Michael Hedges Interview 10/06/92

Michael was interviewed by Ed Ditto on New Rock 90, WUTK FM, Knoxville, TN. Thanks to Ed for the transcript!

We’re looking forward to your show at the Bijou. I remember last year when you played there you opened with songs by Neneh Cherry and AC/DC. It seems like you’ve tried to dispel the notion that you’re a “new age” musician. Why do you feel so strongly about this?

Well, I don’t ever try to dispel the notion. It’s just that the notion came out from the fact that I was on a particular label that was kind of typecast. I’ve never really tried to be anything but me, so that’s just as natural as falling off a log—me singing Nenah Cherry. I just dig the tune.

Well, if you had to describe your music, then, how would you do it?

Probably the best way I can describe my music is to make records, because the music just kind of comes with what I listen to, and I listen to everything I can. When I describe it, it’s at my show. We make up names for it. If you want a name for it: “wacka-wacka” or “savage myth” or “heavy mental”.

Your guitar style is very innovative, very unique. Is their anything that sticks in your mind about the techniques that you use, like a tuning or some fingerwork that you could describe to us?

Well, the way that my tunings and fingerwork come about is because of the music. See, I’m not really that much of a guitar player as much as I am a composer. The music itself says, “Well, this note’s not available on the guitar. What are you going to do about it?” And I’ll say to myself, “Let’s change this note.” So a string ends up getting tuned in a funny way. I’ll tune it down three steps, or I’ll tune it up a half step. That’s how the techniques happen as well. If I can’t get a note by plucking it the regular way, then I’ll reach around with my other hand and slap it.

And the percussion work that you do on the body of the guitar comes about the same way?

Yeah. And plus, I don’t have a backup band, you know? So I back myself up. It’s a lot easier to organize rehearsals that way.

What about your musical education? How did you come up through the ranks?

Very slowly. I went to college for seven years. I started out in a small school with the regular music program, and I met my mentor, a great composer in Oklahoma. He persuaded me to study with him, just by his kindness and wonderful range of knowledge. We studied together for two years, and then I quit the music program, the degree program, so I could just study with him.

Are you talking about E. J. Ulrich?

That’s him. Then after I got done studying with him, after three years I went to the Peabody school, a conservatory in Baltimore. I went there for four years and studied electronic music, flute, composition, and classical guitar. I took some graduate courses in theory. But all this was pretty well balanced by me going out and trying to be Neil Young at night. Doctor Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. I graduated from that school with a bachelor’s degree in 1981. The dean of the college hated me, and the academic board refused my admission into graduate school, so I moved to California and got a record deal.

Yeah, I’m in college, I know how this goes.

Well, I was pretty much a hippie type, and Peabody was more of a straightlaced school, so I think the dean just didn’t like the looks of me.

I wanted to ask you a few questions about Taproot, your latest release. This was your first work in five years. How come you waited so long to put any new work out?

I didn’t really wait. I just played. During that five years I did make a live album, where I released some new material. But I really wanted to build my own studio, and that’s why I waited. During that time I went out on the road and made a bunch of money, and I spent it all on equipment and a building that I built from the ground up. Not me with a hammer, that is, but while I was out I was sending checks home to my manager, who would farm it out to different contractors. We made a really nice studio in the middle of the woods in Mendocino, California. So as soon as that got done, I started recording Taproot.

It seems like the mythos you’re dealing with really comes out strongly in Taproot. I could really feel that. What’s the concept behind the album? What inspired the album?

It’s autobiographical. I changed a lot of it, so it’s sort of mythic autobiographical. Sort of dreamlike. Maybe really close to what I was feeling, but leaving the details behind and just giving a story that’s told in music.

You play a TransTrem guitar on some of the album. What’s a TransTrem, and why do you think it’s such a good instrument? What makes it unique?

Well, it’s just like a guitar. You can strum it and all that. But you can bend it down or up, like a steel guitar, a pedal steel guitar. It’s got a funny whammy bar in it, and the whammy bar locks. So if you strum a chord and bend the whammy bar down, you can lock it down, and you hear the whole pitch of the chord go down in tune with itself.

You did some really interesting work with that. You also worked with David Crosby and Graham Nash. Were they fun to work with?

Yeah, I worked with them on one tune on that record. I went down to L.A. and they sang harmony with me. Then I played on CSN’s latest album and on David Crosby’s album Oh Yes I Can. This past summer I toured with CSN’s acoustic tour all over the States. They’re real sweet guys.

Did you hear any good stories?

Their whole lives are great stories. Stills used to come out and jam with me when I played “Gimme Shelter”. That was a treat.

You released Taproot last year. Have you got anything coming up? Working on anything new right now?

I have a whole album written, but it’s not recorded yet. It’s kind of waiting for the producer’s touch. Either I’ll hire a producer or I will practice more producing myself. Maybe in a year. It’s called The Road to Return. It’s named after a painting I’ve become inspired by, and the whole concept of looking inward. Sort of looking back and reflecting, but using the reflection to go forward.

As you look within, have you been able to figure out who you’re going to vote for?

[Laughs] Wavy Gravy gave me a little diffraction grating pin to put on my lapel. It says “Eternity Now: Nobody for President”.

I’m starting to think that would be the best way to vote, I don’t know. What about “Freebird”, you going to perform “Freebird” for us again tonight?

Only in spirit.

[Laughs] Well, listen, it’s been great talking with you. I’m looking forward to your show. Hope you have a great performance. You going to bring the harp guitar out?

Electric harp guitar. Monster electric gorilla harp guitar.

This oughtta be interesting. Thanks, man.

You betcha.


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