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Alex Machacek: Boy That's Sick!

By Published: January 1, 2007

I try to do whatever the music demands. Im not this guy, this one-man show who can show off everywhere. I prefer good interplay.

Alex MachacekSince Alex Machacek last spoke to AAJ four years ago a lot has changed for the Austrian guitar wizard; he left Austria for Los Angeles, got married, and has received glowing praise for his music from, amongst others, guitar icon John McLaughlin.

Recently he signed a record deal with Abstract Logix with whom he has just released the critically acclaimed album [Sic]. AAJ caught up with Alex Machacek by phone and he reveals the problem with mallets, the relationship between a dead dog and the double-bass and more.

All About Jazz: Congratulations on your new album. I guess you must be pretty pleased with the way [sic] has turned out?

Alex Machacek: I still listen to it sometimes. Obviously I don't listen to it every day because while you're doing an album you have to listen to it constantly, especially if you are in the mixing stage, then usually you need a break. But sometimes I listen to it and I think, actually, it's cool!

AAJ: I think a lot of people would agree with you. I'm sure you listen to it in a different way though—are you looking for imperfections, things that you could have improved? Do you scan a very critical ear over it?

AM: There are a couple of things with the mix that I hear now that I would like to have different but that's about it. I wouldn't change anything else. Some people complain for instance about the first track with Randy Allar's "stupid comments but for me, honestly, that is one of the essential parts of the track.

AAJ: I was going to ask you about that. The jocular comments in between playing on that track remind me a lot of Frank Zappa's album Sheik Yerbouti (Zappa, 1979) and I wondered if you like Zappa's joking around or do you subscribe to the "Shut-up-'n-play-yer-guitar school of Zappa fan?

AM: I've got a couple of favorite Zappa albums. One is Zappa in New York (Zappa, 1978) and another is The Man From Utopia (Barking Pumpkin, 1983)

AAJ: Where does the title of your new album come from?

AM: [sic] is Latin and indicates even if it seems like a mistake to people that's how it was meant. And it's a word game. I remember I had an interview on a radio station in Texas and they played one of my songs from my first album and one guy called in and said, "Gosh, I just wanted to let you know the music you play is really sick! I took it as a compliment. I don't know if he meant it that way.

AAJ: How smooth or how difficult was the writing process for this album?

AM: It was a kind of mixture between two approaches. One approach was to write a song and play it with the band. All the things I played with my Austrian trio were relatively easy. The stuff I did with [drummer] Terry [Bozzio] involved a different process. I just composed around his drums. For the first track I said, "Can you please improvise for six minutes or so? He did that and sent it to me. So all I had was drum playing and nothing else. And the same happened with "Djon Don. And "Indian Girl is almost the same; the second part of "Indian Girl" was just a drum track. So yeah, that is kind of difficult because you really have to get your teeth into it to find something that you like and then start composing and try to make it sound as if it was one piece.

But I think that it is an interesting approach, at least for me. How long did it take? Well, I started "Djon Don years ago, but it's such a long song, nine minutes, that you run out of ideas and then you let it go and say, Okay, I won't continue working on this one for a while. Then you dig it out again and think, "Hey, I should continue.

AAJ: The vibes, or mallets that were on Featuring Ourselves (NGE 1999) crop up here again on this album on "Yellow Pages and "Djon Don, of course drawing more comparisons with Zappa or Ruth Underwood or Ed Mann. Is this your tribute to Zappa?

AM: This whole comparison's an interesting story. As soon as you put mallets on anything people will say, "Oh Zappa! Of course I listen to Zappa but on Featuring Ourselves we happened to have this great vibes player [Flip Philipp] who came to the first rehearsal and sight-read the whole program and on top of that he was a great improviser. It was really easy to work with him.

So I thought, "Ah, this is a little bit more interesting. Back then I was probably a bigger Zappa fan so I was okay with the comparison, but for my current album, well I'm still influenced by Zappa I admit, but I even considered not having any mallets on it just to avoid... you know...

AAJ: Well I'm glad you left them on because they sound great. I wanted to ask you about Terry Bozzio—your collaboration with Bozzio is almost eight or nine years long now. What do you like about Bozzio's playing?

AM: I like that he's different. It's inspiring to work with him because he's very recognizable. If Terry is playing you know it after a couple of seconds because of his very personal sound. And we're best friends so it's easy for me to work with him. When we play live it's just like having a conversation, a real-time chat that we have. Great interaction, his way of playing is very, very special. That's what's appealing to me.

AAJ: On [Sic] you use samples of Bozzio's drumming. Is an album of entirely sampled or programmed sounds something that you might like to do in the future?

