In April 2015, I interviewed Andy West. We discussed lots of interesting stuff related to “weird music,” including his influences, what “weird” means, and more.
Interview Audio (Podcast)
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AG: Hi this is Anthony from Make Weird Music and I’m here with Andy West from the Dixie Dregs, FWAP, Crazy Backwards Alphabet, all manners of bands…
AW: The Mistakes.
AG: The Mistakes. Yeah?
AW: Yeah. It’s been many years, but you know, might as well count it.
AG: I wanted to kinda get some background on your musical history and then how you have gotten into the bands you were in, what prompted you to get out of the music industry, and try to get a sense of your compositional method (if you have one). So why don’t we get started with your background? How did you get started with music?
AW: Okay, so first off I appreciate you asking me to do this. I think it’s an interesting idea. I looked at the website and I see you’re evolving it, putting more stuff there. I think we have to talk about the context of weird music just for a minute here because there’s a couple of avenues here. There’s the experience of it. The learning of it, the hearing of it, the attraction to it, those kinds of things. And then there’s the kind of performance and composition aspects of it, right? You have to start with “Why would anyone be interested in this stuff at all?” I haven’t got a clue. I don’t know why. All I know is that for anyone who is interested in unusual music or weird music or whatever you want to call it—and we can talk about some of these definitions—there’s always some kind of pivotal thing that you hear in their background that said, “Yeah, it was really weird this happened. I was exposed to this and then it’s never been the same.” So I’ve had a couple of those things, they were many years ago. I remember when I was in high school, I went over to my friend’s house to play pool because he had a pool table. But for some reason, this was like in the 7th grade or something and the music he was playing was Sun Ra, Terry Riley…
AG: I don’t know Terry Riley…
AW: Oh my God, okay. This is really old stuff, but it’s very avant garde. And then a Ravi Shankar and a Yehudi Menuhin “East meets West” album, and Harry Partch. So this guy had a really broad—I don’t know… I think his parents somehow… who knows how or why, but I just remember this music striking me and, of course, I remember all these things. The thing back then was, “Wow, what is this? It’s so different from everything else.” So, there was kind of that that was just an exposure. The other thing was being in Atlanta and, oddly enough, Atlanta had really weird bands. Primarily the Hampton Grease Band. Have you ever heard of them?
AW: Oh my goodness. Okay. I brought this [CD]. This is the “Music to Eat” album by Hampton Grease Band. So you can listen to this after I leave and finish this. It came out in the 60s and it’s notoriously the worst-selling album that Columbia ever released. Bruce Hampton is the guy that started the Hampton Grease Band. Glenn Phillips was his guitar player and there were a lot of others… He’s kind of like the Miles Davis of Atlanta weird music. So all these people would come through his band and they continue to to this day.
AG: Oh, he’s still around?
AW: Yeah, Bruce is a very interesting guy and he’s always attracted the most incredible musicians. This is something that you’ll really enjoy. So, there’s those kinds of things… And this is another one: The Hampton Grease Band turned into Colonel Bruce Hampton and this is just one of probably a half-dozen albums he did around that time. “One Ruined Life of a Bronze Tourist.” So there’s all kinds of weird, very interesting stuff on here.
AG: Would you liken his music to anyone else?
AW: Um, it’s… it’s like… I’d have to say “no.” And I also can’t explain why this band was so popular in Atlanta because when you hear the music you’ll ask the same question. When I lived in Atlanta and I was in high school, I saw a place that was a sports arena, which is where they had wrestling matches but they also had concerts. The day before I moved to Augusta when I was in 11th grade or 10th grade, I was 16, and the day before I moved there I saw the Hampton Grease Band and Fleetwood Mac playing. That was the old Fleetwood Mac, the bluesy kind of the “Oh Well” Fleetwood Mac, you know? That was kind of interesting. There’s also for me all those avenues which led to those kinds of things. And again, I don’t want to go on and on… I could go on and explain the life history of a human being who’s listened to music his whole life is a long thing… I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that there’s always ways and events that link music to people’s times in their lives that is interesting. You draw on that forever to some degree.
AG: Absolutely, and for me the purpose of the website to help others discover strange music—not strange like you wouldn’t want to listen to it, but you probably wouldn’t have found it unless someone told you about it… Like, it wouldn’t be something that’s heard on the radio or necessarily shared by your friends unless you have friends that like weird music. I want the site to inspire people to, even if they write straightforward songs, do something that can make it a little interesting for the listener. It’s cool to hear your background in weird music and to hear artists that you’ve discovered, too. I look forward to hearing those.
AW: There’s a list and I have some in my phone to remind me of to talk about. What’s interesting about now versus then is it took a lot of effort to pursue music back then. There wasn’t this instant gratification of “Let’s just go find 25 different amazingly weird things.” We can do that in as long as it takes to click. You’d have to track this stuff down, you’d have to have people who had collections of this stuff. You’d be invested in it. “Okay, let’s listen to this.” It wasn’t like, “Let’s listen to 10 seconds of this and then 10 seconds of that.” This isn’t really about the “bad”-ness of today versus yesterday. It’s just a different kind of thing. Some people read books and some people don’t. They just want the five-second sound byte, the list of headlines. “I want to see the twitter feed.” I was listening to this woman from work today on a little video cast on a work website and she was like, “Here’s why I like social media,” and she was talking—I’m reminded of the Frank Zappa interview where Ted Koppel says, “You’re obviously a very intelligent man, Mr. Zappa.” You know, a back-handed compliment if there ever was one. She’s obviously very intelligent, but she was saying, “I use Twitter as my news feed.” And I’m like, “Oh, okay, you get all your news through Twitter. How interesting…”
AG: The people YOU follow, the people YOU choose…
AW: As if that’s okay. For me it’s not.
