Interview by DJ Johnson
It's been a particularly prolific few years for Skip Heller. The Philadelphia-born guitarist, originally known as a bright light of the alternative country scene and now one of our finest jazz artists, moved toward the organ trio format (guitar, organ and drums) and released a handful of CDs recorded with different players on different coasts. Some were only sold at concerts and on Heller's website, and some have been official releases (Fakebook, The Battle In Seattle). On May 17th, Dreambox Records -- a Philly label, appropriately enough -- released not one but two Skip Heller CDs: Bear Flag, the first studio album of new Skip Heller songs in three years, and Out Of Time, a recording of a recent live show in Philadelphia.
On top of all this, plans are underway for a box set that will make Skip's fans extremely happy. Being one of those fans myself, I decided it was time to touch base with Mr. Heller. This is his fourth Cosmik interview, which ties him with former Zappa cohort Mike Keneally for most appearances in Cosmik Debris.
Cosmik: Nobody can accuse you of laying low these days. You re-released Couch, Los Angeles with bonus tracks, you put out a few live discs, all mostly for the fans who follow your web site, and now you have two official releases that hit the streets at the same time last month. For lack of a better question, what's going on, Skip?
Skip: Well, the rights to Couch had reverted to me after five years, and there was a ton of stuff with those guys and that line-up and that style of material that I had that didn't really have a home, so it made sense to do a "deluxe" edition. I had a list of everyone who bought it mail order, so we sent those people free copies, the way software companies do when they upgrade.
Cosmik: That's so unexpected... I was going to say "today," but when has an artist ever done something like that on his own dime? What kinds of reactions did you get from people?
Skip: I got some thank you letters. I don't know anyone who's done it before the way I did, but there have always been artists who make sure the audience gets some fringe benefits, like Prince.
As for the other stuff we did limited runs of, like It's Like That and Til Things Are Brighter, it's just because I felt like I should put it out for the few people who seem to want these things, and -- because of a company in Arizona called Lonely Records -- it's finally cost-feasible to do a short run of CDs that looks good.
The two "official" records at once is a little different. We had a bunch of different options. Hyena has a deal with Kufala, who do these live recordings, and the idea for a minute was to maybe have Kufala put out Out Of Time, which I cut live in Philly with a rhythm section there. I wanted to make a record that sounded like the music I used to go hear when I was underage and getting in the bars. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought it belonged on Dreambox, which is Philly's main jazz label and has been for a real long time. Then I spoke with Jim Miller, who runs the label, and everything about the way they do things makes sense from an artist's perspective. The traditional label set-up is really oriented towards retail and traditional retail outlets. Dreambox is set up around the idea that jazz artists aren't really bidding as heavily in the traditional retail market. They have a good distributor, but the artist maintains inventory control. So I decided to do both records, Out Of Time and Bear Flag, with them.
Kevin Calabro, who's my publicity guy and general advisor, said to put both records out at once. Neither of us could figure out anyone who made two totally different records on two different coasts but with the same instrumentation. He said it was a really unique thing to do.
Cosmik: Listening to the band on Bear Flag -- which is a totally addicting album, by the way -- is an entirely different experience than listening to the band you recorded Fake Book and Battle In Seattle with. Like each group had separate strengths that are clearly defined. It seems to me this group is less about power and more about beauty and subtlety. How much does that change your job?
Skip: I don't think about it. If I did, it would probably hurt things. Sometimes it's better to not know your job description so you can just do what comes naturally.
Cosmik: Bear Flag is the first album of new Skip Heller originals in quite a while. How much of the album was already written over a long period of time, and how much did you sit down and compose specifically for this album?
Skip: Almost all of it was written over the last few years without any band in mind. "Highway 99" was the only one written after I'd started playing with these guys. "Train Rhythm Blue" had been recorded before, in 1996, on a Ray Campi album. But most of this stuff was written in transit, on the road. "'Til Things Are Brighter" was written in Seattle, "Letter Home To My Wife" was written in Mobile, "Weatherbirds Of Prey" was actually another song I had written that started to reshape itself after me and my friend Ed visited Louis Armstrong's house in Queens.
Cosmik: Really? What's the story behind that?
Skip: It was originally written as a tribute to Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Then, after I visited Louis' house, which was a really religious experience for me, I started thinking about all this stuff that he and Fatha Hines pioneered in the tune "Weatherbird" back in the late twenties, and I just incorporated that stuff really directly, like rhythmic displacement, passing chords, and a certain feeling of interplay.
Cosmik: You mentioned "Train Rhythm Blue," which you wrote and recorded on Ray Campi's album. In fact that became the title track of that album. It's quite different here, but the structure of the tune is so solid, it works beautifully this way. How did you conceive it, originally?
