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Christopher Guest, David Nichtern, and CJ Vanston - The Beyman Bros.

June 1, 2009
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THE BEYMAN BROS. ARE ACTUALLY NOT brothers per se, they’re Christopher Guest and David Nichtern (with help from their little bro, CJ Vanston). The two childhood friends have been playing music together for decades, but their paths have crossed professionally only a few times, most notably in their college years with Voltaire’s Nose. They both enjoyed success separately, with Nichtern penning the hit “Midnight at the Oasis” and working with such diverse artists as Maria Muldaur, Jerry Garcia, and Paul Simon, as well as working on motion picture scores and running his own label, Dharma Moon. Guest, despite his success as a writer, actor, and filmmaker, is best known for his portrayal of legendary Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel, a character so iconic that he influenced how amps are manufactured and forever altered the way guitar music is talked about. Guest and Nichtern have always jammed when they got the chance, most recently in Guest’s kitchen, where the two would spin dreamy, improvised acoustic tapestries on guitar, mandolin, and mandola. Those jams evolved into the tunes on Memories of Summer as a Child [Dharma Moon]—atmospheric, cinematic soundscapes that are a bit like what might happen if yoga music was played on bluegrass instruments. It’s at least a little ironic that Nichtern and especially Guest would release their latest musical effort under assumed names, because this is what they actually sound like when they’re simply playing like themselves.

How did this record come to have such an open, spacious vibe?

Nichtern: These kitchen jams, which were generally either two guitars or guitar and mandolin, crossed over a bunch of styles: bluegrass, jazz, Americana, and floaty stuff. My label, Dharma Moon, is prominent in the yoga world, and I thought we could do something with an Americana vibe that would have that openness and spaciousness with all the wonderful flavors of the improv we do.

All three of you have experience with soundtracks. Do you think that informed how these songs sound?

Guest: David and CJ have written movie scores. That’s not something I do, but I agree it has that feel. It’s reminiscent of something very visual. When we sat down to do this, this stuff kind of just came out. It had a longform feel that was open and had these twists and turns. It wasn’t conceived as being cinematic but I think ultimately it is.

Talk about how the tunes would develop.

Nichtern: We’d come up with an A section, a B section, and so on, then we would map those out. Then CJ would come up with some kind of groove that we would cut basics over. CJ would ornament it and develop the arrangements after that. We didn’t want it to be too much in the traditional song form. We wanted it to be like acoustic chill music. Pretty organic.

Did you punch the individual sections in?

Nichtern: No. Once it was planned out we would record from beginning to end.

Who’s playing the lap-slide on “Triad”?

Guest: I am. I played my 1954 Fender lap-steel that I bought some years ago. They have amazing pickups—a lot of people take those out and put them into other guitars. When I bought this instrument, I didn’t have any interest in playing it in the conventional way, I just thought I could get some interesting sounds out of it. I did that track at home and recorded it direct—no amp—just straight into Logic. I played it through a Fulltone Clyde wah pedal and it has this haunting sound.

You play a lot of mandolin, mandola, and mandocello on this record, but most of our readers know you as a guitarist. How do you see yourself?

Guest: Well, I don’t see myself all that often [laughs]. I do play some guitar on the record, some electric and some lap-steel wah tracks, but mostly mandolin. In the last 20 years or so I’ve been playing a lot of mandola. I especially enjoy the mandola and you don’t hear it very often in bluegrass, because they tend to use mandolin. The mandola has typically been buried in these mandolin orchestras. It felt like a warm thing to add to these songs. My mandocello is a Gibson from 1916. The mandola is a Gibson from 1924, which is a key date for Gibson instruments because it falls within the Lloyd Loar era, and his instruments are very sought after. I play modern mandolins: a Collings and a Monteleone.

How do you tune the mandola?

In a typical string quartet you have the violin on top, then viola, then cello. In the mandolin world, you have mandolin, which is tuned the same as a violin. Then, a fifth below that you have the mandola, then an octave and a fifth below you have the mandocello, which is usually used as a singlenote instrument. They’re all double-string instruments.

How did you cut the slide parts?

Nichtern: Chris has this tradition of giving me guitars for my birthday, and I played a little Papoose acoustic that he gave me for that slide part. Slide is one of my favorite things ever, but I never thought I could do it. Four or five years ago I started doing it without really knowing how, and now every once in a while I’ll whip out a bottleneck to give a certain flavor to a melody.

Did you mic the acoustics or use pickups?

Guest: I prefer to mic them, even though my Collings has a Sunrise soundhole pickup, which I think is the best, as far as those things go. I like old Neumanns, the U84s and U87s. At home I have some Shure mics, a KSM32 and a KSM44, which are surprisingly good for acoustic instruments.

David, you wrote “Midnight at the Oasis.” How did you feel when that tune took off, and what was it like to watch Amos Garrett track that classic solo?

Nichtern: It was delightful, energizing, and fun. It was an uncompromising tune, and it came out very spontaneously. I was Maria Muldaur’s musical director at that point and I helped produce part of her first record. For it to take off was really great. Amos’ solo is so unique. He constructs his solos. He gets the first line and the second line and he strings them together. That solo was about four hours’ worth of work in the studio. The song has lived on in a beautiful way, and Chris was kind enough to use it in Waiting for Guffman.

You, Christopher, are an icon in rock folklore. No one quotes Jimmy Page, but people quote Nigel Tufnel every single day. What’s it like to be the most famous fictitious guitarist of all time?

Guest: It’s a very schizophrenic situation. It’s difficult to explain how I got into this mess. I had been a writer, an actor, and a musician at the same time. When we did This Is Spinal Tap, we had the opportunity to not only create that story but also to actually write music and act it as these people. That eventually turned into four tours all over the world, playing to very large audiences as these characters. Now they’re real entities. It turned into this real thing where we got to experience the joy of playing at these amazing venues. And we played as Tap would play, meaning it has to be good enough so that people will sit there for a couple of hours, but there are all these interior musical jokes that guitarists get and all these musical decisions that may not be the best in terms of taste. It’s not that they play badly—it’s their pomposity. It’s very different than what any of us would do as ourselves.

Nichtern: I think that’s an important footnote here. Chris is a wonderful musician, but there’s never been a context where he has been himself. This record is the first instance of that.

In the pivotal deli tray scene in Spinal Tap, Nigel is reading the story on George Sakellariou in the November 1982 issue of Guitar Player, with Randy Rhoads on the cover. Would you be willing to feature GP in another of your movies?

Guest: I’ll keep that in mind.

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