That merry little band from Maryland is once again at the forefront of the progressive rock/Canterbury/jazz-fusion scene with the release of Bandwidth and some select US shows. Pete Pardo conducts an interview with keyboard/woodwind player Dave Newhouse, woodwind player Tom Scott, and bassist/guitarist Billy Swann, discussing all things tasty regarding this amazing band.
Sea of Tranquility: There is a wave of renewed interest in the band now with the two recent CD releases. How did the band get back into the writing mode?
Dave Newhouse: As far as 'the writing mode' goes, "World Maps" is the oldest 'song' on the album. That was actually the last 'new' piece that we rehearsed as a band before we broke up. It was very different, though - very sound-packed, 'dirty', a bit muddy, I think. The guitar chords and main horn melody are the only hold-overs from the original. "Down From the Sun Tower", "Impossible John", and "Military Road" are songs that I wrote in my home studio during our 'disbanded' years. They seemed like good jump-off points when we reformed. All the other tunes came to life once The Muffins were back together. It's odd, and I've talked about this before, but having The Muffins back as a real live performing band was incredibly inspirational to me as a composer. I know how each of them plays, and I know where our strengths and weaknesses are. For me, the band became the muse.
Tom Scott: In the past I wrote very little for The Muffins, I have renewed interest in writing now, so I'm writing for the next CD. I don't think Dave ever stooped writing or ever will for that matter. Creating music is part and parcel of who he is.
Billy Swann: Dave is just a very gifted composer. We all have the inner fire that keeps burning, but Dave provides the fuel.
Sea of Tranquility: Bandwidth is a very strong, original, and complex album, and it's obvious that the time spent apart only honed the bands skills. How has your music changed over the years?
Tom Scott: I think that time matures a person's soul and because so much of your soul is evident in the creative endeavor we refer to as music, that the large time between releases for The Muffins show's an increase of skill. It also might be that we haven't improved that much on the skill level, only matured so that we are purer in our musical communication.
Billy Swann: The music really hasn’t changed for me. I still listen to a lot of different stuff. For me, music is a beautiful gift and a powerful manifestation of God. Some people are just better tuned into the vibratory aspect of it.
Dave Newhouse: Well, I like to think that our music has become more mature, that we're not so anxious to impress with flash and dash. We've always loved good melody and strong composition.
Sea of Tranquility: Many list the bands influences as the Canterbury groups from the 70's. Would you agree with that assessment? Are there other bands, perhaps some jazz outfits, which also influenced the band?
Dave Newhouse: Yes, I listened to jazz and soul music (early Motown) as a young boy before I discovered rock. Later, when rock and jazz started to blend together, it seemed like the perfect match to me! Weather Report was a big influence on me. I loved Joe Zawinul's compositions. Then I found free jazz (Anthony Braxton, Sun Ra, Art Ensemble, Ornette, etc.) and the world just opened up. I think I've been trying to blend those things together since then. I really see very little difference in the types of music.
Tom Scott: For the most part Reed players weren't being used as a mainstay of most of the early Prog bands. This is where the importance of Canterbury Style comes into play. The instrumentation was heavy into "alternative" sounds (horns, strings, percussive) that added a new dimension to Prog Music. If people hear a similarity to The Muffins alternative sound in Canterbury Style, on this point I would have to agree. Most importantly there are the similarities in composition style. Dave has always done the composing for The Muffins and I think his compositions stand-alone in the world of prog music. If you took time to listen to every piece of music that Dave has ever published in chronological order you will see that he has never created by formula or plagiarism. He creates from deep within and he is very prolific.
Billy Swann: Definitely Canterbury!To me that music was a parallel to the San Francisco Scen of 1966-67. I think both scenes were very experimental because of the mind-altering chemicals. It was OK that we were learning about our musical abilities and ourselves. Canterbury was about great ideas but not always great musicians (listen to early Pink Floyd or Soft Machine.) We are not great musicians, but pretty good experimenters. Other influences of mine were Sun Ra, Yes, Jethro Tull, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
Sea of Tranquility: What led to the original split of the band?
Dave Newhouse: The Muffins originally split up because (I think) we felt that we had taken the music as far as we could at that time. didn't do as well as we had hoped. We were starting families. It's very hard to play progressive rock / jazz and make a living. We tried it for a long time.
