Pat Metheny (new album “Dream Box” released today 16 June 23)

“Honestly,” says Pat Metheny, “it’s a lot easier to be complex than to be simple”. His album for solo guitar, “Dream Box” (Modern Recordings/BMG), which is released today, 16 June 2023, is simpler than recent larger-scale projects such as “Hommage”, a massive personal tribute to Eberhard Weber from 2015 or the 2020 album “From This Place”. He says of “Dream Box” “…it is not like any record I have ever produced.” Interview by Sebastian.

Pat Metheny. Publicity image by Jimmy Katz.

The story of “Dream Box” goes back to a time when Metheny was working with Charlie Haden. The bassist was encouraging Pat Metheny to compose tunes. But rather than receiving them in the form of manuscript, the bassist said on one occasion, “Can’t you just record it?”

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The request had consequences. From then on, Metheny started to record the tunes he was developing by a set method. “I would set up a form and play on top of it.” In other words he would first record a backing/ comping track, a “fertile harmonic platform”, as Metheny calls it, and then record both the tune and the improvisation over that.

Recently, he reopened the file of these 70 or 80 of these tunes made over several years. “I found one track I was stunned by…” On the album it is called “From the Mountain”…and then… “rummaging around, I found another one…” And so the work of distilling the tunes further led to the selection of tunes now appearing as “Dream Box”. All but one of the tunes on the album originated from Metheny’s two-step recording method.

Metheny made one point very clearly in an interview with LJN via Zoom. Whereas he writes a lot of tunes, he always submits them to his own tough test. He needs to be persuaded that the tune is strong and robust enough for him to want to go out on stage and play it at least 150 times. And most of the tunes he writes, he says, don’t pass that personal and self-imposed test. Or as he expresses it: “The batting average for the standard that I hope to aspire to is low.”

When it comes to thinking about the simplicity and robustness of compositions, Metheny works in a context and a framework: “A standard is set by Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’,” he says.

He remembers having learnt and evolved his self-critical approach originally from observing and discussing Steve Swallow. Metheny remembers being surprised by some of the tunes which Swallow would reject. These days he identifies much more with that kind of self-critical rigour.

I noted that this album marks a desire to do something relatively simple. “Honestly,” he reflected, “it’s a lot easier to be complex than to be simple.”

And yet surely, I wondered, Metheny has always been interested in the possibilities of technology, it is part of his essence. He agrees: “I am an electric guitarist. My first act was to plug it in. Cords, knobs and wires are all part of the instrument. I happened to be born at a point that traverses all of this stuff, and my fundamental relationship to knobs wires and electricity has expanded along with it.”

He said that the true answer to the question of his attitude to technology is that he has no fear, “I’m like: ‘Yeah, bring it on!’ To me they are more tools, just another way to be. It is another way to find a window or a trap door into this ever-expanding house that I have been working on.”

Some commentators have suggested that his approach to integrating technology makes him a fore-runner or precursor of Artificial Intelligence. Here again he is clear as to the parts he wants to embrace and the aspects that simply have no interest for him at all in his permanent striving to be a better musician: “When I think about how to apply my interest in music through the prism of what tech offers I feel very strongly that – as the tech saying has it – ‘Garbage in. Garbage out’. If you don’t have a good story to tell, a good melody, and you can’t play that good, none of this is going to help. It is just going to amplify that it isn’t happening….”

But surely Artificial Intelligence also has dangers? He gives a balanced answer: “I know everyone is freaking out about it but for me it is a unique set of possibilities. It will need a lot of decisions on how It gets utilised and the way it gets disseminated.”

I was curious whether Metheny still kept a punishing practice regime going. “Not so much practising,” he said. “I am on output.” His attention is dedicated to generating new music. “I spend time with an instrument but it’s very rarely guitar. Throwing ideas from a piano into a computer, giving it back to the guitar.” He describes that process as “constantly moving things around into different dialect”.

And hasn’t the pandemic given him an insight into – a taste for – ‘civilian life’ rather than being out on the road? He admits that it has indeed changed his perspective…but only up to a point. Before going on tour these days, there is, he admits, some self-questioning about whether going out to perform in front of “a bunch of strangers” makes any sense, particularly as his 70th birthday approaches, next year. “But by the second night it will be like ‘I was born to do this’. My metabolism switches to this thing I have been doing since I was sixteen.”

LINKS: Pat Metheny’s YouTube channel

Buy Dream Box at Presto Music

Categories: Features/Interviews

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