Interview with Neal Barnard
BY MARG FREEMAN
Your new CD is just out, and I love what you’ve done here. As I’m sure everyone
tells you, I’ve never heard anything like it, really. I need to ask you first
about “Purple Haze.” What made you want to record this song—and do it in such
an odd way?
NB: The song is a classic, of course. But I kept hearing
it differently—very slow, very hard, and I put parts of it in 7/4 time. And Martha
turned the vocal into a wonderful bluesy line. In my book, it’s perfectly okay
to scrunch a song to the point where it’s barely recognizable. After all, Hendrix
bent the Star Spangled Banner pretty far out of shape, and he made Dylan’s “All
Along the Watchtower” so hot that Dylan no longer wanted to play it himself anymore.
MF: Well, it works. What led to your recording this
NB: Several things all collided one night some years back. We
were playing at the 9:30 Club back when it was actually located at 930 F Street.
It was wonderful. But it was all guitars, guitars, guitars, guitars, and it became
a bit of a din. Now that was our doing, of course, but in my mind, above all the
noise of guitars and drums, a few other things floated in. Even though the music
was pretty hard-edged, we worked in elements of jazz and French and Vietnamese
lyrics and let things wander. And I began to hear a string quartet playing in
triplets very delicately as a layer over the top.
And at about the same time,
I was walking in Chinatown in San Francisco during a Chinese New Year celebration.
Off in the distance, a band was playing—a group of young Chinese musicians with
guitars, bass, and drums. They were completely out of tune. And over the top of
it all was an unimposing woman singing with a quiet angelic voice. And the combination
of that raucous music with an ethereal beauty over the top just stuck in my mind.
MF: Is that where the “East meets West” came from?
NB: No. Bite your tongue. I’m definitely not aiming for “fusion” where
you throw in a bit of this and a bit of that, where they all lose out. What I’m
aiming for is more like one weather pattern hovering over another. It’s in layers—starting
with driving hormonal rhythms, and then letting something quieter float over the
top. The idea is not to force flavors together for any theoretical reason. You
blend them only because your tastes insist on it, and that’s what happened here.
MF: Hormonal rhythms?
NB: Well, odd meters are
always attractive. I mean numerically odd, like 7 or 5 or 11, instead of the usual
4/4, because they give you a little jolt—and they’re best when the listener is
not aware of what the rhythm is. They just know something is happening. And then
lyrically, when the undercurrent was solid and moody, we painted a happier lyric
over the top. And vice-versa. If the undercurrent was too light, then the top
became dark. So that’s it.
MF: What made you
blend Vietnamese music with guitar and drums and everything?
ago I was living in Arlington, Virginia, where there were lots of Vietnamese shops,
and I stumbled onto a cassette by Trio Dong Phuong, which was a wonderful group
with beautiful vocal harmonies. And my favorite song was Ly Ngua O—the black horse.
The song uses a pentatonic scale, more or less—the same scale used in blues and
a lot of rock ‘n roll—so it kept transforming in my mind into rock and blues.
Anyway, traditional Vietnamese songs often begin with a very light vocal that
is improvised and unaccompanied--it is often sad and very beautiful. As we recorded
our version, we let that become the main melody, which Martha sings. And then
Ngọc brings in the original in the middle of the song, along with the traditional
instruments played so wonderfully by Bầu Nguyễn.
I was a little
worried that I was taking a few too many liberties with the traditional song,
but Ngọc and Bầu were very encouraging through the whole project.
I might mention that one of the original members of the Trio Dong Phuong, Nguyet
Mehlert, is still singing and recording in California. She is a real hero of mine.
MF: How did the other musicians react to the project?
NB: Well, we were pretty well outside our comfort zone for most of it, and
I got quite a few puzzled looks in the studio as it came together. But I hope
everyone’s happy with the result.
MF: Tell me about
the other songs on this CD, especially “Fate.”
NB: At the blackjack
table or roulette wheel, the croupier will say “les jeux sont faits,” meaning
there are no more bets, you’ve taken your risk, and you have to just wait to see
how things play out. In life, you walk out the door. You enter another. Les jeux
sont faits. Each action seals your fate.
a lovely thought. I have to say, that thumping bass line reminds me of the scene
in the Wizard of Oz where the witch’s guards are marching along and chanting.
Very surreal. And Martha’s vocal is really exquisite.
NB: I get chills
listening to the middle section, where she says, “Words whispered in haste,” and
so on. And then she hits those incredibly high final notes—I’m a little surprised
we didn’t have to rush her to the hospital afterward—it turned out so wonderfully.
MF: What’s “Page of Swords” about?
It’s a love song between a mother and child. A lullaby almost. As she draws the
tarot cards, she finds the Page of Swords, then the ace. These are good signs.
Although the child will face many problems in life, he carries her love with him.
MF: But I really don’t think anyone would hear
that song that way. It sounds to me more like a horror flick, with those eerie
gongs and your psycho glockenspiels or whatever. It sounds fatalistic. I mean,
it’s great, I love it, but it’s not happy music.
NB: No, no. Listen
to it. Those instruments have their friendly side.
Well, “Song to a Sparrow” is just flat out gorgeous.
NB: Martha’s voice
blends so beautifully with Carter’s cello and Sam’s guitar. They are just fantastic
musicians, and I was really happy to have them on this record. I wrote this for
Ngọc, for a CD she’s working on for Vietnamese children, but I loved how
it turned out and asked her if I could include it here, too. The song is about
love and frailty, and the tragedy that life always turns out to be.
What are your influences, musically? If you were on a desert island with just
ten songs you could listen to, what would they be?
NB: Well, in no
particular order, Alain Souchon had the most poignant song, called “C’est Deja
Ca.” He is extremely popular in France and that song will melt your heart. And
my current fave, Phi Nhung. One of her songs, called “Yêu Lầm,” will make
you scream, it’s so good, but all of her songs with traditional instrumentation
are great. She is a Vietnamese singer, now living in California. And John Bartles
from upstate New York. He is a singer and sort of a nihilistic philosopher, and
he rides pretty close to the edge most of the time.
Let’s see. Desert-island-wise,
I’d have to have Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Benjamin Britten’s “Variations on
a Theme of Frank Bridge,” Cream’s “Crossroads” and “Spoonful”—they count as one.
Clapton’s guitar is really the best ever. And John McLaughlin—anything he ever
recorded, although I am especially partial to “My Goal’s Beyond” and “The Inner
Mounting Flame.” The Incredible String Band had a song called “The Letter,” and
everything else they ever did. Also, Christopher Parkening’s CD of Rodrigo’s “Concerto
de Aranjuez” and his work with Kathleen Battle. And Patricia Kaas—her first album
and also her third, called “Le Tour de Charme,” which are both classics. I think
that’s more than ten.
MF: What guitar are you playing
on this record?
NB: It’s a mid-70’s Les Paul—the same one I’ve used
for years. And also a Steinberger, which is a tiny little guitar, but really fantastic.
I’m going through a Fender Pro Reverb amplifier with almost no effects other than
cranking up the preamp so high it almost has a seizure.
Where to from here?
NB: We’ve only just begun to touch on some wonderful
things. I want to take advantage of Martha’s and Mike’s more hard-edged sides,
as well as Ngọc’s lyrical music. I’d love to tap Bob Gray’s guitar, as well
as his saxophone. He’s a really frightening guitarist. Bầu has just released
a new CD, which is an amazing collision of cultures. We’ll see.