Michael Hedges Interview 04/14/94
© 1994 Naked Eye Press
The spring 94 Road to Return tour gave Al and me our first opportunity to meet up with Michael after approaching him about starting a newsletter several months before. And since he was doing a week of dates with Michael Manring in the Midwest, we decided to break our self-imposed rule about not driving more than 200 miles for a gig and made the ten hour drive from NYC to Cincinnati for a show on 4/15/94 at Bogarts (beats filing taxes). (For some insightful commentary on Hedges by Michael Manring, see the interview with Michael Manring from the following day.)
Michael had only arrived in Cincinnati an hour before we showed up, but that didnt prevent him from giving his hotel room the usual Taprootic interior design treatment, which, in anticipation of his evenings yoga, consisted of clearing as much floor space as possible by shoving as much furniture as possible (small tables, lamps, chairs, whatever) into the closet and putting the leftover furniture out in the hall. He was just finishing his self-prepared lunch of soba noodles and juice when we arrived (vegetables and fruit everywhere). So he invited us to join him on the floor [sing to Norwegian Wood: We looked around we and noticed there wasnt a chair] for carrot juice while a video of one of his yoga lessons played in the background.
If the interview seems somewhat meandering, its because Michael was blown out from playing the previous six nights in a row in as many states. Consequently, we sensed hed rather not have been grilled, and we chucked out all our prepared questions (which were numerous) and just rapped. So its not so much an interview as it is that the tape just happened to be rolling. Not journalistic by any stretch, but you sure wont read this stuff in Guitar Player either!
Uh, I see youve made yourself comfortable. Doesnt look like you mind being on the road.
[Laughs] Yeah, Ive got plenty to do, but Im comfortable. I just had pasta, just made that carrot juice, gonna do yoga later, got videos to watch, got my flute, got phone calls to make. Im busy until the gig tomorrow. Plus I get to meet a lot of interesting people on the road. I also get to have that sort of euphoria you experience when waking up in a different place every day. But if you dont feel well, if youre unhealthy, then its a real drag. I have a lot of stuff to keep me healthy. I live just like I live at home when Im on the road, but I have less distractions. I only take what I can study and learn. Its actually almost more private than home. And I dont have to clean house [laughs].
I do a lot of yoga, so the first thing I bring is my yoga rug. Ive been studying Chinese Taoist yoga for about two years with a guy named Paulie Zink. I studied some yoga before that, but this guy changed my whole trip. I video tape my lessons before I leave. If you look over here are you familiar with 8mm format video? I bring an adapter for the hotel TVs so I can plug in my portable VCR and play tapes or record off TV. Before I leave home I go down to the video store and pick up movies that I want to watch and then transfer them onto these 8mm tapes. Sometimes its nice to just watch a movie after a gig and go to bed. [Most of the videos he had were Bruce Lee flicks.]
Do you practice in your hotel room?
I usually dont do that anymore. I play enough music on the road. I play music every night! [Laughs] If I need to write or improve myself on some aspect of technique then Ill take a guitar with me, but in general all my equipment goes with the crew. I have my flute with me, but Ive sort of been staying away from guitar so I can come back to it later [said with faintly demonic grin]. And then I have you see that road case in the closet there? Thats what houses this contraption [his industrial-grade juicer]. I have it in the contract that the promoter of the gig has to supply organic foods from a local store. I usually get a whole bag of carrots, apples, cabbage, whatever, and make juice. I throw the remains out after the juice is extracted. Its kind of like sawdust [the bathroom is littered with carrot dust]. I use it as compost at home. The juicers been on the road with me two years now. Chip [his tour manager at the time and one of the credited Rootwitch Healers on Taproot] keeps this one for tours and I also have one at home. So Ill mostly just eat organic foods and fresh juices on the road. Youve got a whole organic kitchen right here. I just had soba noodles for lunch. That stuff keeps pretty well.
Yeah, I cant see you raiding these mini-bars.
Nah. The stuff they pack in these things is bullshit. I unplugged it. Didnt like the sound. I just bring a hot plate for my food. I take coffee enemas from time to time. It cleans out your liver and extra bile and mucus. Its a popular cancer therapy and preventative. [And no, Michael does not and did not have cancer.] When you do the whole therapy, which I did, you drink twelve glasses of different kinds of juice a day and take four or five coffee enemas a day. [Michael is referring to the Gerson Therapy.] If the cancer is too advanced, it wont work. I wish I had known about this therapy before my Dad died of cancer. It started out in his bones and by the time they found out about it was just too far gone. I visited Frank Zappa about two months before he died. He got really bad quick.
