There are some musicians who play music. There are others who are
music. You can tell when you see them because they do extremely complex things effortlessly all the while connecting with their bandmates and the audience on multiple levels. You can tell when you talk to them because they talk and sing interchangeably. Keyboardist Hiromi Uehara, another artist who does this, spoke of playing not from her instrument to the listener's ears but instead playing from her heart to theirs. That's what Steve Oliver does. I first discovered him when he was lighting up the stage with Steve Reid's Bamboo Forest. He was featured as a songwriter/guitarist/vocalist on their Mysteries
album – this month's Retrospectives review. World Citizen
is his eighth album and his first on his own label. Without the restraints of label expectations and radio format restrictions this imaginative musician will continue to expand his own horizons and deliver stunning music in the process.
SmoothViews (SV): Is there ever a time when you don't have a song in your head?
Steve Oliver (SO):
There is always a song in my head, all the time. It might be someone else that I just like a lot, it might be one of my own or one that is going to before someone else. I've been doing so much writing for other artists that I have this thing down now where I ask for an idea – a musical idea – of what a song that artists wants would be and I will go into this mode and start hearing the song. That's how it works for me.
SV: To get a little “woo-woo” it sounds like you're channeling them.
SO: Yeah, it's exactly that. It happens all the time. I'll just pick up a vibe. Like I'll hear an orchestra thing with a rock guitar solo like a Jeff Beck thing. Or if I want to hear a world music tune, or a funky one, or a singer-songwriter tune I'll just go in these spaces – these different doors of creativity. It's always there. It's like a waterfall of ideas.
SV: What do you do if you're in the car or the shower or the produce section at the grocery store?
SO: Thats when the music really starts happening because you are away from everything so you're open to ideas instead of sitting in a studio going “OK, gotta write a song now.” You're surrounded by life and that's how music happens. You're open to trying different things and new ideas just cross your mind out of the blue.
SV: How do you remember them?
SO: The ones that are real strong, the ones that I keep hearing, just stick with me. I'll keep remembering them.
SV: That's how you separate the keepers from the stuff that is more transient?
SO: Yeah, the ideas that keep recurring are the ones I work on until it's kind of complete. Then I move on to the next chestnut of an idea.
SV: Some people talk about getting blocked or going through fallow phases. Does that happen to you?
SO: Never (said very expressively). I love music so much it's like I reach into a lake of ideas. It could be some small thing, like a groove, and from there I'll hear a tune and when I hear a groove I might hear a song and just start singing it. Or I'll hear a bass line or a chord change. It's weird how it happens. It's just that easy for me. I have even written tunes with guys on the phone and they have ended up on records. I'll put them on speaker and we'll just start coming up with ideas and it just starts happening. You get excited about it and that excitement reaches into the song. I live for that stuff.
SV: That goes back to something we have talked about before. That the listener can tell intuitively whether a song wasmailed in or recorded on autopilot instead of having this this vibe of creativity and excitement. They can't pin it down verbally but when you hear it it just sounds detached or off kilter. You just feel it.
SO: Music is felt. It's heard but it has to transcend that. If it comes from the initial passion that you are feeling as the writer, you know the listener will feel it. I have picked that up over the years seeing how people feel when they hear or play music. It's almost like research to me to watch how music transcends all kinds of boundaries and barriers. It knocks down walls. I am intrigued by that because I really believe that we can be healed by hearing a really good song.
SV: I definitely believe that. If you read articles or memoirs from people who have gone through stuff a lot of those people will talk about it. I think every person, regardless of what their beliefs are as far as something bigger than us, has been healed by a song or will be at some point.
SO: That's the power of music.
SV: How does it feel to know that that power can be in your hands as someone who creates music?
SO: It's a responsibility to get that out there because it is needed. The more I do it, the more I realize how important that is. I've been focusing a lot more on that with whatever I'm working on.
SV: Kenny Loggins said something on a DVD concert I have somewhere about how if you had something on your mind and needed an answer a song would jump out at you that had some insight in the lyrics. As a lyricist you have been able to nail it in one line better than anyone, there are lines in your songs that just resonate and clarify what a lot of people are going through right now.
SO: I got a lot of what I know about songwriting from listening to Kevin Gilbert. He was a singer-songwriter/progressive rock guy that I kind of grew up listening to. He was actually supposed to take Peter Gabriel's place in Genesis at one time but he passed away when he was still really young. When I was doing a progressive rock thing in the 80's we were going to do shows together. He is “Mr. One Liner.” He does that better than anyone. I always loved the idea of saying so much in one line. It has so much impact and it sticks with you. Maybe it works with me because I liked his writing so much. Sometimes I think I am channeling him or something because I get these ideas out of the blue and wonder where it comes from - just lines that sum up a thought. I never thought I could write like that.
