©2014 Sean Arthur Joyce

jefflang.com.au

Your story telling style of lyrics are often emotive and conscience evoking. Do you deliberately and carefully use your music as a platform for political issues or current affairs?

No, I’m more interested in telling a story from a character’s point of view than presenting a slice of autobiography in song or venting my own feelings about this or that.

So lets have a lap steel/Weissenborn Jeff Lang playlist. What tracks should my readers check out first that you have played lap steel or Weissenborn as lead on?

Let’s see… From my solo albums: on “Everything Is Still” there’s “Can’t Raise My Head”, “London” and “Some Memories Never Die”, then there’s “By Face Not Name” and the title track from “Whatever Makes You Happy”, “My Mother Always Talked To Me” and “Is All” from “Half Seas Over”, “South” from “Chimeradour”, “Way Past Midnight” from “Carried In Mind”, “Watch Me Go”, “I Want To Run But My Legs Won’t Stand”, “This City’s Not Your Hometown Anymore” and “My Darling Girl Don’t Change” from “I Live In My Head A Lot These Days”. Then there’s “Twelve Thousand Miles”, “Stagger Lee” and “Changing Of The Guard” from the “Dislocation Blues” album I made with Chris Whitley. The “Djan Djan” album with Mamadou Diabate and Bobby Singh is entirely acoustic lap steel on my part and the “Blue City” album with Maru Tarang is largely acoustic lap slide guitar also, in this case on a tri-cone resonator. 

What projects are you currently working on? Any plans to tour outside Australia for the rest of the year or next year?

I’m about to do some more shows with Maru Tarang in South Africa and in Australia in the next few months as well as going back to play in China on my own and I’m writing songs for a new album at the moment.

Do you think you have any new musical avenues left in you to explore in your career? Anything left on the musical bucket list?

I take things as they come as far as working with other people and so far it’s been pretty interesting. But there’s always something new to explore. If you feel like the options are shrinking you just need to open your ears more.​

Tell me about your live performances. You seem to have such an engaging sound, full of such energy and contrasting profound gentler touches, lots of light and shade. I have heard you say “performance is king” is that still the most important thing as an artist to you, the performance?

I love recording too, but I spend more time playing live so it naturally is more of a constant. Trying to dive deep into the mood of a given song and bring something fresh to the material night to night is the challenge of a live show and when it works it’s really rewarding. It’s a visceral experience.

You are known in many circles as the best independent roots and blues musician in Australia. So did you ever get the approach from the big corporate record labels back in the day to give you a shot at the mainstream? Would it be something you would consider nowadays?

I’ve always been on the fringes of the business really. No-one early on was paying any attention to the rootsier side of the tracks, so the mainstream and I were blissfully ignorant of each other. None of us making recordings does so in the hope that no-one hears them, so you always hold out hope that there’s an audience out there who’ve not heard you yet who’ll get it, and that you’ll find them somehow. But the longer, windier path has been pretty good to me so far so I’ve no complaints.

In todays climate what are the advantages of being a modern day independent recording artist? Total artistic freedom i suppose is the main one but what else does being a truly independent artist afford you?

That’s the main one I guess - the ability to present yourself the way you feel like it. To have control of that. Who knows though, someone else might have a better grasp of that than an artist themselves would, might have skills that enable them to position you better so more people get the chance to hear you. Who can say? There’s a trade-off either way, independent or signed to a mainstream label, is what I’m saying.

Can you pinpoint the exact moment early days when you recognised you had gone from a generic entertainer at generic venues to an artist people would actively go and seek out regardless of the venue?

I’ve never seen myself as a generic entertainer even when I was first starting to tour around on my own, playing in small bars to small audiences. That said I was not certain that anyone would want to hear my music either. There weren’t many people there, so the evidence at the time was that there weren’t many who would. But I’m stubborn enough to have not gone away and now there’s a nice audience for what I do. It took a while and was a gradual process. I made a conscious decision early on that if someone didn’t like what I did and left, I wasn’t going to mentally follow them out the door trying to work out how to stop them leaving. I have my own barometer for when the music is working and when it’s not happening and not everything is for everyone after all.

