JGS James Muller Interview – Part One of Two

One of the reasons we made JazzGuitarSociety.com was because we wanted to promote and give exposure to many guitar players that we believed to be deserving of greater recognition. James Muller is definitely one such player. Here in Australia all good musicians know of James but elsewhere he is still not on a lot of people’s radars. John Scofield described Muller as, “the most exciting guitar player I’ve heard in years”…and talking about the Muller album THRUM, Scofield says “it blew me away”. Muller’s most recent album KABOOM, recorded with Bill Stewart and Matt Penman, is a tour de force and I believe stands as one of the best Jazz Guitar albums of the past decade.
I’ve had the great pleasure of watching James play live many times around Sydney with his Trio and Quartet. As a player he is inspiring and exciting. As a teacher he is only too happy to share his knowledge. So I contacted James and asked if I he would agree to do an interview with JazzGuitarSociety.com and he said yes. So now, it’s a privilege to present this rare and informative interview with one of the world’s leading Jazz guitarists. Because of its length, we will present this interview in two parts:

[JP] What are you doing in Adelaide (City in the state of South Australia)?

JMuller3[JM] Well, it’s for a number of reasons but the main reason is that I got a Fellowship from the Australia Council at the end of last year, worth a substantial amount of money, to kind of work on my own projects. I put in a proposal to the Australia Council to say what I would do with the money if I got it and they accepted it which is great..so..um..part of that is basically taking time off being a professional muso to concentrate on my own stuff. This is the first time I’ve been able to do that in 20 years so it’s been great just have a break and clear my mind plus there’s not too many gigs going on over here so I’m not going to fall back into the trap of, y’know, saying ‘yes’ to a thousand gigs and …

[JP] Your family is located in Adelaide isn’t it?

[JM] No, they’re not actually. I was born here and I grew up here, but everyone has moved away now. My parents live in Tassie (Tasmania) now and my sister is in Sydney, so, I am the only one here at the moment.

[JP] You’re happy about being in Adelaide then, it’s working well for you?

[JM] Yeah, it’s great. I mean, I do miss playing with my mates over in Sydney. I miss there not being a bigger scene here, but I think it’s been really good for me to just to concentrate on myself and I think my playing is really moving ahead despite not having much live work on, which is great.

[JP] So do you think that because you were heavily involved in Sydney – you were doing gigs, other people’s projects and a variety of things all the time. Is it hard to grow your own identity, your own music?

[JM] I think so, yes it is – you’re constantly having your attention turned to other things. When you are hired gun, as you know, you rarely have people book you to do what you do. I mean you always have to sort of fit into a mould. You might get a little bit of a chance to do your thing but mainly you’re doing whatever they want so, yeah, it’s been great not having to think on those terms. [JP] So its been what? Seven years since “Kaboom”, six or seven years?

[JM] Yep…

[JP] And before that “Thrum” which was maybe six years before that?

[JM] No, let me tell how they went. Ok, the first one I did was “No You Don’t” – that was 1995 when that came out. The next one I did was “All Out” which came out in 1999. Or was it ’98? And then “Thrum” came out in 2002 and “Kaboom” was 2006. So yeah, there has generally been sort of four years between every album (laughs) which is a long time, I know.

[JP] It is a long time. Does that concern you?

JMuller2[JM] Umm (pause). I think its only bad in that it’s not good for my profile but musically I think it’s fine. It’s too easy to put out records now and I think people that can’t really play are often… (pauses)…you know, everyone can put out a record now. You can do it in your backyard or lounge room or whatever…

[JP] True.

[JM] So, artistically I think its fine but, yeah it’s not good for your profile. It doesn’t help to raise your profile if you keep disappearing of the scene.

[JP] So in having this Fellowship and taking time off, are you writing? Is there a focus on writing?

[JM] Yeah! Absolutely. I can even tell you what. The first recording I’m doing is with my trio which is Ben Vanderwal (drums)and Alex Boneham(bass) and then after that I’m actually going to be working on a solo guitar record – just guitar – so we’ll see how that goes… There will be writing for both of those things and also I am meant to be doing some arrangements of some of my favourite Australian jazz compositions, which I think don’t get enough of a Guernsey in the jazz world here so… There are some great writers in Australia, as you are probably aware. [JP] I’m excited about the fact that you are doing a solo CD. I asked you a couple of years back if you had considered doing some solo recordings…

[JM] Well a lot of the reason for that is that I am so terrible at playing solo guitar and again, that’s one of the things I’ve wanted to spend time on that I just haven’t had time to do over the last 20 years. So now I can actually set aside 6 months where I’m just going to work on playing solo guitar.

[JP] I can’t fathom the fact that you would be terrible. Anyways, in terms of solo, what are you going to do? Well straight away my head starts thinking about Bernstein’s “Monk” album, Joe Pass’ numerous albums, all this types of recordings, where is your head stylistically?

[JM] Well, I haven’t actually started the project yet but I think it’s going to be more contemporary sounding thing than that, and I am going to allow myself to do a few tracks have overdubs and …

[JP] Yep…

[JM] Whether or not that will actually extend to other instruments other than guitar – I don’t know – probably not too much anyway. One of my favourite solo guitar records was that Bill Frisell album “Ghost Town”. Ever heard that?

[JP] Yep, fantastic.

[JM] That’s record is going to be a real sort of benchmark I think. There are lot of overdubs on that, I guess, but I do want to…(pause) I might interpret some sort of standard-like things as well. I don’t know, we’ll see what happens.

[JP] Up in the air at the moment?

[JM] A little bit, yes, but it certainly wont be in the Joe Pass “Virtuoso” mould at all. Yeah, (pauses) and plus I love…I don’t know if you’ve listened to…do you check out Wayne Krantz? Are you into his playing at all? Or…?

[JP] Um, well I went to see him live and bought a few of his recordings. – I’m familiar with him.

James Muller, the Amazing Aussie jazz guitarist

[JM] Right. (Laughs)Well, anyway, I like a lot of his solo guitar type things. There’s not much of it on his recordings but you hear little glimmers of it and he’s really got an amazing concept for – you know, making things sound like there are three things going on at once with bass lines and chords and doing all that but there’s actually not. That “illusion” factor of solo guitar playing which I guess Joe Pass had going too, in a different way.

[JP] Be interesting to hear what you bring to it. I am excited about that.

[JM] Yep I’m interested to see what happens. Maybe it will be a failure but you know, it will be good to try anyway.

[JP] I saw on Facebook you were looking for places in Melbourne to record, so that’s also part of this process?

[JM] That’s right, the reason I’m doing it in Melbourne is because Ben (Vanderwal) the drummer is from Perth. Alex (Boneham) will be back in Sydney by then and I am going to be in Adelaide so its sort of a middle ground. Also, Ben used to live In Melbourne so he can get some other work and he’s got places to stay there. So it’s a convenience thing really. Plus, I’ve heard about this guy that is going to engineer the recording, Lachlan Carrick, who is meant to be just fantastic and the studio we are recording at is called “Sing Sing” which is meant to be incredible as well. We are going to do a couple of gigs while we are there to hopefully get us…in the zone!

[JP] Ben is a fantastic drummer, probably my favourite and would suit you down to the ground. I know you have played a lot with him. Talking about rhythm section, I recall once you said you wanted the drummer in your trio to be interactive “going for it” and the bass player “laying it down”. Is that correct?

[JM] Yes! I think that is the only way for me. I love busy drumming. I get most of my inspiration from the drummer when I am playing. That’s the thing that excites me. I am a frustrated drummer myself. That’s actually the instrument I would have played had my parents allowed me to play drums, but they didn’t so… I ended up on the guitar but … I hear drums, I think, really well. I am really interested in drums and drummers, in fact, when I am singing music to myself or remembering a CD I’ve listened to, its usually the drums that are the focus. Anyway, definitely a dialogue between the drums and the guitar is the big thing for me. With that going on there needs to be an anchor which is the bass although I still like the bass to be more active at times. I guess I want the bass player to have a sense of when to “lay it down” and when not to and Alex is fantastic like that. The other thing is about Alex is that Ben loves playing with him. That’s really important that they get along too but generally I love the bass player to have a great groove and hold stuff down. I am not really into the super-duper chops type bass players. Another reason for that is because they sound better than me when they solo. (laughs)

[JP] I’m interested in the influences in your playing. I know we can talk about the (Michael) Brecker and Coltrane influences, and we will, but how much just raw energy comes from your roots in rock.

