Pioneer of Nouveau Flamenco music and leader of Luna Negra. Ottmar chats with us about his upbringing, musical philosophies, past projects, latest release “La Semana” and much more.
April 15, 2004
Guitarhoo!: Where were you born?
Ottmar Liebert: Cologne, Germany.
G!: Are you from a very musical family?
OL: Grandfather was in a choir….my father loves Jazz, but is about as musical as a table. My mother loved classical music, especially opera, and sang all of the time.
G!: At what age did you begin playing guitar?
G!: Were you drawn towards Flamenco and Spanish guitar styles from the beginning and what drew you towards that style over any other?
OL: No, I started playing classical guitar when I was 11 years old.
I found a Flamenco LP in the bargain bin at a local supermarket when I was 14 and that was the first Flamenco spark… Then a friend played “Mediterranean Sundance” for me when I was 16 and I asked him to hand me the cover. I didn’t care much for Al DiMeola, but I had to know who that other guitarist was! That, of course, was Paco De Lucia, and this was the second Flamenco spark. The third spark was ignited when I moved to Santa Fe in 1986 and I found a local Flamenco Guitarist to study with. I won’t mention his name to protect the innocent…he has received enough flack from “traditionalists” who don’t like what I do.
G!: Did you have formal training early on or did you mostly learn by ear?
OL: We had a school program, where teachers from the Music University would come to teach a group of guitar students once a week for only $20/semester. For very little money I was able to study with several different excellent teachers. Maybe it was obvious how much I enjoyed playing guitar and how hard I worked, because the teacher would teach the whole group for half an hour and then dismiss everyone and give me a half hour one-on-one lesson.
G!: Who were/are some of your musical influences?
OL: Some of the people I enjoyed were guitarists, like Santana, De Lucia, McLaughlin, Fripp, and Jeff Beck, others were horn players like Miles Davis. But others yet were fine artists who taught me about space and brush strokes and dynamics and contrast…I think ones sense of music can be very influenced by other arts, from painting to photography to cooking and acting…
G!: Interesting… At what point in your playing (and/or age) did you start letting go of your influences and begin taking on your own voice?
OL: I think that is a constant awareness. How could I not be influenced anymore…I’d have to be dead. Everything I hear, see, taste and smell influences what I do. I do think that one must make choices, meaning this: you are what you eat – and you are what you listen to, watch etc. etc….
Watch your intake…if you listen to the radio you will sound like the radio. I never listen to the radio anymore, which is a shame, really, because radio used to turn me onto some cool stuff – but that has not happened in many, many years – so I don’t listen to it anymore.
So, to get back to your question, I never stopped being influenced, but I think that around 1988 or 1989 I started to develop a certain original and very identifiable sound. I don’t think one can plan one’s “sound”, but rather that it is a natural outcome of experience. Melodies are about associations. A melody is a mind’s association in regard to a number of chord changes and a specific rhythm. As one gets older one’s associations tend to become more focused and more personal, I feel.
G!: Good points. Yourself and Luna Negra have pioneered “Nouveau Flamenco” music. How would you officially describe the genre or stylings of Nouveau Flamenco?
OL: I have said in the past that Nouveau Flamenco is to Flamenco what Bossa Nova is to Samba. I feel that is still true. To me NF and Bossa Nova are rooted in the melodies, while Flamenco and Samba are primarily about the rhythm. And I love melodies.
I think another element of my records in particular is that I came from pop and funk and R&B, which I played in bands in Boston from 1979-1986, and therefore approach rhythm guitar playing with a slightly different feel. If you listen to NF, you will discover that the song “Barcelona Nights”, for example, has 5 guitars – three rhythm guitars, a guitar melody plus a harmony…but since the rhythm guitars really lock together they are allowed to disappear and support the melody…
G!: Do your personal spiritual beliefs tie into New Age Awareness, Metaphysics (and/or) Buddhism? A mind over matter, not being influenced by our environment surrounding us but rather viewing life more as an illusion which is perceived and experienced by us individually where we all create our own realities.
OL: I don’t see how anyone could not be influenced by their environment. We are part of this world as much as we can also transcend it.
I enjoy the writings of Ken Wilber:
G!: Have you ever experienced or explored Lucid Dreaming?
OL: No, not yet. I am interested in Lucid Dreaming.
G!: My favorite album of yours is “The Hours Between Night + Day”. From beginning to end it is quite the journey and you all did a great job painting the different moods with your instruments and the songs. Again, when you write and record for an album like that, do you shut yourself out from the physical world and explore the inner world and how do you do this when you are recording in a state of the art recording studio?
OL: We recorded “The Hours between Night + Day” in Santa Barbara in the beginning of 1993. I basically moved to Santa Barbara for more than two months. I arrived at the studio around 10am and stayed until 2am.
