Acrophobic Sherpas, an American Jazz band from Detroit that combines almost three or four genres and musical cultures in one time, Chris Carden, saxophonist and band leader, here tells all about the band, past, present, and future.
The band’s name is very recognizable, tell me about it?
I like ironic humor, so pairing two disparate ideas has always been fun. But really, it came at a time when some friends and I were jamming in a basement and we started recording. We bounced around some names, and that was my contribution. But the bass player wanted to use a different name. We used his name, and then he promptly left the group because his own solo act took off, suddenly. That left me with a cool name and no band. So I waited a few more years, started getting together with the current line-up in the band (Will Brake, guitars, Tony Suhy, bass, Drew Mattison, drums), and it worked.
But what’s an Acrophobic Sherpa?
So, Acrophobia is the fear of heights. Phobos = fear, Akros = height (I think that’s the root word), and a Sherpa is a tribal resident of the Himalayas, famous for their mountain-climbing skills. Think of a mountain guide who is afraid to climb. That is really what most of us are in life, isn’t it? There is usually something that we do well, but we don’t want to do it because of some limitation or fear. Not everyone gets it, but that’s okay, because it still sounds cool. And it really pre-supposes knowledge of English, which is a problem if you are trying to reach everyone on the globe.
when listening to your music, one get’s a feeling of a cultural mix, meaning that you introduced an oriental feel, with a very funkish groove, and weird guitar playing, that feels kind of off-mood yet still fits.
Oriental, Arabic, African, Turkish, Ukrainian … I’m into a lot of cultural music. The funk is because we’re from Detroit, and I figured that we should represent. The guitar, that’s Will. 100%. One of his greatest assets is his sound sculpture. He is great at finding very cool ear-candy … sounds that we like to dive into. And he’s got a nice funky feel to his playing. He continues to search for new moods and textures, and he continues to “shed,” to practice and improve his technique. We all do that, I guess. Detroit also has the largest Arab population outside of the Arabic countries, so I felt that it was a natural path to combine funk and Arabic. The only challenge there is that none of us are currently Arabic… But I’ve studied maqams a little bit, and mostly I go with what I think sounds cool. Will has a composition, Michele’s bliss, that has a very South African feel to it. That comes from his listening to tons of Fela and Fema Kuti, and a bunch of old JuJu, King Sunny Ade, and probably Johnny Clegg, to boot. That is one of the coolest things about music, is that we get to share our cultures, like sharing different favorite food dishes. So Will and I are both big world music lovers, and that has a lot to do with our still evolving sound. Some of the funk comes from our bass player, Tony. Tony played with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, back in the early 70s, and then tons of rock and funk bands in the mid and late 70s. Add to that all of the Motown influence that we have around here, and you’ve got a bass player that can do almost anything.
But isn’t it weird to fit in such music with no keyboard player?
We needed to get a core going, and we didn’t have a keyboard player at the beginning. It put a lot of weight on Will’s shoulders, to carry the chord structure alone and still try to solo, but having a strong bass player like Tony makes it work. Drew, of course, keeps time, and he is like a human metronome, so we never really fall apart. We add a keyboard player when we can. Finance is another factor, of course. Bars don’t pay enough for even 4 guys to make any money. You add a 5th player and everyone seems to end up OWING money after the gig. We have keyboards at our next two gigs, and they are incredible musicians … Robert Jones and Phil Hale. Usually we play with Shawn McDonald, but he was booked on the upcoming dates. These are all great jazz and funk players. I reached out to an Arabic keyboard player to come play with us. He also plays nai, oud, bassoon, and some percussion. But he has been very busy with his own music projects. It would be nice to have someone who plays maqams in their sleep, but we’ll get to that point. It is also fun to have our non-Arab masters and say to them, “Play diminished, or augmented scale during the solos.” It gets the mood right, even if it’s not authentic. We’re not about authenticity anyway, since it’s all about creating new works, with a tight groove.
Something is confusing me about the music, you all come from American roots, and yet you show strange diversities in the music, I still find it hard to know where you get the touches from different cultures
Right on. That’s what I meant when I said that it’s really cool that music is about sharing our cultures.
