Barry Cleveland: Beyond Convention
AAJ: You use the Moog guitar on the album. Describe the unique nature of the instrument and how you employed it.
BC: The Moog Guitar is a unique instrument I was allowed to comment on while it was still in the final stages of development. I actually visited the Moog folks in North Carolina to see a demonstration, and a few months later they sent me a prototype that I reviewed in Guitar Player. That's the instrument I used on Hologramatron. Simply put, the Moog Guitar generates very sophisticated magnetic fields that enable you to sustain individual notes or entire chords indefinitely, and by manipulating the guitar strings in various ways—or using the foot pedal that is part of the instrument—you can coax out lots of different timbres. For example, my solo in the middle of "Stars of Sayulita" starts off sounding a lot like a flute, and then several bars in I change it to more of an English horn-type sound simply by pressing the strings more firmly and adding some finger vibrato. I also used the Moog Guitar to create the string-like chord clusters on "You'll Just Have to See It to Believe" and some of the synth-like lines on "Telstar."
AAJ: The album came out on MoonJune. Describe how that connection came about and what it means for you to be associated with it.
BC: I met Leonardo Pavkovic, who runs MoonJune, when I was writing the cover story on Allan Holdsworth for Guitar Player in early 2008. Leonardo was instrumental in reviving Allan's career, and they still work together very closely. I got to know Leonardo and gave him an early version of my album to check out. He liked the music and offered to release it on MoonJune when it was complete. Leonardo is a wonderful guy who is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about music, and we have an uncomplicated business arrangement that works well for us both. The music that he releases on MoonJune is of very high quality, and I feel honored to be associated with the other artists on the label.
AAJ: What evolution as a writer and guitarist do you see across your albums to date?
BC: I like to imagine that my writing and playing have evolved over the years, though there are certain aspects of what I do that have remained more or less consistent—particularly my reliance on serendipity as a compositional tool. Some of my best work has been almost entirely improvised, and in those cases the music isn't really "written" in the usual sense. It just sort of materializes out of the ether and my job is to record it, and then shape it into a coherent whole using studio tools and techniques. My tools have become more sophisticated, and my technical skills have no doubt improved—but the ability to coax music out of nothingness may simply be innate and essentially timeless. For example, I still feel that the title track from my first album, Mythos, is one of my best recordings both musically and from a mixing standpoint. It really doesn't sound like any other music that I am aware of.
That said, I think my writing and playing took a big step forward on Volcano, because I was composing to preexisting African and Afro-Haitian percussion tracks and had to learn how to do that as I went along. That process taught me to really listen to what was happening rhythmically and to craft appropriate parts without actually deriving them from African music.
Then, by the time I began working on Hologramatron, I had decided to try writing music that was heavier than anything I had done previously, and more conventional in terms of song structure—without actually writing conventional songs. It was also the first time that I had attempted to write lyrics, and to match them with the music, so I had to figure out how to do that. All of those things led to my evolving both as a writer and a guitarist.
AAJ: You listen to lots of diverse music as part of your job. How does that exposure influence you as an artist?
BC: It influences me greatly, particularly since most of it is guitar music. I feel very fortunate to be able to hear so many wonderful guitarists playing in so many different styles. On the one hand it is quite inspiring, and on the other it can be quite humbling. There are so many extraordinary players out there, and constantly being reminded of that provides context and perspective for my own endeavors.
AAJ: What are your favorite interviews you've conducted for Guitar Player and why?
BC: The May 2003 cover story with Ry Cooder was one of my first big interviews and it is still one of my favorites. Cooder had just released Mambo Sinuendo (Nonesuch, 2003), a tremendous guitar record with the great Cuban guitarist Manuel Galban, and I went down to visit him in his Southern California studio. When I got there he was stretched out in the front seat of a cool old car, relaxing in the sunshine. There was a problem with my tape recorder, so he drove me to a store to buy another one, which was a lot of fun. We spent hours talking and I photographed dozens of his guitars, amps, and effects, a lot of which are quite rare and unusual, as he expounded on them. Cooder is an American treasure, and it was a fabulous experience.
I interviewed Eric Clapton in Manhattan on my birthday, just after he had released Me and Mr. Johnson (Warner Bros., 2004), his Robert Johnson tribute. Clapton was very warm, friendly, relaxed, and forthcoming, even when I asked him provocative questions.
Interviewing Jeff Beck was certainly one of the high points of my life. We did the interview at a photography studio in Los Angeles, and he had a CD-R of what was supposedly the final version of the Jeff (Epic, 2003) album with him. It wasn't, but we sat on a couch and listened to it, and during the solos he would play air guitar and glance over at me knowingly. I'm not sure that life gets any better than that. At one point in the interview I asked if he feared success, and he sat back, stretched his legs out, and said, "Probably," before talking about his mother. I felt a little like an analyst. He was delightful and entirely unpretentious.
John McLaughlin is another one of my heroes, and I've interviewed him several times. He has so many fascinating stories and his insights into guitar playing and music in general are always enlightening. He has a real luminosity about him and a wonderful spirit that I find inspiring on all levels. I saw the original Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early '70s, when I was a kid and was totally blown away.
My interview with [Red Hot Chili Pepper guitarist] John Frusciante was also a highlight. It took place in his home in the Los Angeles hills, and he and his partner were very warm and gracious. The Chili's Stadium Arcadium (Warner Bros., 2006) record was at the top of the charts, and he was feeling expansive. Beside being a great guitarist, he is also a super-creative sound designer and recording enthusiast, and we spent a lot of time talking about pedals, tape echoes, modular synths, and other geeky stuff. I also got to dine with the Peppers after a Bay Area show and spend time with John and his partner Emily in their tour bus, which was a blast.
One of the most important interviews I've done was with Allan Holdsworth. He had recently resurrected his career and was really on a roll. His musical mind is entirely unique, and although understanding his concept isn't any easier than understanding his playing—that is to say, nearly impossible—making the attempt really stretched my mind. There's a lot of good material in that story that I hope guitarists will return to for many years. And that Allan also happens to be a great guy makes it all that much better.