Interview With Jim Lampi
Jim Lampi is one of the worlds foremost Chapman Stick players. In this interview Jim talks to John Hillarby about his solo albums, TV Weather and Young Lions, and also about Digital Dreaming, his latest collaboration with Zeus B Held and aboriginal musicians. Jim also chats about his work with John Martyn and demonstrates the distinctive sound and versatility of the Chapman Stick, as well as playing part of a song he is working on for his new solo album. Jim had recently returned from an extensive tour of Italy and the UK with John Martyn.
Jim was born in America and gained an honours degree in Design at San Diego University. In 1976 he became a professional musician, playing the guitar and saxaphone in bars and clubs in Aspen and San Diego.
I started by asking Jim to tell us a little about the history of the Chapman Stick….
It’s quite a new instrument and there are about 5 or 6,000 around. There aren’t many new instruments, there are electronics in music but as a whole kind of new tradition, in terms of instruments the Stick is quite new.
You started off as a saxaphone and guitar player and I understand that you did a lot of club work in your early days around San Diego?
Yes all over. I tried to get into Berkeley School in Boston with it and they would not let me in with the Stick, so I kept gigging. The Stick came out for sale in about 1974 and I heard of it around 1977 and I found one in a music shop in Newport Beach which is 100 miles north of San Diego. Then I fooled around with that for a year, then I went and took some lessons from the inventor. I figured I wasn’t going to get anywhere musically around San Diego as the bands that were around then were pretty boring, they were bands that were mostly known for drinking! That was the kind of music scene in San Diego. Then I moved up to the San Fransico area, a much better music scene. I got to know some very good musicians and I took a few lessons. I got to play at this one club, just a great club that kind of gave me a nice start. It’s no longer a music kind of venue, it was a restaurant, music and movie theatre kind of thing. They used to put on shows and movies every night, live music and restaurant, it was the Varsity Theatre in Paolo Alto. I got the chance to play there every week, and I was with an amazing duo called Tuck and Patty, who are quite well known now, they would play there every week, including a guy called Michael Hedges. He had about 4 or 5 albums out before he died. He was quite a really well known guitarist. It was not only nice to be around other really good musicians, but it was nice for me playing the Stick and getting up to scratch. I didn’t know any other Stick players, I met a couple in the Bay area when I moved up there.
So how did you first come to learn of the Chapman Stick?
I read an article in the Los Angeles Times by Leonard Feather and he said there was this new instrument around. He said that it was this original piece of design. I was thinking that I wanted a more compositional instrument and the Stick has a range similar to that of a piano. It is played with a similar technique in the sense of tapping on the strings. You can strum the strings to a certain extent, but it is made for tapping. That’s the way it performs the best, so in a sense you’re playing more like a piano player, playing the bass part with one hand and the higher part with the other hand.
I understand that some players now use Funk Fingers?
Funk Fingers, what are those?
I was hoping that you would tell me! I understand they are chopped off drumsticks basically, they are used on the bass strings.
Tony Levens who is this great bass player, probably the best known Stick player around, but he is also a well known bass player for years. He just plays these great lines, but he does this thing, really traditional bass playing, he has what looks like little pieces of drum sticks, which give an almost percussive kind of sound, but he doesn’t use it on the Stick. I don’t think it’s actually a Stick thing.
So because it was a new instrument and it was more compositional this prompted your interest to take it up?
Originally, I just decided to learn to play and obviously the instrument evolved also.
Were people like Tony Levens an influence on you?
Not really, I hadn’t heard of him, he wasn’t playing the Stick, I don’t know when he started playing , he might have been playing the Stick. The first person I heard of outside of the inventor of this instrument. The first album I ever saw with a Stick on it was Alfonso Johnson, bass player, I think he played ‘Weather Report’ and a few other people and he played some Stick. He actually holds it on the cover too.
So the instrument was invented about 1974.
The instrument has been for sale since 74. He was actually working on it since the 60’s.
So how does it actually work then?