SV: It seems to me that you always have, although I didn't become familiar with your music until you showed up on the Bamboo Forest albums then put out your solo one a few years later.
SO: I have always liked word play and the rhythms of words, but I think it wasn't disciplined before or just didn't have a focus yet. When I was writing the rock stuff my lyrics were still weak. Even the guy who was producing us in the 80's even said that. He said the vocals were great, the music was great but the one criticism is that the lyrics are a little weak – that I was all over the map and wasn't getting to the point. I still feel that way sometimes and I remember hearing Kevin Gilbert's stuff.
SV: It seems like the things we do best are the things we have to struggle around with for a little while until we get a foothold and find some direction, which often comes from off the wall inspiration like that.
SO: I just did a lyric and sang on Tom Schuman's next album. I am on five songs and you won't even recognize my guitar playing. It's real fusion and it was so much fun to do. He had a tune that he wanted as a lyric song and I literally wrote it as I was listening to the music. The words just came to me. All of a sudden the words “a piece of me” came to me. It came out “you can take a piece of me, I can take a piece of you, and everything will be alright.” Where did this come from? I literally have no idea. Wait till you hear how it bounces off the rhythm too. And I'm playing guitar lines on that album that are just ridiculous.
SV: You play some lines on this album that are ridiculous but they sneak up on you. You hear the song then it hits you that the guitar lines are really fast and really clean at the same time and your jaw just drops.
SO: Thats what I like to do. On my albums I like to focus on the melody because I like songs that have strong melodies and stay close to that, but it'.s nice to put a little bit of playing in there where it doesn't clutter and it's not like blowing all over the place. As a listener your ear wants to hear a song. But you can expand on that and still stay true to the song. It's like with “Watching The World,” the song that is doing really well on the radio charts. I love playing it live, it's got such a strong melody and I can still solo off of it.
SV: You said you felt like this was the song to put out for radio, that you felt like it was a mass appeal song from the beginning. I remember you saying that about "Fun In The Sun" on the last album too, which was a big hit for you. It sounds like you have a feel for your own material that you can tell which ones are going to go over in a given situation?
SO: I do, totally. I knew from the beginning that was going to be the album opener. It just feels like that to me. I had created this really cool sound loop that is in the intro, then the melody comes in on the chorus (which he sings at this point.) It appealed to me that way. I never say what I want to see as the single. Then when the single gets picked I like to to see if I'm on the same page as everyone else that is involved. We are looking at the title track too. Which is really great because both me and Tom (Schuman) have solos on it. A few years ago you could not have put something like that out there but people are starting to listen to this music as more than just background music. We are rediscovering the passion that musicians have when they play and listeners hopefully have when they listen.
SV: You did a wonderful podcast about the process of making this album and you used the term "sound design" and you have a song on the album called "Design" that is kind of a sonic playground. You have such a grasp of sound - creating sounds, playing with them, even inventing them.
SO: It's something I just totally love doing. I love creating different guitar tones with the synth-guitars that I play and combining all these elements that are not normal guitar sounds. I almost want it to be something different from a guitar sound. I spend a lot of time programming, working with sounds and making them do different things. For me it's always about the song and how much more the different sounds can bring to it. I love the way that one turned out. I even played violin on it.
SV: Who knew!
SO: I actually did play a little when I was in high school but I never took lessons. It's really hard to play. If you solo those tracks that I did they aren't perfect to my ear, but I wanted the real violin sound instead of a sample. I wanted the sound of the bow on the strings. After I overdubbed it and mixed it I was happy with it. I played violin on three songs.
SV: Loops have gotten a bad rap because so many artists misuse them and it sounds really canned but you use a totally different approach.
SO: I don't just grab one loop and use it through the whole song. I'm always morphing them together and using a lot of different effects. There are five different drum kits on "Fiesta." I played all the percussion on it too. I'm a freak for percussion and I learned so much about recording and playing percussion from Steve Reid. When I'm working on a song I want to get the whole thing together and hear it so I do a lot of things myself to fill out the song. That is where the technologies really work for me. On that one I set the tones up, got some hand drums and put it together.
SV: If you don't know how to do something you just go in there and create it from scratch.
SO: Totally, because I can hear the part and how it is going to play (scats a percussion riff.) I get the pattern then I start playing it with my hands. It's like the musicians from India that sing the part they are going to play on Tabla first before they play.
SV: You developed the guitar synths for Carvin and you keep expanding on what can be done with them.
SO: It's endless. There is so much you can do. Guitar players can get stuck working with a limited range of sounds and not go beyond that. My thing has been about sound and using the guitar as a controller that manipulates the sounds as well as playing notes and chords. I want to see how much sound I can make with the guitar both live and in the studio. It's like on the song "Wide Open Spaces," that's just me in the studio playing live. You hear the orchestra sounds and I'm playing the guitar at the same time and I'm controlling it all with the volume pedals.
