Max Frankl: So it's a beautiful day in Brooklyn, New York and I'm here with the fantastic guitarist Nir Felder. Nir, welcome to this interview!
Nir Felder: Hey, thanks for having me, Max.
MF: So, what people have always asked me, is: How did I come to music or what did inspire me and I was always curious about what inspired the players I admire and since you're such an amazing guitarist, I think everybody wants to know: What was it that brought you to music, what inspired you to be a musician?
NF: It's actually kind of a maybe a boring answer, but I grew up in New York State in the eighties and at the time I would come home from school and both my parents worked so what did kids do when they came home from school I mean they played outside for a while but then you went home, and you waited for your parents to come home, and you turned on the TV. And for me it was MTV. It was kind of a cool time for MTV because it was pretty new at the time, and they were just trying stuff out, so they would play all sorts of different music all day long from like you know Heavy Metal, Headbangers Ball, Alternative Music, 120 Minutes, MTV Raps like all of the popular music styles that were out there at the time and I was just entranced. This is before I played any instrument, but I would watch for hours, and you know, I loved music and musicians. I didn't think about becoming a musician, but I was just fascinated by the whole thing. Both by the popular aspect of it and then also by the music itself, it seemed like it was the cutting edge at the time. The confluence of video and music and fashion, all the cool stuff they were doing. So that peaked my early interest, yeah, it was funny.
MF: I think that’s s a great answer because for me it was the same thing: I had a friend in high school, he had an older brother, and he introduced us to MTV, and we were listening to Nirvana for hours.
NF: Yeah, and there was a lot of cool music that came out of that time, and I think there was a real love in the culture for music and art, for trying new things and it wasn't as commodified as it became later, so it's an interesting time.
MF: And did you have some role models back then like guitarists that you saw on MTV, that you were like, oh I want to play like this guy?
NF: You know, it is actually way before I actually even played guitar so, no, it was just like little things that I, maybe liked one song by a band or something and also radio played a part. I think radio was more influential than maybe it is now and I would turn on the radio and maybe just listened to just trying to find new stuff. I was always very curious about like new music and who's this person people are talking about, and I wanted to know. But I didn't play guitar yet, so I mean definitely no guitar heroes at that point.
MF: Ok and what made you start to play the guitar, was there a certain experience that you had?
NF: Sure there was, just a simple thing as, like a guitar player coming into our, it was middle school at that time, I was in seventh grade and doing a little demonstration, and it just speaks the need of having music available in schools because for me it was like a light switch, I saw this guy play guitar and was like: That, I wanna do that! It was a real like lightbulb going off moment, and I asked him if I could take lessons with him. I don't even think he was very good, but it was like: It's incredible! So I took a few lessons with him, and it sparked my interest and got me started and once I started, you know they say, you get bit by the bug; once I got started I was definitely bit by it, I couldn't stop. So I was really in love.
MF: Amazing! And fast forward to your studies at Berklee College of Music. How was it for you to study at Berklee, is there something that you’d say is the biggest thing that you’ve learnt there?
NF: I think the best thing for me being a kid from the suburbs, I was interested in all these different styles of music but mainly as a guitarist, I was kind of a blues kid: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, Albert Collins, Freddie King, etc. But I was interested in jazz, I was exposed to you know, from buying whatever CD's I could once every two weeks or whatever. I had heard John Scofield, Pat Metheny, people like that but I never really played jazz with people hardly at all, and I got to Berklee and now it was my first time being around so many musicians; where I grew up, small town, there weren't that many people I could play with so and that's still kind of to this day very important: I wish I had more time to practise, but I do feel like even though I don't practise as much as I'd like, I still improve. Just by playing with people and by playing with people a lot. Now it's in the form of doing lots of gigs, doing lots of tours, doing recording sessions, just hanging out with great musicians but at the time when I first got to Berklee, it was like playing sessions for the first time, just every day after class: 'Hey let's go play!' Playing in a lot of ensembles, just playing as much as I could was pretty huge for me because I'd never done that before school, so just being in that community of musicians.
MF: So after you graduated from Berklee College of Music you moved to New York City; was it the same thing there like, was it easy to play with lots of people there? How did you feel about the scene back then?
