Tom Baker interview

The Tom Baker Interview

We invited Tom Baker master of Avant Garde and experimental Fretless Guitar to one of our informal chats.

Tom Baker

Our interviewer Jahloon (Jeff Berg) talks to Tom …

Jeff: Evening Tom, thanks for dropping by, should I pour tea or coffee?
Tom: Coffee, black.

Jeff: Sugar?
Tom: Not for me.

Jeff: When and how did you first come across the fretless guitar?
Tom: My first fretless sighting was in 1990 or so. In college I was studying the classical guitar, and I became fast friends with another student, Ned Evett, who was experimenting with an acoustic fretless. I sort of tucked the idea away in the back of my brain, and went about my life. Then in 1994 or 95 I saw a band from San Francisco who was playing in Seattle, and there was Ned, now playing an unfretted Stratocaster.

Jeff: What was the critical thing that made you take up fretless?
Tom: Well, I had seen Ned playing in the pop/rock context and thought it was cool. But what really made me dive in was a gig I was playing in Seattle at the Speakeasy Cafe. It was a free jazz gig with Matt Sperry on Bass, Christian Asplund on viola, and Phil Gelb on shakuhachi. I was playing a classical guitar, and these guys were really lighting it up playing in these microtonal worlds that I could only approximate with bending and retuning. I went home and ordered a unslotted neck from Warmoth guitars and attached it to my strat. The world that opened up was remarkable, and changed my life as a guitarist and as a composer.

Jeff: If you had not discovered the fretless guitar, what do you think you would be doing / playing now?
Tom: Good question. I had given up on a traditional career as a classical guitar performer when I met the composer Chinary Ung, a Cambodian / American composer that I studied with in Arizona. His influence was a profound one, and I embarked on a career as a composer. When I moved to Seattle I played mostly in free improvisation groups and free jazz bands. I would do the occasional classical piece (usually performing one of my own pieces). The fretless experiment moved me back toward the electric guitar (which I had not played much since high school). I imagine without the fretless discovery, my life as a composer / performer would look very different.

Jeff: You have the fretless Stratocaster but played the NYC festival (Sept 2005) with your Fernandes, how do they compare?
Tom: The Fernandes is a great guitar, especially for the weird music I play. It has the Sustainer, of course, which is great in so many different contexts (playing with string players, or wind players). It has a glass neck, which I like for the purity of sound. But the Strat is really my favorite fretless that I play (I have a classical fretless and an acoustic 12-string fretless as well). It has a marvellous sound, very rich and dark. It has an ebony fingerboard, and the neck is unfinished, so there is very little friction with my left hand thumb. It also has replacement pickups by Chris Kinman that absolutely rock. It is a sweet guitar that I use for more quasi-tonal explorations.

Jeff: What strings do you use on the Fernandes and Strat?
Tom: On both electrics, I use GHS nickel rockers… 10-46. These are “rollerwound” whatever that means. The package says the “rollerwinding process slightly flattens the strings for a smooth, comfortable feel and a ‘touch’ of extra tension.” I love the tone of these strings, on fretless and on fretted. I used to use the D’Addario ribbon wound Chromes, but they are really expensive and frankly don’t have enough punch to them. The GHS strings are cheap, and sound great. The nickel basses don’t last long, but they do the job.

Jeff: What picks do you use?
Tom: Dunlop, Tortex Sharp, 1.35 mm, black.

Jeff: Any advice on care for the fingernails? How do you look after yours?
Tom: Always file, never clip. Find a really fine sandpaper (autobody shops are great for this) to buff the nail after filing. Filing of the nail should flatten the surface of the nail, giving you a crisp point of attack to the string. Vitaman E (used like a lotion) helps to soften and maintain as well. I do this for my right-hand nails, but I clip the left-hand, all but the index, which I file flat and smooth, for sliding along the strings.

Jeff: Any particular inspired influences, or do you travel your own road?
Tom: As a player, I admire guys like Mark Ducret and Elliott Sharp, and I listen to a lot of Bill Frisell and Nels Cline. Jeff Beck was an early influence on me as well. I also really love Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Evan Parker. As a composer, there are so many: Morton Feldman, John Cage, Charles Ives, Anton Webern, Gyorgy Ligeti, Steve Riech, and again, Ornette. Recently I have had the opportunity to study with one of my favorite avant-jazz composers and saxophonists Henry Threadgill, whose music is absolutely thrilling. That has been a big influence. And the movies of David Lynch and Andre Tarkovsky.
I think that traveling your own road means trying to reconcile all the influences and experiences into your own sound and your own fingerprint as a composer. This is the long, hard, never-ending battle I think. Trying to reconcile disparate influences and find an original voice on the other side.

Jeff: What is it that draws you to the writing of Italo Calvo?
Tom: The remarkable lightness. He deals with such profound ideas with such simplicity and grace. I only wish to someday be able to accomplish that in my music.

