During a recent live show, where legendary guitarist John Fahey played a bluesy, trancey Duane Eddy/Ventures solo set, where he told the audience 'no, I will not play acoustic' making clear his intention- not playing truly acoustic or electric. The majority of his now four decade musical career has been solo acoustic guitar pieces which are gentle, soothing and meditative. Now recently, he's taken the exact opposite route with his music now making much more improvised and louder music that's far removed from any kind of folk that he was usually assorted with. Also, he's started what's now his second record label, Revenant, releasing prime archival material from Derek Bailey and Cecil Taylor as well as gospel and bluegrass collections. His recent career turns can be heard on Womblife (on Table of the Elements) and The Epiphany of Glenn Jones (on Thirsy Ear with Cul De Sac).
interview by Jason Gross (October 1997)
Read an essay by Fahey, 'How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life' (MS Word format, 14K). 'Bluegrass' will appear in a collection of John's short stories tentatively titled Spank which is due out from Drag City this summer (huge thanks to Damian Rogers).
February 22nd, 2001: News from Revenant Records
John Fahey died this morning following heart bypass surgery earlier this week.
John went into the hospital last week following several weeks of chest and arm pain and was told he'd had a heart attack. He elected to have the bypass--sextuple, as it turned out--with a sober but optimistic outlook. He had the operation Monday morning and remained heavily sedated thereafter. By Wednesday night, his kidneys had shut down and, following a further unsuccessful heart procedure Thursday morning, he was placed on life support. He was removed from life support sometime around 11 am today.
Thanks to all who befriended John over the years. He wasn't always good at expressing it, but he definitely got a kick out of people.
PSF: The last few CD's that you've done have been a real departure from your earlier work. How do you see this?
I've done stuff like that a long time ago in '64, '65. I did sound effects and collages on a few records. Most people didn't like it, so I didn't do it again for a long time, until recently. Then the next time out, there was this new music scene going on. I didn't know anything about it. Then suddenly, BANG, I found out about it. And I've been experimenting privately for years and years and years. So, it's nothing new to me. It's working out pretty good. A few of the old fans want me to play stuff that's thirty, forty years old. I just tell 'em to go to hell. I'm picking up more of an audience from younger people who have an open mind, who are more into experimentalism. I don't want to live in the past.
PSF: What were you listening to that gave you encouragement to do this?
Cluster, Bang on a Can, Sonic Youth. Some of the classical people like Stockhausen. Jim O'Rourke was doing was really crazy stuff. Loren Mazzacane Connors, who's a good friend of mine.
PSF: What did you find appealing about this?
It's more fun. You don't have to stay in such a rigid structure. You can branch out and experiment and have more fun. Sometimes it works real well and sometimes it doesn't. Now people respect you than they ever did before for experimentalism, even if it doesn't work that well. There are more record companies, more distributors than there ever have been.
PSF: Looking at your whole career, how do you judge this part of it now?
As far as I'm concerned, this is the apex of my career. I'm really tired of the old stuff. I was getting sick of it. I didn't know I could get away with anything else (laughs).
PSF: You were saying that you found people are pretty accepting of this?
Yeah, they have a much wider knowledge of music and noise and experimentalism. I'm not dealing with hippies anymore. I always hated hippies. I ran into this chick the other night when my trio was playing here in Portland. Everybody was digging it but here comes this old chick making a lot of noise, wanting me to play shit that's forty years old. I told her 'go to hell.' She started screaming and stuff so they had to take her out. I don't care. Get lost. That stuff was too sentimental anyway.
PSF: Do you hate your older material then?
Some of it was real good. Most of it was kind of cosmic sentimentalism. I kind of like it but I don't listen to it. I don't even know why I did it. I guess I hadn't learned enough.
PSF: Which albums of your own are personal favorites?
I can only mention recent stuff. Like the one that just came out on Thirsty Ear.
PSF: So you don't listen to your older material?
PSF: In some of your recent writing, you were saying how you felt you had more in common with the punk and alternative crowd than with the hippies and the folk crowd.
Yeah. I never thought I had anything in common with them. I didn't like them. I was never a hippie. They picked up on my music and they thought I was one of them. They thought I shared their value system and I took LSD and so forth. They just didn't understand me. But they bought my records and I had to play for them. Secretly, I always hated them. Now you can see what they're really like. I always knew that they were control freaks. Like that chick, they want to control everything, control me- they don't want anybody to be free. This new group is all for freedom. That's one hell of an improvement. With the alternative people, there are some social do's and don't's. But in comparison, it shows that the hippie movement was always quite rigid even though it was always talking about freedom. It was phony.