I see you use a Sunrise sound hole pick-up on your Weissenborn, David Lindley once said I believe “It’s got magic stuff inside”, why do you still favour this pick-up above others out there?

I try other pickups and whatnot when I see something new around, but so far I keep coming back to the Sunrise. For what I’m doing it works the best of all the magnetic sound hole pickups around.

Tell me about the capo you use on your acoustic lap steel, what is it and is it modified in any way to reach around your guitar’s neck?

I got the idea from Kelly Joe Phelps when I did a bunch of shows opening for him in the States. It’s basically two things going on - the first being a piece of hardwood - Ebony in this case - with a slot on the bottom for it to slip on top of the appropriate fret. Then it has a fret on the top that the string rests on. Then there’s an old fashioned strap-style capo which wraps around the neck to tension the strings at the fret where the block of wood is positioned. I extended the strap to be able to reach around the larger chamber of the Churchill’s neck with a football bootlace. I used to use a floating lap steel capo but there’s a few compromises that I was tiring of with that type so when i saw what Kelly Joe was doing on his lap steel - he was using a Gibson flattop - I said to him “I’m going to have to copy that!”.

Your story telling style of lyrics are often emotive and conscience evoking. Do you deliberately and carefully use your music as a platform for political issues or current affairs?

No, I’m more interested in telling a story from a character’s point of view than presenting a slice of autobiography in song or venting my own feelings about this or that.​

Tell about your "go to" Weissenborn. It’s a baritone i believe and made by Dave Churchill who makes many of your other guitars. Was it custom made for you and if so did you have any suggestions on its spec?

No, it’s not a baritone instrument actually. Custom made for me by David Churchill with mahogany back and sides and a spruce top with a sunburst finish. Regular scale length, and the low string is tuned to a regular concert pitch E. I keep it tuned up to Open E - it just has such a rich tone to it, so it’s interesting that you assumed it was tuned lower. I had input into it in some general areas - the size of the hollow neck chamber for one thing. The idea was for it to not be a Weissenborn-style slide guitar so much. It’s more similar to a Martin dreadnaught tonally. The reason for that being that I wanted it to be very balanced from the bass through to the treble and for it to be suitable for self-accompaniment, not just melody playing.

Do you own any conventional sized Weissenborn design guitars?

I had an all-mahogany Hilo from the late 1920’s up until recently but I sold it. I wasn’t using it and I don’t like having instruments around that I’m not using. I have two of David Churchill’s hollow-neck lap steels - the sunburst one and an earlier cedar and rosewood one also, plus an old Oahu square-neck acoustic which is an amazing sounding instrument too.

Tell us about your involvement with the TV series  “The Gods Of Wheat Street” which you worked on extensively?

The series had three directors - one each for two episodes apiece - and the first two episodes’ director was really keen on having me score the series based on a few pieces of music that she’d heard. It was fun trying to use my musical language to support what was happening on the screen.

You seem to be a workaholic and have a never ending cycle of writing, recording, touring. true? what do you do to unwind away from music, or is there "no away from music"?

I’m not working as relentlessly on the road as I once did, but I still keep pretty busy, especially now that I’m recording and producing other people when I’m off the road. I like to not be idle for long. As far as unwinding goes, spending time with my family is important and a good five-day test match to watch helps too.

Open tunings; when you look at your back catalogue you don’t see many standard tuning songs in there. Where did this well defined love of open tunings come from and how did it become a mainstay of your creativity?

I started out playing guitar in an open tuning actually, more by accident than design. I was picking around on my older sisters’ discarded nylon-string guitar which had two broken tuning pegs. Those two strings seemed to be in tune with each other so I moved the rest until it sounded okay and I ran with that for a year or so before getting someone to show me standard tuning. It was a type of open C tuning as it turns out - CGCCGC. So I’ve always seen open tunings as fair game. I’m fine with standard tuning too. They all make sense to me and adjusting doesn’t seem hard.

What tuning do you favour on the lap steel these days?

