Josh Pollock: More Than Just The Notes

Josh Pollock: More Than Just The Notes
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Josh Pollock may seem a strange guitarist to be featured in a jazz magazine in as much as a large body of his music is distinctly rock-worthy. Indeed in this interview he explicitly avows the necessity for rock bands, and especially ones in which he is involved such as 3 Leafs and Citay, to really rock!

But in addition to his mainstay work in and around San Francisco theaters (Shotgun, EXIT Theater) Pollock has been participating in radical freestyle composition and performance, much of which can readily be incorporated under the jazz rubric. Most noteworthy of recent projects are his own project Auricle and Daevid Allen's University of Errors (UofE) and other Gong-referencing offshoots (Acid Motherhood for one).

These qualities aside, what intrigues me most about this musician is his intention and expertise in looking beyond the strictly auditory elements of performance, to see the broader nature of the art. Without making claim to creating a new aesthetic of performance, Pollock stakes his reputation on attempting top bring freshness to performance and composition. This can discomfort an audience accustomed to straight reproduction of familiar tunes in familiar guises, but surely lies at the heart of jazz performance. In Pollock's case it may be attributable to his left-handed approach to the (right-handed, re-tuned) guitar, as much as his left-field approach to life.

Maybe also his original training in theater craft and in particular in improvisation, in combination with his collaboration with the master of musical role-play Daevid Allen, brings out most powerfully his performance skills. Pollock's incorporation into the University of Errors)UofE), Allen's attempt to break away from the shackles of the heritage of acid-prog trailblazers Gong, was itself accidental. Having been invited to join an impromptu San Francisco studio jam Pollock defied both his and Allen's expectations (and even initial preferences) but prompted the then 60-something space veteran to re-examine his original iconoclastic performance roots (e.g. The Daevid Allen Trio in 1963) and start a new band. Although it has evolved far from its initial rough rock origin, it was always essentially a performance focused project, where Pollock could counter Allen's more lyrical, glissando orientated guitar and in the process develop his own unconventional style.

In this email interview Pollock relates his approach to making music (the guitar and other instruments, as well as effects) and how it has evolved during his time as a professional. The result nowadays is music that deliberately hard to classify, sitting on the fringes of jazz, space, noise and beauty.

All About Jazz: What was your background with the guitar, or other instruments?

Josh Pollock: I started playing guitar when I was about 16. Before that, I'd tried taking lessons for other instruments (piano, drums, violin!), but I found them to be really boring and uninspiring, focused as they were on "exercises" and songs I didn't care about, and they all fell by the wayside pretty quickly. It wasn't until I just picked up a guitar that was lying around and started trying to figure out songs I actually liked that I managed to get anywhere. My success with learning instruments skyrocketed once music teachers were out of the equation, which is ironic, because I now have a job as a music teacher! (I give drum lessons at a school for children age 6-13. But I make sure that they are playing songs that they like, as soon as possible and that they are having fun. If playing music is fun for them, I think they will naturally find themselves wanting to learn how to do paradiddles, rudiments, etc).

JP: The guitar is the instrument I have the deepest connection with—the one with which I can tap into the cosmos most purely and directly. Not so much at first, of course, but definitely by the mid-90s when, frustrated and bored by the same old chords/licks and intrigued by bands such as Sonic Youth and Pavement, I started retuning my guitar, randomly, settling on a vaguely open-C tuning that I used exclusively for years. (All my playing with Daevid Allen has been in this tuning.) It put me back in the position of having only the faintest idea what I was doing, which could have been a recipe for disaster, but suddenly playing guitar was really fun again, and my playing got a lot more interesting, both to me, and apparently, everyone else. I took a long, long break from standard tuning—probably about 10 years, which was just long enough to make it alluring and intriguing again, so now I use it, but I still use the alternate tuning when the circumstances call for it.

I've also spent time (a lot of time) gradually getting adept at using effects pedals—that has been huge. I think I've finally found a voice of my own as a guitarist in the last few years, and that, to me, is the most important thing. All my favorite guitarists (Marc Ribot
Marc Ribot
Marc Ribot
b.1954
guitar
, Richard Thompson
Richard Thompson
b.1949
guitar
, Agata...) have instantly recognizable styles, and don't sound like anyone else. I have no patience for merely "skillful" guitarists. I'll take Blixa Bargeld over Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton
b.1945
guitar
any day!

AAJ: How much do you use music in your theater activities?

JP: Plenty. Most theater people don't actually know much about music, at least not here in the U.S. (though they often think they do...), so if they've got someone around who can play instruments and compose they'll generally take advantage of it, as they should. This has been both an advantage and a bit of a curse—being a musician has helped me get a few acting jobs I wouldn't have gotten otherwise, but it also means that the juicier, larger roles will often go to someone who can "only" act, while I end up playing music for most of the show, except for 5 minutes somewhere where I pop in as a bumbling waiter.

