Alex Machacek: Fat Beyond Belief
Alex Machacek is back with a tremendously exciting new record and a wonderful new trio. Well, not quite. Drummer Harold Pirker and bassist Raphael Preuschi have been playing with the Austria-born/California-based guitarist on and off for the guts of a decade and both contributed significantly to Machacek's [sic] (Abstract Logix, 2006). A trio recoding by FAT (Fabulous Austrian Trio) has been a while coming, but Machacek is already thinking about its next recording. Clearly, the chemistry between the three musicians is something that inspires Machacek to some of his finest playing yet, as just one listen to FAT reveals.
The music on FAT runs from soothing to bruising, and there are plenty of the guitarist's dazzling improvisations scattered throughout these sometimes dense, conceptually impressive compositions. Machacek is the first to admit that his writing can be dense, and so knotty and complex are some of the unison lines that the trio has not yet attempted a couple of the tracks live; thought it will, Machacek is certain. Several listens are recommended to peel away the layers, but it's time well spent, as the individual and collective playing is pretty extraordinary.
Machacek feels very comfortable with his musical partners on FAT, and is keen to give these two wonderful musicians the greater exposure that their talents deserve. And, judging by the cool hats that the trio dons on the CD cover and on stage, FAT may also be attempting to reintroduce the fashion for snazzy headgear to the jazz world.
All About Jazz Alex, FAT is a really tremendous recording. This trio is very exciting, where did you first meet Raphael Preuschi and Herbert Pirker?
Alex Machacek I met Rapha a long time ago in a funk band where he was the bassist while I was still living in Austria. Herbert I met more than ten years ago at a summer course where I was teaching and he was playing in my ensemble. I found a great drummer. I kept in touch with them while I was still living in Austria and at one point I asked them if they wanted to play with me. That ended up as a couple of tunes on [sic].
AAJ: What do you like about this trio?
AM: To me it's almost an effortless trio. I'll write the material and they learn it in no time. When I play with them I don't have to tell anyone what to do. It's effortless. They do what I would like to hear and I suppose that is pretty much a luxury.
AAJ: Preuschi and Pirker are in Austria and you've been based for some years in California; how often do you get to play together?
AM:I usually got to Austria every year to teach at a summer clinic. I've been doing that for the last six years and whenever I'm there we play. Two years ago I said 'come on, let's make a record.' We went into the studio for one day where we got the drum tracks down. There were some parts used from that session and then heavy overdubbing, file changing and everything. We usually play one or two gigs whenever I'm there.
AAJ The hats on the cover of FAT are very elegant; do you wear them in concert?
AM: Yeah, we do.
AAJ: Centuries ago, right up until the 1960s or thereabouts the whole world wore quite dapper hats and then they suddenly disappeared from the face of the planet; do you think they're making a comeback?
AM: Well, now they are reappearing. People are wearing hats again and it's nothing special.
AAJ: In California or in Austria?
AM: In both. On the streets people are wearing hats again. Why did we wear hats? I don't know. We just started for some inane reason and just thought we'd stick to it. Why not? So people can give me shit about wearing hats.
AAJ: Is there any chance that this trio will tour with its hats in the Unites States?
AM: There are plans for next year. There might be a tour in March. It's hopefully in the process of being booked. I would really like to bring the guys here. I think they're great and they should get a little more exposure. I really love playing with these two guys but they're just not known internationally. They're great musicians and it shouldn't matter if they are famous or not. The music speaks for itself.
AAJ: They clearly are phenomenal musicians. Pirker sounds as good as any drummer you've played with and you've played with a lot of great ones, like Terry Bozzio, Jeff Sipe and Marco Minnemann. Preuschi comes across as a beautifully lyrical, highly grooving bassist. This trio deserves to have a decent run.
AM: Yes. I really hope that the promoters will take a risk. Promoters have a tendency to want big names, which is a no-brainer, as then the place will fill. Let's see, maybe we'll be lucky.
