A series of Jim Reilly's interviews with players, fans, and the people
behind the scenes of the Chapman Stick.
Larry Tuttle and Novi Novog
"Imagination, Beauty and Groove"
December 2, 2004
When two people play music together really well individual egos fade, instruction gives way to intuition, two voices become one. Stick player Larry Tuttle's and violist Novi Novog's musical union has been growing for almost 20 years and you'd be hard pressed to find a better example of true musical partnership.
Larry Tuttle and Novi Novog
are String Planet
They started playing together in the group Freeway Philharmonic. Freeway's music is a joyous mix of folk, world and jazz. Their four CDs are well known in the Stick world and beyond and continue to sell well. While they still do occasional gigs with the rest of Freeway Phil, Larry and Novi have ratcheted their music and their partnership up a notch with their latest project String Planet.
Foremost, String Planet is a band and a self-titled debut album. Larry's Stick and Novi's viola take centre stage with an eclectic mix of percussion, synth and voice rounding out the mix. String Planet is also an outgrowth of the two's considerable involvement in the L.A. music scene, particularly the work they've done writing for string sections, arranging and producing string parts and an exhaustive list of session credits. Novi's résumé alone would take far too long to list but here is just a taste: solos on Prince's "Purple Rain" and "Raspberry Beret," and The Doobie Brothers' "Black Water", appearances on albums by Bonnie Raitt, Terrance Trent D'Arby, Michael Jackson, 10,000 Maniacs, Cher, James Taylor, Spinal Tap, Madonna, Tom Petty and Tangerine Dream and performances with Frank Zappa, The Doobie Brothers, Aretha Franklin and Jennifer Warnes.
The humour that made Freeway Philharmonic so much fun to listen to and see live comes through in the many faces of String Planet. For that matter, it comes through when you talk with Larry and Novi too. They play off each other, each finishing the other's sentences, when one can't quite come up with a word the other is right there with the perfect compliment.
But while the two become one so nicely, their individual voices don't get lost in the mix. Larry's Stick playing is at the top of the class, as his solo disc Through The Gates and his contributions to the Stick Night 99 CD and video prove. Novi's professional history speaks for itself.
Something truly magnificent happens when Larry and Novi play together though. Something that can't or doesn't need to be defined, just heard and enjoyed.
Jim Reilly: I'd like to begin with String Planet but I really don't know where to start: the group, the new CD, your string writing/arranging services, your production services or teaching? So I'll throw it out to you: What is String Planet?
Larry Tuttle: More than anything, it's our new band. We passionate about strings, we're always doing things with strings, we arrange them and we contract them and we compose for them but that's a sideline. The main thing is the group and its music.
JR: Describe String Planet's music?
LT: It's Novi and I-viola and Stick-and a whole bunch of world music percussion. We went for a multi-layered percussion sound, each song can have anywhere from five to ten different percussion tracks on it. So there's a deep, percussive, world music sound underneath the two of us. It's mostly instrumental, but there are two vocal tracks sung by Novi's cousin Lauren Wood. She sang on the Pretty Woman soundtrack, a tune called "Fallen."
Novi Novog: She wrote that tune. She always makes us play with her, so we made her play with us.
LT: Family obligations.
JR: What were you're trying to achieve going into the recording sessions?
LT: A few things. The three building blocks I laid down were imagination, beauty and groove. I wanted a big groove, that's why the multi-percussion, and I want a real bed for us to be able to play over. We wanted to provide a really nice platform for Novi to improvise over. We wanted to write simple songs with really good hooks, lots of space and interesting arrangements.
JR: So Novi, how successful was that vision? Did that come through?
NN: It really did. We had played together for years in Freeway Philharmonic and we had always wanted to take our music a step further, and we were able to do that on this record.
JR: What was your approach to writing the songs? Did you write specific parts for the musicians?
LT: I tend to write in song forms. I write what sounds to me like a verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge kind of thing. Even though I'm writing instrumentals I tend to write that way. Then we open up the middle for improvisation.