AM: I would consider it. If I had music that would sound better just played from the computer then I would do that, but as long as he feels comfortable playing it then I'll ask him to play it.

AAJ: On your new album you reappraise "Austin Powers, which was on the BPM album Delete and Roll (NGE 2001). Are you ever truly satisfied with a composition or are you like Duke Ellington where every song is just a work in progress?

AM: I was actually satisfied with it on BPM but I re-did this song because on BPM it was just a trio and it was recorded live in the studio therefore I didn't have all the possibilities for layering certain instruments. You would have to have a pretty large ensemble to play all those parts. So I thought, "Why not just do it again? and actually this was a song considered for a [guitarist] Shawn Lane tribute album which never came out and I thought, "Well, then, okay. I'll put it on my record, because I liked the way it turned out. It's just a different version. And by the way it's one of the band's favorite songs, almost our "hit so it might even end up on a live record again!

AAJ: So we can expect to see it again on your first greatest hits album?

AM: Actually, one should start with a greatest hits album.

AAJ: What is the story behind the song title "Ballad of a Dead Dog?

AM: It's my mother. Whenever my mother hears an upright bass solo she says, "Well, this sounds awful! It sounds like the ballad of a dead dog. That's how my mother perceives a bass solo. But it's just a great title.

AAJ: Well I'm glad to hear that your dog hasn't died. That's good news.

AM: I'm not allowed to have dogs in my apartment. I'm very sorry about that. I would love to have dogs. But maybe one day...

AAJ: I think you should write a song called "Ballad of the Absent Dog and that might send a message to your landlady.

AM: I will write that down now because that's good! "The Ballad of the Absent Dog!

AAJ: I've noticed that guitarists have reacted with great surprise that you use an old Korean Steinberger and are able to produce such a great sound. Is it really such a crappy guitar?

AM: This one which I use on this album I've used for a long time. I ordered it off the internet. Steinberger doesn't really exist anymore. Steinberger is owned by Gibson now and they came out with a cheap line. I think my guitar was what, three hundred bucks? I bought it because I thought it was a great travel guitar but I happened to like the sound a lot.

I changed the pick ups I have to admit that. People say it's a crappy guitar but you know people say a lot sometimes. Many people think a $4,000 guitar is great. I don't necessarily agree. I think each guitar is different and all you have to do is try it out. Does it fit your style of playing? The so-called cheap guitars are really well made nowadays and some of them are absolutely useable.

AAJ: Do you think your composing has developed over the last few years?

AM: I hope so. I truly hope that I have developed. Actually today I put up Featuring Ourselves (NGE 1999) for download on Abstract Logix and I listened to it again and thought actually I'm glad that this is over because I play a little bit different now and that's fine with me. I'm not sorry about this album but I can hear that I play differently. I compose differently. I wouldn't like to do the same thing for ever. Yes, I have evolved a bit.

AAJ: In a recent concert [drummer] Bill Bruford said that contrary to popular belief he isn't most happy when thrashing around on his kit doing a solo but when he is playing on a beautiful ballad; I wondered whether you are happiest when lost in a solo or during group interplay?

AM: The latter. Let's put it like this, I would try to do whatever the music demands. I'm not this guy, this one-man show who can show off everywhere. I prefer good interplay.

AAJ: The last time you spoke to AAJ you had no record deal and were selling CDs at gigs and doing your own promotional work, but now you've signed with Abstract Logix which seems to be a very interesting outfit. Could you tell us about your label?

AM: I've known Souvik [Dutta] for a long time. He approached me because Shawn Lane told him about me and when I heard that I was really flattered. Anyway, Souvik from Abstract Logix always said, "Hey, if you want to release another record would you be interested in us releasing it? Obviously I was interested.

Abstract Logix took great care of the promotion and press work and still does. I'm really happy to hand that over to someone else. Also I have complete artistic freedom—they don't tell me anything. They didn't give me a deadline. I told Souvik, "It's ready when it's ready and he was happy with that. It's a very uncommon record deal. Actually, it's the best record deal ever!

AAJ: You have some interesting stable mates at Abstract Logix as well.

AM: Yes, Jimmy Herring, Scott Kinsey—since Abstract Logix released the last two albums Souvik gets I don't know how many requests each day from people who would want him to release their projects. He told me, "I can't do that all the time because it takes up so much time and energy to promote these records and very often I have to say no even though I maybe would like to do it. Abstract Logix seems to be a very attractive label. It stands for something.

AAJ: Can you expand a little on that last comment?

AM: Souvik is a very active guy. When he does something he does it right and this is very attractive.