Jeff: A lot of your work seems to be inspired by buildings, how does a building convert into a musical idea or influence?
Tom: Difficult to explain my relationship with architecture. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on relationships between modern music and modern architecture. I am deeply interested in buildings that have a strong sense of the temporal, where space is relegated to serve time. And I love music which subverts the temporal paradigm, and gives the feeling that time has stopped and the music is a spatial object or quantity. I think that both of these kinds of space-time objects are related to one another, they both allow us to glimpse a world where time and space are not what we think they are. Buildings are about space, but they are also about time. And music is essentially ABOUT time, but it is also about space. It is this “other” that I find so fascinating. When I walk into a carefully constructed space and begin to understand the intention of the design, it can be a very powerful and inspiring thing.

Jeff: The Sounding the Curve track, Desert Music features a Cactus and a fretless 12 string. This had me rolling about with laughter, but is it really meant to be humourous?
Tom: Well, there is surely something funny about using a cactus for an instrument. I suppose it is more ironic in my view, since the sounds we get out it sound like rain or running water, in a piece called Desert Music. The cactus was inspired by a John Cage piece, called Child of Tree. I really wanted that dry, crackling sound to dominate the piece. I suppose that funny is in the eye/ear of the beholder, eh? And does it really matter if it was supposed to be funny?

Jeff: Who / what do you find funny?
Tom: Steve Martin. My mom took me to see him in Vegas when I was 11. Still one of the best nights of my life.

Jeff: The famous Nigel Tufnel quote from Spinal Tap; “There’s no such thing as a fretless guitar. You’re bloody making it up. Get out.” is rumoured to have its origins somewhere in Seattle.
Tom: When I released my solo fretless CD Sounding the Curve in 2002, we did some marketing with some press quotes. We made up, as in completely fabricated, the quote from Nigel (who is, after all, a fictional character) as a press joke. Since then it has been quoted in other places, which has made us laugh. And now, as the headline to the first fretless guitar article in Guitar Player. HA!

Jeff: Well it got me too, its still in Unfretted’s history page, haven’t got the heart to take it out.
Tom: Well, full credit for the word-smithing would have to go to Mark at Present Sounds Recordings. We are all getting quite a kick out of it here! I love Nigel, and even if he didn’t say it out loud, I still believe he must have at one time thought it. And in a Tufnel sort of world, that would be the same as saying it out loud, don’t ya think?
So I think that it is as real as some other foundational phrases: “love thy neighbor” or “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs” or “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”…

Jeff: What’s your worst tune of all time? You know the one that sends you screaming into a small room with your hands held tight over your ears.
Tom: Well at the risk of offending all those ABBA fans, I guess Dancing Queen is right up there.

Jeff: Good choice, now is there a tune that makes you spring out of bed ready to take on anything the day may bring?
Tom: Nothing, not even a great tune, can make me “spring out of bed.” I am a slow starter in the AM!

Jeff: You turned the big 40 a year ago, any indication that life begins at forty yet?
Tom: Well, life certainly CHANGES at/around 40. But I would say that my 40th year on the planet has been the most crazy, the most busy, the most challenging, and in the end the most cool.

Jeff: A lot of that time must have been taken up with your up-coming Opera – does it include fretless guitar?
Tom: The opera is called The Gospel of the Red-Hot Stars, and is being performed here in Seattle in April of 2006. And yes, it includes fretless guitar. The “orchestra” is: clarinet, violin, guitar and fretless guitar, trombone, bass and drums. It is a great story, set in Puritan New England amid all the witchcraft hysteria. The central character is Mary Webster, aka Half-hanged Mary, who was hung in the town square for being a witch, and left there all night, and when she is cut down in the morning she is still alive. It is based on a true story, and was written by the Canadian author Margaret Atwood.

Jeff: The Opera is a major project, do you have any future plans for another, or maybe something more ambitious in the future?
Tom: This opera is the third “chamber” opera I have written and produced, though it is the first one I have done in several years. I have been sketching ideas for a bigger, more “grand” opera: full orchestra and chorus and all that. But that one would be a little more than my production skills would allow for, so I will wait until I have a commission for it. The next chamber opera revolves around the poet Rilke, and is called the Song of the Orphan.

Jeff: What kind of car do you drive?
Tom: Early 90’s Ford Ranger Pickup (mostly for carrying equip and far-away fly-fishing excursions).

Jeff: Any dream motors?
Tom: I’m not really a car guy, though I loved my mom’s ’68 Buick Riviera – would love to get one of those.

Jeff: If you had to change career, what do you feel would be your vocation?
Tom: A fly-fishing guide.

Jeff: If you moved out of the US, which country would you like to settle in, and why?
Tom: New Zealand, for the fly fishing.

Jeff: Thanks Tom, another cuppa before you toddle off?
Tom: I don’t mind if I do. (smiles)

Sounding the Curve. (CD)
Pics in the Unfretted Gallery.