10:03am

Sat September 22, 2012
Music Interviews

Elliott Sharp: 'Blues Is A Feeling'

Originally published on Mon September 24, 2012 1:36 pm

In the 1980s, Elliott Sharp was the height of New York City cool, a central part of that town's experimental music scene. His creations were inspired by advanced mathematical concepts. He tuned his guitars according to the Fibonacci Sequence and wrote challenging pieces inspired by fractal geometry.

But Sharp has an alter ego: With his side band Terraplane, he transforms from New York avant-garde aesthete to down-and-dirty Chicago bluesman. Here, he speaks with NPR's Jacki Lyden about his album Sky Road Songs and former Howlin' Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin's "pearls of blue wisdom."


Interview Highlights

On the first time he heard the blues

"I've always loved the blues. The first time I heard country blues, I would go to the library and take out records, and heard some things that summer in Pittsburgh. The thing that always resonated with me was country blues, the acoustic guitar often played with a slide, often imitating the voice — the keen and powerful and passionate voice. It just hit a resonant chord."

On blues as a feeling

"Blues has always used the materials that were at hand. It's always been contemporary music. It's a feeling — you can't think of it as a style. That's what's happened a lot in modern music: The marketing people say, "Well, this style is defined by these parameters. Anything outside those parameters isn't that thing." But blues is a feeling, and it exists cross-culturally. It always has existed, and it always will. It's part of being human."

On Chicago blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin

"Hubert was one of the sweetest guys on the planet, as well as a brilliant and visionary guitarist. He was one of the first to really make the electric guitar speak. He would provide commentary for [Howlin'] Wolf with guttural sounds, strange kind of swoops — very modern, very timeless.

"I first met him in Chicago in a little dive in 1983. We talked for a while and then, through another singer I was working with, I began to back him up and then produce some records of his, and then he joined us with Terraplane. We went to Europe a number of times with Hubert to play concerts and tours. He was always just such a pleasure to hang out with. I've sat next to Hubert many, many times watching his fingers, and I'll still never be able to figure out how this incredible economy of emotion gets these amazing sounds out of his guitar."

On Sumlin's "blue pearls of wisdom"

"For Hubert, I think the main thing — and something that anyone involved in the arts needs to do — is to find out who they are. And that process, of course, is different for everybody. With Hubert, he explained it as 'getting fired by Wolf' many times until he found his own sound."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

If you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music and the interesting yin and yang that is Elliott Sharp.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: In the 1980s, he was the height of New York City cool, a central part of the experimental music scene there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Elliott Sharp's challenging creations were inspired by advanced mathematical concepts, including this piece informed by fractal geometry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Uneasy listening, for sure. But Elliott Sharp has an alter ego. With his side band, Terraplane, he transforms from New York avant-garde aesthete to down and dirty Chicago blues man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN ON THE BLOCK")

LYDEN: This is called "Down on the Block." It's from Elliott Sharp's new album with Terraplane, "Sky Road Songs." He says he's loved the blues since his first year studying science at Carnegie Mellon University.

ELLIOTT SHARP: I would go to the library and take out records and heard some things, you know, that summer in Pittsburgh. And the thing that always resonated with me the strongest was the acoustic guitar often played with the slide imitating the voice, and a keen, powerful, passionate voice. And it just hit a resonant chord.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN ON THE BLOCK")

SHARP: (Singing) Leaving men dreaming, (unintelligible) blood, all around me what I see doesn't even shout. Just know every day I'm down on the block, down on the block.

The blues is very American. I feel very much a part of the continuity of what it means. You know, I mean, obviously, a little bit as an outsider as a suburban white kid, you know, I was looking in but also being moved by the history of the music and the people that made it. And I had to find a way to channel that language through my own fingers.

LYDEN: Hmm. The producer you're working with, Joe Mardin, he contributed a song here called "Banking Blues."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANKING BLUES")

TERRAPLANE: (Singing) I got the banking blues. Ain't gonna go away. I got the banking blues. These blues are here to stay...