This therapy works by making your body healthy enough so that it can heal itself. Our own natural defenses are the best disease fighters. But when your immune system doesnt work right, the treatment gives it a shot and gets your body back into a healing mode so your body can cure the cancer. It doesnt treat the symptoms, it just cleans you out. Plus the enemas clean out any impacted feces so your bowels can absorb nutrients more efficiently.
I didnt realize you were so into yoga and holistic therapies. How has it affected your music and performance?
The way it really affected me well, Paulie is such an example. Hes the most flexible man Ive ever known. Hes got a lot of inner strength, life-force energy, whatever you want to call it. The Chinese call it Chi. Hes really learned to develop it. Thats how Im approaching guitar right now. Actually, its how Ive always approached guitar, but I just didnt have anybody to share these kinds of ideas with.
What type of yoga are you into?
Right. Saying you do yoga is like saying you play music. What kind of music? What instrument? What century yoga? Im into a type of Chinese yoga called Chi Kung. If you want to be a martial artist for example, you study this kind of yoga to get flexible enough so your muscles can move in the correct way. Like if youre kick boxing you need to be able to kick at a certain height and angle. Your legs have to be able to get there before you can really kick there. So theres a lot of stretching.
Most of the poses I do are animals. I approach it from more of an energetic angle, trying to take on the spirit of the animal. An ape for exampleyou think about the energies that an ape manifests. In China, in Taoist philosophy at least, Tao means the way. Youve seen the symbol for it, the circle with two swirls, the yin-yang symbol. Most of these poses have to do with certain kinds of energy. There are five elements or elemental kinds of energy. Theres water energy, which is flowing. You face north when you do water energy poses. In the south you have fire energy. To the east you have wood energy, which is springy. A wood posture would be like this [as in photo to left]. And then as I mentioned, theres different animals like this this is the crab [same pose as on the cover of The Road to Return]. It could be a land crab or a water crab. You could emulate the different kinds of energy. West is metal energy, and down, or center, is earth energy. So theres these five energies that you study when doing yoga. Like I said, I bring my yoga rug on tour. Im always putting it down in airports and dressing rooms. Its funny, when youre in airports everybodys sitting down getting ready to sit down some more [laughs]! Waiting in airports is one of my main times to stretch.
Wasnt Song of the Spirit Farmer originally recorded for a stretching video?
My lawyer got me this gig with a woman who was doing an aerobics class and she wanted me to make an hour or forty-five minutes worth of music for a video. I recorded a first draft but I wasnt satisfied with it. Since it was for an exercise video I could repeat it really easily. It wasnt written to be an actual arrangement. I was too stuck on it the way it was so I gave it to my old composition professor [E. J. Ulrich] to see what he could do with it. He sent me a piano arrangement and I did it up with electronic effects and instruments like backwards flute, bass guitar, and harp guitar. Each note is a separate piece of tape which I measured with a ruler. I figured out the lengths for quarter-notes and half-notes, etc., but the reason it sounds funny is because I turned the tapes backwards. If you look at the tape of the bass part its something like 128 pieces. I added some backwards bells and bowls that I had. It took a long time to do that one.
A few years ago, you looked like you werent feeling too well on tour. Is your interest in holistic therapy a result of whatever was ailing you?
Well, I had gotten over quite a long battle with kidney stones. I got real sick. I even had to cancel a few gigs. I needed laser treatment [extracorporeal shock-wave lithotripsy] to break up the stones. So I had just gotten over that. The thing healers should work on more is treating the root cause of the problem. If you treat the symptoms then theyll be back in a few weeks. What if healers got paid by their clients when they were healthy and stopped getting paid when they were sick? If you take care of yourself and you have a really good doctor you shouldnt be getting sick. Its tough being a good healer.
Speaking of backwards tape and your interest in the limitations of the guitars envelope, have you ever tried an E-bow?
Nope. Manrings the master at that. Have you heard his latest album Thonk?
Cranked it in the car all the way out here. Its beyond belief.