[JM] (pauses). Um….well probably a lot. I am still fascinated with Led Zeppelin, Cream and Hendrix but in terms of when I get into that energetic zone live, it’s probably coming more from “fusion” guitar, really. One of the first guys I really got into was Scott Henderson. Scofield’s got that raw energy in his playing too.

But I think just that “energy” you are talking about – it’s coming from those guys and also from… there is a sax player in Adelaide called Chris Soole – I don’t know if you know of him? We used to play back in the early 90s and we were both really into this thing of “going for it”. You know, going berserk basically. A lot of it is just that, just trying to push it past that polite thing. Unfortunately, at the moment, that way of playing is not very in-vogue. I think the way people play now, the fashion is to keep everything very contained and not play any wrong notes and always have a beautiful fat sound. You know? Don’t you think contemporary jazz is, well… it’s very subdued now? It’s not about going crazy like in the 60s, 70’s and the 80’s..

[JP] Nah! You keep the guitar solo alive, James, keep it alive!

[JM] (laughs)Well, I don’t want to lose that thing but I’ve started to feel a bit embarrassed or selfconscious when I get into that “go for it” zone. But then I realise, man, that’s just what I do, you know. I am getting old and that’s the way I hear it and the way… well, I’ve got to make sure I keep it alive really cause I think it’s….

[JP] You got stay true to yourself don’t you? You cant…

[JM] You do!

[JP] Well that’s how you got to where you are today.

[JM] I guess if it means being a bit old fashioned then I guess – so be it. Whatever.

[JP] I’m not sure what fashion is anymore to be honest. I was also going to mention that if we look at a lot of the post year 2000 seminal players out there – the Kurt Rosenwinkel, Gilad Hekselman, Mike Moreno, Peter Bernstein and those – I do put Muller at the top of that list.

[JM] (Laughs)

[JP] But you are different to those players stylistically. And that’s what you are saying. There are many similarities also. But lets talk about sound. Those players I mentioned use a lot of delay and reverb in the sound. Every time I come and to hear you play – in fact I remember the first time I heard you play – You played a few notes and I thought…”Man! That is a naked sound”. Nothing helping you there. It was raw. So exposed but you make it work. It’s you. So you certainly don’t share that same sound that is going about with those players we mentioned.

[JM] Right. Yes, I guess I’ve never really embraced that sound you are talking about. It’s two things – the reverb and delay that you mentioned and it’s also the darkening of the sound. Like turning the tone knob down on the guitar. I’ve shied away from both of those things. I think I just prefer the sound brighter. When I hear other people play I like to hear…put it this way: I am much more attracted to a rock guitar sound, which is generally brighter and has a lot of clarity and punch, than I am to that sort of…I guess all those guys that you mentioned like Gilad, Mike Moreno, Rosenwinkel, Adam Rogers – with that darker sound – they all seem to be coming out of that Pat Metheny thing. I love Pat, but I’m coming more out of the Scofield thing and the fusion thing, which is a brighter sound. I always like my sound to have edge on it too. I like a bit of dirt in the sound, and that doesn’t really work if you’ve got the tone rolled right off. (pauses) Having said that, my sound isn’t quite as bright as it used to be…I do often wind the tone back a little bit but I still don’t want it to sound anything like er..the norm these days. Does that make sense?

[JP] It does, it does..

[JM] Again, I think its just that I like a more strident sound and I like to cut through. I think that dark sound can also sound a little limp to me. It’s not a very powerful sound. It’s very pretty and it’s fat, it’s warm and all of that but it’s not sexy or filthy or aggressive or …you know. It doesn’t really allow for that.

[JP] I have to say you always seem to be searching in terms of your sound. I don’t know, but every time I come to your place you’d have a different guitar.

[JM] Yeah that’s true (laughs)

[JP] You’d have 20 picks and you would be going through each one. Have you come to any one place?

