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Progressive Rock Interviews

Tom Caufield

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Tom Caufield from 2015

Can you catch the readers up on the history of your involvement in music?

The first music that grabbed my attention was my mother singing “Moon River” and “Autumn Leaves,” accompanying herself with ukulele. Very early on I heard and loved Christmas carols, the music from “Mary Poppins” and John Barry’s James Bond soundtracks. I taught myself to play piano as a young child, and soon after took guitar lessons, absorbing everything on the radio and practicing some days until my fingers literally bled. In my late teens I played in a cover band on the Chitlin’ Circuit, but finally left to be solo and write my own compositions. In 2011, I felt the calling to write and perform instrumental music exclusively.
MSJ: If you weren't involved in music what do you think you'd be doing?
I would probably be either: an English or philosophy professor, a lawyer, a writer, or sailing the oceans in a sail boat of my own.
MSJ: Who would you see as your musical influences?
The golden age of AM Radio, Harold Budd, Mike Oldfield, Carlos Santana, Vangelis, Andres Segovia, Wayne Shorter, Joni Mitchell, and Thomas Newman.
MSJ: What's ahead for you?
I’m currently working on my sixth album. I feel that with my first five albums, I’ve firmly established my artistic voice, and written my core pieces. Now, I’m trying to push the boundaries of what can be been done with the “acoustic guitar based” album. Hopefully it will sound like nothing we’ve heard before.
MSJ: I know artists hate to have their music pigeonholed or labeled, but how would you describe your music?
As for describing the music in words, the goal is: the least number of hyphens as possible while still getting it accurate. I would describe it as: “Contemplative, melodic instrumental guitar based music that induces calm while acting as a cognitive stimulant and providing a space to think.” Or if it must be shorter: “Certainly not dance music.”
MSJ: Are there musicians with whom you would like to play with in the future?
I would love to be produced by Daniel Lanois, T-Bone Burnett or Will Ackerman. In addition to all of them being incredible musicians in their own right, all three have beautiful studio spaces. I would love to record with William Orbit, and I would love to write and perform guitar and piano pieces with Harold Budd.
MSJ: Do you think that illegal downloading of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians?
I don’t think it’s good for the artists or the art, or the culture. Because we have a capitalist system, the large scale taking of music without giving anything in return for it removes our culturally accepted acknowledgment of something’s value – the attachment of commensurate monetary compensation. In order for capitalism to work, something has to have its value recognized via an amount of currency. Pirating strips music of its participation in the “value for value” exchange. It puts music and musician’s relationship with the culture into disarray. It could make the act of making music unsustainable, which could result in less good music. Or, great music will find a way regardless. But the statistics are clear, musicians are being paid less. It’s not a good time to be a musician from an earnings standpoint. Even if it gives one valuable “exposure,” it should still be the artists option whether or not to give it away for that purpose.
MSJ: In a related question, how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them?
I’ve had folks film me while I’m playing, and I’m flattered they even want to. However, I wish people would put their phones down when they hear me play and just be in the moment. No photos. No videos. No devices. Just be with me so we can share that time and space and what happens to the music due to the presence of both of us in the room, and really connect. I think it’s the higher experience.
MSJ: If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch nemesis and why?
I’m too flawed myself to ever be a superhero, but that said, I guess it would be anyone making music that promotes cynicism, nihilism or any sort of bad vibes. I’m an optimist. I believe in expressing the complexity, pain, and negative capability of life along with the beautiful, but not in being hurtful, or destructive, or in music that traffics in poisonous ideas and images. Wabi Sabi, I say. A sense of spiritual longing and aching beauty, the acknowledgment of pain, nature is the model, rough edges, open ended… because – who knows what our purpose is, what we are, what we're destined to become? Any negative agenda is just embarrassingly shortsighted.
MSJ: If you were to put together your ultimate band (a band you'd like to hear or catchlive), who would be in it and why?
Wow. It might be interesting to try and put something rootsy, something fusion-ey, something ambient, something classic rock and something exotic all together, and see what happens. I might put Jeff Beck on guitar, Bruce Thomas on bass, Dr. John on piano, Omar Hakim on drums, Nora Jones on vocals, Ivan Neville on organ, Brian Eno on Moog synthesizer, and Yo-Yo Ma on cello -but only if he ate some mushrooms before going onstage.
MSJ: If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view who would be playing?
The opening acts in the intimate tents around the grounds in the morning would be:Jonathan Richman, Emmylou Harris, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Ray La Montagne, Tina Dico, Mark Kozelek, and Ralph Towner. Natural, rootsy – no better music for the morning. As the heat of the day came on, we’d start bringing out to the big stage: Thievery Corporation, TOSCA, Olafur Arnalde– get some grooves going, some atmosphere, and then as night fell, we’d get cosmic, peaking with the otherworldly Sigur Ros, and finally close the show with the supernaturally, transcendently great Van Morrison.

