Fareed Haque Plays MathGames
Fareed Haque at your blog, one of the things coming up is “Garaj Mahal with a big band.” Can you tell us a little bit about that?*
The folks from Cincinnati Conservatory of Music approached me about doing a residency where their writing staff, their faculty and students, they have a pretty strong composition program there, would write original arrangements of the Garaj Mahal book. So both Kai [Ekhardt] and I decided to donate our tunes to that process, and so we’re going to be doing a concert in Cincinnati and then another one at Lincoln Center I believe, to debut this book of tunes, Garaj Mahal with big band. Then they’ve given me the arrangements and permission to use them again, so we’re looking forward to pairing up with the various jazz ensembles and groups around the country, and play more new music, and I think that’s real exciting.
Again this whole idea of the connection between the tradition and new music has always been the case. Traditional musicians now—and I make a distinction between someone who’s traditional and someone who’s conservative, they’re very similar terms but they’re miles apart. Someone who’s traditional respects the tradition as a launching place to go in to the future, someone who’s conservative is terrified of the future. So it’s exciting that we have this big band tradition embracing this comparatively new music. Then hopefully we can take that around. And Kai is super excited about it, Kai and I are going to do some gigs together, almost a Garaj Mahal reunion, but not quite. He’s going to be playing a few shows with MathGames and I’m sure we’ll dust off a few Garaj Mahal tunes in the process.
What led to your end with Garaj Mahal? Was it a musical thing, had it just run its course for you?
There are a lot of factors. I mean, Garaj Mahal was touring a lot a lot a lot, and I have my children and my family, so that was a consideration. I think when Alan [Hertz] left and we switched to Sean Rickman, the musical direction changed a bit, which I was okay with, since Sean is such a great drummer and musician. Then Eric Levy made the fatal mistake of hooking me up with Moog and getting a Moog Guitar in my hands. Ultimately, most of my decisions, I try to make them based on the music, and not necessarily on personal issues. Everybody knows there were all kinds of complicated issues with Garaj Mahal, no question about it, but we managed to make it work.
As I started writing all this music for the Moog Guitar, and writing just tons of music that Garaj Mahal couldn’t play, for any number of valid reasons, it really did make sense to write music that didn’t have keyboards. If you have one of the best keyboard players in the world in your band, what am I going to do with this? All of a sudden I had all this music and nowhere to play it, and with family considerations, Eric had a gig with Night Ranger, and Sean got the gig with Herbie [Hancock] for the summer, and it was just like, “Wow, it’s been 10 years, maybe we should take a break now and come back refreshed in a few years.” I don’t think there’s any huge animosity between any of us, I’m sure we’ll get back together at some point, and play and fight and argue and love each other like we always have.
So Garaj Mahal isn’t officially broken up, you’re just not active at the moment?
I don’t even know what that means. I don’t know if we were ever officially together. I guess at some point we were an LLC, so I think at this point the LLC doesn’t exist anymore, but I don’t know actually. That might be a question for Kai.
So now that you’ve moved in to MathGames and you have your more straight-ahead gig, is there any music that you’re not making right now that you want to make?
In addition to MathGames and the trio with Tony Monaco, I’ve also got my Flat Earth Ensemble, which just recorded a new album. I’m sort of moving more and more in to the process of new music [aka contemporary classical], which is not “get a pencil and a piece of staff paper and write a song.” So I’ve been writing on my iPad, and using the iPad as an interface with all my guitar processing, and then interfacing from Garage Band to Logic, and writing music that way. So now I’ve written all this music that’s big, like ten or fifteen parts, and I’m hearing this music with ethnically-driven instruments, as my follow up to my first Flat Earth Ensemble record.