AG: Kind of curates your own bubble.
AW: At the same time, I totally understand it. Obviously this person has found something they’re comfortable with hearing or seeing or whatever. So anyway, I was thinking about this. There’s lot of stories to tell that are probably really boring because who cares, at some point. Maybe you want to have on your site just a link to every kind of thing because literally it’s all out there. You can find out the whole history of the Hampton Grease Band if you search right now. For me, there’s a lot of these things. That was where I kind of fell into this. I started as a musician just like many people kind of from a rock and roll perspective with popular music. The Beatles were the thing and then it became Hendrix and then Jefferson Airplane and I was just attracted to it for whatever reason. And the counterculture. I remember the principal at our school would come by and say, “My little hippies. What are you guys doing?”
AG: That’s interesting. I bet there’s a whole other way of thinking that you probably have living through that era. For me, my dad just had those records. I didn’t know that it was counter-culture or different or anything. For me, he was in this band and I would hear him rehearse and they would play Jethro Tull, Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator… I didn’t know that it wasn’t normal. My mom just listened to different music. I just tended to not like that music as much. I don’t know if there’s an explanation.
AW: I honestly don’t think there is. I think there’s just something inside people that draws out their curiosity in different ways. Some people are really attracted to understanding sports and team sports and individual sports, etc. Some people are really attracted to books. They like really hard-to-follow challenging things. Others like these really breezy stories that will just hold their attention until they stop. It’s inexplicable to me. But if you never are exposed to this stuff or even think about it, you might miss something. Although, sometimes I wonder about that too. Maybe everything is exactly as it should be.
AG: It reminds me of that Zappa quote how music without any sort of weird notes is like watching a movie with no antagonist or eating cottage cheese. Yeah, you should be challenged.
AW: Well, how challenged?
AG: That I don’t know. Especially if you listen to music for entertainment. Should you really be challenged by your entertainment? I don’t know.
AW: I don’t know either. But, you can find beauty in different things. I mentioned the experience in high school and then when I moved to Augusta, Georgia is when I met Steve Morse and we started the Dixie Dregs. There’s lots of stuff on the internet about the Dregs and it’s easy to find. The simple story is that Steve was a very unique composer and guitar player who practiced all the time, like many of these guys who are great do. They just, for some reason, that’s what he did and he started to pull things out of the air that the rest of us couldn’t imagine. So we followed and it was great.
AG: Did you meet in high school?
AW: Yeah. What’s interesting is that the Dregs took on a kind of persona of Steve’s music. Even concurrent to that, for me, I was exploring all these kinds of things. I was coming from Atlanta listening to the Hampton Grease Band and all these other things. I brought this Bartok string quartets album because when I was in college, this was the stuff that just got to me. I don’t remember how I first heard it. When I did, I was just like, “What is this?” And it was not like “tweaky” or something that you’ve never seen before and you think, “How bizarre is this weird geometric thing?” It was this really wonderful beautiful thing and I couldn’t even imagine how it happened. I couldn’t really see the path from what I knew to that. It was, again, inexplicable. Whereas if you listen to the more classical Bach or Beethoven, you can hear these threads and you can feel a different kind of thing. This to me was a little bit inexplicable. Years later, I started to understand his folk music connection and his own way of thinking and I read about how he thought about some of this stuff and what he did. I learned a little more about it, but I am definitely not a music scholar or anything like that. I just listen and like this stuff. So, that was something that really, really got to me as well was finding this kind of modern advanced kind of classical music and going back in time to Schoenberg and Stravinsky and all that kind of more angular radical stuff. The other thing is I wonder now from a vantage point of history and consumption, having a lifetime of consumption of this stuff, and you say for example, “No, I’ve never even heard of the Hampton Grease Band,” it’s like, “Wow, I’m so surprised considering how much I have found that you DO know about that old stuff.” Part of me says, “How important is that old stuff?” And it’s probably not very.
AG: There’s sentiment and importance and it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes.
AW: That’s another thing. I try to understand, “What is the value of currency?” meaning “current now?” How important is it right now that people are doing something that kind of in a way has already been done, but if it’s now, it’s different? I don’t know, have you thought about that?
AG: I have a bit, especially with these remixes of these old albums where Steven Wilson, in particular, has been remixing King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Emerson Lake and Palmer or something like that. Anyway, just listening to these albums as remixes makes it almost sound like new music because they clean up the vocals, it doesn’t sound like 1970s tape with 1970s mastering and the drums have pillows stuffed in them. It sounds more like modern music and I wonder when I hear it… when I pop in Gentle Giant’s “Power and the Glory” on blu-ray, it feels new, I know the music very well, and then I think, “Man, this is even more non-standard, out of left field… If it was released today, who knows if they could have gotten anywhere with it?”
