Barry Cleveland: Beyond Convention

Anil Prasad By

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The personal is the political for guitarist and composer Barry Cleveland. That perspective is evident on Hologramatron (MoonJune, 2010), his new album featuring songs that serve as a response to the socio-political and religious narratives woven by the voices dominating today's 24-hour news cycles. Cleveland is unafraid of telling it exactly as he sees it, with lyrics that delve deep into the paradoxical viewpoints that inform the morass of modern partisan discourse.

Hologramatron is only predictable in its unpredictability. It's a mostly vocal-based album that also includes four diverse instrumentals. The eclectic collection explores territory including progressive and psychedelic rock, world music, ambient textures, funk grooves, and metal. In addition to Cleveland's eight original pieces, the record contains two covers: Malvina Reynolds' anti-nuclear proliferation anthem "What Have They Done to the Rain" and Joe Meek's "Telstar."

Cleveland's collaborators on Hologramatron possess an expansive musical lexicon that made them ideal for interpreting his ambitious pieces. He's joined by avant-rock luminaries such as bassist Michael Manring, drummer and percussionist Celso Alberti, pedal-steel guitarist Robert Powell, and vocalists Amy X Neuburg, Deborah Holland, and Harry Manx. Percussionists Gino Robair and Rick Walker, cymbalom player Michael Masley, and guitarist Erdem Helvacioglu also contribute. Manring, Masley and Powell are also mainstays of Cleveland's previous all-instrumental releases: Volcano (Supersaturated, 2004), Memory & Imagination (Supersaturated, 2003), Voluntary Dreaming (Scarlet, 1990), and Mythos (Audion, 1986).

Outside of his work as a recording artist and performer, Cleveland is an editor at Guitar Player magazine. His status as a respected musician in his own right has enabled him to examine the work and psyche of some of the most important and influential guitarists with an impressive level of depth and insight.

All About Jazz: What motivated you to make a record with political commentary in the forefront?

Barry Cleveland: I didn't write these songs with the idea of changing the world, or even individual minds, but rather as a way of coming to grips with my own thoughts and feelings. I had been writing bits and pieces of lyrics for a long time, some of which were directly or indirectly political, but I hadn't tried to make them into complete songs. After living through a few years of the second Bush administration, however, I had become increasingly distraught, and began writing songs as a sort of coping mechanism. The problem with writing politically-oriented lyrics is that if they are too specific they risk being pretentious and preachy, and if they are too abstract they lose their punch. Also, since much of what I wrote was originally little more than stream-of-consciousness imagery, with all of the ambiguity inherent in material that just bubbles up from the unconscious, I had to find a way to retain the desirable aspects of that ambiguity while also providing enough linearity to give the songs direction. In the end I opted for a sort of in-your-face punk-folk approach. Poets say "show it, don't tell it," but punk songs and folksongs almost always tell it—often emphatically. I only ended up using three of the songs, however: "Lake of Fire," "Money Speaks," and "Suicide Train."

AAJ: Give me a snapshot of the topics you explore on those tracks.

BC: "Lake of Fire" was sparked by a documentary in which rightwing politicians, televangelists, and media pundits testified to their personal relationships with "Jesus," who advised them and presumably shared their views. The whole idea that Jesus, at least as presented in the New Testament, would support preemptive military strikes, institutionalized torture, tax advantages for the wealthy, a live-and-let-die approach to the poor, and all the other hallmarks of the far right agenda is preposterous—so I envisioned a scenario in which this right wing "Jesus" actually did return. The "evil Jesus" character in the song was also partially inspired by the depraved mechanical counterfeit of the saintly "Maria" in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927).

"Money Speaks" is largely about the corrupting influence of corporate media, K Street, and Madison Avenue on society and the democratic process. "Suicide Train" turns the traditional metaphor of the train as a vehicle of salvation on its head, instead using it to illustrate the headlong and seemingly irreversible rush to personal and planetary destruction that includes environmental degradation, overpopulation, cultivated gluttony, soulless consumerism, and individual isolation and depression. The chorus of the song does, however, implore the passengers to turn the train around, and the hymn-like arrangement of that section connects it to early American folk and gospel traditions.

AAJ: Given the majority of your previous output is instrumental, were you concerned about alienating anyone by putting these perspectives out there?

