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Interview w/ Wolfgang
By Ben Ohmart
(more articles from this author)
2000-01-18
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After appearing on literally thousands of records and jingles as a session musician and earning dozens of gold and platinum records over the past two decades, Wolfgang (www.celnav.com/artists/wolfgang) proves that he can also hold his own as a frontman as well. Wolfgang's debut CD, "Journey to the Interior," combines pop sensibilities rooted deep in spirituality and literary heritage with his keen sense of timing and musical direction, a combination that makes this music wonderfully accessible without compromising the artist's integrity whatsoever.

[Ben Ohmart] I dig your music, mate. I see you started out as a studio keys player, on albums and jingles. Any famous songs or jingles? It's no fun unless your name drops.

[Wolfgang] I hesitated long, and thought long, about answering this question. Regardless of what you do in the moment, people sometimes label a musician by what he did in the past. So I'm a little bit trepidatious about telling very much about the last phase of my career, the studio phase. But as long as people will judge me by what I do now, and not by who I once played for, as a hired hand, I might add, then I'll let the notes fall where they fall.

My studio career was like most every other kind of creative career, it had phases. During the jingle phase which was some time ago, I played a whole bunch of beer commercials: Miller, Budweiser, Coors, also for some soft beverages, like Pepsi, and some different kinds of juices. The thing about jingles is that while most people don't pay attention to them when they watch a commercial - after all, they're just mostly a background - a jingle career can be financially good. And in that industry, awards mean as much as they do in the record business. I played on several things that got awards, but I don't remember what they were.

Wolfgang Most of my studio time I spent in Nashville. I didn't intend to stay there, it was just a stopover on my way to Los Angeles and an attempt at the rock n' roll brass ring. But I went to Nashville at an opportune time, I guess, and worked in pretty easily without intending to. But people were waving big bucks under my nose for doing something that wasn't too much of a strain, so before you knew it, Nashville was my home. I played with people like Ronnie Milsap, George Strait, Tanya Tucker, and did some road gigging with her. I also did a bunch of records with Lorrie Morgan, and did a couple of years touring with the Everly Brothers, in and around my studio gigs. It seems, I suppose, that I should be categorized as a country session player, but you've heard me, and I'm hardly country. So even though I did some studio gigs in L. A., with Nigel Olson for one, and frankly, I don't remember who else, and jingles in Chicago, and some records in Atlanta, Nashville was my home. I also played, actually started my studio career, at a studio complex, Mark V, in Greenville, South Carolina.

[Ben] Okay, Wolfgang isn't your real name, since you said 'Wolfgang is an appellation I've chosen to protect my anonymity,' but I'm still curious - Why? Why this name? Why a stage name at all? And what do you think of Prince's squiggly appellation? His reason for a name change was for 'freedom.'

[Wolfgang] I wonder about the Wolfgang name, too. Actually, when I saw the movie "Amadeus," and the name came up on the screen, I thought, that's the stage name I'll take. I know that movie was a long time ago, but way back then I was dreaming of leaving the studio gig to perform on my own. Plus my real name isn't much of a rock and roll name. And I am very private, to the point of being more than a bit reclusive. Perhaps it's a self indulgence, the Wolfgang monicker, I won't argue that, but I really, very much, prefer anonymity to a public identity. It's easier to be anonymous on the web, but I'm planning to start gigging this year, and I want to be free to move about at home. I'm not into the "star" thing, I've been around it too much to appreciate what it sacrifices of an artist's life, so I just want to be me at home, and Wolfgang everywhere else. I'm not much into pictures, either. But I understand their marketing and promotion importance.

And about Prince. The guy can rename himself whatever he chooses, as can anyone else. I can appreciate him taking a visual symbol instead of a sound symbol for his identifier, although it's hard to call him from across the room. "Hey, Artist Formerly Know As Prince. What's shaking, man?" I hope people don't take my new name as arrogant. To be honest with you, it's sort of like taking on a different consciousness, leaving behind things I've finished with. It's a bit of a stretch, what I'm doing, this new career. And I think, in my heart, I have to assume a new persona, a new attitude, a new way of dressing (studio wear was never anything but jeans and sweats), new everything. So I thought a new name was apropos. Actually, I think I'm really more "me" now than I've ever been.

