Exclusive Interview with Bert Lams of the California Guitar Trio
Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to have The California Guitar Trio (CGT) take time out of their schedule mid-tour to join me for an interview on my site (which was also prominently featured on the CGT official website), and it is my pleasure once again to have one-third of the CGT, Bert Lams join me here as a guest again. This interview was conducted as the CGT went into final rehearsals for their now-current U.S. tour, and as always, Bert was very cordial and had a lot of great things to talk about. I hope you will enjoy this great interview!
[Billy Donald] Bert, thank you so much for taking the time to join me for this interview! Having had the chance not only to interview you before but also to meet you a few times and help you out at CGT shows in Louisville, KY, I have to tell you with all honestly that you are not only one of my favorite musicians, but one of the most genuinely kind and enjoyable people in the music industry (as well as Paul and Hideyo), so it is always a pleasure to talk to you. How are you doing today?
Bert Lams CGT just finished two days of rehearsals in San Diego. We're now on our way to Los Angeles for our first show at the Madrid Theater. We've been working on new material, and we're looking forward to our upcoming recording session on the Eastcoast. Tony Levin will produce it.
[Billy Donald] Now I understand that you just got back from conducting a guitar seminar in Mexico City for twodays. How did you enjoy the experience and the local culture in Mexico?
Bert Lams The "Introduction to the New Standard Tuning" weekend was held in Cuernavaca, about two hours away from Mexico City. The course was held in a music school downtown, formerly a hospital and a convent. I stayed with the parents of the registrar. They run the music school and let us use the facilities.
Travelling by car from place to place can be a scary experience. With CGT, we had some really exhausting drives across the country. The local promoter in Mexico City drove us to the pyramids during that tour. We also saw the festivities at the Day of the Dead. I heard that there are some very good luthiers in Mexico. I would like to make a special trip sometime to find a good classical guitar.
[Billy Donald] I know that back in 1987, when you attended your first guitar craft course with Robert Fripp, it was actually your first trip to America and you were very worried about the language barrier. Did you have any similar fears with your students in Mexico or did it go smoothly?
Bert Lams You must have heard the story! I wanted to tape the opening meeting of my "Level 1 Guitar Craft" course in '87 because I was afraid I'd lose out if I didnt understand everything that was said. Robert assured me that I would take home everything that I needed, and that not everything can be transmitted with words. He kindly instructed me to listen with my heart instead. I would have missed out a lot if I had been putting my attention into taping everything that was said! (I often tell this story to people who would like to tape our shows.)
In Mexico we really focused on the mechanics of left and right hand and we worked in a circle, as a group and by example, instead of teaching something more abstract. For example, can we be aware of our breathing while we are playing up and down the fretboard? This is something that entirely depends on the quality of the people that participate. A group context is incredibly conducive for this kind of work. We rely on our own experience.
Most of the students spoke English at least a bit, and there was a few people who were able to translate. I have a strong desire to study Spanish now.
[Billy Donald] Do you find that you often get bits and pieces of music that you will eventually insert into your own compositions or CGT compositions just by playing and improvising during seminars or classes?
Bert Lams Usually I walk away from a course rather exhausted, because so much energy goes into the students. But I feel a lot of love for them and I am grateful that I am able to do the "Introduction" seminars. Some good music will come out of this.
A lot of CGT's writing comes from places we have visited (Melrose Avenue: Los Angeles -Train to Lamy: New Mexico - Asturias: Spain - Yamanashi Blues: Japan - The Marsh: England...). Cuernavaca is called the place of "eternal spring." I was told that Charlie Mingus spent his last days there, certainly good inspiration for a new song!
[Billy Donald] I understand that you have been working on your own arrangements for a piece called "Fragments of Skylab" by Pietro Russino, one that you actually put into play a bit during your recent seminar. How do you personally approach the task of breaking down an established piece of music such as "Fragments of Skylab" and arranging it to your liking?