It’s usually either Open E (EBEG#BE) or a variation like EBEF#BD.


I understand David Lindley and the late and great Bob Brozman (The Godfathers of Weissenborn as i refer to them) were big influences on you. Tell me about you lasting memories of Bob and your wonderful album you wrote and recorded together back in 2002 “Rolling Through This World”.

David Lindley definitely was an influence from early on. Bob Brozman I wasn’t influenced by in my development, I heard him later on and of course heard him a lot when we played together. The “Rolling Through This World” album was made in a very spontaneous fashion in between shows on a tour and it has a good sense of interplay. I particularly love the drumming by Angus Diggs on that album. He’s the star of that recording really. As far as my own enjoyment of it goes, it’s kinda difficult to go back there really. After Bob’s suicide and the circumstances surrounding that I’ve felt quite conflicting feelings about him and that album. It’s very confusing and upsetting to talk about.

Have you ever met David or performed with him?

I have met David Lindley a few times. Really funny, intelligent guy. I’ve not played with him. I’m a fan of his playing so I’m happy just to listen to it.

What slide artists around today do you admire?

Matt Walker has always been a unique and fascinating slide player. His electric lap steel and dobro playing sounds like no-one else, you can pick him straight away. Shane Reilly who plays pedal steel in a band called Lost Ragas with Matt is also a great player who comes out with amazing stuff. Kelly Joe Phelps on either lap steel or more recently bottleneck slide is wonderful. Garrett Costigan from Don Walker’s band is another incredible pedal steel player who gets really psychedelic on the instrument. I love his playing. Lucky Oceans is another guy who plays incredible stuff on pedal steel. David Tronzo is a bottleneck player from Boston, plays jazz on slide guitar and again, sounds like no-one else. His “Roots” album from 20 years ago is full of mind-bending slide. Derek Trucks is a beautiful player on bottleneck slide. There’s a guy from Northumberland in the UK named Johnny Dickinson who has a lovely touch on acoustic slide.

How does it feel to be the elder statesmen of slide music yourself now in Australia (nay the world)? People such as the previously mentioned John Butler, Xaxier Rudd, Ash Grunwald, Andrew Winton and Jed Rowe (all names familiar to my readers) have trail blazed in your wake citing you as a massive influence.

Well, it’s nice if people like what you do. I’ve been influenced by great, great players and if anyone else holds my own work in any kind of esteem then it’s a lovely compliment.

Speaking of Jed Rowe i understand you have just produced his latest album in your own studios? tell about what its like to wear the producers hat and what you feel you can offer young upcoming artists?

I like producing people, helping them realise a vision for their sound that presents it in a good light. It’s mostly about the songs really, making sure that every song is as strong as we can get it.​

How did you become a professional musician? Was it by design or accident, I mean was there a plan ‘B’?

I never even had a plan ‘A’! I fell into having a career really, by just doing what I felt like and letting anything which would have impeded that - like having an address for example - fall to the side.

You site your early influences as AC/DC, Ry Cooder, Neil Young and Bob Dylan amongst others. So it must have been unbelievable to tour and support with Dylan years later. Tell us about that time in your life and the lasting memories you have of that experience.

Well, I only did one show opening for Bob Dylan, but still it was very cool for me just to be up there sharing his air. I just took the set at a pretty cruisey clip. I was aware that for the audience, I was pretty much holding them up from hearing their guy, so I wasn’t going to try and hit them too hard in an effort to ‘wow’ them.

For the tech heads amongst us can you talk us through the unconventional way you mic up your lap steel on stage?

