An Interview with Firefall’s Jock Bartley – Pt.II
What do you consider the high point of your career so far, and what would you still like to achieve in the years to come? The high point with Firefall was touring with Fleetwood Mac on the Rumors tour. Wow! Three highest personally I think would be, first the Eric Clapton story with him watching me play a one-take solo on ‘Mexico’ in the studio in the winter of 1975. Second was when I was in Gram’s band and Neil Young & Linda Ronstadt came to sit-in with us in Houston. We all went back to their hotel, stayed up all night partying and singing country tunes. It was the first time Emmy Lou Harris and Linda ever met and put their voices together! What a night. Third was probably at my first Suicide Prevention benefit in ’98 in Nashville. Michael McDonald told me Steve Winwood was in the audience at the Bluebird and wanted to know if I would I mind him coming up to sing? Would I mind?! So I got to play Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home‘ and then one of my favorite rock songs of all time, “Gimme Some Lovin” with Steve beltin’ it out and Michael McDonald and I sharing a mic on the backups. Oh, my god, that was one of the most joyous feelings I’ve ever had on stage!
The music industry itself has radically changed since you entered the scene. Do you find that guitar styles and techniques have changed as much, or is it all just a matter of different production and equipment?
From a lead guitar standpoint, one of the things that has really changed from the 70’s to now, forty years worth, and one of the reasons that people still love to hear Firefall onstage, is that we still jam. We have dueling lead guitar and sax or flute stuff. When David plays his flute solo on Strange Way, or Steve and I trade licks spontaneously on songs, that’s not really happening in many bands now. And yeah, there’s a few jam bands like Phish that’ll play a song for thirty minutes and groove, but I’m not really talking about that. I’m talking about in the framework of what people think of rock bands as a genre – guitar solos as improvisation are kind of few and far between. And that’s a shame, because as a 60’s kid, I think about Clapton and Hendrix and Pete Townshend and Alvin Lee from Ten Years After, Dickey Betts and Duane Allman just blowin’ riffs off one another, and then the 80’s came around with Eddie Van Halen, and it’s like, y’know, lead guitar is really the ultimate part of what rock and roll is – it’s built on and around guitars. Then it moved through and out of the 80’s into synth stuff and production work and got away from just good musicians really playing, much less improvising. We’re missing something now without that, because with real improvisation, when you’re doing it or hearing it, you don’t know what’s coming next. Maybe this sounds odd today, but I have to say that closest I’ve ever been to God, or having this really spiritual thing where you’re really just feeling the cosmos and it’s coming through you and you are just an instrument, your fingers become the mouthpiece for that almost divine thing, is when you’re really on onstage and you’re soloing. But to get to that place as an improvisor, you have to spend years and decades honing your craft and practicing and busting ass and getting good.
But, once you’re to that point and your ammo belt is filled with all these things that you can pull out and do, a lot of young players think that’s what soloing is – just pulling out all your tricks. But that’s just the surface of it. When you get hired to play on somebody’s song, you are getting paid to play what the song calls for. So what you want to play, or what your ego tells you or whatever, it’s not about that at all. You have to give over all this stuff that you know to the song, to make it better, not to make yourself the focus. That’s not just guitar players either, but goes for keyboard players and drummers and a lot of especially young players haven’t gotten yet. It’s the song.
I think that’s one thing that I do really well, is I play off vocalists. When I hear a vocal passage, I can play off of that and it becomes this conversation in music that makes both parts better, more complete. But again, that happens most times in improvisation – the first time at least – and you didn’t know how that conversation was going to go until you played it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you have all this training and technique and you’re also really lucky, you can transcend all that to the point where you’re playing, really playing every moment. It’s all becomes right now. And that is such a holy place, it’s almost a religious experience.
Related to the earlier question, while there are many great studio players today, are there any guitarists whose live playing really impresses you? Mostly older dudes like Steve Morse, Larry Carlton, of course Santana and Clapton. But again, solo guitar has receded to a large degree in today’s pop & rock, and that’s maybe why melody has suffered a little in songwriting. Like rap, which is the antithesis of melody and where songs don’t have the same kind of staying power, because what really speaks to people musically are melodies. When I speak with guitarists who are trying to become better soloists, I tell them that some of the same rules that apply to being a great writer also apply to soloing – like don’t have every sentence you write be the same length. By the same token, you can’t make every lick, every sentence “see Spot run;” you have to vary it up. Again, it’s a matter of knowing your craft, being a great player but then being able to improvise within the demands of song. I guess a newer group who really does this well with their guitars live would be like a Dave Matthews Band.
