[sic] Magazine

Interview – Redhooker

While Slow Six’s latest album Tomorrow Becomes You has garnered wider plaudits, to these ears, Slow Six guitarist’s Stephen Griesgraber’s Redhooker project released a superior album in the beautiful Vespers (one of my 10 favourite albums of last year). Perhaps because of its unusual arrangement of instruments and plaintive, understated and beatless pieces, Vespers is destined to reach fewer ears. However, those that it reaches will no doubt be enraptured. I recently caught up with Stephen Griesgraber for this Q&A.

Tim Clarke: How did you get into playing the guitar and composing?

Stephen Griesgraber : I’ve been playing the guitar for over 20 years. Growing up in Minnesota, a neighbour who was four years older (seemingly a lifetime when you’re talking about eight vs. twelve) was a fantastic musician and I idolised him. Though he was (and is) an outstanding piano player, it was only after he got an electric guitar in middle school that I sought to follow in his footsteps musically. I remember the day of my first lesson very clearly – I was blasting ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ on the boombox in my room while jumping on the bed and air-guitaring the solo. I was convinced that I’d be playing that solo for real by the time I got home. Instead, the tips of my fingers were nearly bleeding as I desperately tried and failed to hold down the two notes necessary to play a simple power chord. Still, I was in love.

As for composition, from the very beginning I was writing music. I didn’t have any classical training, so most of my early experiments were more or less attempts to create guitar-driven power-rock instrumentals. About two years after I got a guitar, I bought a four-track cassette recorder, allowing me to experiment with layering parts. Some of those old tapes are quite amusing to me now.

In college, I began studying classical guitar and since I was late in coming to that kind of training, I had to work very hard to stay afloat in my department. So writing took a back seat for a few years, though I do remember enjoying my counterpoint and chorale harmonisation exercises. In fact, between my second and third years at college I even moved from California to Boston to take a summer course in counterpoint at New England Conservatory. I was the only person in the class who was taking it voluntarily – the other five or six students were taking summer school in the traditional sense because they had failed the course earlier in the year!

By the time I got to graduate school at Manhattan School of Music, I knew that I would not be pursuing a career as a solo concert classical guitarist. So I took advantage of a fairly flexible electives program by taking three semesters of class composition lessons with Ludmila Ulehla. Professor Ulelha had been on the faculty since 1946 when I took my first lesson with her in 2000, and I remember being awed by her commitment to the individual voices and interests of her students. Even after nearly 65 years, she clearly still had so much passion for what she was doing! Her encouragement was absolutely instrumental in inspiring me to make writing a focus of my musical activity.

Tim Clarke: How has your approach to the guitar changed over time?

Stephen Griesgraber : Over the years I dabbled in many, many styles but never really became committed to any one. In hindsight, I think this fickle approach has served me well because I don’t feel beholden to any one tradition. In Redhooker, the piece always comes before the guitar playing. Of course, as a player, I want my parts to be fun to play and to present me with musical and performative challenges, but in the end, my vision for the piece always supersedes the guitar part. For this reason, the guitar often sits near the back of a given texture.

Tim Clarke: Geeky question this, but coming from a guitarist, I have to ask: what’s your rig these days?

Stephen Griesgraber : I’ve been dreaming of geeking out on this question for almost 25 years! These days it’s a bit different than it has been – traditionally, I’ve deliberately kept a very simple signal chain, but lately, I’ve been experimenting more. For Redhooker’s Vespers and The Future According to Yesterday, the rig was very simple – my 1989 PRS CE24 through a 1962 Fender Bandmaster or a 1976 Orange OR80. A few tracks on Vespers also have me running through an Ibanez AD9 analog delay pedal. For the Slow Six stuff, it’s the same guitar through a 1968 Fender Deluxe Reverb, sometimes with the Ibanez delay pedal and with a Maxon OD808 overdrive. Lately, though, I’ve added some things. I’m still using the same guitar and amps, but have added a Savage Rohr amp as well, which is a modern boutique amp similar to a Marshall Bluesbreaker. I also use a Boss RC-20XL loop pedal, an Empress ParaEQ parametric equalisation pedal, a Death By Audio Robot, an Ernie Ball volume pedal, and the Maxon and Ibanez pedals I mentioned before.


Tim Clarke: Redhooker’s instrumental set-up – guitar, violins, clarinet – is unusual but very effective. How did you end up writing for this particular balance of instruments?

Stephen Griesgraber : The ensemble was chosen mostly for the musicians rather than their instruments. It’s a little bit analogous to market-fresh cooking, in which the chef goes to the farmers market and bases his menu on what ingredients look the freshest and most appealing. These players are all dear friends with incredible individual artistic voices. They are not by any means just executing parts. In fact, I deliberately make only minimal dynamic and expression markings in parts because I want to hear their ideas first.

