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Gonzo

 

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At 29, after years touring around the U.S. and Canada, Gonzo has returned to Hawaii, the island paradise he calls home. Recently Gonzo sent us a 6 song sampler of his bass playing. A sticker on the album proudly states 'no guitars or keys'.

Frankly, the guys simply doesn't need `em. Thoroughly talented, this man that he produced what was to be nothing more than a musical calling card, designed to find work.

Instead what he actually finds is that people are writing and calling in droves to buy this thing, something he not only never dreamed of, but also never intended. It has motivated him to spend a bit less time looking for work in other peoples bands and focusing instead upon his own career as a solo musician.

After being distracted by alcohol and drugs for years, with the help of his family, Gonzo has returned to his priorities and is thoroughly focused on his family and career. The 'sampler' is a densely filled wall of melodies, strong musical themes interlaced with some seriously above average playing. Gonzo joins us this issue and talks about his journey home, home to his family, his music and to Hawaii.

 

Global Bass: This album, self titled, actually is a pretty revealing musical picture of where you are in your life at this point.

GONZO: I hope that the songs reflect the inner peace I feel in regard to where I am in life right now and also the satisfaction with who I have become as a result of a lot of painful introspection and self-modification I have done lately. My life has been very blessed in the past few years since I've taken more control over it and made some vast and very difficult personal changes to it. I also made a few good decisions in my life regarding my family a few years ago, when it sure would have been easier to turn and run, and I believe that my recent good fortune has been a direct reward for that. I know that somewhere, someone is smiling over me saying "Good boy, congratulations". 

GB: So it's these Spirits that you dedicate a song to. 


GONZO: I dedicate 'Etude' to them. I just feel that so many things have changed for me. Until recently I never had good luck. My life was the way it was. I was using liquor, I was smoking pot, I was smoking cigarettes. Then I had the kids and changed my ways. Since then everything just fell into place for me. Good things started to happen for me. I have been protected from situations sometimes when it just seems like good things fall into my lap. All I have to do is try and I succeed. I really feel like someone is watching over me. I've been clean and sober for six years and it is something I am really proud of. It was very hard for me to do. 

GB: Your picture on the album cover has you looking like you're a cast member for Conan the Barbarian, no sarcasm intended, you're just one big guy! And yet the music shows a profoundly fine bassist with a light and subtle control of the strings, deftly able to coax a lot of emotion from your bass.

GONZO: Yeah, I've been told by more than one person that I look like a WWF wrestler or something in that picture. (He laughs) Who, me? But seriously, I did quit a handful of self destructive habits in the summer of 1996, ALL AT ONCE, and suddenly found myself in possession of quite a bit more energy than I had ever been accustomed to having! (laughter) It was about at this time my wife Cathi bought me a weight bench, so I found my center and focused a lot that new found energy and free time into lifting weights. It was very therapeutic for me at the time and now it has become a symbol of my sobriety and something I am quite proud of....but I'm really a big teddy bear. I quit every thing at once. One systematically after the other. I quit the drinking first. I knew the beer would cloud my judgement and there would be no way I would be able to quit smoking. Very systematically I quit drinking, then I quit smoking pot and then I quit cigarettes. Cigarettes were actually the hardest part. All of a sudden I was getting a lot of oxygen. I had been 'sedated' for over 20 years! My metabolism was so changed that I had way too much energy. I was so frustrated sometimes and I needed an outlet.-----

GB: First the obvious question: Where does the name Gonzo come in? Is it a variation on your real name, or a nickname and how did you come to using it?

GONZO: That's a name I acquired during a period of self discovery while I was attending Art Institute of Pittsburgh in my teens. At the time it was an alter ego, my way of being someone that I wanted to be, instead of who I was, I'm sure of that, but it's been around for so long now, that it has become who I am, and I'm afraid I'm stuck with it...I mean, that's what my mom 
calls me and it IS tattooed on my right shoulder.
(laughter)

GB: It's mentioned on your website that you have done many things, worn many musical hats, so to speak, including street musician. Please tell us a bit about this musical journey you have been on, when it started, how it started, some of the jobs you've found yourself doing, and some of your crazier and more memorable experiences. 

