Ian Moore discusses the importance of connection and communication in music, and the parallels between fusing styles of food and fusing styles of music.

Music is ultimately about connection and communication. You send out the signal and you hope that it is received with the same intention and emotion. The thing is, you can only control one end of the deal. I used to get really strung out after shows, feeling that my playing wasn’t what it should be or that the band was having an off night. We would have very intense, post-gig meetings to analyze what went wrong during the show, dancing through the minutia of the night. After our meetings, we would greet fans who would glowingly tell us how tight the band was, or how magical the performance and night had been. Similarly, I have finished a show thinking that my playing and singing were in rare form and feeling quite proud of myself, only to have someone tell me that it seemed like an off night. So, how can this disparity exist? How is it that the signals I send out can be received so differently?

I’ve spent way too much time thinking about this, and I’m still at a loss for an answer. However, all the ministrations have got me thinking a lot about connection—why some people really connect with an audience when they pick up an instrument, and others don’t. My column a couple of months ago focused on a Jeff Tweedy solo as an example of emotion and power in simplicity—kind of a refuting of technique as the primary drive in music. I found the comments to be interesting, especially those that didn’t agree. It got me thinking a lot about culture and how vast it is, even among those of us who seemingly share so much of it. My simple beauty may seem banal to someone else, and their burning truth may seem overly complicated and incidental to me.

I went through a brief flirtation with fusion music. I spent a lot of time with mid-period jazz in the first couple of years of college. I really liked the bop and cool jazz, and people started giving me comps of harder, more intricate music. Bitches Brew was the first record that I dug into, but I spent time with Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra as well. I struggled with some aspects of it, but I liked the ferocity and was attracted to the spirit of guitar players like John McLaughlin and Mike Stern. I remember reading an interview around that time with Mike talking music and guitar. When the interviewer asked him how much he practiced, he said that he tried to play his guitar every day, but that he learned to practice often had nothing to do with guitar. He talked about being young and focusing only on technique, but then realizing that he really didn’t have much to say. So he started trying to look outside of the guitar for his influences.

Western musicians borrow freely from all over the planet to put together our own stews, but sometimes we are skimming from so much that there just isn’t much depth.

That really blew my mind, because I thought at the time that playing guitar was about practicing more and harder than anyone else—believing you would therefore be the best—as if there was some linear arc that could quantify expression. I think that was one of the lightning moments for me and I really started changing the way I thought about music and its flow. I realized, at least for the player that I wanted to be, that there was no destination. Slowing down to learn more as I went along, instead of judging myself against others, changed the whole dynamic of my playing.

I thought of other things I loved—great conversations, books, movies, food—and tried to channel those things into my playing. I think that inclusive expansiveness is what I like in other players. It makes their statements bigger and more important to me. When I listen to Tweedy or Richard Thompson play, I hear emotions that are so beyond anything one could learn in a practice room. Richard has a good deal of technique, but his playing is superlative because you can hear pain, humor, anger, and angst in it. I have been pursuing that angle for a number of years now and it is really a bitch. It is hard to quantify esoteric quests, so there are many times where I’m completely at a loss as to whether my playing is improving or not. But it has allowed me to continue my teenage love affair with guitars into my 40s.

I love to eat, particularly ethnic cuisines. Give me a funky Vietnamese dive or an Oaxacan food cart and I will glow for hours. I have shelves and shelves of cookbooks that span the continents, with major hot spots on Asia and South America. Somewhere in the midst of a food revelry, I realized I had an aesthetic that was consistent throughout my life. I tend to like things that are seemingly simple, but have a deep well that they are drawn from.

I remember eating at one of the first fusion restaurants to pop-up in the early ’90s. It was very trendy and my memory was that they were quite pretentious in the way they presented their food. They were freely taking from all the ethnic cuisines, but without a true appreciation or understanding of how shallow their take was when dipping their toes into a culture just enough to take what they wanted. They seemed unaware of how slowly these cultures edged their simple frijoles or banh mi to perfection through repetition and a deep, multi-generational understanding of subtlety. I think there is a real parallel there. Western musicians borrow freely from all over the planet to put together our own stews, but sometimes we are skimming from so much that there just isn’t much depth. To me, as a listener, I would rather hear an Indian sarod master digging into a Hindustani raga than an American fusion-player ripping through harmonic minor scales. Just like fusion food, fusion music has evolved and branched into many different areas. I feel more humility, and consequently more depth, in many of the new “fusion cuisines.” They don’t seem so thrown together. Similarly, artists like Ry Cooder have been able to put together true, fusion records that seem to really capture the soul and sound of the music styles they are fusing.

