September 2003
interview by Ian C Stewart

Greg Howard is one of the most visible Chapman Stick players in the world. He is in demand as an artist and as one of the leading figures in the Stick community.

Explaining what drew him to The Stick, he explains "I really like playing complex music like a keyboardist can, but I was always frustrated by the fact that keyboards were basically machines. The Stick is very expressive, and it's really fun to play. I've never played guitar or bass, so I'm not coming to The Stick with those perspectives in mind, although my favorite musicians are usually guitarists. I really like Arvo Pärt, Terje Rypdal, Shakti, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, King Crimson, Bowie, Eno, Bill Frisell. Early on, it was The Beatles, then bands like Pink Floyd and Yes. I think discovering mid-70s Crimson when I was in high school in the late 70s was the biggest musical experience. I still like the energy of that music, though I'm less interested in the current version of the band."

He's always created music of his own. "I always did, even as a kid. I hated practicing my organ lessons, and chose to improvise and compose instead. To me it is the freest form of expression, though I also really love language - even though I gave up singing long ago. I'm not sure I've had much of an evolution, except that I am interested in exploring harmonies more now. I have recordings of my teen years and I was already improvising and writing music for bands I was in. Most of what I play now has some connection to that, though my groove gets a bit funkier and more swinging as I get older, probably just from confidence in playing The Stick since 1985."

"In my early Stick-playing days, I had to struggle to keep up with my imagination because my skills on the instrument weren't as good as on keyboards and sax, which I had been playing since I was very young. I was fortunate that I always had a gift for finding simple, memorable melodies. The challenge for me seems to be to create the proper - and interesting - context for them. A lot of musicians have no good compositional sense of melody, and they try to build music that's based on harmonic and rhythmic complexity or relies too much on lyrics. Sonically, it may be interesting to listen to, but what can listeners take away from it? It's like eating a really good meal. Once it's over, are you going to ponder it? I don't know."

"I'm always trying to reconcile two paths in my music, one for composition and the other for improvisation. Jazz musicians have a well-established tradition for this, but for rock music it's less clear. I want to write some music for Stick ensembles, which is an unbelievably beautiful sound. Once I performed Terry Riley's In C with 12 other Stick players. Amazing! I also want to continue to explore the sonic possibilities electonic treatments allow. I would like to make a dance music record of Stick and sample loops and beats. I'm recording a lot of the covers I've been performing as a soloist over the past few years."

"Since 1987, I've released all my music on my own label, Espresso. I like the freedom it gives me, and as long as people keep buying records, it will keep going. I would like to have more distribution, but I think the record business is undergoing a big contraction right now, so I don't see that happening soon."

"The internet has made it much easier to reach fans and potential fans. That's a plus. In a way, it has cheapened the value of recorded music, though. Since I see myself as a live performer equally with my recordings, then I don't really have so much of an issue with that. Hopefully the value of good live performance will not be affected by it. I have a lot of MP3s and performance videos on my website, so people have an easy time seeing what I'm up to and what my music is all about."

"In 1998 I toured a little with the Dave Matthews Band as a guest artist - they are old friends from Charlottesville. I had played on their CD Before These Crowded Streets, which they were touring for at that time. I think on October 31st at the Oakland Arena there were around 30,000 people. It was Halloween, so there were a lot of people in costume, which was pretty weird. Then Don Johnson came backstage and held the band hostage with bad jokes for a while. Luckily, I managed to escape."

As far as future collaborations go, it's "hard to say. I basically live in a cave and am trying to focus on my own music. I'd really like to do some Stick ensemble playing, and I think I've encountered the players necessary for that recently."

Parting shot? "It seems like everything in our culture is for sale. I find that disconcerting. I would like to go into a school or the post office and be free from advertising for a few moments. Any of you want to buy some CDs??"

Greg's Stick joke:
Q: How many Chapman Stick players does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: What's a Chapman Stick?

Greg Howard will open for Michael Manring in September 2003 in the Northeast and Midwest US.

Mouthy Magazine home