On June 3(2000) I had the pleasure of interviewing John Fahey for the Knitting Factory Knotes. They are printing an edited version - here is the complete text. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Fahey, he is a seminal acoustic guitar instrumentalist who became prominent in the mid-60's and whose work drew upon the huge fount of American styles. He likes to call his work "American primitive." His work also branched into the realm of what may be called "sound collage" - always intense. Please check out www.johnfahey.com for more info. Interview transcribed by Matthew Carlin.
JF: Oh, I'm bringing an electric guitar and a couple of pre-amps.
E#: Do you continue to perform on acoustic guitar, or are you solely electric now?
JF: I'm just doing solo electric. One gets old and then the fingers hurt...
E#: Oh yeah, that's true.
JF: Oh God-I mean I've got an acoustic guitar, but Jesus, it kills me. The left hand and then I can't practice very much. Like razor blades cutting into my left fingers. Then I can't practice the next day. I tend to do very long practicing, like for hours, and I just can't do it... electric guitar. Life is so tough.
E#: It's true, but that's why we play. Sometimes it's the only way to process it out. Do you every do your sound collage work live in some form now, or is it pretty much solo guitar.
JF: Well, I did a collage at the beginning and the end of my newest record, "Hitomi." But I used an echo pedal and I recorded it, first I recorded the "riiiing riiiing riiiing riiiiing" then I recorded over it, so I did it all by myself. I did most of this by myself. With maybe one helper.
E#: Do you have your own personal studio set up at home of some sort or do you go in to a studio to do it?
JF: I've been recording mostly in the motel I was living in, or right here in the house. Yeah, I don't have a big studio; I have very little equipment.
E#: Do you like spending time with it, getting into the technical aspects of the recording, or do you use it just as a way to document what you're hearing?
JF: No, I enjoy innovations. It's boring playing the same old stuff. I keep reaching out for new sounds and new harmonies and new electronic devices. I don't think a big studio would ... (laughs).
E#: That stuff sometimes gets in the way more than anything else.
JF: Yeah, it takes longer and longer and longer and the more people you work with the longer it takes, you know. So I tend to be a rugged individualist.
E#: That's true, that's why we listen to you! When you did the project with Cul de Sac, did you spend a lot of time rehearsing with them, or did you just go into the studio and lay that down?
JF: Well, we didn't get along too well. (laughs) They kept trying to play jungle music.
E#: Jungle music meaning...
JF: Oh, you know, like neo-Les Baxter...
E#: Oh okay, got it, neo-exotica, that's their thing...
JF: I didn't like it and I didn't want my name associated with it. So I called up the money man and said what I thought: this record is going to be a disaster. I don't want my name on it. And we had several days left and I said if you put me in charge of this, we'll come out with a good record. And I said as it is now, it's going to be awful.
E#: This is a new one with them?
E#: Oh, "The Epiphany of Glenn Jones."
E#: And they finally let you control it...
JF: Oh yeah, right away.
E#: Oh that's good.
JF: We did what came out in three-four days. But we spent many, many days trying to get along with each other musically. And so most of that is really a John Fahey, or John Fahey produced.
E#: As it should be... Collaborations are sometimes funny.
JF: I never thought I could get along with them too well musically. But they did and their record company did. So without very intelligent planning they put us together to make a record. So, it turned out pretty good, but most of it's me.
E#: Again, as it should be. What do you feel was the easiest collaboration project for you? Or do you really prefer to work on your own?
JF: The easiest one?
E#: In terms of personalities and music. You know how sometimes you get into the studio with somebody and you don't even have to say a word.
JF: Yeah, right, right. Well, I have to say some words. I have to give an indication of what we're going to play and give them chord charts. One of the easiest ones were those two Warner Bros. records, "After the Ball" and the other one, "Of Rivers and Religion," where I had a much more sophisticated and knowledgable music producer, Denny Bruce, and he wrote out all the parts. I sang him or played him the parts I wanted and he faithfully got them down. That was the easiest one. Although it was the most frightening one because we had all these great, sophisticated New Orleans musicians and Hollywood musicians.
E#: I rember that was pretty orchestrated. In a beautiful way. So he had done all the charting himself?
JF: He's really good. We always cooperated with each other every way. Of course, that was 12 million years ago.
E#: Do you think things have changed radically in the way records are made? Do you think you could make a record in that way these days?
JF: Sure I could, if I could find the right musicians and a good musical director.
E#: And the time, of course, and the studio, that's often a problem, I find.
JF: We cut those records really fast. Everybody really knew what they were doing except me. We brought those in under budget.
