May 25, 2024

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Interview with Fred Lonberg-Holm: I try to think very little when I am playing: Video

Jazz interview with jazz celloist and tenor guitarist Fred LonbergHolm. An interview by email in writing. – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Fred LonbergHolm: – A lot of this has been covered in earlier interviews and are still available on-line.  To briefly summarize, I was born and raised in Wilmington Delaware (with the exception of about 3 years spent in Sweden).  I have no idea what got me interested in music as it was before I can remember.  My parents said that as a baby, the only toys I liked made sounds.  I remember assembling them when I was around 4 to make an “ensemble” of bells, horns, talking dolls, clackers… etc.

At ten, the opportunity to take music lessons was offered at school.  As we had a cello at home (abandoned by a painter friend of my folks), I was keen to take cello lessons.  A friend of my parents taught me how to play the Batman theme ad I never looked back.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

FLH: – Oh man… its an endless process.  I hope I am still evolving now and hope I will as I continue to age.  As a little kid I loved experimental electronic music but also jazz, european classical music, rock, broadway etc… I tried to play in as many situations as possible.  I was lucky to have very open minded parents who had a lot of friends in the arts.  We had musicians, poets, painters, dancers passing through and sometimes staying for periods.  They all seemed to be very open to the blending and merging genres and they encouraged me so it only seemed natural to do so as well.  I got a pickup for the cello at 12 and won a wah-wah pedal in a raffle at a local music store.  That started my explorations of pedals and electric cello.  I kept playing “classical” music but my interests lay elsewhere.
Eventually I quit the cello all together around early 1983 and stayed away for at least a year.  When I returned, I only played what I wanted to and pretty much re-invented my technique.  Since then I have continued that path.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

FLH: – Hah!  Good question.  I realized a long time ago that the cello is a kind of percussion instrument.  Not just when one hits it but even when using a bow in a “normal” way.  Hamid Drake and I used to talk about it.  He pointed out that drums have a wide flat string and a narrow “bow” (the stick) and cellos have  long skinny drum heads (the strings) and a long stick (the bow).  Its not quite like the Brazilian cuica but… you get the idea.
Anyway… I practice drum patterns on the cello (and on the drums)(my friend Ståle Liavik Solberg leaves his US kit at my house and I use it often) and try and involve my whole body in the motions and experience.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

FLH: – I never try. How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

All life is a preparation for this moment.  I don’t have a lot of stamina (never did) but I can last a couple of hours.  I love those stories of people who play for hours and hours but… I guess the 5 hour practice schedule of my childhood was enough of that for me.

JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?

FLH: – Sorry, “Ism”?  I don’t remember that one lol.  Can you refresh my memory?

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

FLH: – Everyone has a different ratio in mind I’m sure. For me… well, when it comes to intellect I try to think very little when I am playing.  That doesn’t mean I don’t think, but that I try to be in the moment and not analyze what’s happening (if that’s even what you are getting at).  “Soul”… well… that’s very hard to describe.  Its such a sensitive subject I prefer to keep my thoughts on it to myself.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

FLH: – I rarely do haha!  As a former Feldman student, I can say that his idea of meeting the audience “half way” had a big impact on me as a young man.  Anyway… my relationship with music is very personal.  Those who wish to join me in my adventure are welcome, those who don’t… well… I totally understand.  Life is short.  There are too many things to do already.  Why add concentration on the sounds some random cellist is making unless you dig it?

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

FLH: – The best ones I plan to take to my grave.  Hah.  I’d hate to embarrass anyone. Here’s one you might fid interesting though… When I was about 15 I was playing in an octet with mostly “jazz” musicians.  Most of them were a little older than me but we were all still teenagers.  We rehearsed weekly and played a few gigs along the way.  Among other things, we were invited to play on a little “festival” at a shopping mall.  To me it was very exciting.  Not only would we perform, but so would the band of a professional bassist who was living in our basement at the time.  In addition, the whole thing was going to be broadcast live on a local radio station.  Anyway… I was pretty disappointed with my playing that day.  I especially hated my solos.  
My dad (who was a pretty big music fan) had to work that day and didn’t come.  Later, when I saw him, he told me he had turned on the radio after work and heard my band but didn’t realize it was us.  He claimed that he said to himself “I wish Fred was here to hear this cello player, he’s great” (paraphrase) and then when they announced the band, he said he was very impressed that it had been me playing but… me…?  As I hated the gig, I immediately decided that the whole jazz thing made no sense and for years after that I wanted nothing to do with it.  To add to it all, our basement bassist sounded good to me in his set but he also hated his playing that day. Anyway, as a result… I pretty much stopped having anything to do with jazz from then until I studied with Braxton years later.  I continued free improvising, composing and playing in bands (just not jazz) throughout that period though.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