AW: Well, you know, there’s been so many notes played and there’s so many words written and there’s so many movies made… It’s like a big massive stream and you wonder kind of what is going to continue to pop out or matter. It’s curious to me, I don’t really have a strong opinion on it because no matter what I think or do, stuff is going to happen and people are going to pursue weird stuff. You’re going to write the Moby Dick album. Somehow, some way that happened. And I think it’s all good. I do think that for people that want to pursue it, it’s interesting to kind of tug on a thread. We started the band and had a little bit of a hiatus and then came back together into the more modern band after Steve had gone to University of Miami and I want to bring that up because when I went down there, that was when I started to get exposed to jazz. I had no idea about “jazz.” It didn’t mean anything to me. For example, in the University of Miami when I first walked in to the main room where we would have small group rehearsal or larger classes and this kind of thing, there was a picture of Coltrane on the wall and I was like, “Who’s that?” And they looked at me like I was nuts. But the interesting thing about that is, for me in the 90s, somehow I started listening again to Miles Davis and then Coltrane and I went backwards through that whole catalog and consumed it and I was like, “Oh my God.” Talk about weird music! If you really put yourself in the time when that music was made… How could it be? How could it even happen?
AG: I totally get that. I sometimes will listen to The Residents and I wonder, “How did that happen?” Like “Hello Skinny…” What possessed anyone to do that, whether it was then or now, to tell this very strange story…
AW: I don’t remember the song exactly…
AG: It goes “Skinny was born in a bathtub and grew so incredibly thin that even the end of an eyedropper sucked him in.” The lyrics are so strange and there’s this terrifying black and white video and they melded the art with the music in this very strange product. It’s almost timeless. You couldn’t tell if somebody made it last year or 30-40 years ago. I wonder about that. These anomalous music products, how did they come out of nowhere? The brain that made them ended up making all this other stuff and it just becomes a part of their portfolio, but for me it’s kind of a milestone and it’s fun for me to think about how we interpret the work of other people, how artists generally hate what they’ve done and move on… Like my friend Carl King, he doesn’t want to make music ever again and I think, “What a shame. He’s such a great talent.” But, for him, he hated the way his music was going…
AW: Well, you know, it’s about living a life. It’s not about…
AG: Entertaining others?
AW: Yeah. The idea of this—you actually mentioned a couple things and I want to pull these out because I didn’t want to forget about these things. I had The Residents on here as one of the topics just because it’s a crazy thing. Even Devo, they were very weird.
AG: Yeah. Mark Mothersbaugh, I don’t know if he would have made it as a musician, but he’s still doing lots of interesting new stuff. Those guys, it’s probably a passion for them. They probably would continue to do it if they were destitute.
AW: Even things like Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. The first time I heard Chick Corea was from exposure at the University of Miami. I remember the album of solo improvisations and it was so striking to me, like the Bartok thing. “Where is this even coming from? I don’t understand this. I really like it. It’s not like noise to me.” That took a lot facility. That wasn’t like a “folky” thing.
AG: How do they prepare themselves to do that? Do they think it’s that outlandish? As a musician yourself, maybe you’ve produced something like that where somebody goes, “What the heck is that about? How did he do that?” And you have a very laymen explanation for it that’s probably not that interesting to you.
AW: To go down the path of creating music that’s no normal, I think the first thing there is to do it for yourself. For some reason you find this really interesting and you really hope that others do, but it’s not a criteria. It’s not a motivator. What’s motivating is, “Where did this come from? It kind of fell out of my fingers, or it was a sound that I like that I want to repeat.” It’s really easy to do weird stuff now. Again, when I started on this, I didn’t have the capacity to hear everything in my head. Steve is like that, many musicians are like that where somehow it’s just “in there” and it’s just about getting facility to pull it out. I’m more about tugging on things and seeing what I can find there. For me, when we first had 4-track tape recorders, getting the Teac 4430 was the first one that changed everything where suddenly people could have multi tracking in their own home. How crazy is that right?
AG: I recorded stuff on that machine when I was about 14 years old on that machine, the 1/4” 4-track.
AW: It’s awesome. And I learned a lot about writing doing that, too, because I would figure out a little pattern. During this time, Steve would write occasionally things in odd times. The other thing that happened was a distinct kind of shift in his skills. When we were in high school, we wrote more rock-oriented things and we’d play that kind of stuff. Then he went to University of Miami and got exposed to jazz. The Mahivishnu Orchestra was out at that time. All that kind of stuff happened. Mahivishnu was one of those things where it’s like, “Okay if we’re going to learn any of this stuff” (which we did because we were like a Mahivishnu cover band). So, they were really weird because they were always doing these things in odd times so everything was about counting. When you’re young and you’re just counting—anyone can feel 4/4, 3/4, etc.—when you start to break it down and you have these choppy combination rhythms—7/8 and 5/8 makes 12, kind of—for us, just learning those songs really pulled out the weird rhythms. That became a whole fascination for me. It was interesting hearing the thing Carl [King] was talking about. I just listened to it because I was trying to catch up on that thing and I remember having a similar kind of thing (it wasn’t as advanced as he was thinking about with rhythms)…
AG: The borrowed rhythms?
