Why did you choose Papua New Guinea?
My general interest is the interaction of colonialism and the guitar. The story is the same worldwide. Out in the country where there is little or no access to the bizarre diatonic musical system that only Europe developed, musicians tend to play modally in open tunings.
Papua New Guinea is the last place guitars arrived, and we spent most of our time around the island of Rabaul because it’s the guitar center. In addition to being colonized and re-colonized, the area has been devastated by volcanic eruptions twice during the past century.
What is the general makeup of a Papua New Guinean string band, and what struck you first about the music?
The bands have a minimum of three or four guitarists, and as many as 14. They have lots of singers, a couple of ukuleles, and occasionally basic percussion. The music is familiar and exotic all at once. There are a lot of I-IV-V progressions, but the 6/8 rhythm is stronger than in other parts of Polynesia. I was really moved by the singing, which was like birdsong. The richest music always comes from the poorest countries.
What was unique about the guitar approach in Papua New Guinea?
They have a unique and practical open tuning. In a given key, the bass strings are set up on the 1, 4, and 5 scale tones, and then the top strings are either 3, 5, 1 of the I chord, or 5, 1, 3 of the V, which they refer to as “5 key” tuning. The bass players pluck rolling, swinging bass lines on a guitar with the bottom strings tuned either 1, 5, 6, or 1, 4, 5, 6.
What instruments did you play?
I played accompaniment on charango and baritone National, and lap steel on my Kona Hawaiian guitar, which they’d never witnessed. I’ve spent years getting interesting noises out of it without using any pedals, such as making wah sounds by reversing my hands and rolling the bar over the bridge. They loved the lap steel. For the recording, I loaned a National to the lead guitar player in order to make him stand out because we clustered guitarists and singers around just a few mics.
Can you explain your basic technique in a nutshell?
I use two fingerpicks and a thumbpick to generate a triplet pattern with my right hand. I use my whole right side to strum, and I create a lot of guitar percussion as well. I use microphones rather than pickups because I like a very three-dimensional sound. Like modal players around the world, I play up and down the neck using one or two strings, which tells the story better in terms of timbre.
Did you pick up any new techniques during this project?
The Gilnata String Band has this manner of plucking out and away from the strings, while one guy is thumping along on bass. It reminded me of Delta blues, and has since inspired another album of mine called Blues Reflex.
What are the lyrics in the Songs of Volcano about?
They’re mostly romantic songs, and some describe places. Basically, you can break down the whole universe of songs into two sides—songs about death and songs about sex. And in the middle is “Happy Birthday to You.”