Roger McGuinn’s Folk Den
One assignment turned into something much more. I began my day set to interview author Scott Turow (_Presumed Innocent_) about the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band featuring such bestselling authors as Dave Barry, Scott Turow, Amy Tan, Frank McCourt and others.
Adding a real rock n' roll element to it is Roger McGuinn, 12-string guitar legend for his work in the Byrds and as a solo artist. The one-week tour, his third time as a special guest with the Remainders, was just another example of McGuinn as a fully independent artist – doing what he wants whether its touring as a solo artist, writing with his wife, Camila, recording on his laptop, making available older folk songs, working on his websites (mcguinn.com, rogermcguinn.com and folkden.com) and releasing his music on his own label.
JPG: I started going through as much material as quickly as possible. I thought I knew about you and your career but it made me feel as if I don’t know much about you. For starters touring with the Rock Bottom Remainders. How did that come together?
RM: I think I've been with em for about three years now. A few years ago, Carl Hiaasen wrote a book called Sick Puppy. In the book, the hero steals a puppy, a Labrador named Boodles and renames it McGuinn after me. After a guitar player that he likes. I thought that was cool to be in a book. My wife and I went down to a book signing for Hiassan. And we met him. He mentioned that sometimes he went to the Miami Book Fair and sat in with the Rock Bottom Remainders. I said Who's that?' He said, Oh, it's a band of authors with Steven King sometimes and Dave Barry and Amy Tan…" I said Wow that's really cool. I'd like to get into that.' He said, I'll give em a call.' So he did. He put me in touch with Dave Barry. Dave said, Come on along' and I've been doing it for three years now.
JPG: Were they initially in awe of you?
RM: I don't think so. They're all famous stars. They're all more famous and richer than I am. There's nothing to be in awe of.
JPG: Well, when I mentioned you to Scott Turow…
RM: We have mutual respect.
JPG: The Cleveland date with the Rock Bottom Remainders is at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. You can take everybody upstairs and point to your signature at the Hall of Fame.
RM: I just played there recently too. The curator interviewed me. He took me through the steps I went through on my Live from Mars CD, which was autobiographical. I go through my entire history of songs that got me interested in music, chronological sequence of songs that came throughout my career. Unfortunately it's out of print.
JPG: I’ve always wondered this about you, the 12 string guitar, it’s a fascinating sound. Everyone thinks of 12 string and thinks of you. You’ve established it so much through your work, especially with the Byrds. When I was looking at your biography I made a connection between you playing the banjo and you playing the 12-string in the manner of it being plucked instead of strummed. Is that correct?
RM: Yes there is. Very perceptive of you. My style is sort of a folkie arpeggio style based on the Earl Scruggs style of banjo playing with three fingers. At some point I had to abandon the thumb pick and move the two finger picks over one finger to accommodate the flat pick, so I could play the flat pick lead.
I've developed a style where I hold the flat pick between my thumb and forefinger and then play with finger picks on my middle and ring fingers. It's very much like Travis' picking, then it's also like Scruggs rolling on the banjo. I am doing banjo rolls on a lot of the Byrd's songs.
JPG: That’s very interesting. I also see the same thing with Jerry Garcia’s playing.
RMcG: Yes. Jerry did the same thing. He was into that, too.
JPG: Did you ever have the opportunity to discuss that with him?
RM: No we didn't. He was an old folkie and he was from that school of music. I know we did meet and talk about some things, but we didn't discuss techniques. I always admired his work.
JPG: The folk process for you leads to the Folk Den…
RM: Started in 1994 out of a genuine concern that the traditional side of folk could get lost because all the folk singers were now singer/songwriters. They were doing new material. They were doing self-generated material. They were kind of neglecting the traditional side of folk. It was considered passnd wasn't financially beneficial to do folk songs. You didn't get as much publishing rights.