AW: For me, it was just like, “Oh, polyrhythms of 3 against 4… how do you break that down?” And then starting to count and tap that out. Exploring that whole thing. Nowadays, it’s totally easy in a sequencer to hear that stuff. Put it in, play around with it…For me when I like to write, that’s kind of what I’ll do. I’ll pull something out of the bass guitar, or maybe a synth sound, and then if it has a feeling—because I like odd rhythms, but it’s not a requirement—it’s easy to put in and you can start to think, “Oh maybe I should have a bass line here, or maybe this should have something flowy here or maybe a weird sound here…”
AG: Do you—might be getting ahead of us—but is that how you construct things? Is it kind of piecemeal based on what you’re hearing at the time? Construction set kind of thing?
AW: I would say so. I don’t think of songs in total. I do think very traditionally in some ways about sections. I like to have a song go from somewhere to somewhere with repeated sections and typical forms. Build them up, really build them up from something that runs through, a rhythmic pattern or a chordal pattern or a bass line and then start to layer on so it really is constructing or building up.
AG: Before computers were a major part of the music industry, were you doing everything by writing it out? Working by ear with other people or by yourself and recording to tape?
AW: Mainly by ear, not a lot of written stuff unless I needed to for some reason or I was trying to remember something. I do have a lot of old pieces of music paper with lines on them. When I would write something and didn’t have a tape deck, I would write it down so I wouldn’t forget it. As long as I can remember, it was really about capturing ideas on tape and going back to them.
AG: Do you feel like the things you grew up listening to or the eras of when you discovered Coltrane and Miles Davis, do those things fill gaps in your musical emotional state of being? Or do they motivate you in a certain direction? Do they provide influences for you? What does that do when you become obsessive about…?
AW: I appreciate it when I’m drawn into music. It happens less now than it used to. Sometimes I think about re-exploring that stuff. It’s not like you hear it for the first time and it’s just in you, so that’s kind of a positive thing to me. “Oh you know, someday I’ll go back and revisit that and really listen to that again.” Every now and again I’ll do something like that, like when I was going through that jazz thing and I discovered Miles and Coltrane and I discovered people like Bill Evans. Then you read all this history and how people talked about Bill Evans and it’s like, “What’s all this?” And the first time you hear his music you’re like, “Well, this isn’t really that amazing.” But then all of a sudden you’re in it and it’s like, “Wow. What the heck? This is really special. This is really different. It’s not just jazz. It’s something really different.” I don’t know how to explain it. For me, I’d like to know more about that. I’d like to go in and dig in.
AG: Do you find tactics or techniques or maybe it makes you feel a certain way and you think, “I’d like to understand that better?” Or is it just like, “Oh, that’s cool. I should try that sometime.”
AW: I think it should be all about feeling. I was thinking to myself the other day the kind of athleticism of the music I played in my 20s and the challenging nature of “can I even execute this?” kind of thing. And that’s kind of a cool thing, but I would much rather feel a sense of beauty, power, sadness, than “wow! amazing!”
AG: “Another guy that can play really good.”
AW: The other thing is the bar is raised so high, this is just where you want to focus. A lot of times, I’ll spend a Saturday morning on YouTube and just go, “Oh my God, what’s going on here? Where are these people coming from? How did they get here?” The musicianship is so astonishing. I have a deep appreciation for that level of skill, but at the same time you can listen to a Tom Waits song and be completely blown away, which is also pretty weird.
AG: Absolutely. And the stylization of the sound of his music is a whole other thing to get immersed in.
AW: So, when you think about weird music, there’s all these threads. That’s why I’m almost struggling with the term “weird” because weird can be funny. Funny is good.
AG: And I actually want it to be open. I want it to be anything. It should just be “not so predictable.” It should just be “not so conformist.” Even if it’s I-IV-V, make it asymmetrical, add a beat, do something strange between the chords, take a major and make it a minor. Just do something that makes it like, “Whoa! I didn’t see that coming.”
AW: It’s funny. I can’t remember when this was. Some time when I was at work over the past 30 years and someone found out I was a musician, this woman, and I remember talking to her and she said, “Oh yeah, I love music! Whitney Houston is my favorite!” And of course I had a knee-jerk reaction to that because, while Whitney Houston as a vocalist was certainly skilled and proficient, the music did nothing for me at all. And talk about formulaic, it’s kind of like, “Well, we’re going to do a song that does ‘this.’”
AG: Yep. “This is the [dynamic] curve.”
AW: Again, you want to check yourself because it’s not about being an elitist, but it’s about “well, okay, I’m happy that someone appreciates music at all!” Because it’s almost kind of rare these days. At the same time, you’d hope that they would go further.
AG: That’s the thing about “weird.” Sometimes, the listener doesn’t even have to know that you went further. You can do things in such a way that sounds perfectly normal to the big Whitney Houston fan, but in the background, you’re like, “I used a non-diatonic chord there and that’s what makes that cool.” Or, even Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” which has a bar of 6 in the chorus and that, to me, is “that’s cool! I like that!” It’s a really simple, stupid song and it’s fun and totally entertaining, but there’s a bar of 6 in it and I think, “That’s weird and he did that and that’s cool.” So, what is normal to you? To define “weird,” we should have a sense of normal.
