Interview: Chris ECKMAN

I was at Cankarjev dom on January the 21st 2014, when you were playing songs from your latest album Harney County. A very intimate nearly solo performance was at first part strong enough to evoke some eternal questions…let's begin with your performance. How different (and difficult?) is playing solo, along with your more than precious and faithfull Žiga Golob on bass?
It is never easy. There is not much of a net to catch you if you start to fall. You are very exposed and vulnerable. The smallest movement or sound can be seen and heard by the audience. Of course with Žiga on stage with me the equation is a bit different. He brings a lot of stability to the whole thing. He is absolutely reliable and solid, much more than I am J. But for me at least, it is quite a challenge to play like that...I think of myself as prinmarily a band guy, someone who gets on stage with a bunch of other people. But in the last years I have ore and more played in a stripped down way and there is also a lot of freedom in it...things can push and pull in spontaneous ways. The more people you have on stage the harder it is to be spontaneous. Sometimes songs need a different delivery...the room, the audience, the weather is nice to be able to react to all of those things.

Like monodrama in teater, songwriters concerts are intense happenings, where all the scenario is on the artist and artist alone. Does it suits you? How comforable are you under your skin, when you perform?
I never have felt that I was a natural performer. Some people were almost born for the stage and thats not really me. I became a performer more out of necessaity. I love writing songs, and at some point, for better or for worse, it seemed logical to share them. But I have gotten more comfortable over the years. I have certainly done it enough at this point that I should be comfortable. And I do get inspired by the audience. No one really hates it when people clap...I guess it is a validation for all the hours you spend in a room by yourself preapring this stuff. But when I hear clapping I am thinking to myself that it is not just about me. It is about all of us in the room...its about communciation and connection...the audience is clapping for the moment as much as the performer. It is recognition that music creates a very special kind of community. At the Cankarjev Dom show the feeling in the room was really great. But I don't really know how to create that by myself. It happens when everyone in the room is pulling together.

Songs from Harney County are beautiful sounds landscapes, some of them brings back magic memories from Travels in the Dustland, the last album with the band The Walkabouts. Can you tell me, how did you built your journey from Harney County?
I start with fragments. Slippery pieces of memory. I have travelled to Harney County many times and each time I made notes...just quick, unedited observations and details. The stories for the songs came later. I would hold my guitar in my hands, imagine a person standing in that landscape or driving through it, and narratives would begin to develop.

Is the solitude, the look deep in your memories, the journey from the past…are all these things strong enough to make you write a line, or grab your guitar…and the song is born…What do you think?
I rarely hear something or see something and say »that should be in a song«. Songs come to me when I sit down to write songs. I need solitude, I need dedicated hours, I need patience and with all of that the inspiration starts to appear, and the past and even the future start to make demands. It might sound simple, but I need to listen. I need to cut out the background noise and listen. Then the songs start to appear.

Is your approch to songwriting different now, after all these years?
Probably. It takes more effort...when you have already written 300 or so songs, it becomes tougher not to do the same thing over and over. So I do have to focus more and go in deeper to get what I want...but of course that is a good thing in the end. The process might be slower, but overall I am more satisfied where I end up.

Is it possible to say what it is that makes you write songs?
A project. I like to write songs for a specific idea or project or concept. I need a frame for the picture. When I have a framework, strangely I feel more free, I feel that I can write anyhting that needs to be said...if a character needs to be someone that I don't particualrly agree with, so be it. The overall story is what is important. I don't have to believe in what I write, in the sense that I agree with the morality of whats being said, but I do need to make it believable. For the most part I am not writing a memoir I am writng something closer to fiction.

How different person is Chris Eckman now? Compare to Chris at 20, 30, 40…?
At 20, I was not even a musician to speak of. I was a student at a small college in the eastern part of Washington State. I could barely play the guitar and my future seemed as though it would be spent in a law office or if things really went well, as a university professor. And I was pretty damn arrogant.
At 30, I was playing music, The Walkabouts were making our third album, but I was flat out broke, and working all sorts of terrible jobs, literally digging holes in the ground at times, to pay for my music dreams. I had decided to go back to graduate school because the music seemed pretty close to over. I was in the process of giving up. And yes, I was still pretty arrogant.>/br> At 40, I had had a level of musical success with The Walkabouts that I could of never imagined 10 years earlier. Slovenia was on my radar by that point. I had met my future wife Anda and probably most importantly, I think I had become a hell of a lot easier to be in the same room with.
Right now It is really hard to say where I am. Like anyone the pieces of the past are more than present, but I also hope that it is still a work in progress, both personally and in terms of my vocation. I am still driven by curiousity. I still think I haven't done what I set out to do. I still question what it is exactly I set out to do and so on. Basically, like everyone I am grabbing in the dark.

What were your musical preferences? Do you rememeber first gig you've been? First record you've ever bought?
Like most people from generation, the first pop music I loved were The Beatles. Somehow that music functioned as childern's music. Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds? Hell, that was a place a child's imagination could run wild. Who cares if the song was about LSD. We didn't know that at the time...and it doesn't really change anything anyway. Great music paints vivid personal pictures in the listeners head. The artists meaning is only the starting point. What the listener does with it is what really matters.
The first record I bought with my own money was CSNY »Deja Vu«...I looked at the album cover and said »they look cool« and I bought it. Even when I was 10 I thought Neil Young's songs were the best first concert? I think it was Elton John when I was 14. Within a couple years my music taste would cahnge radically, and I was suddenly going to shows of the Ramones, Patti Smith and The Clash. By that point I was very ashamed I had ever seen Elton John.

Do you belive in changes music and art in general can make? Cultural, social…
I would say yes, becasue I have seen it happen. I was very young in the 60's but you did feel a cultural transformation happening....all I had to do was look at the confused looks on my parents and granparents faces when me and my brothers blasted songs by The Beatles and The Doors and Dylan on the home Hi-fi sysetem. It was a secret language that we were certainly too young to fully absorb, but we definitely understood it better than our parents. And with that music came transformative ideas about sex and race and power and so on. Sure the »revolution« sputtered and got absorbed into the consumer machine but there was a reset button pressed and a lot of the ideas that caused that to happen were linked to the music. Punk rock, for me at least, also had a similar transformative effect. The music was the delivery system, but the ideas of DIY (do it yourself) and art not being some sort of exclusive club run by the virtousos, was extremely powerful and I think the ramifications of that original musical moment are still with us. I know those ideas still resonate with me. I haven't played music that one could call Punk rock for a long time , but I still consider what I do some branch of punk rock. Punk as it was first understood was never supposed to be about orthodoxy anyway, so why shouldn't the music and the musicians it influenced head off in a 1000 different directions?
And working with musicians like Tamikrest, from Mali, in the last years has also shown me the very real connections of music and cultural change. In the last 3 decasdes in the Sahara, young Tuaregs have taken up playing electric guitars and writng songs that are basically the soundtracks and the hymns for a cultural awakening that is also linked to a desire for political independence. With bands like Tinariwen and Tamikrest leading the way, it is almost impossible to imagine the recent Tuareg uprising without its musical element. Revoltionary politics and music for young Tuaregs are one in the same. Without groups like Tinariwen it is doubtful that the independence movement would have gained as much traction with Tuareg people as it has. These things have gone hand in hand.

I am what I've feared/ I am what I longed for/ Many moons ago… from Many Moons; (I like that song very much, it has a very, very good Chris Eckman vibe)lyrics are still your strong part, from storytelling someone can scratch some of your autobiographical moments. What do you think?
I have written purely autopbiographical songs of course, but I would guess that my main apporoach is fictional storytelling, with of course, a lot of the details being sifted from my own experience. People often ask me »who is that song about« and the truth is I can almost never give them a very specific answwer. The idea for the song might have started with something a close reach from me, but by the time I am finished with it, it has usually moved on to something quite different and less recognisable.

Words versus melody…or vice versa…what is first…but not last?
Mostly I start with melodies, and incoherent mumbling. The words almost always come last. Only with the Dane Zajc songs from »Last Side of the Mountain« did I work in a different way, because obviously the words already existed. That was a very liberating experience to turn my whole songwriting process upside down...but it seems like it was maybe a one-time-only experiment. I pretty much have gone back to working with melodies first and words second.

You are musician, poet, record producer, soundtrack composer, also a man from the Glitterbeat Records…How do you manage through all kind of different approaches to musical life? Tell me something more about you role in Glitterbeat Records?
It all gets pretty schizophrenic at times. Somedays it really feels like its too much and other days I feel really lucky that I am able to follow so many different musical paths. I like to do new things. I like to learn...I don't feel very satisfied going over the same old ground all the time. Before I came to Slovenia I had done very little soundtrack work, and when I was offered the chance by Maja Weiss to make some music for her mini-series Novi Svet, I immediately said yes, even though I was not certain that I knew excatly how to do what I was offering. It was risky on both of our parts I guess, but I actually love that feeling of being in over my head. Thats when life gets interesting.
As far as the label Glitterbaet goes, I am very much involved in the day to day operations. I co-own the label with my good friend and Glitterhouse owner Peter Weber, and I run the operation from here in Slovenia, with a wonderful colleague Silvij Skok. I guess I embraced this opportunity both because I thought we could create something unique, but also because there was a huge learning curve involved. I new it would be a huge challenge, and that excited me. There have been days where I cursed this decsion J but on balance I love the idea that we are bringing audio documents into the world that might nver have been heard before we got involved. It gives us a chance to fight for music we love. I started playing music in the first place, from a fan's perspective...I just wanted to be around music all the time. So if you are an obsessive music fan, and I guess I have become an obsessive fan of African music in the last years, what a better way to satsify that urge than to run your own label?

