Messing with Music: Tim Eriksen, Minneapolis musician
Tim Eriksen, resident in Minneapolis since 1999, is a largely self-taught musician whose curiosity and wide-ranging musical interests have led him down diverse artistic paths. Like many musicians, he is resistant to being categorized as doing a particular single genre: "I'm not proud of being eclectic, it's just a condition of my life."
Tim's music spans a wide time range, from contemporary American music like hardcore punk rock, to eighteenth and nineteenth century American hymns and ballads, to the ancient south Indian classical tradition of Carnatic music. While Tim is a solo artist, singing in concerts and on recordings accompanied only by his own banjo, fiddle, flute, or guitar, he has been in several bands simultaneously almost his entire adult life, and is committed to and excited about the social and collaborative aspects of community music-making.
"I just tuned the cello and made whatever noises I wanted": Tim's early music life
: I started messing with music, beyond the things that I didn't have really any control over, like singing with the family, or whatever ... I actually had a broken guitar that got found somewhere that was tuned in whatever way, and I started messing with that when I was really little, and piano too, actually. I can remember playing on the black keys when I was about three or four, playing a song about Tyrannosaurus Rex. I guess I was probably about ten or eleven before I had an idea about being a musician ... I was playing cello, and then I was playing electric bass, I wanted to play punk rock.
Is your family musical?
: [M]y folks sing, my grandfathers were both musicians, particularly my mom's dad played the sax and the fiddle, but on the other side my grandfather played the trumpet and stuff. My grandfather on my mom's side played under John Phillips Sousa- that was like his big excitement in life ...
Where did you grow up, and first have the idea of being in a band?
: I grew up in Massachusetts, then Eastern Long Island until college. I started having ideas of bands before I had an instrument, which I guess is usually how it goes. Me and my friend Chris, actually a couple of different friends, it was like, 'Oh, I'll play this and you play that.' [Chris] finally actually got an electric guitar for forty bucks from a local store- the two of us started kind of learning on that guitar-we started learning playing Ramones songs ... It was probably the following summer when I got a bass, around fourteen, fifteen, it started what I guess you'd call an actual band.
How did you learn songs?
: Just listening to records, I had sort of messed around with guitar but I didn't know how to tune it, I just tuned it all kinds of crazy ways, I guess I still do that ... I took classical guitar lessons for a little while ... maybe a year, two years during the school year, I learned some there, but mostly I knew everything I needed to know on bass already by then. I was not a diligent student at all, I learned well by ear, I never, ever, ever practiced, once, I never looked at the music, I just tuned the cello and made whatever noises I wanted.
"Certainly one of the three best white vina players in the world": Tim's study of south Indian classical (Carnatic) music
: The only music that I ever really studied seriously was South Indian classical music on the vina, which I started when I was eighteen, that I was pretty serious about it for about ten years, and after that I kinda trailed off. Well, it's just kind of intimidating music, and as much as I love it, I realized I was really going to have to devote my life to it if I was going to do it in a way that really satisfied me.
What's a vina?
: A seven-stringed instrument. In the trinity of Carnatic music- Dikshitar is shown playing the vina. I still love that music and I still play occasionally, but I haven't really kept up with it.
How does an Anglo-American teenager in New England find out about Carnatic music?
: I got into all kinds of stuff, I don't know really how- I think I had weird friends. So I actually went to Amherst College to study the vina and I wound up doing my undergrad in that.
What do you remember about your first trip to India when you were a teenager?
for this story.)
: It was neat to be able to go to a bunch of concerts- the winter is the music season in south India- including an excellent vina concert by this guy Mysore Doraiswamy Ayyangar ... I got a vina when I was over there, and carrying it on the plane with me all over the place, it's very big, and I had a very big wooden crate that I carried it around in which finally busted at JFK, though the instrument itself survived, I have it downstairs. [The trip] sort of turned my head from punk rock. I was doing a lot of other kinds of music at the time, and the more I got into the vina, the more serious I got about it, I won't say I dismissed the rock side, I was still doing it, I sort of maybe distanced myself from punk ... [W]hen I was doing vina, I started writing songs that were, I don't know if they were pretentious or had high aspirations of some sort, and I thought, 'oooh, it's gonna be punk rock that isn't just three chords,' which is of course the wrong idea to try to do.
Why Amherst College?
: There's an American guy there, David Reck, a wonderful teacher, advisor, he was my mentor, he gave me an incredibly huge amount of his time. I had lessons for most of the time I was there. It was several days a week, and towards the end, at least for a year or so, it was maybe five days a week. I went over to his house, most days actually, five thirty or six in the morning, we'd play for two, three hours, then, often later in the afternoon, we'd get together and play again. It's an opportunity I couldn't have possibly had even in India, to be playing that much with somebody.
Is there written notation for Carnatic music?
: There is a notation that's been worked up in the past fifty years or something, but I never looked at it, I don't seem to work very well that way. But this was really different from the things I learned on my own, because there's a really rigorous set of exercises and it's formal in a way, but I somehow felt, it just felt more natural to me to just be sitting with somebody ... just work by listening rather than trying to decipher notes.