The standard instrument is ten strings with the bass side tuned in ascending fifths. There are two kinds of tunings which are pretty standard in western stringed instruments. There’s fifths which is what cellos and violins are tuned in and banjos to a certain extent and then there are fourths which is what most guitars are tuned in. And bass which is usually tuned in fourths. They both have their pluses and minuses so to speak. And with the Stick the bass is in fifths which gives it this huge range, it means that it gives it a much bigger interval between the strings, so it also means that you can jump larger intervals, which means I could still be playing a basic bass line and at the same time with a couple of other fingers on the same hand I could be playing almost the second part. So in a sense if I am playing this a bass part I could be reaching over like this and be playing something. It is almost like the second hand on a piano sometimes.
Can you bend the strings?
Oh yes, it is still a stringed instrument. It is not an electronic instrument, there is no electronic pick up, it’s not a synthesizer. They do make pick ups for it that control synthesizers. So the sound that is coming out is basically the sound of the strings. He also designed the pick ups for low noise for that style of playing. The instrument that I have is about four years old maybe five now, I can’t remember when I got it. It’s a Chapman Stick pick up so a combination of these things give it it’s unique sound. You can also get them with active pick ups which give a more electric bass guitar sound.
You mentioned you had lessons from Emmett Chapman.
When I started playing I played for about a year or so, and I decided to go up and ask him to give me some lessons. I didn’t know what to expect, I thought that it would be a factory, sort of thing like Fender. It basically was him and one or two other people helping him make these things down in his garage, in Laurel Canyon, basically Hollywood.
He actually has an input on every Stick that leaves him.
Yes, he still does, it is still like a Ma and Pop operation, with his daughter doing a lot of the work and maybe one or two other people.
Is it quite an expensive instrument to buy?
It is still kind of expensive, but you can pick up used ones from between £500 and £800 for older ones and for new ones around £1500 or so. But they are hard to find here, you generally have to order from the company.
Is it a hard instrument to learn how to play?
I think it’s a bit different, there is no reference point. Now there’s quite a bit, when I picked it up I had never heard it played. I had no idea what it was supposed to sound like. The hardest thing was to decide what to do with it, as you had no reference. So when Chapman gave me some lessons and gave me some ideas it gave me references as to what it is and his approach to it. And Tuck Andrews who I got lessons from he did not tap on the guitar, he does tap now but he is just a phenomenal guitarist and at first just his inspiration as a great guitarist, but he was a very good teacher, he would give me theoretical ideas he wouldn’t say you have to do this or this, because it wasn’t a guitar. But he would say on a string instrument this is how you would work out your chord structures. Then I would go home and figure out my chord structures. So that is how I got the structural kind of thing and then I took some lessons from a good pianist in the same area. I always liked Latin and Salsa music and he was a good and respected Latin and Salsa keyboard player. He also introduced me to some people that I kind of follow around today when their names show up, some of the Cuban musicians. It was quite a mixture of things, I was brought up when Latin was around, there was things around like Santana, I suppose that was the main influence. They were just great players and also the Brazilian stuff. Just great rythmns.
So when you are on stage and performing as part of the band, you have the Stick and what other equipment?
My basic thing is the Stick and then I have one multi effects unit for the bass and one multi effects unit for the high end. So when it comes to practicality I try not to use anything other than that because it’s too cumbersome and too many chances for problems. And most of the new things today are fairly complete, I don’t use heavily affected sound anyway. So what I look for is a decent EQ, just typical things you start with maybe depending on the type of sound you are looking for. Clean sound and everything, so I just re did it just before this last tour, because everything moves on technically. This time I got two floor units so that I could have volume controls, so that it is quite easy now, and they sit next to each other so all the wires go in the same direction. I am just trying to simplify things so that I can get around everything and have a smaller and concise package. As long as I am happy with the starting point that is going to be my sound now.
And it’s easier to tour now with the less equipment you have. If you are firstly happy with the basic sound that they produce, then you can tweek things.
You are not just a musician are you, you have your own business and your own website. You’ve written articles for computer magazines, designed artwork, animations.
I always used to do artwork. Obviously it’s moved in a whole new area, everythings changed, when it comes to digital media everythings changed, music, artwork.
How do you fit it all in?
I need to make a living. Music in someways is like a bad habit, as long as you see it like that. Music is a wonderful thing to do and a very fulfilling thing to do but a horrible way to make a living. It’s a ridiculous job.
Because it’s so unreliable?