Barry Cleveland's Hologramatron, from left: Michael Manring, Barry Cleveland Amy X. Neuburg, Celso Alberti, Robert Powell

BC: Not particularly. There's always the risk of alienating listeners when you change directions creatively, but the muse doesn't care about that. And the truth is that after not releasing an album in seven years, most of the people who hear Hologramatron won't be familiar with my previous work anyway. Hopefully, people who have enjoyed my instrumental music won't suddenly cease to do so simply because they happen to disagree with the political perspectives presented on the new record, but if so I'm prepared to accept that.

AAJ: Is this a direction you foresee exploring in future work?

BC: I have no idea if I will return to political themes in the future. At this point in time I don't feel any great desire to do so, but that may change. After all, we live within what is essentially a plutocracy in which a tiny percentage of the population control the vast majority of resources, we are perpetually at war to generate profits for the military-industrial complex, and the economy has been devastated as the result of unbridled greed and criminal chicanery—so there's a lot of material to work with.

AAJ: Musically, Hologramatron is incredibly diverse.  Describe the connective tissue that enables it to hang together.

BC: The album is bound together by the continuity of the sonics and the production values, and also by virtue of the fact that the same core musicians play on most of the tracks. In other words, there is a certain vibe to the recording overall. I also put quite a bit of thought into the sequencing of the songs, to ensure they flowed together in a way that kept things interesting from start to finish. And then there are the lyrics, which are more or less linked conceptually, except perhaps for "Stars of Sayulita," which is more personal and philosophical than political. Surprisingly, the most controversial aspect of the song selection has been the inclusion of the two '60s covers, which people tend to feel strongly about either one way or the other. 

AAJ: Describe how you went about choosing the collaborators for this album.

BC: I knew from the beginning that I wanted to have bassist Michael Manring and pedal-steel guitarist Robert Powell involved. I hadn't met Celso Alberti when I began recording, and I had gone through a couple of drummers early on before Robert introduced me to him. Celso is a fantastic musician and elevated the songs to a completely different level rhythmically, particularly the two in 13/8, which he somehow managed to make groove as if they were in common time. Celso also played some smoking djembe on "Telstar," and cool textural percussion on several other pieces.

When I originally started working on the songs, I fantasized about having Peter Hammill and Richie Havens sing them. Hammill was gracious enough to listen to some early demos with scratch vocals and although he declined to sing, he said that he liked "Suicide Train," and felt that my scratch vocal worked well and I should just go with that. I actually met with Havens, and gave him some very rough demos, but for various reasons things didn't work out. I was mostly hoping he would sing "What Have They Done to the Rain," as he's never covered it, but I didn't even have a demo of my version at the time, so that idea didn't get very far. I should have waited until the songs were farther along before approaching him, but the opportunity arose before that and I went with it.

So, about a year into writing and recording I still needed a vocalist, and that's when I met Amy X Neuburg. I was writing an article on looping for Guitar Player, and Amy's name kept coming up. She lives in the Bay Area, so I went to one of her solo looping performances, and I was blown away. Amy has a classically trained voice, but uses it mostly to pull off her "avant cabaret" songs, and she can pretty much sing in any style. She also has immaculate diction, which enables her to fire off fusillades of words at quick tempos with perfect clarity—something required to put across my lyrics, which tend to be more like rants than typical songs. She also brought lots of personality, humor, and irony to the songs, which made an immense difference. Her little tongue-in-cheek tag at the end of "Lake of Fire," for example, put a completely different twist on the meaning of the words. She is also a skilled arranger, and came up with some very creative harmony parts for "Money Speaks" and "What Have They Done to the Rain."

I met Harry Manx when he was playing at the 2008 Montreal Jazz Festival, and we became friends. Harry is an amazing guitarist and vocalist, and he was kind enough to sing "Stars of Sayulita," which fell pretty far from his more roots-blues style. Deborah Holland had heard some early mixes of songs and offered to sing something, but we couldn't find a song that fit her vocal range, so she wound up backing Harry on "Stars." Rather than singing typical vocal harmonies, however, she created some beautiful atmospheric and counterpoint parts.

