Tone in to Willie McBlind

By Rachel Lee
September 2010

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I had recently driven out to Nantasket Beach to see the innovative blues band Willie McBlind. The band uses custom made guitars which make use of just intonation, as opposed to the standard equal tempered tuning.

I mentioned to Meredith “Babe” Borden, the singer- who is looking her “chanteusey” best that night- that the C-Note is not the first place I would be expecting to see the messengers of micro-tonalism in blues.

“Shh, don’t tell them” she said. “They’ll enjoy the music just the same.”

And so the audience did just that, grooving to the beats of old Delta blues songs as well as Willie McBlind’s newer compositions.

Later, Meredith and guitar player John Catler expounded on some questions I had for them.

BBS: How did you guys hook up and when did Willie McBlind come into existence?

MB: Jon and I met in 1994 when we were both hired to perform as part of a European concert tour with American Festival of Microtonal Music in Zurich and Kreuzlingen (Switzerland). We were performing the music of American microtonal pioneer, Harry Partch, and also performed songs from Jon’s first band, The Microtones. From there we embarked upon other musical projects – Birdhouse, Swallow and then Willie McBlind which evolved out of a heavier more Black Sabbath style of gothic rock -blues. The first Willie McBlind shows we did happened in New York City in 2003 – at the time we called ourselves Willie McBlind and the Characters which then evolved into Willie McBlind in 2004. We released our first Willie McBlind CD in 2007 called, “Find My Way Back Home.”

BBS: Did the interest in the blues come to you as an extension of your studies of microtonal music or did the study of microtonal music evolve from your study of the blues? (A sort of chicken- or- the- egg question.)

JC: The blues came first, and then the realization that there were blue notes that weren’t available on the standard frets.

BBS: What are the historical antecedents for just intonation in the blues? Jon, you mention on your blog a Skip James song, Devil got my Woman. How would you describe early blues artists understanding of just intonation?

JC: Blues started with vocals, and guitars that were tuned to open tunings without an electronic tuner, often played with a slide. So blues was never strict 12-tone equal temperament. When African musicians and early blues players used a drone, it was found that many gravitated towards the use of just intonation. Author Gerhard Kubik studied Skip James’ Devil Got My Woman, which uses a drone, and found that Skip was using an 11-limit blues scale, so it went up to the 11th harmonic! The early blues players’ use of just intonation was intrinsic, and due to the players using their ears, not theory.

BBS: Meredith, you’re a classically trained singer. Did you ever see yourself singing the blues when you were singing Philip Glass? Did you ever have to unlearn anything you learned from your classical training? Did you have to make any changes in your voice to adapt to the different harmonics?

MB: I often say that I came into blues “through the back door,” but all the experience I gained prior to becoming immersed in the blues has only enhanced me creatively. My vocal technique has evolved over the years, but I would never look at it as needing to “unlearn” anything. It’s more a question of “adding to” what I had already mastered in my study of opera and classical art song forms, all of which built strength, flexibility and range into my singing. Through blues / rock stylings, I have incorporated “growl” and more of an edgy, wild sound that opera singers tend to shy away from. But interestingly, many of the great operatic voices, like Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti have “steel” and “ferocity” – something primal – in their tone, not unlike the feel you go for when singing the blues. I think of blues as tapping into even more expression and using more dramatic range from a low growl to a high wail – I aim to expand the vocal framework of blues. When you sing the blues, you are tapping into a world of musical feeling which is not “one size fits all.” Why not be as fierce and as intense as you can be and pull out all the stops?

As far as changing my voice to adapt to the different harmonics, the old adage applies here – “If you can hear it, you can sing it” – as long as I am tuned in to the pitch, my voice will respond and sing that pitch. The voice is a fretless instrument, and it can sing any pitch it wants as long as the ear can hear it. You have to make the quantum leap in releasing the ingrained 12-tone equal tempered version of the note, and hear the pure harmonic pitch which has a totally different sound and character – this is particularly evident when singing the 3rds and 7ths which are naturally more flat than the 12-tone versions of those notes. If you hear the pitch within the context of the harmonic “fabric,” it feels totally natural in the voice.

Regarding “Did I ever see myself singing the blues when I was singing Philip Glass” – not specifically, but it seems that all musical roads lead to the blues! The Glass’ opera The Juniper Tree opened me to a world of minimalism and new music, which then led me to microtonal music studies with the late Joe Maneri at New England Conservatory of Music, which then led me to the American Festival of Microtonal Music in New York City, through which organization I met Jon Catler. Ironically, one of Jon’s biggest mentors, La Monte Young, is actually the “Grand Daddy of minimalism” and from him sprang artists like Philip Glass and Terry Riley and Steve Reich, so performing Glass’ opera back in the 1980s was like a premonition of things to come. Furthermore, I grew up listening to and loving lots of blues/rock artists like Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, to name a few – my love of this music is deep, so it was just a matter of time before I found the opportunity to delve into rock and blues with Jon Catler, merged with microtones and operatic range. The best of all worlds!

BBS: Jon you use a 64 Just intonation, 12 tone ultra plus and fretless guitars which I’m guessing would be made by the same company:

FreeNote music. Can you describe the difference in sound each of these guitars make?