[Ben] Your style is quite pop and refreshing. Have you learned a lot from your years in the studio? Or would you say you were just as good when you first started, recording for other people? I mean, you've got to be Damn good to be a studio musician, right?

[Wolfgang] Man, I could talk about what I've learned from my studio time for-EV-er. Everybody I worked with taught me something. I learned about songs and songwriting, the most important thing, by far. I learned, after a good many screwups, when to keep my mouth shut. I learned about the dynamics of sound, the dynamics of studio relationships, how to spot the leader just by everyone else's body language. I learned how to play correct time, and it's importance, how to do it without a click track. I learned not to lean on the engineer to turn down the guitar, to be friends with the piano tech. To show up on time, to follow through on AFM contracts, how to write orchestrations, how to run the console, how to splice tape, the differences in microphones and their uses. I learned not to make the first pot of coffee in the morning or you're expected to do it all day ;)) And very importantly, I learned how to suck up to the producer and the artist without looking like I was sucking up...

But I have to pay respect to two guys who were my real studio teachers. Otis Forrest and Lari Goss. At Mark V studios in Greenville, SC, I started hanging around there, being a bit of a nuisance, hanging out in the control room, asking dumb questions. They found out I was a keyboard player, in my very early twenties, and Otis, who was on the staff, befriended me. He let me watch him, and ask him questions, literally by the piano. Over time he began to use me as second keys player, and the legend was born. ;)) Lari Goss was an Atlanta arranger who came up to Mark V sometimes, and after Otis left Mark V to open his own studio, Lari continued what Otis had begun. From Lari I learned how to write orchestrations, and how to record them, that is mic choice and placement, and how to mix them. By their examples, and their patience, I learned what to play on sessions, and more important than what to play, they taught me when to play and when to lay out. In a practical macro way, they taught me how to look at the session as the song, and the studio as the instrument. My success in studio work is a direct result of the mentoring that Otis Forrest and Lari Goss gave me. Truly, this is no lie. I would have not had the career I've had, nor could I do what I'm doing now if it weren't for Otis and Lari.

[Ben] What's your own personal formula for writing a song? Or is 'formula' a naughty word?

[Wolfgang] Formula isn't a naughty word to me, because a song is a formula: rhythm, harmony, melody, words. Those parts are predictable, the easily identifiable components of a song, and each of them has a predictable job to do. Repetition, and rhyme are also predictable components of a song, although they're not really parts of the song, but internal tools. But the unpredictable, the intangible, is the creative part, the writer. And that makes each song unique.

I start from the chords. Not always, but so nearly always, that at the moment I can't remember it happening any other way, I sit at the piano and improvise. (Actually, that's mostly what I do at the piano...just make stuff up.) When the juice is warm, I can hear some chord, or combination of chords stand up and want to be heard. I keep a little tape recorder on my piano, and when something is occuring, I make a copy of it. Sometimes it's a nearly whole song, sometimes just the chords. I think that it's the chords anyway that define the structure that holds up the form. The aural frequencies, the cadences at certain points, the way they move up and down, give everything else something to germinate from. So I get the chords first, which defines the structure. I use only three of the regular five pop song structures, so there's not a lot of choice, but it does matter sometimes. I keep a list of hook lines, or titles around all the time, waiting for something to stick them with. Sometimes it's a long wait. "I Sleep (But My Heart is Awake)" was an idea I got five or six years before I wrote it. So was "Rapture of the Deep."

Okay, by the time I've got the structure, the chords, I know pretty much where the hook line goes, so I've got that much started. Anyway, after I get the chords and the hook, I take my tape player to my recliner, or a table, some place comfortable. I play the tape for a half hour or so, and just write whatever comes into my head without worrying about rhyme, structure, or any of that stuff. Creative writers call this free writing, where you just keep the pencil moving without letting the analytical part of the brain loose. After a while, I'll stop and look at what I've got, to see if there are any patterns, rhymes, repetitions, so on. Then I use a technique that Curly Putman, the guy who wrote "Green Green Grass of Home," told me. Get the hook, then find a line that leads into it, then find a line that leads into the line the leads into the hook, etc., etc. Just writing backward. Another way to use that technique is to get the first line of the chorus, and write the last line of the verse so that it leads into that first line of the chorus. It makes the lyric flow like a stream of consciousness thing from thought to thought. Of course, you've got to have some good thoughts.