You must have been one of the best non-Indian vina players by the time you graduated.
[laughs] Yeah, certainly one of the three best white vina players in the world.
What did you do when you graduated from Amherst?
: At that point, I was thinking, I will be a vina player in my life. I'm glad that I thought that, because if I didn't, I don't think I would've put as much time and energy into it as I did ... I got a fellowship to go to India ... I lived in Madras for six months, then in England for six ... in theory my Watson fellowship involved doing some research into musical cross-pollination between India and England during the Raj period, the guy who started the vina tradition, he wrote what he called English note pieces, supposed to sound like English music, I wanted to see on the one hand, what influence the Raj had had on English music, if any, and another whole track musically was just the seemingly unconnected or actually unconnected similarities, things that seemed similar, even if there's no reason for them to be, or no historical connection, just little micro things like ways of singing or ornaments ...
There are actual historical connections, there's the fact that south Indian music, the concert idea, comes largely from the west, and of course the violin comes from the west, are western ideas, the way it's being presented now, India's kind of famous for incorporating things without losing their own way of doing things. Then there were just random things, like the fact that in ballad singing, there are little similarities, there's a couple of stories that occur in Tamil folk songs that also occur in different versions in English folk songs ... I was just interested in connections, it was sort of an excuse to just study vina and hang out in England, I wound up just singing with people and meeting musicians over there.
Where did you study vina in Madras?
: David Reck hooked me up with teachers a vocal, and two different vina teachers who were from the same school of vina playing, but were very different people, very different experiences. I think it was good, it was very difficult, 'cause it's not something that's normally done, particularly to have two teachers on the same instrument, Especially when I think back, I think, 'My gosh, that was an interesting choice,' but I learned a lot because of it.
What were your teachers like?
: One of the guys, Ramachandra Iyer, who David had studied with starting in 1970, older man, still alive, doesn't really play anymore, he didn't speak English, his playing is very old fashioned, he's not a grand master kind of artist, but he has a lovely sweet style, and sometimes I really prefer his playing and approach to people who are much more technically proficient, and also his whole vibe of an old guy with an old style of music was an interesting perspective.
Subramanian, a younger teacher, he's been through a lot of different phases of learning and playing and has experience with a lot of things, and has always been very interested in questioning and knowing what he's doing, not just doing it. In the time that I've known him it's amazing to see somebody who was already really good to begin with just really take off, and he's, as far as I can tell, really gone, in a lot of ways, towards the old, really solid style of playing like his grandfather did, while at the same time not rejecting new ideas, but when he plays vina now, I just don't get the feeling that he's doing things in order to be interesting, he's really solid.
My vocal teacher, Sandhyavandanam Srinivasa Rao, was really really cool, also an older guy, also simpler kind of style, but a wonderful singer and just a very cool guy.
Why vocal training?
: There's no distinction in the repertoire between different instruments and vocal, I won't say no
distinction, but anything that can be played on any instrument can be sung, it all has text, so there's no étude for vina, or something like that, the same exercise is the same basic set of learning and teaching tools are used for vocal, for vina, for flute, for everything, and any song can be done by any of those things. There are songs that are particularly good on vina, and there are songs that come down through different traditions, there are different bodies of songs and associations with different ragas that are particularly good on a certain instrument, Natai raga is a really good vina raga. So everybody studies vocal music, at some point, you're sort of expected to be able to sing the songs even if you're not a good singer. Even the drummers, they all seem to know the songs, they have to know the songs, but most of them could probably sing the songs.
Was this your first vocal training?
: I had a few voice lessons in high school, but I didn't get it at all, [Carnatic vocal] is the same type of teaching, you don't look at a piece of paper necessarily, and people don't say things like 'breathe this way,' or 'use your soft palate that way,' it's just listening and repeating.
What did you learn about the vina while you were in India this time?
: A teacher I had worked with in the U.S., a very thoughtful, serious, guy- he's not a showoff musician- who said 'this music you're playing, it's really nice, it's really beautiful, but it's not our music.' I of course was annoyed, and I had struggled with this stuff, for only about four years, I had struggled with the feeling that on one hand I knew there were certain things I could do, and there were other things I wasn't sure about ... I had had a sense that I could do lots of stuff that was impressive, and that I had a good expressive sense, and I had a good ear and patience for style, but that I hadn't put it all together.
Particularly that I hadn't really learned the language, so to speak, that I could play songs and make them sound so that ninety-nine percent of the world wouldn't know that it was an American doing it, not that that's the main issue. I mean most people who knew anything would say 'oh, that's nice, that's good,' but that I didn't have really an understanding of raga, which is such a complicated thing. Initially I thought 'oh, improvisation, wow, you just get the scale and you just kind of go,' which is the way that world music type people often do things, when you hear people that say that they've been influenced by Indian music ... However good I was, in some way, and however much I could make people say 'wow, that's good,' I didn't have my feet on the ground, and in order to really do that it was going to take a lot of time and effort, and in his opinion it was possible, but I wasn't there, I wasn't ready to be doing concerts and I was doing concerts.
But wasn't part of this just youth? Would an Indian musician your age have been in the same place?