LYDEN: And you liked it so much you've included it twice on this album, two different arrangements. What led to that decision?

SHARP: It was more a question of finding a way into the song. One was a very kind of studio synthesized production, and the other was the way we might play it if we were playing at a neighborhood bar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANKING BLUES")

TERRAPLANE: (Singing) I got the banking blues. Ain't gonna go away. Too big to fail dues. We're gonna pay their way. We're gonna pay their, we're gonna pay their, we're gonna pay their way.

SHARP: That take just happened very spontaneously in the studio. We just said, well, let's try it this way. First take, we played it. It was a good time.

LYDEN: And Joe singing, I got the bank blues, ain't gonna fade away. Too big to fail dues, we're gonna pay their way. I was thinking that this really, in a very updated way, plays into the tradition of blues music. And this is a different way of trying to cope in hard times, but it's still that, which is, of course, a traditional blues trope.

SHARP: And also, blues has always had an element of social commentary. Willie Dickson was the master of that. His lyrics often - I mean, he was a devout pacifist. And these qualities came through in many of his songs. And, you know, one of our great heroes.

LYDEN: My guest is guitarist and composer Elliott Sharp. His new album with the band Terraplane is called "Sky Road Songs." So I had bumped into you in New York, my favorite little neighborhood restaurant Aliseo owned by Albano Ballerini, and there you are playing. I couldn't believe it. There's like maybe eight tables in that place.

SHARP: You know, I had no idea what to expect. Francesco asked if I'd play, and I'm always happy to play, especially if there's a free evening. And it was a pleasure. I felt like I was in Europe, actually, more than in Brooklyn.

LYDEN: One of the people that you brought up was Hubert Sumlin from Chicago. And he's worked with you quite a few times. He's on this new album. He was Howlin' Wolf's guitarist, just a true legend who died this past December. Tell me about your experience with him.

SHARP: Well, Hubert was one of the sweetest guys on the planet, as well as a brilliant and visionary guitarist. He was one of the first to really make the electric guitar speak. He would provide commentary for Wolf, little guttural sounds, strange kind of swoops, very modern, very timeless.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RED ROOSTER")

HOWLIN' WOLF: (Singing) I have a little red rooster to lazy to crow for day...

SHARP: I first met him in Chicago in a little dive in 1983. And we talked for a while, and then through another singer I was working with, I began to back him up and then produced some records of his. And then he joined us with Terraplane. We went to Europe a number of times with Hubert to play concerts and tours. He was always just such a pleasure to hang out with. And as well - I mean, I've sat next to Hubert many, many times watching his fingers, and I'll still never be able to figure out how, with this incredible economy of motion, he gets these amazing sounds out of his guitar.

LYDEN: We can hear him here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RED ROOSTER")

WOLF: Play on.

LYDEN: Now, you write in the liner notes: Thanks to Hubert Sumlin for gracing our music with his magic fingers and pearls of blue wisdom. You yourself have taught a lot. Give me an example of his wisdom that maybe you'll pass on to some of the people that you collaborate with. And I know you talk to students too.

SHARP: Well, for Hubert, I think the main thing that something that anyone who's involved in the arts needs to do is to find out who they are. And that process, of course, is different for everyone. With Hubert, he explained it as getting fired by Wolf many times until he found his own sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOLF: (Singing) (Unintelligible) sweet loving woman near me, can't bring myself to walk through that door. (Unintelligible)

LYDEN: Elliott Sharp. His new album with the band Terraplane is called "Sky Road Songs." And you can sample a few tracks on our website, nprmusic.org. Elliott Sharp - and I love you signed it, an E and the sharp sign, right?

SHARP: Yeah. It's been that way for years.

LYDEN: Thank you so very much.

SHARP: Thank you, Jacki.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or go to npr.org/weekendatc. We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.