james blackshaw (and others) articleHis music draws equally on his love of modern and minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and La Monte Young, as well as Debussy, Ravel, and Indian classical composers whoÂ’ve explored the meditative and transcendental potential of stringed instruments for centuries. BlackshawÂ’s deceptively simple compositions and performances are dreamlike, ever-unfolding pieces of spiderweb intricacy with a spacious quality heightened by the ethereal chime of his Guild 12-string.
Acoustic Guitar Magazine
Blackshaw, Bishop, and Smith
By Charles Saufley
James Blackshaw, Sir Richard Bishop, and Sean Smith are part of a thriving solo acoustic movement that fuses postpunk, minimalist, and experimental attitudes with Takoma-style fingerpicking, raga, and Gypsy styles in forms that range from the reverent to the radical.
From vagabond Gypsies to country blues wailers and radical folkies, acoustic guitar has always had a role as an outsider’s instrument. But in the past ten years it’s become one of the most prevalent—even subversive—sounds in a teeming musical underground of players who grew up with the acoustic/metal fusions of Led Zeppelin, delved into experimentally minded post-punk artists like Sonic Youth, and readily embraced free jazz, electronic minimalists, and acoustic renegades like Robbie Basho, Sandy Bull, Davey Graham, Bert Jansch, and John Fahey, the godfather of the so-called American Primitive movement, founder of the influential Takoma Records, and a touchstone for many among this new breed of acoustic players.
Three players in particular—James Blackshaw, Sir Richard Bishop, and Sean Smith—embody a convergence of tradition, contemporary influences, and a deconstructive approach that’s typical of the new acoustic underground. And from Blackshaw’s dreamlike 12-string compositions to Bishop’s genre-bending amalgam of Gypsy jazz and Middle Eastern modes, these guitarists take the acoustic guitar into wildly unconventional and inventive territory.
Among some listeners and critics, this batch of acoustic expressionists has been lumped together as a second coming of Fahey. And indeed, this trio—as well as the unbridled, barrier-shattering Ben Chasny (of Six Organs of Admittance) and English East-West fusionist Rick Tomlinson and more traditional Takoma-influenced guitarists like Jack Rose and Glenn Jones—owe much to the confrontational spirit of Fahey, his fascination with drones, alternate tunings, and open-ended compositional style. But to categorize them in any way sells short the restless adventurism of these players, the breadth of their differences, and their collective desire to expand the vocabulary of solo instrumental acoustic guitar.
While many players among the new acoustic expressionists find inspiration in the music of Fahey and other guitar explorers, James Blackshaw initially gravitated toward the guitar through the music of Elliott Smith. His music draws equally on his love of modern and minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and La Monte Young, as well as Debussy, Ravel, and Indian classical composers who’ve explored the meditative and transcendental potential of stringed instruments for centuries. Blackshaw’s deceptively simple compositions and performances are dreamlike, ever-unfolding pieces of spiderweb intricacy with a spacious quality heightened by the ethereal chime of his Guild 12-string. (Check out the November 2009 issue of Acoustic Guitar for a sample of Blackshaw’s “Shroud.”)
The 27-year-old Blackshaw’s fascination with minimal, overtone-rich sounds dates back to his childhood in England, where he first started tinkering with an upright piano. “I used to love playing with the sustain pedal held down and listening to the overtones ring out, the resonance of the wood and the strings reverberating,” Blackshaw says. “That has translated into my guitar playing—I love the sound of unfretted, open strings, the notes blurring into one another.”
As a teenager, Blackshaw played in indie rock bands, but the musical sensibilities of those groups were usually an awkward fit. “Other members would be into crazy changes—segueing into different parts quickly—and it would make no sense to me,” he says. “I’ve long had a predilection for repetition and subtle changes that occur over time.”
While the meditative qualities of Blackshaw’s music are most apparent, repeated listens to records like O True Believers and Litany of Echoes reveal a penchant for melody that is, in part, rooted in a love of classic guitar pop. “I love stuff like Big Star, the Beatles, the Left Banke, and Harry Nilsson, which have really lovely arrangements and are accessible and catchy,” Blackshaw says. “I’m not into avant-garde snobbery. I like things that are well thought-out and carefully crafted and have some method to their madness. Elliott Smith had a huge influence on my guitar playing. I still think his music is astonishing and timeless.”