GONZO: WOW!...As a child, the house was always full of music. There was a piano in the living room and my Mother and Father both played trumpet, so consequently that was my first instrument in 4th grade. In fact I played MY MOM'S horn. I can still remember running scales on it, the smell of the brass, and toting that tweed case back and forth to school. My Grandma was a concert pianist and would always play piano at the Christmas parties. That was my first 
real exposure to the power of classical music- Gershwin, Rodgers & Hammerstein and especially to Beethoven, (who's emotional depth reached me in a big, big way). I never thought twice about playing music as a special talent...I thought it was just something you DID!!! I mean everyone in MY family did...(shrugs) Growing up, there were quite a few records in the house to listen to on my mom's turntable, too. My old man was a southern redneck, so there were his old school, country & western albums, and my mom's Broadway show tunes and Elvis albums, and growing up in the islands I was exposed to reggae, slack key guitar, and just so many other styles! ...but I think one of the more influential moments I can remember from my childhood was the time my dad came home with the contents of a jukebox, I mean just a shit load of 45s!!! ...God only knows where he got 'em, he was a salesman and was always doing SOME sort of deal, but there were SO many of them, and all different artists and styles. So, my childhood was this great, sampler of a  musical education, very diverse. This led me to be very open-minded when it comes to music and gave me an appreciation for the art form as an incredible medium for emotional communication. I've always answered the question of "What style of music do you play like?" with the analogy that it's all music, just like they're all women....why limit yourself to just one kind?
(laughter) (...sorry, Honey) But I think it's this "all good" attitude, a positive outlook and a sober vibe that lets me work pretty regularly and with equal conviction as I switch from situation to situation, while still sounding like "me". I mean, after High School I was playing in the stage band in college doing Jazz Standards from the Fake Book during the day (with my mom on trumpet and my two brothers - younger Aaron on drums and older Danny on guitar), and then would work the bar circuit in Waikiki playing top 40 at night, and then go home, where my brothers and I had an original band playing late eighties/early nineties style Heavy Metal (with lofty dreams of Bon Jovi-size MTV success!) and in between I was teaching all sorts of requested music, from Hawaiian to Filipino Cachi-Cachi songs, and doing recording sessions. Like this one Japanese guy who played folk acoustic guitar and harmonica Bob Dylan style...he didn't speak a word of English and my Japanese is about rude, so a chord chart and the music were the only communication going down in the studio. Music as the universal language, absolutely beautiful! 

In 1989 San Francisco was a boom town riding on the heels of Metallica's success with clubs popping up and bands getting signed left and right. So my brother's and I, having saturated the market on our little island, decided on the Bay Area as a new base of operations, choosing there over the insanity of the LA glam and make-up scene, and we relocated to take a shot at the big time playing my older brother's original material under the name Life & Death. I took the summer off and went to travel around Europe first, where I did two sessions for an English guy who sang and played guitar and had a percussionist from West Africa. These tapes were my first producer credits!!! The result was released under the name Napoleon, which promptly went no where, and I left to meet my brothers in California. We had marginal success there, thanks to my older brother's leadership, headlining our own showcase gigs and opening for some of the bigger rock bands that came through town like, Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains, as well as a lot of the big heavy metal names of the day like Armored Saint, Savatage and Forbidden. We had a lot of fun and I've got a great photo album and scrap book to show for it. All in all, a very interesting chapter in my life. I'm sure it will be good to look back on one day. But toward the mid-nineties the scene moved on to Seattle when Nirvana had their hit. San Francisco turned to high tech jobs and the yuppie crowd moved in, forcing the property values up and the clubs began to shut down. I was lucky to be playing the bass (there were two out of work guitarists everywhere you turned!) and was fortunate enough to find work, eventually backing a Jimi Hendrix impersonator for a while, which I brought my younger brother in on to play drums, (the closest we'll ever get to backing Jimi!) while my older brother followed the death metal scene to Florida with little luck. About this time I was expecting my son Nicholas to be born and Henry (Jimi) wanted to go to Japan to tour for a month, which I just couldn't do at the time, so we parted ways. The hard rock/heavy metal conduit was never really quite big enough for me to play all I wanted to play on the bass, and I guess you could say I was guilty of the tendency to overplay back then...so much so that my older brother, after watching me at rehearsal one day, ramming away at a million notes a minute with both hands on the neck, was prompted to make the comment "Yeah, that's really cool you can do all that, but what are you going to do with all that, go out and play all by yourself?" So this primed with this idea, coupled with the motivation of seeing Stanley Jordan playing out alone at a club one night, I decided to take all my notes and try them on the street. Just to see what would come of it, an acid test of sorts, and there I learned what stops traffic and what doesn't, and more importantly, what makes people put money in your hat!!! This information came in very handy when the club-to-band ratio was at such an imbalance in San Francisco, that pay-to-play became the norm. I learned to make my money on the street in just a few hours and go home. With the birth of my daughter Kylie in 1994, and my dreams of rock stardom satisfied (laughter), I began to make plans to make my way back home to Hawaii with my new family, put my education to work and settle into the musician role. That was when the solo CD came about. I find it ironic that, here I was, ready to basically, semi-retire at this point, when this CD seems to have started a whole new beginning and serves as a launching point for a whole new chapter!!! My original intention was to just use it as a demo of sorts to shop around town for work but it has really gotten more attention than I expected, followed by a flood of requests for it, so I have begun to expose it more via the website and through print publications. The response has been very encouraging and satisfying, so much so that I have begun laying tracks for the second release which will hopefully show my growth musically as well as personally. There-that's my life story!