We just finished doing a record that’s really beautiful, I’m very proud of it. It’s conceptually interesting because one of the difficulties that people get in to using ethnic percussion is that it tends to get sidelined to the drumset. The issue is that in India, or anywhere that tabla is used, that is the drumset. The low drum is the kick and the high drum is the snare. So the grooves in much of Indian music are based around either tabla or tala, which are the center of the pocket. So if you put a drumset in there, whose got a kick and snare part, as most drummers tend to approach typical drumset parts, you basically just have two kick drums and two snare drums fighting each other. And then everybody doesn’t know what to do.
So I had a long talk with Steve Wagner—who’s producing the record—we decided to the tabla front and center, and use electronic percussion and loops analogous to what I had on my iPad demos of the tunes, and it was amazing. Just a simple conversation where we [made the decision] in the studio, and we were able to record the whole record in one day. Because all of it was locked up. And then we had some overdubs and things, but it went really fast. There’s a fantastic sitar player on there, and an oud player. Most of the music is vocally driven. It’s called Hymn of the Ancients, and so there’s some African singers, some Indian singers, playing melodies along with me so it has a very different sound. It’s very beautiful and I think it’s going to be a nice way to bridge the gap between the straight-ahead music I do and the more electronic stuff that I’m doing with MathGames.
I look at the calendar and it’s kind of blowing up for me in a happy way, not in a “shit I gotta go out and play the same music again” kind of way. Instead it’s “oh wow, I’m going to finish this MathGames tour up and then I’m going to South America to play a classical guitar program with Paquito D’Rivera, one of the greatest living clarinetists in the world today. Play some latin jazz, then I’m going to come back and finish up this Hymn of the Ancients record and then go on the road with MathGames again and then come back, then I have a week playing classical music with a tuba player. Seriously. A week of duos with tuba and guitar, don’t even ask me, I have no idea. But it sounds awesome, it sounds really cool. Then we do the CCM thing with the Garaj Mahal tunes, and a bunch of festivals coming up. This new agency, Hoplite, has been really supportive and helpful and really have a good vision of how to, with integrity and respect, market what I do in a way that is comprehendible to the audience out there. We’ve only been working together a short time and it’s already made a huge difference. I’m real excited about their understanding of what I do and their willingness to help me turn the visions in to reality.
You’ve been around for a bit, and it seems like you’ve kind of flown under the radar for a long time. It’s good that you’ve found people who are better at translating what you do to the general public.
I think part of it is just, I’m still here. You keep doing something long enough that after a while you’re a squeaky wheel. I think the idea of allowing these different visions to live together and work together, Hoplite has been grabbing on to that, and a lot of these bands I think maybe there’s a possibility to be—I hate to use this because it has other connotations—a more of a concert/world music/jazz experience in the coming future, as opposed to just a small club experience. With visuals and a bigger band with Hymn of the Ancients, electronic sounds and loops and all this, it’s starting to become a bigger sound. I think there’s a willingness to entertain some of the bigger shows and festivals. We’ll see. That’s kind of what the music wants to be, it wants to be big in sound.
At this point in your career, are there any rules you’ve developed to keep you going as a musician?
I think you have to make sure you’re playing. And I mean playing like a kid playing in a sandbox. I think at a certain point you can’t really be afraid of sounding bad or making mistakes. It’s nice to be tight and it’s nice to be a well-oiled machine, but at a certain point, that’s all it is then, it’s just a machine, it’s not really alive. I want to make sure that when I’m going to play, that I’m looking forward to it with enthusiasm and excitement. I think if you really focus on the creative process of being playful, it keeps you humble. If there’s a show where there’s 2,000 people, the next night might be 200 people, then the next night might be 15 people. You never know in this business, so it can’t really be about that. If it is about that, then I think you’re in the wrong business. For a lot of folks, that’s what it’s about. If that’s what it’s about, then you really are just a bar band. Nothing wrong with that, you might be a really good bar band, but that’s what you’re doing. I like being a bar band, but I want to be a bar band that’s playing sophisticated music.
