OTTMAR LIEBERT & Luna Negra
With his new double album 'Opium' and his upcoming tour of Australia, Andrián Pertout speaks with Ottmar Liebert from Santa Fe about his music career so far.
I had the great pleasure of experiencing the music and sound of Ottmar back in February 1994 at the Concert Hall in Melbourne. The opportunity came about when my brother 'Alex Pertout' happened to be doing the support act. I got invited as a spectator, but soon thereon given the unofficial job of his record stall attendant. Unknown to me at the time, I stayed behind curious to see what this guy from Santa Fe was about, and his stage presence left me with a lasting impression. So when he now states that 'People will hear an original show', and then adds, 'It's also to me not in the interest of the audience to just recreate what they can hear on the record', I know that he means to please. After hearing his new double album 'Opium' it only emphasizes the fact that his melodies are an inspiration, and the combination of Jon Gagan on bass and himself is truly an exciting musical journey.
Who did you look up to in your early years as a guitarist? What were your major influences?
OL: "Actually, I'd say the first big influence, which you don't hear in my playing, but when I was seventeen, I had been playing since twelve, I got so impressed with Miles and the trumpet and the sound of it, that I gave up guitar playing for a year or two and was totally depressed about it. And before that, it's rather foggy. My father and mother are not very musical, they didn't play instruments, so I'm not sure why I wanted to play guitar. Especially playing classical guitar, it really doesn't make much sense. But after that I kind of discovered Flamenco and Paco De Lucia and all those wonderful guitar players, and I really got thrilled and excited again about the guitar."
I was reading your bio and it says you studied traditional music in Asia. Can you tell me little bit more about that?
OL: "Well, I think studying is a bigger word, I just went to lots of concerts, and often met the musicians and played with them. I travelled by train to the East coast of Russia, and then took a boat to Japan, and spent a month in Japan, two months in Taiwan, two months in Hong Kong, I think I was three months in Thailand, three months in Nepal and three months in India. So I met a lot of musicians on the way, playing lots of different styles and different instruments. Leaving on the trip I wanted to become an industrial designer, and I think because of that experience of making music with people who's language I didn't understand, being able to communicate with the instrument, when I came back I decided I wanted to get into music completely and not do design. It was a tremendously influential trip."
What sort of impact did your travels have on your music?
OL: "I think travel is in general one the best ways of educating yourself. Especially, the way I travelled was alone, and if you travel alone you don't have other people to hang out with constantly, you make new friends, you're much more open to discovering another culture, and other people. So I think that year that I spent travelling was really a great deal of influence, from soaking up other cultures, other habits, other theme art, listening to music. It was a tremendous experience that I really value, and I've continued to travel. Obviously when I'm touring I don't see as much, but often I try to have a day at the end where I actually can see something and get a feel for the place. Actually '95 was our first year in about four years that we didn't tour a lot, so we were able to get all our energy back. Because what happens when we're touring is there's so much exciting things to see, places to go, you end up sleeping very little, drinking way too much coffee, drinking way too much alcohol and just partying way too much. But it's just because there's so much to see. After I went to Australia in '94 I was recording in Singapore, and I was just like, there's so much to see at night, I'd be recording and then I'd be going out and then discovering all these places. So '95 was really good 'cause we concentrated on recording and we stayed here and got ourselves back together."
How did you initially get signed up? Were you comfortable with the role of selling yourself as a product?
OL: "I was signed after a small edition of a thousand CDs was made by an Indian artist here in Santa Fe, that he basically commissioned me to do the music for. So when I got signed, I got signed as myself. I wasn't developed by some A&R Department. It wasn't like someone said, 'Hey, you can play guitar, why don't you come here, here's a producer, I want you to play this kind of stuff, and this guy was going to write some material for you, and you're gonna go there to record it.' When I was signed, I was signed with a certain sound, with a certain album already out. And since that album was successful, I've been lucky, and every album at Sony I've delivered finished and mastered. So the double CD 'Opium' I delivered mastered and sequenced and everything, and they didn't hear anything until they got that. So I have an amount of freedom that is absolutely very, very rare in this business. I think it's of course because I was signed as a specific sound, and also that what I do, there isn't very many people doing what I do, so there is no record company experts on the issue. You know what I mean, if I was doing Pop R n' B, there is a thousand people that do this sort of thing and you know what the parameters are. And therefore, you can keep much better tabs on it."
Are you surprised by the success of your instrumental music? Were you ever doubtful enough to change direction?