Maybe it’s simply listening? Realizing that we don’t know so much and spending more time and respect on the things that we take in. Our words, and our music, find a more receptive ear when we are able to listen as well. To truly listen gives a deeper understanding of who we are communicating with, and consequently helps to bridge the gap from speaker to listener. A great chef truly listens, with his taste, to the subtleties of flavor and combination. A great player seems to take the time to understand in the same way. Open the door and the windows. Let the outside in.

Read More Show less

Ian Moore offers up his view on small-scale versus large-scale companies and manufacturers, both in the music industry and out.

In my years of touring, I have seen a seismic shift in the nature of small towns. In the late ’80s, when I first started, each town had its own unique character. Bands would volley back and forth on the best restaurants, thrift stores, curio stores, and more. Touring the Midwest was a slide through myriads of sometimes slightly—but more often vastly—different cultures and communities. As much as I loved the shows, I was just as excited to spend the afternoons discovering or rediscovering the many hidden treasures that made touring really enjoyable.

It was sometime in the early to mid-’90s when we started to see a shift in these towns. Chains replaced small restaurants, coffee shops were disappearing due to the invasion of Starbucks, and pretty much every independent mom-and-pop store went under while Wal-Mart leveled all in its path. Record stores that each had their own personalities and quirks were put out of business by Blockbuster, Walmart, Tower, Hastings, and the like—and radio stations that had been independently owned were gobbled up by Clear Channel.

For an artist like myself, the radio conglomeration was a death knell. Stations that clamored to get my band in the studio for interviews were told that I wasn’t on the playlist, and that they weren’t permitted to have me in. My radio play dried up overnight as Clear Channel swept over control and brought their one-dimensional vision to stations that previously had their own unique sound and local flair.

Perhaps this, in part, accounts for my view on big versus small in the music business because I have always thought small businesses are crucial to a successful community. They simply have more of a vested interest in wherever they are. They sponsor teams, encourage civic growth, and foster local pride that always seems to help the community in the long run. I have seen this work to great effect in my old hometown of Austin, Texas, where I had the great experience of associating myself with small-scale luthiers, pedal builders, and amp builders.

Perhaps this, in part, accounts for my view on big versus small in the music business because I have always thought small businesses are crucial to a successful community.

I’ve also had the opportunity to work with some of the biggest guitar companies in the world throughout my career. These were great personal experiences—everyone was always very cool to me, and there were many kind people—but getting anything done oftentimes was incredibly difficult. Wires would get crossed in the company between the A&R guy and the custom shop builders, and the instrument I got would not be what I requested. No one was directly at fault, but it was disappointing. Other times, my contact would depart the company, leaving me to play phone tag for weeks only to find endorsements had been frozen. With as many benefits the large companies provide—easy access to fairly consistent stock instruments across the country and relatively affordable prices—their size can be a burden as well.

These experiences got me thinking about the types of companies I want to work with. Though some smaller companies can suffer from problems similar to what I experienced with the big guys—disorganization, expanding wait-lists, and spotty communication—I’ve had enough great experiences with small-scale gear businesses to make me a believer.

On this past summer’s tour with Jason Mraz, Grosh guitars bent over backwards to accommodate me, sending a spectacularly crafted guitar and humbly offering to send me whatever I needed if it didn’t work. The guitar was impeccable, both in playability and aesthetics. Chris Forshage from Forshage Guitars went into painstaking detail to bring my old Fender Custom Shop guitars to almost complete replication of my number one. Jason Lollar from Lollar Pickups outfitted a couple of my guitars with perfectly-voiced pickups that made dull guitars shine and sing. My friends at Diamond and Blankenship Amps shipped me a great-sounding amp that was well-voiced for the sonic needs of the tour, and I built my pedalboard around Tortuga, Fulltone, Keeley, Durham, and Pedaltrain pieces.

With every one of these folks, I was able to get them on the phone within minutes if there was a problem or a question. I felt more confident in my rig having all of these guys behind me, and I really valued the ability to talk shop and even be involved in the genesis of new products. I was an early user of Mike Fuller’s pedals and part of the early choir begging him to make a reliable Echoplex. I was dragging three around just to keep one running. Similarly, Jason Lollar and I measure pickups and talk tone all the time. Dave Cowles at GHS may be the head of one of the biggest string companies, but he runs it like a mom-and-pop. He is an old friend now, who has been with me throughout my entire career, and always sends me flagship strings to try with the only caveat being my honesty. I really feel like I have a permanent A-Team around me at all times, and it gives me confidence I wouldn’t have otherwise.

I know the readers at Premier Guitar understand this. Many of the articles from the magazine and website are written on small companies turning out extraordinary gear. I like crafting my sound this way, just like I enjoyed finding each town’s treasures in my early days of touring. I don’t shun something just because it’s manufactured by a big company—I am using a couple of the new Eventide pedals, which are brilliant, and I have a whole studio filled with Fender, Marshall, and Vox amps. But I am most excited about the small-to-mid-level companies that, much like myself and my musical peers, continue to craft their products with only an eye on making theirs the best they can be. I am proud of the company I keep.

