Legendary guitar guru Steve Kimock kicked off an exciting spring residency at New York City’s Sullivan Hall last Wednesday, which over the course of three weeks will find the Bethlehem, PA native joined by a Yankee-esque stacked roster of big hitters including Marco Benevento, John Morgan Kimock, Adam Deitch, John Molo, Marc Friedman, Andy Hess, Henry Butler and Pete Sears.
By all accounts, the first iteration of the weekly residency exceeded all expectations as the various members gelled in ambitious improvisation. In fact, in Kimock’s own words, “The show on Wednesday was awesome! It was ridiculous, so much better than I could have hoped. I knew it would be fine, since it’s a nice place with decent people, so the nature of the event was that it should have been cool, but it was extraordinary. I’m reeling.”
With two more weeks to go in the series, we caught up with Steve Kimock to chat about what went into to preparing for the Sullivan Hall shows as well as a whole host of topics including his job working at Mesa Boogie back in the 1970s, the direction of his recent writing and playing music with his son.
Hidden Track: Let’s kick it off with the residency. Obviously, you’ve got a lot of crack shot musicians involved, but I was curious what kind of preparation goes into when there are so many different players, moving parts, and so on?
Steve Kimock: Ay Ay Ay. Not a lot, honestly [laughs]. There’s not a lot that you can do other than get the logistics of it together. If it was any other kind of gig, like if I was a singer/songwriter type or if I had a hit song on the radio, the people that would have been involved would have a pretty simple task. They’d know what the song was, I could send them a chart, and that’s that.
The way I like to work is to prepare the groundwork for something creative or serendipitous to happen in an authentic improvisational way. You know, you don’t really know what people are good at, and what the chemistry ultimately can provide. To dictate too much upfront screws that up. There’s a certain amount of preparation, maybe half of the material we played last week, we touched on briefly. Then we got up and played, and as we played together, it became obvious that if I went too hard toward telling everyone what to do, I would have screwed that gig up. And no kidding, that was a monstrous gig. READ ON for more of Ryan’s chat with Steve Kimock…
HT: How did you go about selecting and rounding up the different musicians?
SK: It’s really another logistic question largely. The whole gig thing is schedule. Basically, every single part of it is like when to do something [laughs]. So, you look and see who is busy. It goes like that first, and then there is the chemistry.
For something like this where you’re putting together different ensembles to do essentially the same thing, which is to provide a fertile ground for improvisation, you want to get some people who are kind of the anchors and some people that are kind of an unknown quantity. You don’t want everybody to be complete wildcards either. Like last week, I had my son on drums, so that’s known thing, and Andy Hess on bass who I’ve been checking out forever. Then Henry Butler on keys was kind of a wildcard. I didn’t entirely understand what it was he did, but apparently he’s kind of a saint [laughs].
HT: I saw that you’ve been playing a few Zero shows here and there and you’re slated to do the Wavy Gravy birthday party with them as well. Do you think that is something you’ll be doing more of, playing with Zero?
SK: No, probably not, honestly. I don’t see the Zero thing as getting back together and hopping back out on the road anytime soon. I’m always open to a gig here and there, but I don’t think its anything that everybody is really ready to do.
HT: Shifting gears a little bit, you are obviously very well-known for your guitar playing, but I don’t know that everybody is really aware at how much you’ve done with actual gear. Could you talk a little bit about when you worked at Mesa Boogie?
SK: The Boogie thing was a long time ago. The association began in the mid-70s when the Super 60 came out and they were working on the Mark I. It was what Santana and John McLaughlin had, and I thought, I need an amp and I like those guys, so I called them up and they were nice on the phone and everything. I scraped together my $600 dollars or whatever it was, and they sent me an amplifier.
Then, like a year or two later, I moved to California, and maybe a year after that, I wound up quite by accident as [Mes Boogie founder] Randy’s [Smith] neighbor, and he used to make the amps in his basement then. We had stumbled into the same circle of friends and I was taking care of this guy’s house. It was a bunch of jazz musicians basically. Randy built the amps, but he was also a jazz musician. He played flute mainly, and he’s really good.
So, I’d take my amp over and we’d play and do miscellaneous modifications, and it got to the point where he’d just be yelling across the deck, “Hey Kimock, bring your amp down. We want to try something.” So, I wound up with a hodge podge of modifications on the amplifier, because I was the guinea pig for a bunch of stuff. I really enjoyed that work and really enjoyed that process.
A little while after that, when Randy decided he was going to move to a legitimate factory, he asked if I would come along to help with customers, to help the transition to the Mark II, answer phones, deal with tech problems, receive repairs, ship products and do lots of playing and listening to evaluate new designs. I was kind of the free safety.
It was a lot of fun. Subsequently, I kept my participation in musical instrument manufacturing, and continued to do consultation for amps and guitars all around the Bay Area. I got to work on some nice amps with Two-Rock and Bill Krinard, a fantastic high-end amp thing that started over a decade ago, not punching the clock, but informally doing R&D and crash test dummy type stuff, taking the amp out on the road and seeing exactly how much abuse it could take [laughs].
HT: I caught your performance with your son, John Morgan, at the New York Guitar Festival last year where you did the soundtrack to a Buster Keaton film. How did you approach that? Did you go without a net so-to-speak?
