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Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series
Hailing from Toronto, Canada, guitarist/composer Jamie Bonk has graciously agreed to become a contributing editor to Jamie will be conducting a series of interviews entitled Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series. We look forward to his contributions for they are both insightful and offer a unique artist-to-artist perspective over the typical interview. We hope you enjoy them.
Other Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series:
A Conversation with Grundman, Jan. 2005
A Conversation with Will Ackerman, Dec. 2004
A Conversation with Ottmar Liebert, Dec. 2004
<<-later interviews | earlier interviews->>   <<- all interviews ->>
Jamie Bonk
A Conversation with Ottmar Liebert
December 2004
Without a doubt guitarist/composer/producer Ottmar Liebert has left his singular and unmistakable mark on music. Since Ottmar's 1990 debut album, Nouveau Flamenco (the biggest selling guitar album of all time!), he has released an incredible 22 albums, including live releases, Christmas CDs, 10 CDs of original music, a DVD and remixes. It's no wonder that Billboard Magazine has twice named Ottmar, New Age Artist of the Year!

And Ottmar continues to push forward. In 2001, he formed Spiral Subwave Records International to give him more control over his art and career. SSRI has done phenomenally well, taking Ottmar's latest release, La Semana, to #4 on the Billboard New Age charts. As Ottmar says in our conversation, "...that's quite an achievement for a brand new label. An amazing achievement in fact." Couldn't agree more.

But, and I guess I'm showing my artist-centric bias here, I think the real achievement is the fact that La Semana is an outstanding record. Ottmar thinks it's his best ever. And while I'm still a big fan of his 1995 release, Euphoria, I think he's right.

If you'd like to learn more about Ottmar and his music, please visit his web site.

Ottmar Liebert
(Photo - Greg Gorman)
"I am constantly discovering new ways to do things." - Ottmar Liebert
Jamie: The music business has always changed, but probably no more so than right now. Whether these changes are good or bad obviously depends on one's perspective, but the changes have, and are continuing to, impact artists and labels. You seem to be rolling with the punches and embracing this state of flux with your new record La Semana. In the liner notes you write: "If 4 any reason U need 2 make a copy of this CD, we ask that U contribute $5.00 2 the artist @ -- Thanks!" Is this philosophy something you plan to adopt with all/any of your future releases?
Ottmar: I do not enjoy having to deal with all of the dongles and complicated copy-protection schemes the software industry has come up with to protect their product. In fact the PACE iLok for my ProTools system gave up its life a few days ago and I had to spend an hour on the net ordering a replacement and getting temporary licenses. ProTools is not alone in doing this sort of thing. If you lose the USB Key Logic uses, you have to pay another $999 for a new Key.

It seems to me that one cannot protect against fraud or copying without making it unreasonably difficult for people. EMI has released some of my albums in Europe without my consent and indeed against my wishes with copy--protection. Now they are getting sued in France because these copy-protected CDs don't seem to play in all CD players. I think EMI deserves that suit.

Yes, people will undoubtedly copy my music - some of those copies I find legitimate - like burning a CD for your car, or a mix-CD for your vacation etc.. - others are a rip-off. There are times when you want to turn a friend on to music and you want to do it NOW - no time to go to a store.... so you burn a copy.

What I am doing is giving you the choice to donate some money for that copy. I know that there are many people on the net that say "Music wants to be free" - but alas the equipment needed to record music is NOT free. A writer's laptop might only cost a couple of thousand bucks - but that covers not even half of a microphone in my studio. I think there needs to be a qualitative difference between copyrights, depending on the time and money spent creating something from scratch. Unfortunately I have no idea how something like this could be accomplished in the real world.

In the meantime I am simply offering people the choice to donate money for a work of art they have copied and are presumably enjoying. I think the big changes the music industry is facing at present will be changes every other industry might face sometime later this century. I mean, what will happen to the hardware industry when I can download a "recipe" for a hammer from the net and instruct my matter-compiler to create it overnight?

Actually, what I would love more than anything is working via a subscription service. People would subscribe to my site and would be able to view videos and listen to music. They would download files and burn their own CDs. But that might have to wait another 5-10 years, although I am doing a survey regarding subscriptions on my site right now.
"Yes, people will undoubtedly copy my music - some of those copies I find legitimate... others are a rip-off." - Ottmar Liebert
Jamie: And you have such an amazing site -- the online diary/blog is particularly interesting to me. In my view, you're connecting with your fans in a way that probably has never been possible in the past. I would imagine you have significant demands on your time (recording, touring, label "stuff", etc.... not to mention simply living!) and yet you make time for writing on your site -- and on what seems like a daily basis.

