INTERVIEWING OTIS TAYLOR IS A LOT LIKE A GAME OF CAT AND MOUSE. Ask the 61-year-old Denver, Colorado, native how he developed his singular style—a blend of droning, mesmerizing “trance blues” guitar and gritty, sonorous vocals—and he’s either evasive or claims ignorance. And when you move on to how he captures the supreme vibes on albums such as this year’s Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs [Telarc]—which features cameos by Gary Moore, the sensual vocals of Taylor’s daughter Cassie, and free-jazz jams from pianist Jason Moran and cornet player Ron Miles—he practically boxes your ears.
But perhaps that’s to be expected. After all, Taylor has made a career out of being unpredictable and tackling such difficult subjects as race relations and the lynching of his great grandfather. He regularly hires fiddlers, tuba players, and djembe drummers he happens to run into on the street or at a gig. And on his last album, 2008’s Recapturing the Banjo, he didn’t think twice about wandering outside the confines of his presumed genre to record an album chock-full of music on the misunderstood African instrument.
In the end, though, Taylor lets you live after he’s playfully batted you around. And though you feel a little disoriented, you can’t help but feel it was worth it. For, even in his cryptic answers and philosophical disavowals, he reveals something of the magic that has won him 11 Blues Music Awards over the years.
How do you prepare for a new album and tour?
I don’t prepare. All I worry about is my concept. I’m like the anti-perfectionist, the anti-Dylan: Hardly any lyrics, hardly any preparation. I just do it—that’s why it sounds organic and emotional.
What was your concept this time?
I wanted to do prettier songs, love songs. And then I kind of twisted it into kind of trance jazz, and then it went more traditional, melodically, in the finale. The first few songs, if you didn’t hear the lyrics, you’d just think they’re pretty songs. And they are pretty songs, but without the lyrics you wouldn’t know that some of them are Otis Taylor-ish [laughs].
How long does it take before you know you want to build an entire song around one of your trance grooves?
Well, that’s what I do. I’m a producer, so I just build them up. People forget that I produce these albums.
Do those grooves come to you in your head or after jamming for a while?
There are these things called outtakes that no one talks about. Cut and paste. I have a basic idea, and then I just see what happens in the studio. I’m more interested in emotion than mistakes. I think mistakes help to make great songs. They take you to a different place that you haven’t thought of. It sounds crazy, but I work with mistakes.
So, does this “cut and paste” idea involve digital editing and loops?
Not so much. You want me to tell you all my secrets, but I’m not going to do it.
I’m just trying to get a few.
Let’s put it this way: I don’t think anybody makes records like I do.
Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs has a very organic, analog vibe.
That’s because it is. I can say that—we use tapes and stuff.
What instruments did you use for this album?
I used my OME Otis Taylor banjo and my Santa Cruz signature guitar. To show you how un-technical I am, that guitar only has two frets past the neck-body joint— because I don’t use those frets. It has an Italian spruce top and Madagascar rosewood back and sides. On “Dagger by My Side” I used a bigger Santa Cruz model made of koa wood. On “Maybe Yeah,” I played electric slide on an old Gibson that was like a Les Paul Junior through a Category 5 Ivan amp. Those humbucking pickups gave me good slide sustain.
Do you mic your acoustic guitars and banjos with close mics, or room mics, or both?
You keep asking those questions. I’m looking to do this interview with Guitar Player—I think you put me through to the wrong department.
Come on—you don’t want me to ask you what scales you use, right?
Scales? I don’t use any scales. I don’t know if I could play a scale. Maybe if I think about it really hard. I think somebody showed me once, but I didn’t give a [expletive].
Did you ever take lessons or buy chord books or anything?
No. And I have a hard time fretting, too. That’s why I play in so many open tunings. That’s why I had to stop playing the mandolin.
Fretting is hard in what way?
My hands don’t do it very well—it’s hard to change. It’s hard to move really quickly, and I can’t barre at all. So when you have a problem with something, you create something else. It’s like Django Reinhardt. I guess that’s where my droning grooves come from.
That tune definitely proves you're striving to push the envelope.
Well, you’re getting it. That’s what I’m trying to do. If you listen to all my records, it’s a journey. That’s why I just worry about the concept, so the whole thing comes together as an album. Concept is where the real work comes in. Like Below the Fold was a really heavy concept. I had all these Appalachian fiddle and cello players play with me to give it this really strange sound that nobody had ever heard before. People say they like to go to the edge, but I believe you have to go to the edge and fall off, because if you don’t fall off, you will not know where the edge is. I have to take it to where it falls apart and then bring it back in. Every album I do, I take a certain risk that it could be a flop. But I guess because I take the risk people get excited about my music. This ain’t no ’60s rap—if you’re trying to be avant-garde, you’ve got to just fall of the edge. You can’t be creative and conservative at the same time.