The Truth About Brian Haas
For almost thirteen years, the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey has consistently ranked among the improvisational community’s most exciting units. Rising from the same freaky Oklahoma musical realms that produced the Flaming Lips, bassist Reed Mathis and pianist Brian Haas have cycled through a number of intriguing lineups before permanently linking with experimental drummer Jason Smart. Hitting their stride in the past three years, the trio has worked with everyone from Les Claypool to jazz-great Joel Dorn [Charles Mingus, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Dexter Gordon, Grant Green] who recently produced Jacob Fred’s newest release The Sameness of Difference. In between, Mathis has toured with Steve Kimock, Haas has prepared his first solo album The Truth About Hollywood and Jacob Fred has become a fixture on the international jazz-circuit. Below, Hass discusses his recent recording sessions, how Joe Russo almost embarked on Jacob Fred’s Jazz Odyssey and why The Truth About Hollywood doesn’t always play out like the California dream.
MG- Prior to The Sameness of Difference, Joel Dorn hadn’t produced an album of new material in years. How did you coax him out of retirement?
It was a really natural thing. Joel Dorn has produced hundreds of incredible records, from Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin to Charles Mingus. But the guys at Hyena kept telling us “Joel Dorn doesn’t like new jazz—-he used to go see Coltrane play with Monk everyday at the Five Spot.” But, he happened to hear Walking With Giants almost by accident, and he actually liked it. He came out to a show of ours at Tonic and we happened to play [Howard Dietz/Arthur Schwartz’s] “Alone Together.” Afterwards he said, “I wasn’t really digging what you guys were doing until you played Alone Together’—- you should try playing more standards in your set.” We were kind of like, “Really, that was the only thing you really got?” He was like, “Alone Together’ is what enabled me to get the rest of this shit. Since you guys have such a distinct language, it is kind of hard for other people to get in on the conversation. After I heard you guys do Alone Together,” I understood everything you were doing.”
MG- Initially, The Sameness of Difference was conceived as an album of jazz standards. Whose idea was it to take this approach?
BH- Before the next Tonic show our publicist said, “Joel called me to make sure he was on your guest list and he is really excited about your show.” All of us were kind of surprised and we really liked Joel. He is a super-likable guy, super friendly. We had known that Joel had been in sort of retirement for years, only doing reissues, so we didn’t really get our hopes up. So we went down to this restaurant Earth Matters over at the corner of Houston and Ludlow before the Tonic show. We sat down and he was like, “I would like to see you guys do a record of all standards, I’d like to see you guys do all jazz standards, but you guys can do any kind of standards that you want. Any kind of music that is part of the modern canon—-it could be rock songs, jazz songs, any kind of song.” All of us were immediately excited about it because we had never done a record like that——we had been kind of waiting for a reason to do something markedly different from our other records. We were going to do it right, and we wanted to make sure it was special and that we weren’t doing what everybody else does.
MG- Did you have any reservations about recording an album of covers?
BH- Having Joel really sort of put everything in perspective and enabled it to make sense in our heads. We didn’t want to just do another Jacob Fred record with all of our own tunes. We were kind of glad he wanted it to be special and different too—-we agreed with him immediately. We are huge Coltrane fans and his big break came with “My Favorite Things.” For years that was the best selling jazz record in the history of jazz music. Turning pop songs into jazz songs is as old as jazz itself. People tend to talk about it a lot or make a big deal out of it and say, “Is this jazz?” If they have read its history, they would know that it is what jazz musicians have always done, and it has always been a part of jazz to take popular music, and it is just part of what makes jazz, jazz. Jacob Fred has always been such a compositional heavy band, we have always had, “I want these five tunes to make the album. I wrote these tunes two years ago and I want to make sure they get on the record.” It was exciting to have someone different involved, and who can enrich our perspective.
MG- How did you select the standards that ended up on The Sameness of Difference?
BH- After that conversation with Joel, all three of us were real excited. We were like “cool, let’s do an all John Lennon record!” We all started looking into John Lennon, and we were like, “it isn’t going to work.” His songs are just so simple, so perfect, and so beautiful that they need John’s energy there. We were really stuck on doing a theme record, so then we were thinking about doing an all-Prince record. We experimented with that a little bit. But we heard some bad things about Prince’s publishing, and it might cost us this much and might cause this problem or that one—- now in hindsight we know it wouldn’t have. We ditched the Prince idea, and all of us decided that, “Why don’t we have each one of us choose a variety of other people’s tunes. They can be rock tunes or jazz standards.” I chose “Your Own Sweet Way” and the Flaming Lips tune. Jason Smart chose the Beatles and Neil. Reed chose Bjork, Hendrix, and the Brian Wilson tunes.
MG- Eventually, you also ended up weaving some of your own songs into The Sameness of Difference.
BH- We all woodshedded those songs like crazy—-we had a small east coast tour before the recording session with Joel. Joel had been ambiguous, like he never really said, “I want a record of jazz standards.” So we rolled there and picked up Jason Smart up in Cincinnati on our way out and did a day’s worth of rehearsals with all the new tunes with him. We opened up for the Headhunters and started gigging—-we were getting these great reactions from the crowd. We rolled into New York and stayed in Marco Benevento’s basement. Joel said, “I’m going to come over to Marco’s the day before the session with Kevin and I want you guys to run through everything.” We were all excited and started running through all the stuff. Every single tune we played, Joel said, “Sorry guys, it just doesn’t work. It is my job and I’m the producer I will tell you what works and doesn’t.” So we are like here is the Flaming Lips tune “Doesn’t work.” Here is the Bjork tune “Doesn’t work.” Neil tune “Doesn’t Work.” Every single thing that we were excited about Joel was saying doesn’t work.
Basically everything wasn’t working for him down in Marco’s basement. It doesn’t sound that great down there——god only knows what else is going on. Then we started going through our originals—- a lot more than actually made it on the record. Every single original, he was like, “It works, write it down!” So now we are like, “Fuck! Here is another Jacob Fred record with all originals. We have 13 records with 15 originals on every record.” After a while you have to do something different. Joel and Kevin leave and we are all like semi-confused and panicky, like “what the fuck.” We had been banking on making this new record, something we wanted to do for years with a badass producer. We decide that we are going to roll into Sears Sound tomorrow and roll through everything, and not give Joel a chance to sculpt the day—-we are just going to play everything for him. That’s what we did and then suddenly he decided everything worked. We did the whole thing in one day at that old Hit Factory where Lennon and Hendrix used to record. It was a great room and vibe. We were probably a little uncomfortable. Reed and I weren’t seeing eye-to-eye. His pedals weren’t working, he thought it sounded horrible and I thought it sounded great. Jason was in the background keeping everything calm and equalized, trying to keep the balance. It was a really amazing session and went by quickly, before you know it, the van got towed and I had to leave the studio for three hours and get it out of the NYC pound.
MG- Rough Day at the office.
BH- Yeah, and I thought that it was just a warm up day, because we had the studio for the next two days after that. I get back to the studio and Joel was, “I have been listening to the stuff and you guys are for real man. We just made a record in one day.” I was like “What! No we didn’t, I don’t want to use all the shit from this day.” I was in a bad mood—-low blood sugar—-and immediately started arguing with Joel. He said, “Look that is not what you are getting paid to say Brian. That is not even your business, it is my business if it works or not. I’m telling you this shit works and we are almost done. Finish eating your food and get your ass back in the studio. We are going to finish this record in one day.” Reed was like, “No we’re not—- we are not done today.” We went in there and ran a few more things. Joel said, “You guys are so not jazz, that you’re more jazz than anything I have ever heard. It is like the sameness of difference, baby.” I looked at him and said, “Yo dude, you just named the record.” He came in, just like the jazz legend that he is, rolling in and starts talking shit and names the record by accident.
MG- Did your recording sessions change Joel’s opinion of modern music?
