An interview with
Herb Heinz

By Beppe Colli
May 2, 2004

A fine guitar player, a distinctive singer and a versatile multi instrumentalist, Herb Heinz is a true original working in the current US musical climate. Though he's maybe mostly known for his work with Amy X Neuburg & Men - check their fine albums, Utechma (1995) and Sports! Chips! Booty! (1999) - his personality definitely comes to the fore in his solo albums: Failure (1998), and his recent (and quite different) follow-up, titled Another.

Though his music in a way could be said to be simple, its implications are far from banal, the form itself - though it will undoubtedly remind the listener of many things - being obviously original. It's accessible music which will definitely repay undivided attention - and repeated listenings.

I have to confess that - having never read an interview with Herb Heinz - I actually knew very little about some of the projects in which he's been involved during his long musical journey, or the way he started (I've read that he started playing guitar when he was just five years old!). So I thought this was the appropriate way to start our conversation, which was conducted by e-mail in mid-April.

If I'm not mistaken, you started playing the guitar when you were very young. What attracted you to the instrument - and what kind of music did you find intriguing at the time?

Well, the truth is that I was so young - I don't remember! But I suspect that my parents chose the guitar as part of their strategy to expose me to folk music. I can't remember being "intrigued" by music until I was 10 or so, when I played the lead in a production of The Music Man. I got very interested in American Musicals.

Did you ever experience a "wild rock guitar" phase?

I'm not sure what you mean by "wild rock guitar," but I have always loved Led Zeppelin - does that count?

I've read that for many years you were part of the experimental musical theatre ensemble called MAP - but I have only a very vague idea of what it was. Would you mind elaborating?

MAP was a project that I started with my friend Dale MacDonald in 1986. It had many incarnations and was constantly evolving. It started as an electronic art-rock band with a strong theatrical element. We would perform in rock clubs with a computer. Over time we added more and more visual elements to show, including choreography and computer-controlled lighting and projections. In retrospect, I'd say MAP was basically an experimental theater group.

My tendency in live performance is to put myself into a situation that pushes me to my limits and is slightly "dangerous." I rarely repeat a performance. I often use technology in a way that I haven't tried. I think that this "danger" or newness helps me feel inspired.

Another project of yours of which I'd like to know more is the one called How To Live In The World Today.

It's a self-referential self-help parody - an "audio experience" that tries to give clues about how to live in the world today. It's hard to describe, but it's a little like a radio play with some songs in it. It's effectiveness in helping people actually live in the world today has yet to be proven.

In the '90s you were the guitar player in Amy X Neuburg & Men. I'd like to know which guitar players/specific performances you would suggest as "required listening" to a young guitar player when it comes to "complementing the vocals".

My approach with AXN&M was to try to come up with guitar parts that were interesting and unique but that "served the song," which I think might be what you are getting at here. As for players/songs that I think do that well, what comes to mind are some of the "unflashy" guitarists from New Wave, like John McGeoch (Magazine, Siouxsie), Andy Partridge (XTC), the early B52's, or early Simple Minds (can't remember their names).

Talking about your previous album, Failure: Reviewers usually write that parts of an album remind them of this or that. What were the artists/groups that were mentioned with regards to Failure that you found more surprising, and what the ones that you considered to be the most appropriate?

For Failure, the one reference that the reviews kept mentioning was Zappa. While I'm honored by the comparison, it does surprise me a bit, since I really don't listen to his music. There are some fundamental differences between my aesthetic than Zappa's.

My favorite response along those lines was a guy who said he thought that I had been influenced by Godley and Creme. I told him I had never heard their music (except for a 10cc song or two), so he "introduced me to my true influence" as he said. I love their music. I might never have discovered them otherwise.

These days the state of the guitar is said to be not so brilliant when compared to the 60s and the 70s. What's your opinion about this? And: who do you regard as doing good, creative work right now?

I'm not sure things are so much worse now. There are certainly a couple of examples that come to mind, for instance Steve Howe and Jimmy Page, both of whom I thought were brilliant at their peak, but who now seem to be washed up. And there's Hendrix, but he has a significant handicap, being dead. But my favorite guitarists (Adrian Belew, Fred Frith, Bill Frisell, Neil Young) all continue to do what I would call good, creative work.

You've mentioned self-referentialism. Would you mind elaborating?

All of my work is concerned with itself to some degree. Self-referential statements (statements about the statements themselves) have a unique internal "logic" that appeals to me. It's also a way of pointing out that the work is self-aware, which I like to do. I feel like it's okay to say ridiculously bold things if I then point out that I don't really know and who the hell am I to say such a thing? Or maybe I like self-referentialism because I am such a self-conscious person. Or maybe it's my humility. Or am I just self-obsessed?

The structure, meaning and function of "Pop" have changed a lot in the last... forty years. What's your point of view on "Pop"?

I think that Pop has the same problem as American culture and politics - it has nothing to say except "buy me." Corporations can be very efficient at making economically viable "product," but they lack "soul," which I think is a necessary ingredient for good music.

Actually this "complaint" is at the heart of Another. The record is my small way of trying to provide an antidote. But is it "Pop?"

What were your goals in recording Another? Were you satisfied with the way it came out?

Well, it's still new, but so far I'm happy with it.

I wanted to create an album that would stand up to repeated listenings. As you can imagine, I had to listen to it many times. So I suppose it was a selfish goal.

A remix you made was included in the Art Bears box set. Would you mind talking about this?

Actually, this is more of a resetting or reworking than a "remix." I am a big fan or the Art Bears, so when I heard about the project I asked Chris Cutler if I could participate. I knew I wanted to do Skeleton, and Chris suggested that I create something based on Dagmar's vocal track. So I got the track and dumped it into my computer and re-orchestrated the song around that. I even played the melody on guitar at the end. It was fun!

Any other projects you'd like to talk about?

My newest band is called dud. It is a large improvised music ensemble, somewhere between art music and jam-band, a little like The Grateful Dead, but completely improvised, with vocals. We are starting to play local shows. Maybe some day we'll get to Italy!

© Beppe Colli 2004 | May 2, 2004