: There were some ways in which I was further along, and some ways in which I was not nearly as far along. I was in a really different place because of the way I'd been taught and because of the expectations I'd been brought up with and all kinds of other cultural things, so I had been encouraged to experiment and to try things and to mess around, and I had been told repeatedly that I was good and had been praised a lot, and most Indian students are not encouraged to mess around and it's not really auspicious to be praising too much. So I had an inflated sense of myself, but on the other hand, I also had a lot of experience, I'd been doing concerts, and I hadn't necessarily been doing them well, I'd been making pretty nice music and doing good songs, and that's an experience that most Indian students wouldn't have.
Where had you been doing concerts?
: All around the northeast, [U.S.] there are not a lot of vina players and because of David Reck's academic connections and things, we had a little trio, we played at mostly at colleges, we played Indian events as well, despite what I said about not having my feet on the ground with the music, I was more competent than most of the folks around. There are not a lot of vina players at all in general- it's the kind of instrument that a lot of Indian people, particularly girls, study when they're little, but very few people keep up with it. I was good enough that people who knew the music could appreciate it and have a good time, but I was on a track that wasn't leading towards really getting it.
What, for you, would constitute 'really getting it'?
: What I knew was that I heard people like Subramanian and said 'that's a thing, that's really something,' and I tried to convince myself that I was getting towards that. But without the real dedication that he in particular had and has, I wasn't going to get there. It's the quality that I hear in the music that I really care about that evidences a certain kind of commitment, and engagement, and presence, and what I was doing was more kind of neat, just messing around.
The 15-year practical joke: Tim's band, Cordelia's Dad
How did this band come to be? What does the name mean?
I don't even remember why we named it that ... they persuaded me to be in this other band called The Lobster Men, that I had absolutely no interest in playing in whatsoever, they just kept bugging me and kept bugging me, and the idea was that it was gonna be this kind of blues thing that was gonna take advantage of the frat scene, and make money. I can't even remember why I eventually said 'yeah alright, whatever,' probably again as a goof, but it was pretty annoying. The lead singer was this guy Colin, his claim to fame was that he was in a Diane Arbus photo when he was eight years old, holding this hand grenade with this totally intense expression on his face.
So other than that, there wasn't much interesting about the band, but there were two people out of how ever many were in that band, we decided to keep playing together, because we kind of seemed hit it off, and I just said 'why don't we do this, ha ha ha,' partly because they had this folk and blues coffee house which was sort of New Age, you know, basically just crap, so we thought it would be kind of funny. [The idea was] 'it's a folk and blues coffee house, so let's go and do folk music and why don't we be incredibly loud and annoying,' instead of this sensitive kind of stuff, which had nothing to do with what I thought of as folk music.
It actually wound up sounding pretty cool, it was actually fun, so that's why we kept doing it. This was after the Lobster Men, that lasted like a month, if that. We had to come up with a name for this gig at the folk and blues coffee house, it was actually one of only two gigs that I've ever missed due to illness, was our first gig, so we never did that gig, but we did other gigs.
How did you get your first album_ _together?
While I was in India, the drummer [Peter Irvine] had gone to film school, and he did a video for one of the songs that we'd recorded, and his professor said 'well, the video's not very good, but I really like the music, and you should send it to a friend of mine who has a record label,' so he did, and we found out that they wanted to put it out, so I was getting pressure from these guys to come back and make this record, which happened maybe two weeks, at most three weeks after I got back from this year abroad, when we went into the studio to make this record. I still didn't take the band very seriously at all.
What was this album like?
We had to pay for the recording, I think we spent a grand recording it, so we had a very, very limited amount of time, it's not live but it's pretty close to live, lots of mistakes left intact. It was an LP, vinyl, it was funny, this was 1989, and at that time, it came out in June of '90 or something like that. It was like a big deal if you had a CD. We got this German distribution, and suddenly they started making CDs, it was like, 'wow' having vinyl wasn't cool. That was a fun record, it's pretty funny, it was kind of a goof. That band started out with this kind of literal joke idea. We all liked old traditional songs and we kinda liked different genres of rock so we just started doing them with kinda distorted guitar and drums. It was, in a way, as much a joke about rock styles as it was about traditional American and other styles, it was just goofing around with different things, it was just a stripped-down trio, guitar, bass, drums, but we had always had an acoustic element, since the first show, we did an acoustic set with a number of songs. I guess the first song we did was Will the Circle be Unbroken
, just kind of out of tune, distorted, with electric guitar.
What followed the making of your first record as Cordelia's Dad?
We didn't know what was going on, my experience was in hardcore punk, where you just put shows together, and you do them, I had done a recording for this label Unsound on Long Island, but that's just such a different world, even if the stuff we were doing was kind of punky, it wasn't at all hooked up with that scene. We wound up playing with a lot of punk bands, just because we were stylistically similar, or just because there weren't enough people around to make that big of a distinction between bands that were on some kind of fringe.