“Opium” was a little different as I recorded the album in my own studio in Santa Fe. We worked all day, ate meals in my house and then went back to work in the studio. I don’t think I left my property at all for weeks – well, except for a walk down the street to a restaurant in the evening, where my engineer and I would drink a glass of port before we walked back to the studio and worked until the morning hours.
When I work on an album I have to force myself to step away from it as I have a hard time leaving the project before it is finished. I get completely immersed into the flow of work and music and the quest for inspiration. Music is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration – and the work will eventually lead to the inspiration most of the time. By the end of the recording I am sooo ready to walk away from the music…. it’s done and documented and I have usually already started forming an idea for the next album…. a new palette, a different instrumentation, a different context etc.
G!: Cool! Sprinkled throughout the album, you have a lot of natural sounds; waves, wildlife, wind etc. (on songs such as “Bombay”, “Lush”, “Buddha’s Flower” to name a few.) Did you personally capture authentic sounds for this or did you use pre-made nature discs and synthesizers to simulate these sounds?
OL: I used to carry a DAT recorder everywhere we went and those sounds were recorded all over the world.
G!: What sounds are going on in the track “Blink”? It’s a very haunting intro and that voice is chilling. What is that voice saying?
OL: The voice belongs to an announcer in one of the biggest railway stations in Europe. The person is announcing a train. That reminds me, there is a sound that is familiar to all people who love trains, a sound that is rapidly disappearing. The sound of the train announcement-signs flipping over, sometimes running through many signs before arriving at the new announcement. Very cool sound, very analog…but they are all getting changed over to TV Monitors…
G!: Dig it! What did you use for the percussive, pulsating rhythm in “Lush”? Did you manipulate a natural sound (like a raindrop) for that or is that an instrument?
OL: It’s a weird instrument that makes a drop sound…some kind of bottle contraption that we borrowed from Airto Moreira. Then we dumped the sound into a sampler and I played the rhythm which my brother then sequenced.
G!: Very cool! And on that note, when you envision and journey through a record project do you come up with all the percussive sounds and ideas or do your bandmates add their flavors to the tracks through there own inspiration?
OL: Depends on the album and the song. I usually know what I want for percussion, but I am always open for ideas, surprises, happy accidents etc…
G!: When you compose, mainly do you get into a certain vibe or state of mind and write quickly or do you like to take your time with it all?
OL: Depends. Some songs come quickly and some take a long time. I don’t see a specific method, but rather that each song demands a different approach.
G!: And typically speaking, when you compose a piece, do you start with a certain mood or thematic melody line and build from there and do you leave room for improvisation or do you pre-plan a lot of your guitar solo’s?
OL: Depends…. most of the time I build the song and when it has enough shape, mood, color, I sit down and improvise a melody. Every once in a while a song starts with the melody, but most of the time it is the other way around.
G!: Have you ever written, recorded or performed in a state of prolonged sleep deprevation?
OL: Yes, I have, many times. Cheapest drug there is!
G!: Ya… haha.. a real warp-out!… As for writing and recording, how important are your physical surroundings when you write and record?
OL: I can write anywhere, but the recording is limited to places that sound good. If the room looks ugly, but sounds good I have no problem with it. On the other hand I have a pretty ideal little studio in Santa Fe with beautiful adobe walls and windows that let in quite a bit of light…
A few snapshots of Ottmar’s Spiral Subwave Studio
G!: You now have your own recording studio. What can you tell us about it?
OL: In 1994 the studio started out with a Sony 2″ 24 track recorder and Neve and Euphonix consoles. Nowadays I use an Apple G4 computer (OS 10.3.2) and ProTools HD (v. 6.2.3). I use a Neumann M 149 microphone on the guitar into a Martech MSS10 pre-amp and from there into the DigiDesign 192 audio interface.
G!: Your finger picking is so crisp and clear. Do you use a lot of compression on your guitar or do you naturally pick that hard?
OL: I try to use as little compression as I can get away with. The crisp sound is mainly due to my picking. I articulate every single note.
G!: You play quite a few stringed instruments. Can you tell us all the instruments you do play and which one gives you the most challenges?
OL: I have a fretless Lute, which I started recording with in 1993 – “used it on “The Hours between Night + Day” for the first time. I also have an instrument Keith Vizcarra built for me, and which he calls a “Luitar”. It is a fretless guitar with double course strings. E, A, and D are tuned in octaves and G, B and E are tuned in unison. I used it on “In the Arms of Love” and “The Santa Fe Sessions”. In addition to that I have a Gibson ES335, which I bought in the mid-eighties, and the Vizcarra strat.
I also have two Lester DeVoe Flamenco guitars, a Negra and a Blanca, one Eric Sahlin Blanca and a Vizcarra Negra Flamenco guitar.
