Interviews The Other Michael Davis

Jim McAuley


Uploaded May 15, 2016

Guitarist Jim McAuley has been a “new,” “upcoming,” and “emerging” artist for decades now. With two new recordings scheduled to be released in 2016, perhaps this is the year that his sometimes spikey, sometimes soothing acoustic stylings will be celebrated outside his peer group of artists like Nels Cline and Elliott Sharp.

Jim's Discography
  • Acoustic Guitar Trio 2001 Incus
  • Acoustic Guitar Trio Vignes 2003/2009 Long Song
  • Gongfarmer 18 2005 Nine Winds (solo)
  • The Ultimate Frog 2008 Drip Audio (duos)
  • Gongfarmer 36 2012 Long Song (solo)
  • "Mystery Loves Company" track from Elliott Sharp-produced comp I Never Meta Guitar Three 2014 Clean Feed (solo)

  • Long Song Artist Bio

    --Begin Interview--

    “You don’t have to be defined by your history.” So says guitarist Jim McAuley who has had as diverse a musical career as anyone alive. C’mon, who else has recorded with Leroy Jenkins and Ken Filiano on one hand and Frank Sinatra and Perry Como on the other? As 2013 begins, however, he’s probably best known for his participation in the Acoustic Guitar Trio with Nels Cline and the late Rod Poole back at the turn of the century. Since pinning down exactly who was doing what at any given moment was as pointless as it was difficult unless you were seeing them live, it was easy to underestimate McAuley’s contributions at the time. No more. Exposure to any of the three CD’s he’s released since the breakup of the AGT reveals an artist able to morph between memorable melodies and spontaneous improvs instantly. Is that the sound of raindrops creating rhythms on your window pane or a heart-breaking melody sneaking under the door? Within McAuley’s music, it can be both nearly simultaneously and the subtlety and clarity of his presentation are second to none. When he relates the tale of his second grade teacher writing a note to his mother saying, “Jim is doing well in most subjects except music; he has no sense of rhythm,” we both laugh, but he grows serious when he acknowledges, “This is an example of how teachers can destroy your self image. I am only now learning that you’re only your definition of yourself and what your place is is your own.”

    So how did one of those places include the great violin innovator? Jim remembers seeing Jenkins play with keyboardist Myra Melford and reed player Joseph Jarman at Skirball Hall in 2003 and that Jenkins taught at Cal Arts around that time. Exchanging tapes backstage led to the connection and the recording session took place not long afterwards.

    “For me, that was so…” began McAuley, “I mean, I wasn’t intimidated, because he’s not an intimidating kind of person, but I was astonished to be sitting in a room, playing with Leroy Jenkins. I had planned a couple of things and immediately, they didn’t work out so we just went ahead and winged it (laughs). At one point, I said, ‘I want to do this blues,’ and he went, ‘I don’t play blues.’ But we sat down and I picked up a slide guitar and played a couple of licks. It was definitely a kind of blues, if you listen really closely. From there, we really took off. He was a very special guy.”

    MD—Yeah, the trio with Anthony Braxton and Leo Smith was the other main group out of Chicago besides the Art Ensemble at that time; after them, the world was never the same. Plus, the Revolutionary Ensemble was a ridiculous band.

    JM—And he had reformed the band and released a great album. But his solo stuff is great too.

    MD—Yeah, I’ve got a bunch of it. Recently, I ran into Jeff Gauthier and mentioned that I was playing a Jenkins tune on my upcoming KXLU radio show and wanted to play something from Jeff’s latest in the same set, and he said he’d be totally honored. So the musicians knew, but beyond that…

    JM—Yeah. I’ve told this story before but my wife and I went to this concert and Leroy was opening. He came out solo and just mesmerized the entire audience. My wife nika was teary-eyed. His playing overwhelmed the rest of the concert.....I literally forgot who else was playing. Years later, after our session together, I asked him if he remembered that show and who he was opening for. It was Ornette!

    MD—Yeah, I saw Leroy solo twice and here was this little guy with this little instrument and it was just amazing.

    JM—Yeah, he had his own manner, his own posture. He had so much heart and feeling in his music. I have a lot of tracks that didn’t make it onto the CD {The Ultimate Frog}. Those tracks were cut in 2003 and by the time the disc came out it had evolved into a 2-CD set with three other duet partners, a true case of delusions of grandeur on my part. Some of Leroy's tracks had to be cut but I'm glad that we were able to mutually agree on which tracks to include because, tragically, Leroy had already passed when the album was released in 2008.

    MD—We should probably go into a bit about how you got into music in the first place, and the appeal of stringed instruments.