As with most players plying the acoustic underground, the legacy of the Takoma school looms large. Blackshaw’s intricate and hypnotically cyclical fingerstyle approach—often based on tunings like C E C E C D and A E A E C# D# that he formulates on his own—evoke a more nuanced Fahey. His phrasing and pacing—check out “Transient Life in Twilight” from O True Believers—can also move from delicate and abstract to detailed and ornate in a single song like a guided tour through the styles of all the Takoma greats. But Blackshaw is quick to assert that their influence is more of a spark and call to action than a template for his art. “Without Fahey and Basho, I would probably not be doing what I’m doing,” he says. “They really provided the blueprint for solo acoustic guitar music, for me at least. I’m just not sure it would have occurred to me. Basho had the biggest influence on me, not just because he played 12-string, but because of the way he melded different styles, techniques, and influences together so it sounds quite ambiguous and not easily definable. But I don’t want to simply emulate them. Minimalism, classical music, and a lot of other music are just as important, if not more so, to my recent work.”
For the better part of his musical career, the self-knighted Sir Richard Bishop was known as a third of the wildly inventive and original Sun City Girls, a band that spent 25 years (from 1982 to 2007) creating a massive recorded legacy that assimilated and recontextualized everything from traditional Turkish music to heavy psychedelia, Sonny Sharrock–style free jazz, surf, and noise rock. In 1998 Bishop released his first solo acoustic disc, Salvador Kali: The Sun City Girls Solo Editions, on John Fahey’s Revenant Records, starting down a solo acoustic path that’s occupied much of his time since. In 2007, after joining the Drag City label, he released Polytheistic Fragments, a mélange of Middle Eastern and Indian-flavored picking, Gypsy-jazz inflections, and Ennio Morricone–style meditations that stands as one of the most original guitar records of the decade. (Check out the November 2009 issue of Acoustic Guitar for a sample from Bishop’s “Quiescent Return.”)
“Fahey told me, ‘You play like the Devil,’ which is the highest compliment you could ever pay me,” says Bishop, who was one of the first artists to sign to Fahey’s Revenant label. “But he’s not an influence on my guitar playing.” Instead, Bishop’s taste for the eclectic is rooted in his Saginaw, Michigan, upbringing, where early fascinations with Led Zeppelin and the Monkees mixed with the oud music he heard on tapes from his Lebanese grandparents. “I didn’t really differentiate Middle Eastern music from the Beatles and other rock music,” says Bishop. “Because those artists, especially Jimmy Page, had a Middle Eastern tinge in much of what they were doing.”
Much of the Middle Eastern influence remained dormant as he moved through a heavy-rock adolescence. But over time—prompted by extensive travel and investigation of international rock and pop—it steadily crept back into his vocabulary. By the time he released Salvador Kali, Middle Eastern modes had become one of the most prevalent voices in his work. But all of it was channeled through an intensely dynamic, often physical technical approach that he developed with the Sun City Girls. “Because the Sun City Girls were so weird, I’d have to deal with physical and verbal abuse from an audience, which we learned to use to our advantage,” Bishop says. “We took it as a challenge. We adapted and tried to keep the audience guessing. That became part of the way I play—the dynamics of moving from something pretty and delicate to something heavy.”
When Bishop began performing his solo acoustic work, his association with the Sun City Girls often meant sharing bills with bands playing everything from drone metal to noise rock. “When you’re one-on-one with that kind of audience, you tend to want to demonstrate that you can get loud and dirty with an acoustic guitar,” he says. “Working those extremes is definitely part of what I do now.”
Bishop’s capacity for volume and dynamics is derived in large part from his use of the heavy Wegen Gypsyjazzpick (unlike many players working the subterranean acoustic scene, he eschews fingerpicking for an almost exclusively flatpick-based approach) and a compositional style that often marries spacious Middle Eastern–flavored passages with lightning-fast Gypsy-style barrages.