Let us discuss Lamp Of The Body for instance, it starts weirdly, with a deep psychedelic feel, then a very tough groove, and an overflying sax, then soloing, the guitar background never disappears
Yeah, right, so an introduction that goes in one direction and then seems to shift to another … What we create is a culmination of everything that has ever influenced us. That piece I wrote at the keyboard one afternoon, when I was jamming around on an old electric organ. I was playing around with diminished scales, and feeling very Indian. I play tablas sometimes in an Indian kirtan group. I’m not good, but I can keep a beat. I love the chants of India. So that song comes from that space, for me. Hence, the title: Lamp of the Body. It’s a line from the Bible that suggests that we all have a lamp. Depending on how you interpret it, it could mean that we have that spiritual eye with which to gaze on the Creator. So that song was giving me that feeling … something deep, something important and mysterious. We added the introduction during rehearsals. It’s different every time. A drone, like in India, with free-form improvising over the top. Will and I used to play in a free jazz group together, so we mix a lot of that in there, too. I’m a big fan of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
The tough groove in Lamp of the Body is really thanks to Tony and Drew, and then Will adds a sort of Sika feel with the guitar upbeat. That was all theirs. I gave them the chord progression, the melody, and a description of how I wanted a change-up in the B-section, and how I wanted a floating feel in the C-section. A few rehearsals and it came together.
As a four-piece band, did you ever think of expanding the band, to include more oriental instruments? Since you classify yourself as an oriental/fusion band?
Are you kidding? I dream of that almost every day. My priority right now is to get us so that we can have a regular keyboard player and another horn (trumpet). I’ve written a lot for two horns, and one piece specifically featuring trumpet. But I definitely want to have other instruments on some songs. Oud, violin, kanoun, these would be incredible on some of the pieces. And percussion … I really would love to be able to go in different directions with some good percussion players. But everything costs. It’s either time or money. I don’t have enough money in my bank account to bankroll a rehearsal band. I don’t have enough time to constantly coordinate more than 5 or 6 guys for rehearsal. But we plan on going into the studio in September or October, and then I will treat each song as a separate project. That will let me focus on bring in the right guys.
Don’t you guys have a studio?
We normally rehearse at the drummer’s house, because it’s spacious and he’s the one who has the most gear to haul. Sometimes at the bass player’s house. He’s got an extra drum kit. I have a small studio in my basement, but not enough room for the band. But here’s the really cool part … We are in Motown. This is Detroit. There are some really great musicians and technicians in this city One of them is Ed Wolfrum, one of the original Motown recording engineers. Ed lives about 2 miles from my house, and about a half-mile from Will’s house. Ed loves our music, and I am really grateful to be able to call him a friend, too! So we will be going into his home studio very soon. That’s where a lot of Motown records were made. James Jamerson used to record there all the time. In fact, his son, James Junior, just did a wonderful album up there with Dennis Coffey (a great Motown guitarist, one of the Funk Brothers).
Being in Detroit, the home of Funk, it could have been an easier road for you to get rich and famous if you got direct and straight to the old school funk business.
I don’t know about that. No-one here gets rich and famous unless they play what’s currently popular, and that seems to be Rock or Rap. The last rich and famous guys to make it out of here seem to be Kid Rock and Eminem. Of course we also have the wonderful Regina Carter, so there is a jazz path, as well. But I figured that I just wanted to play music that I like. That takes us back to the name of the band. We climb mountains by working on our musical skills and performing out for others to enjoy, but our “fear of heights,” or our limitations, may well be our choice of musical style. I don’t ever expect riches or fame. But fun, that’s important. for me, the fun is in the funk. And the mysticism of the minor scales. By the way, not every song we play is Eastern or African influenced, but it’s definitely a direction that we are leaning more toward.