JC: The 64-tone system is pure just intonation, so every pitch is from the harmonic series. The 12-Tone Ultra Plus keeps the standard 12 frets, and adds 12 harmonic series frets to give 36 different pitches. It’s easier to play and less expensive to build, and is based on the same harmonic principles as the 64-tone.

The FreeNote Fretless Flyer has all the pitches, and you just use your ear.

BBS: Jon, are you the official spokesperson for these guitars? I see your picture on their website.

JC: I designed the fretting systems used on these guitars.

BBS: On some of the songs I hear quite a bit of fuzziness in the guitar and on Fall off of Find My Way Back Home I hear a bit of sitar drone; Is this all done with the natural harmonics or do you ever use any pedals as well?

JC: Fall was played on the fretless guitar. If you hit it right it has some of that sitar drone sound. I use pedals to enhance the guitar sound.

BBS: I saw you guys recently at the C-Note in Nantasket Beach, where you had a keyboard player. Doesn’t the rest of your band also use the just intonation tuning and do they also have to have special gear for that?

JC: The whole band is playing in just intonation. For the C-Note gig we had keyboardist Scott Daniels, who plays a Kurzweil keyboard that is re-tuneable. We use fretless and microtonally fretted basses, tuned autoharp, and we also tune the drums to pitch.

BBS: Jon, you’ve played with Avant GuardistL La Monte Young in The Forever Bad Blues Band. La Monte is said to be an influence on the Velvet Underground among others. Do you guys still play together? Could you call Willie McBlind an outgrowth of the FBBB? Would you say that the FBBB was more improvisational?

JC: I still play with La Monte in the Just Alap Raga Ensemble. We play one long form piece, like the FBBB did. Our other group, 13 O’Clock Blues Band, is more directly influenced by La Monte - in that group we play long form pieces. And in Willie McBlind, the harmonic clouds we play in songs like “Blood Moon” and “Time Ain’t Long” are directly influenced by La Monte. In Harmonic tuning, playing certain combinations of pitches and rhythmic permutations can result in an additive effect, where sounds are being generated that are not actually being fingered.

BBS: Jon, tell us a little about the book you’ve written.

JC: The “Nature of Music” book lays out a practical course for moving ahead with a new tuning system. The first complete scale that appears in Nature is the 8 – 16th harmonics, which is what the instruments are based on. The development of this scale, and its applications, are covered in the book, which is available on the FreeNote website. It’s now in its fifth printing.

BBS: How has Willie McBlind been received in the Blues world? Are there some Blues Nazi’s who have a problem with your approach?

MB: We have been received enthusiastically by many and misunderstood by some – and the latter are the ones who tend to want to keep blues in a little square generic box. Many blues aficionados pay lip service to wanting to keep the blues alive and vibrant, and yet in some cases, these same people are often the ones who kill the blues by trying to inflict limitations on the genre, and who will be the first to whack you over the head when you do something innovative in the field that doesn’t fit their definition. Critics, DJs, artists and music lovers who have a deep passion for music and have a pure understanding of the roots of blues are the ones who dig us the most – and we have some really ardent fans out there spanning the U.S., Canada and overseas. We just got a four star review in Downbeat from a well-respected blues critic who appreciates artistry and innovation in the field – in fact he received the “Keeping the Blues Alive” award in journalism a couple of years ago – so we feel we are on the right track. For us, it’s all about evolving the ear and the soul – and making music that means something.

BBS: Are there any common misconceptions about what people expect you to sound like before they hear you?

JC: Some folks are used to a more generic version of blues. Originally, blues was a progressive form that stretched the perception of tonality, as well as adding new rhythmic feels and performance dynamics. The innovations of rock and roll and jazz were born from the blues, and it is still a great format for musical revolution.

BBS: As pioneers in this field do you have any acolytes yet?

MB: There are many musicians drawn to Jon Catler’s innovative guitars and what he is able to achieve harmonically and offer in the way of new progressive chords in blues and in many other styles of music – everything from heavy metal to ambient styles – musicians are searching for the opportunity to reach beyond standard 12-tone equal temperament tuning and standard fretting. When these musicians discover the beauty of the purely “in tune” chords, they are hooked. We work with several guys now who play Jon’s 12-Tone Ultra Plus guitars and they are playing new harmonically tuned chords and notes that have been life altering. Harmonically tuned blues feels good! And the original blues guys and gals instinctively went for these notes, we are just able to hone in more specifically.

BBS: As musicians who come from modern music backgrounds are there any new trends in music that you would hope to experiment with in the future? New instruments, tuning systems—anything?

JC: We are continuing to play harmonic music in different styles. I‘m working with a jazz group called the Fretless Brothers, which involves improvising over microtonal chord changes. In the 13 O’Clock Blues Band, we are working with harmonic rhythm, which is Natural rhythm where each harmonic has its own rhythm. I’m also working on a solo guitar record, and the third Willie McBlind recording, which has songs about the railroad.

BBS: Lastly please add anything about any shows or anything else our readers might like to know.

MB: Check out the August edition of Downbeat for a review of our latest CD, Bad Thing.

To hear demos of Jon Catler’s 12-Tone Ultra Plus guitars, check the FreeNote Music web site, or Youtube.

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