Michael Mullen: A Thousand Strings: Fiddle, Guitar, Voice

Michael MullenArtist Profile

Michael Mullen: A Thousand Strings

Fiddle, Guitar, Voice: A Trio Of One

Interview by Coreopsis Journal staff

CJMT:  Thank you for agreeing to be profiled in Coreopsis. We have long admired your work. Where can we learn more about you, and hear your music?

My primary website is www.michaelmullen.net. I have a professional Facebook page (Michael Mullen – Trio of One) and a personal one (Michael Mullen), and I’m on Twitter as @michaelfiddle.

My music is available at CDBaby (Fiddler’s Creed and A Trio Of One — with links on Amazon, iTunes, etc.), Reverbnation, Myspace and Pandora.

 CJMT:  What do you want the world to know about your work?

That it exists and is awesome.

CJMT:  Who or what do you see as your main influences?

Oh God. Gotta minute?

As a fiddler/violinist, I learned my basic technique from my dad, then from Mr. Tom Fritz, who was the strings instructor at King’s Canyon Unified School District in Reedley, California, the town I grew up in. During high school I took private lessons from Mr. Norman Zech. I was lucky to grow up in Reedley because it had a surprisingly strong string program for a small rural school district, due in large part to the visionary planning of Burl Walter and Bob Bauernschmidt in the ’60s and ’70s. I like to say — when people ask me how I learned to play the way I do — that I am the proud product of the public school system of the State of California.

While I knew about such Classical violin luminaries as Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin — and I had my favorite pieces that I liked to listen to at home, play in orchestra at school, etc. — I didn’t really have an “influence” until I started listening to Rock and Roll in Junior High. I started listening to ’70s Art Rock or Progressive Rock (what would now be called “prog” rock) in the 6th or 7th grade, and I “discovered” various bands, thanks largely to my brother and sister playing the music while I was around. Bands like E.L.P., Yes, Jethro Tull, Kansas, and Rush.

The first Rock song I remember really woodshedding  was the violin part on “Point of Know Return” by Kansas. [Editor’s Note: “Woodshedding refers to a particular type of solitary practice, metaphorically and sometimes literally “out in the woodshed,” which, as sax player Paul Klemperer notes: …”is a recognition of the need to sequester oneself and dig into the hard mechanics of the music before you can come back and play with a group in public.”] Then I performed “Dust In The Wind” with a singer and a guitarist in a talent show my senior year. Robby Steinhardt of Kansas was always one of my favorite players. But I was also a huge Jethro Tull fan, and Ian Anderson’s approach to flute might have rubbed off on my violin playing to a degree. I’ve loved the sound of electric guitar for many years. When I started playing amplified I began figuring ways to sound like that, without necessarily using any distortion, but with bowing and finger tricks and techniques. So I suppose some of my favorite guitarists influenced my playing in some difficult-to-define ways: Martin Barre of Tull would by high on that list, oh He of the HUGE TONE and Beefy Riffs. And David Gilmour of Pink Floyd who has the most understated way of playing that just drips emotion and cool. Perhaps Stevie Ray Vaughn from when I was young also. And definitely Brian May of Queen. Billy Squier, Angus Young, Mark Knopfler, the list goes on…

Later, when I started learning to fiddle, my influences would have to include the great Scottish fiddlers Johnny Cunningham and Alasdair Fraser, the Irish fiddler Kevin Burke, the American fiddlers Johnny Gimble, Mark O’Connor, and Charlie Daniels. When I played Country many of my favorite fiddle parts were played by the aforementioned, as well as Vassar Clements and Byron Berline. Later I discovered Stephane Grappelli, Stuff Smith, and Eddy South (if you don’t know them, look them up).

