The Guitar Hero series on Jemsite features interviews with guitarists and musicians who may not have star status YET, but their current situations have shaped them to be who they are--determined, fond of their craft, and heroes in their own right. Perhaps you'll see in these upcoming entries the next Jimi Hendrix, Melissa Etheridge, or Duane Allman. Or perhaps they'll become household names by doing what they do best--ripping a mean riff!
Perhaps he's not a guitar player in the way that Steve Vai or any of our past guitar heroes are guitar players. In fact, Andrew Durkin, a self-taught guitarist, doesn't use it for instrumental music at all. Instead, he uses it to compose songs with vocals.
Nevertheless, I felt compelled to call him a guitar hero because of the very unique way he uses guitar as well as his infatuation with jazz music, a genre that certainly doesn't get enough credit.
Andrew Durkin holds court as a composer on the West Coast (mainly Portland, Oregon) where the scene is ripe for his self-proclaimed "wacky LA-based acoustic jazz monstrosity, the Industrial Jazz Group. He also counts himself as a huge Frank Zappa fan, has written a rock opera, and a screenplay among other scores, and has studied composition in his lifetime. Now we're here to find out what the deal is with that jazz music concept. Is it really the music of unemployment, as he refers to it on his blog? You'll be sure to learn what he means below, as well as just how much time he spends on guitars and music.
Why do you call jazz the music of unemployment? Are you referring to jazz specifically or music in general?
The phrase is from Frank Zappa’s autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book. It’s meant as a joke. Of course, for most of us, it really is a struggle to get a gig these days, and that’s not funny. But sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying.
Why did you decide to name your blog that name?
I’m a huge Zappa fan. I liked the phrase, and I thought it summed up the modern musician’s dilemma pretty well. Plus, Zappa’s autobiography almost reads like a good blog. Each chapter consists of short, snappy “sections” (kind of like posts) that are full of witty, conversational prose and compelling ideas.
Tell me about your background with guitar and jazz.
I’m completely self-taught on guitar – it’s my go-to instrument for when I want to approach something with a “beginner’s mind.” I primarily use it to write songs with vocals, as opposed to instrumental music.
I’m mainly a pianist, so I grew up thinking of harmony from left to right, instead of upside down and vertically (which is how I have to think about it when I play guitar). As a result, I’m not much of a lead guitar player, but I can handle rhythm just fine.
As for jazz, I’m a bit of a late bloomer. I studied classical music as a kid, and played rock in high school and college. I always had my own bands, and I was always writing music. But it wasn’t until my late twenties that I started studying jazz, and then playing it, and then writing it (in that order). Of course, I had been listening to it and loving it for years.
Tell me about your acoustic jazz ensemble The Industrial Jazz Group
I’ve had the band for ten years. We’ve released six albums (with one more on the way) and performed throughout the US (on both coasts) and in Europe, for audiences that were sometimes in the thousands. We’ve been heard on NPR, been written up in national media like the New York Times, and gotten grants a-plenty from well-known arts organizations. Yet we’re still pretty much an underground band.
In some ways we have gone through such radical shifts over the last decade that it feels like we’ve existed as several different bands. We started out as a simple quintet back in 2000. (The music I was writing back then was my best approximation of a “straight-ahead” sound, but it was still a little weird.) Over the years the band just kept getting bigger and bigger (and weirder and weirder) – we went from five people to seven people to nine people to ten people to fifteen people, all in the space of about five years. I think sixteen is the limit for us, but we’ll see.
Now I’m told that we’re the “perfect band for a Fellini film,” which I count as a pretty big compliment.
You say some folks say you've written a rock opera, a screen play at a score for a Sondheim musical.† Is this all really true?
All of these things are true, though they all happened a long time ago. I wrote the rock opera and screenplay in my last year of high school (1987). The former was produced that same year (google “uglyrug dancing days” to find some footage and sounds). The latter was produced a year or two later (as a student film) by my friend Jeff Knapp. And in 1989 I music-directed a youth theater production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, re-arranging Sondheim’s score to suit my own whims. (Not because of anything against Sondheim, who I like very much. I just wanted to do my own thing.)
What's the music scene like in Portland, Oregon? What about the jazz scene?
There is a lot happening here. As you might expect, Portland is a bit less cut-throat than bigger cities like LA or New York, but I count that as a positive. Many other Angelenos have emigrated here for exactly the same reason. (The IJG has a song called “PDX LIX LAX,” which is based on the idea that Portland (PDX) is better (LIX) than LA (LAX). It’s kind of tongue in cheek, because I do still love LA too – but there’s some truth in it as well.)
In terms of the jazz scene, there is some really creative and high-quality stuff going on here, particularly among younger musicians. I can name-check a few I really like: Damian Erskine, Mary-Sue Tobin, Tim DuRoche, Andrew Oliver, Ben Darwish, Sam Howard, Tahoe Jackson. But there are plenty of others.
What advice would you give to someone looking to pick up a guitar and play jazz?
It’s important to know you have something to say before you start going down that road. You don’t necessarily have to know what that something is, right away, but I do think there should be a certain feeling in your gut that you have something unique to contribute to the world. If you at least have that intuitive sense, what that something is will become clearer as you grow and develop.
In other words, it’s not enough just to love music. Plenty of people love music. What amazing thing are you going to put into the world as a result of that love?
Also, if you’re going to study music in an institution, for goodness sake don’t become a robot. Think for yourself, and make music that you think is amazing, instead of trying to fulfill someone else’s idea of what is or isn’t amazing.
Who are your musical influences?
I love all kinds of music. Zappa is my primary influence, and, in terms of jazz, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk were huge for me. I have always loved Raymond Scott, Erik Satie, Kurt Weill, Ennio Morricone. I love early music, Baroque music, reggae, soundtracks, space pop… there really are too many influences to name. I’m a maximalist.
What are your plans for the future with guitar?
Someday I would love to write for an orchestra made of nothing but electric guitars.