Steve Tibbetts’ music is impossible to pigeonhole. The guitarist has had a long, fruitful relationship with ECM Records, which leans toward jazz, avant-garde, and modern classical, but he doesn’t fit neatly into any of those categories. His finest albums have been centered on his Martin D12-20 12-string but are light years away from chime-y coffeehouse folk music you might associate with that instrument. There’s definitely a strong Asian thread, with echoes of Bali, India, and Nepal, so I suppose it could be called “world music,” but that doesn’t quite capture it either. No, Tibbetts is in his own category of atmospheric instrumental music.
His latest ECM effort, Life Of—his first album in eight years—is certainly one of his best. Over the course of 13 musical vignettes, Tibbetts takes his 12-string on a remarkable, at times meditative, journey to some wonderfully evocative dream spaces. That Martin—a gift from his father (who was a player himself, but more in the folk mold) four decades ago—lays the foundation with slow, graceful lines, occasional quick and exciting flurries, cascading waterfalls of 12-string beauty, and bent notes and vibrato galore. But under and around that guitar, Tibbetts layers sparse, gamelan-like piano that drifts and sings; his longtime percussionist Marc Anderson adds expressive and tasteful dollops to the soundscape; cellist Michelle Kinney provides subtle, sonorous drones; and then there are fleeting and floating sonic touches from Tibbetts’ personal sample library of Asian percussion and other sounds, triggered via a Roland GK-2 or MOTU MachFive sampler.
I caught up with Tibbetts by phone at his studio in St. Paul, Minnesota, and asked him about his work process and, of course, his Martin 12-string.
Was there something coherent about this group of pieces that spoke to you as a unit? Even though your albums are sometimes years apart, I presume you’re working on things all the time.
I am. I’m always working on a lot of things. Here’s what I could work on: I have electric guitar sample libraries, percussion sample libraries; I have an electric guitar piece that’s been languishing; I have this album I’ve been spending a lot of time on. Even if I’m regularly devoting an hour here to one thing and an hour there to another thing, at a certain point you have to say, “I have to stop doing all this and finish something.” So, what are you going to spend your time doing? In the old days, when I didn’t have kids, I could come to the studio and easily spend 12 to 14 hours here, but I didn’t want to do that anymore. It made much more sense for me to manage the kids and the house and the driving, to pare back, make some music that was stripped down—it’s guitar, piano, and a couple of friends—and not think expansively of huge crystalline cathedrals of . . . sonic overwhelmingness. Right? It’s fine to settle into something simple. But, yes, these pieces came together and eventually made sense as a group.
Right now, my hands are in good shape. At present, I don’t have any problems, but time marches on. It can’t go on forever. If I’m going to do the kind of playing I do, I should record it now while I still can. The 12-string is really hard on the hands.
You really dig into it. Have you had to have much work done on your 12-string through the years?
We live and die by our luthiers, and there’s a really good one in town here named Ron Tracy [St. Paul Guitar Repair, stpaulguitarrepair.com]. He does guitar work for Dean Magraw and [Pat] Donohue and Leo [Kottke]—he’s a superstar to the working guitarists in town.
Some years ago, I brought in my 12-string and it had really gone to hell. I had worn the frets down. Too much vibrato for too many years and too much hammering-on. I brought it in and Ron said, “At this point, we’ve really got to do a complete neck job.” He had to re-plane and re-fret the neck. He said, “Are you the original owner?” “Well sort of; it was my dad’s guitar.” Ron said, “We might be able to get warranty work on this.” I thought, “That won’t be possible.” But he called up Martin, and then he asked me, “Do you have any paper on it?” I said, “No, all I have is a church bulletin that shows my dad receiving it as a gift—he was given the 12-string for his years of service as the youth group leader.” Martin said, “That’s good, that’ll do.” So it ended up under the rubric of warranty work! That guitar’s going to outlast me.
Right after the war [World War II], my dad came back and worked as a young union organizer, and one of his first gigs working for TWUA [Textile Workers Union of America] was to go to a little shop in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. He lasted one day before they figured out he was trying to unionize the line, and they fired him. I made sure Martin had already done the paperwork for the neck before I had Ron pass that story on.
Instead of stringing the four lower courses with octave courses, you use unison pairs. Where did that come from?
I think it was from the old dropped D. You get a drone, and then you don’t have to think about it—it gives you a deeper and more resonant sound, and then from there the D went down to C, and the A went down to G, and then everything went down a whole step on the 12-string. I just left it there.
Tell me about your preference for so-called dead strings over new strings.
I don’t like the sound of brand-new strings. They’re so brassy and shriek-y in a way. There’s a middle ground between completely dead and crusted with flesh and brand new. From my standpoint, it’s also practical. I can come back to a piece in a year, and if I’ve got the same guitar and strings in more-or-less the same shape, I can go in and fix something and the sound will match. Also, when the strings are at a point somewhere between brassy newness and utter un-intonation they sound really nice with a piano; they sort of lay in there. Over the years, I’ve found there are certain strings that sound good for a longer time. The John Pearse strings are good.
Did you ever have a period where you played a lot of six-string acoustic?
Sure, I had an Ovation—a deep-bowl Balladeer, because I saw one on the cover of [John McLaughlin’s] My Goals Beyond.
I’m curious about how the pieces on the new album were constructed. Did you record the guitar line first and then fit the piano around that, or did you go with the piano first sometimes?
It’s almost always guitar and piano bits first. There was one piece that started with some loops that were easy to play over.
Do you think about leaving space for piano in relation to the guitar?
It cross-pollinates. Sometimes there are places the piano goes in and it makes it really clear that there’s way too much guitar—too much playing, too much noodling around—so the guitar has to go. I wipe the guitar and play just listening to the piano. Then, maybe some of the piano doesn’t make sense anymore.
It’s really hard to produce yourself. Sometimes you need some distance. I’ll leave a piece for a while and then come back to it and I might say, “What was I thinking?”
Are most of those samples you use—very judiciously, I might add—things you recorded yourself during your travels in Asia?
Yes, but they’re not exclusively from Asia. When I was working in Bali for a study-abroad program, there was a guy who asked the class if we wanted to come down and see him do a pour [casting] at a gong shop. That didn’t work out, but I asked him if I could come down and record his gongs, so I spent a day with a Denon DAT [recorder] and a stereo mic recording his gongs, and I’ve been mining those sample for years. I have samples of longhorns I recorded in Sikkim in a Tibetan monastery. I’ve got samples from all over the world.
But there’s a set of samples I cooked up by using my wife’s dinnerware—this set of crystal goblets—and I made a sort of glass harmonica out of that. It’s a good recording—I can pitch it down, and it sounds unearthly. I’ve also sampled the guitar itself, and I have something called a mini harp [I’ve sampled] too.
The samples are so nicely employed. Things appear and then vanish, as if they’ve evaporated.
Sometimes it’s very tempting to be demonstrative with that. But I think it’s better to err on the side of haziness.
So there’s a lot of subtraction involved?
Not with the drones, but with the piano and the guitar.
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How do you know when you’re done?
It’s hard. It’s not a situation where you wave a checkered flag and say, “It’s done!” With me, it’s like triage. I’m just thinking, “I can’t do anything more with this patient.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.