I have had a fascination with saxophone since I was very young. Never took the chance to learn, but when I play something bluesy, low, and sexy I sometimes am channeling that certain something that only a tenor sax can do. From that point of view, the sax players for Bruce Springsteen and Pink Floyd impacted me, and more recently I have taken to listening to John Coltrane. There’s Miles Davis, and Blues Traveler’s harp guy, John Popper. Amazing. Plainly, the influences on my fiddle playing are legion, I stand on the shoulders of giants, yada yada…

As a singer and song interpreter, when I was young and singing along with my favorites I was always pushing to sing high (‘cause they all had high voices mostly), and my first hesitant forays into singing songs I had written involved singing too high for my own good. Then life took me away for a while, and when I started playing professionally in the early ’90s it was in a Country band in the Central Valley, south of Fresno, called Jack Clayton and the Texas Connection. The other guys in the band were all old pros that had been performing in bars and honky-tonks in that area for decades, and each was an excellent singer in his own right. Every one of them could imitate Willie Nelson to a T for example, then turn around and do Johnny Cash or George Strait, even though they have distinct and unique vocal characteristics. From them I learned the value of imitating your heroes as a path to finding your own voice. I tried to sing a bit in that band, but I was too intimidated, and scared of forgetting lyrics. While it took time for Country music itself to grow on me, I paid attention when the guys in that band pointed out that Rock singers tend to have short careers, in part because they tend to sing too high and push their voices in unhealthy ways, whereas Country singers keep going into their 80s, as long as they are alive. And it’s true: Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, et al, they are all getting pretty long in the tooth, but they still tour, and still can sing their hits in the original keys.

As an interpreter of song, I come fairly late in life to the status of “lead singer”. I have always had a lack of confidence in my own voice, plus an Achilles heel in the form of a seeming inability to remember the words to songs. That is almost a disability in this business, but I just had to accept that I would keep lyrics in front of me in some form or other. Once I started doing my looping act a few years ago I figured a way to have unobtrusive lyric sheets in front of me to keep me on track. That allows me to think about other stuff that’s going on in the music, and really is quite important in my particular pursuit of looping as a performance approach.

I have listened to many singers over the years. It is really kind of impossible for me to narrow down who my influences have been in that area. From my youth when the family would listen to vinyl “hi-fi” on my Dad’s old record player: Tommy Makem and The Clancy Brothers, The Limelighters, Johnny Cash, Tom T. Hall, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Harry Belafonte. More recently I think Richard Thompson, and Andy M. Stewart of Silly Wizard, have influenced me a lot simply because I have been listening to both quite a bit lately. Suffice to say that every song I have ever enjoyed singing along with in the shower or in the car has influenced my approach in some fashion or other.

The same goes for my songwriting: everything I have ever really loved goes into my songwriting. While my process therein is a subject for another question or article, I will say that I generally have a lyric or piece of a lyric that tumbles around in my head for a while that eventually becomes a song.

My musical influences [in NO particular order]: Beethoven, Bach, Also Sprach Zarathustra, “Night On Bald Mountain” by Moussorsky, “Violin Concerto in D” by Tchaikowsky, Aaron Copeland, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, The Limelighters, Johnny Cash, Jethro Tull, ELP, Yes, Peter Gabriel, Kansas, Cake, No Doubt, Pink Floyd, System of a Down, Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention, Dick Gaughan, Altan, Silly Wizard, Planxty, The Bothy Band, Johnny Cunningham, Alasdair Fraser, Kevin Burke, The Pogues, the Scottish band Big Country, the Dropkick Murphys, the great Texas swing fiddler Johnny Gimble, Waylon Jennings, George Strait, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Bob Wills, Brad Paisley, Billy Joel, Johnny Clegg, Fela Kuti, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Stephane Grappelli, Eddy South, Stuff Smith, The Jazz Fakebooks and Realbooks of every sort, The Gow Collection, O’Neill’s Music Of Ireland, Heifetz, Perlman, Stern… Need I go on? These are just names I can think of right now. Gimme a couple more minutes and I will roll out a hundred more…

CJMT: You were with Celtic rock band, Tempest, for a long time. What can you tell us about that experience? Do get asked this a lot?

My experience in Tempest was very valuable for my growth as a person and as a musician and performer. Many musicians — even those at the pro level — don’t get to do that much performing and recording. Tempest performs a lot of great gigs, some of which are very cool, very important-type gigs, particularly if you are an enthusiast of Folk music or Celtic music.

For example, there’s Philadelphia Folk Festival — which is a modest-sized festival in the big scheme of music festivals, but has been hugely important in the promulgation of Folk music of all sorts for many years. There’s the honor of getting to perform in England at Fairport Convention’s Cropredy festival, or in Skagen Denmark and in Norway. Chicago Irish Festival is kind of a big deal. Irish Fest in Dublin, Ohio. Musikfest in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Summerfest in Milwaukee. Or the Pleasanton Highland Games right here in the Bay Area, for that matter. We performed at CBGBs in New York City, which was one of the most iconic rock clubs on the planet before it became a Las Vegas attraction.

