There will be many flag markers in the long history of the Weissenborn which will define its development and application. David Lindley & Ben Harper will be two of the instruments greatest and most revered playing ambassadors and now I think we can all safely say that we can add the name Thomas Oliver to that illustrious list.
The release of ‘Beneath The Weissenborn’ in 2013 was nothing short of a sonic work of art. Not only was it the worlds first ‘All’ Weissenborn instrumental album but it was a huge leap into the until then unknown purest sonic and creative possibilities of the instrument. The album generated universal interest and already the legacy can be seen influencing future musicians to explore this wonderful instrument.
As in every walk of life though people move on and evolve and Thomas is no exception. He is a musician and musicians want to diversify, grow ever expand their repertoire and experiences. And so Thomas is spreading his wings and putting the same level of absolute commitment into the making of his next venture. With a tinge of sadness it will not be completely Weissenborn orientated at its core this time around. Thomas songwriting takes centre stage as he explores lyrical creativity and studio craft to propel his career firmly into the singer/songwriter arena.
So it was with this foremost in my mind I wanted this interview to be a comprehensive record of that period in his life when he devoted absolutely everything his could muster into this wonderful instrument. A period that he may never repeat again. And so it was with a sense of the historian in me I set Thomas a series of questions aimed at defining this era of his career and that game changing album.
From a chance encounter of Ben Harper’s ‘Welcome To The Cruel World’ to a friendship with one of the worlds best Weissenborn luthiers through to his triumphant first instrumental composition ‘The Moment’ these factors all lead towards one thing, the birth of arguably the best Weissenborn album ever recorded ‘Beneath The Weissenborn’. So join me as I get beneath the weissenborn and behind the player.
Chapter 1 “THE INSPIRATION”
Musical upbringing and early musical influences? At what age did you know that you wanted to be a professional musician?
My father is a singer/songwriter and guitar player, and he used to sing songs to my brothers and me before bed when we were kids. This is something I am still grateful for to this day, as it really instilled in me a love and appreciation for music from a young age. I can still recall lying in bed and being enamoured by the power of music and the power of song. So this was my earliest musical influence. I started playing guitar when I was 10, and I think that, deep down, I knew from the day I started playing that that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But it wasn’t until I was 18 that I had the realisation that you can’t be a professional musician unless you dedicate your entire existence to it. You can’t have a backup plan. It’s all or nothing. So in that sense, I was 18 when I realised that I wanted to be a professional musician.
It’s relatively well known amongst the tight knit weissenborn community that your love story with the Weissenborn came about by a chance hearing of Ben Harper. Please retell this enchanting story to those who’ve not heard it.
I was at a friend’s beach house at Waimarama Beach in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, where I grew up. My friends and I were all in our last year of school so I would have been 17. We woke up in the morning after a bit of a party there, and a few of us started to clean the place up whilst others cooked breakfast. A friend of mine named Celia put on an album and turned it up. It was ‘Welcome To The Cruel World’. I was digging it as I swept the floors and listened. But the further through the album we got, the more I was drawn in, to the point where eventually I just put my broom down and said “who is this??”
I loved it so much that I actually stole the CD! Haha! No idea why I didn’t just ask Celia if I could borrow it! I think that I must have been so scared that she would say no, as I had just entered (and I knew it) one of those musical turning points that you know will change everything. I just had to have that CD and take it home and ingest it in every way that I could. Don’t worry, though – I gave it back to her eventually. Thanks, Celia!
What is it about Ben Harper that makes him such revered artist amongst Weissenborn players (especially the singer/songwriters) in your opinion?
He recontextualised the Weissenborn. He gave it a new life, and a new voice. He epitomised it. And he made it cool. I will never undervalue his importance in the history of the Weissenborn. If it weren’t for Ben, I wouldn’t even play it. And considering how much playing Weissenborn has contributed to my life, I will forever be grateful to Ben.
Have you met or had any correspondence with Ben since you yourself become such a popular international Weissenborn artist?
Ben invited Tony [Francis] and my girlfriend and me backstage after his show in Wellington a couple of years back after he had received his first Tony Francis Weissenborn just before the show. It was really special to meet him, but particularly because he was flipping out about how good his new teardrop was! He was in complete disbelief that someone had made it, and especially someone as young as Tony. Ben was the reason that Tony started making Weissenborns, so it was a big deal to have him stoking out about his work like that. It was Tony’s moment and I was super proud of him, and just stoked to be there.
When and where did you get your first Weissenborn and how did you learn how to play it?
