Take Five With Walter Ehresman

Walter Ehresman By

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Meet Walter Ehresman:
Called "The quintessential Austin DIY artist" by famed disc jockey Charlie Martin (host of KOOP radio's Around the Town Sounds), Walter Ehresman has been a consistent, eccentric presence in the Austin music scene since the mid-'80s. A prolific songwriter and recording artist, he is equally at home presenting a delicate acoustic ballad in an intimate club as he is busting out screaming lead guitar with a full rock band in front of festival crowds. However, he's just as likely to be holed up in his Snipe Bog Studios, surrounded by gear and recording strange, unclassifiable experimental music at 4am with a big grin on his face. The consistent factor is a restless musical spirit, always looking for something new, coupled with fearlessly honest lyric-writing. He's released 13 solo albums since 1989, three with his old band Snipe Hunt, and one more recently with the band Delphi Rising.

Guitar, bass, percussion, keyboards, vocals, mandolin family instruments (saz, oud, rawap, Opti-Freak).

Teachers and/or influences?
I've been a musical sponge for as long as I can remember. Voracious. My music collection at home is bursting through the seams of available space to keep it in and getting bigger all the time (especially since I avoid MP3, since I want no part of the inherent audio degradation). I'm a voracious hunter for new music (well, new to me, anyway). When I was a kid, it was all about The Beatles for me. Yellow Submarine was my first album, and I have always been particularly fond of psychedelic Beatles. Then, growing up in San Antonio and listening to KISS FM back when it was a free-form independently-owned station, I heard a crazy mix of music on any given day that had a huge influence on me... they'd go from B.B. King to Nektar to Be Bop Deluxe to Black Sabbath to John Prine to Iron Butterfly to CSNY to Aphrodite's Child to Tangerine Dream to Muddy Waters to Johnny Winter to Traffic. On and on.

Somewhere around those years, I fell in love with those 70s Yes albums, and to this day Close to the Edge is my favorite album of all time. And it says in my will that the song "Awaken," off the Yes album Going for the One, has be to played—loudly—at my funeral before my friends burn my body (with Viking helmet) in a rowboat off the jetties at Port Aransas. If this violates some of those state laws put in to feather the nest of that giant funeral corporation that's friends of the Bush family, so much the better.

By the time I got to college, I was a full-blown Dylan freak as well, and that influenced my songwriting a great deal and still does to this day. Pat Metheny and Louis Armstrong were my gateways into the jazz world, and I've woven my way through it is an twisting, turning path to this day. I am continually knocked out by the forward- looking "post-everything" jazz that's coming out of Norway. Also, I have to say that Todd Rundgren has also been a huge influence, in many ways but primarily because I saw that the one-man-band concept was possible....along with getting hooked on the magic that can happen with creative use of the studio. Many many others, of course......Grateful Dead, Lou Reed, Stones, The Band, Gatemouth Brown.

Over the last 12 years or so, I've experimented quite a bit with using electronica groove beats in song forms where it's not typically heard. I was largely prompted to do this by my exposure to a lot of world music electronica that I collected from overseas to play on my daily radio shows on the infamous pirate radio station Radio Electra out at Burning Man. But, also, I was heavily influenced by the early pioneer of this kind of synthesis.....Bill Nelson, who has been so prolific in his solo releases since disbanding Be Bop Deluxe all those years ago. He's such an amazing artist.....so diverse....and it's criminal that he's not more widely known these days. He was doing thoughtful, well- conceived and executed merging of rock and jazz with electronica years before Jeff Beck started putting our his early, primitive experiments in that area. In the last year or so, I've really been excited by the Nu- Jazz band State of Monc out of Rotterdam.....in terms of the DJ/beats guy being an equal member of a jazz band and interacting off the other musicians just like any jazz player would. Phenomenal and a real window into where I think music will be going in the future.

Let's see....the other big musical influence I need to emphasize for me is world music (although I don't really like that term). I went whole-hog into exploring this area starting in the mid-'90s, after dabbling around the edges of it going all the way back to the early '80s. It's had an incalculable effect on me as a musician and songwriter.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...
Music has a tremendous emotional impact on me and always has.....there are some songs and artists that can give me chicken skin every time, and some that can open up a floodgate deep inside of me (hearing Sandy Denny makes my eyes tear up each and every time, and Sarah Vaughan can do that to me as well with the ballads). The first time I experienced this cathartic experience to music as a kid, I knew that something important was going on that I wanted to be a part of.

