty different every night. It’s just one of those things, it tends to move around, you know?
SGS: In terms of the music that you then create in the live setting, how do you feel about archive.org, Bit Torrent and music-trading in general?
SK: I’m generally positive about it. The only mixed feelings I have about it is I don’t know that those formats are the best fidelity, because my own experience with recordings that get posted is that I get them from the people who record them, so I assume I’m getting the best fidelity that’s available. That’s my only issue with it, is that the digital formats, as good as they are, may not be the most musical. I’m not crazy about CDs, you know. I wish everybody was listening to open-reel tapes, I guess, but that’s kind of silly, that’s just me. But generally I think it’s a good thing.
You know, on a whole other level of intellectual property rights, and people taking music that was recorded at great expense, and artists not getting paid for it, then obviously I disagree with that. The reason that we post the stuff, and allow it up there in the first place, is that we don’t really have the opportunity to get everywhere we’d like to get, you know, and I know that there are fans in Japan, there are fans in Europe, there are fans all over the world and all over the United States that can’t get to every show, and there are shows that they would like to hear. And I think it’s great they can keep track of what the band’s doing, and how things are evolving, by making use of those services. So I think it’s a good thing. Not everybody can get to every show, so I’m glad it’s available.
SGS: Another thing, jumping back to your overall music distribution/merchandising stuff: you got your matrix recordings, and your DVD has been released. A friend has pointed out that your merchandising has skyrocketed since last summer: glassware, live recordings, clothing. What is your reaction to that?
SK: (laughs) You’re gonna think this is kind of silly, but I don’t pay attention to it. I guess it’s going well. But yeah, my nose is to an entirely different grindstone. So, I don’t really…I’m not actually qualified to comment.
SGS: You have your band in yet another configuration. Is this a function of trying to find the ultimate gel, or does the rotation of players keep the music fresh for you?
SK: You know, the occasional rotation of players: it’s got more to do with logistics and availability than anything else at this point. It’s like well, "I’d like to try some keyboards…well, who can we get to do that? OK, this guy’s available, let’s try that." We’ve had a couple of different keyboard players in and out of the band at different times, a couple of different bass players, but again, it’s more of a logistical thing than a musically specific thing. A lot of it has been doing what we can while I’ve been making the move, which has taken a long time from the West Coast to the East Coast, so what’s I’ve been trying to get to for a while, which is entirely dependent on the band being on the East Coast, and we’ve finally gotten to that. Everybody’s in New York, except for me, I’m in Pennsylvania, about 75 miles away, and the advantages there are obvious: we can actually get together and rehearse. Before, there was always somebody on the West Coast, somebody on the East Coast, somebody in New York, somebody in Seattle, and it made it difficult to give the thing the attention that it deserved. So, we’re finally pretty much all in one place, and at that point, the benefit to the music, getting that logistical part right, is obvious. You get lots of new tunes, and more chemistry and better communication and so forth.
SGS: Along the lines of sound and listening, can I ask, what motivated you to do a studio album with the band?
SK: (laughs) What motivated me? It’s not what motivated me to do it now, it’s like, what’s prevented me from doing it for the last, you know, like three years! I’ve been trying to make a studio record for the longest time.
SGS: You wanted to do it at home, comfortably, right?
SK: Well, you know, the motivation for doing it at all is to have something out there in the marketplace that’s produced in such a way that you’re making no apologies on the production to the person that’s buying it. You’ve got a nice finished product mastered and you can hear everything really well, and it’s an audio issue more than anything else. I don’t like the loss of dynamic range, that compressing stuff like live shows bring. So the dynamic range of the music is a really important element. I guess that a lot of the stuff that you would download, or CDs you would get of a show have huge dynamic swings, which I mean, if you just put on a commercially produced CD, you know, your VU meter is just sort of sitting there- a broadcast impression like on the radio, there’s no dynamic range at all. It’d be nice to have some product out there where radio people can put it in the rotation with the rest of their stuff, and have it sit in the right place.
SGS: Shifting gears, can you talk about some of your favorite musicians you’ve played with over the years- people in a general sense those you’ve had a chance to play, that jump out at you?