GB: Have you done a lot of studio work, mostly for people on the island of Hawaii? Things like jingles, television scores?

GONZO: The studio work I have done was mostly demos for unknown singers and guitar players, none of which you've probably heard of, unless any of these names mean anything to you- Christopher Rollins, Lava Jam, Joel Roper, Napoleon, Saphyre Syn, Kiyoshi Matsumoto, Dave Andre, Suzi Kim, Hell On Wheels, Henry Duarte, The Groove, All The Rage... Ring any bells? (laughter) I didn't think so. Nope, not a lot of fame there, but they did put a lot of bacon on the table. Several of these names I did 2, 3, and 4 separate sessions for. I recorded with Dave Andre I think 5 times. Great writer, lyrically as well as musically. I also did the sound track for a video game once, which I can't even recall the name of right now. It was basically doubling a keyboard bass track they had programmed in order to get a realistic thumb slap attack. Easy money. I should have asked for residuals on that one but never did.

GB: You mentioned in one of our earlier conversations, you've spent time in the US, up and down the California coast, even some time spent in Canada. Can you tell how these travels worked into your career and ultimately how it all led to your home in Hawaii.

GONZO: I was born outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a tough steel town, and have traveled the East Coast as a child from Maine to Florida and even to Canada twice, strictly as a tourist though, (Niagara Falls, Ripley's Believe It Or Not and a cable car ride over a really BIG whirlpool) Not much to write about there though. I traveled around Europe from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, to Germany, France, Spain and Italy. I recorded the Napoleon sessions in  Oslo, Norway. I did find the European attitude toward music as 'culture' refreshing. I felt a greater appreciation in comparison to American audiences for some reason. Almost as if the Americans expect you to impress them with your music or it's not effective. You know...arms folded across their chest, saying..."Impress me!" Maybe Americans are just jaded by flash. I got this impression when I toured up and down Northern California with Life & Death, so maybe it's just California audiences, or just a sign of the times. How is As for Hawaii being called home -My children are the fifth generation of my family to call the islands home. Hawaii will always be home to me. Paradise, what more can you say?

GB: This album has moments that almost come across as neoclassical, do you have any formal training in any other instruments like classical guitar or piano? 

GONZO: I have studied Beethoven and Bach's style mostly but have a great appreciation for Mozart and his free spirited composition, amongst other classical composers. I do believe classical music is the peak of musical skill both in composition and performance, with the possible exemption of true Jazz performance, not only for the strong emotions and passion it evokes but for the incredible range of dynamics and harmonization the palette of instrumentation provides. Plus classical guitar is what beats the Devil in "Crossroads" (...remember that movie with Steve Vai?) How cool is that? 

Listening to classical music has helped my ear incredibly though...I mean after listening to say, Tchaikovsky, pop radio sounds pretty empty!!! I do have a fairly large collection of classical CDs which includes not only numerous composers but Andres Segovia playing selected cello works by Bach on classical guitar...good stuff!!! While in Norway I had the opportunity to hear a solo organ recital of Bach and Handel pieces in an enormous cathedral with those pipe organ lows and in such a setting!!! I swear I was the only one in the church under 50! It was the closest thing I've ever had to a religious experience. 

GB: Then has this training been deliberately brought forward into your bass playing and this album.

GONZO: Most definitely. I included 'Etude' on the CD as a showcase for this facet of my playing. It's my mother's favorite track. 

GB: You seem to have mastered the use and the power of dynamics. You also appear to understand that leaving spaces in the music and even using the aforementioned dynamics lets the music breathe and allows the listener to shift his or her attention to the various layers of the music and the performance. Was this technique self taught or observed in others and then implemented into your way of playing?

