Behind the Glass

One-Man Band

When I was 8, I was given a Radio Shack tape player and— as I can still see it in my mind’s eye—a small wicker basket holding several cassette tapes.

Three of the tapes were Pat Metheny Group records, and those were really my favorites for a long time, along with the first Take 6 album. If my Metheny obsession trickles out every now and then, understand that it’s terminal. I’m trying to act like I care about other musicians, when in fact…

I kid. But seriously, when someone does 38 albums in as many years, you can imagine they get a chance to explore the scene a bit, musically. I don’t know of any guitarist, or any kind of artist, who has explored as many musical rabbit holes as has Metheny.

I was really delighted to encounter his 2010 project Orchestrion, which paid homage to a vintage instrument of the same name. Metheny automated a mini-orchestra of instruments to be controlled by his guitar and a computer using modern programming and robotics.

If you aren’t aware of this insane undertaking and the resulting album and world tour, you really must look it up. Start with a search on YouTube for his “EPK” (electronic press kit) video which preceded the release of the album and tour. Pat explains the inspiration for the effort, the Orchestrion, which was an evolution of the player piano craze featuring multiple instruments, encased in a fancy armoire.

With Pat’s setup, he was in total control and conducted a multitude of instruments in his own compositions. The “one man band” has become something light-years beyond the polka-playing, kick drum on the back, cymbal-smash-stomper that generally comes to mind.

I’ve seen many different takes on the one man band approach, from the early days of Howie Day and his Line 6 looper-effects pedal, to Australia’s Xavier Rudd sitting on a drum kit with seven didgeridoos at his mouth. Both guys moved on from the solo act eventually; in Howie’s case, I think he did better as a solo artist.

Some musicians can manage the one man act so well that there isn’t really room in their music for other ideas, or creative minds. Sometimes you just need to name the band after yourself and tell everyone what to play, right?

Xavier Rudd has found success in the U.S. and in Europe, and over the years his show has become bigger and his band has taken on more and more members. I saw Rudd years ago as a solo artist, and a few years ago, I was introduced to another “one man band” from down under— blues crooner Ash Grunwald.

A coworker was a huge fan of Ash’s music, and made sure we got a chance to record him when the Aussies hit town. Ash was supporting Xavier’s run through America, and the two have often toured together.

Ash and Xavier actually live down the street from each other in Australia, and are both avid surfers and good friends. The surf culture permeates Ash’s display much more than it does with Xavier, who with his didgeridoos presents a more traditional roots-Aussie vibe.

Ash is a different cat, and his music does not scream “Australian” at all. From an early age he was fascinated with American Delta Blues, and his major inspiration from the time is Howlin’ Wolf.

Xavier’s impressive tour bus pulled up to the newspaper for our recording session on a sunny Friday, and a big strapping guy carrying an impressive amount of gear strolled out to greet us. Immensely personable, humble and a dude’s dude, Ash also had a keen sense for production and engineering, and was a great help to me as I wrangled his many inputs down to a stereo track.

Ash’s approach is to have as big a sound as possible at his disposal, and he could bring it —his voice was so strong that  I had to keep a sharp eye on the mic levels. Everything about his sound is big; for our session, he fed his vintage National resonator guitar’s signal to a splitter, running to a bass amp and a separate amplifier stack, thus reinforcing a wider frequency range for his distorted tone. He had an electronic snare trigger as part of his kick drum ensemble and brought a vintage copper microphone for the “telephone effect” which you’ll see and hear in the videos.

Quite a setup,with opportunity for great dynamic swings and lots of power. When chatting with him after the session he expressed amazement to me that all he had to do was “engineer this thing” he does and write a few songs— and for that he gets to live a free life, see the world with his family, and feel love from his fans.

In contrast to the 9-5 office life, that sure does seem romantic. Take a look at what Ash did in our session, and check out his new album, Now,  available in all the usual places.

A one man band can really be anything — it’s entirely up to the one man to make it he wants. How great is that? Kudos to the adventurous!