Interview with Leif Arntzen and Michael Bates about The Leif Arntzen Band: Continuous Break

Using a combination of danceable grooves, jazz standards and a new concept of freeform playing, The Leif Arntzen Band achieves a rare balance between melodic simplicity and abstract expression. I have played in this group for almost three years and it is a pleasure to be a part of such an organic collective of excellent musicians. I interviewed Leif before one of our rehearsals to help form some press materials for our first album, Continuous Break, to be released next month. The CD release concert will be held at Nublu, 62 Avenue C btw. 5/6th streets, NYC on May 25th, 10pm, with Leif Arntzen, trumpet; Ryan Blotnick, guitar; Landon Knoblock, keyboards; Michael Bates, bass and Jeff Davis, drums.  

RB:  How was this most recent version of TLAB formed?

LA: Well...[chuckles] I called up Michael Blake. I was looking for a bass player.  He said he knew a really good guitar player and a really good keyboard player and a great drummer.  And thats how it happened. We got a gig and the next thing you know we're a band.  

RB: You came from quite a notorious musical family in British Columbia. What was it like growing up playing in a family band?

LA: Well, playing in a family band is no picnic, let me tell you. [pauses] My father has a lifelong obsession with New Orleans jazz, and when he was raising us as little young budding musicians he wanted us to learn all of those old tunes, and we did.  So, when the family would get together we would practice the tunes together, and make music. What we didn't really realize was that that was how he was kind of keeping the family together and that's how we connected.  So, I don't know if it was like a trick or what, but it worked because all these years later when we get together we play music–we find reasons to play music because that's what brings us together.    

RB: So you feel pretty close to your family because of that?

LA: Yeah… that's how we connect.

RB: So it's mostly New Orleans style jazz, or do you guys play other styles together? 

LA: Yeah, we would throw in some folk tunes some irish tunes, and as we all became older musicians, we all became interested in different kinds of music. So it became kind of like a variety show where pretty much anything goes–rock, jazz, folk, a little bit of pop, r&b. It just depended on who had a song they had worked on and practiced and felt like bringing it to the family to play. 

RB:  And you were playing shows?

LA: We played a lot of shows, mostly little concerts. Once in a while we do a concert series in Vancouver. When I came out to New York I would come up with excuses to be able to do a family concert out here. I would invite whatever family member could come up with the plane fare to come out and play, and then that would be the family band.

RB: So you have a lot of family rolling through?

LA: Right… there is a constant, steady stream of Arntzens flowing through this town–no shortage!

RB: Like a plague.

LA: Yeah, It doesn't matter what I do, they keep on coming!

RB: You've mentioned your connection to nature and your past life as a commercial fisherman.  Do you have any stories from your upbringing on the West coast? 

LA: Well, I never figured on being a professional musician, really, I just played for my own enjoyment mostly. I was working in the resource industries and would take my horn everywhere. There was always a reason to play, whether it was just to get up early in the morning and play some tunes for people to get up to, or to play at night it seemed to be part of my way of life, to just play my horn in whatever circumstances I found myself in. When I was a commercial fisherman, I played a lot more seriously then because I had time on my hands in between fish bites and so forth, so it was an unusual way to learn to play the horn, but I've always been thankful for it.  The good side was that I always had lots of freedom to play whatever records I wanted to on the cassette tapes that I recorded. The bad side was that I never had any credits on any of the tapes so I never really knew who I was listening to. I knew maybe the lead player whether it was Freddie Hubbard or Miles Davis but I never could really sit and read the record credits. 

RB: You probably couldn't hear the rhythm section over the diesel engine. 

LA: Yeah, there was that too. The 5-cylinder Gardner below my feet was a constant accompaniment. 

RB: So, is that sort of your ultimate rhythm section?

LA: [laughs] you know, I'm always looking for a groove...

RB: The music on Continuous Break is largely freeform but it is rarely dissonant or abrasive.  How did you achieve this controlled sound and who were your stylistic influences?