AW: I am really not a fan of pop music at all. I just don’t appreciate it anymore. There’s amazing skill (if you will) when you think about some of these singers. Because of the internet and TV and everything else, the best ones are going to rise up. The big eye’s looking for attention, who’s going to pop up? “Not quite there, not quite there, not quite there, oh wow! That’s pretty high.”
AG: And it’s a whole package thing. The look, the stage presence, all that stuff.
AW: I just find it really boring.
AG: Is that what “not weird” music is for you?
AG: What does the term “weird music” evoke for you?
AW: I can find an emotional content in a lot of things that have unusual tonalities or instrumentation, that kind of stuff. If I was going to say “weird,” it would be that. It would be a recognition that this is not what is commonly done.
AG: Out of conformance.
AW: Yeah, there’s some aspect to it that makes it attractive and unique in that way, but I always go back to “How does it actually make me feel?” If I feel a certain way, then I can start to dig into an analysis of what it actually is.
AG: Do you consider the music you’ve written or performed on over 20 albums weird music?
AW: Well, I don’t think the Dregs is weird at all.
AW: Yeah. That music has clear roots. You can sort of trace back and see where it’s coming from and either you appreciate that or you don’t. One of the things that we did that I think is common to the kind of music that I like is we actually played it. We had ourselves in it. Yes, it’s a performance, but we were a band in the best sense of the word. We knew each other, we liked each other, we lived with each other. There was a lot of connections there. And I think that comes through. When you see a band play and musicians are communicating, they’re communicating on some sort of cerebral level. It’s about the feeling that’s coming through the music. That’s awesome! It’s awesome when you see that. It’s so wonderful. It’s so different than “there’s the star and there’s the backup players and here’s a sound” and “Oh, I love this song!” It’s not like that.
AG: For me, that’s interesting mostly because a lot of my music and musical influences are solo, multi-instrumentalist-type people who lock themselves in the studio and it’s them and maybe a couple other people. There’s no band. But, it’s “this is the product of my hands.” I do love a lot of band music, but I go to see live bands to support them and to see that music performed live. It’s cool to understand the dynamics and stuff. But, often there’s a different drummer and a different bass player.
AW: Sometimes great songs are great songs.
AG: But, that’s cool that that’s such a part of the experience for you with the Dixie Dregs.
AW: Yeah, and it’s also what I look for when I hear other musicians play. The MIM here is great and you’ve told me about a couple of things. I went and saw Steve Gadd and Jimmy Johnson and some other session players. This guy, I forget the guitar player’s name, but he’s a great guitar player. Kind of one of these guys that you wouldn’t know about but he’s played on a gazillion albums. These are all older guys, but they were just so happy to be playing. They were all masters of their instruments. The music wasn’t weird, it was just a joy to listen to, though. So, that was another kind of thing that you can draw on that is part of this whole music thing. Back to the “weird” thing, now you compare and contrast that with…
AG: Crazy Backwards Alphabet, perhaps?
AW: Yeah. Sure. That’s actually a very interesting conversation because I met Henry Kaiser, who’s another guy who I learn so much from. He’s like a musicologist. I haven’t seen Henry in many years but I’m thinking about it now because when I used to go over to his house, I would always just say, “Okay, what do you have?” And he would pull something out and say, “Here, listen to this.” All this amazing music. I can’t remember what his website is, but if you do a search, you can find him. He’s got a list of a hundred or more different things, each of which definitely qualifies as “weird” and each of which is wonderful and amazing in its own way.
AG: On Henry Kaiser’s website.
AW: Yeah. I recently found it and he had redone it, but the links are still there. You probably want to put a link to that.
AG: How did that get started? How did that band get incarnated?
AW: I met Henry through this guy, Geoff Gould. He’s a bass maker, he started Modulus graphite.
AG: He made the current basses you have, right?
AW: Yeah. And Jeff lives in San Francisco and he made instruments for Grateful Dead, for Phil Lesh. He’s been around for a while. He started this whole graphite thing and one day I was visiting him in his shop and Henry came in and he introduced me and said, “Oh yeah, you guys should get to know each other.” I got to know Henry when I lived in San Francisco. We just stayed in touch. I can’t even begin to describe how he plays guitar because it’s very unusual.
AG: Yeah, I watched a few videos and the one of your bass video all those years ago. That was really interesting, his technique, his ideas, everything about it.
AW: He’s so out there. For me, again, he’s just a really smart guy and a really great guy to be around. I felt like when I was around him I was learning stuff. I guess that made me very open to these different approaches. He was really into Captain Beefheart and I never listened to anything by Captain Beefheart. He had this idea to put this band together. He had met this drummer from Sweden and said, “Let’s try and do something.” It was all his idea. He would bring these songs in and one of them was this Captain Beefheart song. I think it’s on one of these albums. If I get the title right, I think it’s “A Carrot is the Same as a Diamond to a Blind Horse.” It’s this really weird title. But, the whole thing about playing this was the patterns on the bass and the song itself was just so unusual and weird, but to play it, what I did was I didn’t think about rhythm, per se. What I learned playing with Henry was that rhythm—the Dregs was the exact opposite. It was: Here’s the beat and you’re playing just on top of it, a little behind it. You learn all these things as a musician that are exactly how you’re going to do it.