And those are the ways I use to get a first draft. I rewrite like a maniac. I think rewriting is where the writing is really done. And if a writer doesn't rewrite, it shows.

That's sort of the way I do it, and it-is-writing by numbers in a way. Except it's like stream of consciousness by numbers. And as for rewriting, to repeat myself, that to me is the heart and soul of all writing. The creative part is a lot of fun. But making it really work comes from constant rewriting. And rewriting. I spend a lot of time, and I mean a lot of time rewriting. Actually, the very beginning, with the tape, the free writing and all that, usually is finished mostly in a day or so, but I'll rewrite for a long time, trying to see if I can make what I'm trying to say any better.

The "by the numbers" way is very different from the way I write poetry, and fiction, but the structure in those forms is much less inclusive and firm that songwriting. Other people write different ways. Some people just make things up in a linear fashion. I put pieces of songs together, pieces that come from those amorphous, intangible, thoughts we all have hanging around in our heads. My way of writing is like "organic formula." But a song is a formula, a very recognizable "form." Anyway, music, and art in general, is about communicating something of value to people. It's not so much how you do it, as it is about what you do. It's not about self-indulgence. Well, maybe it is a bit. I mean if it weren't a bit indulgent, there wouldn't be that many people doing it, now would there? ;-/ But really, I've seen people, myself included, sometimes, who indulged themselves to the point where there was nothing of value for the listener. And I really do believe, man, that we artsy types have something to do to make life a little better, to find a higher vision, and communicate it to people in a way that they can understand. In a way that they can find that higher vision and use it in their lives. And there's only so much room for personal indulgence in that.

[Ben] You were weaned on gospel music. What specifically, musically, has that genre given you?

[Wolfgang] Specifically, and very simply, gospel music taught me the song structure that is under the song form. Intro, verse, chorus, turnaround, verse, chorus, tag, ending, and how those are held together. And without getting two didactic, it taught me that the character of the writer determines the character of the song. My spiritual Master said something that I can't remember exactly. But that's okay, because he doesn't like for people to quote him verbatim out of context. But he said something like, everyone has a right to their own consciousness. And in art that means that the songwriter's state of conscious is expressed in the song, the content of the song. I learned that subliminally, by paying attention to the lyrics and the feeling in gospel songs. My time in church, and what I learned there, musically and spiritually, is a story that will take a while to tell, so I won't go into it here, except to say that I no longer practice the religion that spawned gospel music, the religion I inherited from my parents. That's not criticism, it's just that I've found my own spiritual meaning.

[Ben] You seem to go all over the map in terms of your interests. I see you read a lot of books. I'm a Steinbeck man myself - not being into Hemmingway like you - and I'm curious: who, living, are you very much into?

[Wolfgang] I'm a Steinbeck fan, too, but not like some others. The writer I really dig is Cormac McCarthy. His stuff is all dark, and some of it, like "Outer Dark," and "Child of God," are disturbing. But his use of third person objective point of view and character over plot, really impress me. Actually, the characters are the plot. In my own fiction, I've stolen those techniques. When I first read his stuff, it changed my whole attitude about fiction, how I write, and who I read. In poetry, David Wagoner is the guy right now. It would be easy to term his stuff nature poetry, but it's not. It's set, most of it, in nature, and he uses nature, but he uses it in a way not unlike haiku. He uses nature as the catalyst for enlightenment, showing deep insights into human nature through the natural world. Even though Wagoner is my current favorite, I've been spending a lot of time reading Mary Oliver lately. She's got a very natural way of leading the reader up that path of the natural world to enlightenment, as well. Another fictionist and poet who impresses me is Jim Harrison. There's really a bunch of writers who excite me, who show me things I would never have found on my on.

