Colorado guitar mastermind Adam Stern chats about his new songs, country music, and Olivia Newton John
AS3 guitar mastermind Adam Stern talks about jazz, keeping track of gigs, his latest album, and Olivia Newton John’s connection to country music
by B. Dutch Seyfarth
[editor’s note: you can visit the HIGHLY REC OMMENDED BRAND new Adam Stern tracks at www.adamsternmusic.com ]
Perhaps one of busiest Colorado musicians I have met over the last few years has to be guitarist Adam Stern. With slots in the well known jam rock band Double Parked, Mountain Jam (Allman Brothers cover band), the Bill McKay Band (featuring Bill McKay of Leftover Salmon), and his own acclaimed americana group the Adam Stern Trio (aka AS3), Adam definitely keeps busy. (continued below)
I first got the pleasure of getting to know Adam back in April and May of 2008 during rehearsals for a Radiohead OK Computer multimedia tribute show that was performed at the Oriental Theatre in Denver. Even if you are not a Radiohead fan, certainly everyone can appreciate the complexity of their music. Adam played one of the guitar parts of that show complete with an army of effects pedals. His attention to detail and desire for musical perfection was awe inspiring. At that point, I put two and two together and realized that I HAD seen Adam play many times already at places like Mead Street Station and Highland Pacific (musician hangout joints in North Denver) and realized just how versatile, prolific, and talented this guy really was.
Recently, I had the chance to chat with Adam and was pleasantly surprised to hear about his upcoming americana / roots album with the Adam Stern Trio and some guest musicians. We also touched on his outlook on playing music as a career, gigging in the ski towns, his general musings on music, and advice to aspiring musicians in general. Adam Stern is truly one of Colorado’s most interesting and versatile guitar players. I think you will enjoy getting to know Adam Stern as much as I did. Happy New Year!
Dutch: Your known in Denver and Boulder for your americana / country project the Adam Stern Trio (AS3). Could you tell us who plays with you in that group and how it got started?
Adam: Well, if any group I’ve been in was well-known it was Henry Parsons Project, the Widespread Panic tribute act I did a stint with from September 2003 to January 2005 (also my first band ever). But I’m happy to talk about Adam Stern Trio! It’s hard to pinpoint what the initial impetus was behind starting AS3. Seems with a lot of these groups we’ve got six months worth of gigs under our belts before I even realized what happened. I just know I was listening to tons of Danny Gatton in 2007 and was at a point with my guitar development where I felt like I could be the focal point of an instrumental trio that did more than play 12-bar blues and one-chord space jams. Mike “Spanky” McCluer, who plays bass with me in Double Parked and Mountain Jam, was eager to get an instrumental project off the ground and suggested his friend Damon Scott on drums, who had just left Angie Stevens’ band. We started rehearsing in fall of 2007, and played our first live gig in December 2007. Did about 45 dates with this group in 2008 and we are currently working on an album of my original instrumental tunes. I’ve used other players at times but consider Spanky and Damon to be my “core” rhythm section. We’ve got regular gigs at Highland Pacific, Q Blues and Jazz Lounge and Mead Street Station and are always on the lookout for more venues. (continued below)
Adam Stern in Action
Beyond that, the real intent with AS3 is to be a rock band that entertains regular folks and gets them dancing — just without singing. We’ve seen crowds get so into it that they start requesting songs like “Loving Cup” and whatnot which I like because it means they see us as a straight-up rock group and not so much esoteric jazz fusion. I like playing “Giant Steps” and “Teen Town” too but I’m not really out there to impress the three musicians that might be in the audience (most of whom are gonna think you suck no matter what you play anyway). And I’d say that while AS3 plays a lot of classic roots music instrumentals like “Sleepwalk” and “Orange Blossom Special,” I’m trying to make this a modern instrumental trio. As much as I love Danny Gatton it seems like he more or less had no interest in any music made after 1964.