AG: It’s precisely constructed.
AW: It’s precision. Yeah. Precision can create a lot of amazing feels. It’s not all about being mechanical, right? But, you’re precisely dragging. That kind of stuff. With Henry and these guys, it was very different. It was, “Okay, we’re going to start here and we’re going to end here.” And what happens in between is stuff.
AG: That’s interesting.
AW: So we would play. At first I was really disconcerted by this whole thing because I’m very used to playing with precision and particularly drummers who are super-precise and great. As a bass player, it’s wonderful because I don’t have to think. I can just play.
AG: You feel, you communicate.
AW: So with this other thing, it was really different. Then I started to have a lot of fun with it. “This is really cool. It’s really, really different.” It was all about that kind of thing, like trying to understand rhythm from a different perspective. And the song, it’s like I’m not playing the song with precision, what I’m doing is playing a feeling and it starts “here” and it ends “here.” It was really cool and we had a great time with that. As a matter of fact, the follow-on to that is when I met Mike Keneally at a NAMM show, I didn’t know who Mike was, but I saw him play with Dweezil. They had this band in the early 90s and they were doing this crazy stuff.
AG: Is that Z?
AW: It was pre-Z. Bryan Beller was in the band and Mike and they were at the NAMM show and they did this thing. They had this famous medley they did that was about a bar and a half of 50 or 70 songs. It was incredible and it just flowed from beginning to end. I was talking to Mike and he didn’t mention the Dregs. He said, “I really like that Crazy Backwards Alphabet album.” That was the first conversation we had and I was like, “Oh, I like this guy because he’s talking about something different.” And he knew Henry and that was like, “Oh, we’ve been talking about doing something. Maybe this would be a catalyst.”
AG: How did John French get involved?
AW: Yeah, so John was the drummer in Beefheart.
AG: Drumbo, right?
AW: Yeah. That was the Crazy Backwards Alphabet thing. So, there was Drumbo and the guy from Sweden and he tracked down Drumbo. I guess Henry knew everybody in Beefheart’s band because he was just a fan.
AG: Beefheart didn’t have fans. He had fanatics.
AW: Drumbo was great. We did a couple of his songs on that album and he put out an album that I played on that was part of that whole time. It was pretty cool. He was just a guy living out in somewhere way out in… I forget what that valley is up north of LA.
AG: There’s a lot of them.
AW: Yeah, I see it in my head. You go up the 5 and you turn right and you’re off in there. It was the desert.
AG: Logistically, how did all that work out? Were you making a living with this weird band?
AW: Well, no. My little part of the story is that I got to be really good as a bass player for the Dregs, but I was really not a good journeyman musician. I really don’t like to play other people’s music if I don’t really love it somehow. The thing with Henry, we did a couple of gigs. Even The Mistakes did a gig or two. But, that was just so narrowly focused, there was no way to make money doing that really. The Dregs was kind of a miracle to make money. When the band broke up the first time and I moved to California, I just gave lessons and tried to play in different bands and really didn’t find anything. That’s when I started getting into computers and software and that whole thing.
AG: What was that like for you? Was there remorse or any sort of sadness moving on? Or was it more like: “This was so hard, I’m glad to find something reliable?”
AW: This doesn’t have so much to do with weird music, but it’s interesting perhaps. For me, there was a lot of turmoil in the sense that I really loved the band and I loved being in the band. It got to be very difficult. We got to the point where we weren’t getting anywhere. We had a lot of issues with the business people and this kind of stuff. We just really worked hard and kind of burned out a little bit. I think Steve was ready to go to the next level, which he did. For me, it was just like, “Okay, what’s next?” I’d always been interested in computers, so I was attracted to that. When I got my first job in software, I was thrilled to get a paycheck.
AG: Something reliable every two weeks…
AW: Yeah! It was like, “What am I gonna do?” I had lived the life of a musician through my 20s. It was very experiential. I worked really hard to be in the band, but a lot of it was just living life. I had no idea what corporate America was like. I’d heard about it. I knew there was a lot of people that worked jobs.
AG: Did you enjoy your life as a musician? Or was it more about, “I loved playing music and everything else was secondary?”
AW: It’s hard to say. I think I was kind of a pragmatist about it all. I do love playing music, and I did. I wasn’t willing to go down with it, per se.
AG: Maybe Steve was, based on his desire to go to the next level.
AW: Steve was just… There were a lot of issues with us and our business. The fact that we kind of had done the same thing for a while and it had just stopped in a way. We were successful, but we weren’t wildly successful. We had to keep working and at some point, it just doesn’t seem as much fun to go into the same old clubs and do it over and over and over. You want something a little different. Again, part of that is just the essence of being young and youthful and dissatisfied, not knowing anything. Steve was just such a consummate musician. Rod the same way, and T. Allen also at the time was the first violinist and he just wanted a normal life, too. So, he went off and got his medical degree. Mark O’Connor was in the band for a little bit. Some of these guys are just like, “I’m going to do whatever it takes. I’m me and this is it.” And they could pull it off.
