THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 051
Greetings once more, friends. Back in your inboxes with a new installment of the newsletter. I hope this finds you well.
It’s exciting and a little weird to feel things opening up again here in the city. I didn’t wear a mask to a couple of outdoor estate sales today. And a little bit ago, I got to see some live music - a hip-hop showcase at Kelly’s Olympian. The catharsis that was in the room that night was intoxicating and certainly helped smooth over the rougher aspects of the performances. I’m seeing movies in theaters on the regular again (don’t miss Zola). I’m also starting to take on some DJ gigs. My first one is going down tomorrow night: spinning records for an hour before an outdoor screening of Nomadland that the NW Film Center is hosting. (See below if you wanna win tickets to attend this screening.)
Beyond that, staying pleasantly busy with the writing work. For PopMatters, I reviewed the recent 25th anniversary reissue of Squarepusher’s Feed Me Weird Things. Aquarium Drunkard asked me to interview the lovely men of Kings of Convenience. And over at Oregon Arts Watch, I wrote a new edition of my column Now Hear This, highlighting new music from OR artists available on Bandcamp.
As for this week’s newsletter, I present to you an interview with Russell Potter, a wonderful acoustic guitarist who just had his two private press albums reissued through Tompkins Square. I hope you enjoy it.
RIP Gift of Gab, Louis Andriessen, and Hum’s Bryan St. Pere.
Musicians like Russell Potter are the reason that dopes like me spend hours digging through boxes of dusty records at estate sales and thrift shops. There’s always the hope that we’re going to uncover some private press gem or hidden corner of a familiar artist’s catalog.
That was the vibe of the eighth volume of Imaginational Anthem, Tompkins Square’s ongoing series highlighting the finest acoustic guitarists from around the world. This edition of the series was curated by a pair of fellow crate diggers (former Other Music employee Michael Klausman and Brooks Rice) and featured 14 rarely-heard artists who had self-released their albums and singles.
One of the highlights of the set was “Blue Wind Boy,” a lovely little rambler played by Russell Potter, a musician who released a pair of LPs (1979’s A Stone’s Throw and 1981’s Neither Here Nor There) through his own Black Snake Records.
The label clearly heard the same joyful bent and virtuosic picking in Potter’s performance that I did, as they sought out the musician and, with his blessing, remastered and re-released both of his albums. They’re both incredible documents of Potter’s creative fervor, with his boundless enthusiasm and energy bursting through each track on Stone’s and his more tempered studious approach coming to the fore with its followup.
Unfortunately, those are the only recorded documents of Potter as he chose to veer off into other pursuits, including his family and his academic work. But he’s never put the guitar away completely and, from the sounds of our email exchange, has been re-inspired to start writing new material.
How does it feel to have all this attention being given to these records that you made that are 40+ years old at this point?
It feels great! I’ve always been proud of my solo guitar work, but as my personal cache of original copies has dwindled over the years, didn’t have an easy way to share it. Josh and his team at Tompkins Square did an amazing job of reproducing the sound, the look, and the feel of these LP’s, even down to the typefaces on the covers, with special thanks to Darryl Norsen for that!
The notes for these re-releases talk about you becoming obsessed with John Fahey and his cohort as a teenager. How did you first hear about/hear their music?
Interestingly, it was my classical guitar teacher, Don Swanson, who taught me my first Fahey piece, “Sunflower River Blues.” He was an open-minded man who was fascinated by open tunings, and I was a kid who never quite figured out sight-reading music but loved anything printed out in tablature. I even played the lute for a while, because lute music uses tablature too! I think it was when I picked up the Fahey/Kottke/Lang LP, though, that it really hit me how vast and varied this school of guitar was.
Was it an immediate decision to start playing guitar in the same mode of those artists or did it take awhile for you to pick up an acoustic and start down that road?
I actually started on the mandolin, trying to play Dash Crofts’ lead lines from Seals & Crofts records! Once I got hold of a guitar, though – I had just turned seventeen – I knew that was the instrument for me. I started with classical, but soon expanded into Fahey and Kottke. Early on, I also loved ragtime guitar, particularly modern arrangers of the style like Ton van Bergeyk and Duck Baker. I’m especially happy to now be a label-mate of Duck’s – he has always been one of my guitar heroes.
Did you have any instructors along the way or are you self-taught?
My classical guitar teacher, Don Swanson, gave me my only formal instruction. Most of the rest I learned by ear, and as my repertoire grew, I found myself coming up with my own compositions. So I guess I’d say I had many teachers, but Don was the only one I had lessons with.
Was it a fairly steep learning curve for you to get this sound and style down or did it come pretty quickly?
You know, the basic alternating-bass style of fingerpicking is, in a sense, pretty simple. The challenge I set myself was to expand its range, to seek out different kinds of sounds based around that pattern, to stretch out its possibilities. And as a teenager at a pretty low-key alternative high school, I had the time to spend hours and hours practicing.
When and why did you hit on the idea of recording and self-releasing an album of your playing? Why go down that road rather than trying to connect with a larger folk label?
That was all thanks to Larry Feign. I met him during my first semester at Goddard; he was a senior at the time. He’d been making records for years – mostly bootlegs, but some of his own stuff as well (the legendary B. Toff Band). He used what he called “jobbers” – small record plants that would press an LP on demand – and it turned out that one of them, Boddie Recording Co., was right in my home town of Cleveland. I took a semester off, borrowed some money from my parents, and headed over – Tom Boddie had it all: recording studio, mastering lathe, electroplating tank, and pressing plant – all in the back of his house and his garage.