The other side to that were the little gigs that were sparsely attended (every band deals with that), and traveling cooped up in a van for weeks on end while tooling around the Northeast and Midwest — or the Northwest and Canada — trying to get along well enough so we all would survive ‘til the end of the tour…  LOL…  In the early ‘90s the roof of the van leaked: every time it rained things would get wet inside and it would smell like a culvert. We did our share of sleeping on floors back then. When I first joined the band in ’92 we would take sleeping bags on the road, or else you might find yourself sleeping with no cover on a bare floor. Things have improved a lot since then of course.

I gotta say, Lief Sorbye is a trooper. He carries on, and it’s a testament to his determination that the band still records and tours. I learned to get along with people in a confined space much better thanks to Tempest. And I learned in a very real way the value of that old saying, “the show must go on…”

  CJMT:  Much of your music seems to tell a story, even the single, stand-alone pieces. Where do you think that comes from?

I guess I never thought about that. A lot of traditional fiddle tunes have interesting eccentric titles, like “I Buried My Wife And Danced On Her Grave.” A lot of those are open to interpretation as to what they are actually “about.” Part of what I love about Folk music is that most of the songs tell stories on some level or another. With more modern forms of songwriting, the story can often take a distant second place to a more immediate conjuration of emotion or capturing of a scene. So with a lot of the best modern popular songs if you strip away the music and the emotional resonance that the music imparts and if you are left with simply the lyrics, you can often see that the lyrics maybe don’t say that much.

But with Folk music, story is still an important part of it. That’s part of why I love interpreting Folk songs, because they tell stories. My parents used to have my brother and sister and I sit around the kitchen table and we would sing Folk songs, usually the bawdier the better! A lot of them were Irish songs from Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers. I have had Irish, Scottish, and American folk songs in my blood since before I was born. And those songs all tell stories on some level or another.

 CJMT: How would you describe your music?

The short answer to that is “Scottish, Irish, and American folk music leavened with just the right touch of well-known Rock songs.” My music is a synthesis of my influences along with my personality and my own musical sense, and my looping act – A Trio Of One – is the Petrie dish within which I grow my own musical culture. How would I describe my music? Ambitious. Elegiac. Poignant. Emotive. Anthemic. Exhilarating. Impelling. Dangerous. LOL.

CJMT:  What did you learn from working as a solo artist since leaving Tempest?

The music biz is an unforgiving place. But that’s not what you want to hear. I have learned that I CAN sing, I CAN interpret songs by others, I CAN have a legitimate voice that is my own. It is not written in stone somewhere that I must always be “just the fiddler.” I have learned that life is a heck of a lot easier when someone else is doing all the behind-the-scenes grunt work of booking and promoting and so on, and when all I had to do was walk on stage and rock the house I had it easy. But conversely, I have learned that I really love singing, people increasingly are requesting my original songs which tells me that I have something real to say there that folks seem to want to hear, and A Trio Of One is a creative outlet that works very well for me. My looping act is, I suppose, a distilled expression of the old principle that says that if you want to get it done, you probably need to do it yourself.

CJMT:  What would you like to say to other musicians (of any genre)?

Practice. Perform. Pay Attention. Persevere. Learn from the greats, and learn from everything musical. Your favorites and your influences are good places to start, but that is a cul-de-sac that you can easily get stuck in. Step outside of your comfort zones, both as a musician and as a listener. Listen to music that you dislike, on purpose, if for no other reason than so that you can identify what it is about it that does not appeal to you. Listen with an open mind and your soul will never want for great music.

CJMT:  Do you feel that the questions of the spirit influence what you do?

This is an area that I feel I must be careful with. People have such personal views on spirituality and religion. First I want to say that Fundamentalism of any and all sorts is a mode of thinking that is going to be a defining element of the 21st century. We must deal with the tendency of people from all creeds to embrace their own cosmological ideas at the expense of others. My view is that you can believe anything you like, provided it doesn’t hurt someone else. Thus, I take seriously the pagan dictum “do what you will, if it harms none.”

