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discover: Steve Ball

By Anthony Garone

More than 30 years of Fripp, Guitar Craft, and inspired collaborations.

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Steve Ball and I have a lot in common. Like, way more in common than I ever would have suspected. We both have leadership positions in the technology industry, we both have crowded home studios filled with gear and music paraphernalia, we’re both dads to young kids, and we both work on the “fun” stuff from 9PM til 1 or 2 or 3AM.

The differences between me and Steve become apparent when you investigate our histories and successes. Steve is quite an accomplished performer, artist, and composer. He has musical collaborators all over the world and has an incredible discography. He is one of the founders and leaders of the Seattle Guitar Circle .

He’s been in several bands, like Electric Gauchos, C3, Los Gauchos Alemanes, League of Crafty Guitarists, and more. Steve’s an incredible, prolific achiever.

Check out Steve Ball’s website! 

Interview video

Here’s a video of our interview with Steve Ball:

Interview Audio (Podcast)

(NOTE: hitting the “play” button requires a hefty download of the entire audio file!).

Or, download an mp3 .

Thank You

Special thanks to Rod Knowlan, guitarist for the Vancouver, Canada-based indie rock band, HEAD . Rod is also a fan of all manner of music, weird and otherwise. I met Rod right after I met Kerry Minnear in Montreal. What a special day!

Interview Transcript

AG: Hey, this is Anthony with makeweirdmusic.com, and I’m here with Steve Ball  all the way from Seattle, Washington. Steve, thank you so much for joining us.

SB: Thanks for having me, Anthony, and great to talk to you again.

AG: Thank you. So I know you’ve got 30 years of musical history and there’s so much to get into, but for the purposes of this interview I think it would be really cool if we could talk through the musical projects with which you’ve been recently associated and are currently involved.

SB: Awesome! That’s a great lead-in to, as you described, 30 years of interactions and collaborations that I’ve done that really go all the way back to something that your audience may be familiar with and I’m probably going to do some radical product placement during our quick talk tonight.

I was involved in the very early days of something called Guitar Craft and these were a couple of the very early musical recordings that came out of Guitar Craft. This one, in fact, I produced by hand at a place called Claymont in West Virginia. This was the very first indie release by the League of Crafty Guitarists , called Get Crafty.

It has famously been unavailable on any modern formats but since my early days of plugging in and being a crafty guitarist I’ve done many other projects both with the League from the beginning through multiple eras, all the way through a whole host of spin-off projects that kicked off in the second phase of Guitar Craft in 1991, after the League’s 3-year tour fell apart because Robert [Fripp] and E.G. Records  fell into a multi-year dispute.

I formed a band in Los Angeles with my friend, Sanford Ponder, and we pulled in some names that might be familiar to your audience, Pat Mastelotto , Nigel Gavin , and we recorded in 1991 and 1992 a fairly “proggy” album called Prometheus . Around the same time there was a new band being born out of the first phase of Guitar Craft called the California Guitar Trio  and I was there at the birth of this as well. This is one of the other spin-off projects that is now going on, I think, its 25th anniversary as Paul (Richards), Bert (Lams) and Hideyo (Moriya) are about to release their new album as the California Guitar Trio. I played with and even on a couple of the early California Guitar Trio albums.

Eventually I moved to Seattle and put together an independent outfit around 1993 called the Seattle Guitar Circle . My primary mission with this project was to develop a completely independent entity so that if other Guitar Craft-related activities happened or business interactions with Robert and Guitar Craft over the years, I wanted to have something that would be independent and available to sustain itself through whatever next-gen changes that Robert and Guitar Craft needed to do. So the Seattle Guitar Circle was, by design, an independent project designed to continue the application and assimilation of what I learned from Guitar Craft in a local context.

I don’t know if you can see, some of the characters here are, to this day, still working and playing together in Seattle. In fact, I was with many of them, almost all of these characters were in a room last night at a Seattle Guitar Circle meeting, including Bob Williams, Jaxie Binder , Curt Golden , Bill Rieflin , and Dean called in with a conflict as well.

The Seattle Guitar Circle is going on now 23 years of ongoing interactions in Seattle, essentially building on the same techniques that we learned from Robert Fripp and in Guitar Craft, involving improvisation, how to play in a group and how to invite music into the present moment in a unique but reliable way.