AAJ: In November you played a couple of gigs in Long Beach and San Pedro in a bass-less trio and at the Baked Potato you're playing in a quartet with two guitarists; these slightly unconventional set-ups must pose interesting challenges to you as a guitarist?

AM: The bass-less trio comes from the duo I have with Sumitra, my wife. The drummer, Mario Lackner, who recorded Sumitra's last album Indian Girl (NGE, 2004) came to L.A. for a couple of months to visit. We had some gigs lined up and invited him to join us. In this trio he uses a very small set-up without a bass drum. He uses a Cajon and he plays mostly with brushes. The trio is more like an extension of the duo. And the thing with two guitarists—yeah, you have to be careful with two guitars.

AAJ: So you are comfortable, you are challenged playing in different environments, different set-ups?

AM: Oh definitely. In Austria I did so many different things, interesting set-ups. I like that because you have to find your own place within a certain set-up and that keeps it interesting for me.

AAJ: I've read and heard you in an interview mention [guitarist] Ben Monder as a guitarist you admire. Could you tell what you like about his playing?

AM: Well first of all I just like to listen to him and secondly he's one of those guitarists who has developed his own sound/style. He's got an awesome right hand—I think he's classically trained, if I'm not mistaken, and he does stuff that I will never be able to do. His compositions, his whole approach—that's what really attracts me. He's different, definitely different.

AAJ: Could you recommend a Ben Monder album?

AM: Ah, I've got all of them: Excavation (Arabesque, 2000) is a good one, Dust (Arabesque, 1997) then Flux (Songlines, 1995) his first one I guess. Oceana (Sunnyside Records, 2005). I listen to all of them. He's definitely one to watch out for.

AAJ: He's been around for a long time though, hasn't he?

AM: You know about him but he should be more well-known.

AAJ: Well, that's why I'm asking you about recommendations. I think that there are a lot of really talented musicians who just for lack of exposure never quite get where they deserve to be. Moving on, recently you began teaching at G.I.T. [Guitar Institute of Technology]. How would you compare your experience at Berklee with the set-up at G.I.T.?

AM: It's completely different. In Berklee you hear lots of jazz; they have a focus on jazz. That's a generalization but I think that there is some truth to it. At G.I.T. you hear lots of blues, lots of shred, and real shredders from hell sometimes!

AAJ: How much do you yourself practice?

AM: I wish more. It depends, sometimes I'm in a phase where I think I suck so badly I should practice way, way, way more and I find the discipline and practice. But sometimes there are so many other things to be taken care of so maybe then I just practice an hour a day if I'm lucky. Sometimes I don't practice.

Alex MachacekAAJ: How do you fit teaching around touring?

AM: I teach two days a week, but in case I have a tour going on I will sub it out.

AAJ: Do you have much time to listen to other people's music?

AM: I do listen to other people's music. There were some key albums that I listened to that really, really grabbed me, and I'm looking for new stuff that also grabs me. Unfortunately, the more you get into music the harder it is to find something that captures you the same way it did when you were young.

AAJ: What records do you still listen to now that you used to listen to as a kid?

AM: Secrets (Intima Records, 1989) from Allan Holdsworth. It's such a great album. There are a couple of Holdsworth records that I still listen to. Secrets I've listened to, I don't know, a thousand times at least. It's such an interesting record. Zappa, I already mentioned before. Joe Pass, MeShell [Ndegeocello]...

AAJ: And what projects do you have coming up?

AM: In January I'm going to tour Japan with my trio [with Terry Bozzio and bassist Doug Lunn] I'm really looking forward to this because I have never been to Japan.

Last January Terry, Doug and I went to the studio and we just jammed for five hours. Right now I'm editing this material and this will be the next trio album. I'm also working on another album where I apply the "composing-around approach like I did with Terry to different drummers.

The trio record should be done maybe before summer and for the drum record, it just depends on what kind of material I get. If it's really hard stuff then it will take me longer.

Selected Discography

Alex Machacek, [Sic] (Abstrac Logix, 2006)
Out Trio, Out Trio (Altitude Digital DVD, 2005)
Sumitra, Indian Girl (NGE 2004)
BPM, Delete and Roll (NGE 2001)
Next Generation, Next Generation (NGE 2001)
Alex Machacek, Featuring Ourselves (NGE 1999)

Related Article
Skipping a BPM with Austria's Alexander Machacek (Interview, 2002)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Courtesy of Alex Machacek
Bottom Photo with Sumitra: Courtesy of Desert Song Music Festival

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Download jazz mp3 “Why Not” by Alex Machacek