Yes and businesswise it’s so ridiculous. It almost gets worse the better gig you get sometimes the worst they pay sometimes.
Have you told John that then?
Oh not that point.
No John’s fine.
John this is a ridiculous career!
Well it is a ridiculous career. Most people I know, no matter how good they are generally there is always still this battle. Part of it is I handled my own record contract here and I ended up in more trouble than before I got it, I got stuck with the record contract. Typical kind of things.
TV Weather, which is your first solo album which you released in 1992. I read one review which described it as an acoustic album without any effects and there is some amazing playing on it. Did you have any particular influences or inspirations on that album? Why is it called TV Weather?
It was partly because there was one song in there that was influenced by my first winter in London. I was particularly affected by complete darkness in my bedsit. When winter comes here, they begin to show all these old films, they bring out ‘Baywatch’ etc.
The TV schedule totally changes.
That’s right and then you find that you watch these shows just to see the sunlight. The lyrics of the song was basically alluding to the fact that I recognised the places where they filmed all these old westerns, just over the hills near Los Angeles. A lot of them were filmed in the exact same area and they were obviously riding around in the same deserts and mountains.
So it wasn’t a dig at the weather reports we have over here then.
Oh no, I think most of them as hopeless everywhere.
One of the songs ‘Vanishing Point.
Oh that’s something else actually.
That features on a compilation album I think of Stick players.
Yes that hasn’t shown up on anything else. It’s a one off. We were going to do another album which that was going to show up on, but that was when I was getting out of that record contract. So it may show up on something else or another version of it. But it was fun to do, we put it together quickly just as a track to put on it and as an idea for something else.
Your second album ‘Young Lions’ was released in 1996 and on that album you play the Stick, Wind Synth and Saxophone.
That’s right I did play my sax on one. Basically, I approached it as an old fashioned song writing album. At that point I was fed up with the instrumental kind of thing. I have always written songs that you can sing to. You know gigs are gigs and you just go out there and do the things that you are interested in doing at the time. So I never had time to do more of the vocal kind of thing. So I approached it like a song writing album, singing and playing with the instruments, a little colouring here and there, a little percussion or drums. That is generally what you hear. So I approached it as a singer songwriter album. So the Stick, rather than an instrumental kind of thing, is more of an arrangement around a story.
Your vocals on ‘She Said’ and the title song ‘Young Lions’ remind me of Lou Reed and also David Bowie. Did they influence you?
Not actually, I like them. That’s cool. I don’t mind that comparison at all.
On ‘Strange Place’ the third track on the album, it certainly is a strange place.
Actually, I was partly influenced by the first time I met the guy who I signed the record contract with. He was foreign. You know sometimes when you go into the middle of London, no one is from London, and people just seem to show up and nobody seems to know how anything works.
In the introduction, I can hear elements of Debussy, bagpipes and the underground. Was this song influenced by the manager that you signed the record deal with?
In terms of me just having this meeting with this guy.
So it’s not the ‘John Wayne’ song of the album!
This was kind of, but it was mainly due to the fact that he was a foreigner and I was a foreigner and one of the waitresses turned out to be from the same country this guy was from. One of the other waitresses was from who knows where? When I showed up it was one of those situations where it was London, winter and I was in the shock of bedsits, metered heating systems and all that kind of thing. When you show up basically anywhere as a foreigner and you don’t have tons of money to hide yourself from those kind of things.
It’s not always the friendliest of places London.
No, it’s interesting. It made for a decent song. I kind of liked that one actually.
I think John passed said he really ikes it.
Yes, that was what he said, I hope so.
Your latest album ‘Digital Dreaming’ which I think was released earlier this year.
It was released in Australia and we’re trying to work out an enhanced version. It was recorded in London and in Australia and features a number of musicians, a chap called Ray Smith on flute, whistle and guitar and Australian musicians playing the Yidaki. The Yidaki is a kind of percussion instrument, we also had a guy that’s a well known aboriginal singer songwriter, named Frank Yamma, he has got quite a reputation. He’s done quite well in opening for a well known Australian band. I don’t think they are well known here, but in Europe they have been doing a lot of touring and have sold a lot of albums. Frank is from Alice Springs and he got interested, it gave him a different outlet, normally as he is a singer songwriter he is normally up there with his guitar singing. Suddenly we just said, sing whatever you want to sing, hopefully sing it in your native language and anything you want to add in English.