We didn't really know how to go about it, so that record was out for a while and we just kind of played around New England and eventually we did start touring. That album actually did pretty well, it was distributed by Rough Trade, and we got a lot of air play and a lot of attention early on. College radio, definitely, although for some bizarre reason, we were Top Ten on a commercial country station in Kentucky for a while, don't ask me why, we actually went and visited those guys, did an on-air interview one time, it was in the middle of nowhere, what was it, Murphy? I can't remember what the town was called, it was one stop light, a place called Mel's diner. We had chuck wagon and 7-Up cake for lunch.
What's chuck wagon?
Yeah, that's exactly what I asked the waitress. She said, 'chuck wagon? Well, it's just a big ol' piece of chuck wagon.' I said 'I'm having that.' I generally like having the local food wherever I am. I think it was just whatever was left over on the floor of the slaughterhouse scraped together with sawdust, that kind of thing.
So we started touring and had got a fair amount of attention in Europe. Big in Europe in the way that underground bands are. It was a couple of years before we got over there, we did a couple other records. I hadn't really intended to be part of this band, I just wound up doing it. It still exists, since 1986 or '87, but we've been through many different phases, we started out with this initial three piece, then we did two and a half records, an acoustic thing that came out.
After our first record, we started doing things that only came out in Europe, which was not the best idea. After a number of months, Rough Trade went under, so we lost our distribution in the States, we did another record that was half acoustic, half electric, then we did an acoustic mail order thing from a label in Germany, so we toured over there, then one guy left the band, we had various people in and out of the band, the core was me and [drummer] Peter, and then right before we went to Europe, this was in 1993, our friend Cath joined the band, who we actually met at CBGB's. She came to see us there and ended up in the group, and since then it's just been the three of us. It's complicated, 'cause we're sort of two or three bands in one, we have this whole life as an acoustic traditional band that does unaccompanied singing and fiddle and banjo, and then this other life as a noisy band. We've done everything we can to remain as obscure as possible.
What's the band up to now?
The last record we did was 1997, or '98, something like that, so this [ What it is
, on Kimchee Records, 2002] is the first thing we've done since then. I moved [to Minneapolis] in '99, the drummer went to law school, he just graduated, bass player lives in western Mass still, and the drummer lives in Portland, Oregon. We did a couple shows last summer, we did a little pacific northwest tour, and a little northeast thing, but that was it. We all sing Sacred Harp, we've all been doing that for a long time, we do that more than we gig these days.
Annoying bearded people: Cordelia's Dad's struggle with the Folk Music scene
In 1995, we did ... an all-acoustic record ... and it wound up getting us a lot of attention in the folk world, and so these people thought that we were this brand new band, ‘ooh, they're young people who play these songs,' so we wound up doing stuff like the Newport Folk Festival and all these different folky type of gigs. Part of the explicit idea was trying to bridge that gap, because that we knew these people had money, whereas the underground rock scene, there wasn't really any money, you could have five hundred people at a gig -we didn't, normally- and still not make any money, whereas folk gigs, they paid like ten, twelve, fifteen bucks ticket price and you'd get most of it, so you have forty, fifty people there, you're actually making money.
Occasionally these people with beards would show up at our concerts, and punks don't have beards, at least not until the last couple of years, when it's become the thing, but we thought 'who are these people?' We weren't aware of this other whole scene, but then Comet
came out and we became aware of this [folk] scene, and we thought 'wow, this is neat, these are people who already know about banjos,' and I was somewhat frustrated with the scene that we were in, at that point, but it was kind of a letdown, the folk scene has been kind of a big letdown in a lot of ways. I've gotten around it, we've made a lot of friends and had a lot of good gigs, etc., so I'm kind of over it, but for a while, it was like 'man, this is really annoying.'
Why were the folk scene people so annoying to you?
The way people were about it, really geeky and patronizing, not actually interested in music, just interested in really cheesy stuff and not getting what we were doing. When Comet
came out, we got this letter from some DJ, we had this one electric song at the end of it, and he was saying 'I really enjoy your record, I must say there's one problem however...' It's like this long rambling letter cautioning us against electric music, ‘I remember when [Bob] Dylan went electric ...' Whatever. We're just doing whatever seems interesting to us, we don't have some kind of agenda about it, and the folk scene had many, many agendas and sometimes the agendas were more important than the music, more often than not. Anyway, that was my take on it. Since then I've become more accustomed to it and I'm happy to do these kind of gigs.
"The dumb answer is that it's good music": Tim's work and ideas as a music historian
How did you become interested in 19th century American music?
I was always interested in [it] from when I was a kid, for whatever reason, and all through college, but a little before grad school, I really started poking around and looking into local history and my grad school focus shifted from vina and vocal, that's why I went to Wesleyan, was to study voice with T. Viswanathan, who's there, but I also had this idea that I was going to look into Sacred Harp and avant garde music and some of the other many things that Wesleyan offers. I just got more and more drawn into this 19th
century New England stuff, and did a couple of recordings with this quartet, [Northampton Harmony] people I'd been singing with.
How do you decide that these old songs should be sung this way or that way?
Just tracing down some of the many tracks, there are a lot of parallel tracks in musical history and expression, this is kind of like that, and there's crossover between various kinds of love songs and ballad singing and hymn singing, and people who are alive now and people who were alive then ... I've always had an inner critical sense of when I felt that I was doing things in a way that was real and when I was doing things in a way that was questionable ... that's been really instructive, and I can't say that I'm always right or anything, but it's certainly part of the process that helps me to figure things out.
