Martin Harley & Daniel Kimbro

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Martin Harley & Daniel Kimbro @ Drygate Brewery, Glasgow

There is a personal bond between Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro on many levels that has resulted in one of the best gigs (acoustic or otherwise) that I have ever attended. 

I caught up with them at the Drygate Brewery as part of the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow in January 2018.

There is a palpable honesty and openness in everything I heard during our conversation and afterwards on stage and we delve into experimentation and taking risks later in the interview.

Interview

Kirk: How did the two of you meet and discover that you worked well together musically?

Daniel: We were introduced by a mutual friend, Sam Lewis.  He knew I was going to be at a small festival, half-way between Knoxville, where I live and Nashville, where he lives in Tennessee.  He said that he was bringing his friend over, Martin.  I had briefly them both at a gig they had done in which I mixed the audio for a radio station.  Sam actually sent me a couple of tracks to listen to and learn.  I’m not sure if Martin actually knew that this was happening.   So, I had a bit of homework to do on those songs to allow me to actually get up and play on stage.  Conveniently, there was a giant U-Haul trailer behind the stage so Martin and I went in there and ran through a couple of numbers.  I think it was “Winter Coat” and “Money Don’t Matter”.

Martin:  All that time I thought he was just learning these songs off the cuff!

Daniel:  So Martin did call me up on stage and I ended up staying on stage for an hour with him.  The festival was called “Jammin at Hippie Jacks”, so I think we fulfilled the “Jammin” part and everyone else fulfilled the “Hippie” part.

So, anyway, after that we just hit it off and we started swimming and drinking too much.  Of which there may or may not be YouTube evidence of, in a performance that neither of us remember in which Martin was wearing no shoes.

Martin:  I remember not remembering where my shoes were!  They put me in front of a television crew and I didn’t have any shoes on!

Daniel:  Part of the grant money that supports that festival goes towards broadcasting on local stations.  A couple of months later I received a YouTube link of the broadcast which I passed on to Martin and asked, “Do you have any recollection of us doing this?!”  And Martin replied “No…Why am I wearing  tie?  And why don’t I have any shoes on??!!)

Martin:  And that led on to another conversation with Sam.  He’s a great sounding board for both of us.  I’d said how much I’d enjoyed being on stage for that hour with Daniel and that I’d really like to bottle that sound.  Sam suggested a just give him a call and hire Southern Ground studios for the day.  So, Daniel came over to Nashville for a rehearsal in the house I was staying in the night before we were due in the studio and we ended up rehearsing for about half an hour and then we decided to get drunk.

Daniel:  We went out and ingested the hottest Thai food you can imagine and drank all of the Asian beer we could find.

Martin: And then we went to the studio the following morning feeling terrible.  We did a morning of takes that sounded awful and we were thinking “this is a waste of money and time”.  We went downstairs and Rebecca Wood, who was the “Studio Mama” cooked us some delicious, wonderfully organic and nutritious food and then offered us some beer and whisky.  After that we went in to the studio again and everything we recorded in the afternoon we kept and that became “Live At Southern Ground

I think that this was probably a bit of reaction to spending months going to and from the studio on the previous album, Mojo Fix.  I just wanted to get into a room and make some noise!  And to be honest the reaction to Southern Ground, certainly in places like Canada, was immense!  I sent 100 CDs out and that summer I got nearly every major folk festival in Canada.

I think there is something quite honest about it, it’s straightforward.  I can criticise my playing and I’m sure that Daniel would say the same thing.  I think it comes with maturity as player as well.  You know, being able to say “I’m going to let this go.  I’m not going to try and fix it or make it perfect.”  It’s not about everyone believing I’m 10% better than I really am.  It’s about “This is what I’ve got today”.  There comes a time when you have to release the fear of criticism and the fear of failure and say, “I’m just going to make a record”.