At first, I started tuning my acoustic guitar to open D and putting it on my lap (and clacking around on the frets a lot! Haha). My dad soon found a guy in Christchurch, New Zealand, who was making them and I ordered one. The luthier’s name was Roger Hartshorn, and his alias was Merlin. It was an unusual instrument, with quirky nuances and odd aesthetic touches. But it sounded awesome and I loved it. Soon after I received it, Roger passed away, so I think it was the last Weissenborn he made. A friend of mine in Australia named Sean Kirkwood still has it now, so it’s still being played frequently!
I learned to play by listening to Harper records and trying to work them out. And I also just applied my knowledge of the guitar and music in general to the Weissenborn, and appropriated it accordingly. I never used guitar tabs. There was nothing available in the way of resources to teach you how to play. But that’s what made it special. You had to work it out for yourself. And I’m really glad that that was the case, because it meant that I really had to LISTEN. Listen to every little detail. I learned to understand the instrument by having to work it out myself.
What music do you listen to when you’re just chilling?
Far too many things to name, but at the moment I’ve been listening to a lot of soul music. Aretha Franklin is on high rotate, as is D’Angelo, Marvin Gaye, Allen Stone and lots of old Motown records. Recently thrashed artists also include James Blake, Pharoahe Monch and Frazey Ford.
Favourite all time piece of slide music?
My favourite song involving a Weissenborn would probably be Whipping Boy by Ben Harper. Archetypal Harper playing at its best. If we’re talking about purely Weissenborn music, it would be ‘Homage’ by Ed Gerhardt. That tune blew my mind when I first heard it. The melody, the DEEP low B bass notes, the reverb. Just perfection.
And my favourite Weissenborn solo ever is on a Ted Hawkins recording of a song called ‘Long As I Can See The Light’. It’s Greg Leisz playing the Weissenborn, and it’s just heavenly.
Chapter 2 “THE MOMENT”
“The Moment” talk us through how that piece of music came to life and how it grew on YouTube. What impact did that level of response have on you personally and your career?
It was 2011 and I had just got my first ever Tony Francis Weissenborn, a style 2. I sat down to play it one day and The Moment just seemed to present itself to me, in that magical way that sometimes music just appears from the musical ether. It was a fascinating experience, actually, because my ear or my mind or my musical spirit, or whatever you want to call it, was just writing the melody and the harmonic movement in real time and my hands were just struggling to keep up. Sometimes writing music becomes a very conscious process, but The Moment just flowed so organically that I knew there must be something special about it. I recorded it and filmed the session and put it on YouTube. Immediately it started to get lots of attention from all around the world. I was pleasantly surprised at this. It was really interesting to look at the analytics on YouTube and see which countries were watching it the most.
This had quite an impact on my career as it kinda made me think to myself “wow, people really seem to dig this stuff” and it spurred me to write more. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was the beginnings of ‘Beneath The Weissenborn’.
“The Moment” is possibly your most universally recognised instrumental (with possible exception of “Jurassic Park Theme”) which literally hundreds and hundreds of Weissenborn players around the world have had a go at playing. The tab has been out there for quite a while now and is probably the most commonly referred to Weissenborn tab in existence by now. When you tabbed it and made it available for anyone who asked, did you think the response and demand would still be so great even now?
I knew that there would be some degree of demand, because I’ve been playing slide for long enough to know that Weissenborn players are like heroin addicts trying to get a fix when it comes to tabs! Hahaha! But I didn’t expect there to be quite that much interest in it. I was and still am honoured that so many people in so many different places on Earth would want to play my song. But I believe that music is meant to be shared, and that’s why I made the tab available for anyone who wanted it, and I’m just happy to see so many people getting so much joy out of it.
Chapter 3 “PLAYER MEETS LUTHIER”
The Tony Francis connection is a subject Tony has already discussed with TWiE in a separate article we did last year here. So how often do you have Tony look at your old faithful and give it some TLC?
All the time! We’ve tried so many different pickups – I’ve been searching for ‘the sound’ for years, so Tony has done many a pickup removal/installation and he’s always happy to help me on my quest for the perfect amplified tone. Tony has been a huge part of my story as a Weissenborn player and has contributed many, many hours of work to help me do what I do and to have the best equipment and sound that I possibly can.
Last year you acquired an original HC Weissenborn guitar please tease us with all the mouth watering details and specs about the new addition and how you secured its purchase (photos please please please).