Are there many recordings of these old songs?
There are actually recordings, not of all of them, not of the ones that are just in some of these old hymnals that are published in 1803 and then promptly forgotten, there are some examples [e.g. in his 1869 hymnal] of things that are not sung anymore, but then there are things, like this first song here, that are in the Cooper Book, [one of the two Sacred Harp books] there are a lot of things that are in Sacred Harp. I'm not really interested in singing like somebody in New York state did in the 1860s, I'm interested in singing in a way that I like, that has what I identify as a kind of power and groundedness ...
What do you think attracts you to the music of this period?
I think that there might be some things behind it, what I would now think of as less than good reasons, and then there are also some good reasons, the somewhat ineffable things of attraction, what attracts us to certain sounds, that just makes my spine tingle when I hear, it's not just the songs but the ways of singing, real singing, or directness, I don't like words like primal or things like that, because that's not what it is, there are other factors that have to do with upbringing, in this culture I think that there's kind of an obsession with heritage and where you come from.
A lot of people, most people in the folk scene are very very involved in feeling like they don't have a heritage and they don't have a sense of belonging to some sense of tradition or cultural background, and part of their interest in the music is to graft one onto themselves, so that they feel some sense of authenticity and connectedness. I won't say that that's bad, it can be really
bad, there are manifestations of it that are, I think, evidence of really crushing personality issues, sometimes it's just a matter of, 'oh, this is neat, I can get in touch with the past,' or whatever.
I think that there's probably something like that going on when I was little, growing up in Massachusetts until I was five anyway, I remember very clearly this whole emphasis on history, particularly the revolutionary war, I think I was curious because there were graveyards. I somehow for whatever reason really liked graveyards, I remember going to visit them in nursery school. I was really interested in whaling, for some reason we went to a whaling museum, probably just the way kids are interested in dinosaurs, and somehow for me it translated into the association with music that went along with these things, the revolutionary war, whaling, all these romantic aspects of American history.
How would you have put historical music together with American history at such a young age?
Songs like Chester
and some of William Billings's stuff, and even Yankee Doodle
, you learn those in school, they say, 'oh, here's some revolutionary songs.' I remember making these tri-corner hats out of newspaper, that was really exciting, the whaling stuff ... my dad had a recording of whaling ballads, and it may be as simple as that, it may be as simple as the fact that I was into whaling so he played me some whaling ballads. I do remember that at some point I remember coming back to that record when I was probably fourteen, and remembering it from when I was little and listening more carefully, that was part of my more explicit interest in those kinds of songs.
So it was partly inspired by an interest in history, for you.
I think so, and in just singing, that's more difficult to identify where that came in, both my parents are very much into singing.
How did you first become aware of Sacred Harp singing?
I don't remember where I first encountered Sacred Harp. I had encountered some of the hymns, here and there, and then of course some of the Billings stuff and some of the older New England stuff just through the 1976 bicentennial, at some point, in high school, when I was like fifteen or sixteen, I did a big huge paper on American folk music, it was a big term paper, twenty-five pages, it was the longest thing I'd ever heard of writing, it might have been then, but I don't honestly know, that I first heard Sacred Harp as a separate category from hymn singing.
They had books in the library and recordings, in college I was actually trying to ... I never really learned how to read music, I somehow took out a couple of copies of these shape note books and tried to sorta learn how to do that, and I was messing around with some of the songs and singing them on my own, and then my friend Kelly, who was a singer -I was like a yeller, I yelled, and I sang too, I guess- but she had studied classical music, and we were kind of from different sides of the track musically, but we became friends, and it was probably through her that the idea of actually reading written music, for singing beyond just me piecing it out, and then singing to myself, but singing together with somebody in harmony, that that was the first time I ever had done that, and slowly it evolved from there. We started singing as a quartet, just as a group of friends, and then after I got back from India, from the Watson thing, a bunch of these friends were sharing a house together in western Mass, and they didn't have television, I was in grad school and really hating it, so I spent just about every night at their place singing Sacred Harp. That's when it became solidified for me, even though I'd been doing it for five or six years before that, that's when I said, 'wow, this is the best.'
What attracts you to Sacred Harp?
It's lively, interesting, the dumb answer is that it's good music, of course if you don't sing it right, it's terrible music, but ... the tunes are cool, the harmonies are cool, they're more about the group of people who's gathered than they are about the idea that you have to do things a certain way because some guy in Germany said so. They're more about how it feels to do it than they are about adhering to some rules, but from the actual standpoint of being involved, there's all these social things, social aspects of the music, how it lives as a community and as a practice that are really fascinating, and just the sheer sound and expression and ... as a type of devotional singing, there's nothing else that I've encountered, that really has the combination of personal and communal, fulfillment, expression, there's room for your own personal voice, whatever it is, and yet you're not what's the most important thing, in a way. It's just a cool way of interacting and a cool-sounding music, I guess.
Do you think the 19th century background has influenced your songwriting?