Duke Ellington and his orchestra, they were the first jamband really, and they were a bar band. If you really look back at the history and look at the programs, along their tour, Duke Ellington played mostly dances. And they’d break the shit out of them. It’s just a party. And I think that’s awesome. He could keep the creativity and keep the freshness. And Duke Ellington’s was a band that would screw up all the time, they were always screwing up, Duke would just start shit “off.” We lose this connection when we start deifying these older bands. You listen to Hendrix, that shit was sloppy. They were a mess, he was always out of tune, but if he had tuned it up and cleaned it up, I don’t think it would have been as good. I think that’s part of the nature of good music is the earthiness of it. That’s one of the struggles with new technology, how do you keep the earthiness with all this technology, and that’s where I’m sort of wrestling with it. That’s sort of the ongoing struggle, how to keep the organic nature of the music with all the electronics. It’s there, but it’s a process.has been on the scene for the better part of the last three decades, first breaking with Voices Rising, his 1988 release for I.R.S. subsidiary Pangaea. He eventually found himself on the Blue Note label in the mid 90’s, recording three albums of his signature world-influenced fusion, culminating with his masterful interpretation of the entirety of CSNY’s Deja Vu. Aside from his extensive jazz credentials, Haque is probably best known in the jam universe for co-founding the fusion supergroup Garaj Mahal, who recently announced a hiatus following Haque’s departure. Now he’s back on the jam scene, exploring the world of live-electronica with his new band MathGames. All the while, Haque continues to delve in to the worlds of world music and straight-ahead jazz with his Flat Earth Ensemble and his trio with organist Tony Monaco. We chatted with Haque recently to talk about his new band, the Moog Guitar, and what the future holds for Garaj Mahal.
So tell me a little bit about MathGames and how that came to be.
Sure, it’s kind of jumping off for us right now. After 10 years of Garaj Mahal, I’ve been looking to get more in to an electronic approach to the jam, jazz that I’ve been playing. And I have the Moog Guitar which, it’s been a process learning how to use it and kind of getting more of an electronica approach with the electric guitar as opposed to more keyboard-driven music which tends to be how you get a lot of the more electronic kinds of sounds, so I’m writing a lot of new music and it’s starting to come together for us. So I’m kind of excited, I’ve written a whole bunch of new music, and we’ve been playing a bunch of gigs, and I just signed with the Hoplite Agency, and they’ve been real helping us.
So with MathGames in the studio, we’ve been really evolving with just different kinds of textures and sounds and creating a really different kind of music. It’s definitely jazz-inspired, but it’s more electronic groove music than it is necessarily fusion, which is more of what Garaj Mahal was doing. And that’s the direction we’re going in. We do a cover of “Everything In Its Right Place” by Radiohead, a lot of the tunes involve a certain amount of looping, so I’m even playing one and two guitar parts at the same time, all this while there’s other loops going on, so it’s a big sound for just 3 of us, and it’s evolving all the time. We’re really trying to play electronic music and instrumental music in real time that is improvised and somewhat spontaneous.
You touched upon the fact that electronic music is usually more keyboard-driven, what drew you to wanting to approach it from your perspective, from the guitar?
Well first of all I’m a guitar player, that was the first thing. I actually do play enough keyboards that I could play most of the kinds of keyboard parts that one would find in that kind of music, so it’s a good question. But the Moog Guitar allows me to do certain things that one can’t do with a regular guitar. Because I play so much classical music, there’s a lot of classical techniques that I can use on the Moog Guitar, playing 2 or 3 voices at once and moving them, that were really natural on the Moog that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to play on a regular electric guitar. So I started writing a lot of music [on the Moog], and all the music was more inspired by Squarepusher, Radiohead, Bassnectar, some of these kinds of sounds, rather than the music usually inspired by jazz from 50 years ago. So the music I was writing has that kind of attitude and sound to it, so I just wanted to go with it.
Would you say this is sort of a natural evolution between getting the Moog Guitar and listening to new musics that you started to create music that was more appropriate for an electronic approach?