So there’s a glimpse of some history, mostly based upon artifacts that people no longer buy…

AG: (laughs)

SB: However, as you know, I am still in the bad habit of organizing projects, groups and collaborations designed to bring music into the world on its own terms. So, in fact, as you mentioned, one of my more recent projects just happened about a month ago, it was exactly a month ago that this small set of people started out with 6 invitations for a core team that included Amy Denio , who is a local Seattle jazz and new music master, Nigel Gavin, who is also a crafty guitarist from the early days and an amazing guitarist in his own right, from New Zealand, Nora Germain , who is a jazz violinist from Los Angeles who is a force of nature and she is plowing ahead in an amazing career already in Los Angeles as a phenomenal jazz violinist, [Paul Richards] from the California Guitar Trio and one of my best Guitar Craft buddies. We’ve been collaborating for 30 years now, Petra Haden , who is one of the surprise wild cards. Petra is the daughter of Charlie Haden , one of the jazz world’s premiere and revered bass players and Petra is one of 3 daughters who are part of the Haden Triplets . Petra has a voice that can melt glass at 100 meters.

This core team was joined by about 20 other guitarists, instrumentalists and celebrities from around the country and we came together for a week of work. The odd and maybe funny instigation was fairly open-ended in that no one really knew what they were getting themselves into but what we did is, in 3 days we essentially assembled a repertoire and did a show, we showed up on a Sunday and we did a show on a Wednesday night at a place called The Chapel  in Seattle, which is a well-known jazz and new music venue in the Good Shepherd Center  in Wallingford.

We wrote and improvised our way through about 90 minutes of music for a show 2 days after we had essentially just met and then we went into one of Seattle’s most famous recording studios, a place called London Bridge , where the early Pearl Jam  records were recorded and a whole mess of albums that most of the world knows about. We locked out London Bridge and for 3 days we took this set of world-class musicians we recorded the repertoire we developed in the first 3 days and we improvised for a couple of days with guest producers, who were invited to come in and arrange or invent or discover something with this set of world class musicians in the moment.

So we had Trey Gunn , Bob Williams, Carl Germain  and Dean Jensen stand up in front of this group of world-class musicians and they orchestrated something out of nothing. Now we have about 6 hours of music that I’m beginning to sort through so that this tiny orchestral moment’s project will move from a wild hare-brained idea mostly inspired by Nigel and Paul Richards saying they wanted to come to Seattle to do a project. It will likely evolve into 3, maybe 4 CDs, as well as something that no one saw coming, we also had a set of documentary filmmakers who were there at the Wednesday night show and then they were with us for 3 days in London Bridge with cameras everywhere, interviewing everyone involved and asking questions that I mostly worked hard to not listen to the answers. There’s a documentary being made about the entire project.

The documentary filmmakers last year released a film called Bezango, Washington , which is an amazing documentary by Ron Austin and Louise Amandes who decided to document the early days of the Northwest comic and cartoon art community, which includes Matt Groening , Lynda Barry  and a whole slew of amazing cartoon artists from the Northwest.

So they came in and are now sorting through hours and hours of footage from the project and they’re mission is, as far as I understand it, is to tell the story of the project. All of this unfolded over the last month and I will say that, musically, there were unexpected surprises and some amazing improvised compositions that unfolded from these collaborations. Maybe I’ll just shut up and play you a little bit of something I’ve been mixing to give you a sense of maybe what this project was.

AG: Very cool! I think right before you played the show, a couple of names got added to that roster as well. Julie Slick  was added, and was there somebody else?

SB: Yeah, there were actually 3 or 4 significant late additions, the Friday before the project was going to begin on Sunday, I heard from Amy Denio that she could only make the first half of the project because she had landed a gig in Turkey and she was flying out of the country to go play with her regular band, called Kultur Shock , an amazing, internationally-known band. So Amy was going to disappear and rather than have a gap in this core of 3 men and 3 women, this balanced, chemically combination of players, I decided to call Julie, whom I had collaborated with 2 years ago.

I played on Julie’s record, Terroir  with a track called Pi, which is also amazing music with a ton of collaborations, but I called up Julie , with 2 days notice, invited her to Seattle and she said yes. She showed up on Tuesday to join us with only a day of practice for the Wednesday night show and for 3 days in the studio. Her presence was also, both phenomenal and, looking back, not only did she gel completely with the personalities in the team, but musically she had a massive impact on the repertoire, the sound, the feel and, of course, the energy of all of the music that happened.