Read More Show less

Reuniting with his first band causes Ian Moore to reminisce on his early playing style and how the passionate playing of Wilco''s Jeff Tweedy contrasts the sterile acrobatics of more technically adept players.

I am doing a reunion tour this summer with my first real band. This is the band that toured with me during the mid ’90s. It is a time period in my career where I made a lot of fans with a well-honed touring band and a really tight live show. It’s interesting to revisit your past and reflect on who you are, who you thought you were, and how you got to where you now are. I’ve been listening to all of our old records and watching live videos, trying to pull my head around the songs. In doing so, I’ve been thinking a lot on what makes a great guitar player as I try to filter what I want to get out of what people saw in my playing in my 20s.

Maybe it was because I am so indoctrinated in the “less is more” school, but rarely does fiery playing impress me, unless it is really conditioned by some deeper meaning. I could care less about what modes or scales someone is using. That seems to have more place in calculus than in music, yet many of our guitar heroes are heralded for their ability to superimpose extraordinary technique over otherwise boring material. I feel like at a certain point, the ego destroys the message. I see some of this in my early playing, and thinking back, it has been a pretty natural process to try to grow past this into more three-dimensional musical thought. This does not discount emotional intensity, but without context it is simply unimportant to me.

I understand this is a slippery slope. It truly is dancing about the architecture. We see what we need when we need it, so to discount someone for being fascinated with a player’s impressive sweep technique is not my intention. It’s just that the tools are important in the context of the whole. I don’t want to know how you swing the hammer, I want to know how it integrates into the whole building. There are the songs however where the guitar truly rises beyond its role and those are moments I treasure as a guitar player.

I would offer up Wilco’s “Hell is Chrome” as a solo that has so much power and emotion that it truly serves its space in the song. I hear pain and anguish, almost filling in words that make the sung verses more poignant. Jeff Tweedy seems truly free of technique in a way that makes every note ring honest in my ears. I don’t hear patterns, I hear the randomness of fear and weakness, and it trenches deep into my heart.

When Jeff plays the solo, I feel it. Bloody, honest, warty, and human. I love it and I open my heart to the cry, the bond.

There are certain things that are simply good as they are. When Albert Collins hits that note and wriggles it for 10 seconds, you know beforehand that he is going to do that, and the very setup is what makes it brilliant. It is scripted-yet-raw emotion that he puts into the phrase. I tend to get lost, however, when I listen to some players run their scripts without the rawness. It makes me think linen suits and cocaine—a sly smirk passed under a wine cooler. Even with some really exceptional players I fall off the wagon of belief when there is too much suave sophistication. I get it. They are jumping out of the patterns, but are they really? Its like little teases into the realms of chaos. NO! I want the player to fall into the chasm and see them on the other side- that is some action!

When Jeff plays the solo, I feel it. Bloody, honest, warty, and human. I love it and I open my heart to the cry, the bond. In contrast, there are so many phenomenal contemporary players with great touch and unbelievable tone. They have miles more technique than Tweedy, with solos nuanced and intricate. But often the sum of these is the very thing that pulls me away from the moment and the emotional point. The magic lifts and the acrobatics make me focus less on the emotion and more on the actual tricks.

I do know that many of us vacillate quite a bit in what we listen to—we are constantly readjusting the balance of head and heart. Sometimes the language does romance us enough, and other times we more of the body. There are times when sitting down with a great player’s music can fill my soul, but I typically feel closer to the music when the player is not obscuring the song. Ironically, I would say I even notice the player more with the latter. Maybe I am simply more of a team sports guy and less of a child pageant guy. I’m open to analysis.

I’m thinking a lot about this as I wade through the back catalog of my own playing. There are poignant moments that strike me as honest, but I also see some really blunt attempts in the subtler shades of expression. There are lots of derivative patters, as well as a sometimes-myopic focus on time-worn effects like “quiet-LOUD” and “anger-sad.” I recognize that this is an obvious reflection of an older player who has been playing for a while and, god forbid, it could have the negative effects of making me too self vigilant and sane—obvious retirement homes for any adventurous ideas. But I feel like, if nothing else, I gained a little bit of insight by being forced to look at my own playing so much recently.

So I challenge you to do the same—check out your own early work and see where it takes you. And if you haven’t, check out the song “Hell is Chrome” off of A Ghost is Born. Though I’m a huge Nels Cline fan, I have to say that this is my favorite Wilco moment on tape!

Read More Show less

One of my favorite things about being in a band is the community—sharing music, books, friends, and food with your bandmates.