It was falling by the wayside and I thought, gee, the internet had just opened up. Somebody should do something about this by putting the old staples of folk music on the internet with chords and lyrics and a story and pictures. Get people interested and keeping these old songs alive. I started doing that in November of 1995. I've been doing one a month ever since. Over a hundred songs now.
JPG: Talking to your wife Camila earlier today, she mentioned that you plan to record these numbers in a studio with fuller arrangements.
RM: That is one of the projects we have down the line for our new record company. It's great we can do anything we want. Nobody can say That's not commercial.'
So, that is one of the projects to do, at least a hundred songs, maybe more, a box set of the Folk Den in high fidelity, recording in optimum fidelity. On the internet now, it's on MP3 which is not the highest fidelity.
JPG: Are there any musicians or styles that inspire you presently?
RM: Well, I used hip-hop drums on the third track of "Limited Edition." I fused it with Appalachian banjo. I like to call it pho-kop (pronounced folk-hop).
But, I listen to everything. I like good music no matter what the genre. I don't have a lot of names for you but I like to listen. We have satellite radio, which is totally uncorrupted by corporate agenda.
JPG: You mentioned your record company, which released your current album, Limited Edition. What’s the name of your label?
RM: It's called April First productions. My anniversary. We've had April First Productions as a production company for about 20 years now. We used to just use it for doing demos. I decided to make it a full-blown record company.
JPG: How is it being on the business side with your own label?
RM: Got to tell you it's the greatest thing. To give you an example of…you know the house always wins, well it's the same with record companies.
If you're on the record company side of it, it doesn't really take much to make a profit. In fact, we've made tens of thousands of dollars in profit, not just gross in the last few months on a particular album, which is way more than I've ever made on anything I've ever done before. Back from Rio, a CD of mine on Arista Records sold about a half million copies. Arista never paid a penny in royalties to me and that's because I was into them for the video. The charges escalated to like half a million dollars. Then, they have their own bookkeeping system, which is arcane. They just never got around to going into the black, which is a typical thing you find in the film business as well. So having a record company working for you instead of against you is a great benefit.
JPG: It’s just interesting how more people are just doing it themselves. If you pay attention you can find it and just get it yourself. I always remember Prince saying years ago when he left Warner Brothers…
RM: He went back with Columbia. I guess it was too early, too soon for what he was doing.
JPG: Even then when he was releasing his first couple of albums on his own, he used to say that he could make more money selling one quarter of what he used to…
RM: You only have to sell a few thousand to make your net back and then you have profit.
JPG: That brings us to the use of the internet and the ability get the word out. You have several websites.
RM: They all go to the same place. Where they go is actually the University of North Carolina. It posts my site because of the public service I'm doing with the Folk Den.
JPG: Camila mentioned that you’ve been working with the internet and on websites years before it became practice. When did you get interested in it?
RM:. I got my first computer back in '81 or so. I got a modem like in '83. I started getting on bulletin boards and different talk things that were around and Compuserve came out, Prodigy and America Online. I tried them all and gradually the internet opened up in the early 90s, about '91 or '92 and I jumped in that. I got into Netcom and started working on the news groups and finally got a webpage going and by '94 I had the Folk Den going.
JPG: Jumping into that technology earlier than most people, have you always been someone into gadgets, where you’d rather take something apart and put it back together, that sort of thing?
RM: Definitely. I've been into gadgets ever since I was a kid. My grandfather used to take me to down in Chicago to the Museum of Science and Industry. I was about three years old when I started doing that. I got into pressing buttons and seeing things light up and go around and I've been into gadgets ever since.
I built my last computer from scratch, the one I use for a recording machine now.
JPG: I read that you’ve been recording on a laptop.
RM: I did that to prove a point that it could be done. Basically, the capability of turning a computer into a multi-track recording machine has been around for a few years. The first one I saw, Terry Melcher, our producer in The Byrds, called me up and asked me to come out and do a Beach Boys session in California. I flew out there expecting to go into a regular studio, but instead we went to his house. He had an early version of Protocols running on a computer plus microphones.
