From the Archives: Mike Garson on playing the piano (Part 4 of 5)
July 28, 2011
This post continues my conversation with Mike Garson, which took place May 4, 2004. I sat down with him backstage at the James L. Knight Center in Miami, in a small, isolated dressing room set up with just his Yamaha Motif. He told me he always liked to practice for a couple of hours before hitting the stage. In a few hours he was to join David Bowie and his band on stage, during the Reality Tour’s stop in Miami. But, as detailed, earlier (Mike Garson talks about ‘David Bowie Variations’: an Indie Ethos exclusive, From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie (Part 1 of 5), From the Archives: Mike Garson on working with David Bowie, the later years (Part 2 of 5), From the Archives: Mike Garson goes from jazz to Bowie (Part 3 of 5)), that show would be cancelled.
Still, in my 20 years of interviewing musicians, my conversation with Mike was one of the more memorable I have had with an artist of such talent and experience. I was delighted to have encountered a musician whose roots not only went back to the heyday of the glam rock era of the seventies, but even further to the roots of the experimental New York free jazz scene, and none of it had seemed to have gone to his head. He spoke of his apprehension of playing with jazz men of such greatness as Bill Evans, and offered patient insight into his memories of working with Bowie, probably his most famous collaborator.
In this part of our conversation we go a little deeper into Garson’s own ideas of his approach to the piano. It’s an intimate conversation that reveals an interesting and humble mentality to man’s place in music. This continues directly from the last post…
Hans Morgenstern: You mention how the improvisation just comes out of you. It must really take an unself-conscious sort of mindset.
Mike Garson: There is no ego when it’s going right. I have an ego, but it’s not usually in the way when I’m playing best, like the Lennie Tristano thing. He did a record that nobody even knows about because it sold so few, but I happened to get it in the sixties. He’s playing bass line with his left hand and improvising with his right hand. It sounded like this…
… and jazz musicians like to take simple songs and just do theme and variation on them. You’d expect it to do that in jazz, but in Classical you don’t expect that. You’d expect it to be written out, but when I write out music I would sound like maybe secondhand Rachmaninov or Liszt or Chopin or Stravinsky, but when I was improvising, it became apparent that’s how I create, so that became my form of music, so when I realized I had the ability to get it written out through the player piano because I recorded into the Yamaha Disklavier, which is a 9-foot grand I have in the house. I put the floppy disc in, push record and then give the guy the disk and then he prints it out. I’ll look it over to see that it’s right. Then I pass it on to be played by some concert pianist. I don’t play them but that one time, but they sound like a classical piece. Like what I just did for you, a few minutes ago, that we don’t have a recording of. It’s gone. I could have recorded them in here…
[I point to the recorder].
Oh, yeah, that there, but it wasn’t that good, the classical thing today. The jazz thing was actually better, but you never know what’s actually going to be what, when and where … But to answer your question, it’s a combination of a hundred thousand hours of playing the piano since I was 7, and I’m 58, so I’ve been playing 51 years, so, if you think about it, if you can’t be good after all that time (he laughs) you’re really just in the wrong profession. That’s just on a very physical level, but musically, spiritually and emotionally it’s kind of like … (He pauses). You’re somewhat channeling. It’s like the music’s passing through you or like the notes are there, and I’m grabbing them, or they’re grabbing me. I haven’t figured it out.
I’ve heard Robert Fripp talk about that.
Has he talked about that? Any great artist will somehow or other get around to it, somehow, someway, and I know that it’s kind of like the expression: God helps those who help themselves. I mean, let’s face it, I’ve done a lot of homework, so I couldn’t do this on violin or French horn. I would sound terrible. So I have worked hard, but I know a lot of people who play the piano very well and have played as many hours, but they don’t have that freedom to just create and improvise. There is obviously some gift and some portion of me that is able to get out of my own way because I’ve never had composer’s block.
That goes back to when you were much younger, in your 20s and before Bowie invited you to play with him, you mentioned some of these jazz guys, and you were intimidated by that, basically.
So what happened to that guy? How did you break that barrier? How did he break through his fear of feeling inadequate to play with some jazz people?
I had to break through something that Vladimir Horowitz never broke through. People used to ask him, “How come you don’t compose?”