AAJ: Musicians both sides of the Atlantic say that it's harder and harder to get gigs; venues are closing, funding is being cut, home entertainment is more sophisticated and peoples' attention spans seem to be increasingly shorter. In a recent AAJ interview with clarinetist Louis Sclavis-who's been around a long time-he said he feels that promoters are putting pressure on musicians to have a new project and a new band every time they come around, with known musicians in the lineup. Do you feel this pressure to always turn up with a new concept, new compositions and new musicians?
AM: I couldn't have said it better myself. I don't know if I feel that pressure but I totally know what Louis is talking about. There are many festivals that only want to have a premiere of something. But the funny thing is that these people are always talking about bands and whenever the name Weather Report comes up they all get glassy-eyed. There were lineup changes, but that was a band. I feel that nowadays with the concept of having to come up with new stuff all the time a band doesn't really have a chance to develop its personal sound anymore because you have to be a new project every time.
With me, where I play, the promoters would probably be happy for me not to have the same band, but what do they expect? Should I come up with a new band and a new concept every four weeks? How would be possible? Even if it's possible, how would it sound? I'm still a big fan of bands and I wish I could have one band or two bands that get more chances to play.
AAJ: You've done a fair bit of recomposing, notably on your epic 24 Tales (Abstract Logix, 2010), and there's one track on FAT which is completely recomposed, but how much of the unison playing on a track like "Why Not? is recomposed?
AM: "Why Not?" is partly recomposed. There was a gray section in the middle and I thought, "Why don't I pick up where we left off on 24 Tales?" and I did it there. We are in the process of learning to play that live. With this band we've almost played the entire record live. It might be difficult but it's doable.
AAJ: You do set the bar high with your writing; you compose complex music that must be very challenging to reproduce live, for yourself as well as the other musicians, no?
AM: It is challenging but we're young and crazy.
AAJ: "Why Not?" sounds like it was inspired by the circus.
AM: When we were in the studio I had some tracks that were already composed and I also left room for possible jams and I just wanted that disco-polka. I come from Austria and the polka is something very Austrian and I don't know why I came up with disco but it just ended up being like that. It was more like a joke. There are other pieces on the record where I just had a rough sketch and the composition process took place at home later on. Then Raphael had to overdub, of course. "Studio Swing" is a piece where I just wrote down rhythmical kicks but no notes and later on I came up with the notes. Nowadays with no budget and very limited time in the studio you have to be very efficient.
AAJ: The first five-and-a-half-minutes of "What a Time to be Me" sound like a continual improvisation on guitar, and a particularly inspired one at that; can you tell us about the construction of this number?
AM: it was composed and it's probably the easiest tune that I have ever written. It's not difficult. It's just chord changes and a super short, simple head. The solo is just improvisation with a bit of polishing here and there.
AAJ: The title is intriguing...
AM: The title actually comes from the TV series Monk, the obsessive-compulsive detective. In one episode everyone is dying around him and he's so obsessive about everything and he says, "What a time to be me!" and I liked that. How does it relate to me, well, I could go on forever.
AAJ: Do you feel fortunate to be making music in this historical period?
AM: Is this a special time to be a musician? Absolutely; everyone who buys a Mac laptop is already a musician or a director because of the supplied software. Though, just because you have the technology it doesn't make you a musician or a director. Sometimes I wish I had been born twenty years earlier. Then again, I wouldn't have had the luxury of sending files back and forth.
AAJ Each period has its advantages and disadvantages.
AM: Yes, I think it's always been like that and mankind has a tendency to always complain. If somebody asks me how I'm doing I always say. "I can't complain enough." Some people are not used to that answer and they only hear. "I can't complain" and then they say "Oh, great!" [laughs] which is an indicator they didn't listen to my entire sentence. Sometimes four words are already too many.
AAJ: The music industry is in a state of flux; if you could change one thing about the music industry that would improve your existence as a professional musician what would it be?
AM: One thing only?
