Eric Wallack

by Jerry Kranitz

Uploaded to Aural Innovations: October 2003

AI: In your bio you mentioned that quickly after picking up the guitar you started using non-standard tunings. I was curious if that was a result of something you were listening to at the time or if you were just naturally curious.

Eric Wallack (EW): Probably naturally curious more than anything else. I had to find somebody who knew how to tune a guitar whenever I needed it tuned. And I discovered I could tune it weird ways and get good sounds out of it. Pretty quickly on though I would read magazines like Guitar Player, and the interviews of people like John Fahey, Robbie Basho and Leo Kottke. And those were records that I had access to. My dad has a very eclectic record collection. He had an interest in obscure folk records, obscure ethnic records, he even had political speeches on records. Some of these records were really important to me and then I found out they were doing open tunings, and I thought that's easy for me, I can do that.

AI: I noticed in your listing of instruments you've got a dulcimer that your dad built.

EW: He was a high school history teacher. He's retired, but for years he's been making miniatures of furniture. He hates the term dollhouse furniture. They're scale reproductions that he sells to collectors. He's always been really good with woodwork. He was not a musician. But he loved listening to music. But he built this dulcimer and he didn't know how to play it so I took it over. And it's a good instrument.

AI: It sounds like you grew up with some good influences with your dad being interested in exploring different kinds of music.

EW: Yeah, he had some weird stuff in there. And for me that was right up my alley.

AI: Along the same lines you also mentioned a high school music theory teacher who introduced you to electronic and avant-garde music.

EW: Yes. And everybody in this class thought, oh this is godawful. But I was sitting in the back of the room and I was transformed. He actually had a modular synthesizer in the high school classroom because he knew a guy who in the 70's went around schools showing off synthesizers. He had an ARP 2600 and actually went on to do other educational stuff with electronic music, and he got him to come to our school and... I don't know, he had taste for weird stuff.

AI: So I guess you really lucked out.

EW: I think that I did. Most everyone else in my school thought they were screwed.

AI: Did you study music in college?

EW: I did. I have a Masters Degree in English Literature. But I was an undergrad in art history and also all kinds of musical classes, and I was a music major for a while, and then I changed to English. But I have a lot of college background in music. Music theory, composition, and a couple different instruments.

AI: Did you say a "couple" different instruments?

EW: Yeah.

AI: I've got your web site Instruments/Gear page in front of me and I see a lot more than a couple different instruments here.

EW: Well some of those instruments I won't consider myself a practitioner of. I can do my thing on them but I couldn't necessarily offer anything professional.

AI: Sure. But you've got a lot of different string instruments here. And Chapman Stick too. Was that a whole re-learning thing? Or being a guitarist did you find that relatively easy to pick up?

EW: I think I'm more comfortable on stringed instruments. That's no surprise, you've heard my recordings. Bass and guitar I've always been really adept at. Those are my main instruments. I'd always had in the back of my mind the idea of the Chapman Stick. Since about 1980 when everybody heard Tony Levin for the first time. And I thought, that's for me. Because I could never decide what to bring to a gig. Should I bring the guitar? Should I bring the bass? And I thought I would be able to adapt to it pretty easily. So I got the thing and I opened up the case and strapped it on and thought, oh god what the hell am I gonna do now... this is completely different! But it's a really inspiring instrument to look at. It's very sculptural. And as an improvisor it's just a wide open canvas. You just start tapping your fingers on the strings and the music comes out. I'm still learning but I'm getting more comfortable on it.

AI: You've got some on the Good Night Effendi CD.

EW: That was about the week after I got the thing. I had to kind of work it in a little bit and see if I could give myself some confidence. Recently I sent about 60 minutes worth of Chapman Stick to Harlan Mark Vale and he's started to attach his tracks to that. Harlan is, as you know, a fantastic musician. I sent him a disc and he sent me a disc, and the disc that he sent me... I'm almost at a loss as to what to do on it because it's so amazing as it is. I don't want to spoil it so I'm being really careful. But we should have about two discs worth of material this Fall. And I sent a whole bunch of Chapman Stick stuff out to Jean-Luc Berthelot in France.

AI: Yeah, the TALES guy! (Ed. note: see AI alpha index for Tales reviews)

EW: Yeah, Rotcod Zzaj hooked me up with him.

