Ricky Sweum: String Theory

Cicily Janus By

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Ricky SweumAAJ: How do you feel about the recording now, having gone through this part of the process in such an intimate way?

RS: It's just comforting to know that this project has been touched by these two great listeners of music. Everything on here is original and I'm able, when I listen to it now, to focus on the actual music.

AAJ: What influenced you during this process?

RS: This was the first time the group had hit the studio and we weren't used to it at all. We were in separate rooms when we were used to playing very tight, close to one another, and playing acoustically. But when you're in the studio, you're separated by closed doors and the lifeline you have is just a pair of headphones. It took a couple of hours that day to really feel comfortable with it. It was definitely awkward for me. Initially it felt like a job we had to do. We had to stay focused and come back to that little instance of separation. From the moment you go into your mind and you're feeling that resistance...as in something that doesn't feel ideal you have to change.

I had to realize that this was the situation we were in. Instead of reacting negatively, we just decided to own it and make music. I took my shoes off and started swaying back and forth and getting into the music. Music is such an audio experience and yet for me, early on, some of the most significant music that influenced me were recordings I've made live, on my own. Concerts, bootlegged...they enter this different dynamic. Instead of being something you hear, I was there, seeing it. I was feeling whatever you can feel from being a live person who was watching them physically interacting with each other and then how they interact with the audience.

Those were really significant to me because I could go back and listen to the whole recording and remember the whole experience as opposed to just remembering and hearing a sound. Sometimes I feel that music is too sterile otherwise. Yet I get goose bumps when I listen to music like this. Not only is the music great but to experience that energy in a live situation reconnects you to what I love about music.

AAJ: Where did Pulling Your Own Strings come from?

RS: I wrote the tune, Pulling Your Own Strings the first year I was at William Patterson. This was the first time I really had a "band." We got together and said, okay, let's see what can happen if we play together as much as we possibly can.

William Patterson is a great school to go to because we had all those fantastic players but for me, the schooling didn't really begin until after the classes were done. Every evening you could go there and people would have these Jam Sessions. It was a great atmosphere. You could go room to room and jam with different guys. But with my group, we almost made ourselves exclusive. We felt drawn to do something more than just the typical jam session mentality. Also, when you're in school you're often placed by your teachers in the different ensembles. This also means you're not always placed with the people you really want to play with.

We used our intuition and said there's something really special about playing with this particular group. We all felt this way. Night after night after night we got into the whole collective. I'm sure it's not new to get into the collective improvisation thing, but sometimes, in jazz, there's a great new idea that comes along an dit dies with that person other than having others pick up on it and recognizing that it is really special. For us, it became less and less about hearing the arrangement and having us solo one after another. We made sure everyone played collectively, improvising the whole time. What came from this was me taking the time to write and contribute to that ensemble with my writing. I would get these riffs together and piece it into tunes. Pulling Your Own Strings came from that time in my life as well as a lot of the other tunes on this album. I guess over time since then I shelved a lot of them.

Once I entered the air force down in San Antonio, I put another band together called, Eat the Sun. There were some truly decent players and some exceptional players and once we began playing the tunes resurfaced. I loved this tune and when I started to play it again for this, I knew it would be my favorite tune on the album. It also reflects what I believe in.

I believe we have a certain amount of control over our own destiny. But like a marionette doll that's controlled by the strings, our human bodies are like that doll. There's this force so much greater that's actually controlling everything. Some say it's God but to me, to use the word God is a cop out of responsibility or saying I just don't understand the nature of reality. I'd like to say that God takes care of everybody but I'm deep seeded in my belief that we're not separate from God. We at least have some sort of communication with that power. To take it even further, we are that power ourselves and yet to be fully in control of that, you can't have your ego in the way. If you sit around in a box in a room and do nothing, I believe nothing will happen to you. If you decide, in turn, to do great things, in turn, great things will happen to you. Our will to have things happen is a very powerful and under used tool in most people's lives. This is my visual imagery behind Pulling Your Own Strings .

AAJ: Why the wait between your schooling and the air force and more to put out this record?

RS: Maybe it wasn't a conscious decision. I went through a period of time in New York where I didn't play as much. It wasn't a conscious decision to focus on something else, I just happened to get into other things. Marshall Arts, Nature Studies and a fresh relationship really took my mind off of the "me" mentality and also from focusing on what I wanted to do. I just didn't feel good enough to be a jazz musician doing my own thing in New York.

There was this standard of an almost perfectionist level that got in my way, and still does...all the time. I don't want anyone to hear me sound bad ever. Even now.

AAJ: Do you think that holds back a lot of artists, especially young artists?

RS: No. When I was younger I had this fearlessness. A reckless abandon. I would jump into positions I wouldn't do now. I wasn't afraid of things. Somehow I grew afraid of and I guess I need to figure out what happened along the way.

But when you go to school you have a support group of all the people you're playing with on a daily basis. You can put a band together and say, let's go get gigs and everyone's collectively in it together. So if you fail, everyone's cool with it...and half the time no one shows up to the gig. At least you're not worried then. But when I left that comfort and went to New York I became like that dog that curls up in the corner after it gets yelled at enough times. I trained myself early on to fear certain musical situations.

AAJ: What do you do, as an artist, to overcome that fear?

RS: If I want to call it fear I can, but if I want to call it a standard...or a personal standard that I've set on myself, I feel it's fine and safe. It's safe for an artist to say, "I've got something I'm working on and I don't want anyone to see it until the painting is finished." That's fair. But really, I guess it's a fear of the critic. But the older I get, the more years I spend saying this is how music is. It's not just music, it's a way of life. It's a guidance. How you approach music is how you approach life. It 's a religious principle and becomes who you are. It's about being less concerned with what other people have to say and realizing that this is just part of the fun of the dynamics of relating to other people. It's how other people feel about you and feeling good about what they say. You can do what you want with what they say. Maybe they're right, maybe what they're saying is true but then you have the choice of letting it influence you or change you. But I have to be first, resolute in my own feelings. I have to know what I truly believe in and that this isn't going to change me. I'm going to stay true to myself. Even ten years later, I have to have something representative of me, all original, all my own doing, from being able to pull my own strings and know that the power of doing so was something I made happen.

Selected Discography

Ricky Sweum, Pulling Your Own Strings (Origin, 2009)

Photo Credits

Page 1, 2, 4: Jonathan Betz

Page 3: David Hughes

About Ricky Sweum
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