GONZO: Mastered? Well, I don't need that kind of pressure...! (laughter) One of the best music instructors that I ever had, Mr. Charles Brennan, enlightened me with this grain of knowledge- "Music is all tension and release." A simple thought but one that carries so much weight to it!!! It can be applied to so many aspects of music, from the dynamics you are referring to, to your choice of voicing from chord to chord, right down to the way you arrange your set. I try to use this in my dynamics to focus the listener's ear by stressing some phrases and laying back on others.  I think I get this from listening to not only the dynamic range of classical, but Jazz as well. Miles was a master of dynamics. Listen how he comes back in after Mike Stern's solo in "Fat Time" on his album "The Man With The Horn" He pulls you right into the song...you almost lean over, straining to be closer to it!!! (That's one of Mike's better solo's by the way) I love the way good horn players use dynamics when they phrase too. The way the breath is placed in a phrase as if it were a lyric and it were being spoken to you. A guitarist who was great at this was Stevie Ray Vaughn. Give a listen to 'Riviera Paradise" on Stevie's "In Step" album. Great  phrasing. He's speaking to you with his guitar!!! Letting the music "breathe" like that seems to make the instrument "speak" to you. 

GB: I wouldn't so much call it a 'somber' tone to your music, but there is a pensiveness, a sensitivity in this album that appears to allow a window into the way you think. Has your life and it's living been a part of where you drew the creativity needed to craft these songs. In other words, is this an album about you and your life so far?

GONZO: Well, I can't say that I've led a charmed life. And yeah, if you listen hard you may hear some love in my music, some joy, a little pain, definitely some honesty, for want of a better word. I wouldn't say the CD is so much about my life as it was lived in the past as much as it is a glimpse of where and who I am now. Although there would be no present without the past, so you  may be right. I've had to take stock of who I am and what I represent in the not so distant past and it brought out a lot of brutal realizations.  I can say that I am a better person for it, and I owe this self discovery and self-renaissance to my children, Nicholas Gonzo and Kylie Judith, and to my wife Cathi, I owe them my life. The CD is dedicated to them for just that reason. I can truthfully say that I don't know if I would be alive today if it weren't for them. And my music would have died and been buried right along with me. Honest enough?

GB: So where does the next project lead, and when do you begin that journey? 


GONZO: I have tracks laid already. Oh, I have a lot more to say musically before I leave here!

GB: You mention in your influences that Marcus Miller taught you one night in San Francisco to 'stop trying too damn hard'. Tell us a bit about that one. Am I safe in saying that you are an individual that demands a lot of himself?

GONZO: Listen to what Marcus does with only two notes on "Big Time" from Miles' album "Amandla". TWO NOTES! There is a groove so deep it's undeniable. That night I watched him play, he was just so effortless. The groove was there in the room with him and he was kickin' it around like a soccer ball! Child's play. I'm not sure how to describe it, but he seemed to get more out of the few notes he played and the many he DIDN'T play than say, Billy Sheehan's many notes he'd play to the few he didn't. I guess it's the age old adage of "Less is more". But I know I went home that night and played my bass for hours and hours and hours... I had seen the bass in a whole new light.

GB: Also comment from Jonas Hellborg, "Who needs a band?!?!" Great quote, with a lot of truth in it. Do you do solo gigs at this point, and if so, with or without special effects, tape loops, a drum track...what do you do to fly solo? 


GONZO: I love the statement Jonas made with "The Silent Life". I felt it was a great step forward from his "Elegant Punk" album. Much more control and structure, compositions and songs as a vehicle for his solos and the revolution that technique does not equal music. Thank you for that Jonas! I do solo gigs to promote the CD. Just me, an amp, and a stool. I do several of my  originals, and a few cover tunes..."Voo Doo Childe" (more of Stevie Ray Vaughn's version than Jimi's) my own version of Bill Wither's "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone". The set is a throw back to my days as a street performer. It's a very visual thing as well as musical. (The use of different techniques such as the funk, over and under the neck, two-hand tapping, slapping, the punching, bending the neck, behind my head, etc.) I once had a guy sit in front of me on the street in San Francisco for over an hour watching me play, after I finished I went up to talk with him...turns out he was deaf!!! (laughter) He was just getting off on WATCHING me!!!

GB: What does this flying solo do for you?

GONZO: It shows my older brother that...Yes...I AM going to go out and play all by myself!!! 