Absolutely, we definitely started out writing music for the Moog Guitar, because when Moog approached me about playing that instrument, the first thing we did is we went in the studio and they said “here’s the guitar, we’re gonna press the red button and see what the hell happens.” And right off the bat, I started writing some things that were different, because of what the Moog Guitar allowed me to do, and in a way, having a keyboard, as we did in Garaj Mahal, kind of fights the Moog Guitar a little bit. Just because the Moog allows you to play 2 or 3 voices at a time.
So [with MathGames] we experimented with using keyboards and not using keyboards, I think we’re leaning towards keeping it a trio. It’s just a unique sound, and when you really get in to the sound of the instrument, it’s very orchestral. It can sound really big. It’s more like you’re putting your head in between the strings, rather than standing back and hearing a lead guitar player playing a solo. It’s a very different experience. So it’s an ongoing process when you’re doing something new, there’s a lot of fits and starts. But we’re starting to get a nice crowd and people are starting to get it that this is more dance music than sit down and listen music.
The first time I ever saw you was with Garaj Mahal in 2001 at the High Sierra Music Festival, and I was already familiar with your solo work on Blue Note prior to that. At that point in time, there seemed to be a bit of a movement by certain people in the jazz world to embrace the jam world. Is MathGames your further exploration of that?
Definitely. It’s hard to play instrumental music that is challenging to the player and have it still retain a dance, fun element. And that’s really important to me. To me, straight-ahead jazz is the first “jam” music. I’m playing in a trio with the great [organist] Tony Monaco, and we’ve been doing a lot of jazz festivals, and it’s booty-shaking music. That’s what it is first and foremost. There’s no reason that jazz shouldn’t continue to be that in the 21st century. But it is something that you gotta keep working at. A lot of the bands that have been successful in the jam world, that are jazz-oriented, have been sort-of retro bands. And they’re really good at it, you know, Karl [Denson], Robert Walter, and of course Medeski Martin and Wood, all sort of have a retro approach to music, and that’s really cool. And Squarepusher and Bassnectar are very jazzy. But there isn’t really a jazz guitar player, except for maybe Kurt Rosenwinkel, and myself who are looking a little bit forward. Scofield is a great inspiration to me, but certainly his style is harkening back to the blues and Ray Charles and all that kind of stuff, it’s definitely looking back. And I think that’s important, I super-believe in looking back and knowing the tradition, but it’s also interesting to try and look forward and see what we can do with all these new toys, and still make it funny.
I gathered from following you career over the years that you try to absorb new information as much as possible, you’re looking for new sounds and new approaches to making music. Would you say that’s accurate?
I think so, I’m definitely one of those creative musicians that’s probably less interested in having one band, because I have so many different interests and passions musically, that to try and bring them all together, to do it all at once, would be a little insane. I’m definitely fascinated by all that’s happening right now. I don’t want to just be a historian. I’m interested in what’s going on today and I’m fascinated by it, and if I make an ass out of myself once in a while trying something new, that’s okay. I really believe in taking risks and going out on some artistic limbs. As I’ve gotten more comfortable in my skin, I think that’s become easier, and I have more and more of a loyal fanbase that’s willing to support the different things I do. I have so many projects on the burner right now it’s stupid.
Given that you’re creative and willing to take risks, do you find that the jam audience is a more comfortable place to be taking these risks than in front of, say, a straight-ahead jazz audience?
Short answer, yes. That’s kind of why I think the jam audience is so important. Like, we took MathGames in to a jazz club, and we’re wearing these crazy suits and there’s visuals going, and we’re basically playing pretty “jazz” jazz music, but it doesn’t look or smell like jazz music anymore, even though it is. And people were just like “woah,” everybody dug it and stayed, but they were just like “this is not what we thought we were getting when we went to go see Fareed play jazz.” Whereas with a jam audience, we can do the same kinds of things that we do, and the hula hoops come out and everybody’s dancing and having a real good time and it’s not a big deal. Because there isn’t this level of conservatism that there is in the jazz world.