Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Musicians Like Me

Rock guitarist, songwriter, and old school style showman Izzy Zaidman cast a big shadow at tonight's show at The Vault in Farmington, Missouri. I caught up with him after the wildly impressive double set of his eponymous 5-piece band, Izzy and the Catastrophics.

FM: Tell me please about your circle, the circle you form with your band onstage before the show. Chaos and creativity are happening in there, what else?

IZ: Biorhythms, we get on the same frequency. It's a scientific fact about electric impulses: in the circle we're touching, focusing. It's easier to “play tiger” to play better as a group. All the stuff I can't “tell” them as bandleader, the technical stuff of music, e.g., please don't fuck up the chorus. The circle I find helps the whole.

FM: Do you think about us in there, the audience?

IZ: Not directly. We take three deep breaths, we achieve harmonious energy; there's a pep talk, we fill up the space with positive spirit. I specifically make it not daunting, a light ritual.

FM: You have the musicians take turns calling the set. Why is it important to you that the show never be the same?

IZ:   The way I look at it, we're magicians, shamans. It has to come from the room: the smell, the height of the ceiling, the quality of the sound system, the audience, their demographics, the age differences. Whether they're drunk on a Saturday night and ready to rock, or it's a coffee shop where people don't know you. For that reason I want the band to have a large repertoire, that can be turned up, turned down. Show qua creative ritual, molded to fit the moment.

FM: What did you feel about us, tonight, here in Farmington, Missouri?

IZ: We've been talking about this place—The Vault—how it's not a bar; there's a real bohemian vibe in here. We're struck, age-wise, by the mix, how open-minded the audience is. Funny, the Midwest is kind of hit or miss: awesome surrounded by shit. This place is an oasis, cool, bohemian—it's not that common. There are others, like Saybrook, Illinois, for instance: it's an amazing town, their taste in music is deeply informed.

I want to be able to pull off a show even for those who don't know the music: but I have to say,  it's great when they do.

FM: Did you dumb it down for us, here in Farmington?

IZ: There was no need to dumb it down. I know this is isn't in your questions, but I mentioned it on stage. It was like 80% certain that I was going to have to cancel this stint of the tour—my sax and bass player bailed, canceled at the last minute. When I told Tim Smith he said, no way. He pulled out all the stops, put me in touch with musicians he knew. We persevered.

FM: Sounds like Tim shored you up in a big way.

IZ: Yes, he wasn't the only one, but he was one of the biggest proponents of continuing the tour. He looks at things not so much as a club owner but from the perspective of the fans, how disappointed they'd feel if we didn't make it. So the group you saw tonight came together. Musicians like me.

FM: Izzy, I don't mean to flatter, but clearly you are a man of abundant talent, you could do anything you wanted to do, so I have to ask: why music? Why this music?

IZ: I've been playing guitar a really long time, since I was 13. My dad's a guitar player. He teaches finger style at The New School. He's into early Ragtime, Bluegrass, Mississippi Delta blues. I dug all that too, and Chuck Berry, then metal and punk. I've been through many musical metamorphoses: honky-tonk, gypsy influences. I played with Wayne Hancock.

FM: Sorry, he hasn't played The Vault yet; should I know him?

IZ: Yes! Roots singer/songwriter. Legit, old school country. I was so proud of myself, a New Yorker going to Texas, getting that gig. When I left Austin, it was to start a band, a band where I can play all of it, all the music I love to play. I couldn't really see myself playing only one thing that was straight ahead down the line.

Obviously this band is an extension of me, my creative energy, the original rock 'n roll songs I've written that we perform. But the truth is, that we haven't stopped touring in three years, 200 to 250 gigs a year. It's all sculpted...by The Vault, the gigs in Texas, or Belgium. One song, I might play it before audiences 40 times before it's finished. I think of the process I'm involved in, and I haven't expressed this thought to anyone before, as the collective creator.

FM: The collective creator! Izzy, that's great. I know exactly what you mean; I feel that way about Written Word, Spoken Word, that it gives voice to others. I'm the one who writes it, but there's more to it than that—how it's shaped, what questions it seeks to answer.

Your performance style is wholehearted, the way you sing out, how the notes extend to the outer limits. Whole-bodied too—animated, alive! But I can't help noticing how you talk with your hands while you sing. Not your head, not your butt, or your crotch, but your hands. How did that evolve? Is it a tick of ethnicity? Is it to enhance communication, a kind of sign language with your audience?

IZ: I'll try and break it down for you. I'm half Jewish, a quarter Italian, and a quarter Irish, so, yeah, the Jewish-Italian three quarters could account for it. But I'm not thinking hands any more than any other part of my body when I'm acting out my original tunes.

I come from Washington Heights; it's a Dominican neighborhood now, mostly known for George Carlin, Christopher Walken, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Tiny Tim and--

FM: --Izzy Zaidman.

IZ: Yeah, thanks. In terms of others I'm mimicking: Carl Perkins, the way he moves, hip, bopping; also Bad Brains, they're my favorite band. And Chuck Berry, Django Reinhardt, Fats Waller.

FM: Speaking of Fats, my next question is...

IZ: Yes...?

FM: Who's your "Lulu?"

IZ: Hah! I don't have a Lulu. Or maybe I have a few Lulus stashed away.

FM: I know you're a writer of short stories, that you're interested in literature, so I'm particularly curious about the name you chose for your band Izzy and The Catastrophics, particularly its grammar. You took an adjective, one with multiple meanings, and morphed it into a noun.

IZ: It's intended in the planetary sense—hurricanes, tsunamis; all hugely chaotic, possibly damaging forces of nature. Except for their potentially negative consequences for humans and animals they're not necessarily a bad thing for the Earth, though certainly not happy and friendly events.

It has also in part to do with my internal philosophy, the wisdom in ripping things apart to shake things up.

FM: And you feel your original music is the most efficacious way for you to do that?

IZ: I enjoy it. It comes from somewhere before the age of reason. There are these genetic patterns. So yes, this volcano's gonna erupt.

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