He said, “Well, my friend is Rachmaninov, who’s a genius.” I studied Chopin. You can’t beat that. I grew up with that mentality, and as long as you think that, that’s what you get, and it’s pretty logical thinking, so I had that for about half of my life. Then one day, I said, “fuck it.” I have to change my mindset, and I have to adopt a new paradigm: “Oh, I can be as good as any of my jazz heroes. I can be as good as any of my classical heroes. I can be as good as any composer but as Mike Garson.” What do I have to do to do that kind of a thing? And then I started to work toward this music that I call my Now Music, which is all this improvised classical stuff. But I do it in pop, I do it in rock. If you take the “Aladdin Sane” solo away from the rock track, it’s like the stuff that I’m playing. It would sound like …
… So that’s where my joy lies these days, but the theory behind this way of playing, and that’s really what I do with David Bowie on those albums, and I’ve had it on my mind for 30 or 40 years, and I learned it from Lennie Tristano, the blind pianist that I was telling you about, which is he told me he felt that true jazz was really playing what you hear on the spot, in the moment. And a lot of guys play a lot of licks, and things they have memorized and worked out. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I certainly have done that, but I like the concept of trying to play what you feel in the present time, at the moment, and that’s what I’ve been developing for the last many years. It’s not much different than this conversation, in a way, you ask about this, and I start branching out, and it starts to become its own improvisation.
A lot of what I’m hearing here reminds me of what I saw on Michael Apted’s documentary, Inspirations, where he filmed you guys recording “A Small Plot of Land,” and he asked David Bowie about his creative process on the computer.
I never saw that.
You never saw that? Not even many Bowie fans know this film was released. It’s about these different artists, Lichtenstein, is another, and about the inspirations behind their art.
I’d love to see it. Was I in it?
Well, it was during the Outside sessions.
Those were great sessions.
You were on “A Small Plot of Land,” right?
I played piano.
But he was mainly focused on David.
I think conceptually, [David is] in a similar place, philosophically, to me. Except that he’s working in pop music, in rock ‘n’ roll. He does have to go out and sing “Rebel Rebel” and some of these songs the same every night, and the band has to be tight, and the arrangements have to be tight. But, I think, when the music evolves and develops, he’s probably doing his version of what I was just doing in real-time for you. It’s not always the same thing.
That’s why I’m attracted to artists like him and you because it’s not always the same thing.
It’s not always the same thing … The thing is, Mozart and those people, Brahms, Beethoven, most of them didn’t live past 40, so I have this opportunity now, being 58 to still keep learning and absorbing things, so I’ll be around this other music that I’ve been talking about for the last 15 minutes, and I’ll be around David and this band, each person in this band is so creative and talented in their own way. The drummer, Sterling [Campbell], he’s the one who’s on “A Small Plot of Land” with me, and we improvised those sessions on Outside. David didn’t even let us tell each other what keys we were playing in. We basically played two weeks straight, four hours a day onto tape, the improvisations. They have tons of tape. Outside is just some songs that got made and put together by [co-producer Brian] Eno. Him and David would take these improvs that were all on these tapes, and then they’d hear a little hook here and a little hook there and cut it up. They would create a song like “Hearts Filthy Lesson,” which I wrote with him and the other guys. That ended up in the movie Seven. It must have been something that they heard, and then they formed it into a song. We were just improvising the way I was just doing it now.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, if every artist stayed at what they do, they eventually come to similar realizations regarding the creative process, the inspirational aspects, the channeling, but I think what people sometimes do is they try to jump there, and they haven’t done any basics or fundamentals, and their art sometimes doesn’t have enough substance. I don’t object to it because of the fact if anyone is creating, all the more power to them, but, personally, if you want to have some more depth, I think you have to do some more work along the way. I probably do too much work coz I studied so much, but then I had to undo all the studying to find my own voice, which is what I did between maybe 20 and 45. It’s really starting to come out, the older I get. It probably always was there, but I guess I’m refining it, at this point in my life. But you do get some wisdom as you get older just because you see so much junk go down. I’ve lost so many friends for so many different reasons, a lot of it drugs and this and that. But you start to come to realizations about things, and it affects your music and your art.
One of the words I can’t help to use in my reviews of songs of David Bowie that I hear you on is “angular.”
I’m just wondering if it’s a good word.
It is a good word. It is a good word. I don’t know how that came about. I know that sometimes I’ve had the thought if David Bowie, when I’m playing a solo for him like on “Small Plot of Land” or “Battle For Britain” or “Aladdin Sane,” I’m almost being him. I’m trying to play the piano like he would play, if he had the technique, so it might be more him than me that I’m playing at that moment because, as an artist, I also have this sort of chameleon ability to almost turn into anything that I’m around. The big joke is the last thing I hear before I go on stage might end up in the show. I was sitting at a club last week, and the club owner in Austin, Texas starts talking to me about, “Oh, we used to have these barrel house boogie-woogie players,” and I went up and sat in with a guitar player who was playing a rock show, and then I stopped the band and played some crazy like boogie-woogie piano like on steroids, very fast and crazy. But, I’d just been talking about it, so it brought it back to me. So, there’s something where I’m trying to connect myself, my spirituality, my life, my experiences and the music, using that as sort of the vehicle for how I feel.
There’s wisdom in music.
And it comes from a lot of years. Probably it might come from other lifetimes. Who knows? You know what I mean? The biggest problem for an artist, I think, who gets very good at what they do, is to stay somewhat humble and recognize that their music is a gift, and it’s coming through them. They’re offering it as a contribution to people who are listening to it, but if they get too wrapped up in themselves, sometimes the music suffers, and then they end up suffering.