Sure. So I have a Sunrise magnetic pickup in the sound hole which I run through a ZVex SHO preamp. For the clean ‘acoustic’ part of my live sound this gets blended with an Acoustech Dynafield inside the instrument. A guy named David Wendler in Kansas makes them. Very accurate representation of the acoustic tone. It’s not an under-saddle transducer, nor a soundboard piezo, it’s a unique design. I’ve used internal mini-mics and soundboard transducers in the past to add the extra element to what the Sunrise gives and this is the best I’ve found for that function. I use parametric EQ to notch out the problem frequencies from the Dynafield - on my acoustic lap steels that’s usually in the region of 200Hz - and I use the Sunrise to give the sound a bit of ‘push’ so it has the right impact. The amount varies room to room, but it’s generally around 50/50. The mixture of these two sources makes for a nice big fat clean tone for a gig. Then I take a split from the Sunrise pickup and that runs into an A/B box which acts like a pickup switch on an electric guitar, in that I use it to choose whether I send the Sunrise pickup to the overdrive side of my rig or another magnetic pickup which is mounted between the sound hole and the bridge. This pickup is a Krivo Djangobucker. So I can keep the clean ‘acoustic’ portion of my sound intact but switch between a fatter neck pickup tone or a more piercing tone with the overdrive. It’s a pretty versatile setup.

What effects and gadgets do you have on your table of curios when you play live? What's the signal chain?

The effects on the floor are the overdriven part of my sound - volume pedal, tremolo, spring reverb, Sansamp Blonde pedal. Up on the table beside me are the clean preamps and EQ, plus a couple of looping tools - a TC Electronic Ditto 2 which is really simple and intuitive to use, and an old Digitech Echo Plus that I use for whacky pitch-shifted things. These two are only working on the overdriven part of the sound and I put them up at hip height rather than at my feet so they are slightly awkward to use - I have to stop playing to operate them at all. This prevents me from getting too tricky with them. Nothing that I loop in the show is in time - it’s only ever atmospheric stuff that drifts around in the background. Next to those pedals I keep a few old handle-crank music boxes that I play through the guitar’s pickup as a textural loop sometimes. Also other little tools like alligator clips and the like to alter the timbre of the instrument. I don’t use that sort of stuff too often but occasionally I’ll get in a mood and feel like deconstructing the sound a bit.

I did hear that your good friend John Butler uses the same method himself for ‘mic’ing up after seeing your setup, is that true?

John did some shows with me early on in his career and he was very intrigued by the way I was getting the acoustic and electric guitar sounds from the same instrument, varying the amount of overdrive as I went. Also the blending of the acoustic pickups and the splitting of the magnetic pickups’ signal to send to the amp. He did actually ask “would you mind if I copy that?” which I had no problem with. Nice of him to ask really. It’s not like I invented the idea of running an acoustic guitar with a magnetic pickup into an electric guitar amp after all - John Lee Hooker, Elmore James and Lightning Hopkins were there way before I was born - but the specific approach I took, having my acoustic sound running in parallel to the overdriven amp and bringing the amp in and out with a volume pedal, was something I dreamed up to replicate things I’d done in the studio by overdubbing different parts. I wanted to try and get both acoustic and electric sounds from the one instrument at gigs and I hadn’t seen anyone else doing that exact thing the same way.

Talking of John Butler, tell us how you two met? i understand he has always named you as a big influence in his own career.

I first met John when he opened a show for me in Fremantle some time in the nineties. He was just starting gigging but there was already a vibe building about him. People were talking about him even early on as someone to watch.

Your 2013 collaboration at the TEDX in Sydney with JB was nothing short of sublime. The tracks “Seek High” and “Right Direction” were specially written for that show i believe?

Yeah, we wrote those two songs especially for that gig. Seemed like a nice catalyst to write something with him. Hopefully there’ll be more at some point. We’ve got quite different ways of writing as it turns out, and that can be good for collaborating.

Are those songs available for download? and are there any plans to have further collaborations together?

Those two songs from that show were released on a Japanese compilation but as of yet that’s it as far as I know. It’d be great to write some more songs with John and then from there see what develops.

Hello Jeff, it’s great to talk to you and thank you for the opportunity to chat about your career and all things “Steel on steel”. In your own words you describe yourself as a “Purveyor of disturbed folk” please explain and elaborate to my readers what you mean by that self descriptive statement?

Well, that was actually a description someone at a gig said to me about 22 years ago: “your music is like folk music, disturbed folk music.” It made me laugh and I ended up using it as a live album title. Seemed as good a description as any.

Are you resistant in any way to being described simply as a roots and blues artist?

