I get the love for the acoustic warmth of glowing filaments that purists claim as the special province of music played and recorded and played back again using vacuum tubes. And every once in a while I even think I can actually hear the shadow’s sigh of difference between an analog and a digital recording. That said – digital sound definitely has some advantages, and since the advent of MP-3’s & iTunes I know I have heard more music from more artists than I ever would have found possible if I had been limited to how many CD’s I could carry home in a grocery bag or a back pack. Nevertheless, offended audiophile sensibilities aside, the one thing I really dislike about music as a digital file is the absence of all the peripheral information that used to come on record albums, (to a lesser degree) cassettes and then more fully again with the emergence of commercially produced CD’s – the back cover and sleeve notes.
Knowing track by track who all the players on all the instruments were, who wrote the songs, and who sang harmony became a badge of musical authenticity. On Surfs Up the liner notes described the equipment used to record the album. Johnny Cash wrote prose that sounded like poetry for the back cover of Nashville Skyline and John Mayall, maybe the most accomplished back-cover-note-writer of all, would even tell you the key in which each of his songs was written. Besides becoming an art form unto themselves, all of these notes and names told an attentive album listener more than just song titles and running times. Everybody knew who John and Paul, George and Ringo were. But who was this fellow George Martin? When Dave Mason ad libbed ‘And there’s Jimmy Miller swinging to and fro’, on ‘You Can All Join In’ (the opening track on Traffic’s second album) it took only a moments perusal of the back cover to find that Miller was the producer / engineer of that project – and suddenly you were down a rabbit hole and into another distinct universe in the history of popular music. Because it became apparent rather quickly that if Jimmy Miller was on an album you were pretty much guaranteed that not only would the music be good – so would THE SOUND.
Along with my first favorites, the aforementioned George Martin & Miller, I started to ‘get it’ that guys like Rudy van Gelder, Paul Rothchild, Jerry Wexler, Wally Heider, Ted Macero, Berry Gordy, Sam Phillips, Phil Spector, Chris Thomas, and bunch of others had almost as much to do with the sounds I was living my life to as the composers and performers who were writing and playing them.
Sometime in the early 1990’s I began to notice my attention drifting more and more away from the sanitized evolution of the music that fueled my adolescence and early adulthood towards the (for me) much more interesting songwriters and players working in what some called the ‘alternative country’ genre. Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lucinda Williams, Slaid Cleeves, Peter Case, Romi Mayes – they were crafting songs about what it meant to be an American trying to be true to ones self and to make sense out of the latter days of the 20th century. Songs about existential loneliness amidst (or because of?) family; forgiveness and encouragement surrounded by self-loathing; self-sacrifice not for honor or recognition – but because one knew it was the right thing to do. They had a worldview – a way of looking forward and of looking backwards, and what they saw and sang about in both directions rang true.
Since I was still buying CD’s at that time, and still reading every word printed on the front and back covers and the inside sleeves, I was opened up to whole new bunch of players, writers and producers. More than once on an album I loved a name stood out. Sometimes as a guitarist, sometimes a bassist, sometimes as an engineer – always with a purity that found the internal tone, timing and truth of every song and album he appeared on.
Gurf Morlix. I loved that name the first time I saw it on the liner notes for Robert Earl Keen’s Gringo Honeymoon. I had no idea of it’s derivation – but to my California ears it sounded swampier than Francis Marion’s powder horn or Dave Carter’s Crocodile Man. What he revealed in his playing with others was that he knew how to listen to a song and, in his crafting of a soundscape as a producer, how to listen to an artist. His association with any singer / songwriter meant I wanted to hear that material. What I knew was – it would be good and it would be true. There were other producers whose work I was interested in checking out – but none of them had so consistently been the link between my ears and the new artists that I ended up loving as was Gurf Morlix.
As I kept digging I found that he not only produced other peoples albums – he also wrote, arranged and recorded his own. And those recordings grew to be favorites as well. His newest release, Gurf Morlix Finds The Present Tense (March 5) reveals a mature thinker and composer applying not only a lifetime of musical knowledge and skills but also the highs and lows that come from a lifetime of LIVING to the creative and performance dimensions of this latest offering. This is an important commentary on American culture circa 2013. It’s also great, great music – both in its composition and it’s playing.
Speaking with Gurf by phone from outside Auburn California after a show Sunday evening, I started off by expressing my fondness for his work on Robert Earl Keen’s ‘Walking Distance’ my favorite album in any genre from 1998.
GM: Well thank you. I’m real proud of that album. It doesn’t get talked about a lot, but it has some real good songs on it.
JE: If there is any better song about friendship than ‘Feeling Good Again’ I don’t think I’ve ever heard it.
I asked Gurf about his musical beginnings and his journey – which will bring him to Los Angeles this Saturday.
GM: I knew exactly what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be, after I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. I bugged my parents until they bought me some inexpensive guitar.
JE: Did it come easy or did it take a lot of practice? How much work was it and how much fun?