LA: Oh boy, influences is a rough one for me because I've been around for a long time, so I've soaked up a lot of music and I can't just remember, you know, who started what vibe, that inspired me. But I think the key was allowing each musician to freely express themselves within that group setting. When something felt good to play to I would play the horn, and when it seemed like time to lay out and let something else go on then I would lay out. I think that each of us were doing that, and that created an instant sort of trust that was going on when we were recording that. Since there was no pressure to really play anything in particular, I think it made everybody really relax a little bit and just kind of play what felt good—and usually what feels good is a mix, a little bit of variety in feel and, you know, major, minor, dissonance or whatever—I'm not really thinking in those terms. It just feels like you need to go up dynamically here or down a little bit, or slower or faster, and kind of "come what may" and see what happens.

RB: Yeah, I guess what I'm thinking of as dissonance in a lot free-form stuff is probably a couple people that are overplaying and it's clashing.

LA: Yeah, I think that's one of the things about this particular band is that we seem to find a balance where that doesn't seem to happen. I never feel like "oh my god this is really jarring against what somebody else is playing." I never feel like that really is a problem with this band, I think that's why this band is still together.

RB: The musicians in T.L.A.B. are all bandleaders and composers. Did you make a conscious decision to pick all composer-leaders for this band?

LA: I wanted a band where everybody had a developed voice already–had an idea of what they wanted to sound like–and felt comfortable composing on the spot. Collective composition, that type of thing, or that kind of drive, was something I was really interested in trying to harness in some way. I'm a reluctant leader. I would rather just be a part of something. In that way I call it The Leif Arntzen Band, but it's just a name–that's all. I feel like there is equal voice going on. 
[Michael Bates walks in and starts unpacking his bass]

RB: Michael, what is your experience playing in T.L.A.B and how is it different from other groups you are in?

MB: Collaborative.  You know, no written music, really.

RB: Does that change your role as bass player?

MB: Um... no, I don't think so.

RB: You've decided what your role is, sort of, by now.

MB: The open element to the music is just a different way of getting to a collective thing, or like an open thing. Knowing the music cold like that, you know, anything can happen at any time. The thing about this band is, for me its like we've kind of collectively come up with our own identity, you know five or six different ways, all the members. Whereas when you're playing in your own band you're kind of trying to understand the identity of the band, or if you're a sideman you're trying to make the identity of the band happen. Whereas this is like… frankly I think Leif would probably be happier if we grooved a little more often, but, you know, there's six of us and you're kind of like "yeah… woah!" 

RB: It probably evolves faster that a lot of bands too, because as one of us gets into some other thing it just instantly…  

LA: Yeah, it adds to the identity of the band when you do that–instantly. 

MB: And also–and this is, I think, really key–the music's not hard. It's easy music, in a great way, so we can get to the essence of why we play really fast. People wouldn't know that it's easy–it doesn't sound easy. So it's fun that way. It's like… [sings the first five bars of The Call]… that can go like three ways right now. So I like that a lot. 

RB: It's hard not to think of certain Miles Davis records when you are listening to this album, particularly the end of the quintet into the early fusion years where he is basically rehearsing the band in the recording studio just rolling tape.  \

LA: That comes back to influences and I just refuse… I'm not capable of sticking to–I don't think anyone likes to be labeled but we're all just a product of what we've been listening to and practicing our entire lives. And what comes out of it is just the big  moment we are looking for, is to see what comes out of all that work that has gone into it. And we play these simple pieces and we create something that's musically different from these simple devices, and I think that in the simplicity, that is where the hardest things are; those are the hardest things to try to develop and it just takes a long time and  a lot of work to be able to make something happen. When I listen to all those great records of the past, those are my favorite records, when I realize that I think these guys just showed up and started playing.  And yes, there was a tremendous amount of work to get to there, but it wasn't preconceived in that sense.  Each guy was just working on their own thing and they came together, and it just took off from there in something that was unified. Those are the greatest records to me.

RB: It is coming out of the unconscious?

