By Kevin McKinney ’16
I’ve been in touch with banjoist George Stavis for the last few months leading up to his performance at the Horn Gallery after discovering that he was still performing regularly in a YouTube comments section. George Stavis is quite probably the greatest living unknown banjoist and his 1969 album, Labyrinths, is easily one of my favorites. His compositions are beautiful, haunting, and mysterious. I was lucky enough to conduct an interview via email this week—read on to hear what Mr. Stavis has to say about the banjo as a world instrument, his influences, and his musical history.
WKCO: When did you start playing banjo? What were your earliest memories of music?
George Stavis: I started taking classical piano lessons when I was six, and stayed with that for about five years. It seemed a bit square, so I moved to a teacher who was into boogie-woogie, a rage at the time. When I was about 14, my older brother brought a guitar home from college, and I started picking that up. A year later, he brought a banjo home, and from there on I was gone.
WKCO: Who are your main banjo influences?
GS: I heard Pete Seeger when I was about eight, and we had an LP of the Weavers, his group, which was played constantly in my house. The folk era was a big deal, and banjo was one of the main instruments. Then I heard Earl Scruggs, and it sounded like another planet. It was mesmerizing. In college, I got deeply into bluegrass, including the vocal styles, and there were many banjo influences, including Don Reno and Bill Keith, who passed away last week. I also got into “old time” music, the Appalachian music played before World War II. The New Lost City Ramblers, led in part by Mike Seeger, Pete’s half-brother, performed and brought that music forward. And there were two “outside of” banjo players I became interested in: Billy Faier, who made a great record, “the Art of the 5-String Banjo,” which had virtuoso solo performances; the other was Sandy Bull, who was playing classical music on the banjo.
WKCO: What kinds of music have influenced you outside of the banjo?
GS: In my college years there was a lot of experimentation going on outside of the banjo, mostly in rock. I moved over to electric guitar, and the Beatles, the Stones, and the blues players in the US were all the rage. Paul Butterfield, who played harmonica in an electric blues band with Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop, was a big deal, and Clapton’s early records with John Mayall sort of set the stage for electric guitar players. And then there was a lot of world music going on. George Harrison of the Beatles latched onto the great sitarist Ravi Shankar, and we were off to the races. Then I heard Ali Akbar Khan, the second most famous musician in India. He played a sarod, an instrument somewhat like the sitar, but instead of a gourd as the sounding board, it has a skin head: a drum. When I heard him, I thought “he’s playing a banjo.” That was a revelation, and I started thinking that the banjo could do a lot more than folk music and bluegrass–and it could stretch out, like Indian musicians, jazz players, and rock players. I should mention that I also got deeply into electric banjo–which will not be in the concert–which is a kind of invention I did–quite a bit different than the electric banjos today, which are essentially loud banjos. I had a group which barnstormed the West Coast 150-160 nights a year with sometimes a “bluegrass on steroids” approach, and sometimes great ballads. The electric banjo has a distinct sound, a bit like a steel guitar, as different from an acoustic banjo as an electric guitar is to an acoustic guitar.
WKCO: What’s one song you wish you had written?
GS: Gosh, too many. I still think that the Beatles songbook is perhaps the greatest of the 20th century (Gershwin too). The world-weariness of “In My Life,” written when they were in their early 20’s, is amazing. That may be it.
WKCO: We’ve talked a little bit over the phone about the way you trace the banjo and its counterparts from cultures all around the world. I think this really shows up in your music—I hear a bit of Indian influence at times, for example. Can you explain how you came to follow these connections and how they expanded your composition and technique?
GS: As I said, I was moved by Ali Akbar Khan and his sarod. Someone gave me a sitar for about six months, and I fooled around with it, and listened to quite a bit of Indian music. I then realized that if I practiced for 10 years I could become a mediocre sitar player, or I could stick with where I already had some skill, and transfer the approach to it. I listened to Japanese koto music as well as some Chinese classical music–which sounds very much like a folk orchestra with a lot of bowed instruments. I have incorporated the Spanish rasgueado, associated with flamenco music, in my approach to “clawhammer” banjo.
