It’s a bit of a strange journey, though, in the
end, it all makes sense.
Minneapolis native Todd
Clouser wants a big change,
so he gets a teaching job
at a school in Baja, California.
Then, while playing out, he meets
some musicians from Mexico City and
starts jamming with them. Eventually, he
falls in love with the “chaos and freedom”
of Mexico City, and ends up living there.
“There’s an audience for me in Mexico
City,” he explains. “I don’t have to compromise
Clouser’s latest release with his band A
Love Electric is entitled Son of a Hero [Ropeadope],
and it includes keyboard wonder
John Medeski. While Clouser may have
backed off the solos somewhat for Son of a
Hero, he is nonetheless an accomplished lead
player, and an extremely savvy improviser.
What’s it like playing with a monster like John Medeski?
Medeski is not going to sit down and
play gentle for you. He is going to turn
things upside down—that’s what he does.
He’s a force, and you have to embrace it.
Clouser on his “obnoxious” blue Gibson ES -335.
What influences do you most draw
from when you improvise?
I grew up in my house hearing Motown,
so that’s where some of my groove elements
come from. But that also lead me to
deep blues—Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson,
field recordings, and so on. Those are
really the roots of what helps me in composition,
improvisation, and story telling.
However, I first connected improvisation—
that word—to Jimi Hendrix. When I was
a kid, I’d sit alone banging on my guitar without having any tools
to express myself—no
chords yet or anything
like that. And I got into
Hendrix, and I could
hear him making noise
on this guitar, and that gave me the liberty
to follow this route. “Oh, I’m improvising—
that’s what I am doing.” So I did
a lot of improvised music, and then I discovered
jazz, and then I tried to un-discover
jazz—at least the academic side of
it—and I ended up on a more visceral side
How do you personally manage not to
fall into clichés, or copy your influences?
It can be dangerous, because there are
harmonies and licks that are so common
to us. And it can often be especially dangerous
for me, because I do imitate people
when I practice, in order to discover something
about their language. But when it’s
my turn to do it, I want to do something that’s almost completely mine. So I use
what I’ve heard as more of a feel question,
than stealing actual notes. For me,
obviously music is communication. When
somebody is really giving me their story,
I think that’s more inspiring—and more
of a push to allow me to embrace my own
voice—than it is to actually use notes from
Okay, so now we are on to the next
step—how do you formulate what you’ve
heard into notes that are truly your own?
From an academic standpoint, you can
just manipulate the phrase. There are many
ways to manipulate a riff, a melody, or a
lick—turn it upside down, omit something
from it, elongate it, cut it up, or transpose
it. Then, things start to happen. You start
to discover new sounds and notes that
you might like. Like, instead of playing the
root, maybe I’ll go for the flat 9. “Oh, I love
that! It sounds really nasty. I’m going to go
with that.” It’s okay to mess with things like that, because then the things you got
from somewhere else kind of become yours.
Miles Davis’ trumpet on On the Corner
inspired Clouser’s guitar sound. “I love
that sound,” he says. “I didn’t try to
copy it, but there are elements of it in
my distortion, resonance, and delay.”
Do you feel your improvisational forays
incorporate elements that perhaps some
other players may not always consider?
Well, I often try to view the guitar
purely as something that makes sound.
It’s not cut up in boxes, and it’s not cut up
in frets. I don’t necessarily have to strike
the strings in front of the pickups—I can
hit them by the headstock, or scrape the
strings. I look at the guitar as an instrument
of sound capable of creating worlds,
universes, textures, and colors. Sometimes,
guitarists can lose that, because we hear
players who are impressive, and we want
to emulate the technical things they do.
But my goal is to step back from that, and
view the guitar as this tool to make sound.
That’s interesting. I feel some players
aren’t always comfortable letting go
I want a little structure, but I also want it to be the Wild West. I want to go as far
out as I can go. But, yeah, there are anchors,
and even I like the way the root sounds.
So I’ll land on things that sound common,
but, with that in mind, I’ll always try to discover
something new and push it. I’m not
really jazz-jazz, but I love the spirit of jazz
that constantly pushes things to a place
they haven’t been yet.
Of course, that brings up another uncomfortable
aspect of letting go—the fear of
Listen, this is why artists like Nirvana
and Bob Dylan are genius. People are singing
out of tune, or there are tempo issues
and stuff like that, and it doesn’t matter
because they’re expressing themselves. And
that’s what becomes important—having
something to say. It’s not about perfection.
It’s about humanity. People want to hear
you and all the imperfections that make up
who you are. That’s what they’re looking
for in music.
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