[JM] Umm. No, I’m still chasing something I am hearing in my head which is a cross between a Fender sound and a Gibson sound. I love the thickness and warmth of the Gibson sound for certain things plus I love that really beautiful clarity and bite in a Fender. I am just trying to get those two to work side by side or be…you know what’s that thing when you homogenise or emulsify? …I don’t know. (laughs) I begin to realise I’m going to have to start bringing two guitars to a gig and maybe then the search will be over.

[JP] Heaven forbid having to bring two guitars to a gig, James!

[JM and JP] Laughs.

[JM] So that’s the main thing. That’s why I was trying all those guitars that are sort of in between like Paul Reed Smith guitars. They’re sort of half way between a Gibson and Fender.

[JP] I really like your sound. On your CDs Kaboom and on Thrum. I love that sound.

[JM] Thank you, I appreciate that, but the thing is though when you listen back, like any guitar player – really it doesn’t matter which instrument I play, it sounds like me….unfortunately. I think, in the end it’s really about finding an instrument that feels good to play and having it fool you into thinking you sound better just by it feeling nicer or easier to play.

[JP] I teach a number of students here at W.A.A.P.A in the Bachelor of Jazz program, and as soon as the name James Muller gets mentioned, as it does in my room a lot, it soon becomes a show a tell of my experiences with James Muller, because that’s what students want to know.

[JM] Right. (laughs)

[JP] There is a lot of interest out there about your playing, and I am particularly interested in that period where you talk about how John Scofield changed your life. I think you are quoted as saying that. And you go on to talk about the period when you transcribed a lot of Brecker and John Coltrane and those types of influences. Can you talk about your processes at the time? Not the process of actually transcribing, but how did you work with the material you transcribed? Did you lift phrases or what?

[JM] Yes, generally it was phrases. Occasionally I would do an entire solo. I remember one of them was that tune “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” from one of my all time favourite records, “Coltrane’s Sound”. That’s one solo where I transcribed every note but for the most part I would just lift phrases that caught my ear when I was listening. They might be just 4 notes long, or it might be eight bars or whatever. Then I would try and play them and I would deliberately try and inject them into my playing.

JP] So you are listening to something – Brecker is going off on a CD player. Are you following the tune in your head and thinking, ,” ah that was a nice line over the F7” cause you know the changes, or, how does it work?

[JM] I just would have liked the sound of a line. Usually it was something that sounded impressive like, “Wow, what was that?!” you know. I could hear when Coltrane or Michael Brecker would play these “outside” things and I could tell that the notes they played technically didn’t fit over whatever the chord was. Then I’d have to work out what the notes were and what it was that made me squirm with pleasure. You know. (laughs)

[JP] And what would you do with a line once you had worked it out?

[JM] Well, first of all I would analyse it from a technical standpoint because… I mean, you know how students bitch and moan about how complex jazz theory is? And it really isn’t. It’s really not rocket-science. Even at that time, having not been checking out jazz theory for very long, I knew which scales went with the basic chord types. So, I would analyse the line from a theoretical perspective: For example, the line I’m transcribing is over a G minor chord and perhaps the line predominantly contains notes from the G dorian scale with a couple of chromatic notes OR maybe it has absolutely no connection at all to G dorian – it may have all these other seemingly unrelated notes – so I would try and work out what the player might have been thinking, or I assign my own rules to it. Once I had done that, I would try and play it. Usually, if it was a line from a sax player or non-guitarist, it would be difficult to play on the guitar, so I would modify a few notes so it would fit a bit easier under the fingers. Then, when I was practicing improvising over a given tune I would deliberately play that line over a minor chord whenever it was possible. Some of these licks you could double them up, tempo wise. 8th note licks might sound really cool as a 16th note lick or whatever. Then I would take these licks from various players and start joining them together. “Oh wow, I can use that G minor lick and that C minor lick if I transpose it up a fifth… I can then add that lick on the end of this other lick and you know, you can end up with a line that’s 85 bars long and everyone goes, wow!” (both laugh) It was just that process, really.

[JP] And is that process something you would recommend to a younger player or student?