Regardless, I've written and performed music for a number of theater projects—though generally not straight-up musicals, as those require sight-reading skills I don't really have. I've done a couple 'standard' musicals, like "The Threepenny Opera" and the first U.S. run of Tom Waits
Tom Waits
Tom Waits
b.1949
vocalist
' adaption of "Woyzeck," but I learned the songs by listening to recordings and memorizing them, and even then I was given a lot of leeway to come up with my own parts (all too rare in the musical theater world). These shows were typical of the plays I end up doing music in, in that they were both projects in which the director did not want "the usual," and thus, came to me. (I personally can't stand the sound of a standard theater pit band.)

I'm a huge Tom Waits fan, and one of the aspects of his aesthetic that I respond to most strongly is his junkyard voodoo approach to percussion. When I got asked to do "Woyzeck," I just knew that a normal, boring, standard drum set would just cut the show's dick off before it'd even started. Tom Waits' music needs to go 'CLONK,' and 'CLINK,' and 'BLAM.' So for the show, I put together a crazy percussion set comprised mainly of junk: a filing cabinet that I'd found on the street, a wine bottle, a coffee mug (I actually went through a few of those), etc. The closest thing there was to a "drum" was a huge wine barrel with a bass drum head stretched over it. And it sounded awesome, and fresh, and it totally suited the material. Most professional drummers would've just shown up with the same drum set they use for everything and played whatever was written down. This is anathema to me. (In addition to all the percussion, I also insisted on playing all the guitar and vibraphone—I'd seen a couple Tom Waits musicals before this where I felt the music had been handled really badly, so I didn't trust anybody with anything!)

As someone with lifelong interests in both theater and music, I am fascinated with the combination of the two, mainly because it's usually so terrible. You'd think they'd be a natural combination, but I find most "musical theater" unbearable, and most bands' attempts at incorporating "theatricality" to be unfortunate. I dream of a music/theater that's like seeing a great band and a great play at the same time. I've been working toward it over the years—observing what works, what doesn't, and why...

AAJ: What were your dreams as an amateur guitarist?

JP: All I want to do is make my art, put it out into the world, and (this is key:)get a reaction. My role models are people like Mike Patton and John Zorn
John Zorn
John Zorn
b.1953
sax, alto
—distinctive, uncompromising, and productive artists who do lots of very different things, and have hardcore followings of people who are inherently interested in anything they're involved in. Making a living at it, as Patton and Zorn do, would certainly be pretty sweet, but more importantly, I want a group of people with whom my work resonates to such a degree that my involvement in a project is enough to make them want to check it out. If there were 2,000 people in the world like that, I'd be the happiest guy on Earth. I think I'm up to about 14...

My popularity level is out of my hands, obviously, but my productivity level is not, so: I produce. It's of primary importance to me to be able to answer the question "So what have you done to make you worthy of an audience?" with, "Well, all this." So I work. Between all my various bands and projects, I've released 20 records in the last two years alone—I think by anyone's standards that's not to bad.

So yeah: I have the not-terribly-uncommon dream of being a popular and profitable artist, but really, as long as I can keep making my art and have the world react to it (even negatively), I'm ok.

AAJ: Has anyone else commented on your guitar style- right-handed guitar played left-handedly, like Youknowwho..

JP: Ha! No. Needless to say, any comparison to Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
1942 - 1970
guitar, electric
, however undeserved, is welcome, but the key difference between he and I in this regard is that he, like most left-handed guitarists, switched the strings around, whereas I just picked up a right handed guitar and turned it upside-down and backwards (with the lower, bigger strings on the bottom). By the time I realized that lefties usually switch the strings, I was to far along to just start all over again, so I didn't bother. There isn't really anything that playing this way keeps me from doing, except classical and folk finger-picking. I like finger-picking, but ...c'est la vie.

AAJ: Did you have a clear idea of your role in UofE before joining or did it evolve?

JP: I couldn't have had less of a clear idea! My role in the band, whatever it was at any point, was thrust upon me by the circumstances of the moment—there was absolutely no grand design. There may even have been attempts at grand designs now and again, but none of them had any bearing on what actually ended up happening, so they were quickly abandoned. I never really even "joined" the band. I was invited to jam with Daevid one day, which just happened to be recorded and turned into a record. The band sprung from that. A band which, perversely, never sounded anything like whatever record we had just made. (Thank God—the records are all pretty disappointing to me, that first one especially.) And yes, my role evolved, constantly.

AAJ: Did your role change in UofE significantly during those years?

JP: Yes. I was initially one of six band members, and not a particularly favored one at that: Daevid didn't even like my playing at first (this isn't false humility—he's told me this repeatedly). I'm not sure what changed his mind—maybe that my style was so drastically different from all the Steve Hillage disciples that tend to gravitate toward him that it was a breath of fresh air. But eventually he found my playing/aesthetic more and more interesting, though, in hindsight, the main reason it probably got a lot more interesting was because I was playing with him. The extent to which he is a fount—nay, a raging volcano—of artistic inspiration is immeasurable.