Usually I write the melody, chords and the feel, then when the song gets to Novi, she completely makes up her own parts. That's when it starts changing because she has such a love of harmonies and inner voicings. So I tend to be real solid on the basics and the theme and give her freedom to trip around. Even sections that aren't solo sections have a lot of improvising on her part.
JR: Do you write specific parts for her?
LT: Almost never. What I will do is write the melody and insist that she plays it a couple of times just because it sounds so good when she plays the melody.
JR: What about you Novi, do you ever ask Larry to change inversions or play a specific part to compliment what you're doing?
NN: Sometimes, or I'll ask to take a song in a different direction, change the structure a little bit. If I write the song then I can be bossier.
JR: Who does most of the writing?
LT: I did most of the writing on this String Planet album.
NN: These are Larry's tunes on this album, it's his baby.
LT: Once we get a basic thing down, we tend to play it over and over and what seems to happen is that something good will go by and I'll stop and say, "Hey, make what you just played part of the tune, that was good." So as we're playing the songs and Novi is trying different parts, I'll keep my ears open and when something goes by that I like I'll let her know and vice versa.
A lot of times the songs evolve as we play them on gigs.
NN: That's when you really get to experiment, get feedback and see what works and what doesn't work.
JR: How long have the two of you played together?
LT: Since 1986.
NN: Woo Hoo!
LT: Going on 19 years. At this point it's pretty much telepathic, there's not too much we have to say to each other while we're playing.
We met playing in Freeway Philharmonic. The guy who started that group, Robert Stanton, had a gig at local restaurant. It was very loose and the restaurant would let him bring in anyone he wanted to play with. We sat in with him and instantly we knew we had a band.
NN: We still do corporate gigs with Freeway and school shows and stuff like that.
LT: That's been our main project since 1986 until we started building up String Planet three or four years ago. Now we're getting ready to transition into String Planet as a live band.
JR: How does the new music translate live?
LT: Well, we haven't played out that much, it's pretty new.
NN: It's pretty new but the few gigs that we have had have been very positive. We've done a lot of duo work and the new songs have all gotten very positive reactions.
LT: We're looking forward to getting out there. This next year is going to a big year in terms of getting out and playing live.
JR: What about the other aspects of String Planet, the writing and arranging, how does that work itself into the big picture?
NN: We've been doing that for a long time, we're just marketing it now.
LT: Novi has been playing sessions around Los Angeles for years and built up a very impressive resume. We've been writing and arranging for strings for a long time. Eventually we'd like the two of them to meet - String Planet gigs with orchestras, string orchestras in particular. We've written string parts for other people and we're hoping to be able to do it for ourselves. We also write chamber music and publish and sell string quartets and string orchestra music. Eventually those two worlds will meet.
JR: I really like the idea of Stick with string ensembles, new meets old, two worlds coming together.
LT: There's a song on the CD, called "The Race" it's a string quartet, drums and Stick. It was never intended to be on the album-it was intended to demo our string writing-but it worked so great and it sounded so much like the band anyway, that we decided to put in on the record. It is indicative of a direction we want to explore.
JR: You're not a big effects guy, your Stick sound is big and rich and natural, which is why I think it blends so well with Novi's viola and the other strings. What challenges arise when you mix this new electric instrument with those traditional acoustic ones?
LT: It's not really a big challenge, it works out pretty well, don't you think Novi?
NN: Yes I do. Of course people always say, "Oh, there's only two instruments." But I guess most Stick groups get that too.
LT: My biggest challenge blending The Stick has been with really loud and powerful music. I've tended to gravitate towards strings, acoustic guitars and hand percussion because the delicate stuff just seems to work a little better for me. When I try to play next to guys with Marshall stacks or big double kick drum sets it overwhelms me. I've always felt like The Stick was an acoustic instrument masquerading as an electric one, especially the way I play it. I'm a bass player at heart anyway, I like to just plug in and go without changing my sound too much.
JR: What about you Novi, what sort of challenges have you found combining Stick with strings?
NN: None. It's really easy to play with The Stick, it's really easy to blend.