The other musicians on Hologramatron were added for various reasons, usually as some need arose. For example, I had met Erdem Helvacioglu while I was visiting Istanbul, and I decided I'd like to have some Turkish-sounding melodic lines on "Abandoned Mines," so I asked him to contribute. Of course, although Erdem is Turkish and is familiar with macams and other traditional Turkish musical modalities, he's a cutting-edge electro-acoustic composer, and what he sent me didn't sound particularly "Turkish." He recorded a modern-sounding chord progression and a lot of wild electronic sounds and textures generated by playing his Ovation acoustic guitar through a rack of signal processors and a laptop running various sound-mangling plug-ins. The parts didn't work for "Abandoned Mines," but they were so good that I decided to use them as the basis of another song. They became the core tracks for "You'll Just Have to See It to Believe," which was otherwise entirely improvised.

Rick Walker was originally just going to play congas and dumbec on a couple of songs, but when I played him the basic guitar tracks for "Warning" he asked if he could take a shot at the drum part. He assembled a very unorthodox drum kit covered in thick metal chains that he played in the main sections, and he played a teapot with his fingers on the quieter sections. Although the riff is in 11, and quite difficult to follow, he knocked out the entire song in two takes. I really wanted Gino Robair to play on the album, because I love his approach to percussion, so I asked him to play dumbec and kendang on "What Have They Done to the Rain."

Evan Schiller is a great drummer and recording engineer in Seattle who had produced an amazing album with Michael Manring and Mike Keneally called Outer Spaces (Periscope, 2006). He offered to remix "Lake of Fire" and did a magnificent job, completely changing the way the different instruments were handled. Forrest Fang is a brilliant composer and musician who I have known for years, and he transformed the tracks from "Abandoned Mines" into a wholly new creation. It's really more of a re-composition than a remix.

AAJ: Manring has been a mainstay of your output. What makes his presence so special to you?

BC: I have known Michael for more than 20 years and throughout that time he has never ceased to amaze and inspire me. Michael's presence is special to me because not only does he always bring something unique to the music—he inevitably brings the right thing. He is certainly one of the most innovative and forward-thinking proponents of his instrument alive today, and arguably the greatest solo electric bassist in the world. His concept is so advanced that I suspect he sometimes has difficulty keeping up with himself. Michael is also an extraordinarily intelligent and thoughtful man, as well as one of the nicest people I know—though he does have a wicked sense of humor.

In terms of process, I typically give him rough demos with simple bass lines, and he will either build on those parts and transform them into something much more sophisticated, or compose entirely new parts that I could never have imagined. He arrives at sessions with several complete ideas for each song and records them in one or two takes. Once he's finished with that I'll have him just go crazy and improvise one or more additional tracks—pulling out all the stops—and he'll always come up with something totally unexpected and mind blowing. Sometimes he will decide to experiment with different tunings and start flipping the tuning keys on his Hyperbasses. You can see his mind working like a slide ruler as he calculates the moves necessary to arrive at the desired combination of notes.

All of the songs on Hologramatron include multiple bass tracks, some of which are mixed up front and others further back—occasionally so low that they are felt rather than heard. I also like to process his parts, particularly the more unusual stuff, like when he plays a fretless with an Ebow. For example, I used a Moogerfooger FreqBox to add a fat and nasty snarl to his fretless lines on "You'll Just Have to See It to Believe" and a Minimoog-like funkiness to some of his parts on "Money Speaks."

AAJ:Powell is someone you've known and worked with for a long time. What do you find appealing about his guitar approach and how does it mesh with yours?

BC: I met Robert back in the mid '80s, and we've played together hundreds of times over the years. He played pedal-steel guitar on my Voluntary Dreaming album. Robert is an excellent guitarist, and he can get great sounds out of anything you play with a slide—but his approach to pedal-steel is unique, and he is adept at using effects to push the sound of the instrument even deeper into uncharted territory. My playing tends to be somewhat angular and linear, and his more flowing and textural, and the two mesh quite well. We also share what you might call a cosmic bent, which adds continuity to the sound, especially when we are improvising together.

Robert contributed to nearly every song on Hologramatron. In terms of process, we have worked together so long that while he usually asks me to let him know what I have in mind for any given song, I've found it is best to just give him complete freedom to see what he comes up with. Often that involves having him record several improvised tracks that are later edited and processed in various ways.

AAJ: What insight can you provide into the creative collaborative process that drove the record?