Sort of. I mean that title is hardly an insult but still can be misleading. Some songs of mine might fall into the realm of what many people would identify as being within their perception of what that genre entails, but many wouldn’t be squarely within the boundaries. Early in my career people described me as a blues player, probably because of the amount of slide guitar I play. I never agreed with that, mostly out of respect for those who are practitioners of that style exclusively whereas with my music, blues is just part of the mix. Purist blues fans would’ve been mislead by that description and I’ve never wanted to do that, never wanted to mislead folks, so a kind-of made up category was a way of sidestepping that issue.

You clearly have very strong Indian and African influences in your musical repertoire. How did these influences become so prevalent in your music?

In part through what I listen to. I love African artists like Ali Farka Toure, Oumou Sangare, Bassekou Kouyate and Tinariwen and Indian musicians like Debashish Bhattacharya, Mishwa Mohan Bhatt and Sultan Khan so the influence rubs off over time. But also working with musicians like Bobby Singh, Asin and Bughra Khan and Mamadou Diabate has definitely influenced how I play, not least because you have to adapt to fit in with the piece of music you’re playing. So if I’m fitting my slide guitar in with a tune alongside a sarangi or a kora then I’ll naturally lean towards the other instrument to some degree. That sort of thing develops over time too and it can be like you’re still bouncing off the other players even when they aren’t there any more. The residue of their sound stays with you.

Going off on a slight tangent here, I’m very interested in your very early musical association with the clarinet. I was once given some advice by a great lap steel player who said “try and listen to saxophone players and other non fret lead instruments and listen to how they voice certain passages”. When i listen to you play the lap steel or Weissenborn it’s the transitions between the notes that are strikingly fluid and impactful. Did your clarinet playing offer you this gift of phrasing notes and their transitions more fluidly do you think?

I’ve not thought about whether there’s any connection, although I was lucky in my learning with the clarinet to have a teacher who encouraged improvisation in my playing. His name was Tony Hughes, and I guess he saw a natural inclination in me to explore so he prodded me in that direction, gave me cassettes of tunes like ‘Satin Doll’ with just piano, bass and drums and showed me the melody for the head of the tune and would tell me to play that a couple of times through then make things up after that. So that was one aspect from back then that crossed over into what I do now.

I think it helps to let phrases ‘breathe’ in your playing, so picturing that you’re playing a wind instrument like a trumpet or a saxophone can help with melodies feeling ‘natural’ by having pauses periodically. Lets the listener take a breath too. My lap slide playing has definitely been influenced by Miles Davis and Irish Pipers like Willie Clancy.

Lets talk about the blistering finger work you are renowned for amongst lap steel players. On tracks like “London” your fingers are a blur up and down the fret board, do you have a practice routine to build this speed up?

Trying to keep up with the Indian musicians has been challenging for my technique, so that has helped build up speed with my left hand. I started out playing things like Blind Willie Johnson songs on slide and they have more movement up and down the length of the treble strings generally. Someone like Elmore James was largely working out of one position and working within a few frets going across the strings to play a phrase, whereas Blind Willie Johnson sounded like he was playing a melody spanning a whole octave on the treble string. This also probably helped with movement of melodies as your muscles get used to the sideways movement. Of course speed in and of itself is not worth aiming for, but everything has it’s place. All depends on the mood your trying to put across.

Jeff Lang is many things to many people and has many aspects to his music but for me and lots of fans out there it's his virtuoso performances on the lap steel which make him a tour de force amongst us "sliders". If you've ever held a tone bar before you will be familiar with the name. Tracks such as "London" and "Bateman's Bay" are steel on steel heaven, technical dexterity meets lyrical tenderness and thundering spell binding delivery. His style is a melting pot of musical genres and influences, part American, part British, part world music, but totally Australian! A roots and blues father figure in the Australian music scene with John Butler and Xavier Rudd as self professed admirers and advocates. So I was very lucky to get hold of a contact for Jeff through a mutual friend Jesses Wolfe and like a gentleman Jeff graciously agreed to an interview with the website without hesitation.