Spanky once suggested we try a surf tune and while I appreciate guys like Dick Dale the fact is I’m 35 years old and live in a mountain town — I get in the ocean once every five years. My introduction to music wasn’t seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, it was seeing Agnostic Front and Sick Of It All and New York Hardcore bands at CBGB. I also like dub reggae, “mathcore” groups like Dillinger Escape Plan, electronic artists like Squarepusher and I never get tired of Prince. Some of these artists get a little darker with the tone of their music but that’s fine with me. I’d get bored just playing happy-go-lucky jazztwang music — it’s alright to get a little ugly and abrasive too.** Nels Cline is a huge contemporary influence on me and his instrumental guitar-bass-drums trio is a great example of the “anything goes” mentality I’m striving for.
Dutch: So what does country music mean to you as a musician and songwriter from Colorado?
Adam: Country music is the best! I am a fan of many, many artists from country music and from all different eras from Charlie Poole and Jimmie Rodgers in the 20s to people on the charts right now like Brad Paisley and Alan Jackson. I would say that country music and jazz music are my biggest influences and the music I have listened to the most in my life. Most jazz musicians would never give county the time of day but the two have been connected for some time. Just go back and read about Louis Armstrong recording with Jimmie Rodgers or Charlie Christian sitting in with Bob Wills, not to mention the recent Wynton Marsalis/Willie Nelson collaboration. When it comes to jazz and country, I don’t really understand how you can like one but not the other. It’s also funny to continually hear the same opinion about country music: “Well the old stuff is good but the new stuff sucks.”
If you ask me, some of the worst country music ever made came out in the 60s and 70s! I love Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings (and Billy Joe Shaver, Tom T. Hall, and of course Townes Van Zandt) but once you get past those guys it was all pretty much “Countrypolitan” and “Nashville Sound” records. I’d rather hear today’s Skynyrd-influenced country as opposed to the syrupy string sections they used back then. I don’t think people remember that when Willie was putting out the Red Headed Stranger album that Olivia Newton-John was the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist Of The Year! (continued below)
The honesty and simplicity of countrty has always been what’s moved me. The stark emotion of a Hank Williams Sr or Lefty Frizzell has transcendental qualities for me and “takes me somewhere” the same way an album like Dark Side Of The Moon may for someone else. From a pure guitar standpoint there are so many great players, my personal favorites being Don Rich, Roy Nichols, Albert Lee, Pete Anderson and Brent Mason. Some of the country instrumentals we play in AS3 are The Claw (Buck Owens), Buckaroo (Buck Owens), Munster Rag (Brad Paisley) and Orange Blossom Special (traditional fiddle song originally by Ervin T. Rouse). I’d like to do more country gigs but it seems like most Colorado country bands are not so into the freelancer thing and are looking for someone to make a full-time commitment, which I can respect. I have played a lot with Dana Kyle Stokes, an old school honky tonker based out of Nederland and I also recently got to work with a new school country singer out of Pueblo named KC Messick (we opened for Foghat on a baseball field in La Junta!). Hope to play with both more in 2009.
Dutch: You’ve become known as a great americana musician who claims to throw a little country music into the mix. Can you describe your musical influences and what music people can expect from your upcoming new songs?
Adam: I’m not sure I’m a “songwriter,” that has a connotation of writing lyrics, which I haven’t done too much of. I do feel I’m writing instrumental music that could possibly be of interest to Americana fans. My core musical influences are what I call “American roots music” — jazz, blues, country, R&B, gospel, etc. With some excursions into Punk Rock, Reggae, Electronic and other extreme genres. On my MySpace page I list about 100 guitarists I really like so feel free to check it out. As far as the music I’m writing for Adam Stern Trio, it hopefully has a roots feel with being too genre-specific where you can just label it as “blues” and be done with it.