A lot of it sounds like psychology, too. If you’re gonna put up the mental block, then you’re not going to be happy.
Right, and that’s the question you brought up 25 minutes ago regarding the ego and the self being out of the way and all that. I mean, I’ve written tons of songs, like “Letting Go,” is the name of one song, and “Selflessness,” because you’re always trying to figure out how to get away from your humanness because all our humanness sometimes tends to hold us all back. The way you’re creating the art, you sort of want the art to be a little purer, so you’re trying to be a servant to the music, and it’s hard to be a servant to the music when people are clapping for you every night and signing autographs all day long and praising you. You need to acknowledge the compliment from the person who is saying that is sincere, so you want to give them time of their communication, but if you let it go to your head, which is what happens to most artists, it’s the beginning of the end. Consequently, all the guys who ruin themselves, blow themselves off or die or get nuts or get perverted or crazy, it’s just the whole story, so that’s the challenge. I don’t think the challenge is practicing or keeping up my chops. The challenge is how not to get destroyed by the fame.
I totally think of Kurt Cobain and what happened with him, you know?
Right, yeah. The funniest thing is I never worked with him, but the fact that I worked with Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins a few years. I toured with Nine Inch Nails and I recorded with them the Fragile album with Trent Reznor.
It’s a great album. But it’s always struck me that those kind of people gravitated to me. Obviously, they liked my music, but beyond that, there must have been something they wanted that was a part of me that they felt maybe could enhance their life. For example, I never used drugs, and I’ve been married for 36 years. I have two kids, two grandchildren. In other words, I’m not a normal musician in that way, and I’m probably proud of it in a lot ways because it feels more honest. I think people do all those other things just to keep themselves alive. They’re trying to keep their mind from haunting them and possessing them, so they’re trying to move it out of the way with drinking or with drugs.
The real thing is to embrace that. It’s like the shadow Carl Jung talks about.
It’s exactly that, and a lot of people are not willing to go through the pain of that, so they cover it up, and then it manifests itself in another form, and it just keeps getting them, until they confront it. Sooner or later they decide to get it together, or they just fade away or die or whatever. Certain artists have been lucky enough to sort of come through it.
Going back to your angular style: how do you choose the notes you play? Because they seem to be a bit off, but they work.
I think if there was a lot of music that had not been written I’d play more unangular (laughs). If things like this hadn’t been written…
… If those things weren’t done, I might have been the one to choose to do that, but since so much has been done, I was probably looking to find a voice that had a new contribution, so you have all that classical and baroque and romantic music in the 1600s to the 1900s, so by the time I started creating in the sixties and the seventies and eighties, there was this thing of avant-garde music, and contemporary classical music and atonal music, so I heard a lot of that. I didn’t love it, but I found a way to use it in David’s music and some other people’s music that seemed to fit. I think because rebellious artists and people like us we’re always looking to sort of go against the grain a little bit, and I think people appreciate that type of originality. But it wasn’t really calculated, when it came about because I was doing it when I was 14, 15, 16 and 17. It’s just that nobody knew it. There were no records.
You mean you were playing like that?
There were parts of me that fooled around with that. If I look at some of my earlier classical pieces that I used to write by hand, they were out there … I think I’m also subject to the times that I’m in. As artists, we actually follow the waves of what’s going on in the world, so if bombs are going off and atom bombs and hydrogen bombs are going off, music isn’t always going to be very tonal. It’s going to start having some dissonance and angularity. That’s part of what’s going on in life.
I’m thinking about the futurists, in the 1920s. The real creation of the avant-garde came about at the turn of the century, and they were all about: destruction will create the new art.
That fits into that. I’m not too much later than that. Forty years later. You know what I mean? And a lot of those people didn’t fully complete their missions or whatever.
I think after all these manifestos came out about how we must destroy the libraries and museums to create the new art, World War I came about and all their friends, famous poets and painters died, and the movement sort of lost its thrust. It came about in Russia and Italy (and some France).
Right. The history of art is fascinating. David really knows about all that stuff, an expert. I spent all my time practicing that I actually missed out on studying on a lot of things that I wished I knew, but I learned it through just being it, but I actually didn’t read it historically, which a lot of people are very well read about those things. I was just so obsessed with the piano. Like David’s such a natural voice and singer, and he just comes up and sings. You don’t hear him practicing. I was practicing eight hours a day and all that stuff, and then I’d do a gig for six hours, so the day would go by very fast, and that happened all through my teens and 20s.
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This is continued from Part 3: From the Archives: Mike Garson goes from jazz to Bowie (Part 3 of 5)
This archival interview series continues here: From the Archives: Rounding up Mike Garson, his Now Music, visual art and a bit more Bowie (Part 5 of 5)