Absolutely. I haven't been able to avoid it. I've been writing songs since I was fifteen, beyond that if you count the Tyrannosaurus Rex thing and weird little stuff like that, Cordelia's Dad started out doing just old songs, and we gradually started doing songs that we were writing, but they had to kind of fit, it didn't make sense to be doing some completely other kind of song, so I was consciously for a long time trying to make something that fit, had some kind of aesthetic relevance to the other songs that we were doing, and so for a while I was really puzzling with that, and messing around trying explicitly to do that, both with some of the acoustic things and the electric things, and over time it's gotten so much into my brain, that I can't help but come out with certain ways of doing things that are, there's not a clear division between old songs and new songs.
I've had to piece together a lot of songs where I had just a fragment, and I had to make up a tune, or I had to make up some verses, I can't say that I'm always successful, but I know that these things have become so ingrained that that's kind of what comes out without me really trying. There are still other things that I'm doing, you might have to listen a little harder to hear as influenced by that, because I have a similar relationship to the Indian music, where that comes out in ways that are not always at all explicit, but it's all related, closely tied.
Do you think this old music that you do is, in a sense, haunted?
I've always felt this kind of presence of all of the things that went into the making of a moment, and I won't say I have the sense of all of them, but I've always had the sense that there were things, so that walking down the street, I get these little flashes of 'man, this street has been here for however long, and all these people in any given moment in time, there's all these things going on, this house, there's people that lived in here in the 1920s and things were so different then, these floors were here then, there were guys in here sanding the floors'...and I've for some reason or another felt those kind of thoughts in anything that I've done, and in music I feel that way too.
When you listen to Britney Spears on the radio for example, it's in some ways very contemporary and all that, but they're playing instruments that have these very ancient histories, guitars and drums and things, and she'd doing these little vocal things, all of these elements, all the elements of our life have precedent and history, and so when I come to a song that is more explicitly historical, maybe there's more of that than there is in some other songs, but I feel that way too when I sing rock songs that I've made up, either because of associations I have with them, I don't think it's just a wistfulness or a romanticism, but I feel in all the music that I do some kind of presence of the past, almost everything that we know is the past in any given moment, and so I think that even when I do newer songs, maybe some of that kind of feeling is there. I know a lot of the songs that I've written have kind of wound up with that sort of feeling, like that Leave your Light on
song, of course that's about an old story, these are all kind of my attempts to figure out what I'm doing, so I don't know if it's right or not.
"This clenched fist thing": Tim's music philosophy
What do you want your music to do?
There are things that are certainly similar that I recognize in all the different music that I do and in all of the different music that I like, it might not be all the same things, all the things identifiable in all the music, but there's a motion, this clenched fist thing, that I don't have an adjective for, but that describes it. And I run into other people who feel that same way and don't have a word for it, but something that I like. I don't have like an explicit philosophy I would like for my music. To me, it feels lively and vital when it's happening, if it's done right, and I think that's just life-affirming or something, it's just alive, it's not always like that when I do music, but when it is, that's what I'm really into.
How do you know when it's really happening?
I just know.
Do you watch the audience's response?
No, well, a lot of time there isn't an audience, and that whole thing of the audience is complicated, I wrote a thing called the Voice of the Listener, for some liner notes one time, which I was really thinking about, there's always a listener involved in music, even if you're just singing for yourself, it's yourself, and it's like some idea you have, maybe it's some people that don't exist, maybe it's some people that you remember, but you're always singing for somebody who's listening, whether they're real or imagined, and then there's of course other people, it's just so complex, you have a feeling of a room, but other people have a different feeling maybe, but then there's something that you can share and identify without being able to say what it is. More often than not, I will think that something didn't work out terribly well, and people will feel that it did. Both Sacred Harp singing where you're just singing for each other, and a concert where you're singing for somebody else and yourself, and just sitting around, singing by myself, there's this really complex dynamic of different people involved, different listeners, somehow most of the time it seems possible to tell if it's really happening.
There's certain things I don't
want to do, I don't want to do things that are there just to impress somebody and make them think I'm so great or whatever, not that I don't appreciate people thinking I'm good, but that I know how to make people think I'm good without actually being good, and that just feels stupid, that's one of the things that I learned playing rock and roll, is that I learned there are certain ways that it's very easy to get people really hyperactive and enthusiastic and excited, and that's fun, but then it turns into a really unrealistic and unpleasant for me way of being or interacting. I feel like a phony, and people are looking to me for something I'm not or that I don't have, it's an act, basically, and maybe that's fun sometimes, but I don't want to live like that.
What styles of music do you like best?
The only styles that I've ever really identified with, there's three, there's Carnatic music, where I'd say like that's a kind of music that I like, hardcore punk, which, I'd say, yeah, hardcore, I was sort of a part of that world, and Sacred Harp singing, where I do feel like I've made the most commitment as far as personal investment in a circumscribable world of music, other than that, I don't like blues, but one of my favorite singers of all time is Fred McDowell?
