Curran is also an excellent electric guitarist, using his Stratocaster, Jazzmaster, and Gibson Les Paul plus effects to conjure atmospheric, ambient soundscapes live and in the studio. Here, he’s onstage with Arborea in Zaragoza, Spain, where the duo opened for Low in 2013. Photo by Marcos Cebrián
How did you get into the style of guitar music you’re playing now?
When I got back from Ireland [in the ’90s], I moved back to Virginia, where I was working at Ramblin’ Conrad’s guitar shop and working for a friend at his deli for a while in the Medical Tower in Norfolk. He was a big fan of Indian music, and played some raga-esque things on the acoustic guitar. But he had a great record collection of a contemporary of Ravi Shankar’s, Nikhil Banerjee. I got really deep into the sitar from his playing. When I first heard it, I just connected so deeply with it. As time went on, I found out about Robbie Basho. When I first heard him, I felt like I understood what he was doing. So it was like a kindred spirit, I guess, if you want to use that term. But I basically had a great interest in songwriting and guitar music and sitar music. So I kind of developed two things separately and combined them.
It doesn’t feel like it’s guitar music in the same way we think of certain techniques or genres of guitar music. It feels really textural and transcendental, in a way.
There’s many things related to why that is, because players are using overtones, they’re using drones, things you find deep in Africa [laughs]. It’s different than classical music that relies on Western harmony. It’s more about melodic ideas.
The other thing is there’s a lot of string buzz. There’s not an emphasis on having this perfect setup where it’s all nice and clean. So you almost get these kind of sitar overtones. And when you’re tuning a guitar down to low C, then the string’s flopping around and the more you drive it with your right hand, you start getting that buzzing. But it’s so funny, you see people criticizing on YouTube, “I think that guitar needs a setup.” Like they don’t know what’s happening. It’s part of the thing.
There’s a video of Davey Graham playing “She Moved Through the Fair” in the ’60s in England. He’s been credited with creating DADGAD. He supposedly came up with that when he was living in Morocco or living in North Africa and trying to play with oud players. That performance is so brilliant because it’s that crossover between North African/Middle Eastern music and Irish music. The way that he plays the drones—there’s some rattling that is quintessential with the development of that style of music. Nobody in England was combining it all. It kind of all catalyzed there.
How did you come to know Jack’s music?
I moved to Maine at the very end of 2000, and there was the folk explosion, basically. Which started in my mind by the mid-2000s—you had acoustic players, songwriters like José Gonzalez, Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom.
Jack Rose was playing before John Fahey died in 2001, and he started really pursuing compositions in that Robbie Basho/John Fahey style about that time. So about 2004, he was touring around. He did a John Peele session [on BBC radio] when John Peele was still alive ... all this acoustic music was really happening—primitive American style and also freak folk. One of the things he was brilliant at was playing the Weissenborn, the Hawaiian slide guitar. He was playing these long extended raga-type instrumentals on that instrument.
When I first got to know Jack, I would play really hot fingerstyle music, like Peter Finger, who’s a pretty famous German guitarist that plays progressive, hot fingerstyle—all perfectly executed. But Jack right away was like, “I don’t like it. There’s too much going on. There’s no space in the music.” And it was so funny when he said that, because that’s one thing I’ve always connected with in music. Some of my favorite players would create space.
How did you first get into playing guitar?
I would say my first instrument was singing. I was in love with the voice when I was young. My track on the Jack Rose tribute is with slide, and that’s an attempt at a vocalization—to make the guitar sing. I do that quite a lot. I actually use the EBow a lot.
So the guitar was kind of by default because I was already more interested in singing. And my father had a guitar which he couldn’t play, so it ended up under the bed. But I always wanted it [laughs]. And my parents had a great record collection, like John Williams, the classical guitarist, and the O’Jays and Tim Buckley and all this stuff. Aside from the R&B and soul, I would put on a guitar album and just be amazed that someone could make so much sound with just one instrument. So that really started the journey for me with guitar. The first thing I did with my dad’s guitar was just hit notes and see how long it could sustain them.
Here’s a close-up look at one of Jack Rose’s beloved, main instruments: a Weissenborn-style lap-slide guitar custom-made from koa by English luthier Pete Howlett in 1997. Photo by Buck Curran
What guitars do you like?
I design my own acoustic guitars, and I design them to specifically be used for this kind of music. My guitar is built extremely light, with a lot of overtones. It’s got a really tight waist, so it sounds really good in the midrange and great for slide playing as well. It’s made for alternate tunings. So that’s my main acoustic. But I found a super-inexpensive Yamaha that had all these wonderful qualities, and that’s become my road guitar over the last four years—this $140 Yamaha. When they listen to the records people always ask me, “What are you playing?” To give credit to that guitar, when I was shopping for one there were actually four of that exact same model of Yamaha, and that particular one sounded amazing in alternate tunings. There was just something special about it, you know?It’s so funny how all the tiny details in acoustic guitars can add up to make them so individual.Especially the neck. The neck really adds sustain. If you have a good, dense piece of mahogany, it really transfers the sound beautifully.
What are your plans for future projects?
I’m finishing up my next solo record. That’s one of the primary things that I have going on right now. And that’s a combination of instrumentals and songs with vocals. The opening track is called “Blue Raga.” It’s this particular figure and I think it came about after I heard that Davey Graham recording. I don’t ever sit around and listen to other people’s music and focus on what’s going on. It’s just the overall presence of something, you know? And then I kind of think to myself, “Ah, I can do something like that,” and I just start randomly hearing ideas and then I grab the guitar and find them.
My wife here in Italy [Adele H] is an amazing singer and we’re going to be working on her project as well. She was more part of the underground experimental scene in Milan some years ago. We want to do this kind of interesting experimental album with piano and choir vocals. Her music is very inspirational for me. I just love listening to her do her thing.