GM: Oh, I worked at it. But man I just loved it. It was all I wanted to do. To practice. Hours and hours and hours. One time I let my grades slip and my parents cut my guitar strings. They let me keep the guitar but it didn’t have any strings on it. I still practiced.
JE: I can imagine how a kid would need to hold that guitar – even without strings. Have it in his hands – maybe even getting to know the fret board better for it not having strings in between his fingertips and the wood. That is a great, great image.
GM: The Rascals had just released ‘Good Lovin’ (1966) and I had to learn that song, so I thought maybe I could still do it on that guitar. What the chords were and where the notes would be. I was pretty sure I had it all figured out. Sure enough, when I got the strings back on it I’d gotten it right.
Given his talent for bringing a distinctive sound to so many different singer / songwriters and being a wonderful composer in his own right, I was curious about his approach to producing another artist’s work.
GM: Well, first, when they ask me about working together, we listen to the songs. I have to like the songs. And then we talk about an approach and my feel for the sound. What the sound should be. Sometimes I play and sometimes I just record. Robert Earl Keen has Rich Brotherton who is a wonderful guitar player and so I don’t play a lot with him, I’m recording and producing.
JE: When you are playing with another artist or arranging, as part of their band, do you get different musical ideas than you would have for your own material? Do you get ideas and then have to edit or censor them because, while they might be terrific licks or make great musical sense in one context, they aren’t right for that artists approach to whatever the subject or theme of the song is?
GM: You actually have to learn to turn your brain off and not think too much. That’s the trick. And that’s where the ideas come from. You don’t want to think and you don’t want to censor. That’s not easy for everyone to do.
JE: Your new album, Gurf Morlix Finds The Present Tense, works terrifically in a number of ways. It is really personal in it’s tone and its delivery, and yet it seems to have a wide armed embrace of so much of what is going on in our times.
GM: Thank you.
JE: Bang Bang Bang from that album is a case in point for what you do so well. It’s a personal song both in the arc of it’s story and the way you tell it, and at the same time it’s a look at the country in 2013; the tenderness and the terror that are out there to be found and experienced.
GM: You know, I was working on that song for over 5 years. It didn’t come out of recent events – but it takes a look at the complexity of who we are. It’s not political. It’s not arguing for either side of an issue . . .
JE: But it is observing that life is extremely complex, and we don’t tend to just naturally look for ways to make it easier.
GM: And there are some things we will never get all the way figured out.
JE: Well, to me, that is part of your talent. To be such an accomplished, respected and sought after musician and musical craftsman, and at the same time be writing songs that aren’t preaching or turning a spotlight on you. Knowing how and when to use which musical techniques and devices to put a story in the listeners heart instead of their ears. And on listening to Bang Bang Bang again I catch the allusion to the death of your friend Blaze Foley. Your previous album (2011’s Blaze Foley’s 113th Wet Dream) was a celebration of his music. And Music You Might Have Made (off 2009’s Last Exit to Happyland) – it’s filled with longing for what might have been, had his life not been cut short. All these years on, he’s still part of your approach to life and music.
GM: Well that one I had to at least try and play it like he played, it needed more than me just strumming chords. I tried to finger pick it the way he might have done it.
JE: So that playing was his style?
GM: As close as I could get to it. It was way simpler than how he played.
JE: I love the pauses in that song. I want to learn to play it just so I can feel what happens inside when you get to those stops. Because within that micro-second of pause – the music is still going. That has to be something you experience physically when you play it.
GM: Yeah – silence isn’t just emptiness. There can be lot going on in silence; imagined or implied, there is always some sort of beat or music in there.
JE: When you are writing do you do demo tracks or . . .
GM: No – I’ll just play the song for whoever else might be on it. (Drummer) Rick Richards really knows how to find my pocket. If I was going to do a demo I would just record the song – I know how to do that.
JE: Indeed you do. About this weekends show at McCabe’s – are you appearing with a band?
GM: I’ll have a guitar. And my feet will be stomping out a beat, so that’ll be my drummer . . .
JE: You have a wonderful catalog of material to draw from and your new album is already a favorite. Thank you for coming to Los Angeles and bringing your music to us.
GM: It’s great to come to LA. I lived here and have a lot of friends here.
And a lot of fans – both knowing and unknowing of just how much Gurf Morlix has to do with the sound of the music of so many other artists they enjoy. I looked at my iTunes data grouping possibilities and though it will let me collect and sort my music by 31 categories (including Beats Per Minute!!) – it doesn’t have a place to either inform us, or allow us to collect information about, who produced or engineered an album. I guess some things are just better done analog. Which leads me to the embarrassing realization that I spoke for nearly an hour with one of the great producers of popular music and didn’t get his take on that debate!
If you haven’t heard Gurf Morlix Finds the Present Tense (which I highly recommend) I can think of two strategies to address that situation:
- Pick a copy up today and start listening in preparation for Saturday’s show, or
- Come to the show and keep track of how many songs you hear and then find yourself saying: ‘I want to hear this again’. (My take: there isn’t a weak offering in the bunch).
Don’t miss the chance to see one of the great artists of our era
For Tickets you can visit McCabe’s website at:
Gurf has a great website: