Charlie Hunter on the harrowing time he got handcuffed in San Jose for jaywalking
Guitarist Charlie Hunter and drummer Scott Amendola teamed up in the mid '90s as part of T.J. Kirk, an outfit that played the music of Thelonious Monk, James Brown and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Amendola, who also appears on a few of Hunter's mid-'90s Blue Note recordings, has worked with a number of musicians since then, including the Nels Cline Singers. Last year, the two teamed up again to record the duo album Not Getting Behind Is The New Getting Ahead, and Hunter says they'll be recording another duo album featuring Amendola's songs.
We caught up with Hunter, in town this weekend with Amendola at the Aggie Theatre, and spoke with him about how his guitar technique has evolved, working with Amendola over the last two decades, the challenges of simultaneously playing guitar and bass parts and studying with Joe Satriani.
Westword: I know you and Scott have a long history over the last twenty years ago. Have you guys been playing together a lot since then?
Charlie Hunter: Yeah, off and on. We had a long time where we played constantly. I moved out here [New York] and went our way for a way and then connected on occasion here and there. Then the last four or five years we've been starting to actually play quite a bit.
Your latest duo album is the first thing that you've done in a while, other than the Ben Goldberg album?
We're getting ready to do another one, but this one will be Scott's record with his music.
Is that going to be a duo record as well?
Yeah, it's a duo and we're going to record it exactly the same way, but the difference is that Scott's fitting the bill for this one, and it's all of his music, which is going to be cool. It's going to be really fun. I'm looking forward to it. He's writing some good music because I told him that if he didn't, I was going to throw him down a flight of stairs repeatedly until he wrote good music -- again and again and again -- like that Marcel Duchamp painting, "Nude Descending a Staircase," except he'd be nude, and he was going to descend a lot faster than he wanted to.
Man, it's funny, I actually interviewed you in 1996 for a local music magazine here in Denver, right after I moved back from the Bay Area. I just remember you were funny as hell. You were going to play at Red Rocks and open for...
Oh, Tracy Chapman. Boy, that was awful. That was a horrible tour. Oh my god. But I'm sorry, man, what happened?
We started talking about Red Rocks and John Tesh and Yanni and stuff, and it was pretty damn funny.
Those are some blasts from the past right there, right? That's funny, man.
So, what is it about Scott's playing that you really dig?
He does everything I tell him to do without so much as a whimper. Print that. No, you know, we just came up together, and we were playing together for so many years that we have a thing when we play. We have a certain thing we get to when we play.
A telepathic kind of thing?
I don't know if I'm smart enough to be telepathic, but I try not to embarrass myself, and he helps me not embarrass myself.
With your latest record, Not Getting Behind is the New Getting Behind, it's sort of about your travels around the country, right?
Yeah, more or less. It's interesting doing this interview with you now because the record came out not so long ago, but long enough ago that I felt like had done all the interviews for this record already. So it's kind of interesting to get the questions again. I'm trying to think, "Now what the hell was that record again?" [laughs] No, you're right. Most of it is about as thematic as an instrumental record can be.
Were the tunes inspired by different places?
I've spent the last 25 years touring this country. I don't know if they were inspired by specific places, but, you know, I've spent so much time in all these places that, yeah, the music's got to be inspired by it. That's where I come from. I'm an American musician. That's where my whole thing comes from. I spent a majority of my time touring the States. That's just a big part of who I am. If I'm being honest, it's going to come though in the music.
When you guys recorded the album, you did it live in studio without headphones, and just laid it down.
Boom! Yeah, right to tape. I don't even think we used an EQ. I can't remember if we did or not, but I have a feeling we didn't even use the EQ at all. The guy who recorded it, Dave McNair, is a serious badass engineer.
Was it a lot of first take stuff where you just nailed it?
Yeah, you're right. It's not like we're trying to. We would do two or three takes, and a lot of times, it usually ends up being the first or second takes, even with whatever mistakes are there, just because the overall feel of it is good. And that's what I'm going for -- the overall feel and the performance not necessarily a sterling, technical, you know, technical virtuosity. Just for the feel to be good and the flow to be nice and the pocket to be good. That's about all I look for, and hopefully everything else can fall in to place in there within that.
I guess you guys just crowdfunded that record with Omaha Diner project, right?
We did, and it worked. We're all super excited about it. Pretty much, we crowdsourced the record, but we crowdsourced the songs that we're going to play on the record.
Yeah. So what cuts are you going to be doing?
Oh, it's a secret. You're not going to know until it comes out, but, one thing, they're all going to be number one hits. That one thing is true. It's just really fun playing with those guys, and, yeah, it's a blast. Maybe we'll be coming through your neck of the woods.
That would be cool. I'm definitely a fan of Skerik, Steve Bernstein and Bobby Previte.
Yeah, well, screw those guys. [laughs]
It's all about you, right?
Yeah, and not even that. It's just all about angst. That's all we need. That's all we're talking about -- angst and that's it.