He was always the leader of the band, of course, but he had me take on more and more of the "music direction " as time went on, and he gradually played less and less guitar. Neither of these developments were my choice at all, especially the decrease in his guitar playing. I have had the good fortune to hear Daevid play guitar more than most people get to, and he is a criminally under-rated guitarist. When he's inspired, I have heard him play some of the most astounding, mind-blowing guitar I've ever heard from anyone, anywhere (though I have also heard him sound like an orangutang wondering what the hell this thing is hanging from his neck; so to be fair, he is a bit of a loose cannon), and our intertwining guitar solos were the funnest and most interesting part of the band for me, so I was constantly trying to get him to play more, but he wanted me to handle more and more of the guitar playing as time went on.

AAJ: Did your approach/technique develop clearly during that time?

JP: I don't know how "clear" it was, but it definitely developed. I am an exponentially better guitarist than I was before playing with Daevid. He made me infinitely more comfortable with improvising in front of an audience (which I'd never really done before, due, no doubt, to the unfortunate theater training I'd received that stressed the importance of knowing exactly what you're going to do onstage before you get up there), with following my muse, no matter how idiosyncratic (in fact, the more idiosyncratic, the better), and with prioritizing passion and fire over technique, which is probably what caused your poor friend's ears to be "burned off" when he saw us 15 years ago. As I mentioned, there was no conscious plan for the band sound—how we ended up becoming such an intense, scalding live band I'm not quite sure, especially considering that 'rock music' is generally not Daevid's thing, but intense and scalding we became, with Daevid gleefully fanning those flames every step of the way. The first guitarist that ever made any sort of impression on me was Pete Townsend, specifically because he treated the guitar less as an instrument, capable of producing notes and chords, and more as a device, a direct conduit between his soul and the physical world, and that's what I've always responded to most in a guitarist.

I guess Daevid saw that inclination in me and encouraged it, to an extreme degree. It probably made some of those early gigs a bit abrasive and hard to take (I don't remember us being particularly good back in 98/99, frankly...) but I think we eventually figured out how to channel that passion without it being quite so unpleasant, as is documented on what I consider to be our best release, the Live In Amsterdam dvd.

Daevid's general distaste for rock music made me examine the form really closely, and question whether or not I, in fact, actually did like it, and if so, why. I realized that there's a lot not to like about it—it's usually too much or not enough for most situations. But I also realized that what I did love about rock, what made it a form of music I couldn't just dismiss outright, was its massive potential for ecstatic transcendence—that despite how easy it is to do it badly, and the overwhelming preponderance of boring and/or unbearable rock bands there are in the world as a result, an ensemble that can harness that firepower effectively can be the most beautiful, uplifting, life-saving and soul-nourishing thing in the whole world. I feel like we managed to achieve that once in a while. In the UofE I could really cut loose and channel the cosmos in the most unabashedly visceral way on a regular basis, which allowed me to get a lot better at it.

(This, by the way, is the single most important observation I made when "studying" Rock Music: if you are going to be a rock band, then ROCK. Or you'll be pointless and annoying. If you don't rock, that's totally OK, but then don't be a rock band. Be a folk band, or a soul band, or better yet, make up an entirely new kind of band, but if you're a rock band, for Christ's sake, ROCK. This may seem obvious, but there is an overwhelming glut of non-rocking rock bands in the world right now. It ain't good.

AAJ: Has yr playing changed as a result of the time with UofE?

JP: Immeasurably. Allow me to digress for a moment: Iggy Pop, as a young man, was in love with the blues, and was making a good living playing in a blues band, but he knew deep down that he was playing someone else's music, the music of another culture, and so he dreamed of a blues that was organic and indigenous to him, and that's how The Stooges came to be. John Zorn
John Zorn
John Zorn
b.1953
sax, alto
explains the genesis of his Masada compositions similarly—borne of an overwhelming need to have a jazz organic to someone of Jewish ancestry rather than African. The merely capable musician learns how to play the blues—the visionary musician invents his own.

To say that Daevid has done this is is, of course, a colossal understatement. Daevid has always played the indigenous music of Daevid, and the more purely he did it, the more beautiful and powerful and confounding and fascinating and nourishing it was. To have such direct and prolonged exposure to a musician like that hugely affected my playing. The extent to which I've managed to become an interesting musician at all is by following his example in this regard as best I could.

AAJ: Do you currently have clearly different roles in different bands Auricle, 3 Leafs, Six eye Columbia?

JP: Very much so. If I had the same role in every band, it wouldn't be worth the aggravation of having so many. It'd be sooooo much easier to have only one band, but there's lots of different kinds of music I feel compelled to make, and they just don't all fit in one band. (Believe me, I've tried). Not just different instruments and styles, but: different situations: music that is composed/utterly improvised/and all points in between, viscerally physical/gently beautiful, original material/covers, collaborating/working alone, etc. etc. For some reason, they all seem to be necessary in order for me to feel satisfied artistically. Limiting myself to only one of these approaches would be like only eating steak—I LOVE steak, but if it's all I ate I'd get sick of it pretty quickly (and probably not be very healthy).


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