Daniel:  And that is the attitude that has allowed me to grow as musician and open my brain to a different side of things since meeting Martin.  Being a person who went to school to study the Double Bass and understand how to make every possible sound come out of it involves a lot of research, a lot of listening and a lot of chops, especially when you are in a symphony orchestra or a Jazz combo.  One of the things I get off on while playing with Martin is just how great it sounds when the big wooden body of a Weissenborn and the big wooden body of a Double Bass play the same chord at the same time together.

Martin:  There is a very pleasing, organic nature of those two instruments.  Neither of them have frets and they are both hollow and very woody.  Sometimes we make terrible mistakes but we just keep playing and we keep going for it.  This is a continuation from the festival and the album and we tend to not get too polished or too bogged down in what’s right and what’s wrong and I think people sort of enjoy it when they realise we are taking chances by just going for it.  I don’t want my songs to be exactly the same every night.  I don’t want my audiences to hear the same jokes and experience the exact same format at every show.  I wouldn’t play music if that was how it had to be.

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Kirk: I’ve listened to all your albums over the last couple of weeks and before I started researching your history I had marked out 5 tracks that I thought would be great as Amazon or Netflix Series Soundtracks.  Then I discovered that a couple of tracks from Mojo Fix had been used in a pilot of “The Originals” on the CW Network.  Have you any plans to do more of this in the future?

Martin:  I really like the idea of writing and having my music placed in film and TV.  The whole process for the CW Network soundtrack songs was experimental and quite new to me but I’ve always been good at saying yes to things that sound like an adventure.  I wanted to go and see what it would be like and I wanted to see America.  It was a good experience, I learnt a lot and I’m very proud that it got placed.  The vast majority of original music I write is very personal to me so this was a bit of a different process.  But yeah, very proud of that.

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Kirk:  To go back a little and uncover some more of your individual history.  Daniel, I never realised that there was a “Blue Note” in Tokyo but having looked into it a little, it seems to be the classiest and most high-end Jazz bar in Japan and you have played there.  Can you tell me a little about that experience?

Daniel:   The roster of musicians that have played that stage in that room…it was heavy!  I was with the Gerry Douglas Band, Gerry has obviously played some major, major gigs and our drummer Doug, he had been to Japan regularly and had played that room many, many times with the likes of Jon Cleary and Joe Sample and some other really heavy cats and he used to go there a lot.

So, you go in and there are all of the pictures of people like Herbie Hancock and you think “Man, I just do not belong here!”.  So, you go in and everybody knows your name and all of the servers have a little placard on their trays with your name on it so that should one of us ask for a drink while we are sounding checking they can address us by our name!  And the sound of the audio, the quality of the gear…  It’s everything you would expect from a country that reveres technical prowess.  It was really humbling.  It was a significant honour and it was a little bit different carrying the weight of being an ambassador for my own culture.

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Kirk:  Martin, you recorded Chocolate Jesus from the fantastic Tom Waits album Mule Variations on your first album.  Or as Tom Waits calls it…”The Immaculate Confection”.  I believe that phrase was the inspiration for the song.  It’s too perfect not to be.

Martin:  The story that I heard about it was that it was based on something that his wife’s (Kathleen Brennan) father said.  He had come up with a silly idea about having some breath mints called “Testa mints” and I think Tom Waits ran with that idea.

But yeah, Tom Waits is one of those artists that you hear and you think “What the hell just happened?”  There have been a few moments in my life when that has happened.  The first time I heard Tom Waits, the first time I heard Robert Johnson, the first time I heard Kelly Joe Phelps were really the ones for me.  I never really grew up loving music at large, I always felt that certain types of artists spoke to me and made sense to me.  I didn’t fall in love with instruments, music and harmony.  I fell in love with specific areas.  I’ve always been like that which is one of the reasons that it is so much fun playing with Daniel.  He has brought me out in terms of musical improvisation and out of my comfort zone.  When I look at Robert Johnson on the cover of Devil Blues I see a man on a chair in the middle of nowhere looking into himself.  He’s not performing.  He’s not making music for anyone else, he’s making music for him, or it certainly feels that way from that inward look.