Bishop indulged his fascination with the Gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt and modern practitioners like Stochelo Rosenberg by studying songbooks, recording Gypsy-inspired tunes on Polytheistic Fragments, and using a Dell’Arte Selmer-style guitar. Initially, Gypsy jazz attracted Bishop for its similarities to Middle Eastern and Indian styles. And the blinding virtuosity of players like Reinhardt inspired him enough to consider pursuing mastery of the form. Ultimately, though, Bishop has taken what he loves about the music and has interpreted it in his own way. “You can lose a lot of your individuality if you try to master just one style,” says Bishop, whose latest album, Freak of Araby, is on Drag City Records. “That goes for raga and a lot of music that I love. I’m very interested in the fire and the feel but have no interest in the rules. I’m not trying to tell anyone how acoustic guitar should be played. If anything, I’m hoping to encourage experimentation and avoidance of categories.”
In 2006, the Tompkins Square label released Berkeley Guitar, a record that heralded the rise of a group of players indebted to the sound and spirit of Leo Kottke, Peter Lang, and John Fahey and the music they recorded in the ’60s and ’70s for Fahey’s Berkeley, California-based Takoma Records. Many listeners were surprised to find that the record was the brainchild of three students in their mid-20s: Adam Snider, Matt Baldwin, and Baldwin’s childhood friend from Pacific Grove, California: Sean Smith.
“When I was a teenager, I really liked metal and heavy rock stuff,” Smith says, sitting in a tavern in San Francisco’s Mission District. “But I was more into Sonic Youth and stuff that made you look at the guitar differently than as an instrument for just copying old Black Sabbath riffs. Matt Baldwin was the first among us to discover and explore Takoma and John Fahey. Matt got into fingerpicking and did a lot of hard work deciphering the technique. We would all sit in awe as he played “Busted Bicycle” [from Leo Kottke’s 6 and 12 String Guitar].”
While Smith regards Berkeley Guitar and much of his own work as fundamentally rooted in the techniques of his Takoma forebears, he’s keen to avoid aping their work. “When I got into solo fingerstyle, it was at a time when I needed something to obsess about,” he says. “So I’d practice my right-hand work all day—really trying to nail the timing and developing the sense of my thumb as an instrument apart from the other fingers, which can make the guitar a band all by itself. Now I think in much more conceptual terms—about songs and textures.”
This union of fingerstyle discipline and open-ended impressionism creates fascinating juxtapositions in his work—a catalog that reflects the rigor in his melodic and rhythmic approach (“Topinanbour” from Eternal) as well as eagerness to work outside strict fingerstyle convention on songs like “Sacred Crag Dancer, Corpse Whisperer” from his second album of the same name, which embraces an emotive, aggressive abandon on the strings. “That song really is a conceptual performance,” Smith says. “It was the idea of relying on what I know about the instrument and technique instinctively, but approaching it like I don’t know how to play guitar. That really was me conveying the notion of ‘punk’ on the acoustic guitar.”
Smith’s most traditional and technically accomplished tunes, which he typically fingerpicks on his Martin OM-18 Golden Era, are often based on themes borrowed unapologetically from the fingerstyle masters he admires (check out the November 2009 issue of Acoustic Guitar for a sample from “Ride the Bus to the Library”). “Sometimes I just have to have a lick or a turnaround or a chord progression,” says Smith. “You’ll find a lot of bastardized technique from Peter Lang on my first record, and I xeven stole a whole section from him for part of my tune, ‘Love Always Beautiful.’ When I met him, I gave him the record and told him to watch out for the rip-off. He later wrote to me with kudos, impressed that I was able to plagiarize so well in a different tuning.”
Recently Smith has been working in a trio featuring bass and drums that he hopes will inform his solo playing—particularly in the discipline of laying back and saying more by playing less. Like so much that Smith creates, it’s based on the idea of discovering music organically, recontextualizing it, and avoiding slavish note-for-note reproduction.
A MOVEMENT OF INDIVIDUALISTS
Perhaps best defined by their individualism and wide-open receptivity, the new expressionists are gaining exposure through the underground press, the Web, and of imaginative promoters who showcase their talents alongside everything from new psychedelic bands to singer-songwriters. Blackshaw sees potential in the movement’s openness and lack of formal structure. “There are a lot of people making acoustic music from many different musical backgrounds,” he says. “But it’d be nice to see even more musicians taking that and running with it. I’m not much of a traditionalist, and I think technique is far from the most important thing. I really like to see a bit of the person in their playing.”