A series of Jim Reilly's interviews with players, fans, and the people
behind the scenes of the Chapman Stick.
"Never underestimate the power of any musical instrument in the hands of
February 17, 2005
The Chapman Stick is a very new musical instrument. The NS/Stick, the
hybrid instrument co-designed by Ned Steinberger and Emmett Chapman for any
guitar, bass or Stick technique, is even newer. And while there are many
great albums that showcase the range, versatility and musicality possible on
Stick there have only been a couple of instrumental recordings so far that
really show off what one can do with the NS.
The name Don Schiff has become synonymous with the NS/Stick. Don was one of
the earliest Stick players (check out his
previous 'Talking Sticks' interview) but he was always balancing his
Stick playing with his work as an in-demand session bass player. As soon as
he started playing the NS/Stick it was obvious he had found his instrumental
voice. No longer did Don have to juggle two instruments, he could immediately
do all the different techniques and get all the different sounds he needed
all on the NS.
All those different techniques and sounds are showcased with power, elegance
and class on his upcoming CD, Peering Over Clouds, scheduled for
release in April by Think Tank Media. Everything on the CD is either NS/Stick
or percussion. It's hard to believe when you hear it, but it's true - no
guitar, no bass, not even any straight Stick - all NS.
For anyone that has seen Don perform or heard his previous solo CDs, Wait
by the River and Timeless, the thought of him being able to coax
an orchestra of sounds from one instrument is no big surprise, however, the
shear musicality, the compositional strength and the range of emotions and
textures from song to song on this new recording is something to
In the Stick community, Don is known as much for his humour, kindness and
quick wit as he is for his music. It's always a pleasure to talk with him
and I found him true to form as he spoke to me from his L.A. home.
I've heard Emmett say many times that he never underestimates the power of
any musical instrument in the hands of an artist and while I certainly never
underestimated this particular artist or his choice of instrument, with
Peering Over Clouds Don has taken his music and the NS to places I
couldn't have imagined. In the process he has firmly established himself as
one of the most important players in the world of hybrid tapping, strumming,
slapping and plucking - he has the CD to prove it!
JR: Tell me about the new album.
DS: It was a project proposed to me by Think Tank Media. They're a progressive music label. I've played with their artist, Lana Lane and Rocket Scientists, for years. They have a great avenue for artists to sell progressive music and they asked me if I'd be interested in doing a solo album for them. They put it all together and financed it and will release it through their distribution network, but there were certain guidelines.
JR: What were those guidelines?
DS: They gave me a couple of albums to use as examples, like the classic King Crimson and some Foreigner, Journey and some specific tunes to follow. Within those guidelines, there had to be a lot of time changes, they wanted most of the tempos up around 140 beats per minute. I usually don't think in terms like that. And then they wanted a lot of 'chops' displayed on both sides, the bass side, the top side, a lot of notes, a lot of 'gymnastics'.
And then, they said that on top of that, I have to put me in there too. For me to be happy I've got to have a melody and there has got to be movement and a flow. It has got to make some kind of melodic sense. If I just put a flurry of notes down, I bore myself and I don't like when music with different time signatures that sounds jerky and disjointed. So to be true to myself, I had to make sure everything flowed and made sense.
What I originally did was make temporary drum loops for my fingers to lock onto and get a feel going. After that we brought in Greg Ellis, he has a drum for all occasions. You go into his studio and it's a whole mass of drums from around the world. He has his regular drum kits but then he's got drums from Africa and India and China and places I've never heard of.
He'd go track by track and do one sound for the kick, then he'd do another pass and get a sound for the toms, then the snare, and then other sounds and cymbals-and I thought I did a lot of overdubbing. He is an incredibly musical drummer and really listened to what it was I saying in the bass that gave the song movement and then he'd play along with that. And then he would add fills without overshadowing everything else, but bring out what was there.
It kind of felt that someone was doing for my session what I normally do for everybody else: listen and enhance.
JR: Sometimes having a well-defined structure makes writing easier; with fewer choices it's easier to make decisions. Was it more difficult to write within a specific set of parameters or did having a well-defined structure free you up?
DS: Once I got into it and got my head screwed on straight and understood the parameters it was great. I could then see where I'd get off track.
A lot of the songs were written as songs, with vocals and melodies. One in particular, "Cry Out," had a vocal melody line to it. One of the other parameters was that I didn't sing because I'm known in Think Tank's genre as an instrumentalist. So things that I had in song format that I sang on I took somewhere different. That satisfied my need for having to have the music sound like 'songs' to me. Often I'd start with something sounding a little pop oriented but the danger was it would sound too 'pop'. When that happened I'd stretch out a little bit, which would lead to new places. Places were the time could fall in on itself or where some new technique fit. That's how I went about it; just understanding the parameters was enough for me to write in that style.
JR: You seem to have an audience through your work with Lana Lane that's quite separate from the Stick community.
