Fareed Haque Plays MathGames
Looking 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.