One tune we’re working on called “Cougar Bait” starts out with a New Orleans-style second line groove and eventually goes into a high-speed drum ‘n’ bass passage with drum machine beats mixed with live drums. I’m very interested in juxtaposing musical idioms that you’re not used to hearing together but are more compatible than you’d initially think. We’re gonna have some I-IV-V changes and some crazy fusion-type progressions too. There’s gonna be some hard-rock shredding and classic chicken picking and some purposely “bad” guitar playing as well. It seems like with most guitarists you can watch them for a set and know all their influences and everything they’re capable of. I’d like to be someone you can watch for four hours and then pull out something fresh you haven’t seen all evening.
Dutch: So you are getting ready to go into the studio and record new music. Can you tell us where your recording and what musicians will be on new music tracks?
Adam: AS3 just started tracking at Monster Island Studios with Chad “Chadzilla” Johnson producing and engineering. He’s got some great mics and a nice big room for live recording. Damon Scott will be playing drums on five tracks and Chad will handle the rest. Spanky is playing bass on most of it but I’m looking to get Justin Francouer in for a couple as well. Hopefully Bill McKay will be playing keyboards on a few songs, which should be a pleasant deviation from our usual trio sound.
Dutch: So are you keeping up on your New Year’s Resolutions?
Adam: Ah… not really into resolutions. Just played a New Year’s show in Edwards, had a glass of wine afterwards and then started thinking about the gigs I had coming up for the first weekend of 2009. However I did lose 20 pounds last year, would be nice to keep that off 🙂
Dutch: Some frontrange music fans may know you from your work in the 2008 live remake of Radiohead’s OK Computer album at the Oriental Theatre. Can you tell our readers what your role in that show was?
Adam: That production was the brainchild of the aforementioned Damon Scott. He approached me to play guitar and pretty much said, “I know this isn’t exactly your style but I know you’ll put in the work to play this music right.” I really enjoyed:
A.) getting to use a lot of effects, which I normally don’t use B.) that none of what I would normally do is appropriate for Radiohead’s music so I couldn’t rely on any stock licks C.) being part of a larger multi-media event as opposed to just playing another “gig” D.) re-creating an album that was considered unplayable and e) meeting a whole new group of musicians. The bass player for this concert, Justin Francouer, has since done a bunch of Adam Stern Trio gigs. Jonny Greenwood of Raidohead is incredible and trying to adopt his style of playing was a great experience for me. The other major tribute concert I did was in 2005 where I got to be Slash for Polytoxic’s remake of Appetite For Destruction at Quixote’s True Blue. Kind of a 180 from Radiohead but it’s really fun to “be someone else” for a night. CMB: Do you and the band that put the Radiohead Tribute show together (which was an excellent show by the way) have any plans to perform that show again? Adam: There’s been some talk about doing it again in 2009. For that one performance in May 2008 we proably put in 40 hours of rehearsal as a band and I probably put in another 15-20 hours at home myself just learning the parts and being able to do the effects switching in real-time. “Subterranean Homesick Alien” is quite a right foot workout in terms of hitting the different pedals! We feel the performance went great and have a multi-angle DVD to prove that we indeed played the unplayable. It was an amazing experience to be a part of and perhaps it could become a yearly event like Polytoxic’s “Last Waltz”. The big question is who’s willing to put up a guarantee for us to attempt it again…
Dutch: You play out live across the front range of Colorado almost every week somewhere in Colorado it seems. Care to hazard a guess how many gigs you played in 2008?
Adam: I actually have kept track of every live appearance since October 2004, even if it’s just a sit-in for a song. 2008 saw me play live close to 170 times. The majority of the gigs were with Adam Stern Trio, Double Parked, Bill McKay Band and Mountain Jam (Allman Brothers cover band). David Booker plays at least 250 gigs a year so I wouldn’t describe myself as “busy” at all compared to him.
Dutch: One thing that I noticed about you is that you really have a solid network of well known professional musicians you perform with such as Leftover Salmon’s Bill Mckay, Denver studio drummer extraordinaire Damon Scott, and many others. Can you tell us how you have become such a highly networked musician?