DS: That's true and they are totally different audiences. I did try to put my other solo Stick albums out through Think Tank when we'd go on tour. People would like what I played with Lana and buy my CDs but I'd always hear that it wasn't quite what they were expecting. On the other hand, people who know me through The Stick would go and see me play with Lana and they'd be surprised when it was prog-rock.
This album is at least sending the right product down the right tube. When we started the project I knew I could do it, I wasn't sure how it was going to turn out but I knew I could do it. Then I got really into it and now that it's all said and done, I'm really proud of it.
I was really happy with the bass sounds out of the NS. They were by far the best bass parts I've ever gotten, the most creative. I was able to do everything I've ever wanted to do on bass and be really free with it. Then I'd take it up into the melody, the guitar range and be able to incorporate all the different styles and techniques I wanted too, especially the technique I've been working on for the last couple of years-that slide and tapping at the same time. I snuck that in everywhere.
JR: Are there any other players other than you and the drummer?
DS: No, just us. We hogged everything. That was also part of the marketing plan. Think Tank Media believes that the things that sell are the things that can be summed up in one sentence. So this CD is featuring me and the NS/Stick and all the things the NS/Stick can do. We were going to add some Grand Stick parts but the label said that "that would be incorporating something else, keep it simple, this album is about the NS/Stick, that's what we see you play, that's what's on all the Lana Lane DVDs, that's all we need to focus on for now." They actually have a lot of footage of me playing in Europe and Japan and there's talk of putting out a DVD of my playing next.
JR: A DVD would be amazing. Being able to see what you do and that you actually can create all the music by yourself, live, would really have impact, I think.
DS: Lana Lane just put out a DVD called Return to Japan. I'm on that.
JR: How big is she in Japan?
DS: She has done really, really well. She gets a great reception over there.
JR: Is this one of those cases where the artist is better known abroad?
DS: By far. When we play here it's always a struggle, sometimes just to cover the bar tab and make the upfront money on tickets. They're planning a tour in Europe then planning to go back to Japan and then will take another stab at the States so we'll see.
JR: Do you play much Stick these days or mostly NS/Stick?
DS: Not too much Stick on sessions, mostly NS. I play Stick at home. I have an aversion to taking more than one instrument out at a time. I don't like taking a bass out and the NS, or taking the NS and a Stick. But it seems like the NS has made the transition into the bass world. I just got called for another 50s bonanza extravaganza with Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell and Fabian and with the NS and there's no problem, they think it's great. There are no worries about, I don't have to sneak it in anymore.
JR: So they just treat it like bass and everything is fine. Do you throw some chords in there too when you do those shows?
DS: Of course! Everybody looks around and just assumes that the guitar player played it but the guitar player gives me a look like, "What are you doing?" I'm just giving him more space, more choices, now he can do something else. Frankie Avalon finally turned around and figured out that there was something new there so now I have a little solo moment where I get to show off a little.
JR: That reminds me of your solo moment with Ann Margaret back in your Vegas days. (*Check out Don's earlier Talking Sticks interview)
DS: Yup, it's my moment to shine.
JR: Get your really long chord, head up to the front of the stage and go...
DS: Yup, let 'er rip!
JR: Have you done any interesting sessions lately?
DS: The last one I did was for a Tsunami relief project that Spock's Beard is putting out. One of the pieces features Rick Wakeman on keyboard. That was the last one I did. It was fun but it was odd too. The studio I was in featured all Line 6 gear. I've tried the Line 6 guitar PODS and of course everything is eq'd for guitars so when I plug in the top of the NS into it doesn't sound full enough. But the bass PODS sound great on both sides, they're full and big and they have chorusing and echo and reverb so you can put all that stuff on it as well. Using two bass PODS together was just the way to go for me. It was quick, simple and easy; just plug in, dial up your favourites presets, tweak it a little and go from there.
When I have my preference I like to bring my own board. I have two Hughes and Kettner tube foot pedals, one set on slight crunch, the other on super-saturation so all I have to do is get the slide near the string and it starts screaming right away.
The newest thing I'm working on is to re-incorporate the Mac rack back into my live set-up. When you use the Mac rack in recordings you get a really big sounds and it sounds great as long as you're in a studio or have a home speaker configuration. When you take it into a live situation it gives you that home theatre sound, which doesn't work in every venue. There were some things that were always good, the compression and the glossiness of the chorus and the reverbs were always nice. So I figured that I could feed that into a loop in the background between the left and right speakers but feature mainly the dry sound up front, so that's what I'm working on now. I'm having a lot of success with that. There's a whole different world creating effects in the studio and re-creating them live. When it gets too glossy and pretty live everything gets lost and reverby and it just doesn't have the effect it had in the studio. It seems that the drier the better live but with just a little bit of gloss. I also use a VG-8 but tucked way back in behind the top side of the NS sound with a little bit of reverb. It's like there's a pad in behind it but mostly you're just hearing the dry NS with this illusion of depth without being muddy.