Bert Lams "Fragments of Skylab" is part of the Guitar Craft repertoire. The pieces of the Guitar Craft repertoire stand on their own and in a guitar context dont need to be arranged. My task was to learn all the parts of the piece as they were originally written and write them out in a score with tablature.
I was on the phone with Pietro just before I left for Mexico. We went note for note over all the parts of the whole piece, just like he wrote it.
[Billy Donald] Some time back, I discussed covering Beatles tunes with you, and you had mentioned how you would like to do an arrangement of "I Am the Walrus" for acoustic guitar some day. Do you see that as a possibility one day for the CGT perhaps, based on the wild success of your covers of "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Heart of the Sunrise"?
Bert Lams Yes I can see this happen. We are always on the lookout for new music to play. Another project we are considering is a collection of Mozart pieces. But at the moment we are focusing on writing new original pieces for our upcoming recording.
[Billy Donald] On the CGT front, Paul, Hideyo and you are getting ready to hit the road again in February, and that is not surprising because I truly do consider the CGT to be the hardest working band in the business, always out on the road and always bringing music to new people in new places. Have you found hitting the road to be more tiresome as the years go by or is it more enjoyable now that the CGT has such a nice following?
Bert Lams We are finding ourselves in nicer venues the past few years. Things are improving on the road, especially now that our new agency is bringing us more into Festivals and proper concert halls instead of bars and clubs. Over the years we've learned a few things from our experience on the road. We take good care of ourselves, avoid fast food, get enough sleep, and book a decent hotel with single rooms for each of us. The past few tours we had Tyler Trotter with us. He is a sound engineer, and he drives the van for us. This has helped us a great deal.
We have learned a lot from our experience on the road, and we can decide very easily as a team what should or should not be done. Sleeping on someone's floor used to be on option on the road, but not anymore. We need to be in good shape every single night, so we take good care of ourselves and look out for each other. If we go out for dinner with a big gang after our show and stay up too late talking and drinking, we won't have any energy for the next day's concert.
We spend all day together in the van, travelling, taking care of business, and live on stage in the evening. I found it very helpful to have the privacy of a hotel room at night. Being on tour is like running a marathon.
[Billy Donald] You stated earlier that Tony Levin is going to be co-producing CGT's new album beginning in early March, which I know has got to be very exciting for the CGT. Is this going to be a back-to-the-basics kind of CGT album or do you see it possibly continuing the theme of the CGT+3 album from 2002?
Bert Lams We don't know yet where this is going to take us. We have booked a studio for three days and will go in to record new material the first week of March. We are keeping an open mind as to where this might take us after that initial stage. We have never worked with Tony as a producer, but we have played together many times, so we have a good sense of what it means to work together. Tony is very excited about doing this. I think it is as much of a challenge to him as it is to us!
[Billy Donald] How did you enjoy working with the always amazing Jerry Marotta last year for a couple of shows?
Bert Lams Jerry is a real "groovemaster" with a unique style of his own. He plays his drums very much like a percussion player would do. His playing is very subtle. Playing with him in Quebec last summer was a lot of fun and an amazing musical experience. I saw Jerry a few weeks ago, during a concert with Tom Griesgraber. Afterward he came over and gave me a big hug and he said, "We'd better play together again soon!"
[Billy Donald] Bert, I want to thank you so much again for taking the time to join me here on my site for the second time. It is always a lot of fun talking to you. I want to wrap up here by asking you what else you hope to work on over the next few months?
Bert Lams We will most definitely focus on the new CGT recording. We hope to have a new CD out by the summer or the fall.
During breaks between touring, I will soon start recording a classical solo project I've been working on for a while; with mostly Bach pieces on the steel string guitar.
I hope that we will be able to do more of the "New Standard Tuning" courses in the coming year. I have always enjoyed working with beginners and I found it very rewarding to share my experience with others in this way.
I'm beginning to look at the possibility of recording a solo classical guitar CD sometime before the summer.
Andrew Keeling and I are preparing a "Requiem," based on Robert Fripps soundscapes for a performance at the Holland Festival in 2006.