Greg Howard plays the Chapman Stick, an instrument that was only invented in 1969 (the inventor, Emmet Chapman, is still alive), and is backed up by three Dutchmen he met less than two years ago while on tour in Holland. Formed for a single concert, he liked the sound of the group so much they became the Greg Howard Band and their debut CD LIFT just came out in December 2000. Obviously not one to play to convention, Howard’s music combines “organic communication and improvisation with state-of-the-art electric and acoustic instrumentation.” In other words, they rock.
I met with the band just before they hit the stage at the Mint in a small back room. Hubert, the sax and electronic wind instrument player, had only recently hit the tarmac of LAX, but everyone was happy to be alive and playing music. Greg started out by telling me about his crazy day.
Carlye Archbeque: So what made your day so crazy…just driving around LA?
Greg Howard: Well, we almost drove off a cliff.
CA: How did you do that?
GH: I was up in Laurel Canyon, getting some stuff and I was with Jan (Wolfkamp) and we almost went over a cliff. It was very exciting.
CA: I’m glad you survived.
GH: Me too. Very much so, me more than you probably.
CA: Well I don’t know, this is the front page interview. So how long have you guys actually been together?
GH: We played our first show about a year and a half ago and then we started to make a record. We’ve only done maybe eight shows.
CA: How do you guys like playing together?
CA: (to the band) Did you guys ever envision yourselves playing in a band fronted by a Stick player?
Hubert Herringa: No! Never.
GH: Not in their worst nightmare.
CA: You guys do a lot of improvisation, mentally, how do you do that? Do you just listen and meld together or is there some kind of format that you start out with? Mostly, how do you know when you’re done?
GH: You know you’re done when everyone stops (laughs.)
HH: When you get a lot of dirty looks.
CA: When the crowd starts to thin?
HH: Yeah. It’s like you’re telling your story and sometimes it’s too long and sometimes it’s too short and sometimes it’s good.
CA: So it’s like you’re communicating with each other?
GH: Yeah, and a lot of times we’ll improvise in the middle of a song and when one of us takes it back to the song [we started with] then the improvisation is over. It’s kind of the way the Jazz musicians would do it.
CA: You seem to have a lot of Jazz and Blues underlying your music…
GH: Yeah, I think Jan and Jan more than me. Hubert is more classically oriented and I’m more of a progressive kind of guy. I also like Jazz a lot too, but I’m not really trained in it.
CA: When did you first run across the Chapman Stick?
GH: The first time I saw it, I didn’t really see it. I say Tony Levin playing it, but from behind, so I didn’t really see what he was doing. It wasn’t till a few years later that I saw him playing in a regular situation, and decided that it was the instrument I wanted to play.
CA: What drew you to it? The versatility…?
GH: Yeah, I was a keyboard player and you can do two parts on it, like you can on a keyboard, but since you have your hands right on the strings, it’s more expressive. It’s just more interactive. You’re touching the strings so it’s more a part of you than the piano is.
CA: Hubert, when did you start playing?
HH: When I was twelve. I started violin and later on saxophone.
CA: That’s early, was it a part of a school program or something?
HH: Yeah, I did…but they kicked me out of school!
CA: I’ve never heard of a violin player getting kicked out of school. How did that happen?
Jan Van Olffen: He was too good. (Everyone laughs good naturedly at Hubert.)
HH: Well I don’t know. I was too friendly I guess.
CA: I’m not going to touch that one. (turns to another band member) and which Jan are you?
JO: van Olffen, I play bass.
CA: How long have you been doing that?
JO: Every since I was twelve, I guess.
CA: And did it get you kicked out of school?
JO: (laughing) No, it kept me in school.
CA: (to Jan Wolfkamp) So you must play drums. How long have you been doing that?
JW: I studied classical drums, then I got into electronics and with this band I got into loops.
CA: Are you guys going to stay together as a band after this tour, or is this just a project for you?
HH: No, it’s not a project, it’s a band.
GH: Anytime I can manage to get everyone’s schedules to coincide then we go on tour. Everyone is doing other things, but it’s a very strong unit.
CA: Do you all play in other bands? Are you like studio musicians?
JO: We play with this guy or that guy or sometimes with a band.
GH: Jan (W) has a drum project called “pads allowed”(sic)
CA: “Pads allowed?”?
JW: I was in this country about ten years ago and I saw on every window in every show, “pets not allowed.” So I made from that “pets all loud.”!
CA: Do you like live performance or studio performance better?
GH: I’m really terrible in the studio because I don’t do it that much.
HH: I like a lot to play in the studio because you can have a lot of control on your sound. When I play saxophone, and I’m live and the technician puts me on the microphone I’m not loud enough. I must work and work and then the sound of the horn is not always best. When I’m in the studio, I have optimal sound and I can play beautiful things.
JO: Both, it’s equal. Live gives you a lot of energy, but you have a lot of control in the studio. The nice thing about the studio is when you’re working for somebody else you can pull out anything you want to make the song better.
GH: A lot of my solo performances are all improvised, so for me it’s a chance to experiment with an audience so it’s really fun when they’re willing to listen to me.
CA: What’s the first live performance you did?
GH: With the Stick? I played in a vegetarian restaurant in probably 1985.
CA: How did you like touring with the Dave Matthew’s Band?
GH: It was really fun. I can’t imagine myself being in that situation being in this hugely successful rock band, being on the road a hundred and fifty days out of the year and basically when they’re on the road they have no control of their lives.
CA: They have a huge loyal fan base.
GH: Yeah, they do. I don’t really feel like it was the kind of thing I could do all the time, but it was fun.
CA: You like the small tours?
GH: I like an audience I can see.
CA: (to Hubert) If you could be any other profession what would it be?
HH: Uh, uh…. (everyone laughs)
CA: Oops, sorry, next (joking).
HH: Something with film I guess… an actor?
JW: Graphic designer.
CA: Like animation, Pixar, that kind of stuff?!
CA: What kind of cook?
CA: Would you own a restaurant or would you work for someone else?
JO: Have my own restaurant.
GH: I think I would be a monk.
CA: What kind of monk? Buddhist, Catholic, vegetarian, vows of silence?
GH: No silence.