JR: Now is that just because you're playing with Larry or because of the sound of the instrument in general?
NN: That I don't know. Years ago we played with Don Schiff but he wasn't playing like he does now, he wasn't using all the effects. I bet if Larry used more effects than I would use more effects too. I find that you just blend with what you're playing with, so I think I'd play a different way.
JR: I think the range of the viola and Stick complement each other. The timbre, the fullness of both sounds seems like a perfect match.
LT: There is an interesting thing that goes on. The Stick sound has a lot of attack, it's very percussive. The viola is very sustaining. So it's a very symbiotic blend, I give more bite to her and she gives more sustain to me. It's a very natural thing that works out very well.
In almost all of our tunes we play the main theme together, we hardly ever play actual the themes and melodies of the tunes separately, that's sort of a trademark of our music. We orchestrate them together and it creates that combined Stick attack/viola sustain sound that we really like.
NN: It's really neat, the sound is more orchestral that way.
LT: We both spent our entire childhood in orchestras. We have that in common in our outlook. We're used to listening to being a part of the big picture instead of being the lead act. The viola plays those inner voices all the time and the upright bass is used to being on the bottom.
NN: We have been having fun being the lead act though. For a few years now Larry and I have been playing as a duo with the Anaheim Ballet. We did a two-person version of Peter and the Wolf, Stick and viola. It was so cool creating a 'carnival of the animals' for them to dance too.
JR: I'd love to hear that. Any plans to record it?
LT: I think that would be really fun. Someday I'm sure we'll think about it. We went to all the trouble to transcribe it and work it up. The Stick can really cover a lot of ground and with just the two of use we can come reasonably close to covering those great big pieces. It's really fun.
JR: Novi, was Larry the first Stick player you came across?
NN: Not quite. Years ago I was in a group and I was friends with the drummer in Kittyhawk, Mark Sanders and I knew the Stick player in that band, Paul Edwards, through a mutual friend. I was supposed to play a gig with them but my Dad got rushed to the hospital that night, so I never made the gig.
JR: Larry, how long have you been playing Stick?
LT: About 20 years. I was playing bass in a band and the band just needed 'something.' I had a few extra bucks to spare, it was between a Stick and a synthesizer, I figured that everybody had a synth, so I got a Stick. My first exposure to Stick was through Tony Levin, like everyone else's.
JR: Not mine, my first exposure to Stick was through Fergus Marsh and his work with Bruce Cockburn, but that may be because I'm Canadian.
LT: Fergus is a great player. I really like the work he did with Bruce Cockburn. Thing that I like best about Fergus's playing in that group is his whole sense of teamwork. He knew his place in the group. He was really good a covering a lot of ground and supporting the music really, really well.
JR: You've watched the live L.A. Stick scene grow up over the last 20 years, but what about in the studios? You're both studio veterans, are there more calls for Stick in the L.A. studios?
NN: I seen Stick show up in other projects a couple of times but it's still pretty rare unless you're looking for a specific type of sound.
LT: I've gotten called a few times by someone who wants me to sound like Tony Levin. I played on the last three versions of the big video game Myst. They wanted that Tony Levin bass sound.
JR: What are some of your favourite Larry and Novi moments, on record or otherwise? What would be on your greatest hits album?
NN: A lot of the first Freeway Philharmonic CD (the self-titled Freeway Philharmonic) because of the energy on it. We had so much fun recording that album.
LT: Both the first two CDs (Freeway Philharmonic and Car Tunes) were a lot of fun. Those were the 24-track recordings. The last two Freeway CDs were live to two-track and I don't think that suited us as well. It was wonderful to have the luxury of overdubs to make the guitars sound really huge and getting the timing really tight on those first two CDs. Plus a lot of our best writing was on those first two discs.
NN: I agree, but I do love "Hoedown" and "Albert's Go Kart" on Sonic Detour, one of the live to two-track recordings.
LT: Freeway was a real serious arrangement band. We did lots of really, really tricky arranging. It was fun to take that out in front of people because we had it really tight. Most bands that were playing out at the same time as us were not nearly so well arranged and it was nice to be able to perform those more complicated arrangements.