It was Tony who fished it out! It popped up on eBay and was being sold by Randy Freedman who used to be Ben Harper’s guitar tech. Style 4s are my favourite so it was hard to resist, and the price was good. Tony helped me to work out how I was going to finance it, and ended up having to sell my TF teardrop, which was a bummer, but Tony was all for it as he knew that this would be a special one (and he’s in the process of building me another teardrop!).
It was built circa 1935 but appears to have not been played much, despite having been owned by Bob Brozman. The only real sign of ageing is the checking of the lacquer. When it arrived, Tony and I were both stoked about the fact that it is very ‘me’. It’s got that braun that I love – thick lows and a richness in the mid range. It’s a beast of an instrument and I love it.
Did Tony have to do any work on it?
Not really – it was in excellent condition. We put red button tuners on it, though, because the original tuners were not ideal for doing mid-song re-tunings! It has its quirks, as most original Weissenborns do, but it didn’t have anything that needed attention.
Do you record or tour with it?
I record with it – in fact I spent the whole of yesterday recording a new song on it and it sounds killer. I have played it live but haven’t yet toured it overseas. I certainly will, though!
What’s still on your weissenborn wish list?
Tony is currently making me a style 4 teardrop. I’m pretty amped about that! I also really want an original style 1 from 1927. I’ve played and recorded many of them and there seems to be something special about that year in the style 1s. They have the creamiest high range – an incredible lushness in the top end. Sparkly but warm at the same time. Creamy. I find that very inspiring.
Chapter 4 “BENEATH THE WEISSENBORN”
The whole concept behind the release was not initially for a full album was it, I understand it started life as just an idea for a single then an EP. So how did you make the leap and commitment to a full blown instrumental album?
‘The Moment’ was the first instrumental tune I wrote. I just wrote it for fun, really – I had no intentions beyond just recording it and sharing it for people to hear. But when I saw how much interest it had from all corners of the earth, it made me take the idea a little more seriously. So I wrote and recorded/filmed another one (called These Streets Were Clean) and posted that, and then another one (called Oxy) and posted that. And people really seemed to be digging them, so I thought ‘maybe I’ll write a couple more and then just compile them as an EP and release it digitally for all the players.’ So that was my intention for a while, and I was even going to call it ‘Weissenborn Instrumentals’ (lame, huh! Haha). But as I invested myself further in the process, I had a few realisations. Firstly, I realised that this was not just music for players, this was music for people! And I also realised that I had a whole story I wanted to tell, and an EP was not going to suffice to paint the full picture. So I committed to a full-length. All of a sudden, a project that had started out as one instrumental written for fun had become and full-time investment that occupied the entirety of my creative headspace for quite a period of time. And once I committed to creating a full-length album, it really became FUN, because I could think about it as a journey, a story, a unified piece of art, rather than a collection of smaller works.
Is this something you see yourself repeating in the distant future, I mean a full blown instrumental Weissenborn album?
Perhaps. I don’t know, to be honest. As a musician, I tend to evolve and change quite rapidly. I could never just do one thing for the rest of my life. So right now, I’m completely immersed in my next album, which is a full production singer-songwriter album which I’m producing myself. Weissenborn will always be a big part of what I do, but it’s hard for me to even say what I’ll be doing in a year’s time. I certainly hope I can do another instrumental Weissenborn album at some stage. I thought about doing a Weissenborn and piano album for a while. Maybe I’ll do that, or maybe I’ll make a sequel to Beneath The Weissenborn. I might be 60 years old when I do it – I just don’t know. But I certainly won’t be putting my Weissenborns away any time soon.
Where, how and who with (if anyone) did you record the album?
I recorded the most part of it at home. But the first few that I mentioned above were recorded at STL Audio in my home town. I’ve done lots of work with Troy there, and over the years I worked out exactly what my favourite mics/preamps/configurations etc were for recording Weissenborn. Troy helped me set up my own studio with all the specific equipment that I wanted, so the remainder of the album I recorded at home. This was a really important step in the development of the album, I think, because I would stay up till 5am reversing and manipulating one little phrase or messing with sample rates or making the perfect loop, or whatever. I got very deep in the process – a lot of trial and error – and I just don’t think I would have been able to be this creative in a studio environment when on the clock. The process worked out perfectly – thanks again to Troy for all the support!
How critical are you on yourself when playing or recording, and do you find recording an easy and enjoyable process?
I am probably about as critical as they come! I never settle for anything less than exactly what I want, and I will do whatever it takes to find the magic. I have always been a perfectionist. One of the reasons I really loved making this album is that it gave me the opportunity to actually entertain my perfectionism. When you’re working with a band or producer, you always have to consider others and sometimes compromise on what you believe it should sound like, but when it’s just you and all the curtains are closed and it’s 4 in the morning, you can go as deep as you like. I’m actually surprised I finished the damn thing! Haha. Despite the obligatory moments of frustration and fury, it was a hugely liberating and enjoyable process.
When in the studio recording Weissenborn instrumentals what processes and effects do you apply to the final mix. (Verb, delay, compression etc). Any tips you can give us so we can make better instrumental recordings and mixes.
I think the most important thing is the way you record it. If you don’t capture the Weissenborn in the way you want it to sound, you will never be able to make it sound that way with effects/processing. Choosing the right microphones, the right preamps, the right converters, and the right mic positions is far more important, I believe, than choosing the right reverb or choosing the right compressor. My setup of choice is 2 CharterOak M900T tube condenser mics, into 2 Buzz Audio Elixir preamps (very clean and 3-dimensional), converted by a Universal Audio Apollo. I basically angle one mic at each hand, coming in at about a 45 degree angle (and pan the two mics hard left and right for the stereo image).
But as for effects, I used reverbs (everything from Eventide hardware reverbs to the UAD Lexicon 224 plugin), gentle compression (I bought two Chandler Little Devil Compressors for mixing Beneath The Weissenborn) and a little bit of EQ (I bought some Buzz Audio Tonics for the project).
There was one unconventional process I used, though! I brought home some WAV files that I had recorded at STL, and dropped them into a session at home. But they had been recorded at 96KHz at the studio, and my session was set up for 44.1KHz, so they sounded crazy! Basically playing at about half-speed, but without any loss of fidelity. It sounded terrible for that tune, but it got me thinking “maybe I could use this process to my advantage…” So I did a whole bunch of trials, recording different registers of the Weissenborn at 96 and then converting them to 44.1 to see what they sounded like. I soon established where the sweet spot was, and I started to compose a piece of music. But it was so bizarre because I had to try to imagine what I wanted it to sound like, and then play it twice as fast and up approximately an octave! The result was ‘Land Of The Long White Cloud’, the 7th track on Beneath The Weissenborn. If you listen to it on a good system, the Weissenborn is ridiculously deep and rich – i.e. supernatural! (Especially the last few notes). I’ve been waiting for someone to hit me up about it, but no one has, so now I’m bearing all! Haha. The funny part is that if you could hear what I ACTUALLY played and compare it to the final track, it sounds like chipmunk Weissenborn. It was a very unconventional and intellectually challenging process, but the end product was monster tone so I was stoked!
What track gives you the most satisfaction listening back to it now from “Beneath The Weissenborn”?
‘Let It Not Be Lost’. To me, it feels the most like a ‘story’ when you listen to it. It breathes and modulates in a way that the others don’t.
Did you ever play the entire album in consecutive order live after its release?
I thought about doing that, but there were a few factors standing in the way. Firstly, the second song is a Weissenborn duet and really needs the second part. And secondly, there are lots of different tunings used so I just don’t have enough Weissenborns to make it possible! I have played all of the songs live, though, except for the duet, and ‘Belfast’ (the bonus track). When I toured the release of the album, I played 8 out of 10 of the songs at most shows.
Tell us about your love affair with the film and the soundtrack to Jurassic Park? How long did it take you to arrange your Weissenborn version of “Jurassic Park” that was included on the album, which by the way is the most viewed Weissenborn instrumental of all time on YouTube with over 650,000 hits?
Is it? Cool! I’d never thought about that. I went to see Jurassic Park about 5 times at the cinema when I was seven. I had always loved dinosaurs, so this movie was the ultimate to most seven year old boys. But I remember being fascinated by the music too, and I can remember eagerly anticipating my 4th or 5th screening just so I could hear that triumphant main theme again! (It’s not like you could just search it up on YouTube back then). That deep, lush Bb chord that swells in when you first see the Brachiosaurus made little-me just about burst with joy at the time, and still has exactly the same effect on big-me to this day! Haha.