, and I don't like a whole lot of genres, I don't like folk music for sure, no offense to anybody, but that's one of my least favorite genres in the world. I would go to a concert because it said South Indian classical music on it, I might go to a concert because it said hardcore punk on it, I would stay away from a concert because it said folk music on it, and I might be wrong, I might regret it later, but that hasn't happened yet.
"It's kind of like having somebody come over to your house and play records for them": On teaching
How does teaching fit with your music, do you see yourself being a music teacher, is that something you've done or you'd want to do?
I don't ever want to give guitar lessons, I'll be happy to sit around and play guitar with anybody, but somebody pointed out to me one time that George Bernard Shaw said that all art is didactic, and I remember at the time being annoyed because I had sort of embraced the cliché that art is not didactic, and he was obviously I assume saying that partially just to be contrary, just to say something interesting, but there's an element of truth to it, that whatever I'm doing I'm saying something. I think it's a different sense of didactic, I don't necessarily want to change anybody's mind or make somebody think a certain way or tell them to be this way, ‘you should do what I'm doing and not what they're doing,' but it's certainly some kind of a lesson, in Sacred Harp singing, you call it a lesson when you get up and lead a song, and the singers are called a class, and I think that's a very interesting description of the kind of social dynamic where you're not actually teaching in the conventional sense, everybody knows the song already, but by the way you get up there and by the way you do it, you're giving a lesson.
I think in that sense, all the music that I'm doing hopefully speaks something of my experience, not that my experience is even more or better than somebody else's, but that it's particular, and that that might be refreshing or interesting to someone, as it is to me when I see someone who, whether they're experienced or not, when they just get up there and do something in a way that intends to be honest, or doesn't intend to be but is anyway. Honesty is a complicated musical issue, because folk music people talk about it all the time, and then they do things that I think are really the most obsequious kind of behavior and music that I can think of, so I dunno, maybe honesty isn't a good word, but realness.
I enjoy teaching, and it's exciting to be able to say, ‘hey here's this cool thing,' and it's kinda like having somebody come over to your house and play records for them, or going over to somebody else's house and you know, just new things, 'wow, look at this, and here's some interesting thoughts,' not for the sake or knowing more facts, because I think we all know way too many facts, but for the sake of having a new angle and perspective on them, maybe a new way to contextualize them, and hopefully toward the end, of actually being able to do something to enjoy things better and have more compelling reasons to do good and interesting things for yourself and for people.
There's a lot of reasons to teach, I had this opportunity to teach at Dartmouth for the last couple of years in the spring semester, and it was really cool because I got to meet these people who all had different perspectives, and I had new things to show to them, I was teaching American music, and I learned so much, people always say that about teaching, and it's really true, and just had some really neat interactions with people who would not ordinarily have gotten together, I brought in a lot of people to the class, that was one of the things that I was able to do, because Dartmouth is well funded, it was a big class too, I charged a lab fee, I didn't have a textbook, so I had a lot of guests come to the class, it was just cool for everybody. I had Tollie and Ramona and David and Cathy and Johnnie and Delores Lee come, and give a singing school, and that was so cool. We had like a hundred and twenty, hundred fifty people, there was like eighty from the class, plus a whole bunch of other people that came, it was the coolest thing, for everybody I think it was really neat, and I had Dwight Diller, a banjo player come in and just really thought provoking, different ways of thinking about the world and music.
How do you think technology in the last century has changed music-making and listening?
It's amazing to think that until fairly recently, if you heard music, you'd presumably be able to see the person making it while they were making it. You'd never hear music unless you were making it or somebody around you was making it. And so yeah, that's different, being able to hear the voices of people that are dead, Thomas Edison never conceived the phonograph as a musical thing but just thought ‘wow, we'll be able to hear the voices of the dead.' There's still a lot of community music that goes on, that sense is there, that we don't have a sense of community now, or of community music for sure, and I think that the unrealistic expectations that are established by some of the recording practices are off-putting as well, not only do you have to live up to the idea of somebody who can afford to spend all the time working on singing, but even if they can't, they can perfect it technologically, so when you hear Mariah Carey, you're not even hearing something that a real person can do. That's part of where people get the idea that they can't sing or that it's too hard for them, and also the professionalization of music, the association of music with famous people, seems kind of lame.
"'The money people, they're not bad people, you just have to know how to talk to them.'": Current projects
What's going on for you now and in the near future?
There are a bunch of specific things that I want to do ... I want to do this Oromo choir recording, [see this site's profile on the Rehoboth Oromo Choir?
] I want to try to get [public radio host] Garrison Keillor to have them on ... I just think we're here in Minnesota, and it'd be good to get some of these immigrant communities represented, not out of any political reason, but just because they're here and doing really cool stuff and in that particular instance, I think it would be funny, because our experience here has been going to Lutheran churches with this African choir and seeing what happens when these predominantly Scandinavian, German, congregations encounter these people, and it's cool and interesting, and the music is great. So that whole project is something I'm really interested in.