[Ben] Wolfgang is into martial art, big time. Hap Ki Do Sun Moo Kwan, and Qiqong - I must express my ignorance for these. If they weren't mentioned on Kung Fu, the Legend Continues, I need an explanation. What are these? Do they help you focus your music?

[Wolfgang] Hapkido, or Hap Ki Do, which means "The Way of Coordinated Power," is a martial art that Choi, Young Sool formed right after WW II in Korea. Sun Moo Kwan, which means, "The School of Martial Serenity," is the style of Hapkido that I practice. Qiqong is Chinese in origin, and has to do with the balance of energy in a person's body. They don't specifically help me focus my music, but they help me focus my intentions. With Qiqong, through body movements, and mental effort, we can learn to move our Qi, or Chi (chee) in Chinese, Ki, (kee) in Korean and Japanese, on purpose. Everything in all physical universes, and maybe beyond, is made out of energy. So learning to be aware of it, and learning to move it through our bodies for health and physical enlightenment, by intention, is the purpose of Qigong (chee kung).

Hapkido is a self defensive martial art, based on circular principles, the water principle, (never give up), and the principle of non-resistance. Hapkido teaches me that success in martial arts is little different from success in anything else - rarely is it an easy thing, even for the gifted, and there is never any success for the quitter.

[Ben] Now that you've broken out into the real world with YOUR OWN ALBUM, what are your plans for world domination? Will we need to send James Bond after your ass?

[Wolfgang] I-am-Bond...James Bond, formerly an avid Guinness drinker, neither shaken nor stirred. But now it's just good old coffee and water. And yes I do have plans for world - solar system - domination.

[Ben] Do you believe in reincarnation? Assuming it happens, what would you come back as? If yourself, what would you change about life #1?

[Wolfgang] Reincarnation, yes. My religion Eckankar, teaches it. Reincarnation is actually the way Soul evolves into a God-like being (but not God Itself), its' true nature, and has little to do with human beings except as individual schoolhouses. That's hard for the human ego, man, really hard. Reincarnation is evolutionary. By that I mean you start in the lower forms and zillions of times come back in higher and higher forms as you open up to the latent Divinity in Soul. The human is the end of the reincarnation line; you can't reincarnate in a higher form...in this physical universe...but there are higher universes than this one... If I come back, I expect to be another human. O boy (;-)

If I could go back and change this life, I would probably get out of vice sooner. It had its place in my place in my life...I'm not advocating it, it's a deadend dirt road that's hard to get off of...but it ended up be a major place in my life. If I could change that, I would be where I'm at now, ten years ago.

In some ways though, man, I'd leave it as it is. Right now I've never been better, and what I'm doing now is, I think, better than I could have done or been ten years ago. In the main, these scars are my lessons in character, my strengths. Such as they are, they have shaped my spiritual view of life.

[Ben] Any advice for the throng of wannabes out there, hoping to climb to the top of the heap and look down? How does one keep the music art from becoming the music business? Or is it possible?

[Wolfgang] There is a lot of practical advice I could give, but mostly I'd say define what you want, define your approach, and what you're willing to sacrifice to get it...how much, how little. Be willing to modify your approach as circumstances dictate, stay true to your mission, your beliefs, and "don't quit."

For better or worse, the business is a part of the art. Someone can work for free, for the sanctity of their art, but they'll have to get a day gig. It's another one of life's balancing acts. You've got to smarten up about business enough to run your own affairs, or someone will run them for you.

[Ben] Thanks for the chance of an e-talk. Tell us where to find out More about you and your music, please.

[Wolfgang] See me at celnav.com They've set up a "Fan Connection," with a calendar I'm going to be writing some stuff for. Also Celestial Navigations, my label, along with Tag It, my marketing people, are setting up a new thing for poets and songwriters to display their art. I don't know exactly how it's going to happen, but I think it's a real cool deal. I'm pretty excited about the whole thing. Also, against my better wishes, the label has talked me into the "plan" of "maybe" doing some live gigs later this year. I don't have a stage act together- at all. So I don't know if it'll be a gig with my studio guys playing, or if I'll do some kind one man act with recorded tracks, or what. So stay tuned. It looks like Wolfie may be coming down out of the Georgia mountains.


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