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InterviewsThis time: California Guitar Trio’s Bert Lams celebrates the present

Posted on Wednesday, October 20 2004 @ 19:04:22 CDT by Jedd Beaudoin
Progressive Rock With its finest outing to date––the Tony Levin-produced Whitewater––just out, California Guitar Trio has plenty to celebrate: The band's made it to the 11-year mark and grown an appreciative and ever-widening fan base that loves and respects the collective's music. SoT's Jedd Beaudoin spoke with Bert Lams (who's planning a solo release for later this year) on the eve of Whitewater's entry into the commercial world.

SoT: Whitewater marks the 11th year that California Guitar Trio has worked together. How does this release differ from previous CGT records?

BL:: Our previous albums have been more reflections of our live performances, which usually BL:end different styles. We'll throw in a Bach piece next to a surf piece, next to an original. But with this CD we wanted to have one theme. That was the original thesis of the trio. We've been focusing on writing original material of late, although on this record, in the end, we did throw in a few other things. But I'd say that the album is 95 percent original material and more than half of it was written just prior to the recording of the album.

SoT: Is it unusual for the band to write things that close to going into the studio?

BL:: We usually like to go out onto the road and test the material out in front of an audience. We were aBL:e to do that in this case. We met in Atlanta for five days and had a writing week. We stayed at a friend's house. He had kind of a retreat center there and we basically worked from morning until night on original pieces. Then, a month later, we went on the road and tested it in front of an audience, then went straight from that to a recording session for a week with Tony Levin. It really helps to play the new material in front of an audience, it just matures it so much faster. We don't always have that luxury. With some of our other CDs, we did write our pieces right on the spot but other albums that we've done have taken a lot longer as well. Some of them took three or four weeks. This one we really did in a short time span. I think that we did it in four or five days. Three takes for each piece and that was it.

SoT: Was it that you really only had that amount of time or did things really come together that well, that quickly?

BL:: It was both. We planned the tour and in the middle we gave ourselves five days for recording with Tony and Tom Mark near Woodstock, New York. We just planned that week as initial studio time. Studio time is expensive, so Tony organized our time very well and made sure that when we went in everything was ready for us. He didn't have to spend a lot of time on setting things up. Tom set everything up in a very professional way, so we were aBL:e to go in and record more or less straight away. Things went fast. We thought that maybe we'd have to schedule another group of sessions but at the end of the fourth day Tony said, "I think we've got our album here." It was unexpected.

SoT: Tony Levin has been a longtime friend of the California Guitar Trio and you have collaborated with him before. What led you to ask him to take on production duties for this record?

BL:: We became friends with Tony back when we opened for King Crimson. We actually became friends with all the guys from King Crimson but Tony in particular was very interested in playing with us. Shortly thereafter he joined us for several tours and was always very enthusiastic about working with us. But Hideyo's wife actually came up with the idea of inviting Tony on as producer. We were looking for one and Tony, as far as I know, has never produced any albums. He's a very famous session with a long discography and page after page of musicians and famous producers that he's worked with. So, when Hideyo and his wife came up with this idea we were a bit skeptical because he'd never done it before but we decided to call Tony and talk to him and he was very excited about it. One thing led to another and I think it became an advantage that he'd never really done this before because he put a lot of energy and effort into the record and a lot of his soul into the album.

SoT: The album sounds fantastic. Very clear, bright.

BL:: On our past albums we had executive producers, mostly in post-production but with this one Tony was there right from the beginning in the studio and that made a huge difference. He also really made an effort to figure out what the best way to record the trio was. He used all his experience and resources to get the best results. We recorded the CD to analog tape and mixed it on analog, hence the warm sound of the CD. That really captured the sound of the guitars very well. It's pretty much as though you're sitting in the same room with us. That's what Tony tried to achieve with this record.

SoT: Do you ever listen to old records and say, "I wish we would have done this or that differently," or are you, in general, pretty satisfied with how past records have turned out?

