Peter Mulvey moves around the stage during the sound check. Something's wrong. Wherever he turns, "The buzz is everywhere." Likewise the buzz about the singer/songwriter himself, a full-fledged heavyweight and a consummate professional. Working with the soundman, Peter suggests trying "a hundred." He's right, of course. And Mulvey's a sweetheart, too, the only one to say, "Bless you," when the waitress sneezes. Mulvey credits subway busking for his performing chops, "a musical exchange in its bare essentials. No stakes other than the singer, the material, and the listener. As little else as possible enters the equation. No money is required to change hands; it's not like I stand there and say, 'I'm not going to play until thirty of you pay an eight dollar ticket.'"
Didn't you want more tips?
Too stubborn. I was always singing whatever songs I'd just learned or written... one of six thousand lessons. You don't want everybody in your audience, you want people who want to hear what you do. I would rather do what fulfills me and excites me and get one person out of a thousand-which I guess would be ten in this case-
Ten of ten thousand passing through every morning.
You engineered the CD to preserve the subway feel. Talk about the acoustics.
It's a John Cagish thing. All the other sounds, someone walking by, the elevator, the escalator, the buzzing of the fluorescent lights... It's a field recording.
How did you choose the location?
It's the bench I always played on. Nothing different except we chose an off day... less trains. So I wasn't really playing to crowds; it was more isolated. But it was the same stairway and the same escalator I'd been working under for years.
You chose that bench for...?
Was song selection spontaneous?
I worked off a list.
And for a club set?
We call a set list in the dressing room, then throw things in occasionally. Half the gigs we forget to bring the list on stage.
Not really... though we tend to come out guns blazing.
It's full tilt tonight, opening with an insistent, up-tempo "Comes Love," the Billy Holiday standard from ten thousand mornings. Goody plays ambient effects and tasteful leads on electric mandolin. The dynamics vary constantly, flawlessly--an intimate communication.
On the CD you chose less familiar songs from familiar artists.
A product of the way I listen to music, Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball nine hundred times. The same with Kiko by Los Lobos. My favorites tend to be the less popular songs; you get sicker of the popular ones.
"In Germany Before the War" is great, the incidental PA so fitting, but does that song go over well?
Didn't make me a dime the whole recording process, because if you do it well you creep people out. Creeped out people don't respond with payment.
Some writers whose songs didn't make the CD. Greg Brown...
He must have listened to a record and liked it. A few gigs ago, when I opened, he took off the sunglasses and talked straight to me. Greg Brown is the sh-I-it. I'm guilty of sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. The way Greg treats art it's not a thing you possess, it's something you do. He writes 'em; he throws 'em away. The guy's got 300 songs published. Go see him and he's playing some other hundred.
Did "Goodbye" as an encore for years. He's something else.
I read about your stay at the Joshua Tree Inn... Your take on Gram Parsons?
I slept in the same bed there (in which Parsons died). Heavy. That tribute record was awesome. His stuff holds up despite the diversity of interpretations.
Rock chamber music . All these beautiful little musical parts integrated.
Was I hearing their influence in "Eyes Front?"
Everything. Monk's solo piano records, even if I don't have the chops to deliver those tunes. I love bee-bop. Ali Farka Toure. Martin Hayes, an Irish fiddle player, and Dennis Cahill; they've revolutionized the approach to a very plain spoken form, Irish traditional music. Simple diatonic melodies, major and minor scales. But they bring this heady improvisational thing to it...
And somehow it all comes in.
If only for some sense of fun. Or nuance. Obviously, Greg Brown's all over me. I sing lower after discovering I was a baritone singing Greg's tunes. Chris Smither and his lay it all down style. Los Lobos. Leo Kottke , huge. Dylan. Everything.
You're offering-- free on the web-- songs that didn't make the CD. Web music?
The greatest thing in the world. Helps the little guy, hurts the big guy and the big guys are fighting it. Metallica suing that shit? Well, those guys have yachts to think about. It levels the playing field. It makes music what it used to be, little marbles that kids trade.
Peter offers "On the Way Up" next, his voice moving from a deep baritone to a high lonesome moan. Between numbers, the banter feels spontaneous and conceals re-tunings. "Flying into Charleston, West Virginia," for a recent gig, "you get so close to the mountains you see individual trees, then individual leaves, then individual aphids on leaves until you begin to hope there's some asphalt in this equation somewhere." For Paul Simon's "Stranded in a Limousine" Mulvey capos the top five strings on the fifth fret.
On the CD you re-tune right before "Two Janes."
Almost every cut is in an open tuning.
The tuning for "Two Janes"?
FFCFFC, two notes.
They make me stop thinking about scales. You think linearly; the melodies get played like on sitar, left and right instead of north and south. Bowie toured playing a one string guitar. And, arguably the strongest melody player of the twentieth century, Ravi Shankar, had only one melody string. I'm fond of leaving the sixth string uncapoed when I capo on the fifth, sixth, and seventh fret. Then tune the low string down. You can fret it below the capo for the bass line. You've created a little tenor guitar sitting on top of a string bass.
They'll all be on the web. Someone's vamping up the page and adding new tunings. Most are standard or variants.
Mulvey does a raucous version of his title track "The Trouble with Poets," virtually scatting the melody, while Goody's slide mandolin drones. Mulvey's guitar is propulsive, left hand moving constantly around the fretboard, his mighty thumb working the bass line, a style he credits as "a failure to imitate Leo Kottke." Funky stuff for a triple-o Martin OM.
You swing uncommonly for a singer/songwriter.
You're right. I tend to think a lot of singer/songwriterdom-I'm about to bash the whole genre, so take it with a grain of salt-is either an idea or just about personality...
In "The Road to Mallow", about a late night drive in Ireland, Mulvey catalogues animals and Irish towns, an accumulation of closely observed details entwined by melody. "’Bright Idea’s’ protagonist seemed crazy two years ago when we wrote the tune," a torrent of accusations about everything "they" do. Mulvey's guitar provides percussion as he spits out the maniacal vocal until it bursts into Goody's high energy solo. An old Fats Waller tune follows. The set ends with the Gillian Welch/David Rawlings tune "Caleb Meyer." The encore 's a leisurely version of Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You" The ever-thoughtful Mulvey reminds us to tip the wait staff, then mingles with strangers and friends, including the diminutive woman who famously whupped Mulvey and Goody in ping-pong. On the road tonight, Goody and Peter might listen to... "that Hank Jones/ Charlie Haden gospel thing, Steal Away, with all the old tunes. And the new Beck record. Way different than Midnight Vultures, dark and dirty stuff. And this band called the Pee-Wee Fist, a guy named Pete Fitzpatrick, avant-garde. The Shags. These girls, their father got them to form a band."
People love to complain about the business...
My entire life consists of being at home with my family or driving around to excellent little establishments like this and hopefully some people show up. There is some fiscal anxiety and there's the grind of travel. Those things are tough. I'm not discounting it. You drive around, you play music, you hear music. You travel with people like Chris Smither, my mentor. You eat good food, drink wine, get a cup of coffee and play music for humans who have shown up in the same room with you rather than sitting home. At this level, we live in an idyll--as is college which you can't appreciate because you're eighteen and hence a moron-But I'm thirty-three and aware that this is the shit.
And you can get there on the subway...
© 2002 David Kleiner
Here's a discography for Peter Mulvey: