HT Interview: The Then, Now World of Steve Kimock

I’m a little late calling Steve Kimock for a planned interview, but he’s totally cool. All he needs is 10 seconds to fix a bowl of… “What is this?” he says. “Gorilla munch and Honey Nut O’s? This is a special mixture. Somebody here is four.”

“Somebody” would be Kimock’s youngest boy, Ryland Cazadero, and why shouldn’t Kimock be firing up tasty cereal treats around this otherwise nondescript Thursday lunchtime? What did you expect him to be doing?

“He’s an absolutely lovely little terror,” Kimock laughs, checking to make sure I’m asking about the youngest of his four sons: John Morgan, 22, Miles, 18, Skyler Joe, 8, and Ryland, 4.

Family played a big role in Kimock’s decision, in 2006 or so, to retire the much-beloved Steve Kimock Band, a hard-touring unit that still represents the fullest expression of Kimock’s guitar wizardry. But then, Kimock, 56, is never too far from a stage, having toured since that time with the Rhythm Devils, filled in for RatDog during Mark Karan’s recovery, reunited with his old band Zero, got good n’dirty with Melvin Seals in Steve Kimock Crazy Engine, and had numerous one-offs, guest appearances, sit-ins and quick-hit projects and tours with a seemingly endlessly variable cast of friends and co-conspirators.

But what makes the current Steve Kimock spring schedule particularly interesting is that it’s Kimock’s first stab at a full-scale band tour in at least three years. Starting Wednesday (May 9), Kimock will canvas the Northeast, Midatlantic, Midwest and Southeastern U.S., kicking off in Bethlehem, Penn. and visiting such celebrated rooms as Brooklyn Bowl (May 11), Chicago’s Bottom Lounge (May 19), Nashville’s Exit/In (May 22) and Washington DC’s Howard Theatre (June 4) before his next break.

Along for Kimock’s ride this time around are his good buddies Bernie Worrell on keys, Wally Ingram on drums, and, for four dates, Reed Mathis on bass. Mathis wraps up with the group on May 12 in Portland, Maine, and then Andy Hess picks up the slack two nights later in Boston for the remainder of the run of shows.

We asked the chameleonic, but always-friendly Kimock to catch us up on his latest goings-on. If you squint, you might be able to see his next project — a family affair, we’ll call it — on the horizon, too.

HIDDEN TRACK: Going back to the Steve Kimock Band that you maintained until about 2006, you seemed at that time to be committed to that one particular group above all, versus now when it’s a number of projects and less consistent who’s with you. Is that an accurate assessment?

STEVE KIMOCK: Yeah, in a way. It’s not so much by design as by circumstance, you know. After that band, I kind of didn’t feel like being on the road. I didn’t have the resources or the wherewithal to keep going a lot on the road, and I was really enjoying just staying home with family. But it’s certainly true that that singular focus wasn’t there for me anymore, and it wasn’t available to be seen. It’s been a while. Musically, I kind of went into a very different place around then too, and wanted to focus on other things.

HT: What do you mean by that?

SK: It was a whole lot more introspective stuff, and working on some real specific harmony and tuning type of solo stuff that didn’t have any real place in performance. Maybe it kind of set the foundation for some stuff later, but eventually, I’ll have a more realized take on the microtonal stuff I’ve done and maybe get it out there performance-wise, or in composition. There was kind of a limit to how much I could do that when it was all straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll and electric fretting. I’m hoping more of the other stuff gets out: more slide, more steel, more fretless stuff. I played no fretless at all in the Steve Kimock Band, really, and not much slide.

HT: Why have you chosen this group of players to do a larger-scale tour again? How did it come about that you wanted to take out this band?

SK: That’s a good question. I think it was just one of those things where I just sort of scouted around for folks I could play with and wanted to play with and this made sense as something we could take driving around the country. It’s a crew of all my friends. I love working with Bernie, he’s sweet, Wally’s sweet. They’re great. They’re cool enough to do this with me.

HT: So you put the word out and it’s a matter of logistics? “Who’s available?”

SK: Yeah, I mean, it’s a lot less by design than it is timing and serendipity. It has to be a confluence of events. There are a lot of offers to play, and a lot of people curious about what’s going on with me, and then we start looking at holes in peoples’ schedules. This isn’t something I would have been willing to do even a year ago, because I was — and I still totally am — fine with being home mostly playing acoustic guitar with the family. But I was looking to do some playing out.

HT: How do you choose material for a group like this?

SK: We don’t have a good sense of exactly what it is this early. What excites me about the material specifically is that if the guys play together long enough, they all sort of gravitate to writing to fill a specific need in the setlist for a certain type of material. We might be out for a week or two and play something and say, “We need another song like that.” So we’ll write one. It’s a dig-in process.

HT: Have you always done a lot of that type of writing — on the road, improvisational?

SK: More than most people, yes. When you have a steady group of players — a band, as opposed to just going out and doing one-offs – you understand their tendencies. You know what they’re good at, and what they’re feeling hot about, and you direct some energy toward taking advantage of that. I think a lot of the best stuff comes from taking advantage of that quality.

HT: Before the tour begins, what do you think this lineup will feel like, tendencies-wise? Specifically the Reed Mathis lineup, which starts the tour.

SK: Hmm, I don’t know. It depends on what kind of space Reed is in when he shows up and does his thing. I’ve done stuff with him where he shows up and we play together and he’s completely in outer space. But I’ve also seen him play completely straight ahead.

HT: And how about Bernie? You’ve played with him for a long time, so I imagine you know what you’re getting?

SK: Oh yeah. The Bernie thing is a known quantity. I think of him as cutting up. He’s got an amazing sense of humor, and a very deep bag, musically. He’s so fun to play with. You know, I don’t think he’s worked with Reed before. Those guys are going to get on well.

HT: Who haven’t you played with that you’d like to?

SK: [Long pause] I’d like to get a chance to play with Bill Frisell someday. I love his playing. He’s fantastic. But I’m trying to think, and right off the top of my head I think there’s 10,000 singers I’ve never worked with that I’d like to work with.

Overall, I think I’d like to do something more, though, and that’s travel around without the burden of carrying the band around. I’d love to go to Africa and play a little. It’d be nice to go to Brazil or India. In the bigger picture, having a little bit more first-person, direct encounters with those musical cultures would do me good. I’m a huge fan of the music of those places, and never having been to Brazil, or Africa, or India, I think I’d do that.

HT: You have plans to do that anytime soon?

SK: No, not exactly, but it’s going to keep coming up. I have fans in India, you know. That blows my mind. I had a bunch of fans from India visit me playing gigs right in New Jersey and in Baltimore — they just came, and they’re saying come play New Delhi. They desperately want me to go to India. I want to. Brazil might be a little easier first.

HT: Will you do any acoustic playing during this run of shows?

SK: It would depend on the venue, and I would play that by ear. It’d have to be the right size room, and if it’s quiet enough, that is something I’d really want to do. But it’s not going to be a square peg in a round hole, I’m not going to sit up there on a Saturday night with a dancing crowd in some cavernous place shushing so I can cool out with them. If I can get any cooperative venues along the way I’ll look at it. Maybe I’ll play some fretless, or some acoustic, or some Hawaiian guitars.

HT: You mentioned before your studies of harmonics and microtones. For someone who’s heard you playing guitar in these bands for a decade or longer, what would he or she hear in your playing now that you took from those studies?

SK: I think for the people that are sensitive to it, I think they’d hear it more musically mature, and maybe a little bit more connected emotionally. I mean, that’s how it seems to me. As my studies take me places, I’m more conscious of exactly what it is I’m doing — and definitely clearer. There are plenty of conscious players out there. Frisell would be one of them, and all of that Indian music I like so much, you hear it there. But any decent singer knows what I’m talking about, they all have specific intonations where they sing a certain way and intend the pitch to be just so.