It took me a fair while to arrange it all. It started out because I just had the melody in my head one day and I was messing around on a Weissenborn and just started playing it for fun. But it actually sounded really good! So I decided to go further. The main key centre of the original soundtrack is Bb, so my first decision was what key to play it in. I strung my Weissy up with 17-68 gauge strings (the ones I use for low B tuning) and tried tuning down to Bb so I could match the key. But it was just too low – B is really the limit for me. I believe that the key centre whose ‘feeling’ or intangible qualities are most similar to Bb is Eb, so I started by tuning to open Eb. Once I had established that, I worked my way through a little more, and a little more, until I was quite a way down the track, and having a great time was I was at it! However, I figured that, at any moment, I would hit the wall. As in that wall you hit with Weissenborn when it’s just not physically possible to play that melody and that bass note at the same time. As the players know, the Weissenborn can be a very limiting instrument, so I didn’t believe for a second that it would be possible to arrange the whole score onto one lonely Weissenborn. I was literally just waiting for that point where I would have to either just give up and accept that it wasn’t possible, or try a different tuning and start again. But it just never came! I must have chipped away at it for a good month or two, as it was quite a lot of work. I had to explore the instrument in every way that I could in order to pull off all the modulations, and to condense the thick musical activity of the original down to just one instrument. But because I had to dig so deep, I actually came out the other end a far better player! I had a few epiphanies during the process. I had massive realisations that you actually COULD do certain things on a Weissenborn that I had always accepted as simply not possible. Basically it taught me that, if you think hard enough, THERE IS ALWAYS A WAY. That’s a very valuable lesson for a Weissenborn player to learn.
I believe there is a story to tell that you nearly didn’t record or release it (Tony eluded to this in a few of his FB posts when the single came out)
Yeah, even after that whole process, I still just thought of it as something I did for my own enjoyment and my own development. I think because of the potential ‘novelty value’ of playing the theme from a movie (and a dinosaur movie at that), I initially figured it wouldn’t have a place on an album that was otherwise quite deep and serious (for lack of a better word). But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that the theme from Jurassic Park is simply a brilliant piece of music, regardless of what it is or what it represents. John Williams is an absolute master. I literally can’t believe that somebody could write such a masterpiece. So it was an honour to include it on Beneath The Weissenborn, and I think there would have been a hole in it if I didn’t!
Are there any plans for a complete “Beneath The Weissenborn” tab book publication sometime in the future?
That’s not a bad idea, actually! Haha. Perhaps I’ll put it on my list of things to do.
Chapter 5 “THE MECHANICS”
How often do you practice playing the Weissenborn? Do you have any exercises or routines you do before a gig or for just everyday practice?
I only really do disciplined ‘practice’ before tours, so I can remember how to play all the tricky stuff! But aside from that, I usually just jam on the Weissenborn and explore it and write music with it. Or I’ll be recording it. Recording is one of the best forms of practice, because there is no room for error, and it’s very repetitive!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given about slide playing or playing the Weissenborn?
I never had any mentors and I never knew any other players when I was starting out, so my journey has been particularly advice-free! Haha. But I do recall the PARAMOUNT piece of advice I was once given. I actually can’t remember who it was who gave it to me now. I wish I could so I could say thank you! Anyway, for about my first year of playing slide, I was holding the bar completely incorrectly! I used to just hold it between my thumb and forefinger, and tuck my others fingers up into my hand (i.e. not even attempting to damp the strings behind the bar). It must have sounded terrible! But I obviously couldn’t hear those ugly overtones at such an early stage in my journey. Now I can’t unhear them! Anyway, this mystery mentor said to me once “hey, you know that if you hold it like this you can eliminate those ugly out-of-tune notes going on in the background, right?” I immediately realised that all the photos and videos I’d seen of Ben Harper had him holding the bar that way too, and I was instantly really embarrassed at making such a rookie mistake for a whole year! Hahaha! But when I think back now, I love that story because it’s testament to the fact that there was NOTHING around to teach you how to play this thing. I do wonder, though, how much longer I would have used grommet-grip before realising it for myself!
……and subsequently whats the best bit of advice you would give a beginner now?
Hold the bar properly and mute the strings behind it! Haha.
Everyone loves (and expects) me to ask this next quick fire round of questions so……What are your personal gear preferences?
Your favourite Weissenborn you currently own?
My Tony Francis Style 4.
Strings & gauges?
I use different gauges for different tunings, but D’Addario phosphor bronze are my favourites, and I use 13-56 for standard tunings.
The most common tuning configuration I use is 1-5-1-3-5-1 and I use that in B, C, C#, D and Eb. But I also just customise tunings based on what I need to be able to play. For example, the second Weissenborn part in ‘There May Be Hope Yet’ is D-A-C#-F#-A-C#. For ‘Oxy’, I use C-G-C-G-C-E. There are lots of others I have used too, but basically I like to design the tunings around the music, not the other way around.
Fingers or picks? Fingers.
I get acrylic nails put on my right hand which give me exactly the tone I want. Bold and bright and loud.
I’ve used so many. Currently I’m all about L.R.Baggs.
Not fussy here, as long as they sound good.
I often use an AER Domino 2.A acoustic amp live. AER are my acoustic amps of choice.
I love my Strymon BlueSky reverb pedal. I also use a Keeley compressor at times. I won’t list them all, but those two get the most use in my solo set (along with my looper).
Can I ask you to comment on one thing you mentioned regarding your live set up just then? Can you please give us your professional comment on the use of compressors on a Weissenborn. Now you said you use a Keeley compressor for live gigs, please can you kindly explain why? As conventional opinion says “why would you put a device that by it’s very design is supposed to limit dynamics smack bang in the middle of your live rig”? Doesn’t that just kill and squash all those wonderful dynamics? so why do you have it on your pedal board. I’ve read so many forum debates on this topic over the years and I’m sure people would be fascinated on why and how you use compressors in your live (and recording) set ups.
The main purpose of my Keeley Compressor is actually to bring up the ‘hi-hats’ when I play drum beats on my Weissenborn. The ‘kick’ drum (thumping on the bridge) and the ‘snare’ (slapping the side of the instrument) generally come through really clearly but the hats (tapping lightly on the side) get a bit lost, so when I engage the compressor, it essentially brings down the level of the kick and snare and then I supplement the gain to put them back where they were, and that subsequently lifts the hats to a better level in the mix. It’s quite a balancing act sometimes. The compressor often squeezes some of the juicy low end out of the kick drum, though, so I have a Boss EQ pedal next to it which I sometimes engage just to put those lows back in. Often, though, I don’t actually have enough time to press both pedals so I have to go without the extra lows! I do use the compressor at other times, also, but more a creative punctuation rather than a sound for a whole song. Compression on a Weissenborn generally accentuates the ‘noises’ which are distinctive to the instrument, eg the scratching of the metal on the strings. It’s a rad sound when you squash it. But I definitely use it more when playing with other people than I do when performing solo, as it’s a great tool to take all the nuances of what you play (both musically and sonically) and lift them to the top of the mix. Hope that clears it up for you?
Yes Thanks it does.
The process of writing of instrumentals. Talk us through how it happens for you. Do you record spontaneously with some basic guide lines of what you want or is it a more refined writing process that almost mimics a classical piece of music that’s laboured over for a much longer period of time until you have everything just right?
I don’t record Weissenborn instrumentals until they’re completely finished and I can play them fluently. When recording other styles of music, often it’s about ‘building’ it in stages, but for instrumentals I try to let it be as ‘real’ as possible.
As for the writing of instrumentals, it’s all about melody for me. Melody and how it interacts with harmonic movement. I think of them like songs. There should always be a part that someone would whistle or hum. Sometimes I write things on the Weissenborn and think they’re cool, but they’re just riffs or picking patterns or busy noodles. For me, I think a Weissenborn instrumental is strong when there is a clear chord progression, a feel (even if it’s free time), and a clear melody, reminiscent of a vocal melody. I believe that the more ‘lyrical’ a melody is, the more the piece of music will speak to the listener.
In your opinion are there any limitations to the Weissenborn and its open tunings that hinder creativity musically speaking, will there ever be a point where you just say “that’s it there isn’t anything new I can do with this instrument now, I’ve come full circle time to move on to another challenge”?
“Time to move on to another challenge” is definitely something I would say! Haha. But I also think that the minute you think “there isn’t anything new I can do with this instrument now”, you have forgotten one of the most fundamental beauties of music; that it is infinite and cannot ever be conquered. There will forever be something new to find.
As for limitations, I think the Weissenborn is a hugely limiting instrument. You have only one bar to play everything. Logistically, it’s a nightmare sometimes. Some chords or progressions are simply not possible at the best of times. But it is its limitations which make it beautiful. I believe that the art of playing Weissenborn is about BEATING its limitations. Finding ways to outsmart the instrument. Devising ways to get around its hurdles. That’s why I retune strings in the middle of some of my songs, because I needed a way to paint a different harmonic picture in the chorus which I couldn’t possibly have achieved without changing the tuning. Sometimes I get really frustrated at the limitations of the Weissenborn, but I also take great joy in thinking up new ways around them.
How does it sit with a modest guy like yourself when people such as myself label you as “the best Weissenborn player of your generation”, or arguably any generation come to that?