WKCO: It’s almost easy now for an independent or esoteric artist to get a decent amount of exposure and publicity with platforms like Bandcamp and Soundcloud and an entire industry dedicated to producing, distributing, and discussing underground and experimental music through the internet. I get the sense that a lot of people really feel like they’re uncovering a hidden gem when they discover your music from the late 60s, because it seems like so much from that era has gotten buried as time goes on. What was it like to produce more experimental or “out-there” music before the internet? What were the music scenes like that you grew up in?
GS: As I indicated, experimentation and openness were rampant, there were a tremendous number of places to perform–and most important, people were willing to attend these places in order to experience music that they had not heard before. Music was shared together with LPs, and later cassettes and CDs, and lots of radio stations were willing to play whole albums and long-form music in order to experience the artist’s vision. Not the single play of iTunes. Pretty good scene, actually, and for performing musicians, better then than now, despite the internet.
WKCO: What nonmusical ideas influence your music? I’m thinking specifically of the eerie atmosphere that pervades a lot of your music. There’s a real sense of wonder and reverence for mystery, I think. Is there anything in visual art or literature or even a life experience that influenced that?
GS: Good question. I think I tend to think of what I do as a kind of soundtrack, where the music is almost visual. You start one place, and the music emotionally carries you from one place to another, in a moving stream. Way back when, I decided that for me, bluegrass, blues and much of rock and jazz was kind of stuck rhythmically and dynamically, and I wanted an approach which carried across different tempos, volumes and sentiments, but remained unified. In a way, a type of classical form. And most of all, I wanted the music not to be a showcase of virtuosity, but rather an expression of emotional weight. I don’t want to be impressed by a musician; I want to be carried away to another place. If this is mysterious, I’m happy with the characterization.
WKCO: What is the story with the album cover of Labyrinths?
GS: Well, I was with Vanguard, Joan Baez’s label at the time, and a friend did a very far-out pen and ink cover. Vanguard didn’t like it, and they sent me to Joel Brodsky, an album photographer who was later famous later for his picture of the Doors’ Jim Morrison as Christ. I had decided I wanted to get away from the normal banjo approach to life, as I was not playing either folk music or bluegrass. A friend lent me a monk’s habit and some beads, and I went to the photo studio. Brodsky sort of got the musical approach, and he had an idea. He had a concave mirror, into which he shined a light, reflecting into the camera. That’s the secret story of the mysterious crystal ball, and it made the whole thing work.
WKCO: I think most of the information on your music available online focuses on Labyrinths. Can you tell our readers about the other bands and projects you’ve been involved in? Is it true you were in a band with the humorist Dave Barry?
GS: My West Coast electric band was called Oganookie, which meaning I will not go into, but it is not what you think. We played Northern California, and I think we could readily be described as the house band of Santa Cruz. Ben Stein (yes, that Ben Stein) was a young guy in the area with connections to the Wall Street Journal and wrote a page 1 article about the barbarians in Santa Cruz, dancing, twirling, taking clothes off, and the end of the world was coming. I loved it. I did a later release called Morning Mood, which was fully orchestrated with fiddles, guitars, string band, mandolins and so on. Darol Anger, the great fiddler with whom I played for several years, was on it, along with the mandolinist Mike Marshall and my lifelong colleague and violinist Bob Stern. Critics thought it was not as original as Labyrinths, but I still think it is a banjo high point – not so much as a solo instrument, but as part of a composer’s musical whole. More recently, I released a piece on Imaginational Anthem Volume 3, as the sole banjoist with ten other solo guitarists, on the Tompkins Square label, a small label doing fine esoteric releases. And I have another album pretty much ready, and a release of Oganookie material, if we can get them out. Dave Barry was my younger brother’s roommate at Haverford, and his electric band, Federal Duck, followed my band on campus. I got a deal for an electric album with Musicor, a then important label, and I asked Dave and the band to be on the record, which was called, oddly, Federal Duck. As it turned out, Dave got stage fright and did not play on the album, but we have played together from time to time, and we spent some time together a few weeks ago at my niece’s wedding.
WKCO: Final question–What’s the overall philosophy behind your music? What do you want your listeners to leave with?
GS: It would be fair to say that I want to make music that moves the soul. To take a listener (and me) into a kind of meditative state which carries one along a stream of consciousness. I don’t mean so much New Age, whatever that is, but music which is always emotionally rich, colorful and evocative.
Come see George Stavis perform this Friday (11/13) at the Horn Gallery @ 8:00pm. He will also be offering a master class at 5:00pm, open to all!