Tom Waits occupies other characters.  He gives a dimension to song writing that includes…whether it was raining, whether it was hot, whether a black cat just ran out into a streak of hallway light.  There’s a faucet slowly drinking rain…  It’s so theatrical, certainly in the period after meeting Kathleen Brennan, who was a script writer for…I think it was Universal.  That union brought a much more theatrical aspect to his work.  But before that as you know, the great bar-room tales of “Ol’ 55”, I “Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You”.  Songs covered so extensively. Songs like “Soldier’s Things”, you could live your whole life 3 times over and never write a song that great.

Kirk:  I know you’ve opened for Joe Bonamassa and Beth Hart in the past and they have both done covers of Chocolate Jesus.

Martin:  Yes, they have.  It’s been part of my set for so long that I totally forgot that she did it and I thought “Oh no, she’s going to be completely pissed off at me for doing that but she couldn’t have been sweeter.  I’ve played quite a lot of shows with Beth.  She’s very straightforward, very nice and very grateful to be where she is.

And Joe.  I played with him quite a long time ago now.  He’s exactly what it says on the tin.

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Kirk:  Forgive me if the next question is a bit detailed but, you have another 24 gigs, 72 days and 3,130 miles left in your tour, finishing up in Salle De Fetes in France on the 7th April.

You are on the road, in one way or another, a lot!

Some people are “destination” people i.e. the focus is on getting where they need to go.  Others enjoy the journey.

Which are you?

Martin: If I am somewhere new then it is definitely about the journey.  The obvious practical aspect of being a professional musician is that you need to get up and go to where you need to be if you are going to get paid.  But, for example, travelling about America in the time I was recording the Mojo Fix album was one of the best years of my life.  I’d grown up watching my favourite artists playing live at the Ritz or someone playing at The Troubadour, so being able to drive across the country and play at the great American music halls, play at Irving Plaza, play all these amazing venues and see America and have some real time to take it all in and meet amazing people…That…was all about the journey!

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Kirk:  Moving on to the Weissenborn.  This is a guitar based instrument but there is such a difference in style when you play it compared to how you play guitar and there are so many textures and orchestral nuances that you bring into your playing.  Do you treat it as a completely different instrument from the guitar?

Martin:  There are a lot of great noises you can get from it but you are also limited to what you can play.  It has taken me a long time to learn how to improvise in different keys because you are mostly tuned to D Major in an open tuning.  But that is also one of the joys of it.  The challenge.  For me, the instrument, sonically, is just very full.  There’s a lot of bass, there’s nice treble, the sound is a bit rounder than a guitar and I just love it.  I’ve loved slide guitar since I heard the soundtrack of Paris Texas by Ry Cooder.  Those spooky, delineated high notes.  If all I could do was play one string on one guitar I would probably play that.

I think the initial downfall of being a guitarist and then moving on to the Weissenborn was thinking of it as a guitar but now it’s very much it’s own thing.

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Kirk:  We talked earlier about the space that creates a lot of the atmosphere in your music.  One track that stands out for me is “Gold”.  It’s a sublime balance of space, harmony and beautifully tasteful, minimalism.

Can you tell me what inspired the feel of this track?

At this point Martin and Daniel smile openly and share a look…

Martin:  Oh yeah, we had a lot of fun doing that one.  It nearly wasn’t a song.  I don’t think it would have happened if it wasn’t for Daniel.

Kirk:  So, what was the inspiration behind that?

Martin: The first verse of the song existed for a long, long time.  I think it’s an amalgamation of 2 songs really but as soon as Daniel suggested that I change the key and play it on the baritone, then that instant urge to finish it came.  The “staring out the window waiting for the song fairies to deliver” part had already been done but the actual birthing of the song happened in Sam Lewis’ kitchen in a very short period of time.

Daniel:  Yes, my recollection is Martin playing it and it was more of a straight beat and I don’t know why but I suggested he play it on this baritone guitar I had.  It was tuned very low.  A to A.  Almost as low as a bass guitar.  It was a Gretsch that coincidentally it had been given to me by Gerry Douglas.  Anyway, I started playing more of a backbeat.  But then when we were in the studio with our friend Derek Mixon on drums, things changed.  Again, he is lover of space.  A “Curator of Space” I would say and in the best possible way.