    JM—I was born in ’46; I was a ‘60’s kid growing up in the ‘50’s. My father had played a little violin and my mother had played piano in the local silent movie theater but I never knew much about that while I was growing up. But it was assumed you would be exposed to the piano; I have two older sisters who play. So I started on piano when I was about 7. When I got a little older, we had moved and I started studying with this guy who was a jazz pianist. He started teaching me jazz chords and arranging and I got into it. He instilled in me a life-long love of harmony.

    But I was always attracted to guitar. There was this ukulele that I used to play; I made a guitar out of a tennis racket once. Naturally, my parents, who feared I might take music “seriously,” wouldn’t buy me a guitar. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I got a guitar. I was taking classical lessons at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. My teacher invited me over to his house one night, and it was him and another guitar teacher, sitting there, drinking beer, playing music. I played a Bach piece, and one of the teacher’s 5-year old sons said, “Oh, that’s the Bach Prelude in D.” It was a whole different atmosphere than I was used to. I liked that, sitting around with friends, drinking beers, playing music. They weren’t stuffy academic people at all.

    So after the classical lessons, I went away to college. My roommate was from Houston and his brother played with Lightnin’ Hopkins. He played banjo and got me into delta blues. I started listening to a lot of Folkways records, the front porch stuff with the pasted-on labels. Plus the better known players like Mississippi John Hurt, Mance Lipscomb, Skip James. The same dorm-mate, who is now an opera conductor, got me into John Cage, so there were 2 strands of stuff going on at the same time. I still have my copy of Cage's book “Silence” from those days. It all sort of came together and then the ‘60’s happened and boy, I had the best education of all. I had a little folk-rock group that got a deal with Capitol Records. We recorded at Original Sound in L.A. and got a single out, which I'm told was Capitol's first stereo single. The name of the band was Mouse and so was the name of the single, and it got some nice reviews here and there. But the drummer got drafted and the lead singer fell in love and ran off to Canada and I was left here on my own. So that was when I began my…I hate to call it a career (laughs).

    MD—Your period of survival.

    JM—But you could survive then. Where was the money coming from? I could get occasional studio gigs or play blues or folk gigs, but I really have no idea. It was just a different period. We had a little house in West Hollywood for $125.00 a month, maybe. There was one band living there, and me, your basic crash pad, and somehow, we’d all come up with the rent. But at one point, the scene there got kind of overwhelming to me. I always loved psychedelics and weed for both their spiritual and recreational benefits, but by the early 70's the drugs of choice had become much harder. The singer I was working with OD'ed and I got generally fed up with the scene. Eventually the competitiveness and commercialism of LA's “music biz” forced me to embark for Europe. Paris, initially, then Ibiza, Spain. When I came back to LA in the mid-70’s, I was determined to pursue my own music. I married nika in 1976, and with her support and encouragement I gradually shed my commercial pursuits and hooked up with more like-minded musicians like Vinny Golia, Nels Cline and John Carter. I discovered that, in contrast to the commercially “successful “ crowd, jazz musicians were amazingly accessible and generous with their time. John Carter had the Woodwind College at the time and he’d say, Yeah, let’s get together for some lessons, which were just him talking to me, really. Later, I got a commission to do this video project and I asked him if he’d be part of it, and he was happy to do it. I was being accepted by people like Horace Tapscott and John while at the same time being rejected by some of the more academic types in town. Even then, what I was doing had a lyrical quality to it that wasn’t in vogue at the time. Even though I never really thought of myself as a jazz person, I was always drawn to that scene and to the personalities of the players. Nobody gets into jazz thinking they’re going to make a lot of money off of it so right away, they’ve got the best motivation for playing it. They love the music and they all strive to have an individual sound on their instrument. They saw themselves as outsiders in the same way I saw myself as an outsider. They just generally were nicer people and less competitive; even in academic circles, there is this competitiveness in imparting knowledge to people coming up. Plus, I know that my stuff isn’t that easily categorizable, so when my first album came out on 9 Winds, it was assumed to be a “jazz” album, so I feel that sort of connection, even though I never put in time playing those “jazz dues.”

    MD—You never felt the need to, say, “do a Django” kind of thing?

    JM—It wasn’t that I never felt the need. I would love to be the kind of person who could drop a needle on a record and learn all the cool licks that I heard, but I discovered that when I tried to do that, all the magic went out of it. When I understood what something was and I could play it, it never sounded so good after that. So, no, I never played any of that. I played lute; I studied classical music with a student of Segovia’s. I played folk music. I never really latched on obsessively to mastering any particular genre. I love many kinds of music; I just never pledged allegiance to any of them.

    MD—Well, even on the freer things, if someone can’t listen to a few minutes of exploration before more lyrical things come out of the murk and grab them by the ankle then they can’t. There are going to be people who can’t handle it, but the melodic aspect means that there will be. As more people get exposure to it in more different contexts, it will have a sort of ripple effect. It just may take awhile.

