The Eclectic Warrior: Skip Heller

intervewed by Carole Cutler

In the song "Ti Quero", Heller sings "'stubborn' just begins to describe her/'hell-bent' is a word I've often used" to describe a woman, but he may as well be talking about himself. He is one of the most challenging musicians on the scene right now. His first appearances on record were as a reissues producer, then as an arranger/conductor/producer for Hollywood lounge band The Wonderful World Of Joey. Soon after, he toured as Yma Sumac's guitarist, and then went on to produce rockabilly artists Ray campi and Sammy Masters. His debut disc, Lonely Town, was a lounge noir delight of bossa nova torch songs. His latest, St Christopher's Arms, is a dark, atmospheric country-styled record, with touches of sixties pop, blues, and jazz stylings. Refusing to adhere to categories, he is gearing up fto produce and play guitar on both a new all-accoustic traditional country discwith rockabilly vet Ray Campi, and an organ jazz project with saxman Big Jay McNeely. This interview was conducted in a Mexican retaurant near the Silverlake apartment he shares with his wife, Sheryl Farber (who sang most of the lead vocals on Lonely Town).

Your new disc,St Christopher's Arms , is a bit of a departure from your last one. I noticed that you, Joey Altruda, and The Friends Of Dean Martinez have gotten away from lounge. Do you think that fad is over?

I never saw it as a fad, personally, and, if you listen for it, you'll notice that there are elements of that style of arranging and composing in the new record, on Ray Campi's record, on pretty much every record I've made. It's a huge influence on my musical outlook. Those were the records more than any other that showed me how to paint a mood and sustain it for the length of an album, and that's really the key thing as to how I build records. I don't think anything good is ever "over", but it's safe to say that that stuff is now a pretty well-internalized part of certain people's musical vocabulary. I always stuck out like a sore thumb from the rest of that pack, anyway. I was always getting corrected for being too avant-garde. Those people don't want to know from John Zorn.

As for everybody else's relationship to that bunch of styles, I can't speak for them, but I heard Joey's new jazz ska record, and I don't think he abandoned any stylistic ideals that he was espousing on his last one. I prefer the last one, actually. But I did think at the time and think now that calling your record Cocktails With Joey invites that kind of specualtion if you're gonna do something other than that in the future. I mean, Lonely Town was emphatically not Cocktails With Skip . I used Bossa Nova as the frame, not the picture. That "lounge" style is part of my vocabulary, and I'm not ruling out any tool of communication if it's going to help me make my point. But I was not comfortable with that fucking martini glass stuck next to my name. But I still do the same things, I think.

But you've taken a real left turn by burrowing more into country music.

Um, I don't know. That's the style that I ultimately grade myself by, and always have. I still do "Moon River" or stuff off the first album as part of my live set. And I don't feel one fucks up the other. I am who I am, I play like I play, and I sound like I sound, and anything I do is coming out of that. I'm not being ironic here, or thinking about a kind of juxtaposition. I just see the rhythmic and harmonic differences as being as superficial as clothing. I think the intent is the same in pretty much any good music. Plus, if the crowd identifies itself with one style, it might be a nice opportunity to educate them that something else fits in well next to that, remote as it seems. Ray Charles proved that by taking country songs and making rhythm'n'blues standards out of them. Bob Wills did that, too, by taking a big country band and playing swing tunes that swung but were obviously being played in a country style. I'm not exactly mining new territory by drawing on different types of material and playing them in the same set.

What's the difference between producing a lounge record and a roots rock record?

There isn't one right off the top, except that one has horns and mallets, the other is guitars. If you're working to retain the swinging, improvising characteristic of the music, they're both pretty similar. I relate to songs and how to bring the song out, and to get a good performance out of the band. The ways you accomplish that stuff don't change with the genre. With a guitar-oriented record, you want a brighter sound. With horns and mallets, you want a warmer sound. The differences are superficial. Aside from recording techniques -- what microphones, mostly -- there isn't a basic difference in my job.

On your new record, you played more of the instruments yourself. Is there any advantage to that?

Not really. I did it because Hank Van Sickle, who played bass on most of the record, was touring with Rosie Flores. I would much rather have had Hank there in the studio, believe me. As for the keyboards, they were really easy parts, so it wasn't worth getting a real organist in there just to hit a few chords. I'm not somebody you hire to play piano on your record.