Adam: My relationship with Bill McKay began on January 1st, 2005. Leftover Salmon had just finished a multi-night run at the Fox in Boulder and were pretty much on indefinite hiatus. Needless to say, Bill was looking for something new to do! We ended up meeting on that New Year’s Day and within a few months were making music. We currently have two bands together: Double Parked, which is a funk-rock-blues party band (that also features two members of Polytoxic) and then there’s Bill McKay Band, which is centered around Bill’s originals. I’m a huge fan of guitarists like Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks and Jimmy Herring and Bill has played with all these guys. He is truly the “guitarist’s keyboardist.” Playing with him is always a blast and he’s always got something new to teach me about music. Leftover Salmon returned from their hiatus in the summer of 2007 and are playing about 10 gigs a year and it’s actually been very beneficial for our partnership. For one, the rebirth of Salmon gives Bill a higher profile and as a result Bill McKay Band was able to play some major events last year like Telluride Bluegrass and Realm Festival. Through Bill I’ve also gotten to meet Vince Herman and Drew Emmitt and jam with them on a few occasions.
As for networking on the whole, I just look at it as part of playing music. Some cats just want to stay in their comfort zone where they can be surrounded by people telling them how awesome they are. My attitude is that there’s people who are way better than me and I’d like to go out and play with all of them! The Tempa and the Tantrums Jam was great for meeting new folks and it seems like there’s major players showing up for the Du4 jam at Ziggie’s Saloon. Yeah, there’s plenty of flakes spewing hyperbole about themselves but I’ve gotten a lot of great gigs through chance meetings at a venue.
Dutch: Following in the foot steps of great Colorado touring bands that came before you gig frequently in the Colorado ski towns during the winter. Perhaps you could tell us a little bit about the music scene in the ski towns and how you became to be part of it?
Adam: Like in most places, live music in ski towns is fading a little. The jamband scene that was the backbone of a lot of the venues is continuing to dissipate. Ten years ago it seems like the snowboarders coming out here were hippies who liked Widespread Panic and Phish. Now they’re wannabe gangstas who would rather hear a DJ play “Throw Some D’s On That Bitch.” I’ve been playing music in Colorado for five years now and have never played in Aspen (either). Steamboat Springs and Winter Park seem to be two locales that are still big into seeing live bands. I wouldn’t call it a “ski town” as it’s a little under the radar ,but I’ve probably had my best gigs outside the front range in Salida, believe it or not. Great promoter there named Steve Finch who really takes care of bands and they also host the FiBark Festival every June that is loaded with big-name artists.
Dutch: Well you’ve obviously worked hard and proven yourself to be an entertaining performer judging from the 12 months of advance 2009 bookings on your gig calendar. What advice do you have for young bands and musicians just starting out to be successful in booking gigs and keeping busy?
Adam: I get asked this a lot and it reminds me of that Different Strokes episode where Willis had a hoodlum friend who wanted to know about “straight A student tricks.” Said friend was disappointed when Willis told him it was really just about studying and doing homework. How do I get gigs… well, for one I’m versatile. I don’t “play everything,” but I can do country gigs. I’m not Joe Pass but I can read decent enough to do jazz gigs. I can rock out too. With Double Parked we have a group that can play weddings and entertain corporate clients. Adam Stern Trio has done great in “quiet” spaces and restaurants. Have a good relationship with a venue? Bring in another band to the same spot! I’ve had up to three different groups play the same venue in a single month. And then from there you have to treat it like any other job: show up on time, don’t get wasted, be pleasant to deal with, know the material.
For all the people that claim to be musicians only a very small percentage have their act together to where they can actually play a show. This is a common problem I have heard about with larger touring acts, they’ll find a great player but aren’t sure they can live with him on a tour bus so he doesn’t get the job. Short anecdote: A couple years ago I got to meet Derek Trucks and hung out with him for a bit at a Denver bar. Here was a guy who pretty much blew Eric Clapton off the stage at the Pepsi Center a few hours before and here he was being overwhelmingly gracious and humble and a gentleman to everyone that approached him. It was pretty clear right then: You don’t have to be an asshole to be successful in music. Compare that with guys who have 1/78th his talent giving off major attitude.*
In all fairness, I am not exactly someone who is just involved in a single band project and trying to “make it” with the band. I respect what my friends are trying to do but my thing is more creating a stready stream of work for myself and hopefully building a lengthy career playing guitar in a wide variety of envionments. For bands, it seems pretty simple: get in a van for three years, play across the country and realize that every show means something. Pretty ridiculous that in 2009 we still have insanely talented people sitting at home holding out for “label deals” and “radio support.” Go out and build your fanbase one person at a time. Guys have these stadium rock aspirations where they go from their basement to playing to 50,000 people but I don’t think there’s a culture in place anymore to produce another Led Zeppelin or Guns ‘N’ Roses. I’d think we’d be lucky to even have another Nickelback. If you want to be famous and get chicks, be on a reality TV show. If you want to play music for a living, you have to be “all-in” and be ready to tour 200 days a year and ideally run things like a profitable. grass-roots business. A lot of these dudes go for the brass ring and find themselves making a harsh transition from recording artist to sandwich artist.
Dutch: By some accounts, you have established a good career as a musician here in Colorado. Do you consider yourself successful? are you living the dream?
Adam: Considering I didn’t play my first live gig till one month after my 30th birthday, I feel I’ve made some pretty good progress. But there’s a long long LONG way to go. For example I thought I’d been playing some killer versions of “Orange Blossom Special” recently but then I watched an early 70s video on YouTube of Chet Atkins playing it and he pretty much crushed anything I have ever done with the song. He was even doing a whole tapping interlude and this is like six years before the first Van Halen album even came out! (continued below)
Adam Stern performing with Bill McKay Band
Dutch: Are there any music career dreams or goals you are still working towards?
Adam: After some time in Louisville and Boulder I moved to Denver in December 2004 and that’s where I began the quest of pursuing music full-time. I pretty much sit on the couch and practice all day (and give some lessons) and then play gigs and night. Love playing Colorado but it’d be nice to get back on tour again like I did in 2003-2004 with Henry Parsons Project. I got some tour offers last year but nothing particularly compelling. We’ve also talked some about taking Bill McKay Band out-of-state.
Career-wise, the short-term goal is to be out there with a national touring act doing 150-200 shows a year and in-between I can come home and play my little Adam Stern Trio shows for all 17 of my fans. I’m fine with being a small contributing factor to a larger musical endeavour, would love to be a supporting player for a songwriter like Ryan Adams. Artistically, I feel like I’m just scratching the surface of what the guitar can do and there’s enough I need to learn to keep me busy for another 40 or 50 years. To date I’ve pretty much been an electric ensemble player but I’ve been putting in time trying to build up a solo acoustic repertoire. Flamenco guitar has also captured my ear lately as well. The day I have nothing left to explore on guitar is the day I stop playing guitar.
Dutch: Any last words of advice to aspiring young musicians?
Adam: It’s about making an emotional connection with an audience. Even as someone like John Coltrane was pushing the boundaries of jazz he was still able to produce music that resonated with regular people who couldn’t distinguish between a tritone and a tricycle. Just because I got into Allan Holdsworth didn’t mean I had to stop listening to Neil Young. The Bitches Brew album by Miles Davis had a tremendous impact on me but then again so did Damaged by Black Flag. If you play bass and listen to Jaco Pastorius all day but never check out Donald “Duck” Dunn and James Jamerson you’re missing out on a lot of what the instrument has to offer. It’s amazing how many musicians can play Weather Report songs but can’t even pull off Mustang Sally to save their lives. There’s plenty of value in the “simple” stuff too. Just another reason to listen to country music 🙂
If you haven’t seen Adam Stern play guitar, you owe to yourself to go check him out. You can catch up with Adam Stern and his various musical projects by visiting the following link: