Alan Paul: Kind of (Beijing) Blue
Alan with Andy Aledort at book release event
BF: It was a fairly major, yet quickly-made transition to go from a state of vulnerability in your art to what you describe in the book as you “felt like you were steering a freight train with an incredible degree of control at your fingertips.“
AP: I remember that specific show very well. I think the night before we had played a really good gig, and we hadn’t played too many back-to-back nights- I remember thinking that “Wow, there’s a huge payoff to playing two [gigs] in a row.” We were playing [Dylan’s] “Meet Me In The Morning” when I started toying with the tempo- that’s when I realized we were sort of taking it to a whole new level.
Lu Wei is a great, great drummer. As a guitarist and a singer- you have to fit. But to feel great and really be on top of it, you need a great drummer. He was always a great drummer, but he wasn’t necessarily a great “blues” drummer. But at some point, when I was feeling more confident and he was locking into the music, it was a tremendous feeling.
BF: Was there a point in your progression where you felt you let go of the intellectual, analyzing part of yourself and connected more emotionally?
AP: To some extent, I felt like that part came easier for me. It was being able to be analytical without giving up the emotional connection was sort of a challenge. The hard part was just letting go- I felt like I was emotionally connecting from the start, but it was a big step to really just let go.
It relates to something I just said about not rehearsing- you want a little bit of excuse, you want a little bit of yourself in reserve. And once you just completely let go, it’s a little bit scary, but that’s what you need to do to connect and really get somewhere.
BF: You’re describing another thread of the book here, which is the idea of “transcendence”, which is something that many musicians simply have not found a way to do, even at the professional level. If you had to describe the process, how did you find yourself in the “zone”?
AP: One thing you can do to cover your weaknesses is to have a band that is completely built around you- your strengths, your weaknesses [laughs]. I [also] think one quality is being humble. I never really thought of it as “my band” but as “our” band. The people, to some extent, perceived it that way and the guys in the band sort of did because I was the one calling out the songs and whatnot.
BF: In some ways, the band really came together once you realized they were looking at you to be the leader.
AP: There was one really speicific gig that I remember [that was] sort of early on. Our beginnings and endings were weak. We weren’t that rehearsed and would sort of be “ok” through large sections but then sort of wobble. [And I realized if the band] was going to do anything, I have to take command. So I started to, very consciously, and that part of it was not comfortable to me.
But once I started doing it and I accepted it, we immediately saw proof that it was fine, but the initial leap to do it was a conscious decision- “every band needs a leader and I’m the leader, whether I want to be or not.” To some extent, once we really started moving, that wasn’t even necessary.
BF: In a way, it reminds me of Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, where he was the heart and soul of the band, but everyone around him was at the top of their instrument and in some ways a “better” musician than he was- yet it would not have worked with him and his vision.
AP: I think there’s something definitely to that. I eventually realized how much I brought to [the band], but it seems almost naive that I would get that far without being aware of it, but I was just never thinking about it. Even after I became more and more confident, because I respected them so much, on some I level I still took a backseat or assumed they knew better. And when I sat down and asked their opinions, that was, to me, the obvious way you would run a band. But eventually I realized that was a huge thing for them and it was one of the things that made them so loyal. To some extent I’d be proud to say it was similar to Col. Bruce- I’m a big fan of him as person and as a musician- I understand that and I think it does makes sense.
BF: Lu Wei said towards the end: “There is more freedom playing with Woodie Alan than any other band, and I began to understand why this was such a good idea: the freedom encourages you to perform better.” One phrase that proved a bedrock through the band’s progression is the mantra of “tight but loose.” Did you anticipate the difficulty in communicating that ideal across the language/musical barrier?
AP: To me, the art of the jam just comes naturally. The art of refining it and being more precise was more challenging for me. And for the other guys, it was the opposite [laughs]. They were completely capable of jamming, but they didn’t have much experience in it. I didn’t anticipate that at all.
The best way to get there was just to show them. Dave came from more of a R&B background in DC, and he would often vary his solos. And then I started soloing more too. We just sort of had to naturally explain it, but we hit a wall there.
BF: Besides Woodie’s slide and Zhang’s guqin, another unique sonic factor is that you found your voice, and loved being, an acoustic guitarist. How did that come to be?
AP: It happened naturally, actually. I was originally playing my Epiphone or my Tele Deluxe I had picked up on a trip back home. And most clubs had a pretty decent backline, like a Roland Jazz or a small Marshall combo I could plug into. I’ve always enjoyed playing electric, and I would switch back and forth during the set. And then we started rehearsing more, and it just became obvious to me that the acoustic was better. We discussed it a bit in the band, and I would ask their opinion, and it seemed like we found our voice with me on acoustic and [Woodie] on lap steel, sometimes harmonica. I felt more and more comfortable with it, and we liked the depth and dynamics it brought.
I also liked it more with Zhang Yong’s bass- he was very capable of playing the bass like a guitar. He was a very Berry Oakley-ish bassist, but he never heard Berry Oakley. So the way he played bass and Lu Wei played the drums, and the way I started attaching my guitar to the snare, it became obvious that this was what was best, and I stopped bring my electric, and never looked back.
BF: You mention in the book that some of the novelty of the band’s name was lost on a Chinese audience without the pop culture context of knowing Woody Allen, but the late Allen Woody was a friend of yours, and an influence as well. Wasn’t the name a homage to him as well?
AP: It definitely was to me. I can barely remember when I first picked [the name], but it completely was to me. The first time we rehearsed with Zhang Yong, he brought this 7-string bass. And it’s a cool bass, and he could really play it, but I thought it was completely inappropriate for what we were doing. So, next rehearsal we had, I brought my [Allen Woody Signature] bass for him, and I said “Hey, play this.” I don’t play bass much, but I love that bass. And he played it and liked it, and it made me so happy to have that bass played in the band because I did think it sounded good. I loved bringing Woody into it.
At the next gig, I brought it, and he played it on a few tunes, but he had brought his Fender bass, which I didn’t realize he had- he had gotten my message about playing a 4-string bass [laughs]. But for half a gig and one rehearsal, he played that Woody bass and I loved it. I was very conscious of Woody and I was confident- in knowing Woody as well as I did- he would have lost it, he would have gotten a kick out of the whole thing. I felt I was serving his memory a little bit of justice.
End Notes: : Lyrics from the song “Jefe”, © 2010 bella soul Music LLC. Used by permission.