SV: You did it with no overdubbing?
SO: Yes. And I love that because you can bring in all the emotion you feel inside the song at once instead of scattering it by doing a bunch of separate parts.
SV: On the other hand you worked with a lot of studio alchemy on "Design." The clarity of the guitar sound on that is just magical, and very Metheny-ish, which of course I love. You did that with other musicians including Billy Sherwood, who used to be with Yes. What was the difference in that process from the process you used in "Wide Open View" and why did you decide to do it differently.
SO: You know me, I'm a Metheny freak like yourself (laughs)
SV: Yeah, obsessed!
SO: I love him because he is so passionate about it. And because he is so open to playing all kinds of music and trying new things.
SV: So there is an orchestrion in your future? (laughs) I could actually see you evolving a whole thing like that just using your feet, guitar strings and a bunch of mad scientist technology. Kind of like he did but without the massive setup. Although it was amazing to watch that in action.
SO: I saw that show and got to talk to him afterwards, which was an amazing experience, and he was talking about how complex and fine tuned the whole thing had to be. That any little nuance that was not working perfectly could throw off the sound or the timing. The audience wouldn't notice but of course he would.
SV: The concept of the title is something that you carry out throughout the album. You've got something that sounds very middle eastern in “Desert Traveler” there's the salsa flamenco thing in "Fiesta" and the South African vibe in "One Big Smile." You have all these sounds and different types of scales and rhythms. How do you synthesize all that and make it sound as cohesive as it does? How did you become so immersed in world music?
SO: It's the love of all those styles. I see what it does to people. It makes people feel good. I try to discover these different types of global music and then when I play them I put a lot of myself into it - the way I write and arrange, the vocals that I do, my guitar work - so that's what makes it cohesive.
SV: How do you balance Steve Oliver the instrumentalist with Steve Oliver the very gifted singer-songwriter?
SO: That's the tough part because I approach those songs so differently than I approach the instrumentals. I do a lot less production on them. It's kind of the less is more thing. Although actually the three songs on this album do have more production. I wanted to do upbeat songs this time. Usually I use the singer-songwriter vocals as kind of a mood shift between the instrumentals. Usually they have been slower and more spare than the instrumentals but this time I wanted to have a funk tune, which I haven't done since Positive Energy. "Time Never Goes Away" is groovin' hard and that's what I wanted to do.
SV: You've been doing a lot of production for other artists too haven't you?
SO: I really have. I'm working on Will Donato's new one right now. I did some songs with Andrew Neu, I'm doing something with Eddie Reddick. I'm doing a lot of writing with other people.
SV: It makes sense that you would be going in that direction because you're such a wizard in the studio and you can help other artists get into that really imaginative approach you have. You've showed up on some other people's albums but now it seems like the producer hat is fitting you pretty nicely.
SV: This is so important right now because we need to breathe some life into contemporary instrumental music. It was so stifled for a while and even a lot of musicians seem to have lost touch with their identities and are having to find their way back. We are seeing a new generation of producers emerging who "get" that. By generation I don't mean age, I mean mindset. It's a different mindset and you, Darren Rahn, and Michael Bearden seem to be the ones who are stirring things up. You have been true to your own voice and you keep expanding that and growing and learning. If you can bring these artists to their own voice that is a gift for the genre and for the listener.
SO: It really is. I've always produced my own stuff and I was working with some other people who would come over and record even before I started playing with Steve Reid. I never really realized what I was doing back then. I was writing and playing and recording the way I love to work with these other people and it is always such a growth experience for me because I get to get inside what they want to do. I always try to get them to bring out more of themselves. Like "where do you want this album to go?" "What do you want to do?" "What do you want it to sound like and feel like?" Then I help them make that happen. I don't what it to come from me. I want it to come from them.
SV: This is so much the way of the future. The role of the producer used to be to mold the artist into what the record company wanted them to sound like, or some preconceived notion of what they thought the audience wanted. Which is usually not what the audience wanted.
SO: You used to have to follow the producer's lead. I want to be a producer who follows the artist's lead. To me the most important part of producing is that you've got to understand what the artist wants and work from that standpoint.
SV: You are on your own label this time around. How is that working and what doors has that opened up for you?
SO: It's amazing. If I was signed to a label they would control my output and they would control the people I work with, and there is all the political stuff. Who you can and can't work with, what you can and can't sound like. The freedom is ridiculous. It has expanded beyond belief.
SV: So now you can do what you want to do and work with who you want to work with, but also you now have to run the business.
SO: There are a lot more hats to wear but I love making music. Thats the basis of everything I do. I can only put out an album every few years and I don't want to spend that between time going fishing or something. I want to fish for music. I want to work with other people and get inspired by them and maybe inspire them too.