On your new album and in your many live recordings I have enjoyed the mystery and surprise of the interplay between improvisation and composition. It's often difficult to tell which is which. Do you think you have a different approach to this than most folks working in what's call fusion?
I think so, but I haven't listened to fusion since the ’70s so I couldn't say. I've spent lots of time trying to figure out how to balance the two elements, that's for sure. It was one of my first targets back in the days of Long To Be Loose. I tried to reinvent whatever I could within the stock format of guitar, bass and drums, and the writing/improv duality was ripe for it, via experimenting with different forms and combinations. Maybe you could say that a lot of fusion tried to make the composition sound more like soloing. I flipped that around and started improvising more compositionally, more like what I was writing instead of the 16th note, post-bop linear approach that was sort of the stuff of fusion and of my playing at that time. Once you give up what people normally associate with "soloing"—long lines, approach notes, interval patterns, licks, etc.—then what's left can sound suspiciously like composition, even if it's the sheerest improvisation. To me it's a step towards unifying those two basic musical elements, something I've imagined as a kind of ultimate goal for some time now.
Fifteen years making live albums and no studio albums of your own. What was different about your return to working in the studio this time?
Recording digitally, it wasn't that different from the live stuff. We felt free to play partial takes, knowing I'd be able to edit later on - but we did that on live gigs sometimes, too. It was odd to not play in the same room together. We pulled it off but might change that next time. Mostly it was finally having some sonic control over the thing, instead of being ruled by the chance mic placement/passing fire truck/knife-fight-in-the-club issues with live recording.
Regarding where ideas come from, does practice relate to composing for you?
I don't derive composition from practicing, as some people have done so successfully. Joe Zawinul for one, and probably every other important jazz player of the ’50s and ’60s. My practicing is geared almost completely towards improvising, and as I still haven't unified improvisation with composition, I approach composing in its own way—one that practicing is a distraction from. It's a certain internal place I go to, maybe "The Well" or something. It’s the creative place of quiet, not to be obscured by excessive hand movement or even the certainty of a groove. It's a place of expectancy, of hypersensitivity to the moment and its connection with the infinite... Sorry for the bad poetry but I don't know how else to talk about it. I mean, I also just hear a riff and go for it sometimes, you know?
When you have composed material in the melodic harmonic sense is it subject to drastically different rhythmic improvisation? Or are the rhythms and grooves part of what's composed?
In my case the rhythms are as important as the melody and harmony, so I'd be no more or less inclined to change them as I would those elements. The grooves can change drastically, though. That was kind of a signature for us in the Your Basic Live period. The inspiration for that might have been the Miles Davis quintet of the mid ’60s, playing the same bunch of standards every night without boring everybody to tears.
What are your influences and models in thinking about groove and feel?
As a listener it was initially the California funk bands of the early ’70s. Sons of Champlin, Tower of Power, Cold Blood, and Santana. Then it was Herbie Hancock's Headhunters. Then Sly Stone and Prince. In terms of professional experience, Anthony Jackson made a huge impression. His placement was unlike anything I'd ever heard. But I still thought I had pretty good time until I did some recording wIth Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. It was then I realized there was a center to the beat that I wasn't hearing. I started imagining what my music would sound like if I could key off that center. So I focused on that intensely for years after.
Is the ring modulation thing a particular style of jamming? Are there subsets to the style?
I guess so, based on the Electronica thing, but maybe funkier and all live, of course. It doesn't sound stock to me so it's cool. Sometimes when I hear people trying to do the d'n'b thing live its too imitative, too referential to stand on its own. We escape that because that is never our aesthetic, no matter what style we're trying on for size. It still sounds like us, just filtered through some different processors.
You seem to use echo in a very controlled way—often in time with the track? Are you using tap tempos? Is it more than just a timbrel thickener? What does echo do for you?
I haven't found a tap delay that I can get comfortable with or that sounds good, so I just try to tweak it manually, often with disastrous results. Mostly I think of it as a rhythmic device and randomly try for settings that make some kind of metric sense with the current tempo. Sometimes I use it to make ultra-distorted sounds more listenable, though that can feel like cheating. But it's not!
What should someone do if they want to be a better guitar player?
Carve out some time each day for practice. Younger people have an easier time with this. Older people usually have more going on and less time for themselves. Players know that practice is work, necessary to make the world a better place, but non-player friends and family will see it as selfishness, even laziness. Commit to at least a half-hour a day and do what's necessary to keep that slot. If you're not obsessive, you'll need to make your practice style fun to keep it up. That means making music out of it. Routine hand patterns for scales and chord inversions are the dullest things on earth for anybody even modestly creative. Using a tape recorder and a metronome, make every bit of practicing you do sound enough like music that you can listen back to it and maybe even jam along with it. Whatever you practice, record it with the metronome and ask yourself, "How can I make what I'm doing sound more like music without just falling back on the licks I know?" Any answers you can come up with will make you a better guitar player. Guaranteed!