WHY (I RING)
I grew up raiding my parent’s 60s and 70s folk and rock vinyl collection (as well as a heavy dose of the Beatles on long car trips), and began experimenting with the guitar because my public school had a bunch of nylon-stringed acoustics and an amazing metal-guitarist-turned-school-teacher who used them to teach us The Troogs’ version of “Wild Thing” which has only three chords: A, D, and E (all open string chords, oddly enough!).
My friends started playing electric guitars and basses and forming bands and going to punk shows and—BOOM—my parents bought me a Purple Fender Stratocaster for under $300 and I was off to the woodshed, hacking away.
The guitar was my thing, but it wasn’t supposed to be!
My sister was a Suzuki-trained violin virtuoso who was touring Europe with the Dallas Youth Symphony Orchestra by middle school and studying with a member of the Boston Symphony every weekend during high school. (She later moved to New York to study at the conservatory but has since moved into Social Work in Boston.)
I was supposed to be the sports kid in the family, following in my father’s footsteps. He was a three-time All-American football player from a factory-town, Hungarian family in Central New Jersey (hence my strange surname) accepted to an Ivy League on full scholarship to play ball, and later the first to complete a postgraduate degree in his family. (His parents didn’t make it past middle school, working for DOW Chemical and a dress factory respectively—some crazy next-level, baby boomer shit right there!)
My lanky, underdeveloped-and-late-blooming body boded better hanging with weirdos and eccentrics in a stuffy New England town after our family moved to New Hampshire from Dallas, Texas at age 10. I still played sports like I was supposed to, but the guitar became my special project in the basement—my way out of semi-rural Suburbia. I’ll admit, I do think the sports helped my hand-eye coordination as I learned the instrument, so it’s intertwined in some way.
Following some confusing times post-High School graduation (chasing young love etc.), I moved to New York City to study Jazz Guitar at age 19, following my best friend—the drummer from my high school band—who’d moved there a year earlier.
I lived in seven different apartments in New York before settling in a little “town” (going on four years now!) by the water in Brooklyn called Red Hook. OK this is getting a little memoir-ish, but the point is that this project comes largely out of my work as a guitarist here in New York and as a flailing urban professional trying to navigate my way as a gentrifying non-native. (I do have family ties in Brooklyn: My Mother is from Upstate New York, whose sister lived on Wyckoff and Hoytt in Gowanus for 15 yrs, and my Father’s family is a stone’s throw away from Red Hook via Staten Island crossing in Jersey.)
During my foray with a Private University Jazz Education when I first came to New York, there came a point when I was nursing a serious wrist injury and just couldn’t see the potential for a job in the industry. Streaming services were starting to take off, and the level of competition for such few paying Jazz gigs made the focus of University life a largely male-dominated, upward moving social game, which felt—oddly—like the sports I was trying to get away from in New England. Jazz was the locker room, and I was a weird, vegetarian white kid trying to play an African-American art form and find my way in a city full of radical social activism which seemed more intune with my own demographics and upbringing. So, I applied and switched to the burgeoning Environmental Studies program at Parsons The New School for Design, and kept the music going as more of side-jig. (I completed my “jazz degree”—LOL—but the completion was tenuous, and my senior recital was on an abandoned floor on Earth Day far from the Jazz Department offices.)
Funny thing is, the second I took a step back from Jazz Ed., the more I wanted to play and get back to the music of my youth in Dallas, Texas (70s folk; hearing my sister perform with symphonies; and Texas blues guitar), as well as the liberating, creative music of my teens discovered improvising and making up songs with my own bands and friends in New England (local punk; radio pop; metal; free jazz; Americana; “jam bands”). In addition, the raw, more folkloric side of Jazz (Thelonious Monk, Charlie Park, Mingus, et al.)—which I was first brought into contact with through my best-friend’s-father’s record collection in High School—as well as the more free-form compositions of Frank Zappa, began to take on new meaning to me as a listener, player, and composer. By the way, this is the kind of weird, polarized, patchwork shit you only find in the United States of America.
Even funnier: both worlds—enviro. and jazzer—offered exclusionary views of the world and didn’t accept me into their mostly boys’ clubs. “Why would you make music and not save the forests? Why would you save the forests and not be in the woodshed practicing to be the best?” they asked. I’ll never know the answers, and neither will you. It’s all good; it’s all bad.
