John Svoboda was the very first person I interviewed when I created this blog 2 years ago. He's been a friend for a long time and I love talking to him about music. Not only is he a great guitarist, musician, teacher and arranger....he's just a great guy to hang out with. His latest project is a bold and groundbreaking fusion of classical music and bluegrass. John sent me a couple of tracks early on for me to sample, and I loved them. He is really on to something great here. Here's what he shared with me about the "No Bow Tie" project.
I have followed your career as a classical guitarist and you suddenly throw out this “No Bow Tie” title on your latest album.
What is the intent with a “No Bow Tie” concept?
I have a desire to kinda mess with either the classical music or the classical instruments to cop an attitude of what I call “Cool”. Breaking rules has always been a motivation that turns out my best ideas; or at least the ideas that make me laugh out loud. The title and the concept align on this one. (Smiles) I plan on taking the bow tie out of some classical music to give it an angle it deserves.
You have shown some extreme enthusiasm about the concept NBT as well as the recordings. The expression on your face changes when you talk about it.
It should change. I’m so excited about this idea! I laugh during practice and can hardly walk and think about the arrangements at the same time! To hear the genius of Mozart come together with a groove of say, Bill Withers, is exhilarating.
Then do you consider yourself a classical musician?
No. Yes. Well, no, but I have lived that life. I think of it this way. I love to play arrangements of creatively decided, thick music in solo form. Doing it on a guitar is satisfying for me. The classical repertoire has a well-spring of beautiful examples of music that deserves respect. So, classical musician? No. Classical player- Yes.
It’s just great art, that’s all.
What is the purpose, or drive, to put classical pieces with a bluegrass setting?
Bluegrass is fun, man! The licks are incredible. The thinking that creates those sounds is like the lifestyle that invented it; Simple but expressive. I pay attention to anything that makes my soul tickle. Bluegrass makes me laugh outside and cry inside. It’s SO honest.
Did you know the musicians you chose before setting out to collect the pieces?
No. Actually I knew Sky Smeed but hadn’t discussed his involvement in the project until it was in motion. It was truly a blessing to have him on the project.
How did you choose the musicians that would complete help complete your vision?
I was going to go to Nashville with this; hire the best studio cats I could find and do this in a weekend. And in Nashville that IS possible; amazing talent in that town.
But Sky, who is a friend, told me about Mike and Katie West. They had just finished his recording “Drive All Night” with very impressive results.
On April 4th 2015 I needed to get out of the practice studio and at least interact with the outside world. My wife Myra and I went to hear Sky’s CD release performance which included Mike and Katie as the band; Mike on banjo and mandolin; Katie on bass (they go by Truckstop Honeymoon as a touring career).
I just thought it wise to introduce myself, talk about the project, and see what the response would be. Mike and I immediately cut through the small talk and I was so impressed with his ability to stay focused just in conversation. Sparks didn’t fly but we agreed to meet and discuss it further.
Well, we met and I’ll tell you what, that dude had more creative energy toward my ideas than I did! Sparks flew!
Mike shot the idea to Katie and she seemed intrigued and thank God. She offered a foundation that is hard to find.
It wasn’t much longer before Sky offered his fine skills. He has this amazingly smooth style. When we got together it all just went forward. Before I knew it we were scheduling rehearsals.
So, no auditions?
We did one rehearsal to answer two questions: 1) Can we work well together and be creative, and 2) Do you want to do this?
Pretty simple. The positive response on both questions took off like a wild fire.
What was the chemistry of the group having come from such diverse experiences?
That could’ve been disastrous; the differences that is. But it was the opposite. Sky, Mike, and Katie are such professionals; they are truly the higher level where an all out effort is all that matters. We all had one thing in mind- great music. Differences in experience didn’t get in the way; differences made it grow.
So, this didn’t just fall together after handing out charts and running through the tunes?
I did write out charts just because of the complicated chord changes and to allow us to work in sections. Everything else was artistic contribution. We all had views to share and to learn from. All comments were respected; every one of them. Creative energy was very high.
Is this a statement to rebel against classical music?
No, no, no. Not at all. It’s not about, “Classical is missing the point”, or especially, “Classical is boring”. No, if it were then I’d just drive around with a “classical music sucks” bumper sticker. It is a statement to remind us that these composers did not write music to become textbook examples. They wrote from the heart. They were not wearing bow ties when they wrote it! These pieces were once for dancing and expressing. No different than rock music today; a bit richer in content than a simple rock tune but just as hot with passion.
Why did you center on classical music?
Well, that might be the rebel in me. I kind of enjoy it when I know someone is thinking, “Hey, you aren’t supposed to do that.” Especially when it’s creative and a new way to do it; Mainly in combining things. For example, I used to play classical pieces on electric guitar in my concerts and then use Rubber Ducky as the encore- in a classical concert setting!
People loved it, I think because there is a small risk but also a good energy.
Why did you decide bluegrass was the best style?
The idea tickled my soul. (Smiles) That’s all.
When I work I like to take away the labels. I didn’t care if it were bluegrass- it just was. The fast picking made many of the pieces fun and well, bluegrass has some fast picking- or “pickin’ “ if you will.
How did you choose the pieces? With so much to choose from what is involved in reducing the last 350 years of music to one album?
Whoa. Good question there. I guess hunch combined with a “seek and find” attitude. The pieces had to offer a groove; had to excite all involved; and had to be something I would want to play 40 times a day.
It’s fun and frustrating. But nothing feels so good as to know a piece is perfect for my reconstruction efforts.
Are you presently seeking repertoire for the next album to say “reconstruct”?
Always. Day and night. I can’t hear a commercial jingle without thinking I should do some kind of arrangement that makes it more attractive.
You have six albums. Did one lead to the other resulting in this No Bow Tie statement? Is this a new view of you?
An awareness of what makes me happy increased with each album. The Classic Rock album helped me to understand my love for arrangements. So, it is a continued view of me. I can feel my truth coming forward. I urge everyone to do the same.
Is this new then? Is any one else doing it?
It’s not new to play classical on non-classical instruments. But it is new to do it this way; to change it rather than just play it. Mike’s idea of adding junk percussion to Manuel de Falla compositions is new.
Changing the Mozart variations to a bluegrass arrangement is new- and fun!
How’s the response been? I mean from those who know you as classical?
That has been the icing on the cake. Finishing the project was accomplishment enough! Then for listeners of every kind tell me that they love it and that it makes them feel good? A dream come true.
Is there a “best moment” story you can share from the rehearsals?
The recording sessions?
Tim, everyday offered nothing but good experiences and great stories to tell. The memory that sticks with me is the heightened love of music that was a constant through the whole process. I left every rehearsal renewed. We smiled together and worked ‘til we sweat. There are no words to describe the dedication and love that was had. To answer your question “it” was the best moment.
Here is a link to John's website so you can sample and purchase this amazing music.