I've never had a shortage of ideas for songs and music, and it's always been more a matter of trying to find a way to translate it (through my self-taught musical skills). I look forward to learning and growing as a musician and songwriter until I croak.

Your sound and approach to music:
People often ask me "what does your music sound like?" I keep hoping that I'll wake up in the middle of the night some day, inspired with a pithy short phrase that encapsulates what I do. Thought it was happening the other night, but it turned out I just had to pee. Basically, I write, record and perform songs in a bunch of different styles, because I get ideas—pretty much fully formed—for a piece of music and then set about trying to record it (whatever style it might be in) to the best of my self-taught abilities. Although I've had bands over the years, most of my material comes out on my solo albums where I play almost all the instruments myself. On any one album, you'll find anything from singer/songwriter material to jazz to electronica to rock to pop to reggae to ska to world music to experimental to dance to spoken word. Lyrically, it seems I'm most often writing about human behavior—in the micro and the macro.... why people do what they do, which includes politics, which is really just a reflection of a person's character (or lack of same).

Your dream band:
It would be an gross act of hubris for me to describe a band for me to play guitar in with Bill Bruford on drums, Fernando Saunders on fretless bass, Jimmy Herring on second guitar and Bruce Hornsby on keyboards. So I won't. But I love the idea of having a four or five-piece band that has, above all, people of positive creative energy who don't see genres or barriers but rather just a wide open landscape to create music in.....free from any constraints other than it sounds good. I love the idea of the other players being multi-instrumentalists, too, so we can all switch off and keep it fresh. Still looking.....

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?
Tough question. Since I generally do everything from the songwriting to the recording/engineering to the playing/singing myself, I've got lots of things to consider when I try to say what my favorite is. From purely a recording perspective, there's a song I did years ago that was the lead track to my 2003 solo album The Feral Rugby Team Must GO! The song is called "Jesus, That Blimp is Following Me!" Lyrically, it's basically a nonsense song, which is unusual for me because—while I often incorporate humor into my songwriting—my lyrics are usually trying to express some specific ideas. But this is the one song, I've always thought, where I wouldn't change a thing about the recording... and that's out of about 200 that I've written and released so far. And I have some songs that came out of getting my heart broken (then removed from my ribcage and clog- danced on with golf cleats) that are very raw, real expressions of the pain I was going through at the time...."Flood the Empty Quarter" off my last album, Goodbye, My Love, from 2007 is an example.

These songs are about as "real" as I can be as a songwriter. But if I had to pick one, it might be "That Summer Sun," which I wrote to be recorded with a band I was in at the time, Delphi Rising for the group's one album, For Granted (2009). I was able to record it down at Million Dollar Sound, which is a studio here in Austin that my friend Kurtis owns, which had a full, professional Pro Tools set up. This was a very different experience from doing recording alone in my own Snipe Bog Studios. I didn't have to worry about the technical stuff.....I could just write a song for the musicians I had available to me, then go in, play my parts, and focus on getting the best takes from the other guys. The song features piano, strings, fretless bass, electric guitars, drums, and some very talented young horn players who came in for the first time, that day, and got some wonderful takes that really make the piece. This is one of those songs of mine where you can occasionally hear the huge influence that Steely Dan has had on me, albeit filtered through my total lack of music theory or jazz chops. Lyrically, it's a post-apocalyptic song about love in the ruins after the global climate change meltdown. I think it ended up having 26 tracks in Pro Tools....a whole big production, and I'm pretty proud with how it came out.

The first Jazz album I bought was:
A double-LP Louis Armstrong compilation.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?
I'd like to think I have an original take on things, absorbing all the various widely-diverse styles of music I like to listen to and distilling them into something uniquely my own.

I will say that I'm the only person I know writing pretty hard-hitting protest songs. I think there should be more people doing it....there is a LOT to protest about out there!

Did you know...
That I am a member of the cabinet in the government of Ladonia. My position is the Eternal Minister of Chilies and Dubious Anthems. For years, the Ladonian national anthem was the sound of a stone being thrown into the water. When I joined the government, I wrote and recorded the new anthem: "Ladonia— For Thee I Fling."