It sounds a very intriguing album.
It is kind of London mix meets Australia. We did not want to make any historical kind of music, we didn’t want it to be like that.
How did you become involved in that?
Zeus B Held, who is a well known producer in London, he happened to have a little place in Australia, with a few Australian friends, and he had some produce he was working with some people and they rang the University of Adelaide and some of the musicians said why don’t you come over. First off come and play here, whatever happens world music mix. I thought it sounded like a fun project. So we went over there and did about five, six, seven gigs around that part of Australia, and on Kangaroo Island which is a little place, and a great location and we recorded a few things and did a few gigs.
Yes, I read that there is a bay there called ‘Antechamber Bay’, and that the atmosphere there was something that you wanted in the album, so you set up microphones and recorded some of the atmosphere, which reminded me of what John Martyn did for his album ‘One World’. Was that an influence?
Not really, we just recorded and played. To tell you the truth it was just exciting to go to Australia. So in someways, I had no idea as to what I wanted it to be. I just wanted to go and play in Australia.
A very spontaneous project.
Yes, I think Zeus had more of an idea as to what it would be. I really did not know a lot about Australian music I had seen some of the artwork and because I did the whole animation that went along with the piece.
That was for ‘Voices Across the Ocean’ was it?
Yes, the first track.
You started playing with John around 1996. How did you come to meet John?
I was doing one of my own gigs in Soho. Kind of a late night jazz gig. A solo gig, I was up there doing my bit. I didn’t really notice him coming in.
Did you know who he was?
No I didn’t. I had heard of him. In fact in a funny way John has been haunting me my entire musical career. In some ways I have been secondarily influenced probably, because the first band I was ever in, the guitarist was a John Martyn fan. So I didn’t really know John Martyn songs, but the guitarist was all excited about this John Martyn song, so we had to do something by John and we ended up doing ‘Don’t want to Know’.
This was mid seventies?
The first time I was in one of those youth bands. So we did that and I kept trying to do that song, not really knowing what the original sounded like. I used the echoplex but recorded with the sax using a two minute loop. And it was funny when I saw John used the echoplex too. So it’s kind of funny, as I said, there must be this kind of secondary incluence floating around. I used to play for a couple of minutes on the sax, and it had a two minute loop on it so you could play for about a minute, act real cool, put the sax down, pick up the Stick and start playing into the song. Then the sax after two minutes would come back in. As long as you chose a song that was modelled to be played like that, that was basically a two chord kind of compositional thing, the sax would come in sounding like it was meant, as long as it was atmospheric. It was kind of funny.
Can you remember your first gig with John? Was it just the two of you?
It was the two of us. I think it was in Scotland, somewhere not too far north of Edinburgh. The second time, another person that I mentioned Michael Hedges, he used to play these songs. And occassionaly I would ask him whose song is that? And he would say that’s a John Martyn song. He used to do ‘May You Never’ and ‘Bless the Weather’. So it was quite funny when John came up to me at a gig and said ‘What is that thing?’ And I said it was just this instrument you tap it and everything, and John said I’m just in town doing some gigs. And I said Oh, what’s your name? John Martyn, I know that name. So it was quite funny.
Do you have a favourite John Martyn album yourself? Do you have time to listen to music as a professional musician?
It’s quite funny, a lot of the time you don’t. Not a favourtie album. I like obviously, songs that I have heard a lot, and sometimes you get a favourtie when you start playing them.
Yes We Can seems to be a song that the band particularly liked playing on the last tour.
Yes that’s fun to play. I enjoyed playing that one.
Did you play on ‘The Church with one Bell’ album?
No, I didn’t. But the album that’s released now [Glasgow Walker], I played on that one before I played any gigs with John.
So that was started long before ‘The Church with one Bell’?
Yes, he did some things which I came up and recorded on. Then they did Church really quickly up in Glasgow. Then I went out on some of the live things. People had been heckeling him to go out for a change and do some of his quieter things on the acoustic guitar. That he hadn’t been playing for a while. And he roped me in. So half the tour was duo and half the tour was trio when Spencer joined in on acoustic piano. It was good fun.