Martin:  Yeah, you really have to force him to do a fill if you want one.

Daniel:  So there we were and Derek and I hit this groove and Martin had this crazy great guitar sound playing through one of Joe’s old amplifiers in the tall bathroom.  We double tracked some vocals and I had an idea for some minimalist piano.

Martin:  It was very intuitive.  We are probably talking about it more now than we did when we put it together.  The song was all prepared and it all came together very quickly.  There wasn’t time to over-think it.

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Kirk:  Ok, so I’ve never done this with anyone else before, and I’m not entirely sure why I did it all, but when I was listening to your music I started picking up threads running through it and for some reason I felt compelled to look into this in detail.  My wife thinks I’m being a bit creepy and that a lot of people would be freaked out by it but here goes.

You’ve said that you write mainly about your own experiences.

I took 5 tracks from each album and identified several distinct categories that existed throughout and eventually came up with this.

Pie

Martin:  (Laughs out loud)  I … have never…seen anything like this before!!

Daniel whips out his mobile phone and takes a photo of it.

Kirk: So…how does it look?

Martin:  I am also going to take a photograph of this.  It’s one of the most fantastic things…

Martin and Daniel then start laughing and looking into the thing in more detail.

One area in particular is picked up…

Martin:  Yeah, rejection of modern life.  I think that so much of what we do is really getting in the way of people understanding what it is to be alive.  You know, “Let life be it’s own reward”.

Life doesn’t seem to be it’s own reward for people any more.  Life seems to be a game of “Likes” and popularity.  The internet has obviously done wonderful things and broken down many knowledge barriers and political barriers but I think it was Stephen Fry who said that he thought the internet would create this kind of wild place where people could finally understand everything and that people would use this amazing endless library of information to make the world a better place but we are playing schoolground popularity with it and making a real mess of actual experiences.

I use it.  I think it’s amazing that I have a platform by which to get music to people and it gives me a bit more control and allows me to be a bit more independent.  But, I just want people to have experiences.

What about unreliable memories?  They’re fucking brilliant!  Where do all the good stories come from?  How can you be in someone else’s mind if you don’t hear the story from their perspective?  Were they drunk?  Were they high?  I don’t want the car to nearly hit you at 5mph, I want the car to “NEARLY DECAPITATE YOU AT 200 MPH!!”  (laughs)

If people want to film a show and go home and watch it that’s fine but people seem to be filming so much that I wonder…

“When are you actually going to have time to sit down and watch all the footage of your life?”

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Kirk:  Fantastic point!  So, let’s move on with real life and let me ask if you have any more cycling or mountaineering adventures planned?

Martin:  We have discussed this and I think there will be a Daniel Kimbro, Sam Lewis & Martin Harley record at some point and we would love to do it be Narrowboat.

Because, there’s lots of pubs near Narrowboats and we don’t really mind how small the shows are as long as they are near the pub.

Daniel: We have these massive house boats on the lakes and rivers back home and my Dad and I always fantasised about a house concert series where we would stop at various towns and people would board the boat and take in the show.  You know, a tour by river.  We talked about getting a PA system installed and weather-proofed on the top deck.

This wouldn’t be the same thing but it’s in the same vein.  I finally came over a couple of years ago and for the first time had the opportunity to look around.  We were near King’s Somborne and I saw this thing and I said “What is that!!”.  It was a Narrowboat and I was like “I want one of those!”  I want to live on one of those.

Martin:  Yeah, if you are 6 foot 4 and you play the Double Bass it’s the perfect place to live! (laughs)

Kirk:  Thanks guys, it’s been fantastic talking to you.  I let you go and get ready for the gig.  Have a good one and good luck with the rest of the tour.

 

Date: 26/01/2018

Location

The Drygate Brewery, Glasgow

 

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