    JM—That’s very nice of you to say that. I always considered melody to be the weakest of my abilities.

    MD—Yeah, maybe, but you’re playing in a field with people who often have no clue about melody.

    JM—When I was at Cal Arts in the early 90’s, there was this discussion about what makes a series of notes a melody. It almost has to be within certain parameters or it isn’t one. How do you do that in a way that no-one has ever done it before? The answer is, You can’t. It’s like the post-modern thing. Nobody is going to find a new series of notes. There’s just 12 notes and there’s so many ways of putting them together. There’s only so many intervals. But that’s not the point. You don’t have to use the notes in a whole new way; you just have to use them in a personal way that gets through to people. Then there’s another side to it, not that you want to be derivative, but if you’re improvising and want to go into a melodic thing, you have to have a handle on how that works, rather than playing a bunch of flashy licks that have no meaning (laughs), just clusters of notes.

    MD—The early ‘90’s was when you began playing at the Alligator, wasn’t it?

    JM—Yes. When Nels started the series at the Alligator Lounge, I had just been playing in my room. So I went to him and said, Can I give you a tape or something? And he said, “You don’t need to give me a tape; you’re Jim McAuley. Let’s set up a date.” That bit of validation blew me away. I don’t want to go into my history with Nels too much but he has so much integrity and love of music, is so tireless and generous and creative beyond anybody I’ve ever met. He had the kind of faith in me that I didn’t understand and beyond the musical thing, he has become one of my very best friends. So I started playing there.

    MD—Were you playing solo at the Alligator or was it in a group context?

    JM—The solo stuff came later because I was terrified (laughs); I had no idea how my stuff would be accepted. So for the first gig, opening for Vinny and Burt Turetzky, my son was taking drum lessons from Sunship Theus at the time so I asked him to play with me and man! That was just amazing to me, to go from playing in my room to playing a duo out with someone of that caliber.

    MD—And you survived.

    JM—I don’t know (laughs). He turned my head around. I had written a piece featuring the kora, which is an African harp kind of instrument. He suggested using the thumb piano, but the kora had some notes that weren’t on his thumb piano. So he took another thumb piano and tuned it to the sharps and flats, not just playing all the notes, but banging them together for the rhythm, just taking it to the next level. Over the next 5 years, I played with a variety of people and I always called the group Gongfarmer. Every show I played, I wrote all new material for the instruments that were available. I had Marty Walker on bass clarinet for awhile. I played at Harbor College in a trio with Alex Cline.

    MD—Was this always on acoustic guitar?

    JM—Always acoustic guitar. I’ve played electric on the side. Then, around 1999, Nels talked to me and Rod Poole, and formed a trio. I felt like they had let me into the club. The music of the Acoustic Guitar Trio would take off by itself. It was like one mind. I wasn’t consciously trying to figure out strategies. It was just like…whoa…

    I eventually developed enough confidence to attempt a solo recording. Also, nika and I had adopted two boys, and quite frankly I didn't want to leave them a legacy of unrealized dreams. When I began recording my [first] solo album, I didn’t have a plan for it. There was a lot of improvisation so it came together organically, but over a long period of time. It was kind of, oh, what would I like to hear next? Eventually, I just had to say enough is enough because I was becoming compulsive about it. I was rejecting perfectly acceptable tracks in my quest for some kind of perfection. A very fruitless and un-zen approach as I now see.

    MD—So how did Gongfarmer 18 end up on 9 Winds?

    JM—You want the real answer? First off, the Acoustic Guitar Trio album was sent by Rod Poole to Derek Bailey, in London, whom he knew personally. Rod was actually much better known in England than he was here, in that guitar playing crowd. Incus got back to us right away, saying they’d like to put it out. That wasn’t really Rod’s intention in sending it to Derek and it was shocking for a label that was known for its really thorny, improvisational stuff, to put out something that had some melodic qualities, and harmony. That was so easy; that just happened. Boom! The record was out.

    So when I was finished with my solo record, I just started sending it out and that was a huge lesson in self-torture and humiliation. Certain labels that I thought would be perfect for it didn’t “get” it. So here was 9 Winds right under my nose, even though I didn’t know Vinny that well. Vinny was pretty much running the label as a service to musicians. It was make your own record but put it out on his label, which is what I did. At one point, I was very unsure about the album, so when I finally released it, I was virtually holding my breath. And then you called and said, “I love your new album.” You were the first one. Then I relaxed and with the whole reception to it, I felt that, well, somebody got something out of it.

    MD—Well, sure. Have you worked with any film composer? I don’t know who would be the right person to approach in the soundtrack field.