Tom Scott: Family life was the reason for me, The Muffins rehearsed four times a week for 2 to 3 hours. My first child was nearly one year old and I felt I needed to free up time to spend with him. I didn't want to quit The Muffins but I wanted to be a good father. It would have been more prudent if I had recommended rehearsing only once a week. But hindsight is always that way isn't it?
Sea of Tranquility: So, what did the individual members keep themselves occupied with musically during the years 1981 and 1998?
Dave Newhouse: Billy and Paul were the most active musically during those 1981-1998 years. Paul had a great band called Chainsaw Jazz - highly recommended, very intense! Cuneiform put out their one album called Disconcerto. Billy experimented with some interesting bands in Maryland (new wave, techno-reggae, angry political rock, and psychedelic rock) and then went on to play with a country rock group in South Carolina called The Fender Benders. I bought a digital recorder and a multi-voice keyboard and wrote a little. For a while I was busy putting together a cassette tape series of old Muffins recordings called Secret Signals as well as material from some other archival recordings. The 'label' was called Hand Signals Tapes.
Tom Scott: I owned and operated a 24 track-recording studio for the first decade. I actually recorded another solo album with Steven (Owner of Cuneiform Records) called Cold Wars, but decided after the project was complete not to release at all. The early nineties were my no music years so to speak.
Sea of Tranquility: What was it like working with Fred Frith (former guitarist and composer of Henry Cow)?
Dave Newhouse: Fred was very inspirational to work with. He was also very personable, very charming. He has a great sense of humor. We all became good friends during the recording process - he stayed with us at our group house, we went out to movies, dinners, etc. He even showed us the proper (British) way to cook eggs. Paul has cooked them that way ever since! I toured with Fred and Tom Cora in the band Skeleton Crew. Fred was a wonderful guide through Europe. He seems to be a true globetrotting renaissance man.
Tom Scott: Yes, Fred was great! He is a very good producer and did a great job of moving a small budget project through a moderately high priced studio. He had a very big impact on what 185 sounded like.
Sea of Tranquility: Can you give a brief summary of each of the bands albums, and how the band feels about them?
Manna / Mirage
Dave Newhouse: This album, in particular, brings back great memories of living together in our group house in Rockville, Maryland, recording and mixing together. Tom had just gotten an 8-track TEAC recorder. I love the melodies on this one.
Billy Swann: Very personal, made in our basement, and took lots of time and care to make each note just right. All of the songs are classic Muffins, yet very innocent.
Dave Newhouse: Our own beloved 'bootleg'! We really wanted to show a live, fun, and experimental side of us on this one. It gives a good example of how we sounded at one of our favorite nightclubs, The Psychedeli, right across from the WHFS radio station. Both places featured music and bands that you just don't hear anymore. Alas, both are long gone (WHFS is now located in Annapolis, MD, I believe, but is no where near as envelope-pushing as they used to be. But not much of FM radio is these days, is it?) So far this one is still only available on LP and is out of print.
Billy Swann: Yes, this was a fun one to make. We were at the peak of our crazy improvisational stage. Other recordings from the psychedelic side of the LP were awesome and showed how tight we were.
Dave Newhouse: This one brings back memories of recording, mixing, and living in our group house in Gaithersburg, Maryland. We used our trusty TEAC 2340 recorder and (if I remember correctly) no mixer, just straight mics. We would record 4 tracks of bass, drums, and keys and then bounce them down to two tracks using another 4-track reel-to-reel tape recorder, then record the guitar and horn melodies over that. Very direct, lots of fun. There are also very good melodies on this one.
Billy Swann: The only thing I would clarify is that Chronometers (the composition on the CD) was recorded on the TEAC at home in G'burg. But the rest of the CD was recorded at Paragon Studios (where Brian Rapp was setting up a studio in Silver Spring). It was all live two-track recordings. We used a Crown 1/2" two track recorder and a Kneive 16 track mixing board. I think we went in there for one or two nights. I’m really glad Steve from Cuneiform released this stuff. There was a three-year period from 1973 to 1976 where the Muffins were a little bit different. We were very much Canterbury influenced, but with an endless curiosity and obsession with being as weird as possible (which brings up Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention as a very big influence.)