I want to do more of these me sitting in a room-type solo CDs, at least one, old songs, maybe some new things, then there's this movie thing which is kind of interesting, I suspect it'll open some doors, for better or for worse, I think probably for better, it just kind of puts me back a little bit in some ways too, when Cordelia's Dad was getting a lot of attention and I dealt with it in some ways in the wrong ways, I distanced myself from it, partially through being self-righteous about the music, partially realizing that people didn't get what we were doing, and partially just being really frightened of what would happen if it actually took off in some kind of a big way, that's kind of gross or scary, now I think I'm a little more ready for doing some things in maybe a slightly bigger arena, but when I think about it, the things I really like doing, are just like Sacred Harp singing or sitting around the house and playing.
Sometimes I'll sit around complaining that I don't have an agent or wishing this happened or wishing that happened, but then sometimes when I'm in situations where things are happening on a grander scale, I realize that I really like doing shows for fifty people, or not doing that many shows, when I was touring all the time, part of me loved it, part of me was addicted to it, and part of me really hated it. So I've been much happier now, just recently, doing more hanging out, with the baby, singing mostly to him, and I'll probably do that more, too.
Are you still somewhat wary of some kinds of opportunities?
I've shied away from doing things where people were willing to be into what I was doing, ‘wow, you're doing this,' and I said, ‘well, no, I'm not,' so I didn't take advantage of the opportunities that were there. I think I know a little better now, this guy, Ted Levin that I was teaching for at Dartmouth, he said, 'the money people, they're not bad people, you just have to know how to talk to them,' and I think now I feel confident enough about what I'm doing and why, so if somebody thinks I'm preserving the cultural heritage of America, or whatever, that's okay ... there's some point at which I'll have to draw the line, and if the representation gets to the point where I'm identified as a certain thing that I really object to or don't agree with, that's one thing, but if it's just letting somebody, if that's what they get out of it, it's not my business to get everybody to think the same way I do.
I'm getting a little better at knowing how to deal with things. I've never minded if people didn't get it in quite the same way, it's neat to see how people do get it, it's just when people who are in the business of music, they just kind of miss it and try to make it into something that it's really not, that has been something that I've kind of railed against, but now I feel that I'm confident enough, I think I'm good enough at what I'm doing that it kind of doesn't matter, it's ultimately not going to be as important if I'm represented as doing Celtic music or whatever people say, I still know what I'm doing, kinda...I don't feel like I'm in danger of becoming identified as, you know, 'that wacky guy that does this thing.'
So many musicians, they do one thing, the way to get famous is to do one thing, or a very small set of things, and do them reasonably well and do them over and over and over again, and to not really change the formula too much, there's a certain amount of room for dabbling, and there's a certain amount of credibility and interest that's given to things that are intentionally eclectic or to things that are going against the grain, but basically you just gotta be repetitive and fairly good, but the thing that happens then is that you wind up becoming ... sort of a two-dimensional version of what you might have become if you'd really pushed it a little more and based your life less around what was going to get you to a certain place than around why you really felt like going there, or going anywhere. You know what I mean? Maybe this is a better example, actors who get typecast, musicians wind up in a situation where they kind of typecast themselves, and they even get to thinking 'I am the greatest at ...' I think there's always a little doubt, people I've met anyway, but still, you shore it up, they shore it up a lot of the time with reviews and the fact that for however long people have been saying this that and the other thing, and maybe they've become an icon of this particular idea, rather than a person who happens to have certain interests ... I don't feel like I'm in danger of that.
Check out some of Tim's music!
Tim's solo work
These selections are from Tim's 2001 self-titled solo CD on Appleseed Recordings.
(1:41): this song is from Tim's flea market copy of the 1848 publication The American Vocalist.
It was a favorite song of Amelia Clark, who, Tim's research revealed, led the singing at 1st Church, Northampton, Massachusetts, in the 1850s.
Leave your Light On
(3:35): This is the first love song Tim wrote, based on a true love story from a few generations ago.
These selections are from What it is
, Cordelia's Dad's 2002 release on Kimchee Records.
Camille's Not Afraid of the Barn
(1:43) This song is from Rev. D.H. Mansfield's American Vocalist
One of the most striking things about listening to Tim tell his story is the extent to which serendipity directs and re-directs his projects, travels, and associations with people. Example: one day, a wealthy New York city dowager came to his high school, which had also been hers, to teach Japanese calligraphy to his art class. She asked the class to draw depictions of time, and seventeen year-old Tim was the only student to draw a circle. This got her attention, she recognized Tim as a kindred spirit, and the friendship that began that day led to experiences such as Tim attending New York parties for famous Indian musicians Ali Akbar Khan, sarode master, and sitar player Ravi Shankar, and going on a first-class month-long tour of India as a vina player, (with only a few months' experience at the time) which he otherwise wouldn't have been able to afford.
Another example: Tim had been researching a Massachusetts family who led church singings in Northampton in the 1850s. During his research, he became especially interested in the daughter, named Amelia Clark, and her father, Daniel Russell Clark. One day at a flea market in Hadley, MA, Tim found Amelia's copy of a 1848 song book called the American Vocalist
, which had been given to her by her father! It cost three dollars and inside the book were handwritten notes about her favorite songs, one of which was Hope
, recorded on Tim's 2001 self-titled solo CD on Appleseed Recordings.
-- Main.chri2397 - 23 Jul 2009