Not a lot of instruments, really. I know guitar players who have a few dozen guitars, but I usually play only one favorite guitar and don’t need a lot of guitars…
G!: I’ve seen you play live at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver, Canada. And the whole vibe of the band and yourself is very dreamy like, serene with the lighting, the all acoustic environment and performances. Yet there is this underlying fire burning beneath it all and you can really feel it from the whole band. Most of the show you had your eyes closed, barefoot, cross-legged and seemed to be in an almost meditative state, the whole show. When you are performing live are you taken to a far away place as it appears and feels like from the audience?
OL: I think in a strange way I am far, far away and right there at the same time. I can’t describe the feeling, but it is unique to the stage.
G!: When you are playing and soloing live, in your mind, is all technical knowledge of the guitar gone and what are you thinking and feeling as you improvise?
OL: If I had words for the feeling I would be a poet, yes? Since I do not, I play guitar. Sometimes I wish I could articulate those feelings, but it is impossible. As for technical knowledge – that comes and goes depending on the piece, on the mood etc..
You are always playing with the prize firmly in sight, and that prize is inspiration, letting go, being in-the-moment, transported ourselves and the audience, feeling like we are inside the music etc.
Sometimes it happens and sometimes it does not. The vibe of the individual concert has a lot to do with it. While most of the audience will probably not pick up on it, the other guys in the band always recognize when we are “on”!
It is interesting that some people don’t seem to understand the nature of music and inspiration. I get the feeling that they think that we are little more than circus performers and we should perform our act and that is all there is to it. A concert is the interaction of the band with the audience through music and it takes everybody in that theater to make the evening great.
G!: Also at that show (as I’m sure it happens at most of your shows), a bouquet of roses were thrown on the stage as the crowd erupted for your encore. What was the strangest or most memorable item a fan has thrown onto your stage?
OL: In Victoria, BC, a woman threw a small bottle, labeled “Love Potion” at me. It came from the upper balcony and missed the guitar by less than a foot. Although I protested, hoping that one could reason with the person who threw the bottle, the woman was removed from the theater by the promoter, who feared trouble or a law suit.
G!: hahaha… well, you have to admire her rather direct approach there and it shows the dramatic effect your music does have on the chicks! haha… Do you do any particular finger exercises or rituals before you take the stage?
OL: I slaughter a young goat before every show and drink the warm blood.
Other than that I don’t have a particular ritual.
G!: hahaha… That’s just evil… haha… What is the strangest or most memorable gig you have played?
OL: We played a private show once and as we began our first song we saw that castanets were handed out to a group of about 30 or 40 drunken executives. As you can imagine, that many castanets, played with abandon and a complete lack of rhythm or expertise, were louder than us and I walked off, feeling that the executives were entertaining themselves quite nicely!
G!: hahaha… priceless! What does your touring rig consist of?
OL: A Shure KSM 44 and sometimes a KSM 141 on the Flamenco guitar. A Line6 amp for the strat.
G!: You’ve done some excellent cover renditions of Hendrix’s Little Wing and Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir (off your “Little Wing” disc). What are some of your favorite covers and do you have any plans to do more?
OL: I think I have done all of my favorite covers: “Samba Pa Ti” was covered on “Solo Para Ti”, my first album for Epic Records. “Mercy, Mercy Me” and “Albatross” were covered on “The Hours between Night + Day”, “Little Wing”, “The Girl from Ipanema”, “Kashmir”, and “Paint it Black” were covered on “Little Wing”
No, I don’t have any plans to do more covers.
G!: On occasion you pull out an electric guitar on tracks like “Summantra” from “The Hours Between Night + Day”. And you use it more as a texture in the mix not as an in your face feature. Which electric guitars do you prefer?
OL: I have been using a strat-copy, built by Keith Vizcarra, with Joe Barden pickups (they sound amazing) – and an ancient Kahler whammy bar I have used since the early eighties. On “Opium” I also used a Gibson ES335 on one or two songs.
G!: Do you plan to explore a bit more on electric on future songs?
OL: Only time will tell….
G!: You already had a lot of success by the time record companies started to really push Pop-flavored Spanish music in the USA with artists like Ricky Martin, Enrique Englasias and Shakira. But did you notice an extra boom with your more authentic Latin instrumental audiences and record buyers because of this?
G!: How did you like the pop-style Spanish music those such artists were releasing?
OL: Don’t really have anything to say to that. Some of the music was OK and some of it wasn’t….
G!: Is “Spiral Subwave Records International” your own record label (and if so when did you establish this and do you feel you are better off with your own label verses other major record labels)?