Close up magician Brian Gillis would be roaming through the crowd, and I'd be busking outside the entrance, near the ticket window.

MSJ: What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?
The last CD I bought was Become the Other by Ozric Tentacles; a fantastic space-prog-fusion-world-Rock-jam band. I’ve been listening to them, and to honor Chris Squire's passing, I've been revisiting Yes, especially the great live set Keys to Ascension.
MSJ: Have you read any good books lately?
Yes. Music of the Common Tongue, by Christopher Small, The Roots of Romanticism, by Isaiah Berlin, and The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, from which I learned there are things that we all agree on and things that we'll never all agree on.
MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?
The last big show I saw was Peter Gabriel’s Back to Front performance of the complete So album at the Hollywood Bowl, but recently, I also saw French-Algerian guitarist Pierre Bensusan at an intimate LA venue called “McCabe’s Guitar Shop.”
MSJ: Do youhave a musical “guilty pleasure?”
I don’t f eel guilty about anything that I like, but I know what you mean about how music snobs may assess one’s taste, so I’d say…I always enjoy a well-done four-minute, catchy, hooky song. I love Colbie Cailatt, a lot of stuff that comes out of Nashville, and I also love very pastoral, poignant, sentimental stuff –Christmas Carols, vintage Windham Hill albums and the like. I like the Phil Collins hits and the mid ‘80s Genesis hits. I own and cherish the best of the Carpenters, and the best of John Denver.

Recently, my wife and I moved and so had a garage sale, and I always remember one fellow saying to me, “I don't think I've ever been to a garage sale where Britney Spears albums sat alongside volumes of Noam Chomsky.” So that sort of sums me up - I'm High/Low culture, and feel it all has its value. You just have to always keep the context in mind: What are the stakes it’s playing for? And judge it accordingly.

MSJ: What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?
The band I was playing in was out on the road, and we pulled up at the Ramada Inn of Slidell, Louisiana. “I can check you in,” said the man at the desk, “but let me warn you - right now, there’s no running water, and we don’t know when we’ll get it turned back on. Your call.” We had nowhere else to go, so we checked in, but took this lack of water service as license to have run of the place. Tired of living four to a room, my drummer friend and I found another room with the door open, went in, had a few beers, turned on the TV and went to sleep. But the thing was: as a lark, we’d run down the hall to this new room without a stitch on, and so didn’t have our clothes with us. In the morning, we were awoken by the hotel manager and the cops banging on the door, who told us to a) getout of the room, and b) that we’d have to pay for it. We both threw the covers off our respective beds, buck-naked.  We slowly, confidently and with great dignity gathered our personal effects and walked past them, down the hallway, and back to our room, with all of Mother Nature’s splendid pro-creational design in full view, as various other guests looked on.
MSJ: If you could sit down to dinner with any three people, living or dead, for food and conversation, with whom would you be dining?
Marcus Aurelius, Hunter S. Thompson, and the Marquis de Sade. That should make for interesting conversation.
MSJ: What would be on the menu?
All 31flavors.
MSJ: Are there any closing thoughts you would like to get out there?
I've never met a monkey I didn't like.
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2015  Volume 4 at
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