During this extra funny time, the guitar was home base—its ringing chords and edgy sonority became the building block of most of the sonic worlds I create today, and one of the few respites from our poisoned world. After completing my degrees, I took on a job as an environmental analyst at a consulting company in Harlem for 5 years, visiting many of the hallmark NYC office buildings in Midtown Manhattan (2 Penn, GM Building, Time Warner Center, etc.) and writing many more recycling reports about them back at the office, becoming far too familiar with the term “greenwashing”.
This double life wherein—at one point—I was working for the NYC Department of Sanitation’s Recycling Office in Wall Street during the day and playing my jazz compositions at Greenwich Village’s Fat Cat club at night continued for about 6 years. The guitar was the only real constant as I tried desperately to take on guitar students after hours and on the weekends to make enough money to record my first album. I probably should have kept those jobs (I got to see some crazy rooftops and sort trash on empty floors), but I think it was during this period that my music began to expand, moving further afloat from traditional jazz, becoming more informed, darker, and irreverent by my office job in the environmental field.
In this time, I also became more familiar “the state of the music industry”, as I lusted after a way out of my office chair. I performed (and booked—from a hidden tab at my office job computer) literally hundreds of concerts of my own music and cooperative shows with different collaborators and colleagues, and released two albums under my own name on the Americana record label Tiny Montgomery, which I started with my friends and a savvy record collector/journalist from Long Island.
The Jazz stuff wasn’t feeling very relevant or rewarding, so I also began playing accompaniment or “lead guitar” in various studio and live scenarios with singer-songwriters, bands and composers. In these situations, I was often asked to add colour, intrigue, melody, timbre or superimposed layers and parts (e.g. solos, riffs, ambience) to an already completed song or composition. This is where my obsession with the ringing, sparkly, open-string chords became extremely useful, and—eventually—a core aspect of my personality on the instrument. This is also where I learned to freak out the campfire chords that most singer-songwriters use to write their songs.
You see, it’s very important when you’re a side person not to play the same chords as the other guitar players, otherwise, you aren’t adding any new textures or interest, simply noise and bulk—and you might just be out of a gig if you can’t add anything extra!
As I explored these chords more, they also became a building block and method for creating my own compositions and songs, as well as a great teaching tool for beginners and seasoned shredders alike. (My favorite student was an after-work classical guitarist who wanted to learn chord solos of old show tunes, who I taught in a massive, probably-haunted Victorian building on 9th St in Brooklyn a few doors down from my favorite bar-venue, Barbès, where I would later perform several residencies with my band Uncivilized and record an album of interpretations on the music of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks soundtrack.)
The disparate worlds of environmentalism and jazz composition eventually gave birth to an album entitled “Uncivilized”, which became the name of my main project, after something called The Uncivilisation Festival, in England, run by an ex-environmentalist-turned-artist-activist named Paul Kingsnorth (look him up—there’s a very long and interesting New York Times profile from 2015). The music is song-based—I call it “songscaping”—and built first from my own guitar voicings, which steer everything towards a droney, freak-pop collage of Americana music—think early, twangier Pat Metheny Group meets Charles Mingus or maybe a big band version of John Fahey’s solo guitar compositions. The music tries not to take itself too seriously and is prone to intentional and unintentional chaos as well as into indeterminacies of pitch (freedom to the players, if you will) which reflect our lack of control and understanding of the massive forces of our times. The guitar—an ultimate folk-art, Americana artifact of ancient and corporate lore—is an extremely important aesthetic within this ensemble and at the core of its ethos.
The point of all of this is that the guitar has been the only constant in my life for at least 20 years. Part thought-piece, part alt-method-book, I’m aiming to find the lexus and nexus of these strangely common and magnetizing shapes with their practical use in music making and music listening. Maybe it’s a simple cultural question which brings us into the world of these particular chords: what percentage of the population knows how to play “The Sweater Song” by Weezer, which is built entirely — melody and all — upon a rather dissonant “open string” G minor-major chord?
I’ve recently dealt with a diagnosis of Stage II Brain Cancer which resulted in a massive operation, which was successful-albeit-life changing, and has pushed me into a reflective, vociferous writing bout—it’s why you see these words here before you.
Unsure of the relevance and thread to operating a musical entity in New York City concurrent with these health trials and the trajectory of contemporary music culture, I’m more-or-less watching from the sidelines and writing along the way in a sort of manic catharsis while I take care of my two infant children.