NF: It was absolutely the same thing and I see this happen to people a lot: They move to New York, and I hear them play and they're good, and then I hear them a few years later and they're twenty times better just because being around a place like this where the concentration of great musicians is so high, it's like you almost can't help getting better. One part of it is an inspiration, but another part is just like that factor of learning through osmosis, just kind of sucking it up. In terms of the second part of the question like how I got involved with the scene: I was very lucky, I had played with some people in Boston that had like I remember Joe Lovano, he was nice enough to have me on a few gigs when I was still in school and through him I met his drummer Francisco Mela and at the time Esperanza Spalding was also in the band, so when I moved to New York, I think right away I had a few gigs with those guys, and so I met a lot of New York musicians almost instantly which is really lucky. I remember like maybe I'd been living in New York for four days, and we played a gig at Smalls with Mela and Smalls had just reopened, and a lot of people were hanging out, so I met so many people just that first night which was really cool. Lucky kind of just to meet people and I was used to in Boston the idea of like you kind of had to prove yourself a little bit before anybody would take you seriously, you couldn't just walk up to someone and say 'Hey you know I'd love to play with you sometime do you want to do it?' I don't know why, but something about the environment in Boston was not receptive to that kind of openness, but I found quickly in New York it was kind of the opposite which is funny because they kind of prepared you for it being more intense than a smaller city, but when I got here I found people who were very open to playing, very open to connecting and making music and that's really what it was all about, so those first few gigs helped but also just the climate here was very accepting of 'Hey, let's just play, let's play that's what we're here for'.
MF: So last time we've met in New York City it was just before the release of your album ‚Golden Age’. So many musicians and guitarists love this album. Could you talk a little bit about how this release influenced your career and how it developed after that?
NF: That's great to hear that people are checking it out. Yeah, I feel like it was a big step for me because I had, I didn't really jump right into leading a band when I moved to New York. I had led a band back in my college days and when I moved to New York, I kind of stepped back from that because there are so many people I want to play with, I kind of wanted to learn how to be the guitar player in the group and elevate the group and make the bandleaders sound better and be a great sideman, because there are so many people that inspired me that I really want to play with. When I first got here that was just, it wasn't a conscious decision but it was kind of where my heart was and then fortunately some friends in the city kind of pulled me into a band and you know they said, 'hey you should lead a band in my club' and etc. etc., like 'I have a little record label maybe you could record for us', stuff like that inspired me to start doing it again so ‚Golden Age’ was kind of my return to bandleading after a long break from it. And, I'm so glad that it was well received, you know. It was a really fortunate thing in the way it all worked out, and I think that the main I guess appeal of it – I can't really speak for others, but for myself was that, I think what we were trying to do was make music that was kind honest in its influences, you know. And not to be afraid to say ‚hey, we are really into this and this and this’ and it's ok because it might not have been a typical jazz record, and I might not be a typical jazz guitarist, and I think that you know in this day and age where you have so much, excuse the word, BS., you know both in the industry and in politics and just in daily life and social media, it's nice to have a little honesty from time to time, so that's really all I tried to do is make an honest record and going forward. I think that's what we're going to keep doing.
MF: It's a very interesting point that you just mentioned about being a good sideman because when I follow you on Facebook and Twitter and stuff and I see you with those guys and I'm like who's that and then I google him, and he's like one of the big cats of whatever kind of style of music, so I just wanted to know how do you develop the skill of being a good sideman, is this something that you can learn, is there some wisdom that you could share?
NF: Sure, I think there are a lot of so many things I'm trying to figure out how to put it into words. A lot of it obviously is learned by doing like everything in music, you know, the more you are a sideman, and the more you learn how to be a good one, a lot of the things are no-brainers: Learn the music, show up prepared, show up on time. I guess basically the unquantifiable part of it is how do you elevate the music and make the bandleaders' vision come to life and that's really hard to put into words. One thing is that, as much as you do this when you're a leader, you kind of do it as a sideman which is like you have to play the gig your way. You can't try and sound like somebody else on the gig because it never really works quite as well when you're not yourself. I think it's true in life as well, so there's a way to make someone's music come to life just by being yourself and the same time you have to realize that doesn't mean that the focus is on you. The focus is always going to be on the music. When it's someone else's music the focus might be a little bit on the bandleader, but it's really about the music. So when I say be yourself on the gig that doesn't mean the focus becomes on you or your guitar playing or whatever instrument you play. It's always on the music but you wanna make the music the best version of the music it can be and the bandleader's vision of it come to life in whatever way you can, so that means listening very closely, being receptive to comments and criticism but also be kind of assured of what your role is supposed to be, you know, I always find checking out like the history of whatever style you're playing helps because then you kind of know what your purpose is a little bit and then it's ok to kind of break those rules and make it more suited to your individuality. So those are just some thoughts off the top of my head.
MF: Yeah, that's great, I think that's helpful!
NF: Yeah it's so funny how a lot of what I've learned in music is just these basic little, like you know, tips about life: you wanna play music honestly, you want to make sure that it's not all about you, you want to make sure that you know you do your best, just little things that are so obvious but somehow they get lost in the in the shuffle sometimes.