AI: He does some wonderful space electronic music.

EW: In fact, just today I received his discs in the mail so he could catch me up on what he's doing. I heard him on your [internet radio] show and I'm looking forward to hearing the rest because I really liked it. So that's my first truly international hookup so far.

AI: Going back to your instruments, I see that you've got an electric upright bass that you built yourself.

EW: I've built a number of instruments over the years, but that's the only one I still have left. The rest have either been given away or sold. I don't know how familiar you are with instruments but if you think of the electric upright bass that people like Tony Levin play, it's mounted to a simple stand that looks very much like a fretboard with strings on it. The Steinberger kind of design... very minimalist, just strings and a pickup on it. And it saves me a lot of grief from carrying around my full scale upright, which is a 100 year old instrument and it's pretty fragile and of course it takes up a lot of space. My wife and I have to look at minivans when we buy cars. And this thing basically fits in a rifle case kind of deal, and it's very portable and you can cover the same ground. And I've always gotten a real kick out of making stuff.

AI: Other than Satan Tortilla and Lords Of True Slack you don't really mention other band projects in your bio. Has most of what you've done leading up to the past couple years been solo stuff or have there been other band projects?

EW: There've been other band projects and I didn't put a lot up on the web site because I think some of it is a bit unrelated to what I'm doing now. I have no remorse for any of the groups I've played in. But I've played everything! I mean, I played in top 40 kind of bands. I've played in glam bands. Rock n roll stuff. I've played in Bluegrass bands. I've played with singer-songwriters. I've played in a lot of different contexts, and I love so many different styles and types of music that I felt that to put a lot of that on the web site would start to be confusing. So I tried to include things that were more related to the releases I've been putting out. But I've played in all kinds of contexts and I love all kinds of music. My record collection is really eclectic.

AI: Well that doesn't surprise me to hear that because listening to all these CD's you've released in the past couple years there's a tremendous amount of variety and it's pretty clear that you're interested in a lot of different kinds of music.

EW: I see it all as parts of the same big picture. I teach art history and humanities at the college (Owens Community College) where I work, and I even tell my students that all the art, painting, architecture and music, that they are all basically a part of the same thing. And often I'll be improvising and thinking about paintings I've seen. Or buildings... I think I've gotten as much or more influence out of the fine arts world as I have out of anything else in my own work. I have lots of compositions and improvisations based on painters or architects, or specific works of art. And I really do see the arts as all different aspects of the same thing.

AI: I agree. You can draw influences from so many different things, whether it's sound or visual art, and it all comes together depending on how you view it.

EW: I just played a gig on Friday night at the Toledo Museum of Art with a colleague of mine who's a poet. I improvise music along with the poetry. And it wasn't the typical Beat kind of thing with bongos and flutes and that, but kind of an abstract, maybe minimalist thing on my part. And for me it's really inspiring to improvise being around other artists, especially in a live situation.

AI: I read about that on your web site and saw that mentioned, but not only you and poet Leonard Kress but also printmaker Mania Dajnak. How did that fit in?

EW: Mania Dajnak is actually Leonard's wife. She is just a fantastic printmaker. And what she came up with was a 7 or 8 foot triptych that was behind us in three panels that included text from some of Leonard's poems. Sort of abstract imagery and colors. So it was really a multimedia event because there was visual arts as well as poetry and improvised music. And as much in that show, I was looking back at her panels as I was listening to Leonard. I really tried to be part of the whole thing.

AI: That sounds great. Did you do this a couple times? I think I saw another date where you did that.

EW: We've done it a few times. We're a band!

AI: I listened to some of the Satan Tortilla tracks at their site and it's pretty wild stuff.

EW: You know those are all 7"'s on vinyl.

AI: Wow, you had some vinyl releases! During what years was that recorded?