AAJ: Okay, two.
AM:Sometimes I think music kind of loses its value because you can steal it and it's easy to steal. Everything that can be digitalized is basically up on the internet in no time. Sometimes I have e-mail exchanges or blog exchanges where people confront me with the thought that music is free. Well, if it's free then I don't know how to make a living. It's difficult when other people are telling me that what I do is all for free. This sometimes makes me a little concerned or bitter. Buy hey, it's not for free because all the equipment I use I actually paid for, and so on and so forth. We don't even have to discuss the whole thing. The mindset that many people think it's for free just because they can steal it would be the main thing that I would like to change.
There's an entire generation growing up really thinking that everything is for free. I would like to put the thought in people's heads that hey, it's not for free. The next argument is, "I'm just downloading it to see if I like it," but how many people who already have the music on their iPod will really go and buy it? This is the reason that I have to work super low-budget so there's a chance that I can recoup, I'm not even talking about profit, I'm talking about covering my losses. I always say, well, if you're so into sharing why don't you share your girlfriend with me? Or, I'm in town; let me use your car, or whatever. But people say, "Oh, it's just music." So, that's something I really could live without, that whole discussion about other people telling me what's free and not.
AAJ: Your point is very valid, and one most musicians probably share. If people don't pay for and support the music then what future has creative music got?
AM: If I could tell you I would, I don't know.
AAJ: it was a rhetorical question, but if the music isn't generating income it can't very well survive.
AM: There's one more thing I would like to add, and that's people always say, "Well, you can play live and make the money there." Well, welcome to the music business, [laughs] it's not that easy. Sure, I can play live but it's not like I can just phone Brazil and say, "Hey Brazil, I'm ready for a tour" [laughs]. Sometimes you can make money touring and sometimes you barely break even. Still, I don't want to complain too much because that's not very productive.
AAJ: You can't complain enough, eh?
AM: No, I can't complain enough [laughs].
AAJ: Another great track on FAT is "Safe Word"; what effects are you using on your guitar solo?
AM: It's a harmonizer. For some reason it sounded very synthetic because I mixed the octave relatively loud. I like the sound. The second part of the solo I programmed something with an Expression Table and I played a kind of question and answer with myself. I had fun doing that.
AAJ: As technology improves do you find yourself drawn to changing the sound of the guitar as someone like guitarist Allan Holdsworth has done for many years?
AM: That's a difficult topic, because sometimes when I practice I use a clean sound. There are so many possibilities on the guitar that I don't even need to play with the sound. Then on the other hand it's so much fun playing around with sound. So sometimes I am really torn between those two possibilities. For a record I usually try to come up with something new. New for me, but maybe old hat for everyone else. Music is usually defined in the three categories of rhythm, harmony and melody, but I think there should be a fourth category, which is sound. I think I have an obligation to research my sound.
AAJ: If you could afford to hire more musicians, particularly when touring, let's say in a quartet or a quintet, what type of instrumentation would you like to add to your sound?
AM: That's a difficult question. I'm always thinking of what to add or who to add and I don't know. Maybe if the budget was unlimited a string quartet would be nice. Trumpet would certainly be nice.
AAJ: With a string quartet it would be possible to imagine you veering towards a kind of Mahavishnu Orchestra intensity, no?
AM: Yeah, sure.
AAJ: On FAT there is a fair amount of sensitive playing, particularly Presuchi's bass solo piece "Ton Portrait," which is really his tribute to bassist Jaco Pastorius. Did you feel that it was necessary to bring things down a little at that point on the record?
AM: Definitely. I have the tendency of writing very dense music so if one listens to the entire CD it's probably good to have a little breather-a little break for the ears. I just thought of it in the big picture of the entire album. Also, when I go to concerts I like to have a quiet spot where my ears can recover, so if the next piece is dense I can probably take it in much better.
AAJ: A lot of CDs stretch to 70 minutes in length; do you have an ideal time for how much music you want to present to your listeners?