BL:: I look at it a bit differently. An album is like a snapshot in time. I don't like to be a total perfectionist. A photo is not perfect––it's just an impression of what we are at a certain time. I think that people almost appreciate it if it's not completely perfect. It's just that moment in time. On the other hand, if I look back at certain CDs, I can say, "Yes, of course we could have done it a little bit differently," but I pretty much like each and every album that we've done for what each one is. They really reflect who we were at a certain moment in time. There's something in the spirit about it where it wouldn't be the same if we did it again. Each one still seems like it captures the essence of what we were doing at that moment in time. Sure, yeah, it can always be done better but I think that's with everything, isn't it? When you look back at it a couple of months later, you say, "I wish I would have done it this way or that way."

I notice a lot of artists who postpone the release of their CDs because of these kinds of things and I think that it's better to work fast, get beyond that, and just bring the record out.

SoT: You've also, in the last year, been focusing more on your own material.

BL:: Several people asked us, "When are you going to do an all-original album?" Looking back at our previous CDs, it really seemed that it was time for us to specialize in one thing. We can specialize in several things, of course, but all of this started with the CGT+2 with Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto. There's a lot of improvised music on it, then we went to the Christmas CD, which had just one theme, just Christmas music. That led to this all-original CD and now we're thinking of doing more theme-based CDs like an all-classical CD, which might be the next CD.

SoT: Do you ever get annoyed when you're playing a show and there's one guy in the back of the room shouting, "Bohemian Rhapsody! Bohemian Rhapsody!"?

BL:: [Laughs.] Not really. It's really one of those pieces where it's like a classical composition. I always enjoy listening to it. I always think, "How the hell did that guy come up with that tune?" It's not ABAB, it's organic form, it goes from one thing to another. It's a great piece of music and what keeps it fresh for us is the audience. Every night is a different experience and it's like the piece is born again every night, even when we've been playing something for several years. It comes alive every night.

It's hard to explain that experience. I did a solo concert last night in a library. I did Bach music. I've been practicing that work for several years now and the last four months I focused on doing a solo album. Some of the stuff I've been getting a little bored with because I've been practicing it all the time. Then, suddenly, you're in front of an audience and it changes. You've got this mirror in front of you and you get this energy from the people. The music just seems to come alive.

SoT: Is the band at the point now where it's find an audience that embraces it for what it is?

BL:: I think that we have some really ... I think that we play for the people that love us and know us and that circle is growing. We also have an audience that is very loyal to us and basically I think that it stems form constantly playing live. I think that those people really appreciate that we're coming out to play for them. It's like they feel that it's personal. Sometimes in a performance you have this impression that a certain performer is playing just for you. I think that we have that kind of rapport with our fans. We answer e-mails. We get questions online from people and there's something going on there, a good relationship with the fans.

Of course it was a struggle at the beginning. We started in Los Angeles, playing coffee shops. In fact, I remember that the first show we did was at a small place called The Natural Fudge Café on Fountain Avenue. In order to play there, we had to go out and buy 30 tickets, then sell them. That was the beginning of the trio. From there, I think we've come a long way.

SoT: Did you ever think about quitting?

BL:: No. Of course every band has its little crisis moments but things have flowed pretty naturally for us. Not that it's always been easy. But I think our strong point has been that there have been risks that we've needed to take and we took them. Our first trip to Japan was like that. We were invited there by Robert Fripp about nine years ago. He called us, invited us to open for him and David Sylvian. He said, "The promoters haven't approved this. You might not have a concert. But if you're willing to take the risk, it might be worth it." We bought tickets––we didn't get paid to do those concerts––flew out and arrived at the venue only to find out that the local promoter disapproved of the trio opening.

Robert stepped in for us and pleaded with the promoter to let us play. We ended up playing that night and that really got the ball rolling. It established a good reputation for us. It's those kind of things that maybe another band maybe wouldn't have done that have made the difference. You've got to take that step.

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