Were you doing a lot of live performances at this time as well or was this a fairly solitary/personal experience making this music?
I played quite a few gigs at small folky places in Cleveland between ‘79 and and 81 – Farragher’s Back Room, Genesis Restaurant, the Spot, the Hessler Street Fair, most of them were just “holes in the wall.” Once I had my LP, I sold copies for $5 each at these shows – that was my only pay, aside from maybe a couple of free drinks or food. I also worked as a guitar teacher at the Goose Acres Folk Music Center, so there was plenty of playing along with others – but my solo guitar material was always most at home in my head.
The notes also talk about independent study that you undertook with a Goddard College ethnomusicologist. How did that come about? What were you looking for or hoping to gain from that?
That was Dennis Murphy, Goddard’s resident musical genius. He built the first Javanese Gamelan in America, and did other crazy things on a budget: he made flutes out of PVC pipe, used pieces of cottage cheese containers to make his own double reeds (his original instrument was the oboe) and would string an upright bass with fishing wire. I got into his Irish band, and he agreed to do an independent study with me arranging Irish melodies for solo guitar. Four of those arrangements are on Neither Here Nor There.
The music on Neither Here Nor There that you made following those studies feels so much more controlled and deliberate in comparison to A Stone’s Throw. Was this just as a result of your studies?
Well, I’d certainly evolved as a composer and musician. I’d also come to realize that you could get a lot better sound – and try more things – in a recording studio than you could the way I recorded my first LP, which was mostly done in ordinary rooms with a cardoid mike and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. And then, of course, when you’re paying by the hour, you spend a lot more time in advance thinking about getting each piece up to speed, and how they might all fit together on an album.
These records are, to date, the only music that you’ve released. Did you simply put your guitars aside at some point? Have you been playing shows or writing material on the down low?
I’ve never put them down, though I’ll admit I’ve sold and traded and bought various guitars over the years. My friend Barb Turk, with whom I wrote “Blue Wind Boy,” still has my first guitar, which I gave to her. But yes, life breaks in – kids, career, and so forth. My current 12-string is a Canadian “Seagull,” by far the best 12-string I’ve played – it holds up under concert pitch and has low, easy action.
Around the time that you released your albums, you also helped produce and release a single by the Hotfoot Quartet, including a cover of Devo’s “Mongoloid.” What can you tell me about how that came about and who was behind that project?
In that same period – 1979-1981 – I started working sound for a northeast Ohio bluegrass band, the Hotfoot Quartet. Bob Frank, their lead guitarist and singer – and a master of acoustic blues in his own right – became a real mentor to me. Of course musicians tend to have broader tastes than some in their audience may assume! – we all knew about and loved DEVO – and somehow the idea of a bluegrass version came up. We recorded at Boddie – old-style, using an RCA ribbon microphone mounted in the ceiling, with people stepping forward for their solos; Bob Smakula, whose father Peter ran Goose Acres, joined us as “Bobby Smack.” And to top it all off, since Bob knew Johnny Dromette, he borrowed the radiation suits and had Johnny design the cover! We pressed a thousand of these, most of which sold, and were delighted to get some airplay on Dr. Demento!
You are currently an English professor and a Fellow of Royal Canadian Geographical Society. What can you tell me about both of those elements of your life? How did you land in the world of academia?
Well, you never know where you’re headed when you first start out. I knew that academia was a good home for many of my interests, and it was pretty clear after the second LP that I was still going to need a “day job.” I headed to graduate school in Syracuse in 1986 and haven’t looked back. In the early 1990s I even formed a band with some of my then-colleagues at Colby College, including Jennifer Finney Boylan on keyboards. We had the best band name ever: The Diminished Faculties. It was there that I discovered the song known as “Lady Franklin’s Lament,” about a lost Arctic expedition from 1845, and I’ve spent my career following that history. It’s been an exciting time – I’ve had some work as an expedition cruise lecturer, and a few years ago got to lead a sing-along of “Lady Franklin’s Lament” aboard our expedition ship, with Michael Palin on board!
Do you think we’ll hear any new music from you in the near future or do you feel that those days are behind you?
I’m actually working on tunes for a new album, though at the moment I just have two or three that are ready. One of them is a guitar arrangement of “Air for John Rae,” a fiddle tune by a Scots composer dedicated to another Arctic explorer, John Rae of Orkney. And I’m hoping to get a few small gigs here and there, at present-day holes in the wall.
Are you listening to any interesting music these days?
I have – I’ve been exploring vinyl anew, after having gone through a period when I shed most of my LPs. I’ve started re-collecting artists I used to have – Fahey of course, and Basho – but also artists such as Sun Ra and Slim Gaillard. I’ve also made some great contacts with people who knew me through my records; another solo guitar artist I really admire is Zachary Hay, who is also from Cleveland! I hadn’t known of his work – he’s recorded under several names – but I sent him originals of my two private press LP’s, and he sent me three of his! His newest LP is self-titled on Scissor-Tail Records; in his previous incarnations he was known as Bronze Horse, Green Glass, and The Dove Azima. He’s a wonderful artist whom I’d not have met otherwise, and I am sure there are more out there.
Did you see the thing above about the outdoor screening of Nomadland tomorrow night? If you and a friend would like to see this film and hear me play some placid, moody music beforehand, @ me over at Twitter (@roberthamwriter) and I’ll pick one lucky winner to get a pair of free tix to the show. (Or if you don’t have Twitter, just reply to this email.)
Back again next time with some new shit. Thinking of throwing in some album reviews. Y’know… for kids.
Artwork for this edition is by Tariku Shiferaw.