LA: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that so many of the great records—not just jazz, but rock too, and folk—some of those recording sessions where the songwriter had spent a lifetime developing a particular song or a lyric, agonizing over a lyric for I don't know how long, it could've been years—but to just go in and play one or two takes and just get something magical happening with a group of musicians who didn't necessarily know the songs so well... but it's there—the essence of it is there, the warts of it and all—and that's what lasts. It makes it human and it includes every listener—I mean everyone gets to be a part of it, because you can hear that in the music. I think that people instinctively hear that, and that's why they keep listening to those records over and over. That's why I do.

RB: So what, specifically, is it that makes those records so fascinating?

LA: I don't know if I could put it into words.

MB: It's the thing.

LA: It's an intangible

MB: It's the thing! You're like, 'How do they do that? How do they get that feel?'

LA: You know the notes–it transcends the notes–the instruments are being transcended. And the trumpet doesn't sound like a trumpet, the bass doesn't sound like a bass anymore.  It's just like a voice.  I'm not sure how you get it but when it's there it's magic, it's operating at a whole 'nother level than I could possibly articulate.

RB:  This album has the energy of a live performance-did you do any editing or is it basically done 'live to tape' like the records from the 50s and 60s?

LA: It was recorded live for sure–there are a few creative edits, here and there, to connect some parts. We didn't put every take on the record… most of it, though! We tried as much as possible to leave it as it was.

RB: There was no editing out wrong notes?

LA: No… we really couldn't.  There was so much bleed, even if we wanted to, I mean, we couldn't! 

RB: Where did you record?

LA: We recorded in the basement of my house on Cornelia Street in New York City, a little basement recording studio–a really cool little place to record.  

RB: What's the vibe there ?

LA: I don't know, what do you think Michael?

MB: Space is the tie that binds [starts improvising on bass]


LA: The studio is just so loaded up with a lifetime's worth of musical odds and ends. It was just a raw space–I think it sounds great down here. 

RB: Is that a tuba on the wall?

LA: There is a tuba hanging on the wall. There's some african drums hanging on the wall. Any kind of curtain, you know, we used painter's canvas drops that ended up just stapled to the ceiling because everything else is cinder block behind it. There's an old canvas circus marquee with a painting of... its kind of a weird painting actually…

RB: Does it say 'Cheese Torture?' 

LA:  [laughs] 'Chinese Torture' and there is a woman in a bikini being tortured in there–it's a little odd.

RB: The actual console is a gutted piano?

LA: That was a piano I bought from a little old lady on 6th avenue. We wheeled it down here on the street with a few guys, and in the process we broke the soundboard. So you know, that got screwed up, so rather that get rid of it I left the strings in there and turned it into a studio console, and it hasn't budged ever since.

MB: There's a B3 and every imaginable guitar and bass stapled to the wall.

LA: Yeah, everything here belongs to somebody. There's an old banjo on the wall, it's like a little mandolin-banjo. That's a Bear Lake corn husk child's rattle-roll it up and it make a rattling sound. Everything here is connected. That's the fishing gremlin. I carved that out of a block of cedar that was floating about thirty miles off-shore, off of British Columbia.  The only paint I had was black, white and red engine paint–that's why it's that color. When I finished carving it I lashed it to the mast and he rode up there for at least ten years on the mast. 

MB: Really?

LA: Yeah, I never took him off there either! A matter of fact, he also had a hat that the deckhand had accidentally washed, a wool cap, and when it came out it was about this big, and it survived years at sea.  So all of these things, they all got a little story to it.  The painting, everything, is homemade.

RB: And then you walk outside and you're right at Cornelia Street Café and right in the center of the village. There's something magical about that, right?  

MB:  It's a great street. I think after I came out of our rehearsal here I walked straight into Steve Earle on the sidewalk [with his guitar].

LA: Oh yeah, he lives right around the corner.

MB: And he walked off the sidewalk onto the street and he looked at me and he said: 'yours is bigger that mine.'

RB: What's next?

LA: I would like to use the same system that we have and create a record of songs that are collectively composed, with some singing, something like that.

MB: Like pop tunes, or, like, songs?

LA: Yeah, something that's big like that–just work that and see what we can come up with.

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