Hermit in the Spotlight
Photo by Ray Klein
His head is of normal size. So there must be more heads somewhere. Behind a panel here in his cluttered-up studio, maybe gotta be at least six skulls-w/brains, maybe 10, that he can screw on when he needs em. One so he can function as a parent, moneymaker and social being like the rest of us. And one for each of his gargantuan musical and cultural specialty banks. Because theres no way no way that it all fits in one head.
Electric bass is mostly what Steuart Liebig plays. He requires more than four strings, though, and he rarely tunes to E. Hes writing a book about bass technique. He composes within (and across) modes of classical, jazz, blues and "experimental." He plays in groups with Gregg Bendian, Henry Kaiser, Vinny Golia, G.E. Stinson and a legion more. Hes also usually got at least three of his own ensembles going. Thats enough about his credits for now; newsprint is finite.
Switch scenes to late July at Club Tropical, where Liebigs got a gig with his most populist group, the blues-jazz rave-up called the Mentones (named after the Culver City street where he lives). He walks onstage to test the sound, carrying under his arm a bass the size of a surfboard. Hair hanging in his closed eyes, he revs through the truck-engine riff of Deep Purples "Burn" by way of warm-up.
And the burning dont stop there, buddy. The Mentones sound like nobody else, but to cop a hint, think of a supercharged Magic Band at its most direct. At the frontline is slouchy Bill Barrett on chromatic harmonica and tall, skinny Tony Atherton on alto sax; turn your back and you might not distinguish between them as they carve out rugged unisons or stagger complementary lead lines. Liebig gazes feetward, right elbow up in funk-plucking position, while digging into a pushy groove with the wizardly skinsman Joseph Berardi, whos banging on a cymbal that sounds like a metal trash lid. Heres Liebig, sliding around the upper bass neck for some raga blues; theres Atherton, pulling off his mouthpiece to cup it and blow it like a harp; stand back as Barrett slurs slowly between harmonica tones, blasts hair-raising clusters of dissonance, and nails a high note that screams like a stabbed eagle.
The Mentones fly Hendrix Airlines to Egypt and Chicago, torquing the energy high, and the club patrons are falling off their chairs with glee like, what is this? Afterward, a bass player in the audience approaches Liebig and grills him on how the hell he got a certain deadened "acoustic" sound; Liebig concisely explains the proper positioning of fingers and palm.
On the same musical planet, different conceptual continent, venture into a September tripfest at the same venue with Lane Ends Merge Left, Liebigs intense "fusion" band. This gang is jammier, with more extremes of loud and quiet, a climate suitable to drummer Alex Cline, who tickles the gentlest of hyper-resonances and also grapples fiercely with a collective groove that builds tremendous momentum no matter which directions everybody seems to be pulling. Jeff Gauthier paints infinite shadings of tone and emotion on violin, then plunges into an elastic near-unison with the hulking New Zealand reedman Andrew Pask its cohesive enough to have been scored, but the spontaneity and the thrill factor tell you nope. Liebig, meanwhile, gnarls so hard and fast, you cant believe hes not spinning out of the rhythm. Its an edge dance, and attendees are gaping.
Yet another angle: Liebig mustve screwed on one of his optional crania for an October performance at the Eagle Rock Community Cultural Center, where he leads his ethereal chamber group, Minim. Liebig sets the machine in motion by striking his bass with a mallet; Gauthier is on board with his sad-Gypsy thing; Ellen Burr is the voice of clarity on flute and piccolo; Jeanette Kangas switches between drums and vibraphone, at times stroking the latter with some kind of split sticks for a lightweight tumbleweed effect. Everybody changes partners in a shifting series of highly original tone poems and improvisations that distantly recall 20th-century Austrian composers. Intellectual, yet warm.
The twisted, gushing ambition of his Pomegranate album. The waves of electronic mutation he brings to Splinter Group. The textural/harmonic Bach-to-Webern condensation of his solo-bass work. Stigtette, his quartet with three woodwinds. Back 20 years to his stint with the funky-spacy pop group Bloc . . . Yeah, we already acknowledged the limitations of newsprint.
So lets talk about Rome. Obsessed with the unburied conflicts that continue to shape our modern world, Steuart (pronounced "Stuart") Liebig points out the Balkans as an example of unresolved ancient competition Roman vs. "barbarian," Catholic vs. Eastern Orthodox, Christian vs. Muslim. His studio wall is plastered with pictures of beautiful architectural remnants that embody, for example, Roman power remanifested in Christian cathedrals.
The broad scope of history obviously reflects in Liebigs music; this is a guy who listens to both Schubert and Funkadelic, and who has written a composition based on impressions of different rooms in a favorite European edifice. He also uses the ancient science of numerology to get his juices flowing.
"Its like composition games," says Liebig. "The fun of it is making little puzzles out of it." He says "Mosaic," the main piece on Minims Quicksilver, is in 23 parts "the number of chromosomes of man. Okay, I admit Im nuts."
From the other end of the binoculars (rotate another head onto the neck here), he possesses the most precise and nuanced technique of any bassist youre likely to hear/see. Watch him sometime, rocking in place, half smiling, his right hand squeezing individual strings just so, on a particular spot nearer to or farther from the basss bridge, his left applying an easy vibrato or tremolo (he plays fretless); hes probably also processing the results through a squadron of foot pedals. Its all stuff he wants to put in his book.
"Im trying to emancipate the electric bass from just being the guy standing in the back playing the note, and everybody else jamming," he says. "I want people to approach the instrument from a more artistic point of view."
Liebig began to see music differently as a teenager at a progressive school. "I learned about Ornette Coleman, Harry Partch my second theory teacher was Dean Drummond, who was a Harry Partch disciple." With models like that, restrictions were out the window; you could conceive your own methods, invent your own instruments. Not that hes a snob about it. He likes Korns guitar orchestration, thinks Metallicas Master of Puppets was "fucking brilliant." Liebig may have fewer limitations than most, but everyones got em he realizes that its what you do within your limitations that counts. Its like the L.A.-vs.-N.Y. thing; the environment actually affects how you play.
"I think that a guy like Vinny Golia in New York would not have the tremendous amount of woodwind instruments in L.A., hell bring, like, five saxophones to a gig. Youve seen Alex Cline, where hell do a two-hour, three-hour setup. If I was in New York, I wouldnt be bringing an amp and four boxes of pedals. Ive traveled through New York with gear its a complete pain in the ass. We live in a car culture. We have different options for colors . . . and for excess."
Liebig doesnt mean that in a bad way, of course. Call it excess or call it freedom, hes achieved a lot, much to the admiration of old hands like Alex Cline, whos known him for nearly 30 years.
"His concentrated effort to keep all the demanding departments of life fully engaged while constantly developing and refining his accomplished, uncompromising art is a real inspiration to me," says Cline, who decided he could be a parent himself when he saw his friend pull it off.
Seems like you have to be in the world and outside of it at the same time. "I think playing music is a quasi-spiritual thing," says Liebig, "because it gets into self-examination and meditation and being a hermit . . . You have to kind of pull yourself into a cave and deal with stuff. You have to get beyond your own ego."
So is there an optional head for that?
The Mentones play Cryptonight at Club Tropical on Thursday, December 2. And at the same location on the following Thursday, December 9, Jeff Gauthiers ensemble will perform a "quasi violin concerto" written especially for Gauthier by Steuart Liebig.
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