On the last tour then, was there any songs that you particularly enjoyed playing? I know you all spent time up at the Church before you went off to tour Italy.
Yes that’s right.
Or did you enjoy playing all of them?
The sets change, John never sticks to the same one. It’s not like we went out and did six weeks of exactly the same tunes. I sometimes enjoy doing some certain parts, because we had John Giblin playing bass it made it easier and I was kind of doing string parts, doing a lot of swell on songs like ‘Wildflower’.
I remember seeing you with John on a TV special in Scotland a couple of years ago for Box Set. I was struck by how high in the mix your playing on the Stick was. Some people might take you’re playing the Stick as John playing the lead guitar. I wondered how do you feel the Stick fits in the band?
I’m like a keyboard player, you can go in there with a wide range of notes, you can play bass right up to quite high. It’s still a real string instrument, it kind of puts you as a second guitarist, bass player. By using a few simple effects and swells, you can end up being almost orchestral sounding. I used to do a lot of that, because the Stick has this huge range so that you can play these huge chords that do sound orchestral. I tended to use more of a high end on this tour. But you can make a massive sound when you use the bass side as well.
There is a lot of fascination with the Chapman Stick, it’s almost a mystical instrument, a man with a piece of wood, a plank as John calls it. And people try and imagine what it sounds like.
When you are playing in a band, you are playing a part and on a couple of tracks, I was playing a real funky type of thing like a WAH WAH, almost like a mutron sound. And because the Stick plays very percussively, you can almost get a clarinet type sound, but the only difference is you are also bending the notes. So you are something in between a funky WAH WAH guitarist and a clarinet player. On ‘Feel So Good’ I was being a finger picker and on ‘So Sweet’ I was doing like an african guitar type of thing with tape on the strings. The Stick is probably loudest on ‘Cool is this Life’ but you wouldn’t think it was Stick at all.
Was the tour good fun?
Oh yeah, great fun.
Have you got any good anecdotes that you can tell me?
We did have a few problems with the hire car at Glastonbury. We just had to abandon it. We ended up on a steep grassy slope it was sliding downhill, we had images sliding down into this swamp. We were pushing from the bottom, Arran was spinning the tyres. We had to turn it 90 degrees to get it down this small lane, by the time we got it all turned round and turned off the engine to check everything, it wouldn’t start, the clutch had burnt out. So it was three in the morning and the car was sitting there smoking and the bumper had fallen off. I don’t know how that had happened so it was already a bit of a mess. We emptied the car and carried everything we could. Spencer then met us about 4 o’clock, picked us up. We never saw the car again. The next time it was seen we were told that all the windows had been smashed in.
I understand that the Glastonbury gig was a classic.
Yes, it was a good gig. We had a hard time, we had to follow Rolf Harris. He got the biggest and loudest applause I heard all day. People went mad over him they were singing along. He had completely packed out the entire area and they were all singing.
A couple of years ago, you played at the Mean Fiddler with John, and at the end of the gig you came on stage with John throwing cheese sandwiches and fruit into the audience.
Oh yeah, that was The Cheese Sandwich Tour, everywhere we played all they gave us to eat was cheese sandwiches. And it got to the point where John decided to introduce us all as cheeses and started these monologues about cheese. After we had finished the gigs about midnight, everything was shut, and all we got to eat night after night was cheese sandwiches.
Do you remember the interview in New York on Radio WFUV in 1998?
Oh yeah, was that the college station. The Pigeonholed station. We were smashed into this room, the entire band was smashed into this really small room, and we were on top of each other. We were trying to play these songs. The presenter did not know what to do with John. This nice man from the college radio station and he was saying ‘John, I realise that you are difficult to pigeonhole’ and John says ‘pigeonhole! have you ever seen the size of a pigeons hole’. And we are all saying ‘Woh it’s going to be one of those!’ The guy didn’t know how to take it.
Jim you’ve kindly agreed to play the stick for us.
It’s very much a piano technique.
Yes I can see you tapping the strings and you are playing the bass strings with one hand and the high notes with the other. Could you play a scale for us please?
Jim then gives an impromptu rendition of Solid Air.
Jim then goes on to play an untitled song he is working on for his new solo album.
Jim, thank you very much for talking to The John Martyn Website!