SK: Oh my God, that was a riot. That was so much fun. That was a good night overall. In terms of planning, yes and no. I thought about composing something that generally had the vibe of it, and looked at it from a couple of different angles, but I realized it would kind of be more authentic – at least in my way of thinking – to be reacting to what was happening on the screen.
It was mostly a process of sitting in the dark and playing along with it to discover where those points in action exist that needed to be punctuated by something. It turned out that there was a bunch of action that that needed to be punctuated by the drums, almost in a sound effect kind of way. Then there was some connecting material and some emotionally animated scenes that required a certain approach, and we had a little intro and outro kind of theme. Everything in between was improvised, and the big joke was to be as chromatic as possible, because it was a black and white film. That was the big musical joke, the chromatic approach and tying together the punctuating with the slapstick part of it.
HT: Speaking of John Morgan, I imagine it must be really cool as a father to get to play with your son, and perform, and go different places together. Has that helped solidify the bond between you guys?
SK: No doubt. And, it has also created a whole new area of responsibility for both of us. I’ve got to be living with Johnny through some musical personal phases that I went through as a kid that I see him going through, and to try to help with that. It’s one thing to recognize in another person when they are having a similar experience – whether it’s good or bad – and to be there for them, but it’s another thing to watch your own kid paying dues, finding his way, and struggling with all the trials that come with it. You have to think, man, what would I have done differently. What can you say that is going to help somebody through those spots?
The music part of it, the creativity, and the motivation, he’s got that. You can’t teach that, and he has it. How to deal with all the stuff, you’ve got to look back and think, “Man, how could I have done that differently?” You know, you just want him to do well, he’s my son. And you want to do your best for him. It’s an extra area of responsibility, but it’s my greatest joy. I’m so happy and proud of him. This last gig, he played so well. I mean really monstrous world-class stuff. I was blown away. Johnny kicked my ass.
HT: It took me by surprise a bit in preparing for our chat, reading through an old interview where you mentioned that, despite being affiliated with the Dead, the Other Ones and Phil & Friends – especially to the younger generation of fans – that you really only saw a small handful of Dead shows and it really wasn’t your scene. Not to put this negatively at all, but has that been a blessing and a curse type of thing for you?
SK: Let me put it this way: Robert Hunter’s advice to me when there was some possibility that I would be associated and going along and actually working with those guys was, “Run away while shooting behind you all the way! Just keep running and keep shooting. This stuff is gonna eat you up.” [laughs]
It’s true in a sense, it’s a different trip than anything I’ve been used to, the big rock royalty thing. It’s different. So yeah, any of that stuff can be a mixed blessing in a way. The part of it that don’t want to be associated with directly is when you look around, those guys were so immensely popular, and so immensely well-known.
I mean they were a huge influence on the entire culture. But it’s not what I do. In order to maintain any kind of identity for myself, the entire time I had to sort of consciously steer away from it. I was not trying to become a junior partner in the thing, nor did I aspire to it. I respected it, appreciated it and loved the music of course, but I didn’t want to misrepresent what it was that I was doing or where I was coming from. People to this day still come to gigs and yell out, “Play some Robert Hunter.” It’s kind of not what I do exactly. That’s somebody else’s gig and they are so good at it.
On my own, I’ll cover maybe Stella Blue, a beautiful Hunter/Garcia song that I play instrumentally. I play the melody on the steel guitar. It’s sort of a tribute to that stuff and a nod in that direction, but generally I don’t do that stuff too much unless one of those guys calls me up and says, “Hey, let’s play some tunes,” and those are the tunes. I have to kind of not do it when I do my own thing, or else I won’t have my own thing to do. [laughs]
HT: The last thing I wanted to ask you is about writing. Have you been working on any new material these days?
SK: That’s a good question. I’ve been working a little bit specifically on some new material. None of it is, you know, rock band oriented. Normally, my writing is in reaction to an existing ensemble chemistry. I look at the setlist and I go, “Oh jeez, we some tempo here, or we need something that stretches here, or we need some comic relief, or a ballad, or something new in a different key, or something to begin or end a set.”
So, it’s obvious when there is a specific piece of music that could be geared to a specific group of people that would fit, so I go, “OK, here’s a vehicle for these guys that fits a specific situation,” and I’ll write specifically to fill those needs. When I’m working with an interesting lineup, eventually you wind up with a setlist of very diverse, original stuff, which was kind of what happened with the last version of the Steve Kimock Band.
For the last couple years, I have not been working so much on specific material, but more just general approach stuff, doubling down with my nose to the grindstone with my whole harmony and micro tonality studies, so I’ve been playing a lot more fretless guitar, a lot more steel, a lot more open tuning, and a lot more tuning in general. That work is preparing the way for a whole lot of new stuff that will be genuinely different. That stuff will come to light probably this year when I get another stable lineup to go out and hit it for a while.
The Steve Kimock residency at Sullivan Hall continues this Wednesday, March 30, with Marco Benevento, Marc Friedman and Adam Deitch and concludes Wednesday, April 6, with a Bay Area reunion of sorts, as John Molo, Pete Sears and Andy Hess perform with Kimock.