Ahead of his show at the Wilbur Theatre on September 21, guitarist Pat Metheny tells Tyler Alderson and Al Davis about how he has continued to find new approaches to music throughout his decades-long career.
Tyler Alderson I guess we should start with this new recording that you have, Dream Box. I found the process really interesting. This was not the traditional path to a recording, these are things you've been recording here and there throughout the years and you decided to go back and take a listen. Can you explain the way they all ended up in this new album?
Pat Metheny Yeah, somebody told me the other day – because I didn't actually know the number – I've done 53 albums across all these years. And this one is absolutely unique in the way that it came to be in the sense that almost always you begin with an intention or a band or a concept or bunch of tunes or an idea of something, and then you follow that through to a conclusion. My basic thing is that I do a lot of music that I'm doing for research purposes more than anything. I want to hear what this guitar sounds like in this kind of setting, or I'm writing a lot of tunes and I want to just document what I think they sound like at the time I'm writing them beyond what's just written on the page, because sometimes you can't get everything. I didn't used to do that.
My really good friend Charlie Haden was always looking for tunes, and I would send him lead sheets and he would be like, "Can't you just make a little demo of it and send it to me, too?" So, I started doing that, and that was a while back. I wake up almost every morning and write something and then record it. And a lot of it is, like I said, just research. But I did have this file with, I'm not going to say hundreds, but somewhere between 100-200 folders. And I was on a tour and just started opening things and then found a couple things.
It's a pretty pure look at just me sitting around playing and doing my thing for no reason other than to just do it.Pat Metheny, on his album "Dream Box."
There's one tune on there called “From the Mountains” that I just was like, "What? What is that? I don't even remember that." And I found myself wanting to listen to it over and over again. That's usually a sign for me of something. And so, then I thought, well, maybe I should look around for some more. Eventually there were these nine tunes that I wanted to listen to over and over again for various reasons. I thought, well, maybe this is a thing. And I guess it's a thing because it's out now!
Al Davis One of the tunes I do like, and I like the title, too, it's called “The Waves Are Not the Ocean.” That's a pretty interesting title.
Pat Metheny Truth be told, titles are my nemesis in the universe. If I could be invisible personally and then call each tune "Opus 1043," I would be much happier because I don't really feel like any of it has much to do with me personally. It's always about the music. And at the same time, I do understand that what you want is a title that does no harm, so to speak, and maybe helps a little. And that's always the hardest part for me. And that particular title – in fact, you know, this is true of almost every record – it takes me longer to settle on a title than to write the tune and record it and everything else, because I don't want to mess it up. And I have messed a couple of them up over the years with weird titles! I'm not going to say which ones, but on the other hand, there's a couple of them that I got the title right to where I almost didn't.
A lot of people know my tune “Are You Going With Me?” which I literally had no title for ‘til the day before the last possible deadline. And it was going to be called “Enoch's Hill,” which would have been a terrible title for that tune. “Are You Going With Me?” is a really good title for that tune. That actually came to me in an afternoon nap. I woke up and it was like, that's the title. So, I do know that it can go bad. But “The Waves Are Not The Ocean” came in a similar way after just thinking about it, sleeping on it, that phrase came to mind as the right thing for that song.
Al Davis In 2011, you recorded One Quiet Night, another album focusing on solo guitar playing. What's the difference between One Quiet Night and this most recent release, Dream Box?
Pat Metheny Well, they're entirely different on a whole bunch of levels. One Quiet Night and the record called What's It All About are truly pure solo guitar records. It's me with a guitar, in both cases a baritone guitar tuned in a particular fashion that I learned from a guy out in Missouri when I was growing up. They're the only two records I've done where it is literally me in front of a microphone playing the guitar and that's that. This record, first of all, the entire record is on electric guitar and if there is a theme to this record, it's all really related to the first record that I made years ago, Bright Size Life. There was one song on there called “Unity Village,” which is where I did a part, where I played the chords, and then I did another part on another track where I played other stuff. In 1975 that was so exotic and exciting to me as an 18 year old, it was like, "Wow, you can do this!" Now you can't walk out on the street corner anywhere where there's not some guy with a looper pedal basically doing that.
But nevertheless, it is a viable way to make music. And this entire record is essentially that. It's an accompaniment part on one guitar and another part on the same guitar, but doing a different function. And the theme, I would say is a certain touch that I've been working towards my entire life as a musician on an electric guitar. It's something closer to what you can get on an acoustic guitar in terms of dynamics and phrasing. And it's an area that's pretty subtle. I'm not even sure a lot of people would necessarily identify it as a thing, but it's a huge thing for me. And this record is a pretty clear illustration of that particular aspect of what an electric guitar can be.
Tyler Alderson I wanted to ask you about the recording process for all this. You said that you record yourself a lot, you're writing constantly and all that. Do you change how you play when you're recording? And especially, with improvisation, it's so of the moment and yet you're making it permanent by putting it on record. Does that change how you approach improvisation? This record is a great example, you've now gone back and you found these little snippets from way back that have been preserved because of that action of recording, otherwise they'd have disappeared.
Pat Metheny Well, you just put your finger right on the dilemma-slash-paradox of every improvising musician that ever goes into a recording studio to make a record, which is on one hand, you want it to be really spontaneous, but at the same time, it's going to be something that will be permanent, and it'll be listened to over and over and over again. There's a certain set of circumstances that you can try to make the chances of you getting to your thing and not messing it up as good as you possibly can. But, you know, it's certainly an issue for me. The red-light fever, we call it. You're playing great, and then the guy goes, "okay, take one." And then all of a sudden, you're thinking "oh god, I better not mess up that gm7b5 chord" or whatever.
The thing about this record is there is absolutely none of that. I mean, the last thing I was even thinking about was that anybody would ever hear it, maybe not even me. And I think that's part of what is interesting about the record for me is that there is absolutely no self-consciousness to it whatsoever. So, it's a pretty pure look at just me sitting around playing and doing my thing for no reason other than to just do it. I'm not saying that all across all those records that I've made, this has been a problem because it's something I've done a lot. Making records is fun, I like it when the red light goes on, even. But it's different because usually you are aware of that. This one is really unfiltered.
Tyler Alderson We have that same thing in radio. I can tell you as soon as that mic goes on, whatever you thought you were going to say, it goes completely out of your head.
Pat Metheny I'm sure that's true!
Al Davis I don't know if this was a sensitive area, but I wanted to ask about the loss of Lyle Mays. He was part of your group for many, many years. Gave you a lot of energy.
Pat Metheny Well, man, at the age that I'm at now, I look at my records and there are so many of my significant, not just playing partners, but people that were my best friends in life, from Jaco Pastorius, Charlie Haden, Mike Brecker, Dewey Redman, Billy Higgins, now Lyle, a whole bunch of people who I shared years of my life with that are no longer around. And then, I look at somebody like Roy Haynes who's in his 90s now. He's been living in that groove of his best buddies not having been on the planet for decades. So, my thing is, as long as I'm here to honor those guys and the music, I'm just going to do my best every night to try to play the best I can. Mostly, I just feel lucky that I have been able to be on the planet at the same time as all of those guys and tons of other great musicians that I've been around. And even all the great musicians that I've not been around. We're all lucky to be here at the same time and get to hang together and do our thing. That's the way I'm looking at it.
Tyler Alderson You've had such a long career, and at this stage, as you see young musicians coming up, maybe you're playing with them, is there any bit of advice or anything that you really try to impress upon them? You broke onto the scene at a pretty young age, are there things you picked up along the way that maybe you wish you had known?
Pat Metheny I was extremely lucky to be around so many advanced musicians at such a young age. And the primary way that I think all of us develop as musicians is through the process of just standing next to somebody who can play really good. I was lucky to begin that process when I was 14 or 15 years old around Kansas City with musicians that pretty much no one else would have ever heard of, but that to this day are some of the best musicians I've ever been around.
And then on another level, when I joined Gary Burton's band to being next to Gary night after night and Steve Swallow and Bob Moses and Mick Goodrick and to just hear what those guys did time after time after time. To have the benefit of Gary himself being incredibly fluent and spectacular, actually, teacher and mentor about how to do certain things, and then to see him walk out on the bandstand right after that and observe it. So certainly every band I've had, really, right from the beginning, I talk a lot to everybody. I have always had a lot of stuff to say about, you know, "on the third tune, we should do this, that, and the other thing." Especially these days, because I've been doing a lot more with people who are significantly younger than me.