I’m honoured that anyone would say such a thing! Thank you. But sometimes I feel like a beginner, so it feels funny to hear such things. Haha. Everybody will forever be a student of music and I love that.
I once saw you post a quote from the tv series “True Detective”…..”life’s too short to be good at more than one thing so you best choose that one thing wisely”. So is the Weissenborn your “one thing”?
To be honest, I have a habit of trying to be good at way too many things at the same time, so perhaps I should heed my own second-hand advice! Haha.
Chapter 6 “NEW DIRECTION”
The Tony Sly cover you did of “International You Day” was perhaps a taster of things to come musically? What motivated you to record that particular song?
‘No Use For A Name’ was one of my favourite bands as a teenager, and I was deeply saddened when Tony Sly died in 2012. Their was a tribute album that Fat Wreck Chords put out on which a whole bunch of punk bands did versions of his songs. I decided to do my own acoustic rendition of ‘International You Day’ because, like many of his songs, it is very tender and fragile if you strip away the charging drums and wall of guitars. No Use For A Name and Lagwagon both posted my video saying it was beautiful, so that was a huge honour because they were such huge parts of my upbringing and musical development.
As for my new direction, my album has taken quite some turns since then, but I do hope to have a song there which is just one Weissenborn and my voice, like ‘International You Day’.
The new material I have to say is amazing, captivating and evocative. The Track “Boy” for example is such a wonderful song and are we right in thinking it’s totally auto-biographical from beginning to end?
Thank you. Yeah, pretty much all of my songs are based on real things I have lived through. Some are more exposing (or incriminating) than others, though. Haha.
The percussion side of your recent material with the use of guitar body slaps and looping machines is very innovative and fresh. How did you discover this style and is this something we’ll be hearing more of in any upcoming new material?
I love to search for new ways to play the Weissenborn, but the whole drumming on the body thing really just came about through my desire to expand my musical palette for solo live performances. I love drums and beats and I constantly have beats running through my head, so I just wanted to bring that into my performances. It took a long time to get it right in terms of sound/amplification, but being able to break into a drum solo on a Weissenborn definitely makes things more fun for me!
Explain to people what model the loop machine is you currently use live is as I have seen a lot of discussion on what exactly you’re using live and how you utilise it.
It’s a Boss RC-505. It’s actually a tabletop loop station, designed for beat boxers etc. Because of this, the buttons are flush as they are intended to be pressed with fingers. But I liked its features over the floor versions (such as the RC-300) and it had 5 tracks (versus 3) so I went to the toy store and bought some bouncy balls and cut them in half and stuck them to the buttons so I could press them with my foot! Haha. It has its limitations (for example, the stop buttons are too small to press with my foot so I have to pull little faders down to kill tracks) but it brings a lot to my sets. I like being able to record piano samples, for example (as in the ones I use in ‘Boy’) and load them onto the sampler, one chord per button/track, and then play piano with my foot while I play Weissenborn. It’s great for stompboxes, too.
Speaking of new material what are your plans over the next year or so with regards to recording and releasing a new weissenborn related material album?
I am about halfway through recording/producing my next album. There is certainly Weissenborn (and lap steel) on it, but it’s not built around my love of Weissenborn like my instrumental album was. It’s built around my love of music. Some of my new tracks have no guitars on them whatsoever. But fear not, there is definitely enough Weissenborn playing on there to give the sliders another shot in the arm. Haha! The song I’ve been working on recently (which I reckon might be the first track on the album) has got lots of Weissenborn on it. I recorded the rhythm part with my original style 4, and the lead parts on the tailpiece teardrop that Tony just made, which sounds amazing as it is a little more metallic and piercing due to the tailpiece, so it sits on top of the mix really nicely. That instrument has just sold though, so Tony is sending it off overseas! I’m stoked I got to use it for this tune before it disappeared!
Will it have any token Weissenborn instrumentals on it for all of us purists yearning for a new Thomas Oliver Weissenborn opus?
I don’t know yet! I would like there to be a point at which it all comes down to a solo Weissenborn as I think that would lend a nice dynamic change against some of the other heavily-produced stuff. But I haven’t written it yet. I don’t want to commit to anything because I change my mind about everything every day!
Chapter 7 “TOURING & PRESENT/FUTURE PROJECTS”
You’ve been to Europe twice now on tour as a solo artist what’s your experience been like and how has your music been received by a non partisan crowd?
Both tours to that side of the world have been amazing. I was lucky enough to play Sziget Festival in Budapest on my first trip which was a highlight of my life so far. I really loved traveling around the Netherlands on my recent tour and played in some incredible venues to some amazing audiences and met lots of cool people. The responses everywhere have been deeply appreciative. Looking forward to coming back!
Can you explain why there seems to be a perceived concentrate of Weissenborn luthiers and players in both New Zealand and Australia that doesn’t seem so prevalent in other countries?
It’s funny how people say that about New Zealand because I could count the number of Weissenborn players I know on one hand! Maybe two hands if I really think about it, but there’s not really anyone doing it professionally and regularly. Obviously Tony Francis is here and he represents New Zealand at the highest level as a maker, and Wellington is also home to Paddy Burgin who was the first Weissenborn maker I met when I moved to Welly in 2004, and I used to hang out in his workshop occasionally and play his instruments. There seems to be quite a few makers in Australia, and players are more common there, largely because of John Butler and Xavier Rudd, I would imagine. Australia and New Zealand have always been big on Ben Harper though, so I imagine that’s part of the perception that we love Weissenborns down here! Realistically, most people still don’t know what a Weissenborn is, but mystique is part of the instrument’s charm, so it’s fine with me!
What happened to The Thomas Oliver Band? Is that now firmly in your past?
We basically just moved in different directions, musically, and decided to make it official. Personally, I think I was really ready to go down the solo artist path, and start producing albums myself. It’s a nice freedom to be able to work with different musicians for different songs, and just call people in where required. I do miss the boys sometimes, though, and I miss the good times we had on the road together, but I’m really happy on my own at the moment. We’re all still good friends and everyone has their own projects they’re working on, so it’s cool.
You are a very complex musical character at heart it seems, you seem to have a very wide range of musical genres and styles which you seem to excel in. Drum and bass, rock band, solo guitar instrumentalist. Where do you see yourself being in 5-10 years time musically speaking?
To be honest, I really have no idea. It wouldn’t even be worth my guessing, because I love the concept of evolving as a musician, and there will undoubtedly be something (an artist, an album, a genre) which sweeps me off my feet and changes everything for me in that time, and I have no idea what or who it will be. All I know is that I will always make the music that’s in my heart.
Aston Road videos; what an amazing PR tool these are they look and sound divine, was that a nerve racking experience knowing you were being filmed at such close quarters?
It was a wonderful experience. Cushla, my manager, whose management company is named Aston Rd, pulled together an incredible crew of super talented and inspiring people. The other two artists she looks after, Louis Baker and and Estère, and I had a night each for 3 consecutive nights, so it felt like quite a production, and the whole crew was a real family by the end of the last night. I don’t really get nervous at being filmed or recorded – I just try to channel all of my energy into the music. Often it seems to make me play better!
Any more videos planned for the Aston Road Sessions?
I think Cushla has some plans for more sessions in the future, but I’m probably not supposed to talk about that!
Future touring plans. There’s lots of people in the USA that would love to hear you play live. Is that something you and your management have discussed?
I’m really hoping to get to the States as soon as possible. I’ve been there but never to play. At the moment, though, it’s all about getting my album finished so I have something to tour. But USA is high on my priorities list!
There seems to be a strong Scottish connection with you atm any particular reason why you seem to be playing more Scottish gigs than London gigs recently?
I’ve been really well supported by the British Council which is a collective who connects art and culture between New Zealand and the UK, so was lucky enough to be selected as one of a handful of Kiwi musicians to represent New Zealand at Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow recently, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year. I love Scotland and certainly hope to get back there again soon.
Any confirmed or possible dates for the rest of the year outside of your home country?
We’re currently looking at another tour for later in the year, but nothing has been confirmed at this stage.
What other musical projects are you working on right now?
I’ve basically had to sideline everything else while I focus on my album. I’ve had to turn down some rad gigs and collabs with amazing musicians and producers, because otherwise I will just spread my time too thin and right now my life has to be all about my album. Being the way I am as a musician (i.e. with my fingers in a fair few pies!) is great, but at times I have to entirely prioritise my primary musical venture.
Finally is any message you’d like to shout out to the weissenborn fans reading this?
Yes! Thank you to everyone who has supported me and my music. I never imagined that my playing would travel so far. I hope that every player in the world can take as much joy from playing Weissenborn as I have. We are a minority. That’s cool. I wish you the best with your own journeys. Lots of love from Aotearoa!
Thanks Thomas you’ve been such an accommodating and gracious man all the best to you and until the next time we hook up, goodbye 🙂
My pleasure. Thank you!