AG: I’d just read an interesting quote from JK Simmons. You’ve seen him in a lot of things, but… He said for himself he couldn’t even think of anything else to do with his life than act. He said, “That’s how I knew because I had absolutely no other interests. And even if I realized, this is really hard, I should find something else, nothing came to me.”
AW: That’s exactly how I was when we started the band and through the time that we had the band. What happened for me was right around the time I turned 30, I started to think of other things. “Why am I limiting myself?” in a way.
AG: I know you think the Dregs music is straightforward and not weird, but it’s very complex and very difficult.
AW: I’ll give it that for sure.
AG: And certainly precise! It’s definitely not pop music. It’s hardly blues/jazz/rock. It’s a fusion of many different things. What level did you have to exert yourself and make it so it was reasonably accessible so you could make money? Was there anything like that?
AW: The only thing we did was we were a live band. We understood when we played how a crowd responded to our songs, so we would try to build it to a peak as we’d go through a show. We always had a formula to our albums if you listen to them. There’s always a couple of rockers, there’s always a celtic/bluegrass-y thing in there, there’s a symphonic long-form thing, which I love all those things. They’re great. So we had a way of kind of performing through that stuff. That was kind of “manipulative,” if you will. We thought about that. In terms of the actual music, the only thing is we were trying to become more successful. I won’t say “make more money,” it was really more about becoming more successful and trying to get to a different level. The only pressures we ever had were from the record company and people trying to help us in some weird way. So, Clive Davis, when he signed with Arista, he had us in his office to talk about what we were doing. He’s a really weird guy. Have you seen him on TV? Do you know who he is?
AG: Yeah, I can visualize him, but I don’t know why I’ve seen him.
AW: He’s one of these classic record producer, record company owner guys from back then who had a string of gazillion people who he made rich and famous. I think Whitney Houston was in that bunch, too.
AG: She was with the singer from Gentle Giant, actually.
AW: Oh, Derek Shulman?
AG: Yeah, Derek Shulman was her A&R guy.
AW: Clive used to be one of these guys. All I remember is going into his office and he was like, “Yeah, you know, it’s really…” He was really kind of vague. All he could do was play us Jeff Beck’s Wired and said, “You should think about this.” And we didn’t understand what he was saying. “Are you telling us to play that? Yeah, we like Jeff Beck, but that’s not what we do.” At the same time, we’re like, “How come we’re stuck here? How do we get these people to do this thing?” We had done some tours with Santana and the Doobie Brothers, so that’s when we had this idea of “Let’s get these guys to do something with us. Yeah, they will. They’ll sing a couple of songs with us, some rock tunes with vocals and see if that does anything.” That was about the extent of us trying to manipulate our own success. That was the last album that we all did together. It was called “Industry Standard” for a reason.
AG: Ah, now that makes sense.
AW: It’s like, “Oh God, people are telling us to…” You know. We were ridiculous. We had fun when we played. We always just felt like, “Well if we do that and people like that and people do respond to that, that’s what we’re going to do.” It wasn’t like a plan.
AG: Right. It was a thing that worked for a time.
AW: Yeah. Exactly.
AG: That’s cool.
AW: I don’t know any other way.
AG: The most straightforward thing I think in your discography is FWAP. Very blues/rock standard kind of album. Your solo stuff is all over the map. Could you go into how those things have both fit into who you are?
AW: Yeah, sure. Again, I’m kind of a fan of music and the Dregs were kind of a variety act in the sense of what I just was talking about. It’s like we had this kind of thing and this kind of thing and we sort of walk you through those things in a show. FWAP was more… The idea was “Can we do sort of bluesy improvisational music that has some kind of coherence?” Obviously the people in that group could play. They were all professional musicians with years of experience. With that thing, it was fun because it was just when we would play together, we would have fun again. It would gel. It’s hard to explain this kind of thing because unless you’re playing parts or you’re playing like a rock band, there’s a lot of feeling and there’s a lot of cerebral connection. It’s hard to explain, but…
AG: Well, it’s not something to be captured on a disc, but it’s something to be experienced in a live setting.
AW: I wonder about this stuff. I don’t really like these kinds of mystical explanations, but there really isn’t a lot of words or science behind it. You just do it. So, that was that. It was really intended as a live thing. I played with Joaquin in this band Zazyn, which was more electronic and fusion-y. He knew Hilary and said, “Let’s try and jam.” When we jammed with Hilary, I was just like, “Whoa, this is great!” She’s another one of those kind of drummers that’s just so fluid and powerful. So, that was kind of cool.
AG: What about Rama 2?
AW: I think I told you I have dozens of unfinished pieces that I’m really just waiting for the time to be able to do them. And I plan on it, and it’s getting close, which is great because I had sort of given up on it for a while. Work takes so much out of you. We’ve talked about this a little bit. So, I can see that happening in a year or two, getting back into creating more music. There’s also this part of me which goes, “Do we really need more notes?”
AG: But, it’s for you.