Let me give you a brief background on myself in the area of religion: I was raised in a largely non-religious household. My father was an atheist (“there is no God”) most of the time, though every once in a while he seemed to approach agnosticism (“maybe there is or maybe not, I don’t know”). My mother experimented with the latest fads in spirituality most of my formative years, but she seems to have settled into a born-again thing later in life. I got very religious for a brief few years in my early twenties — all that praise-Jesus born-again stuff — and now I look back at that with almost a sense of bemusement.

There were various factors involved: I was questioning my beliefs and finding my own path, and if you aren’t raised with any particular creed, when you go looking you might land on the first one you find. I was needing to define myself in a context that was different from that of my father (the strict, no-nonsense atheistic authority figure) and my mother (the spiritual butterfly whose “mystical flavor of the moment” I did not respect) and find my place in things in my own way. I was also trying to fit into the context of my first wife’s family, who were all Evangelicals with that accompanying world-view. I joined the US military and had to deal with the stresses of that experience plus leaving home for a foreign land, etc. (I served in peacetime and was really just a glorified placeholder, but it was fraught and difficult nonetheless). I loved singing along in church: the emotional resonance of singing a worshipful song along with a bunch of other folks. That is, incidentally, similar in some ways to being at a great Rock concert. At any rate, when I look back at that period now — the part of my life when I became very religious — I see myself as a boy growing into manhood, and one of the things you do then is you define your place in the universe, and the born-again experience is — in some ways — an easy way to do that. You proclaim your faith, take a dip in a pool, and all of a sudden — magically — you are transformed from a guilty shriveled thing into a being that is right with the universe and has a future beyond death. This is powerful stuff, and easy to fall for if you are in need of that sort of thing.

I have since come full circle and essentially identify as an atheist. I do not need to get a stamp of approval from a paternalistic overseer who offers the carrot of eternal bliss while at the same time waving the stick of eternal damnation in my face. Plus, science continues to paint the god principle into a tighter and tighter empirical corner. But I will say that if there is one spiritual/religious path that we need to cling to these days, it is veneration of Nature and Earth as a Mother. Gaia must be cared for, or our future will be dim indeed. Maybe there’s life on Mars, but for now, this is where we are stuck.

I love trees, the bigger the better. I feel closest to something that may be called Spiritus in the presence of nature, particularly stands of old growth redwoods or sequoias. My personal cathedral is Giant Forest, in Kings Canyon, and every cluster of redwoods is a chapel and a prayerful place to me.  I look at mysticism — the direct experience of the Divine — as an emotional fulfillment of a need for understanding and connection that you can’t get without a spiritual context. To me, it doesn’t matter if you simply get a sense of peace and quiet joy while standing in a cool grove of trees, or if you like to do your rituals and holy days and Sabbats and such, or if you come from a Judeo-Christian view that says the earth is God’s garden and we are it’s stewards. Setting aside for a moment other cosmological questions, we MUST learn to live on this glimmering jewel of a planet in balance with Nature, not in dominance over it. It is one of the imperatives of our time, and I believe the very continuity of modern society is at stake.

Moving on to explore the question of spirituality in my music, the question of the spirit influences what I do in the sense that I sometimes write songs that question long-standing religious ideas. I also write songs that explore a spiritual connection to Nature, or at least an emotional/spiritual connection.

As a side note, a number of years ago I had a couple of Celtic Rock bands that otherwise flopped, but the names of the bands were GreenManGrüven (“grooving,” a regrettable play on that add campaign by Volkswagen “Farfegnugen”), and another band called The Wild Hunt (as in, the pagan myth about the Hunter of Souls).

Here’s one other thing about my personal views on life, the universe, and everything, and my place in it: I don’t need to know if there is or is not a deity that I will go home to when I die. I am OK with who I am however things turn out. The first agnostics were pagan; the first atheists were pagan. I guess that means that my spiritual path follows an ancient and honorable creed of free thought and expression going way back to ancient – pre-Christian — Rome. Which I suppose makes me a pagan in a very old sense of the word. I will end this section with a quote from Marcus Aurelius: “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

CJMT:  Would you like to tackle your relationship to the fines artes?

Let me just say that my whole life I have been involved with music. As one of the fine arts, I love music, though it can sometimes be a difficult mistress to maintain. As for the other fine arts, I’m not much of a critic. When I look at sculpture I really try to look deeply, but I still just see the form of whatever it is and think “wow, cool.” I like poetry, especially as the words to a song.

