An interview with
Jim McAuley

By Beppe Colli
March 19, 2009

Having listened to it thanks to a fortuitous combination of events, I decided that I liked the album of duets by Jim McAuley titled The Ultimate Frog in a way that's quite uncommon these days, the album being a fine mix of music languages that I recognized as known and items that were unusual enough to keep me guessing about what was coming next (which to me sounds like an acceptable definition of "progress with chances").

Seeing that the artist's e-mail address was there on the CD cover, I decided to get in touch (what could I lose?) asking him for a chat, and luckily McAuley said "yes".

After reading a bit about Jim McAuley's life in music, my problem was not "what to ask?", but "where do I begin?". Readers will have to decide whether I solved that particular dilemma in a way that can be regarded as satisfactory.

The interview was conducted by e-mail, during the first two weeks in March.

Your recent album, The Ultimate Frog, features four quite different pairings, both in terms of instrumentation and musical approach. What's the rationale behind your choosing these particular players - and performances, of course - to present as a whole?

This project definitely evolved in stages. In 2002 I had the incredible honor & pleasure of recording some duets with the free-music legend Leroy Jenkins. We had a CD's worth of tracks, all totally improvised. But at that time I was in the midst of recording my solo CD - Gongfarmer 18 - and was devoting my energies to finishing that and seeking label interest. When the solo disc was released in 2005, I revisited the Leroy material and realized that as much as I liked the idea of a totally improvised album, the pieces could have even more impact when "framed" by more compositional material. Obviously, I am not a hard-core improv purist! So I contacted bassist Ken Filiano. I've always loved the scope and musicianship of his playing, plus he can swing as well as get deep and soulful. After our sessions, things started getting out of hand!

It occurred to me that my most successful and ecstatic moments of ensemble improvising have always involved one of the Cline brothers. Never both, and never in a duet format. So maybe it was delusions of grandeur, but if this was to be my duet "statement," why not include the two musicians I most admire and connect with? So I recorded with Alex and Nels in 2007 - everything from totally free improv to actual chord changes (a first for me)! Naturally, I now had tons of material to choose from, but I felt if I could sequence it effectively, it could be viable as a 2-CD set.

Some of the performances are obviously improvised - some even being titled as such. But I'm curious about the amount of preparation - if any - in some duets, especially those with bass player Ken Filiano.

The pieces titled Improvisation are all free duets with Leroy, numbered according to the order they were recorded. Ken and I had a short rehearsal before our session. I had prepared some ideas - riffs, tonalities, general roadmaps - but nothing too specific. For instance, Successive Approximations is totally free, whereas The Zone of Avoidance is based completely on the E melodic minor scale with a chord sequence as the "head".

I'm curious to know something about this "prepared marquette parlor guitar" - I mean, is it marquette, or Marquette, a brand? What's special about it?

It's very special personally because it was my first guitar. It came from the basement of a family friend. I've never been able to dig up any information on the brand, but I'm guessing it was one of those generic instruments sold in department stores in the 30's-40's. It's small (12 frets to the body) and has the slotted tuning gears reminiscent of the early Washburns. I've always loved its plunky sound and started preparing it when I joined the Acoustic Guitar Trio (with Nels Cline and the late Rod Poole). Incidentally, I consciously choose to limit my preparations to typical guitar accessories: picks, capos, tuning forks, slides, etc.

I see you also used the Marxophone (whose sound is familiar to me since the days of The Doors' first album, though I didn't know what it was), but I can't seem to decide where it is here - maybe on Froggy's Magic Twanger? Or are those prepared guitars?

The Marxophone is a novelty instrument that was sold door-to-door in the early 1900's. It's basically a keyboard autoharp or zither. I use it on Froggy's Magic Twanger (retuned to the two whole-tone scales). On that track Nels is playing two prepared guitars on his lap, similarly tuned, using his signature egg whisk as well as slides, etc.

If my info is correct, by the mid-60s you were a grown man. So I'd like to ask you a few specific questions. Were you familiar with the work of, say, Dave Graham and Bert Jansch, in the United Kingdom, or people like Robbie Basho and John Fahey in the United States? Talk about this.

I was definitely listening to Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, John Fahey, Robbie Basho and Sandy Bull in the 60's. I became aware of Davy Graham much later. I was attracted to the eclecticism and integrity of their music as much as their obvious virtuosity. It's only recently that genres have begun intermingling again (post-modernism?), which made my music - which has always incorporated classical, jazz, folk and blues elements - more in keeping with current trends.

Listening to music from the 50s and the 60s what I hear - among many things, of course - is a sense of place, of the music having a specific flavour emanating from a certain place, maybe I could call it "regionalism". Do you think it existed, then? What about today?