Its absolutely incredible. But the E-bow doesnt work nearly as well on guitar. Maybe on an electric. Right now Im more into writing in general than guitar in particular. Ive been taking a break from guitar over the last couple of years. But the more time I spend away from it, the more I can write more serious kinds of stuff. Im playing my flute a lot more. I just got a solid silver flute thats about twenty years old. Im doing a recitation of The Jabberwocky in concert. Were also doing Bourée
Yeah, the Bach piece that Tull did a blues/jazz arrangement of on Stand Up. You know it?
Even better I can play it. Flute was my first instrument. Seeing Tull when I was thirteen was what inspired me to get into music. In fact, the Tull fanzine that Ian contributes to is what inspired me to contact you about doing one. Im a total Tulloholic.
Ahhhhhh. Ians the man. I first saw Tull in 1970 no wait must have been 69 cause I was in tenth grade. It was just before Benefit and I already had Stand Up. I had just started playing flute. I think it was a split bill with Yes. Then I saw the Aqualung tour . Man, that was incredible. Next I saw the Passion Play tour . Ian had some kind of trampoline and theyd get on these blocks above the trampoline and hop up onto the stage, all of them. Ian played some incredible flute and sax. It was amazing. But I think something happened to his songwriting from after Songs from the Wood until Crest of a Knave, which is a great record. A long time ago I used to do a guitar medley of all the movements from Thick as a Brick. Id love to meet Ian sometime. Id love to do something with him. Hes an amazing instrumentalist, flutist, singer, guitar player, writer, you name it. Hes the original pied piper. Doesnt he live on a farm somewhere?
He has a conventional farm in England and raises salmon in the lochs around the Isle of Skye in Scotland. I was there on vacation once and you see his fish pens in a lot of them. He has estate rights to a tremendous amount of land on the Strathaird peninsula. I think hes sort of akin to the mayor of Strathaird.
He should be the mayor! Itd be great to do something with him. I just got that live album they put out [A Little Light Music]. Thats a pretty good record. Hes on Chrysalis right? Leo [Kottke] was on that label for awhile too.
Speaking of a guy with a basement full of guitars, whats your collection like?
About twenty guitars total. About half are regular six-strings. The others are electric guitars, electric basses, acoustic basses, and harp-guitars. Theyre all different. Some are small, some are giant. No two alike. Then I have some little wooden flutes and an alto flute. I also have all kinds of drums. Lots of different kinds of shakers. Some African drums too. Lots of different kinds of keyboards and drum machines. On the road Ive got the Lowden, the D-28, the Klein electric harp-guitar, two keyboards, a whole rack of equipment, choruses, and wireless. Ive got four channels for the keyboard (two stereo), the harp-guitar has three channels, the acoustics have three channels, and the hat.
[Takes a break for a juice refill.]
Do you guys know much about the myth of the Phoenix?
Just the basics.
Im gonna look that up in a bookstore. I have a new song called Phoenix Fire.
Thats a keyboard tune, right? Is it part of your continuing reprieve from guitar herodom as on Road to Return?
Well, Road to Return is definitely a record that says, Hey, Im not just a guitar player. [Stares at video for a minute.] Man, Id love to make a video. Not a video, but a concert film. You know whats the best concert film? Rust Never Sleeps. What a visionary film that is. Incredible.
Apropos of nothing, last week, someone sent me a bootleg from 89 in which you do a well I guess youd call it a straight ahead, non-reggae version of Nomad Land as an intro and outro to a cover of Jumpin Jack Flash. Just curious, which came first?
That was like a guitar solo that hadnt quite materialized. Then I heard Jumpin Jack Flash, so I just made it an intro and outro. But it didnt really click until later. I should relearn that cover of Jumpin Jack Flash. I forgot it and I never recorded it. Could you make me a copy of that tape?
And on that hilarious note the tape ran out. What a bummer, eh?
I should finish this by sharing what is, for me, a classic image of Michael. He eventually decided to go out and buy candles so he could do some yoga. So we stood outside his hotel in the middle of rush hour on a beautiful spring afternoon in Cincinnati and said our goodbyes to him. As he got to the corner, a huge gust of wind came up and blew his then long hair everywhere. So he closed his eyes, turned his face to the sun, and spread his arms wide as the light changed and people started walking. So there he was, head upturned, eyes closed, hair everywhere, arms spread (clearly flying somewhere in his mind), a hybrid hippie in a leather biker jacket, while all the suits stared at him like he was from another planet. It was, on the one hand, hilarious. But on the other hand, it was 100% Michael.