EW: Early 90's. That was the kookiest thing. That was as much a visual performance as anything. In concert it was all visual. We wore costumes. I had a song that was called... forgive me... I like the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia as much as much as anybody who loves improvisation... but we had a song called "Jerry Garcia's Dead". And it sort of bashed on the whole phony hippie culture. It was, after all, a punk band. And for these shows we would have to create an effigy of Jerry Garcia, complete with a paper mache head full of ketchup and stuff. And we had chainsaws on stage, And we had a guy in a hockey mask and he would actually come up and saw to pieces this Jerry Garcia effigy during the middle of that song. And most all of the tunes were in Spanish because the main writer for the band, Scott Kramer, he decided that, "you know the Hispanic kids don't have much of a punk or alternative culture to latch on to" - this was in the early 90's - he says, "we'll give it to 'em". But there really wasn't too much of a Hispanic culture out here in northwest Ohio to perform for. So most of the songs ended up being in Spanish, for that reason only. It was a lot of fun. In fact, it was really the opportunity for me to unlearn a lot of the college training. To be free in a lot of ways. I imagine that it was something akin to Zappa shows at the Garrick Theater in the 60's. It was free reign to explore all kinds of elements of social commentary, theater of the absurd and just really bad music. On our part, not Frank Zappa's part.

AI: You also mentioned that you had been recording solo stuff for many years under the name Bhagiti. What kind of music did Bhagiti focus on?

EW: The Bhagiti stuff, the 4-track years, were really different. It's vocal oriented of all things. Some people have told me it's a lot like what Ween was, even though I was doing it many years before Ween. That kind of demented, wacky, absurd sort of surreal pointless vocals. And I think a lot of the overdubbed parts on the 4-track... the guitar, drum machine and bass... people have told me has kind of a Captain Beefheart feel to it. And I was listening to a lot of that kind of music then too. It's really perversely bad in many respects.

AI: Bad can be good!!

EW: Bret [Hart] says I should have sent it to him in the 80's. That I probably would have gotten written up in some of the cassette magazines.

AI: Were you aware of those magazines in the 80's? Like Op and Sound Choice and the whole international underground tape trading thing?

EW: I was. And in the past year I've gotten to not only to make records with, but talk to and make friends with people that I had really elevated in my mind... they were kind of my musical heroes. Guys like Greg [Segal]. I literally played that Paper Bag tape all the time. And it was really important to me to know that there were people playing like that somewhere in the early 80's, which for me anyway were mostly devoid of a lot of good stuff... at least that I was exposed to. And I read about Bret Hart and I saw some of his reviews. So these were names that I had actually known for 20 years before I actually had the guts, with Vermis, to make contact with some of these people. For me, Vermis was the record that sort of brought me out more into the public than I'd ever been before, with music that I was calling my own, where I wasn't playing with somebody else. And it was Vermis that I sent to everyone [Ed. note: See review in AI #21]. That was the start, about a year ago.

AI: Yeah, I don't think it's overstating things to say that you burst on to the scene with Vermis, especially given your output and all the people you've collaborated with since then.

EW: I call it The Little CD That Could. It was finally an opportunity for me to say, I'm almost 40, I'm going to have to try and do something now if I'm going to do it at all. I wanted to see what would happen and the response has been great. And the people I've met like Don Campau, Bret, Rotcod... everyone. This has been the most supportive, awesome group of people that I could imagine. So I'm glad I made the effort when I did because I'm really happy to be involved with this right now.

AI: So did you just start touching base with people by sending them your music?

EW: The first two I sent to... I sent a copy of Vermis to you because I had found Aural Innovations online and I'd been reading it for quite a while and I said what the heck this is probably as good a place as any that would ever want to even talk to me. I sent one to Bret Hart. I found him online and knew the name from years back. And I sent one to Eugene Chadbourne who never ever got back in touch with me again, and Bret said he probably never will. And Bret called me back the same weekend he received it and not only said he enjoyed listening to it but he right away started listing off people I should make contact with. And I basically sent people copies of Vermis with a humble note saying if you're at all interested I'd like to trade for some music or talk to you about this kind of music... and it snowballed from there.

AI: On your list of collaborators you mention Charles Rice Goff III too.

EW: I sent Charles a track over the summer and he has finished the collaboration on that one track, and it's going to be on a soon to be released record where he collaborated with a lot of different people playing acoustic instruments. And he and I are also preparing for a collaboration between just the two of us. I slowed on that because I went back to work recently, our semester started again, and I disassembled my studio to move into another room of our house, so I haven't been able to work on that recording. So I thought that was going to move faster than it did and I put his name up at the site. So it's slowed a little but it's definitely going to happen.