BH- I know that he was already into Bjork and he loved that Flaming Lips tune. Joel is, like, in Joel-land. He is surrounded by all these tapes that are at his disposal to make reissues out of or make compilations of. I don’t know—-he is a mystery to me and I don’t know if he listens to much new music at all. His concept is super fresh, relevant and progressive, but I get the feeling from him that he thinks a lot of this new shit today is bullshit. But, he told us, “I have not made a record like that since the last Rahsaan Roland Kirk record I made.” The only reason he worked with us was that, for him, we were part of the same lineage that he was a part of. He is really intense about that lineage, and he doesn’t feel that much shit these days really is a part of that lineage, in his opinion. That is why we are so honored that he would come out of retirement and work with us—- it is huge. We are not going to make another record for a while.
MG- How have your fans responded to this change in sound?
BH- It is a totally different statement from us. A lot of our fans have told me at shows that, “at first I heard it and I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I was like what did this guy do to Jacob Fred? But, three days later, I thought it was one of the best records of any kind that I have ever heard, and definitely the best Jacob Fred record.” I have had fans come up to me and tell me straight up that they didn’t like it and then gave it another shot and thought it was brilliant. “How’d you guys get away with this? How could you guys change so quickly? How could you guys have the balls to have a completely different approach and still have faith that your fans are going to like it?” My answer to that is it seems really drastic because Walking with Giants was recorded at the end of ’02 ans’03. Then it was finished in ’04 and, right before we put it out, we added four more tunes to it. It is like this whole process of bigger, breathed deeper, slower and birthed more concise statements.
MG- Yet, you documented this sound so quickly.
BH- Exactly! Like people say, “How did Joel get you to play like that? What did he do and say?” We just played—-that is just how we played that day. I don’t know how it happened. I know Joel’s energy contributed, as did having Les Paul’s son Gene Paul there. They are in their sixties, and said, “Hey hey, just relax with this shit, you don’t have to kill it. Let the shit breathe.” He would say, “Hey, Brian why don’t you just back off on this whole thing. Just back off and just let Reed and Jason take it.” We just gave ourselves over to Joel and let him sculpt it.
MG- Do you feel as if that day of recording has had a lasting impact on your live set?
BH- It is really interesting, like it just depends on the night and the crowd. I don’t know if the album changed our live set because everything has been shifting all at once. Our concept on stage—-we are just aren’t in a hurry anymore. We are just totally content to let the music develop slowly and naturally on its own. We are trying to force stuff less than before—-there is almost an absence of us trying to force stuff. All of us are sitting back and playing off of the other guys, but it is just as conversational as its ever been. It is a more laid back conversation——there is no screaming or arguing on the conversation on stage. In the jazz world, we are all babies: Reed and Jason are in their late 20s and I’m 31. I really think that the difference in the record just came at the right time as the three of us were sort of coming into our own as improvisers. Our music has always been super improvisational-based, but now we have this confidence about what we are doing that makes us more calm and relaxed on stage. It allows us to play in a greater variety on stage. I wouldn’t say the record created that sound, but I would say that it’s all happening at the same time. A lot of this is stuff we have been talking about for years but just haven’t been able to pull it off.
MG- Recently, you also recorded a solo album The Truth About Hollywood. Where did the idea for this album spring from?
BH- It really came from Reed. I would ask Reed a lot the past few years—-we have had a lot of pianos at our disposable—-“do you care if I start off with ten minutes by myself?” After I did it a few times, Reed came up to me and said, “You really need to make a whole record of that. You sound like a different musician playing by yourself then you do playing with us.” This is years ago when I was still getting my shit together. Even before Jay Smart, Jacob Fred did acoustic piano gigs. Reed would always go out of his way to say, “Hey man, what you do on solo piano is just so much more listenable to me than then what you do the other times when the rest of the band is playing.” He didn’t mean it in a negative way; it was just so different that it caught his attention. He said it again, probably two years ago, when we were on our way to LA to do two nights at the Knitting Factory and finish Walking With Giants with four cuts of Radio Recorders in LA. In the van, I asked Reed, “What would you think if we get the four Jacob Fred cuts done early, would you guys care if I make a solo piano record while we are there?” I didn’t roll in there with any idea of what I was going to do or any real woodshedding or preparation. We had been on the road for three months and I figured I would just figure it out there.