The challenge, at least from my perspective, is that the Internet can be a double-edged sword -- it allows one to do so much, but it also can be incredibly greedy with time. Obviously, you find working on your site worthwhile or you wouldn't do it, but what does the Internet give you that you don't find elsewhere? Has working on your diary/blog changed your art in any way?
Ottmar: Hm, it has changed my life in that I am less likely to get in trouble when I am touring, because I am staying in my room more.

I enjoy sharing what I know about music. It is an ongoing process as I am constantly learning about music as well. Nouveau Flamenco is a relatively new concept and I am refining what that it might be all of the time.

It is also about the dialog with fans. I have some really cool and knowledgeable fans and I enjoy hearing their opinions.

I don't think the Diary has changed my art in any way, but it is possible. Writing in the diary about an idea I have for a song or an album design deepens my inner dialog about that idea and therefore could very well change my work.
"Nouveau Flamenco is a relatively new concept and I am refining what that it might be all of the time." - Ottmar Liebert
Jamie: Good to see you're trying to stay out of trouble on tour -- maybe you can share some "road stories" later! Just to change directions for a bit...

To me, top players such as yourself, have a strong, internal sense of rhythm that plays a large role in defining their music. Your rhythm guitar playing has always been, for me, one of the highlights of your music. Have you always had such a strong rhythmic sense? And for the guitar players out there, can you recommend any specific exercises to help in developing and refining their rhythm guitar playing?
Ottmar: Hours and hours of playing to a metronome or drum loops. The first band I saw live was Earth, Wind & Fire, who were opening for Santana in Europe in 1974. That turned me on to rhythm, I should say RHYTHM!!!! There are similarities between Funk, the Blues and Flamenco in that the rhythm is THE most important element in all three. Flamenco is rhythm plus melisma, which is a term for singing several pitches over one syllable - like one finds in Indian and Arabic music. Traditionally there isn't a lot of melody in Flamenco at all. There was no sing-along chorus in Flamenco. I think there are two particular elements in my music that appealed to many people: one being the melody, and the other the fact that I approach Flamenco as if it is Funk or R&B. I look for the pocket and the GROOVE and stay there. That's not very Flamenco. So you could say Earth, Wind & Fire had a major impact on me some thirty years ago. "I look for the pocket and the GROOVE and stay there." - Ottmar Liebert
Jamie: Earth, Wind & Fire and Santana -- not a bad first concert! It must have been pretty wild to have had Santana play on Solo Para Ti years later. I think it's pretty amazing how music you hear when you're young can have such an effect on you years later. One of the first concerts I ever saw was Yes (at Maple Leaf Gardens)... I was probably too young to fully grasp their music (or what all that the funny smelling smoke was!), but, I knew there was some great playing on the stage and still to this day, I love great players -- in whatever style. No comment on the smoke...

Getting back to your last comment, I think you're right that most people do grab onto the melody and the rhythm in your music. When you talk about groove, personally, I can also hear a real sense of it in your melody playing/soloing. Are you thinking rhythmically when you're soloing? Also, how important is harmony to your music?
Ottmar: I think it is all important. Different cultures have placed more importance on either melody, or harmony, or rhythm, but never all three....

Europe - harmony + melody with a weak sense of rhythm (usually 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4 in classical music) India - melody + rhythm with a weak sense of harmony, which is usually just a drone behind the melody.

Africa - rhythm and melody - not so much harmony, although some of the choral singing gets into that...

Jazz was one of the first styles that explored all three elements together....

Anyway, it is all important, but I admit that I do prefer simpler harmonies - I am very modal that way. I find Bebop scary. : )
Jamie: HaHaHa!... me too... so many chords...

I met with a mastering engineer years ago when I was trying (and I am still trying) to learn about recording and the mastering process in particular. He said that, in his opinion, the best sounding records were the ones with the best playing and arranging, and that in many ways, the music determines how good, or bad, a record "sounds". I think that's pretty much true, but obviously good gear plays an important role too. La Semana sounds fantastic and I think that's a testament to both your playing/composing and your producing/engineering. Does wearing so many hats in the studio (i.e. player, composer, producer, engineer) help or hinder the record making process for you?
Ottmar: I feel that it has made it easier for me. I went to art school and making art is usually a solitary experience, especially for painters. I am more comfortable working in the studio by myself. On the other hand I have worked with Cuban musicians in Miami, where recording is more of a group activity - to be enjoined by many friends and family members. That's fun, but not me.

I agree, good music makes a bigger impression than good sound. Some old flamenco or blues records sound terrible and yet they are wonderful! It seems important to achieve a balance between getting the right sound, but not ignoring the importance of workflow. In other words, sometimes it is more important to capture an idea, than to loose the magic moment by fiddling with knobs. Working by myself, that is always my choice.
Jamie: You have a pretty impressive touring schedule -- and in fact, you're on tour right now. I know you bring different bands (i.e. trio, quartet etc.) out on the road... what's the line-up like for this tour? Doing any Euphoria-like remixing of any pieces?
Ottmar: I have often referred to Luna Negra as a rubber band, sometimes small and sometimes large. The smallest touring group was a trio and the largest was a nonet in 1997.