AW: That’s the thing! I’m like, “Well, you know I still want to do it for some reason, so what the heck?” And it’d be great if people listened to it. I have this sort of weird, naive belief that there’s a reason to do it. The way that other album came about was the same kind of thing. I’ve been working with sequencers and tapes forever. After I learned how to program, I thought, “Maybe I should get into this music stuff.” It’s funny, when Carl had mentioned the Atari ST, that was another computer I had. I learned how to program on that. I got a job with this company out of LA that was doing one of the first hard disk recording systems. I can’t remember the name, I’d have to look it up. The sound bite there is I did all this work on this thing and there were a couple of guys there who were brilliant. They were DSP guys. Math guys that really understood the stuff. And they knew a lot about operating systems and they were all musicians, but they had this whole thing. Of course, there was some guy who was “the business guy” and I remember doing all this work and going to get a paycheck and the guy said, “Yeah, come down, I’ll meet you on Thursday” and he wouldn’t be there. He just wouldn’t be there. And I was like, “What?” And finally they got about a month behind paying me and every now and again a check would come. Then I was like, “What the hell?” This is worse than the music business! Honestly, since then, I just remember having this very conscious thought because the guys who were writing this stuff were so creative and cool and the Atari at that time, you had Cubase… I think it was called Cubase then. There were a handful of sequencers coming out. Digital Performer was just coming out on the mac. There was so much cool stuff and creative stuff, but no money. Now you had engineers who were behaving like musicians. They just love what they’re doing so they just do it. Much respect for that, but at that point in my life, I was like, “I thought I was going to make a living!”
AG: “This is not the promise I was looking for!”
AW: Exactly. So then I started doing all this boring business stuff.
AG: In terms of composition, I think a lot about that Rama album. It’s very diverse, there’s some very complex melody, chord structure, you’ve got amazing musicians on it, but when I think back to the songs, I think kind of like what you were saying earlier: How did he think like that? Do you start with a melody? You mentioned that you’ll hear a sound or something will come out of your fingers…
AW: Just to walk through those things, the stuff that has a lot of notes in the bass were just bass lines that just “came out.” I was playing and I would find something and usually what I would do is program that into that computer so I would have it there and then I would start to layer things onto it. A lot of those songs got almost done for a long time, then finally I was talking to Mike Keneally and said, “You gotta help me come and finish these things because I’m not finishing anything.” Then he came to my house for 5 days and was like, “Okay, yeah, that’s great.” I had all of these things that were just kind of almost there completely. Where it needed an additional overlay of a melody, he would throw it on there. A lot of that stuff I did have there. So the things with the thumpy bass lines were bass oriented. The weirder sax things came from sounds. I was playing around with sounds in the synth and they would just start to make me think, “Oh, I love the way this sounds!” Every sound that I play, I will immediately will play some melody or chord around it. It just comes out.
AG: For me, I’ll flip through all the patches and think, “Oh, I could do something with that.” It’s more about the potential. I don’t actually create something, but I know something is there. I hear a sound and think, “Nope, doesn’t strike anything in me,” or, “Oh, there definitely is something in there.”
AW: So a lot of that is the sound discovery stuff.
AG: But it’s primarily in the computer?
AG: Do you primarily compose on Logic now?
AW: Yeah. And I also like a 6-string bass for writing. I can always come up with chords and lines and things that you can layer stuff on. It’s not hard to write music for me.
AG: I try to wrap these interviews up with: If somebody were to say to you, “Hey, you were a musician! You did it! I like to write music that people don’t listen to.” What would you say to somebody? Mostly it’s a question of my own because that’s my scenario, but, if I were interested in being a full-time musician, would you recommend to that person they do it? They follow their passion? Or, “You know what, you really should be more pragmatic and find something that’ll make you money.” How do you approach those kinds of questions?
AW: Being a human being is complicated. I’ve certainly had my own fair share of dysfunction in my life. I think people can fool themselves into a misguided sense of passion, which is actually kind of running away from responsibility. On the other hand, sometimes those people really luck up and make it. They end up making a living doing whatever it is. You can’t talk to a musician who has made a living who doesn’t say, “I always knew I was going to do this.” There’s a certain amount of luck involved. I think it’s really hard to make a living now doing music. So, I generally tell people if anyone ever bothers to ask, especially when you’re young and you’ve got tons of energy… I used to work and then play music all night. Why not? Then you can get some time to figure it out and figure out what’s important to you. But! There’s lots of tools and lots of cool stuff. The hardest thing is finding other people who think like you to be around and work with if you want to.
AG: Do you have any recent recommendations or discoveries of music?
AW: I find myself actually drawn to ambient music now. There’s so many labels and people that do this stuff, but just the other day I was going into VLC or iTunes, but there’s internet radio by classification or category. You can always discover stuff if you sit down and just go through some of those things and hear things. And there’s always incredible things. For fear of putting any undue focus on one thing for the five people who are going to hear this at some point, I kind of feel like there’s a lot of cool stuff out there, but I don’t even have time to listen or explore everything.
AG: Well, your recommendation for Avishai Cohen… game-changer for me. So, I thank you for that.
AW: That’s cool. If there’s anything of that caliber, I’ll be sure to let you know.
AG: Cool. Well, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate you coming to my living room, dealing with all this.
AW: I know, it’s fun. To me, it’s kind of an inspiration to meet someone who is just pursuing this kind of thing or the thought or the line in your own life. You’ve got a dual life going on. Do it while you can. I applaud you for it.
AG: Thank you. Cool! Thanks a lot, Andy!
AW: Thank you!