I won't name all the great musicians, you've been producing since, but I must admit that work on Tamikrest albums and work on debut album of Andrea Schroeder are my all time favourites. You know, a masterpiece, a genuine touch of a master of production on one side and on the other, the artist itself. How severe and »difficult« can you be, when you are working in studio?
I am very focused in the studio but I wouldn't say that I am severe. I am know I can be tough, but I think that most people that work with me, realise that toughness is usually directed towards the project itself, rather than invidual personalities. I think being an effective producer is about establishing trust, and if you are always the loudest or hardest voice in the room that trust is going to be slow to come. Sometimes you need to know that its best to step back and let things develop without your hand on them. It is the artists's album after all, you work on it for a while, but they are defined by it for the rest of their lives. I think being an artist myself helps give me a perspective on all of this. I try to produce the way, I would like to be produced if ther tables were turned, and I was the artist and not the producer. I have been lucky enough to work with many artists several times..«Chatma« was the third Tamikrest album I produced and Andrea's new album is the second one I have been involved with. That is gartifying, it means something is working and that the relationship is solid and creative. I have made very good, lifelong friends out of some of the production situations I have been involved with.

Your studio in Ljubljana is named Zuma. That reminds me of good old Neil Young?
Yes, of course. I stole the name for my studio from Neil's mid-70's album Zuma. I listened to that album so much my first year in college that my roommate threatened move out if I didn't give it a rest.

Did you read his Hippie Dream? (by the way, Neil is my long time musical favourite; and his book Waging Heavy Peace is a sincere and precious look at him and his love ones..) What do you think? Is it possible, that one day, we'll be reading maybe your memoars as well? Mhmm….:
I didn't fully read it yet, which is pretty amazing given my complete immersion in his music. There is no musican that influenced me as much as Neil. But maybe that is also why I didn't quite finish the book...I think the music itself is what I am really interested in, no necessarily the Man. While they are of course linked, they are not the same thing. His music is something I interpret for myself, it is an intimate, personal relationship that I can't really describe or justify. Maybe if I know too much about him, that special glow will start to fade? I don't know, maybe I should go back and finish it. Maybe I just got lazy.
I wouldn't ever see writing a memoir, I don't think my life has had a dramatic arc that fits into that kind of thing. I don't think my story is that absorbing. And also I am very private and I think there is probably no point in writing such a book unless you are prepared to name names and be brutally honest. I am not very interested in being THAT honest J

And since you are a producer too, I would like to ask you, what do you think about his »project« PureTone? Neil says: The way people experience music today is so different from how it used to be. It's not the same part of the culture that it was. I think a lot of that has to do with the qualityof the sound, so I am addressing that with PureTone.The music is not the problem. It's the sound. What do you say about that?
I completely agree with him that the general experience of recorded sound is in rapid decline. Home recording, Mp3s, ipods with shitty earbud headphones and the loudness wars in record mastering have all led to a devaluation of sound. The Hi fi equipment boom of the 60's and 70's, where the stereo system was the centerpiece of an American home, now seems very quaint and retro. Most of us now experience music in isolation, through our own personal players or from the Cloud or from the downloading of terribly compressed music files. I think it would be hard to argue that all of this has not lead to the devaluation of music in probably doesn't move us emotionally in the same way, that seems for sure. I thought at first, that the »back to vinyl« movement was fueled on pure nostalgia. But now I see it quite differently, I see it now as something closer to a necessity. Those of us who really love music want to restablish a deeper connection to sound again. Terabytes of files become pretty meningless after a while. Unlimited choice has left us feeling a bit empty.

How do you feel at this point about your future? What are your future plans?
I feel pretty good about the present but the future is something I don't really think too much about. Projects appear when you are ready for them to appear. I operated like that for the past thirty years and I don't see that changing anytime soon. In the last 10 years my whole musical world has altered radically...the stuff I have done in Mali and continue to do there was not even a glimmer 10 years ago. I think you embrace newness and strange opportinities when you don't have a fixed masterplan. There is a Buddhist saying, that there are two days in the year about which nothing can be done: yesterday and tomorrow. I am not sure I have embraced that completely, but I do think there is something valuable in those words.

(Rock Obrobje, februar 2014)

Varja Velikonja