After touring with Luna Negra XL (7-9 musicians) for several years I wanted to return to a smaller format last year and went out with a quartet with myself on guitar, Jon Gagan on Bass Guitars, Ron Wagner on Percussion and Canton Becker with a laptop. Canton enabled us to do a lot of Euphoria style stuff. A few live recordings of this band are available in our Listening Lounge.

This year I had a new quartet, replacing Canton with another Santa Fe musician, Robby Rothschild, who plays Cajon, Djembe and Congas. We will put some live recordings of this quartet in the Listening Lounge in the coming weeks.
"I have often referred to Luna Negra as a rubber band..." - Ottmar Liebert
Jamie: Can't wait to hear the live recordings! How does altering the make up of the group change or affect your music? Does your approach to the guitar change when you're playing with a larger ensemble versus a smaller one?
Ottmar: In general, the more people are playing, the less each person gets to play. The more people are playing the more the music has to be arranged.

When I have one or two other guitarists playing with me, I end up playing mostly melodies and the occasional rhythm. When I am the only guitarist, I have to propel the music as well, and must find a way to integrate rhythm playing. Also, being the only guitarist allows me to change the harmony here and there if I feel like it.
Jamie: We talked earlier about how Earth, Wind & Fire was a musical influence for you. And in turn, you've been an influence for many artists, including me. Has the impact your own musical voice, on the public as well as other musicians, been a help or a hindrance to you artistically? Where do you look for inspiration today?
Ottmar: That's a very interesting question. Several times a year I receive music from musicians who would like to work with me or tour with my band. Most of the time they either play my music or play something that is quite influenced by it. And most of the time I am instead looking for musicians who do something different, who found a different way to do things. I mean, I have a peculiar style of playing rhythm guitar, a unique cross between Flamenco and R & B - there is that Earth, Wind & Fire influence again - and I haven't found anybody who can play like that. So, if I were to hire another guitar player for instance I would look to other things s/he could do uniquely well. Either a more traditional Flamenco guitarist, or maybe somebody who plays African style electric guitar....

Inspiration. Right now I am finding inspiration in a bottle of 1992 Silver Oak I found in the office this afternoon.

Inspiration: The MUSE is an allusive entity. That girl is here today and gone tomorrow. MUSE is the root of the word MUSIC. Without inspiration you got nada. I have to trust her to pick the right time to visit me and she has never let me down, yet.

When I started working on La Semana I thought it was hopeless... but then I got that visit and now I think it's my very best album ever. So far it topped out at #4 on the Billboard New Age chart, and is currently at #8 - that's quite an achievement for a brand new label. An amazing achievement in fact.

Back to your question. I think that I have always tried to push forwards, to expand my style, to add new colors and textures. To my ears every album has opened new vistas. I have always felt the need to discover. I mean, compare NF and Opium - sounds like two different musicians... Borrasca and The Hours...., Innamorare and La Semana... etc.

The president of Epic Records challenged me to record an all electric guitar album during the middle of the nineties, because he loved the tracks I played electric on. I wonder what would have happened had he not left Epic a year later. I might have taken him up on that.
"When I started working on La Semana I thought it was hopeless... but then I got that visit and now I think it's my very best album ever." - Ottmar Liebert
Jamie: I'd love to hear an electric guitar-based album from you -- I'm sure it would be great!

You've achieved so much in your career. Artistically you've released, as you point out, an incredibly diverse body of work. Not to mention defining a genre! And commercially, you've sold and continue to sell a huge number of records. Have your successes changed your impetus to create? Have they altered your relationship to music?
Ottmar: As we all know, the Music Business is changing. Nobody has found a great solution yet, but some suggestions have been made. See:

A Royalties Plan for File Sharing

Alternative Compensation Systems for Digital Media

Development of an Alternate Compensation System for Digitial Media in a Global Environment

Promises to Keep: Technology, Law, and the Future of Entertainment (PDF)

In some ways it feels like being a complete beginner again. Many of the old rules no longer apply. My success lies in the past, now it is up to me to adapt successfully to all of the changes in our industry. The same is true for recording. I am constantly discovering new ways to do things.
"In some ways it feels like being a complete beginner again." - Ottmar Liebert
Jamie: I have no doubt that you can (and will) adapt -- both artistically and on a business level. [And great links!... I have to admit it's going to take me a while to read through the William W. Fisher III PDF, but it looks interesting.]

I want to thank you for taking the time to do this artist-to-artist conversation. As I said earlier, you've been an influence on my own music, so it's been great having the chance to talk with you. Thanks again and please stay in touch!
Ottmar: You are welcome.
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