I have grown to appreciate the work of painters, but I tend to have unsophisticated tastes. I prefer beer and whiskey to wine, and my taste in the visual arts is much the same. On the one hand I like really good indie movies that explore the human condition without all the cultural preconceptions or situational constructs of Hollywood. On the other hand, sometimes I just want to be entertained: give me a box of popcorn and a loud, fast, and violent blockbuster I don’t have to think hard about, and I will be perfectly happy.

I have been a gamer all my life, and I like nothing better than a shooter sci-fi video game and an afternoon to kill. I love watching football, though I admit to having slightly less interest when my ‘Niners are on a losing streak. I think Firefly was one of the best shows ever made, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead are literature almost on a par with the greats, the first two Alien movies are powerful explorations of humanity and maternity. Science fiction writers never get their due as purveyors of great literature, and Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings novel is a work of Important Cultural Significance (BTW, I don’t care that the LOTR movies are different from the books, I still love them). I don’t know, I guess the arts are fine…

CJMT: A couple technical questions: That green fiddle… tell us about it.

I needed a good five-string violin that was an acoustic-electric instrument. Something that sounds acoustic even at high volume, without a bad feedback problem. Zeta violins made a very good production instrument at the time and I have had no regrets regarding the quality of sound or playability of the instrument. And green is my favorite color, and the green of the instrument is rich and vivid, but at the same time, it has beautiful grain on the back.

CJMT:  What is the set-up you are using for A Trio Of One? How did it come about? 

I use Boss RC 300 loopers. My instruments first go into a mixer, then into a bunch of stomp box effects pedals, then through one or two loopers, depending on the nature of the show I’m doing. One of my primary challenges is to get the levels and tone of all the instruments and my vocals such that the listener will be able to hear everything.

CJMT:  Do you think that your music is influenced by other Electronic music composers working today?

I have been listening to Electronic music for decades, starting with Kraftwerk, Walter/Wendy Carlos and Tomita in the ‘70s, and Larry Fast and Jean Michel Jarre in the ‘80s. Heh, none of these artists made it into my “musical influences” list, so thank you for giving me the opportunity to list them here. I tend to prefer Electronic music of a compositional nature (musically more in the neighborhood of Classical music), as opposed to dance-oriented Electronica, though I like a lot of that too: Fatboy Slim, Moby, The Chemical Brothers, Paul Oakenfold. But really, I must take issue with the term “other” in the text of the question itself. I do not consider myself to be an Electronic musician, so I would not think that I have been influenced by “other” Electronic musicians. Don’t get me wrong, I have experimented with electronic synthesis composition and I enjoy that, but if the question is about my looping act, A Trio Of One, that is an acoustic act that uses looping as a performance approach. Despite the fact that I must plug my instruments in to be able to perform, there is nothing really that is “electronic” about it, but there is a lot of electronic music that I really love, and I hope to be able to explore that genre more myself someday.

CJMT:  What do you think the state of Celtic Rock is today?

Celtic Rock, as a genre, seems pretty strong to me. When I look online there seems to be a lot of activity, bands all over the place. Every large town has its Pogues-influenced Pub Punk band or three, and there is a lot happening on YouTube and elsewhere with Celtic music in general.

On the other hand, the increasing difficulty of making enough money, as a musician, to make recording and touring worthwhile is affecting Celtic music like everything else.  Another one of the things we are going to have to deal with in the 21st Century is how to nurture our arts and music communities, including how to compensate musicians for their intellectual property. When everything musical is one free click away, people don’t pay for music, and musicians get tired of starving and move on to something that can pay the rent.

This is not a “same old same old” problem: since before JS Bach was born there has been a place for the professional musician in Europe and the West, and the 20th Century was especially a time when there was lots of work even if you didn’t have the vaunted “record contract.” But that apple cart has been upset by the Internet, and Celtic Rock bands are dealing with this problem just like everyone else.

 CJMT: Any final words?

If I talk much more, your hair will catch fire. It has been a pleasure. I hope whoever reads this gets something real out of it. Peace.

Image in folder. Caption: Elizabeth Spurr, staff Photographer, all rights reserved, 2016

Michael Mullen Artist Gallery

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