Dave Newhouse: I think this is my favorite of the 'old' recordings. It seems to have a good balance to me of composition
Dave Newhouse: This was our watershed. Fred gave us a lot of studio ideas to play around with. It was the first time we were in a 'real' studio (Track Studios in Silver Spring, Maryland - actually just a short hop and a skip from Steve Feigenbaum's Cuneiform / Wayside company now!). We recorded the whole album in just a couple of days, from what I can remember - we were just so well rehearsed, most of the basic tracks are first takes and live. We wanted to make a strong album. I think we did.
Billy Swann: The band had a message-Henry Cow told us we needed to sing! We were moving out of the keyboard –based sound and incorporating more sax lines (Tom and Dave were working like fiends!)We were thinking that it was a “do or die” time for the band, and we had an attitude. Fred’s overdubs were truly inspired, and the band was red-hot at the time we went into the studio.
Dave Newhouse: This was mostly Paul's idea. It was a good place for us to put outtakes, improvs, and live performances. It's our free side talking! I really like the improvisations on this one.
Billy Swann: An interim release that proved we still had “it.” The improvisations are pretty cool!
Dave Newhouse: Very proud of this one. We had no idea it was going to come out sounding so strong and fresh. It was a surprise to all of us, I think. When we got back together again to play, we were shocked at how easily we still played together. As the album progressed, more and more compositions came to life. It was as though the recording inspired itself, like it had a life of its own. We just hung on and followed where it took us.
Sea of Tranquility: How are the recent live shows working out?
Dave Newhouse: The live shows are a joy to do. There's nothing in the world quite like getting up in front of a crowd of fans and playing together. It's a near-religious experience. I only wish we had more time to rehearse. (In the old days, we rehearsed Monday through Thursday every week for about 2 or 3 hours!) Each of us, now, has a full-time job that takes up most of our time. We can only get together for, what we call, Muffin Summer Camp to rehearse and try out new ideas. Muffin Summer Camp lasts about a week with intensive rehearsal about 6 to 7 hours each day. We do, however, send CDs and written music to one another so that we can woodshed.
Tom Scott: I have been really pleased with the performances, which have been very fresh. The new material gives us something to look forward to the old material help remind the listener who we are.
Billy Swann: I live for the stage! I’m not much for recording (a necessary evil-I always strive to lay down tracks on the first take to get it over with) and wish we could play out more than once or twice a year. We all have regular jobs and there’s no money in the music business, at least in our kind of music.
Sea of Tranquility: How is writing going on future material?
Dave Newhouse: The next CD (so far untitled) is already in the works! Those muses are still sticking around, so we're going to take advantage of them while they're still here! Paul and I have recorded about 6 or 7 basic tracks (just keyboards and drums). I've still got about 5 new tunes to hand over to the guys. Tom is writing more than I've ever seen him! He's got 2 new ones that we're going to play at our next gigs (ProgDay and the Orion in Baltimore) and 2 more ready to go. Some of the stuff we've got so far sounds like us as a working quartet; some of the other stuff is smaller sounding, quieter, more intimate. We're still playing around with the multi-horn / 'big band' sound that we just touched on w/ Bandwidth. All in all, we're very pleased with what's coming out of this series of sessions.
Tom Scott: I have started writing for the band, which is something that I never did much of in the past, I'm a slow writer and haven't had the time to put into composing. Now I'm making time for it.
Sea of Tranquility: Is the band looking forward to ProgDay 2002? How do you feel about the various prog festivals?
Tom Scott: You bet, Progday is going to be a blast! I think we are extremely lucky that our listening audience is supporting the music. The festivals are a boon to the performance exposure for Prog bands
Billy Swann: I love to play! The audience last year was very kind to us. We really are all “hams” on stage! Personally, I play so often with the Fender Benders, that it is very natural for me to play bass on stage. I love The Muffins ‘cause they let me use my fuzz tone/wah-wah pedal on the bass!
Dave Newhouse: Yes, we are so looking forward to ProgDay 2002. We're very pleased that they asked us back again. I love this wave of progressive rock festivals. It's a great feeling being around other like-minded proggers. It's sounds corny, but it feels kind of like a family reunion (with the audience and the other prog bands) when we show up at these things. Isn't it time that the Grammy Awards included a Progressive Rock category?
Visit The Muffins at: www.themuffins.org