CDs you are listening to now:
State of Monc, Clippertron (extended) (Challenge);
Nicole Atkin, Mondo Amore (Razor and Tie);
Van Der Graaf Generator, H to He Who Am the Only One (Charisma);
Grateful Dead, Europe'72, Part 2 (Grateful Dead Records);
Matt Geraghty Project, Departures (Omnilingual Music).

Desert Island picks:
Yes, Close to the Edge (Atlantic Records);
Todd Rundgren, Initiation (Rhino Records);
Sandy Denny, Sandy (Island Records);
Aphrodite's Child, 666 (Vertigo Records);
Johnny Winter, Second Winter (Columbia Records).

How would you describe the state of jazz today?
It may well be true to say that the rest of the genres have been laid low in the music business, down to the place where jazz was sadly already languishing.

Jazz has always been too forward-looking, improvisational and exploratory to be very successful in the modern age. I think jazz musicians are used to, at this point, eking out a living as best they can. What's new is that the overall music industry, as it has existed in the 20th century, is largely running on fumes and its last gasps only support the most banal of music aimed at the lowest common denominator. So musicians in other genres that, in the past, would have been able to live creative lives without worrying too much about making a living now are scrambling to support themselves and somehow make a little music in the process.

So maybe jazz musicians are at a bit of an advantage here, having been living that life for a long while. Of course, from a larger perspective, I think it's very sad. I look at Norway, a country with a population about the same as the City of Houston, and the astonishing concentration of forward-looking, diverse music coming out of it. I suspect that this is partially due to the country having conditions that allow musicians to take chances, develop ideas, and not starve in the process......there's likely some government funding involved. That system is leading the way to the music of the future, and the system in the US is generating jazz (and other) musicians who have to find a way to make music while keeping a roof over their heads.

This entire situation is not made any better by a public that by and large now expects to get its music for free, and additionally has totally abandoned the idea of minimum standards for audio quality (i.e. MP3s as the norm, grotesque amounts of compression from downloads after the music has already been compressed into an audio brick because of the ham-handed mastering currently in popularity).

Hard times for any good music to gestate, and yet I keep getting knocked out by new music all the time (and not just from Norway). People should thank their stars that musicians are willing to put up with these conditions in the service of their art.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?
I think Norway is the model to look to. Certainly the US is not. The right wing in America has systematically dumbed down the tastes of the populace since the Reagan Administration, through the billionaire-funded campaigns to demonize "intellectual elites" (and by extension anything that isn't wrestling, NASCAR and Lynard Skynard). It's amazing that a jazz musician can make a living of any kind in this country, anywhere outside of a few major US cities. We need a smarter, less gullible citizenry. That will up the number of receptive ears for jazz, guaranteed, as well as for any forward-looking music.

What is in the near future?
Well, I'm well into work on my next solo album, which will be my fourteenth (those numbers start to seem unreal after a while). It will be another diverse collection of songs, all over the stylistic map. So far, I've got a ska song that's a piece of social commentary about the Teabagger Party, called "Unimpressive Specimens"; a Gang of Four-ish angular piece called "She's Like the Khumbu," about a harrowing experience I had earlier this year in my first two weeks of on-line dating (!); a Bill Nelson-ish piece of rock/electronica called "Her Supersonic Stare," which I consider to be sort of a sequel to a couple of songs off Donald Fagen's The Nightfly ("I.G.Y." and "New Frontier") in that they reflect a parody of the Cold War vibe of technological fetishism (including war tech) and American Exceptionalism; and, finally, a song that's basically German cabaret (I had been listening a lot to that new live version of Lou Reed's Berlin from a few years ago).

Simultaneously, I'm about to start work on a guitar-based all-instrumental album, which will be a first for me. It's not going to be shred/wank fest, though; it will feature acoustic and electric guitars primarily, but in a lot of different musical contexts. Yeah, I may have to wank some, I guess...but that won't be the driver of the album.

Aside from the projects I'm working on that I already mentioned, I just want to always get better as a songwriter, a musician, and a producer. I try to keep my ears wide open, not only to the music around me but what's going on in the world around me. We need more protest music on this planet! There's lots of things that need a flashlight put on them, that's for sure. And there's lots of beauty, too, and all of it needs to be expressed in music that's real—that's from the heart. So that's what I want to do, until I drop dead doing it.

By Day:
I work in public health in Austin, Texas.

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:
A philosopher with his feet up on the pickel barrel, ruminatin'!

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Walter Ehresman


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