JR: Now that the new album is out when are you putting together "The Don Schiff Group" and hitting the road?
DS: Funny you should ask... I'm working on that too. I'm planning to go out as a duo and perform the same arrangements that are on the album, with full percussion. So much can be done with looping and I've got my Taurus Bass Pedals going at the same time, so I can get pretty close to the arrangements on the CD.
JR: That's really exciting. I was just throwing that out there and wasn't expecting you to actually be doing it.
DS: Well, I'm on that already. It's great. I've booked some shows for March already to test the waters. The biggest challenge is that my gear is so big that I can't really carry it anymore and I don't like to just go in and plug in direct to the house system. A big part of why everything works for me is the amplification that I use.
I have two AccuGroove full-range speakers, which I love. But now I'm going to put a Leslie cabinet in the middle and run just the top part of the NS through it, the bass pedals and everything else will still be running through the AccuGrooves in stereo. That will give a nice swirl sound out of the top side of the NS and it will actually sound like another player because it will have a different texture from what the NS is doing in the other speakers. At least that's how it sounds in my mind. I have to grab the Leslie out of the garage this weekend.
JR: You've got me smiling. You're actually going to tour with a Leslie speaker?
DS: Yup! I'm up to three large trunks plus an 8-space rack, 4-space power amp rack and it's really too much for me to handle. So while I'm putting this together I'm getting a list of different roadies that could handle it all. When I've used roadies before it's been great, they come over pickup all my stuff, take it to the gig, but then they have to wait for me to get there to show them where everything goes and how everything connects together. It kind of defeats the purpose of having a road crew.
So I'm going to have a tech go through it with me and streamline the set-up so that 'A' plugs into 'B' etc. and mark all the connections so that any competent roadie with some electronics background could get it up and running for me so I can show up, do the gig, go home and then have them drop all my stuff off back at home for me.
JR: This sounds like you're doing everything right, the way it's supposed to be done. You'd better be careful though, you might miss schlepping your gear around.
DS: You know I've seen it done right so many times before and I've had it done right for me so many times before that I had to ask myself why I wouldn't do that when I was doing my own shows. It just didn't make sense to move backwards. I figured that if I was going to do it why not make it easy on myself.
It is all still coming together though. I still have to figure out exactly how I'm going arrange the music live, whether I'm going to memorize all the solos note for note, that kind of stuff.
JR: I'm wondering that too. I don't know if you need to memorize solos. I think the prog-rock genre doesn't expect that so much, but some of the arrangements are so thick I can't imagine how you're going to be able to pull it off. How are you going to pull it off?
DS: I'll let you know. Heavy looping. I'm going to get a couple of loopers and I figure part of the intros could be spent setting up loops that I could then kick on later. There are a couple of different ways to do it.
The thing that makes me wonder about memorizing solos was this one time I was in Japan and did a couple of solo shows. People actually came up to me after the gigs and said, "Well, you didn't actually play that song the same way you did on the album. You kind of changed the verse a little." In my mind I wasn't too concerned about singing everything exactly the same and played around with the words a little and actually didn't think anyone would notice. But low and behold, even the folks who didn't understand English knew that something was different and let me know that they liked it better the way I recorded it.
I always think of songs as works in progress, even once they've been recorded. So I often struggle with whether or not to change them. Even my song "Rainfall" has a new part and I've been playing that for 10 years now.
JR: As you compare this new album with your other albums there is obviously a different feel. On this CD, I hear your strongest orchestrations and most fully developed musical ideas. How would you describe the difference?
DS: The strength of this album lies in instrumental musicianship. I put the same intensity into building a melody and creating something that I want to say but instead of singing, I'm putting that into a melody on my instrument. I put the same energy into getting a feel and a vibe out of each song but I put the heaviest emphasis on putting together a nice melody with a complementing group of chords, then I added the 'gymnastics' of all the different techniques to add something that people may not have heard before. So it goes two ways: if you're savvy to how the NS/Stick works you may be drawn to all the different techniques coming together and be impressed by that but if you don't know or care about the instrument the you can simply enjoy the music and not worry at all about how it came together.
This is a showcase of what I can do on this particular instrument. When I sing I'm more concerned that the song comes through and not so much concerned with how technical the playing is or my capabilities on the instrument. One is about the song the other is about playing.
JR: Which one is truer to 'Don Schiff the Musician'? Which is the better representation of you as an artist?
DS: I guess I'd have to say both. It just depends on the situation. I really love playing songs and I really love singing and playing The Stick. What I really love to do is just fully put myself into each project I do and try to pull off as much as I can at the same time. It's such a great joy to me to be able get all that out. To get my feet going on the bass pedals and get those really low pads coming in, then getting both sides of the NS/Stick going and then to sing over top of all that is an incredible feeling. That would be the full-potential Don Schiff. But then when I stop singing and get to solo playing, that works too. I guess I vacillate back and forth. It's all me though.
For more, check out Don's Web Site:
Jim Reilly can be reached at
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