Wednesday, April 20, 2016

An interview! With Greg Uhlmann of Fell Runner.

The hiatus of Choir Croak Out Them Goodies ends on an interview with composer and guitarist Greg Uhlmann, a Chicago native now based in Los Angeles. Greg currently plays with Fell Runner, the Greg Uhlmann Quartet, and Greg Uhlmann's Typical Sisters, which will celebrate the release of Typical Sisters on Friday. He was kind enough to spend some time discussing his work in this array of projects, as well as his excitement over an upcoming stint with Tortoise.

Choir Croak Out Them Goodies: Fell Runner was born from a group of music students at CalArts; you obviously haven't abandoned your interest in jazz, but have the other members of the band retained this focus or has their musical direction completely shifted? And since you play a variety of venues and genres, what is the experience of playing at a jazz club versus a rock venue? For instance, the Blue Whale versus the Bootleg Theater, or their equivalents.

Greg Uhlmann: All the members of Fell Runner have a variety of musical interests. I think that's part of what keeps it interesting. I wouldn't want to be in a band that writes the same songs over and over. That's part of the beauty of collaboration. It's really easy to feel that Groundhog Day syndrome/writing process when you're in your own head, but as soon as you have some other people around who are listening to different things and play in other bands, you get knocked out of your safe zone pretty fast. I play a fair amount in jazz contexts, still. Steven [van Betten, guitarist] and Tim [Carr, drummer] do as well. I'm not sure how often Marcus [Hogsta, bass] does, but I'm sure he could if he wanted to.

The spirit of chance, which much of my favorite jazz is all about, is an important part of our live show. Our songs are pretty set, but we want to be as flexible to the moment as possible. The difference between playing at a venue like the Bootleg versus the Blue Whale for me is mostly in the energy of the show and volume (of decibels and people). The Blue Whale is a venue for sitting and listening. The Bootleg, and most rock clubs, feel more like a place to hang out and listen if you choose. I feel really fortunate that most people who come to see Fell Runner (in L.A.) come to listen, though. People get quiet when we play quiet songs, and are respectful and attentive. It's a really special thing.

CCOTG: The merging of things like West African rhythms, pop and math rock is a description that had been applied to Vampire Weekend a decade ago, and I now see it being applied to Fell Runner. How do you feel about Vampire Weekend comparisons?

GU: Honestly, my knowledge of their music is peripheral. I've liked what I've heard, but I think we're going for something a little different. Comparisons are a funny thing, though. It's been interesting over the years to hear who people compare us to. It's made me realize that comparisons have almost more to do with the listener than the band, much of the time. Everyone has their own reference points for music that they like or don't like, and for some, that is Vampire Weekend. We actually rarely hear that comparison at shows; mostly about recordings (from reviewers), interestingly.

CCOTG: You have a record coming out this week. Please, tell me the story behind the cover of Typical Sisters. What first came to mind was Justin Moyer as Edie Sedgwick, but for you, the concept obviously ends with the cover art.

GU: The concept pretty much ends with the cover art. We worked with a great photographer (Maren Celest) who also has a secondhand clothing shop. We had a lot of fun going through her shop and picking out outfits. It ended up being a bit of a '50s prom vibe. It really just felt like a fun thing to do and I was a little tired of every jazz record cover having a blurry picture of a bird flying over a mountain and being called something like Transience or Colors or Throughway. Album titles and band names are something we all struggle with. It feels like the easy way to go with a jazz record cover and name is to make it vague and mysterious, which a lot of amazing records are, but I just didn't feel like it would be honest for myself.

CCOTG: Each member of Fell Runner has multiple projects going simultaneously -- how do you divide your time and prioritize your respective bands?

GU: As I touched on before, it's part of what keeps the band interesting. Honestly, from a business standpoint, it's probably not the smartest move for the band. We're not touring all the time or rehearsing every day. [Fell Runner is] very high on all of our priority lists, but everyone [in the band] has a lot of interests. I wish I had a good answer as to how I divide my time and prioritize, but I feel like I struggle with this question quite a bit. I play a lot as a sideman in other people's groups and it's really hard to say no. Especially when your band isn't that financially profitable. It's a labor of love.

CCOTG: And given that there are so many projects and directions among you, what band, album, or musical achievement are you most proud of?

GU: The Fell Runner album is definitely among my proudest recorded accomplishments. I have a new record that will be coming out in the summer, which I'm really excited about as well. I think the Typical Sisters album that is coming out this week is quite strong and represents a very different part of my musical life. I don't like to dwell too long on any record, though. I just want to keep growing and improving.

CCOTG: That solo album in the summer -- is that where "It's Not Your Fault" will go or was that a one-off?

GU: "It's Not Your Fault" will be included on that album, and the rest of the songs are more or less in the same musical zone. I worked with the same people to record the whole album, although they were done months apart. We're doing a little West Coast tour in June as a chamber group (voices, guitar, viola, and bass clarinet).

CCOTG: Something that stood out while watching Fell Runner live -- you and Steven play really beautiful guitars! Tell me about them and how you went about selecting them.

GU: I can't speak for Steven except that I know he's had that guitar for a while (since high school, at least). I found my guitar in Rochester, at a guitar store. I was obsessed with this guitar player, Ted Greene, who is a masterful solo jazz guitar player. He played a lot of Guild guitars. I saw this red Starfire and was in love. I've had several other guitars over the years, but I keep coming back to that guitar.

CCOTG: A number of artists have written songs for their kids, or for kids in their lives; was "Lullaby" written to comfort any particular child in your life? Or was it written as a practice in vocal harmonies for CalArts? [It appears on the CalArts 2013 student jazz compilation.]

GU: It wasn't written for anyone in particular. Some songs I write are written for specific people, but I also find it interesting to write in a more general way and see how people interpret the lyrics. I've heard some people feel that it was sung to a child and some who felt it was being sung to a significant other.

CCOTG: Speaking of "Lullaby" -- Nick Zammuto did your mastering? How did you guys get paired up with him?

GU: We worked with an engineer (Brian Saia) who had worked with Nick a bit and was a fan of his mastering. I've been a fan of The Books for a while and was excited to have him involved in any way.

CCOTG: "Dream Catching" is circulating as of late, and Steven has mentioned on record that it's about staying motivated to work toward something bigger in spite of feeling defeated on the day-to-day. Do you still work day jobs outside of music or is it an exclusive effort? What have been your worst jobs, outside of music?

GU: I mostly do music, but I teach as well (privately and workshops). I haven't had any really dreadful day jobs, thankfully. I worked at a frame shop for a bit, making picture frames, which was kind of interesting. Tim and I are starting a production company, which hopefully will become a source of work as well. Very excited about that. We haven't made any official announcements yet, but we're working with some really interesting artists, coming up in May.

CCOTG: Looking at the bigger picture, do you feel that, if Fell Runner were to find major success as a band, having money and resources available would help you move up, or hinder you from having a challenge to work toward? [This is essentially the question of "how big do you want to be?"]

GU: This is a really relevant question for us right now, actually. It's something we've been thinking about as more opportunities come up. I think as long as we maintained creative control we'd love to do more serious touring, get more distribution for our music, and potentially work with a label that shared our vision for the band. I think we'll never be one of these really huge bands for many reasons, one being that we all have other interests. Tortoise is a really cool model, actually. They do these big tours every once in a while, but don't seem to be as constant as a lot of bands.

CCOTG: And you're about to play a couple shows with Tortoise, which of course is fantastic. How did they find you and what about playing with them, or for their audience, most excites you?

GU: I've known Jeff Parker since I was a teenager growing up in Chicago. He wrote the liner notes for our debut album. He mentioned one day that it would be fun to have us open for Tortoise, and we figured out a way to make it work. I'm excited to play for their audience because people really listen when they play. I'm also just excited to hear Tortoise again! I'm a fan.


Fell Runner will open for Tortoise at the Teragram Ballroom in Los Angeles on May 2. Purchase tickets here.

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