Steuart Liebig: Mentone Mentor Merges into the Fast Lane

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AAJ: How did the contrabass guitar come into your life?

SL: When I got out of Northridge, I wanted a six-string bass. In certain bands, I was playing 3 different basses with 3 different tunings. So, I went to the NAMM show, played this bass, was completely floored. My mom helped me cosign a loan, I sent off the money and hoped I liked the bass, because it was more than I'd paid for an instrument ever. I started playing bar gigs on guitar to pay for it, so there I was playing "Brown Sugar. I can fake [guitarist] Keith Richards fairly easily at certain points. The truth is, I don't really love the sound of the electric bass. The technique is what I grew up with, and a lot of what I hear is based on it.

Sound-wise, I like the acoustic bass better, so I try to find that in there. I'm developing a sound I like on electric, but most electric bass players, not doing it for me. The bow is a humiliation situation for me, because if I'm going to do it, I need to do some bowing. Many, many hours of diligent hard work. I got my degree in the thing, but to get a good sound out of a bow, not easy. Everything's really super precise, it's very unforgiving. I've had the six-string now since the second tour with Julius, twenty one years. I'm sold on the higher register, it gives me a lot or range.

AAJ: You must have played the Century City Playhouse.

SL: The only time I ever played there was with Wayne Peet, and this other guy I knew from my High School who said I should go to Northridge, a rock-jazz-classical guy, now he's doing country. He ended up doing a lot of casuals, and got burnt out, so he just wanted to play country music after that. He got me into [composer Krystof] Penderecki. He knew [trombonist] John Rapson, [multi-instrumentalist] John Stephens, and Wayne Peet. They wanted him to play bass on something, and he recommended me. I played with the Joe Dopler Quintet, or something like that. I think they called it a quintet, but there were more than five. That's how I met Wayne, and I think that's the first time the Clines met Wayne. I remember talking to them about Wayne afterwards.

I wasn't really into the whole Century City Playhouse thing, I was much more like a satellite out there somewhere. I was doing rock bands, and more mainstream jazz. I was playing with a Latino disco band out in Pacoima. I played with [singer] Dianne Reeves and [pianist] Billy Childs at the Comeback Inn in Venice, every Saturday night for six months, and Sunday matinees. I was the sub-bassist.

AAJ: How'd you hook up with [woodwind multi-instrumentalst] Julius Hemphill?

SL: Alex. Alex recommended me. We were playing in Wayne Peet's Dopler Funk. We had a Nine Winds record. We used to these shows that were crazy. The band was Wayne [Peet], Nels [Cline], Alex [Cline], Vinny [Golia], [trumpeter] John Fumo, sometimes a trombone player, and me. Not a bad little band. We'd do these gigs that were complete throw down. The LP had some great writing on it.

AAJ: Who else played with Julius Hemphill?

SL: The first incarnation was Julius, [percussionist] Jumma Santos, Nels, Alex, and me. The second incarnation was those five plus [guitarist] Bill Frisell. The third version replaces Bill Frisell with Allan Jaffe. We only played a few times in the states. San Francisco, LA, and Minnesota. I did a Lincoln Center gig with him, with his large band. I was sort of a disaster. It was right in the middle of a BLOC recording session, and I flew out, but I didn't really have my shit together. My amp blew up. It was a big disaster.

AAJ: How did the Mentones get together? Where did you find [harmonica player] Bill Barrett?

SL: I had seen [woodwind multi-instrumentalist] Tony Atherton when he played with Bazooka at the Alligator Lounge. Later, when I'm putting together the Mentones, I'm thinking he's really raw, and I want to put together a really aggressive band. So, I asked him if he knew any chromatic harmonica players who can play Ornette Coleman. He says Bill Barrett. So I tuck that into the back of my mind. Then I ran into Wayne Peet, asked him the same thing, and he says Bill Barrett. I tracked him down, had him come over, we played, and hit it off really well. I played on some things of his. We've been doing this band, four or five years.

Bill's got this incredibly open mind, he's very sponge like. For a guy who has 3 kids and has to worry about everything that goes along with that, he's very focused on learning and deconstructing things to see how the music works. I turned him on to a lot of the [woodwind multi-instrumentalist] Anthony Braxton stuff, especially the solo alto stuff, so Bill's trying to figure out how to do that on chromatic harmonica. I'm not sure anyone else has ever thought about doing these things on harp. He's really stretching the envelope as far as I can tell. A lot of guys look at what he's doing and say, what? Either they're incredulous, like wow that's amazing, or they're incredulous like they can't get out of their box on how interesting he really is.

And I've known drummer Joe Berardi for a long time. I auditioned for the Fibonaccis when he was in the Fibonaccis. When I was thinking what drummer I could get to do the Mentones, I thought of Joe, and he's the perfect guy. I really wanted that Harry Partch noisy thing, where it's prepared percussion, I wanted that kind of action in this. So, he's playing tin cans, and he has a waste paper basket he plays, stuff on the drums. Plus, he rocks. We goad each other into excess. The horn players look at me like, can we stop now?

AAJ: Tell me what inspires the Mentones' material.

SL: "Chatterbox, I was thinking of a John Lee Hooker thing called, "Madman Blues. The guys I was thinking about a lot with this band were Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Howlin Wolf. There's a little bit of George Jones, and Hank Williams, and Roscoe Holcomb in there too. There's a little Freddie King. "Double Bladed Axe is "Cross Cut Saw by Albert King. It's all based on Albert King riffs. "The Single Double Two Step comes from George Jones. It's "Feeling Single and Seeing Double. "Rocking Chair is based on "Rock Me Baby. "Manchild Hustle is a tribute to Charles Mingus.

The whole idea behind the Mentones was, I was getting really into the blues thing, and then I was listening to the Atlantic Ornette box [Beauty is a Rare Thing (Atlantic, 1993)]. And said, well this shit's the blues. What was everyone getting up in arms about? Then I started thinking, Little Walter and Ornette Coleman... Way High Lonesome, Roscoe Holcomb, or Dock Boggs. "Coal is a Roscoe Holcomb tribute. One day I was driving to work, and I had KXLU on, and Roscoe Holcomb is singing, I've never heard him before. I almost drove off the freeway, it was so amazing. I just went right out and got it. It's supposed to be that creepy Appalachian Gothic thing.

"Back Seat White Cadillac is a dirge for Hank Williams. "Angel City Dust is a country three beat thing, basically a play on words on John Fante's "Ask the Dust. "Nowhere Calling is based on James Elroy's "The Big Nowhere. It's all LA, man.

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