I had to work at that, and focus on it consciously. Maybe other people focus on it less consciously or at least in a less formal way. You ever listen to early Neil Young, and listen to his voice? Man, he was singing exactly what he meant to sing. You’d hear that same delivery and intent in opera — it’s just not left to chance. Technically speaking, from me you’d hear finer resolution and better motor skills. I’m now used to making very small adjustments to get things exactly where I need them. It’s detailed refinement.

HT: Your musical interests and influences seem wide enough, but do you have any that would surprise people?

SK: Polka.

HT: Are you being serious?

SK: [Laughs] Yeah, man, I like polka music. German polkas more than Italian polkas, definitely. I grew up hearing a lot of that, actually, and the wife is Swiss, and over there there’s always some channel on TV where you get this Lederhosen MTV type of thing with guys playing alp horns and stuff like that and they rock the polka. It’s awesome. I have no problem with polka.

HT: Do you seek it out?

SK: If polka’s on, I’m like, OK, that’s cool. I’m a big fan of the accordion as an instrument.

Steve Kimock – Tongue & Groove

HT: Earlier this month you did one of the Les Paul Monday shows at the Iridium in New York. Did you ever meet Les?

SK: No, I never met Les Paul, although that would have been a fantastic meeting. I tend to be shy around people with that kind of acclaim. The gig itself was a riot. I really didn’t know what to expect, and I didn’t want it to be one thing or presume that I would go in there and we’d say, OK, we’re going to do this Les Paul tune and this Les Paul tune and that kind of thing. I felt that would be rude. But we actually stuck to playing more blues and funk and straight-ahead jamming. There was no drummer, an upright bass, and it was really fun.

HT: While we’re talking about departed legends, did you ever play with Levon Helm?

SK: No, I never did play with Levon, although I would have liked to. I spent some time with a couple of the guys involved in that band. That was a great band.

HT: Do you think you’ll go back to any of the projects you did in the last couple of years, particularly Crazy Engine?

SK: No, no, probably not. Like I was saying earlier, the perception that any of this, at the level I’m working at, is very deliberately thought out is not what’s happening. We were able to do that band at that time. I’m able to do this at this time, and this is what’s interesting.

HT: What will you do next, once this tour wraps up?

SK: Hmm. I don’t know what’s going to happen. My son John and I continue to play and work on stuff at home. We’ll probably have something that looks like a record, and maybe even something that looks like an act. It’ll be just guitar and drums. He’s good with computers — he writes on the computer — and sometimes I play the guitar and play bass pedals, too. He’s good in that duo format, he’s in a duo [XVSK] with a cello player [Trevor Exter].

HT: And they’re opening up a few nights on this tour, right?

SK: That’s right, they’ll be out with us.

HT: What do you like most about playing with John?

SK: He’s just, I think, a very musical guy. He listens really hard and plays with incredible grace and balance — he’s a very old soul musically. It’s a real pleasure, and it has nothing to do with him being my kid, he’s an awesome musician. It’s all fun.

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3 thoughts on “HT Interview: The Then, Now World of Steve Kimock

  1. kyle Reply

    Maybe this wasnt the right format but a phill and friends question woulda been nice

  2. Chad B. Reply

    I hear it, Kyle, always a million things I COULD ask a guy like Kimock. Based on his interviews over the years, though, seems like there wouldn’t be much left to say. The falling out he had with Phil and Jill Lesh is picked-over ground, I feel like, and I’m not sure we need to rehash all his connections to the Dead scene and Dead music. That comes up in almost every Kimock interview and I’ve seen, and while he’s moved on, it also seems pretty obvious he retains many of those connections and still has affection for that music. (Here’s hoping “Stella Blue” makes it to rotation on this tour!)

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