SK: Well, I mean one of my favorite people that I’ve played with in my whole life, if you’ll excuse the name-dropping, is Hornsby, Bruce Hornsby; I had a great time playing with him. That was one of the fun ones…hope to get into more of that someday. Let’s see, who would be fun to play with? I haven’t played with him recently, but the brilliant slide-guitar player Derek Trucks, great player, I’d like to play again with him some time. I always enjoy playing with Martin Fierro, the tenor saxophone player; I worked with him in Zero and before that with Underdogs, and in various things, it’s always fun to play with him, and he still sits in from time to time, as does Pete Sears on piano, who I also enjoy playing with. So, I mean, yeah, there’s lots of folks.
SGS: Whom you aspire to play with?
SK: Aspire to play with…hmmm…who’s out there working now that I would like to play with? (long pause) I’ve always wanted to play with Peter Gabriel; bet that’d be fun…I always liked his band. Hmm…I wonder who else…nobody else comes jumping out at me, although I’m sure there’s probably a million people.
SGS: Can I ask you, can you talk a bit about your memories of John Cippolina?
SK: I have endless fond memories of John Cippolina. He was an amazing guy, and a good friend. My first-born son, John Morgan, shares his name. John Cippolina’s his namesake. If you can hear the drums banging away in the room (in the background of our phone call), then that’s John Morgan, who has turned into a furious drummer; he’s 14 now. Yeah, I mean, I think probably any place on Earth, somebody, somewhere, at any time, is telling a John Cippolina story. He was a huge influence, man, he really was a great stylist and a great guy, and more… There was a lot going on with him. He was sort of a renaissance guy. He raised wolves and stuff like that; all kinds of crazy stuff.
SGS: Speaking of your son, I was just curious, I had noticed him on stage at Fuji Rock Fest last year. Did he write a nice, "What I did on my summer vacation" paper at school?
SK: You know, if he had been going to a different school, he probably would have. But I don’t think he did; I don’t think the Japan trip made the "What I did on my summer vacation" thing. (background noise as he asks John about school paper). He says, "No, but I should." He says he’ll save it up for this summer. Next year he’s going to a performing arts school, thank god, that will be a much more interesting thing for him.
SGS: One other thing I wanted to ask: What’s your philosophy about ticket prices and distribution? You keep it reasonable, from a U.S. ticket price-point side, especially if you hold it up against other things that tend to be going up there in price now these days in the United States. It seems that someone can always go to a Steve Kimock show for maybe half the price or even a third of a price of some other bands.
SK: (laughs) Well, should I raise my prices? I don’t know.
SGS: Well, I’m not urging you to do so; I’m just wondering if you have an attitude or input on that matter.
SK: Well, I mean it varies regionally, I think. You’ll expect to pay more for a ticket in New York City than you would in Fayetteville, Arkansas, for example. But I think that’s more a function of the promoters recognizing that in this market, they can do a show for this much, and expect to make money or expect not to lose money, or whatever it is they’re trying to do — more than there’s a guiding principle (from my standpoint). Obviously, you don’t want to price people out of a show, but you know, I don’t think it should be too expensive, and you know, I think if you’re playing reasonable-size venues, where the audience can enjoy the show comfortably, there’s no reason to "pile it on," you know.
SGS: Speaking of your fans, they are rather fanatical…what do you think?
SK: God bless them. (laughs) Well, you know, fanatical, fans, that’s what it means.
SGS: For example, I have a friend that simply refers to you as "The Master."
SK: Thanks, that’s sweet, but I think that this is kind of important, kind of an important point actually; I’m glad that it came up in a kind of off-handed way here. You know, I think when people are really digging music, to be careful to remember that it’s their appreciation of music that they’re enjoying. It’s like music itself, it’s not something that you can personify, you know, so if you like what we do, that music, the feeling that you get when you’re listening to the music and you feel good about it, and you really feel it, that’s music. It’s not like what the audience is doing; it’s what you’re feeling, you know. I just try and remind myself, and remind people, that is the case. It’s not the artist, it’s about just the human ability to appreciate music, and to experience it, you know, like an emotion, you know, just a feeling. You have to pat yourself on the back for getting an opportunity to feel it, and you know, it changes, as you grow. And your ears change, and you like something else or you go back to liking something you liked before or whatever.
SGS: Well that leads into another thing I wanted to get to. Can I ask what you’ve been listening to of late?
SK: Man…I listen to so much different stuff, I enjoy so much different stuff. I go through little phases, I suppose. There are phases I go through where I’m just listening to North Indian classical music, or Persian music….there’s phases I go through where I’m just listening to blues, there’s phases I go through where I’m just listening to songs and artists I enjoy. You know, lately actually I’ve been listening to a lot of Dylan, been listening to a lot of The Band, I’ve been listening to Bob Marley. There’s some great music available now in the States: I don’t know if you’re aware of it, that it’s kind of gospel music, but it’s "sacred steel." And there’s these churches that use this steel guitar, and there’s an organ in there, in their church services. The cool thing about it is that it’s really gone under the radar in a commercial way. There’s really so much spirit, really very spirited, wonderful, great playing, that’s happening right now, if you searched it out. It’s really good, contemporary guitar playing and great music. What else has been in rotation lately? Bartok String Quartets are some of my favorites…very strange but I enjoy it a lot. Yeah, so that’s the kind of thing that I do…it’s all over the map.
SGS: You can tell in your playing, of course, and for example, it’s 2004 now, but in the early 1990s I worked in a place that had kind of a box on our desk for newsgathering purposes, and basically it pulled in a direct satellite feed of the BBC (World Service radio), so I always used to listen to John Peel, and a world music show by Andy Kershaw, and at that time what was happening was a lot of African, kind of post-King Sunny Ade sounds, you know, like the stuff that you’re doing, you’re alluding to sometimes, like, I don’t know your song titles so much, like "It’s Up to You…"
SK: Yeah, that stuff is in there…
SGS: That kind of thing, to me, adds to the "travel" quotient of your music.
SK: Just listening to guitar music, you know, you can’t ignore the pop music that came out of Africa in the mid-1960s, some of my favorite guitar playing, some of my favorite guitar playing ever, you know. I can barely pronounce most of the artists’ names, but I love the stuff, there’s a bunch of styles there; it’s not hard to find stuff that sounds great. But there’s obviously, you know, influences from blues and from Hawaiian music, from African music, from European music, from the more contemporary small-band improvisation stuff. Jazz…you know, specifically…those things all wind up in the music.
SGS: Would you consider doing a straight-ahead jazz record? Or looking at jazz masters?
SK: I don’t think….well, first of all, I’m not a jazz guitarist. For better, for worse, you know, I spent some time studying that music and learned a bunch of tunes, but there’s some part of the straight-ahead thing that just doesn’t allow me to work the guitar the way I’d like to. A lot of stuff, a lot of music, a lot of great guitar that I can’t get out of my head…has happened since the 1950s, do you know what I mean? And there’s no way I could just get up there and play like somebody whose listening didn’t go any further than that. So, how far are we talking about? Somebody who’s playing great, straight-ahead jazz guitar, the swinging guitar…I love that stuff.
I’m a big Wes Montgomery fan, a huge Jim Hall fan, but when you get into the more contemporary players, in a lot of ways, there’s just more there to listen to for me. You know, whether it’s Pat Metheny or Bill Frisell, John Scofield, I mean, that’s not…I don’t know if that really falls in the category of straight-ahead jazz. But still, those guys are definitely part of that ongoing evolution of that music.
I was hugely influenced by Jimi Hendrix, obviously an electric guitar player, so how can you leave that out? And just generally, to play solidly in any specific style that, whether it was bebop or bluegrass, just to play solidly in those styles, exclusively, would be impossible for me; I couldn't do it. I just like bringing the influences that I have to the table, and when they show up, they show up. It's a good question, though, and I don't think you'll find me doing a straight-ahead jazz record in this lifetime; probably in this lifetime you'd find me doing a straight-ahead blues record, but probably not a straight-ahead jazz record.