E#: What kind of stuff are you listening to these days for your own enjoyment?
JF: Mostly to my own records.
E#: Can you enjoy them, or do you listen very critically?
JF: Well, the ones I don't hear critically I enjoy a lot. I'm listening to "Hitomi" a lot lately, to try to figure out what the hell I did.
E#: Often I'll not listen to a record once it comes out, for a long time, even though I'm listening to it over and over and over again while I'm mixing. And sometimes I just can't listen because I just hear every warped.. or they become magnified and then with some distance I can go back and say, "that's why that happened."
JF: That happens.
E#: Are you coming out the KF as a part of a tour, or just flying out for the one thing?
JF: There's one in North Carolina, one in New York and one in Chicago.
E#: Do you like touring still?
JF: Love it. Especially going over seas.
E#: Are you going to be coming to Europe or Japan any time soon?
JF: I don't have the dates. (?)
E#: Do you think audiences are different over seas?
JF: Yeah, I think they're much more appreciative, especially in Japan.
E#: Oh yeah, they go crazy there. Do you feel like they listen in a different way?
JF: No I think they hear the same stuff, they're just polite when they applaud, they don't yell and scream. I'm used to yelling and screaming. That's just my impression. I mean you play a great song and you play it well and they go clapÖclapÖclap. They consider it rude to go hooray, scream yell! You kind of have to adapt to Japanese audiences. They really like it but they don't want to be rude.
E#: They're very careful about that. One thing I felt about Japanese and German and Austrian audiences, I feel like they know history much better than American audiences.
JF: Oh, they do, they do. Holland too.
E#: Do you think that affects how they perceive you as an artist?
JF: Well, the American perception of the artist is, "You are going to please me right away in the first few minutes, or we're going to be rude to you." And over there they listen better. They concentrate better because you might have something to say. Or they figure well this introductory section is going to turn into something more exciting and you're playing dialectically, kind of quiet and slightly boring on purpose so you can contrast-- the exciting parts sound even more exciting. Over here they want to hear an exciting part right away.
E#: Do you think it's gotten worse, or has it always been that way?
JF: I think it's gotten worse and is getting worse. People are getting dumber and dumber here.
E#: Can we point to a prime cause of that?
JF: I'm trying to figure it out. It's not just in music. People can't speak anymore, the English language. Like in Oregon, they can't pronounce, "etcetera," they call it "ekcetera" with a "k." I'm afraid to go out of the house because people can't speak English. Where are you, New York?
E#: In New York. Here it's a real polyglot.
JF: I just can't imagine being in New York and hearing somebody say, "blah blah ekcetera."
E#: We have our own New Yorkisms: "How are ya?" I wonder, I find myself trying to decide if it's good that the language is changing to reflect different populations and different priorities or if it's bad and we're losing things that are really valuable.
JF: I don't know if people are getting dumb in New York and on the East Coast, but they sure as hell are in the Mid West and out here. In California, it's due to the school system. I never have liked teachers and I never liked school. But where I grew up in Maryland and D.C. I didn't like them, but still I learned something. I learned how to pronounce "etcetera."
E#: I don't think people read anymore either.
JF: They don't. Book stores are closing all over the place.
E#: It's a new kind of literacy. The Web seems has created a different kind of intelligence and sometimes I'm very optimistic about that.
JF: Yeah, I am too. I think in order to use the Web you must be able to speak correctly and think correctly. I think when people don't speak correctly, it indicates that they can't think correctly, that's why I say people are getting dumber and dumber. Yesterday I ran into a really funny example. It had a colon after the word "Your." I mean you just don't do that.
E#: Do you run across anythings that make you optimistic or excited, music, or cultural events?
JF: Not recently. Music is getting dumber and dumber.
E#: We have the accountants and lawyers to thank for that.
JF: How's that?
E#: Well, they run the record companies, it seems. I find people have their listening context shaped by very genrefied programming and very genrefied marketing. It comes down the lowest common denominator factor. Do you know Doug Hofstadter's concept of the meme, the idea that sometimes all we can do is put a meme back into the system, like a little virus. Pop culture is a really fast acting meme. But some of the other things that we'll do are much more slow. Maybe we dump this back into the system and like any organism sometimes it reproduces and is able to grow as an idea that gets people excited and reproducing itself is an idea. For those of us who make music that's somewhere on the fringe I feel like sometimes all we can do is keep pumping these memes into the system and hope they take root.
