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Progressive Rock Interviews

California Guitar Trio

Interviewed by Bob Cooper
Interview with Paul Richards of California Guitar Trio from 2003

This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2003 Year Book Volume 3 at

It looks like this is sort of a mini-tour with very few dates. Is the vibe of the band really as relaxed as it seems?
Yes, we are having a great time on this one. The venues are smaller ones where we seem to be playing to a select group of fans. Redway was by far the smallest one we did, and before that we did three different shows in the bay area, all of which were very good in their own unique way. Mill Valley, Palo Alto, and over in Santa Cruz, and all three were strong shows but in different ways. The show in Palo Alto was in a Unitarian Church, the Mill Valley show was at the Sweetwater in a rock club type setting. Tonight was somewhere in between. That's why I like this place, because we have the rock club PA system and lighting and all that, but the hall itself is an old ballroom. This is definitely one of my favorite places so far on this trip.
MSJ: This of course is a college town where the more eclectic bands like CGT are a big hit. Do you take time to assess the crowds at each venue and adjust the set accordingly?
I sometimes do that during a set, because it is risky to assume anything from a crowd at the beginning. When we go into a room to play we don't really know the feel of it until the music starts and until the set begins to roll. Then you start to get a sense of how things are, and if we need to change things that are going on.
MSJ: Yeah, I could imagine playing small bars in Texas or even Eastern Oregon where you walk in and everyone is wearing cowboy hats and spurs, that you could find yourself being a little twangy in tone just to see if they dig it.
That can happen to an extent, but we are established in the sound we want to make, and try to stick with what we do and just hope they like it.
MSJ: So, Portland obviously wasn't on the tour this time, sadly.
No, the timing just didn't work out, but it looks like we might be up there in May.
MSJ: Now your new CD has guests Tony Levin on bass and Pat Mastelotto on drums. Do either Tony or Pat ever join you at your shows as a surprise thing?
On this tour, no. On the last tour we were playing near his hometown near Albany, in Schenectady, and Tony was able to come play with us at a show. But on this tour he is getting ready to go out with Peter Gabriel, so he won't be showing up on this tour I don't imagine.
MSJ: Well, Tony is a very good guy, and you can be sure that if he could, he would. I had a chance to spend some time with Tony recently, and amidst his busy schedule he entertained me for most of an afternoon with his stories and thoughts. A very real man, he is.
He always does. We are going to try to do some things this summer, when he has time between tours with Gabriel and when we have some time off. Our next tour is quite a lengthy one that will run into the summer, but we will have some time off here and there.
MSJ: Are you looking ahead to the next record or will you just tour this record as long as you can?
Right now we want to promote this record, but songs come when they do. We already have about half an album worth of new material written without even sitting down and seriously writing, but we will eventually sit down and write more stuff when we get time off, because we need to write as much as possible, because we are already talking about going into the studio to record the next record, possibly as early as this fall.
MSJ: You guys are also known for whipping out some impressive covers at your live shows. Would you ever consider a live album consisting of a compilation of the various covers you have undertaken? What you guys just did with "Bohemian Rhapsody" was unbelievable, as was "Heart Of The Sunrise" from the CGT+2 record, and I can think of dozens of other tunes you could use on such a project.
I know-there are so many covers we have played and many more we would like to play that such a project is possible, but right now our focus is centered a lot on creating new original pieces, so we aren't really planning on working on covers too much. In fact, in the past some of the best covers we have put into our sets, such as "Heart Of The Sunrise" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" and some classical pieces, are ones that we decided to add at the spur of the moment and rotate around as sort of a spontaneous treat. When we do it like that, we are as entertained by them as the audience is. I don't know, because we have stacks of recommendations and requests and scores and transcriptions stuff that people have sent in to us that are possibilities. I think we all want to be known for originality as opposed to messing with other peoples music, so doing covers is a lot of fun, but will likely remain a novelty thing. Our focus is more on creating good well-written original music.
MSJ: Well after hearing this new cd of yours, I would have to say that is exactly what you have done, and I must say that all of the songs are beautifully written and instrumentated, and are very thought provoking as well. Listening to those songs is an experience, much in the same way that a lot of Yes' musical movements sort of created ....I don't know...sort of a visual mind-movie thing, and that is something that most real artists strive for but very few actually accomplish. You should be proud of it! As a kid I grew up with nothing but guitar players, and when a conscious attempt at doing an all-guitar thing came up, we fell flat on our faces. Did having Robert Fripp as an instructor actually enable you to work in this fashion?
Well, it certainly didn't hurt! We did spend a lot of time with sound balance and arrangement, which is a lot of what gives our band its distinction, and really helped us a lot. When we toured with the League Of Crafty Guitarists there was usually at least twelve players, and sometimes as many as twenty or more. When we had that many players, we would do it more like an orchestra, and there would be these different sections with two or three people working on a part such as violins and so on. It was interesting working with such a large group, and I think that stuff really helped us in The Trio, because it enabled us to say "look, we have this instrument with this frequency range and this note range, and this tonal response, so what can we do with this instrument to make it interesting for an hour and a half or two hours of music". So that has been our challenge over the course of our twelve years together, is to find ways to keep things exciting and keep it interesting and dynamic. The cover tunes have different influences that our original pieces, and I feel that in a lot of the work we do, there is really no rules. Any piece can go any direction. It can have any influence in it. Like one new piece of Hideo's that starts out as a kind of mellow chord piece, then goes into some kind of jazz standard type chord progression, and anything like that is a welcome thing.
MSJ: Do you strive to always try to make the songs identical from show to show, or do you improvise on them to get different things?
Well, every night is different. There are certain things that work well one night, but don't seem to on others. Since we have been playing together for over twelve years, there is a certain reliability that we have on each other, so even if one night we are struggling with something, there are usually other things we can go to that will work or at the very least is up to standard. You know, for ANY musician there are ups and downs. It's a part of being a musician, and that is part of playing music, and that is what's exciting.
MSJ: I imagine in twelve years you have probably encountered every snag that one could encounter in playing your music. I must say though that I could not detect even the slightest flaw in tonight's performance, and I am one who notices such things. It was immaculate. Especially that passing-off of notes thing. My god, if that isn't a perfect scenario for mistakes.
Well that is a very nice thing to hear- thank you. I think doing it every night makes the whole thing natural for us, but also makes us hear it with a different ear than the audience, because I do hear slight flaws at times that you might not hear. I think that is part of my job too, to notice these things.
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