PSF: You've been in Oregan for a while now. You find that this effects your work differently after being in California for a while?
It doesn't effect my work, I don't think. I'd be doing the same thing no matter where I was. I like it better up here for lots of reasons. It's not better or worse regarding my music.
PSF: You wrote about the Harry Smith anthology before. This had a big effect on you I guess.
All of us who learned folk music, real folk music, in order to learn how to play the guitar to express ourselves, all of us heard that and used it extensively for our own creativity.
PSF: So you think that was the basis of where you started from?
Yeah, I'd say so.
PSF: You said that you thought it was REAL folk music. How do you see that?
Well, there's fake folk music. Like a kid from the suburbs doing the negro blues or Appalachian music.
PSF: But you found something authentic in Smith's material.
Apart from aesthetic considerations, the emotions expressed are much more direct. They're coming from people who lived the lives of folk people, not from some suburbanite who's singing someone else's tradition. He can't figure out how to express himself on his own. It might be interesting if they expressed the anguish of the suburbs but they didn't. It would be authentic if that's what a suburbanite talked about and sang about. The pathos of the suburbs or whatever (laughs). But they didn't do that. Believe me, there's a lot of pathos there but instead they adopted other cultures' music which they didn't know anything about. They didn't do a very good job. I never understood that.
PSF: Some people found that there was some kind of spiritual element to your work. Do you think that's accurate?
That was a misconception that people were reading into it. I really don't understand that. I wonder what they're talking about. I don't know what YOU'RE talking about, no offense.
PSF: Where do you get inspiration for your work?
Oh, I sit down, improvise and try to open up the unconscious. As soon as the unconscious opens up, something'll happen. I've done this for a while now. It takes a certain amount of planning once you get to the recording stage, if you're going to do duets and collages and so forth. Even then, if you're unconscious is about to come out of there, it's interesting. Some guitar players don't pay attention to how they feel so it sounds phony. If you're seperated from your feelings then it's not very interesting.
PSF: You studied German philosophy a while ago. Did that have any bearing on your work?
I took the wrong fork. I should have gone into psychotherapy. I did do that for about 10 years (1970 - 1980) and that's what I was really trying to learn about. I just went to the wrong place (laughs).
PSF: So you think that it helped you a lot?
Oh yeah. It saved my life.
PSF: It's good if it helped you then.
Yeah, I know it did!
PSF: You were talking before about influences. You mentioned Stockhausen before and I've heard you also talk about Charles Ives.
Ives was a bigger influence to me. There was the experimentalism there again. Sometimes works, sometimes it doesn't.
PSF: What do you think about the work of some of the people you've worked with before like Leo Kottke and George Winston?
I'm not really interested in what Kottke is doing. I don't even know what he's doing. George is a good friend of mine. I don't know what he's doing though. I see that there's kind of a culture war going between polite middle class people who listen to and like that light woe-begotten stuff and then there's alterative people. Kottke hasn't come out to that yet. George probably knows about it. He's more of a rebellious type. When he was in high school, he and his friends decided that they wanted to destroy a talk show in Florida. They recorded about 90 minutes of lunatic phone calls that they made and they're funny as hell. Even though George plays nice, passive dinner music on stage, backstage he's really good. He plays really good guitar too. There is a lot of rebellion in him- he just doesn't show it onstage.
PSF: Could you talk about the Takoma label? You started that yourself, right?
Yeah, I did. The reason that I got rid of it was almost everybody in the office started taking cocaine and I couldn't get rid of it. We weren't losing money or anything. We were still selling records. I made the terrible mistake of giving stock to the employees so I couldn't fire them. The only thing I could do was to dissolve the company. While I was doing that, Chrysalis offered to buy it and I said 'sure, take it.'
PSF: What was your original idea behind the company?
It was to record people like myself and alternative people and blues and ethnic stuff.
PSF: I've heard that you used to go record collecting door-to-door. You still do that?
(laughs) No, not anymore. Record stores are very useful. Everyone has yard sales now too.
PSF: When you first started out with music, you were really unique with what you were doing. No band, no lyrics, just solo guitar. How did you decide on that?
I tried to sing but I'm a terrible singer. So, I wrote guitar songs.
PSF: What were you listening to then?
I was listening to a lot of Bartok and Shostakovich and bluegrass of the time. Harry Smith stuff and other similar records. I tried to syncretize all that into one guitar style and I think I succeeded pretty well.
See some of John's favorite music
Also see John's tribute to Harry Smith
There's also our TRIBUTE to John Fahey
including interviews with Dr. Demento and George Winston
Check out the rest of Perfect Sound Forever
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