German-born guitarist Ottmar Liebert took the world by storm with his 1990 Higher Octave debut Nouveau Flamenco, wherein the fleet-fingered string-picker wove Spanish and Arabic melodies through exotic rhythms and catchy cadences with a practiced pop panache.
Since then, Liebert’s released over two dozen albums (including a couple of concert recordings and a holiday disc) and toured the globe extensively, always returning to create more enchanting music at his studio ranch in New Mexico. Several of his efforts are certified gold and platinum, and at least six (Borrasca, Hours Between Night + Day, Opium, One Guitar, etc.) won Grammy nominations for Best New Age Album. Liebert’s appeared on albums by Kenny Loggins, Diana Ross and Celine Dion—and opened shows for Carlos Santana.
Not bad for a former Boston bike messenger.
Liebert will perform some of his best-known songs with members of his Luna Negra (“Black Moon”) band at the Kent Stage on May 31. But his most recent project, Slow, found him dialing back the tempos for a more relaxing listen. In an age of ubiquitous computer screens, cellphones, and other electronic white noise, Slow is a pulse-soothing aural oasis tailor-made for long drives, meditations, yoga mats, bubble baths, and bedrooms.
We spoke with Liebert by phone this week to discuss the disc…and his uncanny ability to translate music from other cultures (and time periods) on his custom guitars.
AXS: It’s a pleasure to speak with you about your new album, Slow—and last year’s release, Waiting n Swan. What can you tell us about making Slow? Apparently it’s a quieter effort designed to offset all the hustle ‘n’ bustle of modern life.
OL: Yeah. I did it right on the heels of Waiting n Swan, which was a lot more groovy. I always found the flamencos called tangos [not to be confused with Argentine tangos] felt a lot like reggae to me. So I dove into that and discovered that the precursor of that rhythm was brought to Spain by sailors from the Caribbean. I love that image because…this is a few hundred years ago, before You Tube. So it wasn’t just some sailor making a video of a rhythm. It was one guy stamping and clapping and singing, and another guy going, “Hey! That’s cool!” Then he does it, and he passes it down until it makes its way to Andalusia, where people playing flamenco turned it into tangos. But even hundreds of years later it still fits. There are more accents in tangos, but there’s that absence of that accent on the “one.” Just like in reggae. All these rhythms are related; that’s what the Waiting project was about.
AXS: It has a lot of choice Bob Marley covers, along with your originals. Good stuff!
OL: “Waiting in Vain” is definitely an audience favorite. It’s amazing how many people can sing along! It’s great. But after that record was done, I wanted to do something different. And as you said, I was influenced by how we all deal with this multitasking that everybody seems to do. These universities have studied how we’re not actually accomplishing anything at all! So I wanted to do something slower, and I read—and it seems completely logical—that listening to slower music will bring down your heartbeat. So I wanted to experiment with that. As soon as I The only thing I decided palette-wise, color-wise, was to play everything with just one guitar. After a while I started getting creative, and I’d do stuff like playing it back at half-speed so it would sound like a bass. Or I’d reverse the sound so the attack would come at the end. Or it’d sound like a string quartet or something like that.
AXS: Those are the little volume swells I’m hearing in between the tracks, the beginnings and ends?
OL: Yeah! That’s just basically a guitar chord or note that gets reversed, so the attack is at the end. Or I’ll cut the attack off, so what you get is a soft sound. It was so much fun. It reminded me of the ‘80s, when I was in a loft in Boston and all I had was a little four-track cassette recorder. You’d experiment and try things. That was the limitation I set for myself here, so that’s what I did. One of my favorite songs on the album is “Elegy,” which I recorded in the week following Prince’s death.
AXS: Yeah, it’s been a year now.
OL: Exactly. A year and a couple weeks, I think. I thought the song turned out well. It’s got a 5/4 rhythm going against a 4/4 rhythm, which seemed to get across both the energy and the sadness of the whole thing. It was really fun to do something different. But since the album is so slow, we only do one song from it—“Butterfly Dream”—which is fun to play as a trio. The rest of the show is songs from the other 26 years’ worth of material.
AXS: You mentioned the trio format. Does this mean you’ll have two other players with you on the tour? Are they part of your Luna Negra band?
OL: Well, Luna Negra has always been whatever…just whatever the band has become for the time. It’s been as small as a trio and as large as a nine-piece. Last year it was a quartet. Jon Gagan is on bass. He’s amazing, and we’ve worked together for the last twenty-six years. He’s a world-class bass player. This is going to be our fifth year with Chris Steele, and amazing drummer and percussionist. He’s one of those people who can do both, sometimes at the same time. That fits in perfectly with us!
AXS: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your Nouveau Flamenco debut, which introduced me and so many others to your music. I understand the album started out as a sort of soundtrack to an art show?
OL: Ah, well, Frank Howell—who was a Native American—he was a successful painter. He had two galleries, in Santa Fe and San Diego. He was constantly painting, and he had this thing where the Indian Market in Santa Fe is in August, and he’d done this thing for several years where he’d hire a musician to make an album. In 1989 he heard a cassette I’d produced earlier that year with some ideas. The finished recordings of “Barcelona Nights” and “Barcelona Nights” were on there. He invited me over and said, “I want you to do a CD, and I’ll pay for the studio time and other musicians. I won’t pay you, but we’ll make 1,000 CDs, and I’ll give you the master.” So we shook hands on that. No attorneys, no paper. A thousand of those were sold, and the people working for him sent a CD to a radio station in Los Angeles. Somebody there knew someone in San Francisco, so they got it as well. A few weeks later I had a message on my answering machine that said, “We had to track you down! Please call and tell us who you are!” [Laughs] So I called, and I ended up dealing with someone other than Higher Octave. At the first meeting they said I’d have to change my name and move to Los Angeles. I said that would be a deal-breaker; I’m not changing my name or moving. That was one of those typical moments in one’s life. But Higher Octave basically remastered it and changed the track sequence, and it came out in April 1990.
AXS: You’re an experienced world traveler, and you’re noted for absorbing the culture wherever you go. In particular, you pay attention to musical traditions. How do you draw on those influences and distil them into your music?
OL: It’s osmosis. If you go somewhere and pay attention…you find that humans are so much alike, that it’s ridiculous that we get into so many fights and arguments. Whether it’s food or music, there are just common elements there…actually, this is one of the things that I think is really interesting about the internet, because different continents had different approaches to music. Learning how everything comes together. Like California cuisine. There are so many elements that are French or Italian or Asian that became adapted. It’s the same with flamenco. You have the Arabic parts, the Spanish folklore parts, the Caribbean parts.
AXS: That’s how I am with food for my kids. I tell them they should try other things from time to time. I suppose it’s like that with traveling and experiencing other cultures. You shouldn’t insulate yourself, although Americans tend to do just that.
OL: Maybe that’s the difference between a tourist and a traveler. I just physically couldn’t go to Rome and have a McDonald’s burger. Whereas a tourist will go, “Oh great! There’s a Starbucks and a McDonald’s! I’m saved!” [Laughs] I try to go someplace—even if my Italian sucks—and I’ll look at something and point: “Can I have that?” If you don’t do that, you’re just missing out. It’s the same with music. I make it a point for myself to listen to songs I know I’ll like, and then go pick something completely different. It’s well-known that humanity grows fastest when we’re adopting technologies from other cultures. That’s what the Romans did. The Persians and Greeks did, too—and certainly the Americas. It’s something we shouldn’t lose sight of!