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Josh Pollock: More Than Just The Notes

Anthony Shaw By

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I've also spent time (a lot of time) gradually getting adept at using effects pedals—that has been huge. I think I've finally found a voice of my own as a guitarist in the last few years, and that, to me, is the most important thing. All my favorite guitarists (Marc Ribot, Richard Thompson, Agata...) have instantly recognizable styles, and don't sound like anyone else. I have no patience for merely "skillful" guitarists. I'll take Blixa Bargeld over Eric Clapton any day!

AAJ: How much do you use music in your theater activities?

JP: Plenty. Most theater people don't actually know much about music, at least not here in the U.S. (though they often think they do...), so if they've got someone around who can play instruments and compose they'll generally take advantage of it, as they should. This has been both an advantage and a bit of a curse—being a musician has helped me get a few acting jobs I wouldn't have gotten otherwise, but it also means that the juicier, larger roles will often go to someone who can "only" act, while I end up playing music for most of the show, except for 5 minutes somewhere where I pop in as a bumbling waiter.

Regardless, I've written and performed music for a number of theater projects—though generally not straight-up musicals, as those require sight-reading skills I don't really have. I've done a couple 'standard' musicals, like "The Threepenny Opera" and the first U.S. run of Tom Waits' adaption of "Woyzeck," but I learned the songs by listening to recordings and memorizing them, and even then I was given a lot of leeway to come up with my own parts (all too rare in the musical theater world). These shows were typical of the plays I end up doing music in, in that they were both projects in which the director did not want "the usual," and thus, came to me. (I personally can't stand the sound of a standard theater pit band.)

I'm a huge Tom Waits fan, and one of the aspects of his aesthetic that I respond to most strongly is his junkyard voodoo approach to percussion. When I got asked to do "Woyzeck," I just knew that a normal, boring, standard drum set would just cut the show's dick off before it'd even started. Tom Waits' music needs to go 'CLONK,' and 'CLINK,' and 'BLAM.' So for the show, I put together a crazy percussion set comprised mainly of junk: a filing cabinet that I'd found on the street, a wine bottle, a coffee mug (I actually went through a few of those), etc. The closest thing there was to a "drum" was a huge wine barrel with a bass drum head stretched over it. And it sounded awesome, and fresh, and it totally suited the material. Most professional drummers would've just shown up with the same drum set they use for everything and played whatever was written down. This is anathema to me. (In addition to all the percussion, I also insisted on playing all the guitar and vibraphone—I'd seen a couple Tom Waits musicals before this where I felt the music had been handled really badly, so I didn't trust anybody with anything!)

As someone with lifelong interests in both theater and music, I am fascinated with the combination of the two, mainly because it's usually so terrible. You'd think they'd be a natural combination, but I find most "musical theater" unbearable, and most bands' attempts at incorporating "theatricality" to be unfortunate. I dream of a music/theater that's like seeing a great band and a great play at the same time. I've been working toward it over the years—observing what works, what doesn't, and why...

AAJ: What were your dreams as an amateur guitarist?

JP: All I want to do is make my art, put it out into the world, and (this is key:)get a reaction. My role models are people like Mike Patton and John Zorn—distinctive, uncompromising, and productive artists who do lots of very different things, and have hardcore followings of people who are inherently interested in anything they're involved in. Making a living at it, as Patton and Zorn do, would certainly be pretty sweet, but more importantly, I want a group of people with whom my work resonates to such a degree that my involvement in a project is enough to make them want to check it out. If there were 2,000 people in the world like that, I'd be the happiest guy on Earth. I think I'm up to about 14...

My popularity level is out of my hands, obviously, but my productivity level is not, so: I produce. It's of primary importance to me to be able to answer the question "So what have you done to make you worthy of an audience?" with, "Well, all this." So I work. Between all my various bands and projects, I've released 20 records in the last two years alone—I think by anyone's standards that's not to bad.

So yeah: I have the not-terribly-uncommon dream of being a popular and profitable artist, but really, as long as I can keep making my art and have the world react to it (even negatively), I'm ok.

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