One of my favorite things about being in a band is the community—sharing music, books, friends, and food with your bandmates—as you march through an endless stream of van or plane rides, studios, sound checks, and hotels. The waiting can be interminable, and people find many different ways to deal with it. Sometimes, with the wrong company, the time can feel like a black hole, and it takes a good deal of conscious effort to stay sane and healthy. Luckily, I have spent most of my career surrounded by people that I could relate to—and we’ve built our friendships along the way—strengthening the music in concert with our personal bonds.

When I look back over the different bands I’ve been a part of, I often think to a record or two that defined our time together as a band. I remember the early days of my first band, where we spent a lot of time with Daniel Lanois’ first record, Acadie. It was a clarion call for us to stretch out musically, and it married a really deep soul with amazing production. Each person in the band could find something different in his music. For me, it was Daniel’s ability to play simple and folky music that seemed to reference a shadowy, second sound beyond the notes he was playing. I was hearing this a lot in those days with all of the post-punk and goth-style industrial music going on, but Daniel voiced it with an added poignancy and class that made it seem deeper and more dangerous. It really helped us open up doors as a band while we experimented with sounds in the never-ending quest to actually say something. Later, as we started improvising more on structure, we spent a good deal of time with Eddie Harris' music, along with Fire/Fury Records Story and the Swingtime set (both compilations of old soul/blues), that our label Capricorn had released.

When I look back over the different bands I’ve been a part of, I often think to a record or two that defined our time together as a band.

My first band broke up in ’96, and I put together a band with JJ Johnson and George Reiff (as well as Bukka Allen, who played in the first band). Our first couple of tours were loose, while we tried to get our sound together. We were quickly in the studio making my third record, And All the Colors, and I remember Radiohead’s OK Computer and the Root’s debut as our bedrock records around that point. OK Computer really changed the sound of rock music during the time we were trying to get our voice. The Roots were doing the same thing with hip-hop. Both were in constant rotation in the studio and in the van. There were many conversations about the minutia of the songs, the ideas, and more. As we pushed through the concepts of those songs, we started falling in with some of the sounds of the ’90s British psych music—especially Spritualized and Stereolab. Our then guitar tech, Chris Dye, would drape the stage in white sheets, and set up his mishmash of Super 8 cameras, with avant-garde film loops whirring while we immersed the songs in waves of echo and feedback. Our new drummer, Chris Searles, would be a blur of motion and polyrhythm as we pulled the oft-unwitting crowd along with us. It was sometimes pretentious, but always fun.

Chris Dye came to me with a mission. He said, “We need to cut the fat.” Things were so bombastic and over the top every night, and he was proselytizing like Ian MacKaye on a coffee binge. I bit. We decided to go out with me playing acoustic guitar, sleeping on couches, and really trying to do something new. This was a germination time for my next record, Luminaria, and was a brand-new vista. Chris was a big Brian Eno fan, and really liked the concept of music as “wallpaper.” This was a pretty foreign concept to me at the time, as music was all about passion, blood, and intention. I remember many long drives through the western deserts with Eno’s Apollo and Here Come the Warm Jets playing through the endless hours of deserts and highway. As we toured, Chris started playing as well, first the Omnichord, and then “anti-guitar” guitar. I was learning the acoustic guitar as an instrument, as well as learning about silence and quiet, both in my voice and in my songs. As if on cue, Neutral Milk Hotel released In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Eno was like a palate cleanser (egads!) and everything seemed different afterwards. It felt like a retrenching of sorts, revisiting a lot of places I had been, but with new eyes.

We often found ourselves in San Francisco, and I had become friends with many of the bands in the Noise Pop scene there. To me, a lot of the music had ties to stuff that I was listening to at the time, but wasn’t being heard elsewhere in the States. Beulah was the first band I heard, as they were part of the Elephant 6 circus, but it was Oranger that I really fell in love with. They were an offshoot of the phenomenal power-pop band Overwhelming Colorfast that I was already quite a fan of, but they were more psychy, and it fit perfectly with where my head was at the time. Matt, the bass player, and I started writing songs together, eventually writing and recording my last record, El Sonido Nuevo together. Matt had become one of my best friends, and we basically were handing off records and books, as we wrote the songs. He has a deep knowledge of pysch and underground rock, and we spun through countless records, veering from ’60s Turkish psych to Emitt Rhodes, and from Arthur Lyman to Arthur Lee and Love. As we recorded the record, a chord shift from one place would sneak in, a lyrical slant from another, until we had a record sitting in our hands.

When I listen to my records over the years, the songs bring back all kinds of memories—however, the music I was listening to at the time is now seen as a conduit from one space to another. I really like the journeys and the shifts, and feel that in being open to them, I have become a better musician.

Read More Show less