An Interview with Pat Metheny

by Mike Brannon, June 2000 for All About Jazz

One of the last times I saw the Pat Metheny Group perform was in a college auditorium in Texas, where a fluke blackout lasting more than an hour and a half, delayed and almost cancelled the sold out show. Although this happened in a town that is anything but a jazz mecca, the people stayed. It was a testament to how popular and accessible the Metheny group's eclectic blend of ethnic music with jazz has become.

An enigma who's rarely pictured without a guitar, Metheny seems to have a list of projects he's methodically checking off, of things a jazz musician's not 'supposed' to do: base his sound in the realm of digital processing - check. Play all the parts on the homage to Hendrix, "Stone Free" - check. Collaborate with David Bowie on a film score - double check. The list goes on and will continue to, I'm sure, without a noticeable mark on Metheny's career. He never turned his back on tradition, but chooses to use it in ever progressive ways while retaining complete integrity and originality. Times have changed - for the better. Pat Metheny may very well be the one who has changed them.

Mike Brannon: Do you remember what it was like, as a kid, when you first picked up the guitar, and why you were drawn to jazz on that instrument, as popular as rock was then?

Pat Metheny: I remember a Miles Davis record. I mean, I remember the exact moment.

Mike: How do you describe what you play now?

Pat: Yeah, its a hard one because I like to be so many different things, but if I have to put one word on it, jazz is the one, because that's the word that most people associate with the largest part of what I do.

Mike: Sometimes it seems that its just a marketing tool...

Pat: Well, the whole thing is that most artists would rather not be labeled with anything. You know, they, it seems they gotta push your record in one bin and another, you know. Jazz seems to be the one I have been stuck in. I think that's the appropriate name.

Mike: Will you be releasing any more of the standards you've recorded along the lines of "Question and Answer"?

Pat: Well, I did a record with (saxist) Gary Thomas. Its his record and its all standards.

Mike: In the same way that students can be the best teachers, are there interests that you have outside of music that have given you insight back into music and writing?

Pat: The whole relationship between sound and..if you can learn from differences, everything that you hear away from music whether its the sounds of the city or the sound of anything...if you can relate that to everything as a musical sound, it means that you're in a constant state of music. And again, that goes back to what I was saying before: I really believe that our musical skills are really more about what they're listening to. So, yeah, I mean for me, I keep my ears open all the time and try to do things in a musical way.

Mike: Do you think that's something that's developed or just natural to people that tend to be good musicians?

Pat: I think that's something that can definitely be developed, you know, considering talent and natural insight into music.

Mike: You've developed and integrated so many different styles within your playing, yet you still sound original and recognizable, even to non-musicians. How do you feel you've been able to do that, continue to be accessible, yet stay hip and focused?

Pat: Well, a lot of it, to tell you the truth, it just kind of comes out that way, as much as I'd love to take credit for this.

Mike: It's all natural...

Pat: Yeah, its just, I mean there were even times when I kind of wished that I could sound more like so and so and it would always sound like that way that I sounded and finally I woke up and said, 'hey, well maybe this is an advantage'. So, there's a certain amount of that, but I do have real strong taste about that and, you know, there's certain kinds of notes and chords and sounds that I naturally gravitate towards. So I think that when you hear those kinds of things on this record and that record and in this setting and then in that setting, people start to recognize that style or sound.

Mike: About "Song X", the recording with (saxist) Ornette Coleman: when it first appeared, it seemed, I think, to listeners to be kind of a departure from what they thought that you did - the more melodic material. Its interesting that you said that Coleman's music was actually your first experience with jazz, or one of them.

Pat: Ornette is very melodic, you know, and the kind of music that was played on "Song X", for me, is very traditional and familiar. You know, I guess for a lot of people ...I don't even guess, I know for a lot of people that that's foreign music for them, but, you know, I've been listening to that kind of playing since I was 12 years old, so its very familiar to me. And the kind of melodies that that kind of playing asks for is not that distantly related to the kind of melody playing that I do anyway. Its just that there's lots of levels of melody happening simultaneously, and that's something that's a little bit difficult for people to feel.

Mike: Yeah, that's kind of what I was getting at. Other levels aren't naturally heard by everyone, I guess. I remember when the band played four consecutive nights at Nightstage in Cambridge (Mass.) and you were playing pretty much all new material...

Pat: Yeah, that was...I remember that.

Mike: That was the only time that I was aware that you had played unrecorded material live. Maybe you do it more than I realize, but is it unusual for you to do that, to perform material before its recorded?

Pat: Well, I remember what we did that time because that's the only time we did that, which is, I prepared all the music for what was gonna be our new record then, which was "Letter from Home" and we just wanted to try it all out. You know there's certain things that you can learn about a song from playing it live that you just don't get any other way. And that was the case then and that was a real workshop for us and, you know, to sort of see how the stuff felt live and it was actually a very exciting gig. I really enjoyed that.

Mike: Yeah, it was really something else. I guess it was the Fall of '92 when you came through Texas; you were doing an unrecorded acoustic solo guitar piece. Actually, there were two, but there was one where you were using a detuned effect, more or less.

Pat: Yeah, I think I know the one you're talking about where I had the guitar tuned down a minor third.

Mike: Yeah, the strings sounded rubbery.

Pat: Yeah, exactly.

Mike: How much a part does improvisation play in the current interpretation and arrangement of your music and how much does it, or can the material change from show to show and from tour to studio?

Pat: Well, I mean I couldn't play the same solo twice in a row if I wanted to (laughs). That's a given.

Mike: But as far as arrangements of the song(s): do they change from night to night?

Pat: Well, not that much because...its very much like a big band, you know. Its like you have sections that are open and you have sections that are the arrangement and you know for me, I've always been interested in combining written and arranged material with improvisation. But obviously you have to write a bunch of notes, you know, you have to give people something to play or you're gonna have a large ensemble of people sittin' around.

Mike: Of course they're all great improvisers.

Pat: Sure, but this music we're doing now, I mean the "Secret Story" music, is really music that is designed to set me up as the soloist. I mean there's very little improvisation other than the bass and drums and the percussion, from anyone.

Mike: Has that always been true, that your music tended to set you up, to be kind of a showcase?

Pat: Well, its not even so much as a showcase. I mean, it does function I guess as a showcase, but its more, its a conceptual thing, I mean. And I think it varies a lot from song to song, but certainly with my regular group also we have done a thing where, as I said before, is very similar to a big band in that there's a lot of energy and time spent to develop a context for the improvisation to happen. And "Secret Story" is certainly the most elaborate context I've ever woven for myself. So, yeah, its really about what I do as the improviser, and its sort of like, even for me, each song has a very specific subject that you have to address so that its not like you can just go play anything, you know. Its like this song is about potatoes and you can make up any story you want, but it has to be about potatoes. And that's what its like for me, and actually if I'm doing a song and that has a very specific subject and suddenly I'm talking about tomatoes when I'm supposed to be talking about potatoes, that's like a mistake, the same way if I play a Bb (minor or flat 3rd) on a G major chord is a mistake. Its like you know there's a lot of different levels that improvisation can function on and there's the whole grammatical question of which notes sound god on which chords, but then there's the whole question of context that's much more subtle and much more difficult for people to perceive, but its kind of a subconscious kind of thing that you kind of build into each solo.

Mike: One the recording "Secret Story", it just has you name, as opposed to the Pat Metheny group.

Pat: Well, that's because its not a group record. I mean the Pat Metheny Group still exists; we have a live record coming out and the personnel for the group has been the same for quite a long time. This was a project that was something I really wanted to do that's separate from the group and the tour also. You know, I did get a couple of the guys in the group to do the tours and they were kind of favorite musicians of mine, but yeah, this isn't the group.

Mike: Steve Rodby co-produced the album. What do you feel that he brought to the project and why did he choose to co-produce?

Pat: Steve has really emerged as one of the greatest allies any musician can have in the recording studio. before he joined my band he worked in the studios of Chicago for about ten years in every possible situation and he really had a certain kind of studio maturity that's really very rare. A lot of people, when they get in the recording studio, they kind of...go crazy, you know. Either they get real nervous or they goof around and try things and just lose sight of what they're really trying to do while they're there. Steve is great at getting good performances and at organizing tracks and parts and in that sense he was very, very helpful in the production of that record. Because it was a very complex record with lots of different layers and combinations of synths and real people and sequencers and metronomes and all kinds of stuff and it was complex. And Steve, along with David Oakes, who's the other co-producer, was absolutely essential to the way that record came out.

Mike: Is he a musician as well?

Pat: David Oakes is our production manager and he does our live sound...and probably knows the way I play better than anybody on Earth. He's the only person I really trust to decide whether I'm playing good enough or not good enough or if I'm done or if I should solo some more or whatever. He is really the greatest at that.

Mike: How do you go about writing new music and how has this process changed as you've gained experience composing?

Pat: Writing is definitely the hardest part of the whole thing. Its very difficult for me, and what I have to do is spend a lot of hours sitting in front of the piano and trying to. What makes it hard is, for me now, is that I've kind of set a standard for myself that its not just a matter of writing a little tune anymore. If you're gonna write, its gotta be like a thing, you know? I gotta have a whole vibe and a whole conception and all that stuff, and that tends to take time. You know you just have to put the hours in and really be patient and sit there and hang in there with things and wait for things to happen.

Mike: Did you mostly learn it by doing it or learn it by being around great composers? I mean, you didn't really go to school for it, per se, did you?

Pat: I really learned by doing it, I mean, and the few times that I've been around other composers have been really, really, really great for me. I'm thinking of (film score composer) Jerry Goldsmith, who I got to spend a couple of weeks with on a film score a few years ago. And then I was around Steve Reich a lot when he wrote this piece for me for the "Electric Counterpoint", and I got to kind of pick his brain a lot and sort of just watch him in action. Those have been very influential for me.

Mike: What about Lyle (Mays)?

Pat: And Lyle also, yeah. Watching Lyle in action and just collaborating with him. We work in very, very different ways and we're a real good combination for that reason.

Mike: Yeah, it almost seems like one could get the sense that one of you picks up where the other left off or vice versa.

Pat: Well, yeah, in some ways that's true. I mean, most of what we've written together have been pieces of mine that he's helped finish and watching the process that he brings. He's very intellectual about music. I'm very intuitive, and its very stimulating for me to kind of just that brain thing kick that he's got and how he analyzes things I don't analyze at all, and yeah, that has been important.

Mike: Do you still rely on the (NED) Synclavier as much as when you first started to compose and perform with it?

Pat: Yeah, that's the environment that I work in as a musician and its good for me in a number of levels, not the least of which is organization. You know, I can be working on a piece and maybe if i get stuck I can save it and recall it four years later, and it comes back exactly the same way I left it. Its the same sound and everything. I mean its really one of the few total recall systems that exist.

Mike: Is that the only other type of software/hardware situation that you use?

Pat: I also use (Opcode) Vision and Performer, too, for different situations, because sequencers that exist in those formats really, at this point, surpass the Synclavier.

Mike: Do you think that it has tended to take you places that you wouldn't have otherwise explored?

Pat: Absolutely.

Mike: Where do you think that your music would have gone, say, without the advent of digital technology?

Pat: I can't even imagine. You know, I think about that every now and then.

Mike: Of course, that's not all that you do. Obviously you do acoustic music.

Pat: But still, it has been...probably the single, largest change in my life as a musician. Before 1978, I was just a guitar player, you know, and maybe I could play a little bit of piano, and I'd write things on piano and give them to the cats in the band. But since that time, you know, I really think of music as this big thing now, of which the guitar is a component and I really think a lot of that has to do with what the Synclavier kind of forced me into thinking about, you know, anything is possible. So, its been very stimulating.

Mike: If I could just throw a couple of names at you, maybe you could reflect on the experiences of playing with people like Michael Brecker and Ornette, the Heath brothers and Sonny Rollins - any of those?

Pat: All are real different. Mike Brecker for me is, you know, probably the most fluent harmonic player of my generation, you know. I mean, there's nobody I know who has the kind of amazing control of harmony that this guy has.

Mike: And still found his own voice.

Pat: Yeah, and he's just got such incredible time! He really knows how to play with a drummer, and that's a very rare quality. Sonny Rollins, did you say that?

Mike: Yeah, Sonny.

Pat: One of the greatest musicians, you know, of all time. And the time I spent playing in his band was one of the most incredible periods of my life.

Mike: How long was that?

Pat: About four months. I was taking a break from my regular band and played in his band for awhile. It was great.

Mike: How about the Heath brothers?

Pat: The Heath brothers were just a one time thing but it was just so much fun because they're you know, just a bunch of characters. We did that one record and, yeah, it was a blast.

Mike: And Ornette?

Pat: God, I don't even know where to start there. I mean, I'm still recovering five years later from that.

Mike: You think you'll work together again?

Pat: Yeah. Yeah, we talk about it all the time.

Mike: Could you talk awhile about Jaco?

Pat: Well, he was my best friend for fifteen years and a musician who's music and career and everything most closely paralleled mine. I mean, we were like brothers, you know, and you know I really miss him. I miss him a lot, a lot and as many people as there are that try to play like him, nobody has ever gotten in the parking lot to the ball park and no one ever will. And you know, for me, when I hear people playing fretless bass trying to imitate that, there's something I find a bit offensive about that. You know, it has become a part of the vocabulary and everything but, its the same way I feel when I hear guitar players playing in octaves, kind of like Wes Montgomery. Its sort of like, yeah, we all dig that. I mean, that was greatest, but that was one persons thing, and to me, its a matter of respect. And what really gets me is when I hear guys playing like that and they don't even mention Jaco. But I remember it so clearly, the first time I heard Jaco, which was before he was Jaco: J-a-c-o, he was J-o-c-k-o, Jocko, and you know it was something didn't exist one minute and then it did the next minute. You know, it was like no one had even thought of the bass in those terms before and he really invented the instrument. He invented fretless bass. I mean, there's so many dimensions that his music functioned on, from the lyrical, pretty thing to the what is completely unprecedented-on-any-instrument, rhythmic thing that he had happening when he would play those sixteenth notes. I've never heard anybody play with that kind of rhythmic confidence and that's something that only comes along once in a generation.

Mike: Do you feel that spirituality plays a large part in your musical development and ability to perform and do you have specific spiritual beliefs at all?

Pat: I don't have specific spiritual beliefs other than that I know I believe in music itself and, to me, within that world alone is an infinite world of itself and that's the world that I, kind of, choose to live in. You know, music is a constant source of fascination and mystery for mean its something that I always approach with a lot of respect and humility because I see belief in music as something that comes from a place outside of our regular consciousness. You know, when I read about religion and these people that are very religious, it seems in a lot of ways, more about ego to me. More about, like, people trying to make sure they get into Heaven, or something or that they're cool when they die. There's a lot of, like, well, we know this, but, you don't know that, kind of thing. The thing about music that I like is that it is very inviting to everybody and it sort of, it really functions as a mirror for people and I think that religion as its best can do that, too. So, I think they're very similar.

Mike: About the tour with Herbie (Hancock): is there any material from that or is there anything upcoming?

Pat: Yeah, there's a really, really good video laser disc of that tour that I think is gonna get released here in the states and we are planning sometime, maybe in '95, to do it again. We're all so busy.

Mike: I guess I've always wanted to ask this: what's the deal with the toothbrush?

Pat: When I was about sixteen years old, the little pin at the bottom of the guitar that holds the strap on, broke off, and I had to finish the gig, so I took the strap and wrapped it around the tailpiece and I had to have something to stick in the hole so it would stay on the guitar, and I had a toothbrush there and its been there ever since.

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