An Interview with Neal Barnard
BY MARG FREEMAN

MF: 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 album?

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?

NB: Years 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.

MF: What 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?

NB: 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.

MF: 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.

MF: 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.

MF: 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.