    JM—That was always my thought. I took a film music class at UCLA. I thought if there’s anything I can do, it’s that. I’ve played on some soundtracks but the whole culture, making connections and all that, I can’t do that. But I have had a lot of people say, it’s a very visual thing. A couple have said, it’s like riding through the desert, a soundtrack to the visuals. And my friend (trumpeter) Bruce Friedman said, I never really “got” your album until I was waiting for someone in my car, and it was downtown and raining, and I put the CD on. That, to me, is wonderful, the way people connect with it, because for so long, I felt that I was totally outside the way things were. But you know, these days, the audience is much more open-minded. I think it’s a wonderful time to be creating music.

    MD—Okay, you have two solo guitar albums; there are some similarities there and also some differences.

    JM—Well, I was obviously indulging in some negative and overly critical thinking when I was doing the first album. I kept wanting Scott Fraser, the engineer, to edit out the “bad” parts. But, as Monk famously declared “there are no wrong notes,” so that approach is totally wrong-headed, especially with improvisation. But the stuff on the new album is straight out of the guitar, some of the tracks being live and some being studio, so as far as I know, there is no editing on it. Every time I left Scott’s, I had a rough mix of what we had done that day and listening back to it, I thought, Why didn’t I like this before? This should have made it on to the first album. What was I thinking? So some of that stuff made it onto the new album.

    MD—Well, there’s only so much you can put on a single album. Gongfarmer 18 is a very strong piece of work; so is Gongfarmer 36.

    JM—Yeah, the new one is like a bookend to the first album. I like to call them “evil twins”!

    MD—One thing they have in common is an uncommon attention to sonic detail.

    JM—Well, Scott and I have spent hours and hours recording them. You know he’s had some accolades in Absolute Sound magazine about his recording techniques. What he ended up doing for my things was using 3 sets of stereo mics, one up close, another a little further away, and another set to get more of a room sound, then mixing them all together to get a lot of warmth. Like on the 12-string, it has the fullness and yet also, this soft edge, this richness that you don’t always get. Often, it’s trebly and thin. We’ve been working together for so long, I can just leave the room and come back and the sound just knocks me out. I can totally trust him.

    We also have a duo which hasn’t recorded yet. You heard him in that group at the CD release party. We played before that and it sounded so great. He has a whole different sound but musically, we’re really compatible.

    MD—You’re not the same at all; you’re kind of complementary. So tell me about that free folk and beyond group that played at that party; does it have a name yet?

    JM—All my projects are named Gongfarmer. For the record, it’s Mary MacQueen who plays bass and sings. She was totally raised on folk music: Renaissance music, Gaelic music, Irish music. There’s Andrew Pask, who plays reeds and all sorts of electronics. There’s Scott Fraser, who plays electric guitar and all sorts of processing of the sounds. Then there’s Alan Cook, who plays percussion. When we recorded, we also had Scott Walton, playing a second bass. On one song, we had 3 basses plus my Darreg Megalyra, a kind of giant steel guitar that's tuned lower than a regular bass.

    We do mostly non-original material and a lot of it is, I would say, vaguely political. They could be Civil Rights songs from the ‘50’s; they could be Civil War songs. But I demand that the material be either uplifting or heartfelt or concern itself with moral/ethical/political issues that are true to me. I encourage everyone to bring material into the group, and they do, but I get to veto it if I’m not reached by the lyrics.

    MD—But you do things to the songs.

    JM—Yeah, well, we interpret them. I want to honor the music that I’m doing, the songs, to the point where I feel that the way we play them is a viable version, not some kind of wacky, Spike Jones parody. Like the Revolutionary War song “Fish and Tea” (I introduce it as the only anti-colonial period in American history). Because of the chord progression, I heard it as a Latin thing on classical guitar so that’s how we did it. At first, I found the juxtaposition of the two kind of hilarious, but after awhile, once I started hearing it and playing it, that’s one possible way the song could have gone. So with the group, we intentionally go beyond the genre angle and aim for an original interpretation. It’s still the song but I think it has more meaning in a way. We do this song called “Birmingham Sunday,” about the church bombing where 4 little girls died. We do it with this ominous, low, droning, electronic spacey thing. We put some Pete Seeger lyrics to a Bach chorale. So that’s one thing I like about the music: it does have a character that’s based not only on the sound of the material itself. Now at the beginning, it was like, I’m the leader of the group and I’m arranging this music and da da da. Then when we went to the recording session, I told them this is a democracy—I’m not the leader—and the music took off in ways I could never have imagined. I love these people and they’re great musicians. It’s wonderful to be part of something like this. It encourages me to break out of old habits and improvisational strategies and be truly free.