How do you choose your guest artists? They're from diverse backgrounds. D.J. Bonebrake comes out of punk rock, Ray Campi is a rockabilly, and Katy Moffatt is a folksinger. How do you make them fit in with what you do?

Well, just because somebody is primarily known for working in one style doesn't mean they can only do the style you've heard 'em do. I've made a jazz record with D.J., then a Bossa Nova-oriented one. He's also fluent in classical percussion. He's not just "the X guy." Ray Campi, same thing. He can deal with a lot of different stuff, and he really likes it if you ask. Katy, she's just limitless. Genre doesn't really mean anything to a good musician. Whether or not somebody can play does . If somebody can play, they can play regardless of what you're asking them to do, unless you're calling on a specialized skill. I wouldn't call Ray to play jazz dobro, for instance.

The cover songs come from different sources, too. There's a Dave Alvin song -- I know you two are friends --, a Katy Moffatt song, a Jimmy Martin bluegrass song, and two jazz standards. How do you make that work?

Again, since it's me playing and singing, and the same rhythm section on bass and drums, all these things are stylistically related. My arrangement of Katy's "Crazy, Dangerous, And Blue"is completely different from her version of it. She did it as more of a seventies country two-beat. I used it as a kind of salute to Johnny "Guitar" Watson, who I personally love. So, if I deviate from an existing arrangement, it ties the song more to whatever style I represent as myself, and to whatever I see it as having some kinship with. With Dave's song, "Longer Than I Thought", Katy and I were looking for a second duet, and that one just buzzed into my head. There are little Curtis Mayfield touches through the sort of country rock arrangment. Ironically enough there, the first record I heard of Katy was in 1978 -- her country rock cover of Curtis's "Um Um Um Um Um Um", so it all has its brand of continuity working for it. The jazz standards are played pretty straight, but that's definitely part of my background. My version of "It Takes One To Know One" sounds less like Jimmy Martin than a seventies folk record, especially with that Amos Garrett guitar style I copped there, which I actually copped more from Tony Gilkyson. He showed me about that two-note bending style. Mostly, though, I was just trying to take that song and give it a darker varnish than you'd hear on a bluegrass or a folk record. I really love that song.

Did you learn it from Katy Moffatt's recording with Kate Brislin?

You did your homework! Yes, the morning of the session. What happened was, I was going to do a song from Frank Zappa's Cruisin' With Ruben And The Jets , which was his doo-wop album, but I wound up not being able to do that. And I loved Kate and Katy's version of "It Takes One", so I threw together an arrangement, then it was just me playing bass, Howard with a snare drum, then four guitars and two vocals. I think the whole thing took an hour or so.

You're well-known for working quickly and with miniscule budgets. How can you make good-sounding records for hundreds and not thousands of dollars?

The most important thing is that the musicians and the engineer are so good, and they know me and how to accomplish what I'm hoping to do. Also, I come prepared. All the music is written out for the instruments that will be playing it, and I practice my parts so I'm not responsible for blowing takes. I don't want to try to just wing it. My hands have to know their job. Then my ears can take over. I know what I hope to hear happen, and I write that out. The players know what I mean. Steven Bardo, the engineer, knows the tones I like, so he knows what microphones to place, where to place 'em, and all that stuff, and, because he's so good, I only have to worry about getting good takes from the musicians. And since the musicians are so good, I just have to worry about how fast I count things off. Studio time is often the costly thing, and this crew really keeps costs down.

Who is your "crew"?

Howard Greene on drums. I won't even record without him. He's my rock (laughs ). Matt Cartsonis, for bass, steel guitar, and mandolin. If I need upright bass, Hank Van Sickle for the more modern stuff, Ray Campi for rockabilly. For female lead vocals, Katy Moffatt, if she's in town and can do it, and Sheryl Farber or Annie Harvey for backgrounds. For mallet percussion, D.J. Bonebrake. If the electric bass part needs a good sightreader, Dan Brownfield gets the call. Horns, Jay Work for woodwinds, and I don't really have a trumpet guy or a keyboard guy.

Has this been your crew since you first came to Hollywood?

Pretty much. I fell in with great guys by accident. Actually, Joey Sehee introduced me to a lot of them when I was working with him. But as I met people, let's just say wrote down numbers for future use and kept certain guys in mind. Howard, specifically. And he's the most important one.