JF: That's a good idea, but it seems to be working less. I think culture's gone downhill, it has been for a long time. You can use the name of that book by Spenler, "The Decline of the Wester World."
E#: Indeed. But do you think your audiences are getting bigger? Wouldn't that be some sort of enhancement of Western culture?
JF: Oh yeah. I consider myself apart from it. I can't take the decline. It's very disturbing, I mean frightening. What's it going to be like in 45 years? A nation of cretins.
E#: Do you find you are reacting to this trend in the music you're making?
JF: Yeah, it's getting more and more alternative, is what they call it. Actually, I consider it more and more advanced.
E#: I think alternative was always a bad term.
JF: People like Thurston Moore and so forth, his coterie... I mean you can't even say a word like coterie anymore. Nobody knows what it means. People can't read anymore. There are some people who are trying to inject intelligent ideas into music. And Sonic Youth seems to have done a lot of good and suceeded. But of course now they're Sonic Middle Age. They're still doing neat stuff. But I don't know to what extent it's penetrating.
E#: I think they will always will have a core audiences and it always grows in sideways ways... Listening to you throughout my tortured youth I also enjoyed the music of Robbie Bashoe. And I always wondered what happened to him.
JF: I knew him pretty well. He died, maybe 20 years ago.
E#: I had no idea, from my perception he disappeared.
JF: He didn't disappear at all. He was a chiropractor. Chiropractry is an indication of the spread of stupidity. I mean I've been to chiropractors when I have back ache and I ... Anyway, he was a chiropractor and he had a stroke and a heart attack. He was dead immediately. I don't blame it on the chiropracty. He was affiliated with the New Age a lot.
E#: There was a spiritual bent to his music, but the music itself was great.
JF: Some of the music was really good.
E#: I didn't associate it with the New Age music, because a lot of stuff in the early 60s, even stuff in the hippie vein were kind of outside. They seemed to touch on more timeless things than just whatever the trendoids at the moment were going for.
JF: I never got into New Age music myself.
E#: Oh no, there's nothing to get into.
JF: (laughs) Bashoe was a little previous to that and he was coming up with some neat stuff now and then. And he was also coming up with a lot of shmaltz and he couldn't tell the difference. I'd talk to him about it a lot and he just couldn't get it. And then these people like Will Ackerman and so forth would name him as a predecessor to what they were doing and they never sounded like him and they didn't understand what he was doing.
E#: They reduced it to the lowest common denominator and walked away with the cash.
JF: Because the music was so innocuous. Bashoe had some intellectual stuff.
E#: It had bite.
JF: And it worked. I don't know what to tell you about what's happening the music's getting worse and worse and the literature's getting worse and worse. I'm really worried about the progress of this country.
E#: Is there anything you've read recently that's excited you?
JF: Excited me. About what?
E#: Do you know Jack Womack's writing. He's a fiction writer. They're very sardonic views of American culture. Loosely science fiction. You can't just easily say it's sci fi. They take place in the very near future in New York City and America, Elvis cults, minor apocolypses. Very funny very dark.
JF: I think we're in an apocalypse and it's pretty bad and getting worse. However, my views might be extreme. I've been alive a long time and I don't know, when I was a kid we had responsibilities and we would enjoy doing them and there was also a decline happening after the war and the government got more involved in what we were doing and passing laws and teachers weren't allowed to teach anything too difficult. Take the California school system, they don't teach anybody anything. They have kids down there who can barely talk when they're 26.
E#: There's a lot of parallels to the post WWII era, this kind of mindless prosperity.
JF: Yeah, and it's getting worse. I'm amazed it's working as well as it does.
E#: House of cards. The internet economy, the emptiness, the huge investment structures may just collapse. Do you think that's gonna be good for music?
JF: I don't know what's gonna be good for music. I know one thing that would be good for music would be an across the board elimination of all these communication devices and fast transportation. People would be forced to sit at home and try to come up with something different on their own. One of the things people do today is they want to get in to music and so the first thing they do is listen to what other people are doing and they all play the same damn thing. Now, if you have an isolated guy out in the country (laughs) who didn't know anybody who plays the guitar, he would probably come up with something different. What happened is as soon as they invented phonograph records and everybody could buy them all over the country, everybody started to sound like Blind Lemon Jefferson. And record companies looked for other people who sounded like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charlie Patton or whoever and the weirdos, the innovators, nobody heard them.
E#: I feel like people are rediscovering the wheel continuously because of the conservatism of the times.
JF: Now, they can't even discover it.
E#: They can buy it, though.