OL: "No, I was never doubtful about the direction, with me it's like Rome or bust. Actually, it was very funny situation in 1989 when I got signed by a little company in California, I got my first record deal. They wanted me to move to Los Angeles and to change my name, 'cause they thought my name would be a great hindrance in selling records. And I told them, 'Look I'm so happy doing what I'm doing even though I'm only playing in little clubs and hotels in Santa Fe. I don't really care, you know, I don't need to do this. And if that's what you want me to do, you can just keep your contract'. So in the end I got what I wanted. But I really felt that way at the time, I was perfectly happy doing what I was doing, and I wouldn't say that I'm any happier now. My life has certainly changed a lot, but I was quite content then, and I'm content now, it has just reached a different scale."
In 1992 you released the album 'Solo Para Ti', which featured Carlos Santana on two tracks. How would you describe that experience?
OL: "Well, the first concert I ever went to as a kid in Europe was Santana, with the band Earth Wind & Fire opening for him, which was a tremendous experience that I really enjoyed, and so meeting him was very exciting. In fact, I remember getting his phone number and then for days I wasn't able to talk to him, because I just could not get up the nerve. And finally I drank a little wine and called him up, and he's a wonderful guy. In fact, we got together in December, 'cause I did a benefit for Tibet in San Francisco and he came by and watched the show, and we talked briefly afterwards, and it looks like we'll be in his opening act in Europe this summer. So I'm really looking forward to that because he's a wonderful musician, and he always has some good words of advice for me."
Every time I see your CDs in the record stores I can't help being impressed by the artwork on your covers, especially on 'Euphoria' and 'The Hours Between Night and Day'. Who designs your covers? Do you have an input?
OL: "Yes, the person that designs the covers, the art director's Nancy Donald, who's the head of West Coast Art and Packaging. So it's really quite an honour for me to have her working with me because she can work with any project on Sony basically, that originates on the west coast. And that she likes my music and wants to be involved, it's really great. I am actually originally, I've never really trained in music, I went to an art school and studied design. So I do have opinions, I'm opinionated about how things should look. But with her generally it's just, I'll give her a few ideas and she does wonderful things."
With labels imposed on you such as Jazz, New Age, World Beat or Latin, how do you describe your music?
OL: "Well, I generally feel that it's my job to make the music and it's other people's jobs to find out what they should call it. I really shouldn't waste my limited brain space on trying to think that up, when I think both the record company and critics are more suited, and actually spend their time doing that. I really think it's a hoot that the record is available under so many titles. Round the world I've seen it under Spanish, I've seen it under Instrumental, under New Age, under Jazz, under World Music, under Folklore. To me it's really a very cool sign."
Tell me about your band 'Luna Negra' and your new album together 'Opium'?
OL: "The band, I look at it as being a rubber band, 'cause it's changed tremendously over the years. This is basically the fourth band, and the band that was with me last time that I recorded the live album 'Viva' no longer exists. The only person that has been with me since '89 is Jon Gagan on bass, and the new band is with the drummer named Carl Coletti and a percussionist named Ron Wagner. So it's a quartet, one guitar, one bass, and then two percussionists, which just emphasizes the rhythm a little more, and also since there's no other instrument playing chords, it gives me a little more freedom to experiment. The live band is not necessarily the same thing as the group of musicians that make the album. For example, Ron Wagner didn't play on the album at all and Carl only played on maybe two or three tracks."
How would you describe the feeling you're trying to create on this new album?
OL: "What I did is, since I was recording and working in my own studio, I really had no big time constraints. So I went in with about six songs written and all other songs I made up as we went along. I tried to just record without worrying about what style it was and where it was going, and just kind of assemble as much as possible and then step back and see what happened. And there is songs on there that are simple Rumbas with a couple of guitars, a little percussion and an acoustic bass, and there's also songs that have twenty-four tracks that are lots of layers, and different instrumentation. Electric, acoustic guitars, lutes, keyboards, sometimes maybe even two or three basses, up to four percussionists. I just kind of let the music dictate itself and then had the luxury with so much material, I decided that I wanted an upbeat and mellow album, and Sony was gracious enough to let me do that. So basically you've got the 'Wide-Eyed' CD which is mostly the upbeat stuff and the 'Dreaming' CD which is much more introverted."
In Australia we all hear about New York and LA, but what attracts you to Santa Fe? What is the music scene like there?
OL: "Umm, it wasn't necessarily the music scene that attracted me to it, there's not a tremendously large music scene, but what is here is extremely eclectic. I remember the first concert, actually it wasn't even a concert, it was at some restaurant that I went to. It was three musicians that played, one was a classical violinist, one was a banjo player, and one was a flamenco guitar player. And the combination was very unique and very interesting, and I thought this is a cool place, so I like this. There's a tremendous amount of just mixing things, not just musically but also food wise. The food you find in Santa Fe is uniquely Santa Fe, because it just takes from everywhere."
'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #22, February 28, 1996
BEAT MAGAZINE PTY LTD
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Ottmar Liebert & Luna Negra