Plenty of players and listeners have talked about music as a kind of interior cinema, but for 26-year-old guitarist and composer Alex Sill this extraordinary symbiosis between music and the mind has led to answers in his new debut album, Experiences: Real and Imaginary.
As a masterful panoramic nine-track collection that speaks to psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s take on behavior patterns, Sill’s signature meld of influences— Pat Metheny, Kurt Rosenwinkel and the late Allan Holdsworth, to whom the album is dedicated— undoubtedly leaves fans with indelible memories. As did a recent surprise performance with Lady Gaga at an LA club.
With such an intriguing story, BMI wanted more info on both the album and the Gaga gig, so we asked Sills about his journey. These are his answers, in his own words:
You’ve said you’re inspired by psychoacoustics and the work of psychoanalyst Carl Jung on the subject of archetypes. Can you explain what they both are and how and why they interest you musically?
Ever since I was very young, I’ve noticed that the music that inspires me always seems to elicit internal storytelling and streams of images that accompanies that same music. In high school, I began the research process into why this is the case, and came across the studies of things such as psychoacoustics, and the importance of scores in the movie going experience. It wasn’t until my college years at Cal Arts, however, that I came across the work of Carl Jung, and his theories put into words what my then teenage brain could not.
Jung posited that we all inherit behavior patterns he called “archetypes” which are primordial and unconscious fixtures in the mind. These archetypes are not images in themselves, but make themselves known as such - they are the life force of the human race’s propensity to tell stories and relate one’s own life to that of myth. I began pondering whether archetypes held the key to discovering why music and image were inextricably linked for me. It turns out that Jung did, in fact, recognize music’s ability to act as a catalyst for deep psychological, or archetypal material. It’s all a part of this primal soup we all inherit.
I believe the symbiosis between music, image and story is an inclination we all share, and through Jung’s work, I’ve been able to realize why the phenomenon is so powerful. It is a collective power greater than all of us and that we all tap into, although we may not have been paying attention to it all the time. When we get that “goose bumps” feeling while listening to powerful music, for example, or powerful memories are brought to the surface, we are tapping into a deep well of collective and unconscious psychological material that connects to the deepest parts of ourselves, and to our ancestors.
Music in film is a prime example of all of this at play. There are exceptions, but it is difficult to ponder, for example, the great myths of Star Wars or Harry Potter without the brilliance of John Williams’ music. In fact, I’ve arranged some of his music for solo guitar, and have even arranged a version of “Hedwig’s Theme” for jazz quintet. I’m excited to share this performance soon!
Your debut album, Experiences: Real and Imaginary, reflects this interest. How do you capture such ethereal concepts musically? Is it more stream of conscious or deliberate composing?
Good question. It’s hard to answer, because so much of the process is indeed unconscious. It’s kind of a chicken or the egg sort of question. I would say that in general, I strive to compose music that inspires rich imagery within myself and within others. Sometimes, like in the case of a few pieces on my album, I try and compose with a specific image or character in mind. “The Ballad of James Dean,” is one such piece. The great Dave Grusin played piano on this track, and his cinematic sensibilities and sensitive touch at the piano were perfect for the album. Dave is also featured on four of the record’s other selections.
Additionally, there’s a track on my album entitled “To a Theater Near You.” With it, I set out to compose a long form piece that described in music the sort of dramatic, narrative arc a film contains, and elicited the same types of feelings I get when listening to a great film score.
Jazz is certainly the right genre for this expression, but what made you choose to play jazz over other genres when you were studying guitar?
Even before I got into playing “straight ahead jazz,” my love for improvisation was present. I also grew up around a lot of great music. Deeply ingrained in me are the memories of listening to Steely Dan as a young boy (I probably got exposed to this stuff in the womb!), along with the music of the Pat Metheny Group, John Coltrane and the like.
One of the reasons I think jazz, and many types of music in general are so special, is because they involve a process that is so integrative. Many aspects of the human dialectic are at play - the instinct/unconscious, the intellect, the body, as well as the emotions and soul. In this way, I see music as a form of alchemy.
Bill Schnee, who mixed Steely Dan’s Aja, and won a GRAMMY for it, mixed and engineered your project. How does the role of the engineer play into the success of a jazz album and how does that role differ from that of a producer?
Bill’s an incredible person and talent. His connection with my family goes back quite a few years, and I’m very grateful he was a part of this project. Aja is arguably my all-time favorite album, so when I started thinking about the team I was going to build in order to produce this record, Bill’s name was right at the top of the list. To answer your question, I think the engineer can play just as an important a role as any given musician on the album. When you’re recording or performing music, let alone producing your own record in the midst of that, it’s ideal that one surrounds themselves with a team of people they can trust. I knew, because of Bill’s extensive experience, that I could trust him to get the best sound possible whilst both recording and mixing. I could especially trust him for useful and honest feedback while recording. When someone like Bill gives you honest feedback, they’re not just comparing that given process and music to any given album project they were well paid to record. They’re comparing it to some of the highest regarded music of the last 50 years that they’ve had a part in creating and or mixing. In that manner, Bill did act as a sort of producer.
On a related note, Bill’s son Oliver Schnee is a good friend of mine. He’s also a very talented composer, and helped me track some of the overdubs for this record.
Tell us a bit about Lady Gaga’s unexpected performance with you and your band at the Black Rabbit Rose in Hollywood. Was it a surprise to you as well?
Playing with Gaga was a blast, and it was as off the cuff as you can get. My buddy Tyler Hammond, an up and coming young drummer, has a jazz night every Thursday at a very cool spot called Black Rabbit Rose in Hollywood. A couple years ago he chose myself and a couple other close friends, Jacob Scesney and Danny Connell, to be a part of the band. Fast-forward two years, the jazz night is still very successful and we get word one Thursday (a few hours before the gig) that Lady Gaga might be stopping by to sit in. We didn’t know for sure until an hour before we played that she was actually going to be there, and we also didn’t know what tunes we were going to play with her.
You’ve probably played the songs she sang, “Call Me Irresponsible” and “Fly Me to The Moon,” many times, yet the versions you performed with her were as fresh and unique as any new song. How did you accomplish this from a musical perspective, and what, if anything, felt different?
Those tunes are definitely staples in the jazz repertoire, but Gaga is a consummate performer and made them engaging by putting her own spin on them, even in the moment we were in. During our set break, and before Gaga performed, the band brought me outside to the club’s patio to speak with her. I had my guitar with me, and before I could even shake her hand, I was listening to live recordings of both of the songs in question via a phone speaker she was holding up to my ear. She wanted me to hear the rubato style intros she did for both of the tunes, and the band needed me to verify the keys of each song, as well as the chord changes for their respective intros. Within a couple minutes, we had to get back on stage. I was slightly nervous, not necessarily because of the fact we were performing with her, but because I wanted to make sure we supported her in the best way possible. I knew that every person in the club was going to have their phones out recording the moment, and whether we as a band sounded good or not supporting one of music’s biggest stars wouldn’t change the fact that it would likely be all over the internet. Sure enough, videos of the performance got posted everywhere, including Rolling Stone and numerous L.A. news outlets. I’m glad to say that the performance went over well! Gaga is the real deal - a great singer, but also a great communicator on stage. I’ve played those tunes before, but never in a high-pressure situation like that, let alone with the lush, rubato intros Gaga sang. We were on our toes for sure.
What’s next for you?
Besides the release of the album, I’m preparing to go on tour with Simon Phillips as a new member of his band Protocol. We’ve got some warm up shows in Los Angeles at a spot called Catalina Jazz Club in late May before we head to Japan in early June for a two-week tour. After that, we’re slated to tour the states for several weeks during the summer. Lots of other world tour dates are to be announced soon, and I’m very honored to be playing guitar with such an amazing and storied band. Simon is a legend, has played with everyone from Jeff Beck to Toto, and in addition to being an incredibly musical drummer, composes awesome music as well. Otmaro Ruiz, who played several tracks on my album, will be playing keys, and my previously mentioned, dear friend Jacob Scesney, who was also on my album, will be filling the saxophone chair. Ernest Tibbs, who I played with during the official Allan Holdsworth Memorial Concert, will be playing bass. This tour celebrates the 30th anniversary of Protocol, and I’m very excited to be getting the opportunity with this incredibly talented group of musicians.
What’s special about your relationship with BMI?
I want to thank Charlie Feldman and the crew at BMI for their interest and their support of the music. My family’s roots in the music publishing, record, and music business in general go way back on both sides of my family, and my late grandfather Lester’s legacy in particular has made many of the trans-generational affiliations with PROs like BMI all the more special as I move forward in my career.