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Cuong Vu: More Power in a Collective

By Published: September 5, 2005
AAJ: I know you're not completely in love with your previous two Knitting Factory albums. You own the masters to them, though, and you've compiled the best songs onto one compilation CD, This This and That, which is also available through ArtistShare.

CV: Yeah, well, basically I just took the best tracks. Come Play With Me is the second record, which is a lot better than the first one, and there was really only one song where I didn't think we did a really good job on. So the compilation has every song but that song. And it has two or three from the first record [Pure] that I thought were the best ones from that record.

AAJ: Yes, it has most of Come Play With Me bookended with "Faith" and "I Shall Never Come Back" from Pure. And the compilation works really well as an album.

CV: I think the main reason that I didn't think either record was really good was that we just didn't have enough time and resources. The cuts that I left off—if we had maybe one to three more attempts at them, they could have been really good. But we just didn't have that.

AAJ: Can you tell me something about your setup, the gear you're playing through? I know you play through some delay and distortion.

CV: I don't use any distortion. If you hear distortion, that's just me growling or doing some weird trumpet stuff. In fact, it's kind of funny, because when I was on tour with Metheny, there was this fan who was kind of stalking us. When we were leaving the soundcheck, he goes up to Steve Rodby and goes, "man, you're like the best bassist in the whole world!" And "you're the shit, Antonio! You're unbelievable! I can't believe how you can play all that stuff!" Finally he gets to me, and he's like, "and you! What kind of weird-ass trumpet shit is that?" [laughing]

So basically, a lot of things that people might think are processed sound are just kind of weird-ass trumpet shit that I do. In terms of gear, the first thing that I run through is a MPX 100 Lexicon, which is a reverb unit that also has different sorts of chorus effects and delays—but the delays are kind of like ambient delay. You know, a lot of people, instead of using reverb, they use delay to give the impression of reverb. It just sounds a lot hipper than reverb, unless you're playing really precise, fast, attacky stuff. So I alternate between using a lot of reverb, and just that kind of ambient delay stuff. I can have it be very little delay, or very heavy on the delay, less of the dry sound. Then I split that into two paths, and one I run into a DigiTech PDS 8000, which is the same one that Frisell has. It's just a guitar delay thing that has up to eight seconds of delay. The other path I send to a Boss DD20, which is just another looping delay unit. That's pretty much all I have. Just two independent delays so I can kind of layer stuff onto each other.

AAJ: I hear a backwards effect at times on your CDs.

CV: I would love to have a backwards effect, but I don't. I'm just making that sound naturally. Another weird-ass trumpet thing.

AAJ: I want to ask you just a little about playing in the Pat Metheny Group, which you joined in time to play on 2002's Speaking of Now CD. I do think you add so much to that band and I really like The Way Up [the newest Metheny Group album from 2005]. You're all over it.

CV: You think so?

AAJ: Compared to Speaking of Now, yeah. I mean, there is going to be more guitar than trumpet, but you're a real presence. But what I am curious about is your first months with the group. I think if I were a musician asked to join such a longstanding and popular band, I'd be pretty intimidated and also unsure about what my role was supposed to be. So what were the first months like?

CV: Well, it was exactly what you thought it was: very intimidating. I mean, not only because they've been doing it for so long and they have their thing and they have a huge following. You know, when I went onto Pat's website, the hype was unbelievable; it made me feel really small. And it's kind of this cultish thing. So that's another point of intimidation. And the fact that I grew up really checking out a lot of their music and really was a big fan to the point of idolizing Pat and Lyle [Mays]. They were really my heroes when I was a kid. So I never really snapped out of it, so it was really, really hard to play. Not only that, but I was really into a whole different thing where, by the time that Pat had called me, I had almost decided that I really didn't want to play that way anymore; I thought it was crap—not so much Pat, just popular mainstream jazz. I was into the free thing. And then so when he asked me to join the band, it was like, well, now I'm going to be a hypocrite if I join the band. But I thought, "hey, I've idolized them. I've got to have this experience, I've got to know what this is like. It's going to be a huge learning experience and not only that, but the exposure's going to be good; I can quit my day job." You know, all kinds of stuff.

So then when I did actually do the group, I thought, "well, maybe he wants to really change the direction of the music. Why else would he hire somebody like me? I can't play like that, but I can add my own stuff." So then we get to the studio—and he hands me these solos that are all these chords and really complex stuff that I hadn't worked on for years! I could barely feel, like, an eight-bar phrase at that point. Because what we [Cuong's own band] were doing at that point was completely free—like what I was talking about before, where we just want to feel the gravity pull us and collectively decide, "okay, this is one." Not like, "that's one and we're going to have to play towards where that one is supposed to be." So after six years of doing it the way I was doing it, finding four-bar phrases or eight-bar phrases became kind of hard! Not only that, but I had to play over these really complex changes and they're very specific about what notes you can play. Not only the right scale—but within the right scale, which notes of the chords to avoid and which notes are functioning which way, all kinds of stuff.

And the more I worked on stuff and the more I learned—the more I realized all that I had to learn. It got to the point that I was so insecure that I could barely even play a note without feeling like Pat and Lyle were going to be, you know, shaking their heads in disgust. It was rough! The first tour was really hard; every solo was like this life or death thing: am I going to embarrass myself in front of thousands of people and have them shake their heads at me or am I going to somehow luck out and play a good solo? But I practiced every day on tour. I was practicing something like four hours a day—on top of touring. Nobody does that! Only freaky people do that because they're obsessed, but for me it was like, "if I don't practice, I'm going to suck, and they're going to hate me."

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