So I talked with the guys at Radio Recorders after they heard the Jacob Fred shit and they said, “If we can join up with Hyena Records on this thing, you can do all the studio time and have our head engineer for free.” They were really sweet about it, and they really loved Jacob Fred and dug the piano playing. They have this great 9-foot Yamaha piano that has been there since ’45 and the studio has been there since 1929. It is like the studio in America for jazz in my opinion. The old spirits haunting that place are unbelievable—- Art Tatum recorded so much stuff there. Every dude you can think of has recorded there—- Coltrane recorded there but not under his own name, when he was part of Dizzy’s band. It was Elvis’s home studio all during the 50s—-he wrote his name in the sidewalk in the cement. They had to remove it and hang it in the studio because his fans were trying to pry it out of the cement. The studio is unbelievable and the guys were really cool at the time, “Yo man, you can have all the time for free and do this, that, and the other.” I spent three days relentlessly trying to figure the solo album out
MG- Why did it take so long to release The Truth About Hollywood?
BH- The engineer messed up and was eventually fired for it. He didn’t send me everything from the session. He just sent me his favorite 15 things. He was like, you don’t even need to hear the rest, these are the 15 best things you did. I heard them and I was like cool maybe I will try again in a few years because I can’t make a record out of this shit. He eventually got fired, and the owner of the studio, Pride Hutchinson, was like, “What’s the problem with this, you rocked three days. I heard a lot of it and it was brilliant.” I was like, “he only sent me 15 total takes. He sent me one take each of his 15 favorite tunes.” Pride was like, “What? Just forget you ever got those 15 takes. I’m going to send you every single thing that you did and do a rough mix on it before I send it to you and get all the levels right.” Then I got busy with other stuff and didn’t get to it for months. I sat down and finally listened to it myself. I was like, “Oh wow— that makes sense and that is usable.”
Suddenly I had a record. So I called up our A&R guy at Hyena Records and asked him what he thought about a solo piano record. His reaction was that solo piano records don’t sell, especially those from some 30-year-old guy from Oklahoma in a jazz band with some wacky name. But I sent it anyway and he said, “I love this shit and I totally want to put it out, but Explosive has to partner up halfway with us and agree to go half on everything.” Explosive agreed to that and, then, the week before it was being sent to press, they still had put in no money. I had to find an investor in Tulsa to come up with half to match Hyena. Hyena has got great distribution in North America and all over the world, they work with Rykodisc and it is a major thing for me to be in the Rykodisc system under my own name. It shows you how rough it is to make this happen in the capitalist system. I have an agreement from these guys and signed a contract with Explosive agreeing that they own 50 percent of the whole session because they gave me all that time for “free,” but, of course, the trade-off was them owning 50 percent of this shit. Then I have a word of mouth agreement that they are going to go halfway with Hyena to make this thing happen. Hyena gets my go ahead and gets it into the Rykodisc system, which happens months before your record even comes out. You and your record are already in the Ryko system, or any system of a major distributor, way before your record comes out—-I had the release date and everything. Then Explosive calls me up and says we are getting sued by somebody who used to own the place and they have a million different stories and are like quite simply we have no money for you.
I wasn’t even a week away; I was like five days away from when it can be sent from the mastering place to the production place and I have no money. Hyena was putting its money into other stuff like the distribution and the publicity. Explosive was supposed to pay to have it pressed, and so now I have no money and Explosive is giving me no money. I have five days to figure it all out. It was a huge debacle and a learning experience at the same time. It was an incredible kind of wake-up call. I had to find an investor in three days, which I did. I got the money and got it off to have it pressed by the skin of my teeth. My wife literally found my first grey hair right after all of that. The shit actually gave me a few grey hairs, since then, she has found two more —-at least it is only three. Seriously, I had no grey hairs before that shit went down. Suddenly I had to take care of all of it and then go out on the road with Fred and get the van in and out of the shop.