[JM] Yeah! For me, there was no other way to do it. Another thing that I get frustrated with students about it is that they expect to learn the theory and then be able to make great music by knowing the theory alone. They barely even listen to jazz, let alone transcribe it. I really think you need to learn by example.

[JP] So you need to learn language?

[JM] Yeah! Absolutely. Unless you’re a genius, and there’s not many of those around…and even then the genii…(pauses) even Allan Holdsworth started out by learning Charlie Christian solos…and sure, hopefully you will get to a point where you don’t want to sound like a clone or lickregurgitator but you need to go through that stage first, whether it’s for a year, ten years, or however long it takes to feel what it’s like to play the right notes at the right time.

[JP] So I guess you must have come to a point in your playing where you had a lot of these influences in your playing. And as you emerge as “James Muller”, someone who people are looking to as an artist, was there a point where you had to start to get rid of some of the obvious influences?

[JM] Right! Well the key word you just used was “obvious”. Yeah, that was a matter of listening back to my playing and deliberately eliminating the obvious signature phrases of my heroes… (pauses) People play certain licks, you know, Scofield does, or Metheny, or Holdsworth does, that are so them. Usually it’s the things you can identify in two or three notes. You’ve got to get rid of those things from your playing. But, you will never get rid of everything. Everything’s got to come from somewhere. It’s just those really obvious, precious trademarks of other players. After a while I felt like a bit of a bastard when I played those things and I thought, that’s not fair, those guys spent years refining their styles and I’ve just come along and ripped it off in five minutes, you know.

[JP] But then again, it is part of the learning process.

[JM] It is part of the learning process but there has to be a time when it stops.

[JP] Yes.

[JM] My friend Simon Barker said to me a few years back that he felt he had to start giving back to the fountain of music that he had stolen so much from. A lot of it is actually that you start coming, deliberately coming up with your own lines too.

[JP] You know as a side thought I was just thinking about the many academics I know who are always researching topics, completing their “masters” or their “Doctorates” in Jazz. Often theoretically driven or topics that have little meaning (IMHO) Here you talk about “giving something back” in creating new music for the artform. New vocabulary and new music. I’m thinking about your two seminal albums here as well, Thrum and Kaboom”. That is truly contributing to the artform and the body of valuable recordings therein. Someone needs to give you an honorary Phd. Have you got one yet?

[JM] (laughs) No, but that would be nice.

[JP] Well I think you are due one.

[JM] Someone might give me a teaching gig then.

[JP] Well I am a bit surprised why you weren’t teaching at some of the local universities in the cities you have been living in. (Muller laughs) Maybe we wont talk about that too much (laughs) Certainly does raise a few eyebrows for me!

Ok, on another issue, I want to ask you if you have any strategies to build excitement in your solos cause when we talk about Muller we talk about excitement?

[JM] I think has to do with surprise. The element of surprise. Doing something unexpected, or over-the-top, or silly even. Again, its getting out of that familiarity zone, that obviousness… I can actually feel it sometimes when I am playing. I might be thinking “Oh imagine if I did something like that next, that would be really cool!”

[JP] (laughs)

[JM] “No-one will be expecting that” You know, obviously its happening a lot faster than that and so, you just go for it and you try it. I guess its about having enough faith in your chops and…actually what it’s about is having enough faith in the fact that if the idea falls flat on its arse that you can get out of it and resolve it gracefully. I think that’s what you are talking about, the excitement thing, yeah, just doing something a bit off the wall. Joe Chindamo the pianist in Melbourne, described something about my playing to me once that I thought was really nice. He said that sometimes listening to me was like the first time you go on an aeroplane. You know everyone has been in a car going fast down the freeway but when your in a plane the first time, you get to that speed on the runway and then it goes….

[JP] Whoosh!

[JM] …way further past the point that you’d felt in a car… I think he described one of my solos as having that effect and I know he wasn’t talking about if from a chops perspective but just from when you think, that can’t possible get any more intense …and then it does!

[JP] So you have a “THRUST” button on your guitar somewhere?

[JM] (laughs)

[JP] Hyperthrust!

[JM] Yeah right. (laughs) Yeah, I think it’s having those thoughts in the back of your head. That’s not even a musical concept..that’s just a feeling.