A lot of our best performances were in Canada, actually. My favourite all-time gig was the Owen Sound Folk Festival. We did the Winnipeg Folk Festival and the Mission Folk Festival a couple of times. It was great because in Canada the styles are wide open. In the States, a group like Freeway Philharmonic would have a tough time playing a folk festival because it's not traditional 'folk.'
NN: Up at the Canadian festivals they had all kinds of music. Winnipeg had a Scottish jazz band, a Cuban jazz band, a sitar player.
LT: It was very open. The audience was very open too. One of the difficulties we had in Freeway Philharmonic was finding a niche. We feel between niches. In Canada they weren't so picky about that.
NN: Right. Down here we did do the Catalina Jazz Festival but we did it when David Benoit was on it. We did one in Redding, Pennsylvania when Bela Fleck was on the same bill. The event couldn't be straight ahead, it had to be a little twisted for them to consider us. We actually did do a folk festival in Kerrville, Texas but it was kind of weird. It wasn't our favourite.
JR: I would imagine that finding a niche still haunts you now?
LT: We're about to find out. We're really at the beginning stages of String Planet so we're about to find out. We also played the fine arts circuit, going around and playing for college presenters.
NN: Sometimes we would do school shows or workshops during the day and then do the concert at night.
LT: We're going to do workshops with String Planet as well. They're going to be a little bit different then the way we used to do them with Freeway. They're going to be aimed more towards young string players and teaching them about improvising and stepping away from the classical mould a little bit, how to fit into pop music and improvised music in general.
NN: For about 4 or 5 years in a row we played at the Mancini Institute. They have music students come from all over to take these summer courses at U.C.L.A.
LT: Students come from literally all over the world. We would play for the viola class and do a little clinic.
NN: And all the kids went nuts over The Stick.
LT: That's true.
NN: Sometimes Larry would write a chart out and at the end of the clinic they would all play one of his tunes. It was really fun. We'd go around the room and each kid would try to jam a little bit.
JR: Was it hard to get classically trained students to improvise?
NN: Yes, some of them refused, others went nuts.
JR: You're both classically trained players. How did you get your heads around improvising?
LT: Playing in rock bands. For me, I was a classical player when I was young and all through school. In high school I discovered the bass guitar and started a band and everything changed.
NN: For me it was discovering pop music and the Beatles in junior high. That got me started playing other types of music. Then I remember, right when John Coltrane died, somebody turned me on to him and that opened up a whole new world of music and new ways to play.
JR: So we're here right at the beginning of String Planet. What's in store? What's the game plan?
LT: We've got a publicist on board. We're starting about three months of radio promotion in January. In 2005 the biggest job in front of us will be to get out and start gigging. The other job is to build a team. We're still trying to find the right agent and management situation. The album is self-released right now, ideally releasing it on a label would be best way to go. We're going to continue to look for people to work with and go out and get live exposure. And start building the band.
As something that was fundamentally conceived in the studio it will probably change as we start putting the band together. Most of the places we play will be a trio, Novi and I and a percussionist, but given the budget and a big festival I'd love to have a six-piece group-three drummers and a synth player-to really get that big world music kind of sound. That's the main thing in front of us now, constructing the live show and getting out there and getting some gigs.
JR: And the occasional Freeway gig?
NN: Actually we have a concert next week.
LT: We'll have to remember our Christmas tunes.
JR: I was just about to ask if you were going to play your Christmas tunes.
LT: Yes, we have that Christmas album and it keeps coming back to haunt us. Every couple of years we have to relearn those tunes.
JR: I assume that CD still sells?
NN: It does. We hear it all over the place in malls.
LT: That's true. I hear it often in malls. I don't know who is doing it, but someone has gotten a hold of the disc and sent it out all these malls. I hear it every Christmas.
You can check out Larry and Novi, all the faces of String Planet, Freeway
Philharmonic (even that Christmas album) and more at
Jim Reilly can be reached at
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