Skip: Got the germ of it one afternoon in 1996, back in my first apartment in Silverlake, and it was something I kept playing with over the course of a few weeks, while we were making Ray's album. Ray finally said, "That's real different. We should put that on the record. It sounds like the Sons Of The Pioneers," who had all those cowboy songs with mysterious chord changes, like "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds," so I finished it that way. But its birth was as a Curtis Mayfield/Norman Harris type of thing.
Cosmik: You say you don't think too much about changing what you do as a player with this new section, but how did working with them change your writing approach? Do you write thinking of this person's style or that sound, or do you write as always, bring it in, and they add all that?
Skip: There were a few tunes that didn't survive rehearsal with this band. And there were things that both Joe and Ryan brought to the music that suggested certain arrangement moves to me in a few of the tunes. They're both really brilliant musicians, so you find yourself saying, "Wait! Stop! Write that into the arrangement", especially in Ryan's case. He has this way of anticipating certain kinds of phrases that give the music a firmer sense of what the outline of the tune is, so I was really stopping tunes in the rehearsals a lot and saying "write that in, and do it over here, too". As for Joe Bagg, he's just so fluent and natural and beautiful that he tends to do stuff that works and you don't have to tell him much. He GETS it, you know?
Cosmik: Let's talk about the new live CD, Out Of Time. It's obvious, I suppose, but the significance just sort of hit me while I was re-listening for the umpteenth time that this is a totally different trio here. So I put some of the MP3s I'd made from Bear Flag and Out Of Time in shuffle with songs from Fake Book and Battle In Seattle. Turns out that's an interesting thing to do, because the lines dividing these albums are very distinct. Do you have a little list of things you wanted to do in this style before changing directions? Is something about to happen?
Skip: No. It's really about finally going back to a format I understand intimately. It's as versatile as any, as you can tell from listening to those MP3s in shuffle order. Bill Evans had the piano trio, and that was good enough for him. I have this.
I'd say the lines dividing those albums have more to do the with the type of material I selected and the rhythm sections who played it. Different guys have different strengths.
Cosmik: You never feel like walking away from it and saying you've done all you can do, bring on the next direction? I ask because you've done it before, you know?
Skip: If I like a format, I'll revisit it as long as the results come up differently each time. That's really the test of how viable a format is. I've never finished anything, stylistically. The minute I work a style and decide I know all there is to know about it, I'll say so. But I can't imagine saying or thinking something like that.
As long as you come to something fresh, no matter how well you think you know it, you'll always come away with unforeseen stuff.
The asterisk to this is that I'm pretty much through with producing rockabilly. You get too many rules imposed on you about what you're not allowed to do, and I don't really work too happily that way.
Cosmik: Was Out Of Time taken from one show?
Skip: Yeah. It was recorded in one hour. There are alternate takes of three songs. Craig Baylor, who produced, wanted to leave them in. But I think God invented the cutting room floor for a reason. It's a testament to the players -- Lucas Brown, who played organ, and John Kennedy -- that we could make a record like that. Those guys had never even met before, but I thought they'd approach the music from the same place. We rehearsed and set the recording levels from 5 to 7, broke for dinner, and hit at 8:30. Soulmite followed us on time at 9:30. Their lead singer was the daughter of the guy who turned me onto electric guitar. Gave me a copy of B.B. King Live At The Regal and made me feel the need to electrify. Got a nice photo of me and her. Plus some nice shots of the gig in general. Bunky DeVecchis, who shoots jazz around town and is really known, did the cover photos.
Cosmik: That's a sweet recording. Incredibly clean, but it's also as warm as I've heard. Who did that?
Skip: Philippe Aubuchon. The tracks themselves were a bit of a mess. The engineer we had in Philly didn't label things, there were all kinds of problems in the transfers... My blood pressure is going up. Sorry. But Philbeau -- after his initial freakout -- really stayed the course. He knew exactly what I was after, how to find the small club-ness of the tracks and make that a tangible part of the sound. He deserves as much credit as the players for all the records I've done with him. He works so hard on the stuff.
Cosmik: You've mentioned plans for a box set in the near future. First of all, how near, and what are you planning for that?
Skip: I'm not exactly sure yet. The tapes are coming from such a variety of sources that a lot of the timeline depends on who gets to the post office and how fast. My initial plan was to make everything the four or five best things from each record, then ten things that are either out of print or didn't come out and that correspond to that record. I have live tapes of everything, which vary in sound quality, but there are some really nice performances in there. Most of my film scores have reverted to me, so I have that stuff. When the rest of the tapes get here, I'll have a better sense.
Cosmik: I know you keep the schedule pretty full most of the time. What else is happening at the moment?
Skip: Touring, a solo guitar disc, and a duo session with Joe Bagg on Rhodes.
Cosmik: Well Skip, thank you for joining Mike Keneally as the only four-time Cosmik Debris interviewees. This is what happens when your music is in high rotation here in the office. We sit around saying things like "Damn, this guy's good... Let's see if we can get him on the phone..."
Skip: I am not worthy.