Issue 126, Interview with Eric Wallack

This interview actually took place some years ago… the interview we had lined up for issue 126 got interrupted by some personal tragedies & will be posted in a future issue when the interviewee makes it available… in the meantime, let me say that I am “jaundiced” in this particular interview, as I’ve played with Eric a LOT… so keep that in mind as you read his thoughts!

Zzaj:  Having experienced your improv style (quite) a bit, I can say that it is “quick”… no second thoughts, no hesitations… what (makes it that way for you) & why (do you enjoy improvised musics)?

EW: I love the elements of danger and surprise within improvisation.   I feel strongly (spiritual, in fact) about the value of impulsive responses – that they are direct transmutations of our subconscious minds, and that those responses teach us a lot about ourselves (good and bad) as human beings.  As an improviser, if I can surprise myself it’s like I’ve gotten a precious glimpse into a part of me that I didn’t know existed.  There’s a revealing of the truth there.  This is true self-discovery, and of course within collaborations there’s the profound sharing of these discoveries among the group.  In front of a receptive audience, REAL magic can occur!

Zzaj:  How long have you been playing/performing/recording?  Where did it all “start”?

EW:  I was lucky enough to go to a public school that valued music and art enough to provide instruments and lessons free of charge.  They started all the kids on band instruments in the fourth grade.  I was handed a trumpet, a weekly lesson and a solid foundation in the mechanics of music.  However (like many kids) I didn’t deal well with the discipline of practicing etc, so I quit playing the trumpet in junior high (an ugly marching band uniform didn’t help).  Not long after, someone gave me a hand-me-down guitar and it was like being reborn.  This was different because then it felt more like “my” instrument than the trumpet ever did.  It was liberating because I felt free to invent and create on my own terms.  I was my own teacher and pupil.  This was the beginning of that “self-discovery” stuff I was talking about before.  I was hooked!  To this day, though I play many instruments (including the trumpet again), I feel pretty close to things with strings.

Zzaj:  Do you think there’s a possibility that “underground” will ever catch up and outdistance “mainstream”?  If so, why?  If not, why?

EW:  Well, yes and no.  Remember, rock and roll was “underground” music in the early 50’s and that’s certainly not the case today.  Even underground movements within mainstream rock (like punk) have become popular, mass-marketed genres.

I think there are a lot of music lovers of all ages out there who are getting sick of being force-fed the industry-driven tripe, but it can be hard for them to gain access to the hidden passageways to the underground unless they know where to look.  They can’t find our CD’s in stores, they can’t read about us in the easily accessible magazines, and they don’t get to see us at gigs since there just aren’t that many gigs/venues for this music.  On the other hand, for those who are REALLY hungry, they’ll find it or luckily someone will eventually turn them on.

Certainly, the biggest boon to the underground has been the Internet – it has single-handedly revolutionized and catalyzed the scene.  Plus, we’re entering a time where the concepts of “success” and “making it” are changing.  For example, right now I feel like talking to you for this issue is a big, personal step forward – certainly something meaningful and important to me.  I also did an interview with our friend Jerry Kranitz over at Aural Innovations this month and man, that’s really gratifying – two interviews in one month with people whose work I greatly admire and appreciate!  To me, that’s “making it”.  So is working with people whose music I’ve loved as a fan.  Let’s face it, there are few financial rewards in our contemporary society for “being different” so we may as well take what we can get and offer as much artistic integrity to our few-but-loyal fans as possible.

Perversely, for me there’s this sense that I’d like to keep the underground scene a bit secret and hidden away – like a jewel that’s worth hunting for, discovering and sharing only with a small-but-loyal community.  All we need are some industry guys in lousy suits “discovering” us and wrecking it all forever.

Zzaj:  Of the many instruments you play, which is your favorite (& why)? Which is the least favorite (& why)?

EW:  I take a sort of Zen approach to the many instruments I play – my favorite instrument is the one I’m playing at any given moment.  I try really hard to get into the persona of the “ist”.  When I’m playing my bass I’m a “bassist”, when I’m playing my flutes I’m a “flautist”, etc.  Ultimately I see myself as an improviser who has a lot of sonic possibilities at his disposal.