JF: You can buy it at all kinds of places. But have somebody try to build a wheel from scratch who doesn't know anything about mechanics, and I don't think you get much of a wheel. We've been talking about all kinds of things and I think the decline of music is just a symptom, which is part of the decline of the West, and that's a great title, "Decline of the West." I tried to read Spengler. And I'm not intelligent enough to read Spengler. I mean I'm part of the process too, going down. But I'm old enough and I got eduated better than anybody is now, grade shool, junior high school where innovation was not encorouaged. In fact it was punished. The only really good teacher I had was in 7th and 8th grade, an art teacher. And I said I didn't want to draw things that looked like what they looked like. I wanted to do abstracts and so I did and I was really good at it. I'm still good. I didn't do any for a long time, but now I've been doing abstracts and some of them are beautiful.
E#: Are they displayed anywhere?
JF: In Japan. And I sold some in London. I sent them to a girl in New York who runs an art gallery I don't know if she displayed them or not. Her name is Maryanne Fahey and she works a gallery, I can't remember the name. One of my most exciting, rewarding experiences was when I went to Dublin and played. I'd never been to Dublin before and unlike anywhere else I ever was I had an emotional response from the audience - they were crying. Really. And I haven't quite figured why that's true. I think that maybe they haven't heard so much of the mediocre middle brow music.
E#: My girlfriend who is half Irish has a little sticker on our refrigerator that says "Being Irish means knowing that the world is going to break your heart."
JF: Being Irish is very sad and to counteract the sadness, they play this stupid (ba da da da) commercial Irish music, which is real fast, uptempo and it's a tourist thing and they export it, but it's really sort of silly music. And you go over there and play some sad music like I always play, because everything is always sad. And man, they knew what I was talking about. And they wouldn't let me go. So I hope to go back there some time because they seem to understand.
E#: Is your family Irish?
JF: My father was. And my mother was Jewish-English. I'm not really sure about that. I was playing a lot of really depressing blues, which is Negro of course.
E#: A friend of mine, Charlie Keil, has traced the blues form to an Elizabethan 16th 17th century form, this 12 bar structure with the I and IV chord movement and a lot of the lyrical elements of the blues. And it's funny how it got re synthesized in the US by the slaves into something.
JF: Well they had the tripartite form too, but they didn't have any guitars in Africa, they had banjoes. There's something mysterious about where that form of music comes from. I haven't studied that much. But I woulnd't be surprised if there was what they call a poly-genesis that started in different places and different times with the same structure.
E#: I always wondered about regionalism. Because now we're seeing regionalism disappear, and always my favorite musics were always those that could be tied to a small population with a very specific form of expression. And maybe there is some other kind of regionalism. I fight against this growing depression about the world just becoming one giant McDonalds and sometimes I think as the possibility opens up for some sort of interplanetary meeting or communication that this world becomes integrated into one thing that is just region called "Earth," as opposed to a region called the Mississippi Delta or New Jersey or whatever.
JF: I believe I think I understand what you're saying. There are fewer and fewer regionalisms every year. And the world is turning into a homogeneous place. And the only place we're going to get an infusion of newness is from another planet. And that may be what all these UFOs are about. They're trying to teach.
E#: People are lazy, they have to try to find the creativity within, they feel like they're at a wall. So they're looking for salvation from the UFOs, it takes someone else to give us the rock to touch like in 2001.
JF: Oh I study UFOs a lot. I've seen a couple. 2, 3, possibly 4, but they weren't real big ones. They were little light balls in my backyard.
E#: How long ago was that?
JF: I had two sightings in 1948-49, maybe it was '47 and I had another one in '61 or '62. The first ones were quite parrallel. Across my backyard, as if they had been projectiles or something that were crashed into the ground. About six feet high. They were real small.
E#: Do you know about plasma? I've heard some theories that say you could have literally a small ball of superheated plasma floating in the sky. Like a microenvironment of super heated gas that could just arrise from various atmospheric and electrical conditions in the atmosphere.
JF: Oh yeah, they call it swamp gas where I live. But swamp gas can't float about 10 miles, parallel to the ground. I mean, it was not a natural phenomenon. And I saw it in my backyard and there was a fence in back of them. So they weren't on the other side of the fence and I couldn't see where they came from and then they dissapeared half to my left. No, they weren't a natural phenomon. I don't think any natural phenomon can be that slow without falling into the ground, unless it had reverse magnetism holding it up. And then later, in '62 I saw some. And a friend was with me and he saw them. Way up in the sky shooting across. Same size, same color. They were really quite fast, but they were parrallel, they weren't declining and they were flying in formation. That's all the UFOs I've ever seen. So I've been reading a lot lately and listening to radio programs at night on unexplained appearances. It goes from crop circles to alien abductions and chem trails, that stuff.