Like most artists, you likely get many requests to help with benefits and charity work, and you and Firefall have responded to several What types of support do you think musicians and artists can best offer such causes? Are there specific ones with which you work? I am big on suicide prevention aimed at young people; anything to do with kids really. I’m a sucker for a good cause, and in most cases I will bring a new song to the table, like I did with “Another Fire’s Burning” trying to raise money for the victims of the terrible recent Colorado wildfires. It sounds trite, but kids really are the future for all of us, and sadly, there’s a lot of really shitty parents out there, which is rough because kids are fragile and so need encouragement, even if it’s only one person. I’ve been in counseling a long time, and I’ve written songs about child abuse and about domestic violence, like “No Means No.” What really hit me was one called “Walk More Softly,” though. That one was interesting because I really pay attention to what my right brain is offering, and those bubbles that come up from the subconscious and go, ‘poof!’ Sometimes, those become a title or idea for a song or in my case, a painting, as I do visual art as well. Having been through abuse myself, I became aware that a lot of the music and art I’d been creating was giving voice to what I’d been feeling about all that, and it became the way that I healed myself. And a lot of artists and musicians and songwriters are kind of similarly wounded people.
So, I was actually just doing laundry and watching a basketball game, thinking about this Ken Burns thing I had watched a day earlier, the documentary on the National Parks and they were talking about Yosemite and Teddy Roosevelt and that kind of stuff and his quote, “Walk softly and carry a big stick” just caught in my head. Well, it bubbled back out as “Walk More Softly” which is substantially different, and it was like hearing some five thousand year old Zen Buddhist principle or hearing the Golden Rule for the first time revealed just to you. It was an epiphany because what it meant to me was being aware of yourself, your environment, and your effect on that environment, including all the other people in it. If you are a bull in a china shop with your kids, or the people at work, or whatever, just crashing through people’s lives, you usually don’t have a clue about what it’s like to have to receive that kind of aggression. So, Walk More Softly as a philosophy is about being humble, being aware and compassionate and knowing how the way that you live your life affects all other the other lives around you. And when that sinks in, we treat one another better, treat them with more respect and dignity. So within two or three seconds of the idea occurring, I saw how it touched on the environment and how we live our lives on this planet and a whole bunch of related issues. I knew I had to write it as a song, because it was almost a kind of religious experience for me. It’s funny, because we talked about this a little already, but when I finally wrote it after letting it sit in my heart and head for a while, I had just been listening to Spirit’s Nature’s Way, and that partly catalyzed what became the song Walk More Softly. Well, this all happened close to the time of Firefall’s reunion in 2008, and it became this great band collaboration on the arrangement of the tune, which is something we always did really well. But a few months after the recording and the shows, people started telling me, “Hey you should sell this song to Nike or Exxon or something, it’ll be perfect. You could make a lot of money off this and blah, blah, blah.” So we tried a few things with it, but some kids and teacher had heard the song and asked if I’d come to their school and play Walk More Softly and talk to them about it. While I’m there in this third grade classroom, the teacher asks if I’d read the kids this story on bullying and I love doing that, watching their faces as they listen to you and turn the pages; kids are the best. Well, that bullying aspect then became a part of the Walk More Softly idea too. Then it became really clear that something this important had to be shared differently, and it grew into an actual program that I started taking into the schools, like with help I received from the Douglass County (Colorado) Sheriff’s Department and a bunch of local schools. And I also realized that if this really touches and makes a difference for two classrooms or fifteen kids or whatever, then that song is a huge hit – just not the way most people would have thought.
We’ve not heard a solo release from you sine 2007’s Blindside. Any plans to head back into the studio solo? Not at this time. I’m a band guy, and feel most comfortable when there’s other great vocalists in the band. Maybe one more future solo record some day, but I’m concentrating on a new Firefall record now with Mark (Andes) back.
Mark Saxon from the SGA said after Blindside was released that CSN should consider covering “Veronica So Fair.” Are there any cover recordings of songs you or Rick and Larry have written that you found particularly noteworthy?
There was a country band a few years ago that did a pretty cool version of Cinderella, but it wasn’t a hit. Really, though, I’m astonished that some country band hasn’t recut either Just Remember I Love You or You Are the Woman. It would be perfect. I agree with Mark that Veronica, which is one of the best songs I’ve ever written, would be great for CSN. Through Fred Walecki at Westwood Music, I got Graham Nash the tune, but y’know they like doing their own tunes so it would have to be something pretty extraordinary for them to want to do somebody else’s song unless of course you gave them all the publishing or something. It’s a great tune though, and now that David Muse and Mark Andes and I are back in the band gearing up for a new record, three of the original members, which I haven’t had in forever really, Veronica will probably be the one tune off Blindside that we end up cutting on the new Firefall album.
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