OL: I started SSRI in 2002, after I fulfilled my contract with Epic Records with the album “Little Wing”. I signed a two album distribution deal for SSRI with Higher Octave and released “In the Arms of Love” in 2002 and “The Santa Fe Sessions” in February of 2003. I preferred not to extend my deal with Higher Octave and decided to leave all traditional distribution behind. I released “nouveaumatic” last Summer and my bassplayer’s album “Transit” last month.
G!: Do you plan to sign other artists or will this remain a vehicle for your own (and band mates) releases?
OL: Right now my company is very small and I can be very hands-on. At this time I have no plans expanding the company in order to sign other artists.
G!: You’ve performed with some legendary players; Carlos Santana on “Samba Pa Ti” and Al DiMeola on “Bullfighters Dream”, to name a couple and both excellent tracks by the way. What can you tell us about those experiences?
OL: That Al DiMeola played on “Bullfighter’s Dream” is a rumor I had not heard yet. He is certainly not credited on the album. Where did you hear that one?
G!: oh, I heard an mp3 on the net and it credited both you and Al on the track. I guess the guy who made the mp3 did that falsely to get more downloads or whatever… But it didn’t sound like Al DiMeola was in the mix…
Are there any artists you’d like to perform with whom you haven’t already?
OL: David Sylvian, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Brian Eno, Jon Hassell, Ry Cooder and many more….
G!: You are presently in the studio recording. How is it all coming along and what can you tell us about this project in the works?
OL: I just finished mixing and mastering the new album, “La Semana” this week. We will sell a very basic CD package of “La Semana” for $12, which is even cheaper than buying the music from iTunes….. and a signed limited edition for $60/ea. The limited edition will have an additional song, as well as drawings and photos and notes about the music. The album will be released during the first week of June.
G!: Great! You must have a toured lined up for this project. What can you tell us about it?
OL: This year we will have a new quartet. The other members of the band will be Jon Gagan – electric bass guitars + synthesizer, Ron Wagner – tablas, dumbek + percussion, and Robbie Rothchild – cajon, congas, djembe + percussion. The “La Semana” tour starts around June 10th and we will spend about 4 weeks on the west coast. Then we will take a little break and do another 6 weeks mainly on the east coast starting in September. After that we will have a couple of weeks off and then we’ll tour in Mexico and South-America in November.
For more information please go to: http://www.lunanegra.com/www/lnm/touring/lnm_touring_set.html
G!: What do you find more rewarding composing and recording or touring?
OL: Recording and performing/touring are completely different aspects of my life. I love the fact that I can add lots of guitars to a recording and live I have to find a way to make do by myself….so they are very different challenges…
I am not using keyboards or synthesizers or any instruments other than Flamenco guitar, bass and percussion on my new album, but some songs have something like 10 guitar tracks!
Performing is about the exchange with the audience, something I can’t get from the studio…it’s about making the moment count…it’s about thinking on your feet and rising to the challenge, it’s about communicating with the rest of the band and the audience…
Both special…but to me very different…
G!: Back to what you were saying how different artforms can bleed together (cooking, dancing, painting inspiring music and vice versa). Now, if I threw in front of you a pile of Chicken Enchiladas, large bowl of Guacamole sprinkled with Piquillo Peppers, a 40oz bottle of Tequila with the worm, a Pinata stuffed with fresh Dead Presidents, a black and white photo of Charo doing her “cuchi, cuchi” wiggle dance, and a .38 Special loaded with blanks, what type of music or song title would jump out at you?
OL: I ate the enchiladas (with red and green chili – something we call Christmas here in Santa Fe) and drank the Tequila and now I am squinting my eyes shut ’cause I definitely don’t wanna wake up from this hangover with an image of Charo.
G!: hahaha… What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of music?
OL: Whoa, there is life outside music? No, just kidding! I like to draw, take photos, cook, play racquetball, and do Pilates twice a week… Actually some of my photos and drawings will be in the Limited Edition of the new album “La Semana”.
G!: Great! Did you prefer the original movie “El Mariachi” or the remake “Desperado” and at any point in your career did you feel like the main character in that film?
OL: And then there is the newest installment “Once upon a Time in Mexico”! I thought the first and original movie was the best one of the three. It had a vibe that was completely lost in the remake and the newest version. Although Johnny Depp saves the new movie – almost. He is brilliant.
G!: I agree. The original was raw, quirky and on the edge. Do you have a favorite Confucious saying?
G!: Do you have any advice you would like to pass onto aspiring musicians?
OL: Follow your Bliss?
G!: Ottmar, it was a blast, thanks for taking out the time for this interview. We all look forward to your future projects!
OL: You are welcome. My new album will be available in the beginning of June. You can check our web site: www.lunanegra.com for availability and for a tour schedule. Later!
Interview © 2004 Guitarhoo!