I knew Peter Hess from a group I had played in called Capital M. I loved his playing, his musicianship, and his personality, so I knew I would call him when I put the ensemble together. On The Future According To Yesterday, he plays Bb soprano clarinet – the most common type – and his parts mostly act as counterpoint to the violin. That record had Rhodes on it, so the low end of the frequency spectrum is filled out there. On Vespers, I had added a second violin and dropped the Rhodes (as Rob Collins, the Rhodes player on TFATY had moved to Austria) so I moved Peter down to bass clarinet to take up some of that frequency space, and I really loved the sound. Maxim Moston is an old friend who I played with in Slow Six as well as in a number of other groups. Ben Lively and Andie Springer have shared the second violin seat, both bringing extraordinarily beautiful things into the mix, and most recently, Derek Muro has joined us, adding Rhodes and occasionally saxophone. The new batch of music will have a bigger sound, with an expanded timbral palate, but will still sound like Redhooker.

Tim Clarke: Why ‘Redhooker’? Where did the name come from?

Stephen Griesgraber : The name comes from Red Hook, Brooklyn. I had finished graduate school in 2001 and had a two-year relationship with a live-in girlfriend end. I had a job that barely allowed me to scrape by and had very little idea of what I wanted to do next. I knew I needed a change, but I wanted to stay in New York City. So I moved from Manhattan to Red Hook, an especially isolated waterfront neighbourhood in Brooklyn. Over the last 10 years, Red Hook has become more developed, but at that time, it was very quiet there. I moved on 15 September 2001, just days after the World Trade Center attacks. In an instant, the collective mood of New York City had shifted in an indescribable way. It was in this environment that I was entering my “adult” life. But for all the personal challenges and darkness, I also had that sense of wonder and excitement that can be present at that time in one’s life. So there was a sense of trepidation coupled with youthful enthusiasm. Later, as I began working on the music that would appear on The Future According to Yesterday, I thought back to that time and realised that what I was writing reflected my emotional state at that time in my life. But with the hindsight of four years it was easy to see both the sincerity and naivete in where I was at that time. I thought that the name Redhooker captured where I was when I first began to identify my creative direction in a way that was sincere yet playful.

Tim Clarke: In addition to writing and performing in Redhooker, you also play guitar in Slow Six. Could you tell us a little about the relationship between your playing in Slow Six and Redhooker?

Stephen Griesgraber : I credit Christopher Tignor and Slow Six with giving me the impulse to do something of my own. Prior to joining Slow Six, I had tried a couple of times to start a more traditional “new music” group that would commission young composers to write for our ensemble and would maintain more of a separation between composer and performer. Working with Christopher and the many great musicians who have played in Slow Six over the years was essential in helping me refine my vision for what I wanted to do musically.
As for the relationship between my playing in Redhooker and Slow Six, it’s hard to say. All the guitar parts on Slow Six’s Private Times in Public Places were written exclusively by Christopher. On Nor’easter, the guitar parts were written by Christopher with the exception of ‘Echolalic Transitions’ in which I wrote (or rather improvised over a number of sessions with Christopher) the guitar part while Christopher improvised its electronic manipulation using a Max/MSP application of his own creation. On Tomorrow Becomes You, the guitar parts are about a 50/50 split. Christopher wrote the vast majority of the harmonic changes and all of the violin melodies. I believe he wrote most or all of the Rhodes parts as well. The ultimate forms came from him and were refined during a long process of all of us “jamming” on these various components. Some of the guitar parts were written by Christopher, some by myself, and some ideas were even collaboratively generated in the studio as we tracked guitar parts for the record. I do think that Christopher has always appreciated my approach to guitar playing, as it tends to be somewhat restrained and in the service of the music. And I have a great deal of respect for his musical vision, which is why I’ve enjoyed working with him over the years.


Tim Clarke: Where next for Redhooker?

Stephen Griesgraber : Right now, I’m working on the music that will appear on the next recording. We’re also lining up a tour of the midwestern United States for the fall. We’ll be playing some larger venues and it will be our first time out of town for an extended trip. The goal is to have a full program of new music in time for the tour, which we will then introduce at those concerts along with the material from Vespers and The Future According to Yesterday. After the tour we’ll have a sense of what’s working best of the new material and will set up some late fall recording dates with an eye to a spring 2012 release!

Many thanks to Stephen for his considered and articulate responses. We look forward to more from Redhooker in 2012.