MF: Two things that students of mine and guitarists always mention when the name Nir Felder pops up is your sense of timing and the way you create lines that have some intervallic concepts in them, that, somehow sound like we've never heard this before, so fresh and amazing, and everybody wants to know how you do that, so could you talk about these two concepts that you have in your playing?
NF: So the rhythmic part of it is, there's like, I guess there's two elements to rhythm right, the study of it and all the different permutations of whatever polyrhythm and having great time and I'm not talking about myself, I'm just talking about in general having a great time and mastery of complex rhythms and odd meters and all this stuff and then on the other side of that there's just like having a good feel. So for me, I've always been more interested in the feel part of it than in the specific study of, I mean of course that's also been part of my pursuit, I want to be able to play in all these meters, I'm interested in all that but for me the more important thing is how to make it feel good and a lot of that study is kind of trial and error until you find it, til you find the pocket so if I was going to practice, maybe I would just play something very simple and listen to the groove and make sure it feels right, because we all know when it feels right and and also playing with a lot of different drummers, I've focused on that, that really helps. I've always wanted to play drums, it is probably my favourite instrument of all time, you know, I can sit on YouTube all day and watch drummers, I just love it, so finding drummers to play with, that play differently. It's great to have a specific hook up with one drummer and play with him all the time, I love that, but I also love playing with new drummers it's kind of figuring out how they feel it and check out their rhythmic feel and same when I listen to guitar players: Maybe if I want to like, check out Jimmy Nolen all day or check out Mike Campbell or like guitar players and different styles or like an African soukous player or Moroccan stuff just to check out the feel and try to understand the feel, the stuff that you can't write down. Yeah, I love that, I remember being at a rehearsal with the great drummer Chris Dave and the bandleader had a chart and like somehow what we were playing wasn't exactly like the chart and he said Oh, I'm gonna rewrite it and Chris said, you can't write this down, and I thought I was like, that's awesome, he's totally right: You can't write this down it's just like it's a feel thing and that's part of the beautiful mystery of music, so that's that, I love the other stuff too. I love the studious study of rhythm, but for me I've always prioritized the other one just a little bit more, but one final comment is, rhythm definitely is a study within itself, and it's important not to get lost in, you know, all the other elements of music while ignoring rhythm and that's true of every other element of music; I mean we prioritize harmony so far over rhythm, so far over dynamics, so far over every other element of music, so I do try to like keep that balance in mind, like if I'm going to study harmony for a little while, which is great I also want to make sure I'm studying rhythm and studying dynamics and studying space and studying the tonal aspects of music you know, so that the playing is in balance. That's been an important thing for me in my practice, playing soft, playing loud, playing you know fast, relatively fast, playing slow, playing high, playing low, playing open strings playing frets, you know, everything that I could think of. Just to make sure that I'm exploring it all, because first of all because I like it all, second because some my favorite players are like, when I think of Sonny Rollins I think of like you know in one solo he plays high, plays low, he plays fast, plays slowly, plays swinging, he plays even, and it all makes sense, it's doesn't sound disjunct at all it just sounds complete. And it sounds like anything is possible which is something that I love about music, so yeah.
MF: Amazin, great! So yeah, I asked about the intervallic kind of technique that you use or that you developed, because people always tell me like 'it's like I know my boxes like I know D-Dorian in this box, but when Nir played, it sounds like I can't achieve what he's done with that technique...' so yeah.
NF: So, to that effect, yeah, definitely I'm not a boxes player, I never really learned the boxes because it was felt very unnatural for me when I was learning how to play guitar. So I just kind of figured out like, string by string and the whole kind of trying to see the whole guitar neck is one thing, because it is right, the boxes are just something that we've invented, it's just trying to subdivide and make it easier to go piece by piece which is fine, but if you keep them forever, it's like having the training wheels on forever. I mean, at some point you have to get rid of it and just think of the guitar neck as one thing because it is. So that's one part of it, and the intervalic stuff, it's the same idea just like I want to play whatever we call regular intervals seconds and thirds and stuff, I also want to play bigger ones, also want to play smaller ones like moving in tiny little minor seconds and little chromatic stuff so it's kind of just an outgrowth of that philosophy of trying to see the bigger picture and get it all in and acknowledging that there's no right way to do things and that if you hear it a different way it's ok to do that and to explore. Yes, I'm trying to stay creative with it and stay having fun. Although I do believe in music as art and of course in the serious nature of it, I believe like, when you can have fun with it, it can bring out all these cool possibilities that can be applied to serious contexts, you should have fun while you practice sometimes.