FLH: – The age of the tune isn’t important to me (or anyone else as far as I can tell).  Many “hits” of today are retreads of old folk tunes etc.  And… ask a ten year older about the Beatles or the Ramones… you will be impressed at how much they know.  
But… how to get kids interested in “jazz” (whatever that means).  Let’s call it “creative music” (not that I love that term as it is often used).  For me… exposure at home and at school made me excited about the music.  It maybe helped that when I was a kid, Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock were still very vital in the town I grew up in.  I knew “Freddie the Freeloader” before I could play an instrument.  In junior high we would meet in the band room before classes to play “Chameleon” over and over again.  It also didn’t hurt that Clifford Brown was a local hero although he had passed many years earlier.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

FLH: – Huge question.  I am always reluctant to talk about “spirit” and the “meaning of life” etc.  I can say this… if not for music I am sure I wouldn’t have made it this far in life.  Without music there can be no meaning for me.  My “spirit” or “energy” as I am more prone to call it seems to need it and so like a moth to the flame, here I am.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

FLH: – Overall I think the musical world is exactly as it should be.  As Cage said about changing the world… “You will only make matters worse”.  I’m not sure if I agree when it comes to the “real” “world” but… in music… probably.
I will say though that it sometimes is interesting how people tend to label and compartmentalize genres.  For example… not only is EDM divided into a number of styles… even within one of those there are a myriad of sub sub genres.  You can find compartments labeled dub step versus half-step, hardship, chillstep, brostep, glitchstep etc…  Some of them make sense but… mostly it seems like a marketing gimmick.  It goes on in all areas though.  I remember thinking how stupid “New Complexity” sounded to me when I first heard it.  It wasn’t even really about complexity, just about having a new label to ave a flag for I guess.

But, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing until the categories become areas out of which fans try not to venture.
One thing that was really great in Chicago when I moved there was how easily people intermingled.  The shoe gazers, noise rockers, jazz heads, alt country folks etc would often show up at each others gigs.  Unlike NY (where I had lived for years before then) I had friends in numerous scenes.  In NY the rock and jazz and free improvisation scenes all kept a healthy distance.  Of course, in a giant art magnet city like NY every little niche has numerous adherents so its easier to segregate than it was in Chicago.  Of course NY wasn’t all rigid all the time…  For instance “God is My Co-pilot” stood out because of their willingness to put together line-ups that included people associated with various distinct scenes.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

FLH: – Who or what?  I prefer what.  I listen to my colleagues whenever possible.  Good to know where things are moving.  I listen to my own stuff a lot too (old and recent).  For entertainment I listen to a fairly eclectic set of things.  I like so many different things.  One constant though is  my love of “religious” music.  Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish… I don’t know why as I am not a religious person at all but… something about the “spirit” as you might call it attracts me.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

FLH: – I don’t really try to send messages.  I did try and learn morse code so I could literally send messages while playing but… I never got fluent so aside from SOS, I can’t say much.  hehe.  But… if I had a message, it might be “we exist!”  And… maybe that we can invent ourselves anew if we only invest ourselves as deeply as possible in the situation as we find it.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

FLH: – Not sure I would really want to go anywhere.  Would I have to say there?  Would I have money (or things of value) to travel with?  Would my appearance there damage the present as we know it?  Would the people view me as an apparition or worse, a monster?
While its interesting to think of having dinner with a historic person or three that one admires, meeting them might ruin everything.  For instance… say I looked up Tesla.  Maybe he’d be friendly or maybe he’d ignore me (or worse, hate me?).  Say he liked me and we hung out.  If I told him how important his insights, inventions and theories would be in the future, would he have changed his life?  Maybe for the better, maybe he would make changes that would destroy everything?
Anyway… if I could go anywhere (for a day), I’d probably pick Cairo around 2500bc.  Would be interesting to see the “aliens” who were then building the pyramids lololol.  But seriously, The ancient world really interests me.  Would be great to have a chance to circle the mediterranean in that period as things were really happening from Portugal to Israel and everywhere in between.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

FLH: – Sure.  here’s one:  How did you get into writing about and interviewing musicians?

JBN: – I am a journalist and Jazz critic. Jazz is my life!! William Parker for me very best jazz musician. Since 2002 i started write about jazz and jazz musicians …

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

FLH: – Right now … and in general, I just do things.  I probably should try and ‘harness” my experiences and possibly exploit them but being a fan (if not follower) of Diogenes, I prefer not to.

Being a bit of a Cynic in general, the current situation seems so unbelievable.  I (like most everyone) stopped performing and touring in early March and… while I miss it, I am okay with the unexpected break.  Am still playing all the time and love music as much as ever.  Finances are an issue but… as I never expected a “career” as an improvisor, I have always had other jobs until the last few years and am ready to go back to that if I have to.  I guess, like they say, “only time will tell”.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Simon Camatta

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