We did the recording and it came out sounding like a regular recording. I thought, Wow! That's cool! I want to get this.' It took me a few years to assemble all the components, but finally I did and not being a Mac guy, being a PC guy, got it all on the PC side. Gradually the PC side caught up with the Macintosh side. So, I'm using what now is called Adobe Audition. It's 128 track recording digital studio. If you were to purchase one like a Sony, even a 64 track costs you about $250,000 dollars. This is a program that runs on a $2,000 PC and it costs 400 bucks.
So, the price of high quality recording is way down. Anybody can afford it if they want to do it.
JPG: Say you’re recording guitar parts, would you be using microphones or can you go directly into the laptop?
RM: It works the same way as it would in a major recording studio. I'm using an interface called the Lexicon Omega that's capable of four simultaneous inputs. It's got a jack for a guitar. Plug the instrument right into it. It gets a clean direct input. It's also got an XLR input plus power for a microphone. Just like a regular recording studio plus a 24 bit, which is a higher mid rate than CDs are.
JPG: Could you be recording for an hour in your hotel room and then check your email or does the recording side take up too much space?
RM: Actually, you could. I usually turn off the internet, the Ethernet capability, because it can interfere with recording. The machine I use is pretty much dedicated to recording. I have other machines. I have a Mac that I get email on.
JPG: With the easy access, are you always working on new material?
RM: Actually, I only write new material when there's a need for it. it's not something that just comes to you. I really get inspiration in the shower to write a song. Little snippets come to you and you write em down, put em in a notebook. Then, when my wife and I like to write together. We'll take out the notebook and we'll develop these and flesh em out as a real writing session.
JPG: As far as any new material, are there any plans for…
RM: Not at the moment. There's not a plan for another. The Limited Edition CD has some new material and it's got a lot of blues and traditional songs as well. It was inspired by the fans who wanted a Rickenbacker-based album because my previous two albums had been acoustic-based.
That was the reason for doing it. I will do another one like it, but I'm not sure when. My next projects and I have a couple of em in the works, I'm going to do a tribute to Jacques Levy. He was my friend who just died like a week and a half ago. I was at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York when he passed away.
JPG: Oh, I’m sorry.
RM: Thank you. Sang a few songs to him. He and I wrote "Chestnut Mare" and quite a few other songs. We wrote em for a Broadway play, never produced on Broadway. What I'd like to do is do all the songs from the play and do the narration too. Make like a radio show, if you will, of the play on CD. That's the next project, a tribute to my friend. I'd like to do a Christmas album with traditional Christmas songs with the Rickenbacker 12-string as an instrumental, no singing.
Then I want to do a box set of the folk songs, as we already discussed.
(The discussion accidentally leads to McGuinn mentioning a Byrds box set.)
JPG: For something like that, do you have any say…?
RM: They've been communicating with me.
(An inquiry to the Legacy Records label publicist revealed this information – "Everybody felt that the one from the early '90s looks out of date, so we're starting from scratch. It will be 4 discs and a DVD. I doubt we'll discover any totally unreleased Byrds songs, but you can bet there will be new live material and perhaps some alternate takes. The package design will be completely revamped as well. I've seen some ideas and it should look very psychedelic and eye catching.")
JPG: That’s good at least. Now, I’ve seen and even traded for a live Byrds show. I think it was a Boston Tea Party show in ’68 or ’69.
RM: We never really endorsed it, but I'm not personally against it. It worked for the Grateful Dead. It didn't do them any harm, so I don't see any harm in it.
JPG: The reason I bring it up, do you have access to any of these shows? Is there a chance of some of them being officially released?
RM: I don't have them in my personal possession, but they're easily obtainable. I'm not sure the quality of them, but they're out there. I could put the word out on the internet. I'm sure somebody would send me one.