Tell me Acrophobic Sherpas’ gigs
Well, there’s a can of worms… gigging in Detroit is getting more and more difficult. Bars don’t have the budget that they used to have for live music. I think part of that is because live music goes through cycles of attraction. People want it or they don’t. Right now, people seem mostly indifferent to live music. So Most of the gigs are “pay to play,” meaning that you have to either play for the door (band keeps the cover charge) or you have to sell tickets. Who wants to do that? Why make the band the marketer? But the bars can’t take on the risk. They have to survive, too. So we tend to play where we can get a foot in the door. Coming up, we play at a very cool little bar in Ferndale, called Club Bart. It’s been there for 30 years or so, I guess. Bart is still the owner, but he has his very ultra-groovy bartender Melissa handle most of the business, now The bar is small, with a kitchen, and holds only maybe 100 people. The stage is at the back corner, behind the actual bar. So the band is up high, behind the bottles of liquor, playing over the bartender’s head. We play there on August 18th, a Wednesday, during the Woodward Dream Cruise week. Dream Cruise is where everyone gets out their vintage or tricked out cars and drives all week, up and down Woodward. It’s like a moving auto show. Even the rustiest heaps are out at that time. I’m not a huge car fan, but it is a wild sight so that is a very busy week, here in the Metro Detroit Area, and I expect Club Bart to be packed. We have one other gig coming up on Saturday, August 21st, in Livonia, Michigan, at the 2010 Sahara Fest, an Arabic cultural fair to raise money for the Antiochian Basilica of St. Mary. We love that festival.
Since you mentioned the bars don’t pay well, and seemingly that’s where u rely on gigging, how will u supply recording a well-engineered record?
There’s an old joke about a musician who keeps buying lottery tickets until one day he wins. The camera crew is on his front porch, and the guy from the gaming commission has a giant check for a million dollars. The reporter asks, “Sir, what will you do with all this money?” The musician answers, “Well, I guess I’ll just keep gigging until it runs out.” The truth is, every performance costs me out of pocket, right now. But I’m willing to do that for a while longer, at least until we get the CD done and have a few more gigs. When you really love something and have a goal, nothing should stand in the way. Find creative ways to achieve what you want. So, for now, I supplement the band out of my own pocket. This is not sustainable, of course, but necessary for now. The guys mostly play for free or for dirt cheap. It’s a testament to their character and their love of music, and their belief in what we are doing.
Apart from the record, what’s next for the band??
More originals, we have a lot of new compositions that we want to tighten up and perform. I’ve got 8 or 9 ready to go right now, and Will is working on an idea that he’s got. Tony has several songs that he keeps “threatening” to unleash upon us, and I’m really looking forward to it. And I keep telling Drew (the drummer) that he’s going to have to write something just to help keep balance in the universe.
What about international jazz fests the likes of North Sea Jazz Fest and Montreux Jazz Fest and others. Contacted any?
Well, once we’ve got a tight CD, I’ll start marketing the band for other events. North Sea would be a dream come true. I love that festival. I had a great time there once, hung out with Dave Weckl and John Pattitucci a little bit, saw Dizzy Gillespie just before he passed on, and chatted with Blue Lou Marini about his dad, who was one of my sax teachers. The CD will be our proof of readiness, and I really want to have a more clearly defined sound. The new compositions will set that direction for us more clearly. It comes down to having a good recording. I have a pretty decent web presence for the band, and great photos, so image is ready, but we have to make sure that the most important thing … the music … is ready to be communicated.
Did you check out our website?
I checked it out last night. I read the history of the magazine, which was pretty cool, and saw some of the interviews, which are great, because you have a team of writers/musicians who ask great questions and help other artists express where they are coming from and where they are going to. You know, I see a trend, though, and it looks like fewer people are reading critical articles and interviews about music. Do you see that? It seems to me, now, that with the way the Internet has gone, we have more power as listeners to find what we want on our own, without reading someone else’s opinion. Still, I like reading a trusted critic’s opinion because it sometimes saves me the time of digging through loads of random music until I find something I like. But think how easy it is, now to get Pandora or last.fm and select an artist or song and then find 100 new songs that you love because they fit your stylistic preference. Your magazine looks excellent, and it serves a very important need. I hope that people continue to take the time to read it and visit the site
Thanks, and we would like to thank you for the wonderful interview and we hope to see you around Egypt sometime.
Awesome, Adel, thanks for taking the time to chat. Egypt would be a wonderful place for us to come to Egypt and play. It’s on my goal list, for sure! Let us know if we can help you or Rock Era in any way, in the future!
Interviewed by: Adel Samakia