E#: Are you skeptical of these things, or a believer?
JF: I'm an emperisist. And we have no way of examining them by scientific method. The truth is nobody knows what the hell they are, so it's all speculation. But within the speculatory range there are people who say I'm cuckoo and scientists who don't say I'm cuckoo. I'm not interested in ghosts or psychic healing and that crap. That never gets on the radio anyway. So I'm very skeptical. But I've seen minor examples of this and I hear people like Richard Hoagland and Wally Shrever and these guys just don't sound like nuts.
E#: If you listen to a quantum physicist talk, a lot of it sounds like gibberish unless you have the background to map concepts and terms to things explainable in everyday language. I just feel like we know so little. We're always being told that everything has been discovered and yet there are continually new ways of defining things that change our perception that allow us to do things in a way that have never been done before. Technology does continue to evolve.
JF: Have you seen the face on Mars, the photographs NASA took? This is clearly a face, a human face and it looks kind of like Egyptian because it has ear muffs on it and they've examined it geometerially and it's real big and exactly the proportions. For example the distance from the tip of the nose to say the left to right eyes, are exactly the proportions and angles of the human face.
E#: This is something seen in the actual landscape?
JF: And it must have been built to communicate something with us or with other planets. There are photographs in a book called "Alien Architecture" with NASA photographs and the first time I looked at it I thought that couldn't possibly be the case. But then I measured the distances and it's definitely bi-laterally symetrical. You just wouldn't get that. Get "Alien Architecture" and you'll have your mind blown, there's pyramids there, all kinds of stuff up there. I think it's by Richard Hoagland. NASA is holding up photographs. When space exploration started and the Brookings Institute said we're not ready for this information and we would all go crazy. I don't think that was true at the time and it's certainly not true now. But that's what's running the policy at NASA and the government has thousands of files and they're classified because of this damn Brookings Institute report and there are various of lobbies and law suits against he government to release this stuff, because hell, we're paying for it. Then they have these secret things wer're paying for and we don't even know what they are. It's in the contitution and we're supposed to know what the hell our tax money goes for and we don't. That's not a joke, I'm really pissed off about it. There are activist groups now suing the government and it's got to come out sooner or later. And who knows these aliens or whatever you call it, might have interesting forms of music.
E#: I would hope so.
JF: I would love to hear it.
E#: Unless they've been listening to our broadcasts for the last ten years and are really into alternative rock. Or maybe the McDonaldsization of the Earth is just a giant plot to make the aliens feel welcome when they come.
JF: Next they're going to try to McDonaldize the Universe.
E#: Unless the McDonalds itself is an alien exploratory.
JF: You can't tell.
Blind Joe Death (lst edition)
Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes (lst edition)
The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites (rereleased with extra material 1999)
Blind Joe Death (2nd edition: three tracks re recorded)
The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death
The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party and Other Excursions
A Raga Called Pat EP (Finland only)
Days Have Gone By
Blind Joe Death (3rd Edition: entirely re recorded)
Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes (2nd Edition; entirely rerecorded)
Contemporary Guitar (Takoma sampler - one Fahey song "The Fahey Sampler")
The Yellow Princess
The Voice of the Turtle
The New Possibility
Guitar Guitar (video)
Memphis Swamp Jam (3 duets with Bill Barth)
America (full version released 1998)
Of Rivers and Religion
After the Ball
Fare Forward Voyagers (Soldier's Choice)
Old Fashioned Love
Christmas with John Fahey Vol. 2
The Best of John Fahey 1958-1977
Acoustic Guitars (German release only) - 1 Fahey song "Delta Blues"
John Fahey Visits Washington D.C.
Yes! Jesus Loves Me
Live in Tasmania
Christmas Guitar Volume I (A rerecording of The New Possibility)
The Guitar of John Fahey - 6 one-hour tutorial cassettes
Popular Songs For Christmas and the New Year
Rain Forests, Oceans and Other Themes
I Remember Blind Joe Death
God, Time and Causality
Old Girlfriends and Other Horrible Memories
The John Fahey Christmas Album
The Return of the Repressed (all previously released)
John Fahey in Concert (video)
Three guitar tutorial videos
The Mill Pond (Double EP)
City of Refuge
The Epiphany of Glenn Jones
Georgia Stomps, Atlanta Struts and Other Contemporary Dance Favorites
How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life (book)