AI: Of the CD's of yours I haven't reviewed yet I'm really loving the Lords Of True Slack disc.

EW: We couldn't get anybody interested in that! We live in a college town here in Bowling Green and you'd think it would be more open minded to improv and experimental music... we're not that experimental, I thought it was pretty tame. It was basically free-improv... I called it a progressive-ambient band. And the only times we ever got together to play music were actually at those gigs where those recordings were made. And I had known BJ for a long time. We'd always talked about music. I had worked on his guitars before but we'd never played much music together. So we said let's do it. And I thought those shows worked out pretty well for the most part. I was always happy with the way those came out.

AI: Do you ever have opportunities to play on the college campus?

EW: There are places here in town but they're not really on campus. So there are places to play but right now I have to say that Bowling Green is not a very good place to gig for new and different music. There are more DJ and dance places than there are clubs to play music. The one place we did play was the Anarchist Bookstore that was open for a long time and had a performance space. But sadly that went under. Most of the places that will allow alternative or different music disappear in this town. It's too bad.

AI: I see the same people on the Good Night Effendi CD did some shows together recently right?

EW: That's the Black Swamp Festival. Bowling Green does this big weekend festival. It's this coming weekend in fact. They close off Main Street. They've got the Tom Tom Club and NRBQ coming in. Those kind of things. But there's also little side stages, and painters and crafters that come in and exhibit their work.

AI: So it's a community thing.

EW: Yup. And they stick us off on the side stage on the other side of town... the electronic stage. I will say, and I did mention this on my web site because I felt that I would play with these guys no matter who they were because I really like their music, but Eric Zibbel and John Zibbel are actually my step-sons. And it's just a blast playing with them.

AI: Tell me about your teaching at the college. You teach humanities, art history, music and literature. Do you teach music theory classes and such as well?

EW: I do. Depending on the semester I teach an introductory music theory class, or a more general music appreciation for non-music majors. I teach a general western humanities class, which is philosophy, art, history and religion. I teach art appreciation, art history, and I teach a literature of the Holocaust class. My department nicknamed me Leo, after Leonardo DaVinci, because I have all these different backgrounds and teach these different classes. But as I said earlier, I see all the arts as part of the same thing and I feel very comfortable talking about art on a broad spectrum to students. And I really try to involve my students in art on a broad spectrum.

AI: Do you do what your high school teacher did and expose them to "out there" music?

EW: I definitely do. And I let them bring their stuff in too.

AI: Are you sometimes surprised by what they bring in?

EW: Yeah, I am. And it never ceases to amaze me that there's a couple students in my class that have this really kick ass band. And usually out here in northwest Ohio, believe it or not, there's usually some teenagers that have a really kick ass prog rock band. And in my intro to music theory class we're talking about meter and rhythm... and I bring in a drum machine and we start programming the drum machine and they getting really into that.

AI: So what's the most out there music you've played for your students?

EW: I have this CD, and I can't think of the guy's name right now, but he recorded himself striking wires on telephone poles out in Kansas, and he's gets this [makes the sound]... I play that for them and they don't like that. That's like the "is this music or not" discussion. But I put on Derek Bailey and people like that.

AI: They probably have a tough time with that too.

EW: They do. They think I'm nuts.

AI: Any other projects or shows we should know about?

EW: The Charles [Goff] project will happen. The Harlan Mark Vale project too, I'm working on that (see Molten Glass review this issue). I've got a thing with Jean-Luc Berthelot and Rotcod Zzaj in the works right now. I've got another thing with Bret [Hart] in the works. Bret's been doing these projects he calls Building, where he's sending stuff to more than two people, beyond the Duets. We're up to about three of those now (see Building Vol. 1 review this issue). Gigs... slow and few in between. That's partly due to my work schedule teaching. I guess I don't count my faculty recitals but I actually do play this kind of stuff on campus. When I released Grendel I played a concert on campus of that style of music. I tried to recreate the concept of Grendel on stage for my faculty recital. People actually received it much better than I thought they would. I hope to release a solo Chapman Stick improvisation record in the next year. And I'm hoping to connect with a few people I haven't connected with before. There's always other people to meet and work with. I'd also like to become a little more international and work with people overseas. And I'd really like to do something one-on-one with Ernesto [Diaz-Infante].

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