AM: I do have that in mind because I think if you release a 30-minute CD it's a fraud. I try to make them around 60 minutes. I'm not particularly a fan of 70-minute CDs, unless it's necessary.
AAJ: Your solo on "D-lite" is amazing; was that a one-take solo?
AM: Well, it's almost a one-take solo. At home I usually record and record and record, because I have the opportunity to fix things. I usually try to have three versions of a solo. Here and there I exchanged another part from another solo but basically it's one take.
AAJ: "The Life of Herbert P" is kind of hybrid between gentle ballad and more lively workout; what was you approach to this composition?
AM: That's a true recompositon. When we were in the studio I asked Herbert to play a couple of drum solos. First he played a loud one and then he played that really quiet drum solo that was so appealing to me. There's so much space in that drum solo, especially at the beginning. It was so inspiring to compose to that. That's still on the list to be played live. We haven't done it yet, but it's possible.
AAJ: "Studio Swing" starts out as a fairly contemporary, straight-ahead jazz tune before heading into what could best be described as Machacek territory; how important are the musicians around you for the sound that you want to produce yourself on your guitar?
AM: I think the band is super important for what you can do. For example, in the band with Terry Bozzio, I barely play any clean, because with his sound the clean sound doesn't cut too well. You need other musicians to complement that sound. The ideal thing would just be to have your own sound and put that wherever you go, but sometimes it's almost impossible. Who you play with dictates where you can go.
AAJ: The last track on FAT, "Let's Not Argue," is a beautiful, gentle number; was it an obvious choice to close the CD with and would you close a concert with such a gentle number?
AM: We close the first set with that number. I enjoy ballads so why not close with a ballad?
AAJ: You've played with a lot of great musicians over the years but one we haven't talked about is drummer Virgil Donati; what's it like playing with him and in Planet X?
AM: I played in Virgil's band first and then he asked me to play in Planet X. It's interesting, Virgil's vocabulary, his rhythmical vocabulary is just a different one. It's very challenging playing with him because he's a very sophisticated drummer. Planet X was tough; the music is really tough to learn. The mai n goal for me was just to get through everything with no mistakes. It was like an obstacle course. I couldn't really relax during my solos because I knew what was coming after that. I think Virgil's a great drummer and sometimes we do have similar vocabulary. He's so good with metric modulation and the reinterpreting of it. Virgil represents a big challenge to everyone else [laughs]. He's rhythmically really advanced. He's a super nice guy.
AAJ: On your website it says that you're going to release a duo recording with singer Sumitra; can you tell us a bit more about this recording?
AM: it's not the typical duo that you might expect, let's put it like that. It's not like [guitarist] Joe Pass meets [singer] Ella Fitzgerald. We're shooting for a duo with a different sound. We've been playing in a duo setting for years and never really recorded. We're in the writing process right now and I hope it will be out soon.
AAJ: is there anything else in the pipeline?
AM: I'm already thinking of the next record. There are so many things on the list. I played a couple of gigs with Terry Bozzio and Jimmy Johnson on bass, and that proved to be really nice and we were talking about maybe recording something. I want to do a CD where I have all different drummers who send me drum solos and I recompose them, but I think that will have to wait a little bit. With FAT we're talking of a follow-up record, hopefully soon. Then there is another project which I can't tell you about because it's a secret, but if it happens I will be really happy. Right now I'm concentrating on the duo and getting gigs with FAT. There are so many possibilities.
Alex Machacek, FAT (Abstract Logix, 2012)
Alex Machacek/Marco Minnemann, 24 Tales (Abstract Logix, 2010)
Alex Machacek/Neal Fountain/Jeff Sipe, Official Triangle Sessions (Abstract Logix, 2009)
Alex Machacek, Jeff Sipe, Mathew Garrison, Improvision (Abstract Logix, 2007)
Alex Machacek, [sic] (Abstract Logix, 2006)
All Photos: Courtesy of Alex Machacek