What makes him specifically important?

First off, he's just an incredibly good drummer. Great time, not too loud. Also, he plays every style like Howard Greene would, but still authentic enough that it sounds like a style he's totally fluent in. He can lock in with any bass player -- which is a rare gift. He's a great reader, and he knows exactly what I mean when I write something out in a kind of shorthand I use that would make you laugh. It's English, bar numbers, and rhythm hits. But it's incredibly efficient , and he's so far the king of it.

No less important, we're well-matched personalities, so he's one of my closest, closest friends. If I'm gonna spend all that time in a pressure-cooker like a studio, I need a really nice guy there. Howard's really nice, Matt's really funny, and so on. It's actually a pretty well-matched crew.

St Christopher's Arms is a very eclectic record. Are you afraid of confusing your potential audience, do you not worry about it, or do you want to do that?

I must want to do it, because I pride myself on the diversity of my catalogue. I like that there's different stuff in there. I've always admired people who do that. Also, I personally have always been intrigued more by somebody's musical personality more than how they put it across, as long as it's executed nicely. It's not about genre. It's more about the feeling I get when I listen to something. The only thing I don't like is music that leaves me cold or unmoved. That pisses me off. I don't have any loyalty to one style over any other, so I make records that bypass the question of style or genre. "Is it any good?" is more my style, and if it is, I like it, whether we're talking about new music I'm involved in the making of, or something I'm shaping together a reissue of.

What will your idea of success for yourself ultimately be?

Just to do what I'm already doing, but to make enough money to live off of, to have better budgets, and a larger audience. To keep doing what I do, but more often, and under better circumstabces. Working for Ed Wood budgets is killing me.

But I have no right to complain. I've only been in Los Angeles for two years, and I've got a discography. I know people who have been here for years and have nothing to show for it. I'm just motivated without looking over my shoulder at what looks like it's selling this season.

A lot of crap catches on here. Most of what catches on here is beyond the pale. It's dehumanizing to see that shit become the hot thing, to be honest. The scene as it is now is really pretty empty, and a lot of empty people are celebrating empty music. But, if you're me and you love what you're doing enough, you just try to make better records each time you're in there, you put up with stupid, trendy people telling you what's "really happening", and you lace up your boots one notch tighter, and you just take your steps. Right now, anything that's new and good is going to be stepped over. So what am I supposed to do? Stop making music?

I get no press in Los Angeles, but I get coverage in national press and local weeklies and fanzines everywhere but here. People outside of Los Angeles are listening. People here don't listen -- they trend-spot. And, as a result, you've got precious little worth listening to if you want to go hear something real. There are sincere, optimistic people making great music, but the club scene and a trend-conscious clientele who wouldn't know the real stuff if it came up and bit 'em on the ass has killed so much daring, original, personal music in Los Angeles. This is the irony-and-cheese capitol of America, and all you can get is generally that. How Big Sandy or Dave Alvin established an audience here, I'll never know. They're doing something very real and soulful and beautiful, but most people would rather hear the new wave of cheesy, ironic seventies-styled pop bands.

You sound like Frank Zappa.

Oh, God. How right was he about this shit? It's scary how unchanging this stupidity really is. H.L.Menken was right -- nobody ever went hungry underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Have another Pepsi -- it makes you moonwalk.

But you continue to make music and release it. Why?

First off, 'cause I like it, and I like to listen to it. If I don't make it, I won't hear it. And I get letters from people saying they like it, so I know there is somebody on the other end out there.

Probably, I will wind up as someone who services a small clientele of people like me, who don't deal with what's happening or the new hip thing. They just want to hear some decent music that doesn't beat 'em over the nose with its own smugness. They make intelligent buying decisions. They probably go see NRBQ or Los Lobos or Mose Allison whenever they show up in their respective town. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not trying to set myself up as a spokesmodel here. But I know the people I talk to, or who I meet at the gigs. They like the same kinds of things I like.

Aside from the MTV-level world, there is a buying public. Not hundreds of thousands, but enough that you can work to them and stay in business. They're the kind of people I'd probably be hanging out with anyway, if I knew 'em. So I may as well play to them. I'd fail if I tried to make something I didn't care about. So, I'll just stick with what I care about.

Other Interviews:
Thinking Man's Guitar: Skip Heller
Skip Heller on LES BAXTER