MG- It’s ironic—-when you hear the music, it sounds so free and natural. Your business stress doesn’t seem to come through in the recording.
BH- I could not be luckier with what I get to do for a living, but people don’t understand the insanity involved in it. Sometimes this shit is so hairy that I find myself sitting somewhere and having fantasies about waking up and going to work at a health food store or something like that. You find yourself having these daydreams about shit you know you could never do, when the thing that you love doing is taking your nervous system and ringing it out like a dirt-water rag. So you are like ha-ha-ha-happy and your mind just starts splintering off in a million directions. I could be doing a lot of other shit, a lot easier than this, but my trade-off would be I have to die inside.
MG- The Benevento/Russo Duo also backed you for several dates on your recent solo outing. Can you talk a bit about your relationship with Joe and Marco?
BH- Marco and I met through the Slip years ago, before the Duo started. I met him through the Slip and Joey Russo. I have been friends with Russo since 98 or ’99 when Jacob Fred opened up for Fat Mama. The first time I heard him I thought he was one of the nastiest drummers on earth. Any great musician knows that, when it comes to the live context, you are only as good as your drummer—- it doesn’t matter if you have the baddest mother fuckers onstage. So basically any band that Russo plays with is going to be the best band on earth. I was trying to get Russo to join Jacob Fred and I fully extended it to him. Like, “I want you to join Jacob Fred, what do you think?” He said, “Well, let’s make a record together.” We had an investor, so we made a record in New York City called Battle of the Mole People—- like a battle of the people who live underground in New York City. What ended up coming out of that was a vinyl single. So the only Jacob Fred vinyl in existence has Joe Russo on it. Russo was like, “How much can I get paid a night?” We were like, “We don’t pay ourselves by the night, we just get out on the road and use the money to buy hotels and anything leftover at the end of the tour is what we walk with.” Russo said. “Ehh, I don’t think so. I love you guys and would love to do if you guys could pay me but.”
Everything happens for a reason and, if Russo had joined Jacob Fred, I would be drinking way too much whiskey right now. Then I met Marco through Russo and the Slip, I remember Joey saying, “You gotta meet this pianist I grew up with.” But, I was skeptical. Then the Slip was like, “You gotta meet this cat, he comes out and plays with us.” I’m like okay and I finally met Marco at the Knitting Factory. He was still playing with the Jazz Farmers. I was like this stuff is okay’ and Marco and I immediately hooked up. Usually you have to go through some bullshit and shit-talking before you can be friends. But, for Marco and I, it was like I have known you before, asshole—-we’re going to be best friends. From the very beginning, we totally had each other’s backs.
MG- Have you seen a change in Reed’s playing since he joined Steve Kimock’s band?
BH- Absolutely, Kimock is, in my opinion, completely misunderstood. When I hear him, I think he is coming out of the Ravi Shankar tradition rather than any kind of guitar hero tradition. Kimock to me sounds like some kind of new take on Indian classical music. Reed has been playing with Robert Walters, who is also definitely part of our family. Jay Smart played with him for a year-and-a-half—-Joey Russo played with him for a year-and-a-half. Now Reed is playing with Robert. After playing with Kimock and Robert, Reed sounded like a fucking monster, but a much more relaxed monster. Playing with Kimock has given him the confidence to play the same thing for 30 minutes. Like I have heard tapes of this shit where Reed is playing the same exact pattern for 30 minutes straight but you would never know it and it is so perfect. He came back on Jacob Fred tour after playing with Kimock and he sounded like a different bassist. It was all improvement, and I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was, it was like this new- found material. Kimock is part of our family too, this family of people who all believe in each other, who all love each other and support each other. It is a huge family—- there is like 20 bands who I haven’t even listed that are in the family too—- it is really cool this thing we have going on in the United States.