BC: My creative process varies, but in most cases it is rooted in improvisation. I also rely heavily on intuition, and just being able to feel my way along, whether it is generating new ideas, discovering interesting ways to process existing parts, or finding solutions to compositional or sonic problems. So, I naturally gravitate toward musicians that thrive in that environment. And it really is a collaborative process, as each musician brings their own ideas and energies to the songs. I give them direction, but what they ultimately come up with oftentimes bears little relationship to my original concept. And sometimes they compose phrases or other material in the process that I will develop into whole new sections. A good example would be the main themes on "Money Speaks," which I extrapolated from one of Michael's bass parts in another section of the song. Another would be Michael Masley's "lyrics" on "Warning," which were entirely improvised. I put him in front of a microphone after altering his consciousness, and had him rant along with a loop for about 20 minutes. Then I edited together the best parts, processed each one individually, and organized them into a relatively linear form.

AAJ: What were the biggest challenges you faced when making Hologramatron?

BC: The biggest challenge was probably just keeping the project on track, because it took so long to complete. Having a full-time job and lots of interests means that I have limited time to work in the studio, and when many months pass by it can sometimes be difficult to maintain momentum, especially when you are mostly working by yourself. Another big challenge was finding the right title. I had some working titles at various points, but none of them were entirely satisfactory. Then, I was walking in the woods one day, thinking about a program I'd seen on the holographic paradigm, and the word "Hologramatron" just popped into my head. It is a very suggestive word that connects obliquely with themes touched upon on the album, but which has no literal meaning, and I recognized it as the title immediately.

Once I had the title, everything else began falling into place, including the cover image. I had taken a nighttime photo of the underside of the Eiffel Tower that I was hoping to do something with, and my friend Richard Price had photographed some giant bulbs and lenses at a lighthouse that he visited. Richard manipulated one of his light bulb photos and created a composite with my photo and suddenly there was the Hologramatron. I nearly fell out of my chair laughing when I saw it.

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.

AAJ: Clearly, we are moving away from physical media both in terms of recordings and publishing. How is this affecting you in both of your career paths?

BC: That's a big question. In terms of Guitar Player, we are struggling to come to grips with the situation in the same way that all print publications are. One saving grace with Guitar Player is that the magazine has a substantial legacy dating back to 1967 that many readers feel a strong emotional bond with. The demographic also skews towards older readers, who like the tactile quality of a physical magazine. That's slowed the pace of decline, but it is no guarantee of indefinite financial viability.

For an artist at my level, illegal downloading is both a curse and a blessing. Hologramatron is currently available on dozens of pirate sites and I have no idea how many copies have been downloaded, or whether the people who downloaded them would have paid for my music if they weren't able to get it without compensating me. So, it is impossible to know what percentage of those downloads amount to free promotion, or simply represent lost income. I do know that artists I speak with at all levels have experienced reduced sales overall, however—in some cases to a devastating extent.

AAJ: Describe some of your forthcoming projects.

BC: I'm currently recording an experimental ambient album with bowhammer cymbalom player and instrument inventor Michael Masley, called The History of Light. I'm also still hoping to record with French guitarist and synthesist Richard Pinhas in 2011. I recently shared a bill with him here in the Bay Area and we discussed it again. Right now we are thinking it will be an album of "beautiful music." And MoonJune has suggested I go to Indonesia to record with a gamelan percussion orchestra for the label.

I've also started performing with a band that we are calling Hologramatron. There is an instrumental quartet version with Michael Manring, Celso Alberti, and Robert Powell, as well as a quintet with Amy X Neuburg. The quartet played ProgDay over the Labor Day weekend, which we hope will serve as a stepping stone to larger festival gigs. I'm also playing the occasional solo gig, most recently the Y2KX International Live Looping Festival in Santa Cruz, California. I'm extremely encouraged and excited by all the opportunities emerging and look forward to connecting with listeners across the world in the coming year.

Selected Discography

Barry Cleveland, Hologramatron (MoonJune, 2010)
Barry Cleveland, Volcano (Supersaturated, 2004)
Barry Cleveland, Memory & Imagination (Supersaturated, 2003)
Barry Cleveland, Voluntary Dreaming (Scarlet, 1990)
Barry Cleveland, Mythos (Audion, 1986)

Photo Credits

All Photos: Courtesy of Barry Cleveland

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