Though much of the regionalism of the 60's - the "San Francisco" sound, etc. - was essentially a marketing tool, there is certainly a grain of truth to the concept. The East Coast blues sound of Mike Bloomfield or Paul Butterfield were distinct from the West Coast styles of, say, Canned Heat or Taj Mahal. At the time, I was especially enamored of the LA folk-rock-pop scene centered around the Byrds, Love, Brian Wilson and so on. Today, though it might still be meaningful to talk about "British non-idiomatic improv" or "Norwegian death metal," these labels are more relevant to die-hard fans than to the general listening public. It becomes somewhat meaningless to discuss "regionalism" in a day of international collaborations via the Internet, for instance. I personally prefer to listen to music with no knowledge or expectations regarding its origin.

Talking about John Fahey (I've read you were signed to Takoma, but nothing ever came out): Were you surprised by his sudden surge in popularity before his death? I mean, at one point he was quite obscure.

I secured my contract with Takoma through a demo that included slide blues,  gospel tunes, Renaissance dances, a Van Morrison cover, Round Midnight and some bluegrass. So they were quite open to my eclecticism. Fahey's approach was much more focused, but still found room for ragas, sound collage, blues and country within a very personal style. Yes, I was quite surprised to see his picture on the cover of the Wire, but I suspect his late-life popularity was due in part to his cult status, which was a result of his initial obscurity. Had he been widely popular in the '60's, I think he would be viewed differently today. In any case, he was a truly gifted and unique artist throughout his career.

In the 60s you worked in the studio with Don Costa, alongside people like Tommy Tedesco. Do you think that the absence of the "human element" that was prevalent in those days makes today's listening to mainstream music a more sterile proposition?

If you're referring to the use of synthesized sound, a resounding "yes"! But isn't this "sheen" - the precision of the sound - part of the appeal of pop music? The human element lies more in the vocals and lyrics today. If you're referring to the post-modern notion of sampling, I think the focus shifts to the ingenuity & musicality of the mixer/producer. Hence the popularity of re-mixes. We have become fascinated with the infinite possibilities of combining sounds rather than with the sounds themselves. And the samples themselves trigger emotional resonances for those of us old enough to know their origins!

In the past, groups like Led Zeppelin functioned as de facto popularizers of "minority genres" that mainstream audiences didn't really have any easy way to access. Do you think this role still exists? And what about a thirst for new things in music on the part of the audience?

In my youthful "purist" days, I was deeply offended by what I perceived as Zep's ripping off of blues artists. (Strangely, I've come to appreciate them more as I get older.) But the practice of appropriating minority genres and repackaging them as "new" continues to this day, and it still feels more like exploitation than popularization. And with the easy access of the Internet, there's no excuse for not seeking out the originals.

As far audience appetites are concerned, I have noticed a definite shift in emphasis from the "familiar" to the "exploratory". This again is a result of the Internet's democratization of music. The mainstream acceptance of "world music" is another sign that some listeners today seek unfamiliar sounds, as opposed to homogenized Top 40 fare.

What's the most important musical lesson you ever got? I mean, were you to choose just one.

It came from clarinetist John Carter, whom I consider a true musical genius of improvised music. I call him my mentor, even though we had just a few formal lessons together. The lesson he taught me was to devote my practice time to the act of improvising itself, as opposed memorizing scales and licks. This is really difficult for an aspiring jazz musician who wants to develop his "chops." You are fighting the natural inclination to develop and refine your ideas. Even in free music (for me at least), it's hard to resist defaulting to some lick that sounded so cool the night before - which never works because context is everything. I find that my best live performances are those where I can follow the music wherever it may lead without regard for pre-arranged material (what John called "back pocket material").

Nowadays, the Internet makes it quite easy for an "obscure artist" to be found and listened to. Unfortunately, a lot of people have developed the annoying habit of downloading stuff without paying for it. Discuss.

I have many (sometimes conflicting) opinions on this subject, but, overall, I think the benefits of the Internet's democratization of music outweigh the inequities inherent in downloading. At least in my tiny corner of the music "business," no one expects to profit financially through their recorded efforts anyway. And I celebrate the demise of corporate domination of the record industry; they never properly compensated their artists either. Possibly some fair model of distribution will emerge in the future. As for now, I'm just thrilled that my music is available to anyone who's interested in listening.

Any future plans you'd like to share?

I have no desire to embark on another full-fledged studio project any time soon. Possibly I will release some live performances and/or home recordings in some format or other (incidentally, you can hear some of my "home practice tapes" at My current focus is on developing and performing new material. I am playing a couple festivals next month, and there is talk of some solo dates this summer. I am also hoping that the duets album will open the door to future collaborations and musical partnerships.

Beppe Colli 2009 | March 19, 2009