I never hire people unless I know I'm going to learn something from them.Pat Metheny
This began really when Josh Redman came along and that crew with Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, Antonio Sanchez, all those guys, that was the first generation younger than me where I felt like, "oh, that's my tribe." After ten years or so of not really understanding what the people immediately younger than me were even doing, when that next crop came along, I engaged with them a lot. I always try to be in situations where I can impart things that I've discovered and that I love about music. But it's also very important for me, always, including right now, to be in situations where I'm going to get stuff from people. So, I never hire people unless I know I'm going to learn something from them. And to me, people talk about the tradition, that's the tradition. This is a language that really must get imparted from person to person. And it's got to be reciprocal, I think.
Al Davis Tyler and I were talking earlier about one of the concerts you performed here in Boston a while ago, where it was all done electronically. Just you on guitar and the other parts of the band were all done via computer. I had never seen anything like that, and I was wondering how you came up with it.
Pat Metheny I think you're talking about the robots, right? Well, what I say about that is, had there been any remaining doubt about just how weird I am, that tour put it away once and for all. There's a long discussion we can have about that. But fundamentally that to me was, weirdly, about how I could get to an acoustic result from a 21st century front end of how we're all doing music, using computers and Sibelius [notation software] and Digital Performer [audio software] and all this stuff. Everybody who's doing that, including all the hip hop guys, everybody that's writing all their music and all that, it's coming out of speakers, right? And for me, my first musical act was to plug my guitar into a speaker. I've been dealing with speakers my whole life.
I feel like speakers are a very limited way to represent sound compared to any acoustic instrument. I found five different people who had come up with mechanical responses to what we call MIDI, which is an output that comes from a computer, where something physical gets hit or banged or whatever that I could control from the guitar. So, the result was not coming out of a speaker, it was coming from a thing that was making a sound. I still feel like this is a really viable thing. It's now 13 years ago. I can't believe nobody else has really explored this to any degree, but I'm going to launch into it again in a couple of years. It's a little bit like laparoscopic surgery where the surgeon is doing everything with a robotic device, but the result is an acoustic result, which is your knee is going to be fine when it's done. To me, there's some applications that are really fascinating about that.
Al Davis My final question I have to ask is about the shirts that you wear. I love them. When you come out on stage, it's like the sun comes out in beautiful colors. How did you get into wearing those, and where can I get one?
If you look at my album covers, I've never put my own picture on the front of a cover because I don't feel like I'm the thing, it's the music.Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny Well, I think what you're talking about is the striped shirt thing. Like I indicated before, I don't really feel like any of this has much to do with me. If you look at my album covers, I've never put my own picture on the front of a cover because I don't feel like I'm the thing, it's the music. And so, for me, I don't want to have to think about anything. To me, those shirts became like what a surgeon or a police officer would wear. It was just, this is something that I don't have to think about. But then, because of what you're talking about, it became a thing and started to get where everybody in the audience was wearing striped shirts. Honestly, it kind of weirded me out. And I don't really do that anymore. Now, I have to think about it a little bit, and before I didn't.
Tyler Alderson Well, we're looking forward to having you in Boston yet again. I'm sure it's going to be a great show coming up next Thursday, the 21st.
Pat Metheny Yeah, and just a couple of words about what the concert is. I made this solo record, which is the latest in a long line of solo records that are all quite different from each other, including Zero Tolerance for Silence, there was the orchestrion stuff with the robots, then going way back there was New Chautauqua, and the previously mentioned baritone guitar records. This concert really covers all of that, and it goes pretty far beyond just some guy sitting on the stage strumming a guitar. There's certainly a bunch of that, although there are so many different approaches to what that can be that are also represented. So, it's a little bit more than just this record. It covers a pretty wide swath of what my thing has been in that general area across all these years.
Tyler Alderson Really excited for the show, thanks for talking to us!
Pat Metheny Thank you so much for inviting me, I appreciate it!
"Dream Box" is out now.