Going back in the day... you've probably been asked this question many times, but what was the initial inspiration for doing the seven and eight-string guitar thing and doing the bass and guitar thing at the same time?
It just was always going in that direction. I was always interested in that aspect of the instrument, and I always played a lot of bass, and I played a lot of drums. You know, it kind of just all fell in that way. But along the way, there were a lot of great teachers. Not people that taught me personally but I learned from their records, like Joe Pass, Tuck Andress, you know, all the great old blues guitar players, people like Robert Johnson, Blind Blake and Joseph Spence, and all the great drummers. So, all that just kind of added up. Then I slowly developed in my own kind of technique, and I'm still working on it. But I'm infinitely better it than I was when we talked fifteen or sixteen years ago or whenever that was.
I used to see you at the Ajax Lounge back in 1993-94?
That was San Jose, right?
Yeah, right. Downtown San Jose.
I got handcuffed by the police. Were you there that night?
No, I missed that.
That was awesome. I jaywalked and they handcuffed me. It was hilarious.
They're hardcore about jaywalking there. I got a ticket jaywalking in downtown San Jose, as well. But yeah, how would you say your style and your technique as developed over the years?
You know, you just find everything and work, work, work, and then you just simplify it. You get more to the point and as I get older I don't feel the need to do the same thing I did when I was younger, which is good and that's how it supposed to be. You just are refining it as you get older and wiser, I hope.
I play more simply and the counterpoint is better and the pocket is better. The thing I'm always trying to do is make the pocket a little better, and the time and the feel a little better. Just maybe play the melodies better. Just real simple stuff. It's a big deal, and I practice every day. I don't ever phone anything. I'm always practicing because I love it. I love being, "Hey it's just another day to try to get better on the instrument."
In my opinion, going back to your first record to where you are now, it seems like your playing has gotten a whole lot more... I don't know if seamless is the right word.
Yeah, I think so.
It was almost like back in the day the guitar and the bass were a little separate.
Yeah, I totally agree with you. I was like exploding with being young and trying to have chops and stuff.
I know you've play the Novax guitars for quite some time and now you're playing Jeff Traugott guitars.
Yeah, I've had his guitar for five or six years.
I was reading about how you started tuning it differently, like up a minor third or something?
Yeah. My low three strings are G-C-F and the high four are C-F-Bb-D. As I get older and I do most of these changes and I investigate it and I practice, it becomes more of its own thing, and then playing becomes more rewarding for me.
When you did change the tuning did you have to kind of relearn things?
All of the relationships were the same but transposing stuff playing with other people can be tricky, especially if you didn't come up transposing ever. But it's good. I'm kind of used to it now. I've been doing it five or six years with this tuning and I think I'm pretty used to it and I like it a lot.
What other challenges have come up playing the seven-string?
The thing about it is that it's all about the counterpoint. Really the hardest thing to do is improvising, which is essentially what I do, and trying to make sure that you don't have bottlenecks rhythmically or contrapuntally while you're improvising -- self-editing and kind of knowing what's going to be around the corner. It's like a really good hitter in baseball knows what the pitcher is going to throw, you know? A really good pitcher knows how to pace himself and what pitches to throw. It's kind of the same kind of thing.
It's much harder than just guitar or just bass because there's just a lot more to think about. But at the end of the day, it's more rewarding because the bass is usually simple and the guitar is usually simple and they come together and something nice happens.
I read that you took a few lessons from Joe Satriani.
Yeah. Not just a few but for a couple of years. He was a local guitar teacher in Berkeley, and everybody took guitar lessons from him.
What kind of stuff did you learn from him?
He was a great teacher. He didn't ever force any particular aesthetic on you. That was not his thing. His thing was to make sure that you knew the fretboard and that you know how to get around the fretboard and you knew how to get around on the instrument. It was a really good basis in the physical technique of playing the instrument. I was very lucky to have him at the age that I did. A good grounding and how to get around the instrument.
How old were you when you studied with him?
Like fourteen, fifteen.
Do you ever play regular six-string guitars at all?
Sometimes. If they're around, I'll pick one up but not that often. I don't have that much to say on it. I enjoy what I do so I pretty much just do that.
I know there are players out there that you've inspired and that have bought Novax guitars. Have you encountered a fair amount of those players?
Sure. There are starting to be plenty of them now. And it's fun and it's good for them because it can take them a year to learn what it's take me like twenty years to develop. They have a head start if they want to do something with in instrument -- a head start to take it to the next level.
What would be your advice if someone wanted to switch from six-string to seven-string?
It's just way harder technically and takes a lot of time, and it's biting off a lot. But if you really have that mentality and you really are able to do that and interested in doing that, it's a whole of fun, if you have the time to put into it.
Is it similar to playing piano with one hand doing one thing and the other doing something else?
Yeah, in some ways it is. But it's a little harder than that because with piano you can separate it in a very cut and dry bilateral kind of way whereas this doesn't work that way. It's like taking kind of contrapuntal blues or classical or Brazilian or whatever kind of guitar where there are a couple of parts going and really exploding it to a way higher degree.
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