Zzaj:  Are you in another “zone” when improvising?  Or does your training influence the outcome (more)?

EW:  Oh, I’m in the zone all right!  Like I said earlier, for me improvisation is spiritual – like prayer or meditation, so there definitely is a zone to get into.  I see musical improvisation as a microscopic inspection of daily life – things don’t always work out for the best and (like everybody else) I have bad improvisations and good improvisations.  I accept them all and take pleasure in sharing the good ones with others and trying to learn from the bad ones.

My musical training is something that I’m not conscious of when I’m improvising.  Obviously it’s given me part of my “vocabulary”, but as with any other language there’s a lot that can’t easily be taught, like all the subtleties and innuendo that make our “voices” unique even though we’re speaking the same “language”.  There are other languages to learn too!  I’m still exploring what sonic possibilities exist within my instruments, even if it means approaching them from an unconventional standpoint.  I love banging on acoustic guitars to hear what’s rattling around in there.

Zzaj:  I notice that you “play out” (in other words, perform live) quite a
bit… which is more enjoyable for you (most of the time)?  Live or
in-studio?  Or, is there any difference?

EW:  Well, I don’t play out nearly as much as I used to when I was younger.  I love the real communication that can occur in a live performance with an audience who’s listening and giving the music a chance.  On the other hand, my live performances tend to lack the subtlety and detail I’m able to achieve at home in the studio.  All sorts of factors seem to work against me in most live performances – bad P.A. systems, noisy expresso machines and my own insecurities.  Plus, with this music there aren’t that many venues willing to offer me a gig – even in a college town!

Zzaj:  My wife has suffered through many (different) exploratory stages…  does your family share in your projects in any way, or do they (only just) “tolerate” the madness?

EW:  Ha!  No, my family’s really terrific about letting me do my thing.  In fact, they’re really my biggest fans and they always want to hear the latest projects.  My wife’s particularly helpful with valuable criticism and she’s very supportive.  Two of my stepsons (Eric and John Zibbel) are successful independent musicians in their own right, and I have records with each of them on my label.  We were recording together and putting on little “concerts” at the house when they were kids.  I feel really lucky to live like this!

Zzaj:  We (until Shrubbie & Penis Cheney) supposedly have “separation of church/state”…. would the world be a better place if we had “integration of music & state”?  Where one of the REQUIREMENTS for serving politically was to have played some or any (kind of) music?

EW:  I think they should be required to have proficiency in ANY of the arts!  Simply stated, it’s hard to justify killing a bunch of people as a way of solving a “problem” if you’re awed by the beauty of their culture.  The arts offer avenues for humane, creative problem solving as opposed to blind, ignorant dismissal.

Remember when Clinton came out with the saxophone on MTV and late night television?  He was more like a “real guy” than a presidential candidate, and I think a lot of people voted for him because he acted like a normal human being, like a guy who could have some fun and still relate to Joe Lunchbox.  Of course he WAS a normal human being and got caught shagging groupies in the Oval Office, but after the saxophone I kind of expected it.  Sax players are always getting laid.

Zzaj:  You’ve often told me that you’re finding great enjoyment in being part of this (fine) “underground” community?  I’ve often found that I have a better time with (musical) folks I’ve never (or only briefly) met than those players in my local arena.  What is your feeling on that?  Why?

EW:  I’m honored that I’m considered part of this community – it’s thrilling to meet and collaborate with the most amazing and inspiring artists from all over the globe!  Yes, most of the people I’ve collaborated with are folks I’ve never met face-to-face, yet we end up e-mailing each other talking on the phone like we’ve known each other forever.  I think it’s because of the improvisational nature of our work – we develop and relate to TRUST.  As for the local area, I mentioned that I’ve worked with my stepsons and I guess that’s different – a special case.  Like I said before, I live in a college town so there’s a steady influx of young musicians but the problem is that they usually don’t stick around long enough to develop a good musical hookup, or because of their training they are afraid to “break the rules” before they’ve learned ‘em.

Zzaj:  Your “parting shot”, in the sense of advice to those who aspire to play/record the music of tomorrow, please?

EW:  That’s easy!  Trust yourself and do what comes naturally.  Let things happen “in the moment” and enjoy being surprised by what comes out.  Definitely share it!