GB: Any wish to work with others at this time?

GONZO: Yes, I miss working with my younger brother on drums immensely! After 20 years of playing together, we had a very strong, almost telepathic connection. I miss that. I haven't met anyone that gets even close to what we had. Although I admit that I haven't given any drummer I've worked with the amount of time necessary to grow and nurture that type of bond. I guess I still resent the fact that Aaron is no longer playing, and I imagine that I keep people "out" because of that. I do miss him.

GB: Are you working with other people on their projects now or recently?

GONZO: Yes, I have several live situations going right now. I do have to pay the rent. I recently finished tracks for a children's CD using themes such as recycling, conservation of the planet and protecting endangered animals, which, as a parent, I thought was a great project. I also teach  privately.

GB: Where did the knowledge for chordal work, harmonics, hammer-ons, the whole library of knowledge you show on this album, come in? Self taught or through a series of teachers?

GONZO: I've never had any formal instruction on the bass other than the general music theory and vocal instruction at college and stage band, which was usually taught on the piano. What I mean by that is, I have never taken bass lessons. I do have a rather large music collection, I used to spend hours on end in the many used CD stores in San Francisco and would walk out spending literally hundreds of dollars on music. I have been building a musical archive for my children, who both play, in the hopes that one day they will need it and use it to their advantage.  I constantly listen to music from morning till night. (There is NO television in my house...never has 
been.) I listen to all different types of music. From Sade to The Suicidal Tendencies...from The Gypsy Kings to BB King...Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder to Disney Soundtracks and The Throat Singers of Tannu Tuva!!! I have also been blessed to work with some really great musicians in my life and had the opportunity to watch them play and ...ah, borrow. 


GB: Do you teach at this point? What do you get out of that for yourself (other than money!). 

GONZO: My mother told me that the best way to learn how to do something is to teach someone else. You must have a firm understanding of a subject to be able to put it into words and explain it in such a way that someone else can grasp it. It makes sense to me and it works. I also get to see the spark of discovery and creation when a student suddenly "gets it" or plays something they've never played before. That's very rewarding to me. It also give me the chance to control the competition *laughter* ...only kidding....But the money does help. 

GB: You appear to be a strong natured or willed person that can work as a team member but also has no problems being the captain and crew of a musical venture. You can and enjoy doing the whole thing. Is this a valid evaluation?

GONZO: Quite valid. Robben Ford has a song on his "Supernatural" album that goes- "No man is an island, or so they say. But if I could go there for just one day, I'd like to see, what it feels like to be, nothin' to nobody." 

Deep. 

There is also such a thing as being strong enough to bend in my opinion, and I think my years as a sideman comes into play went I am in charge.. I have a jam band where the songs are never the same way twice, and I also have a band where the arrangements are very tight and I am expected to play them "correctly", then I have a third band where the demands on the bass are very minimal and the expectations are low so I am not required to play anything fancy at all, just whole note waltzes, walking blues lines, simple root-five ... then there are MY gigs where I can do any, all, or none of the above and interpret my songs depending on my mood or tailor them to the audience 


I'm trying to reach. Again, a throw back to my street performing days -- the ability to read the audience and change your delivery. You would not describe an object in the same terms to a child as you would to a college professor...but hopefully in the end they would both have an image in 
their mind of the apple you are describing. My goal being to be able to communicate my emotions to the point where the audience is feeling what I am feeling, no matter who they are. The fact is, I have found that I actually need both outlets, neither are completely satisfying. The ensemble performances are as important to me as the solo release. 


GB: Long term goals. Where is this all leading, how do you see your career in 10 years?

GONZO: I really have no idea where all this is leading, and that is what makes it so exciting!!! If you ask me, I should have been dead by now, so I am enjoying every day and every minute as a gift..."that's why they call it the present" I am told. I know I have been given a second chance at my life for some reason, like some weird plot out of an old movie. I also know that I have a lot more music in me. In fact, I can humbly say that this CD barely touches the surface of my scope.
It was hastily recorded as a shop-round demo (you don't have to print that) ...but the songs themselves, as well as solos were intentionally kept short and the whole project was recorded with a very mass-accessible, safe attitude. I mean the whole thing is what?...16 minutes!!! I feel like Sally Fields when she did her thing at the Oscars." You mean you like it?...You really, really like it?" Well, HOT DAMN Warren, wait till you hear what I got for you next time!!!


 

 

 

                                  

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