In addition, I also invited a crafty guitarist I’d met and played with in the Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists named Patrick Grant . Patrick is another powerhouse musician who has organized a project called Tilted Axes  which is a “Music for Mobile Electric Guitars” project that goes into cities and with small, portable amplifiers, they strap on a guitar and an amp and they wander around cities with sometimes 10 to 20 to 30 electric guitarists playing both composed and improvised music in unlikely locations. When I met Patrick we hit it off so I invited Patrick out to join us. He also showed up on Tuesday afternoon, joined us literally off the plane and into dress rehearsal and played piano and electric guitar. He also radically changed the character, the flavor and the outcome of the music.

I’d say there are two other significant additions; one was Aileen Bunch, who is also a long-time Crafty Guitarist and a member of Patrick’s “Tilted Axes” group. She was here for another project that had happened a couple of weeks earlier where a small team of people decided to take a very famous piece of Guitar Craft repertoire called Eye of the Needle, which has been played for 30 years in all sorts of Guitar Craft environments and there was a set of people who decided to work on a vocal-only version, an a cappella version of this piece. Aileen was here for that, she heard about (our) project and decided to stay. She contributed some amazing keyboard and piano parts and singing as well.

Finally, Nigel Gavin brought his girlfriend Sonia Wilson, who had just come from New York where she was doing merchandise for Suzanna Vega . Sonia turned out to be another wild card who contributed with her voice, her ukulele and her presence an entirely lovable and grounded set of music and collaborations to the entire event that also changed the nature of how and what we did.

So we had this combination that started out with six core people consisting of three men and three women and in the end it was a core team of about five men and five women, also surrounded by the very talented, very experienced and hard-working Seattle Guitar Circle. We had close to twenty additional contributors and Trey Gunn and Dan Moore who all brought their own craft and their own work with years and years of improvisation to the team and the results are all over the map, from Zappa-like experimental to cluster-filled, Glen Branca-like unfolding chaos to deeply moving orchestrated knot-work with vocals that appear from nowhere all the way to a piece called Spiritual which unfolded in the very first day, the very first rehearsal, without conversation, without planning, without any real homework. The entire group essentially went from silence to an unfolding improvisation that turned into this beautiful song that is, coincidentally written by Petra’s brother, Josh Haden . So there is an actual thread of a real composition here but the entire arrangement arrived out of the sky.

My primary mission is to bring groups of people together who can make things together that they would otherwise not do on their own. Obviously there’s a long history of this, if you go back to the early League, to Los Gauchos Alemanes . Seattle Guitar Circle, Electric Gauchos  and this latest project, Tiny Orchestral Moments.

I’d be happy to unveil and share little bits and pieces of some of the corners of these collaborations with you and your audience over the next couple of months, if you’re up for that.

AG: Sounds great, where can they go to get more information as it unfolds?

SB: Eventually there will be a Tiny Orchestral Moments website. Today there is a Facebook group called Tiny Orchestral Moments , so if you’re on Facebook, the best way to learn a little bit and see some of the videos that have poured off of cell phones and out of the team members of the project so far, you’ll probably get the best updates there in the short term.

When we release the documentary and the probably 3 CDs that will include songs, complete improvisations that are all over the map in terms of structure and feel and some of the producer’s tracks. Trey, for example, had the team divided into instrumentalists on one side and vocalists on the other side of the room. He then orchestrated a collaboration and counterpoint between vocals and instruments.

There’s a whole set of experimental producer’s sessions that will probably end up on its own disk as well. For starters, if you’re on Facebook, find the Tiny Orchestral Moments group, there’s a huge amount of photos and some cool videos to check out there. Also, watch Make Weird Music for ongoing updates or you can go to http://www.steveball.com where there’s often more information than should rightly be in one place on all of this stuff.

AG: Excellent, thank you so much, Steve, I look forward to unraveling even more of your musical history over follow-up conversations. Thanks a lot for sharing your time with us.

SB: Awesome, my pleasure, I also look forward to ongoing conversations, thank you, Anthony.

AG: Thanks, Steve!

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