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Bill Frisell on Johnny Smith, Mickey Mouse, and the importance of insecurity



Bill Frisell: 'The music has always been the place where everything's okay.' - DANIEL SHEEHAN
  • Daniel Sheehan
  • Bill Frisell: 'The music has always been the place where everything's okay.'

Bill Frisell is shy.

It's not that he's distant or guarded. In conversation, the Seattle-based guitarist is as articulate and insightful as his music is innovative and influential.

Nor is Frisell anti-social or reclusive. He's been a featured guest artist on more than 100 albums, released a few dozen of his own, and will be performing with seven different backing bands during his current 20-date tour.

In Frisell's case, it's a shyness that's manifested in quiet thoughtfulness and a humility that's anything but false.

You won't find him name-dropping collaborators like Elvis Costello or Lucinda Williams — unless you bring them up first — or subtly alluding to the Grammy Award he won for his 2004 album, Unspeakable, which layers dissonant guitar over obscure vinyl samples and elements of soul, jazz and funk.

It's also easy to imagine him feeling a twinge of embarrassment when critics inevitably praise his work in reverent tones: "Bill Frisell plays the guitar like Miles Davis played the trumpet," raves The New Yorker. "In the hands of such radical thinkers, their instruments simply become different animals."

"I guess I've gotten better at talking and stuff," says Frisell with a laugh. "I still get nervous right before I play, but when the music takes over, I'm cool then. The music has always been the place where everything's okay."

Although widely regarded as one of today's most original artists, Frisell's most recent two albums have found him deconstructing some of his favorite songs, with a few originals slipped into the mix.

Guitar in the Space Age boasted covers of Junior Wells' "Messin' With the Kid," the Kinks' "Tired of Waiting," and Pete Seeger's "Turn Turn Turn." Two weeks ago, Frisell followed up with a tribute to film and television themes called When You Wish Upon a Star.

A major part of the new album’s magic is the combination of Frisell’s subtly arranged guitar parts — which can range from a clean Wes Montgomery tone to more effects-laden explorations — alongside the stunningly evocative vocal contributions of longtime collaborator Petra Haden.

The daughter of legendary bassist Charlie Haden, she shares Frisell’s fascination with film, having ventured into cinematic terrain on her own with the 2013 album Petra Goes to the Movies. (She’s also a member of the live band that’ll back the guitarist on his Denver date.)

Accompanied by bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston, Frisell and Haden have their way with Johnny Mandel's "The Shadow of Your Smile," Ennio Morricone's spaghetti westerns, the theme from Psycho, and, of course, the Disney song from which the album's title is borrowed.

Actually, Frisell's fans owe a debt of gratitude to Disney, without whom the guitarist might never have pursued a career in music. As a 5-year-old Mickey Mouse Club addict, he was fascinated by the spell that resident tunesmith Jimmie Dodd cast over the assembled Mouseketeers. Even more intriguing was the instrument he was playing, which inspired the young Frisell to make his own out of cardboard, complete with drawn-on strings.

"Just seeing the object itself — the guitar — it was like 'What is this thing?'" recalls Frisell. "Like he picks it up and then everybody gathers around him, and it's got this kind of power or something to cool everybody out. Everyone's running around and doing whatever they do, but then at the end they all get together and they gather around this thing. And that's what music has always been for me, this thing that just brings people together in an amazing way."

Frisell was subsequently inspired by surf-rock band The Ventures. He was born, he says, around the same time as the first Fender Telecaster, and, after getting a proper guitar as a teenager, he formed a band that would play in friends' basements and backyard parties. He later made his way to UC-Boulder, where he studied with jazz guitarist Dale Bruning and, in a stroke of good fortune, Colorado Springs legend Johnny Smith.

When he first signed up for the class, Frisell had no idea that it was Smith who originally wrote "Walk Don't Run," which became The Ventures' signature hit. His classmates, it turned out, were even more clueless.

"It was open to anyone who wanted to play the guitar, and they just weren't interested in what he was talking about," recalls Frisell. "There were maybe five of us in the class, and very quickly it just disintegrated, and it was left with just me and him. So I basically had private lessons with him."

While the young guitarist learned plenty of exotic chords and difficult finger placements, it wasn't until years later that he realized what a gift that fate had provided.

"But it doesn't really help to have regrets," says Frisell, who still finds things he wish he'd done differently on each album. "You just have to do whatever you do, and it will lead you to the next thing."

Those next things, for the aspiring musician, included a move to New York's Lower East Side, where he played the role of avant-rock guitarist in John Zorn's improvisational Naked City. He also honed his bebop instincts as an ongoing member of Paul Motian's band. On his own albums, he employed effects pedals to express his advanced musicality, instead of relying on them, as many do, to hide a lack of skill and imagination.

"Well, sometimes I will just turn something on to see what it does and try to be surprised by it. But more often than not, the reason I use these things comes from something that I'm hearing in my imagination first. When I first got a fuzztone, it was because I was hearing the sound of a trumpet in my head."

Then again, those sounds may be coming from somewhere else entirely. Asked about how his approach to recording with an artist like Lucinda Williams differs from that of his own work, Frisell insists it doesn't.

"It's always the same for me, it's really not that different," he says. "I mean, when I'm playing with Lucinda, it's the same as playing with Charles Lloyd or playing my own stuff. I just let the music take over, and then I do whatever it's telling me to do.

And while the insecurities persist, they've at least become more familiar.

"In music, there's just no way that you're ever gonna get it," says Frisell. "I just woke up this morning and I picked up my guitar and I was like, oh my God, what am I doing? It doesn't feel that different from the very first time. But obviously I've been playing it for more than 50 years, so I can do something on it."

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