A Nice Chat with Michael Henry Tillman
Tillman's technique is classical-Spanish-cum-jazz; he plays pianistically in the manner of cats I dig like Bola Sete, Lenny Breau, or solo Joe Pass, with some flamenco-derived fireworks and a lot of percussive right-hand action. He sings well, too, in a strong, clear voice that’s less individuated than lots of songsters, but also less mannered. This morning I yakked online with the Dentonite while burning CD-R’s and procrastinating on another writing project.
K: The repertoire you select is interesting and I'm curious how you came to be interested in the styles you play.
M: It's a bit convoluted. I started on a Gretsch electric.
K: So not afraid of big fat bodies.
M: Had two lessons from John Hyatt in 1990, before he moved to LA. Then I moved to Yorktown, TX, to live with Dad -- no teachers. Began teaching myself.
K: What was your original impetus to play?
M: A classmate, Dan Phillips. Played Metallica and was a b-a-d-a-s-s. I saw him play and for the first time saw an avenue that would let me “be cool,” if I were like him. I was a pretty loner kinda kid for various reasons. Starting with allergies -- no sports. After moving to south Texas, I played lots of love ballads and found a friend to duet with on stuff at UIL events. We learned very quickly what the value was of being the only two guys that girls would actually crowd around. My junior year, I thought i was gettin’ pretty good. So I wanted to compete. I was told it had to be classical.
K: So you were playing fingerstyle already?
M: Whoops -- can't skip that. Yes, I started playing fingerstyle a Christmas before because I was trying to make a Christmas tape. The electric was running away from me, but I happened to have a classical borrowed from mom. I start playing it and found I could bite into the notes, control them, make them do what I wanted. I made my tape and never went back from fingerstyle. Then for UIL, I still had no teacher. They gave me a list (it had to be classical if I was to compete); I went to Victoria and found the sole album of classical guitar [there]. I learned a piece off of it -- Scarlatti's Sonata in Em. “Wrong” positioning and a steel string guitar, but I still put in a good performance. But I learned the piece completely by ear, and it turned out correctly.
K: Paul Quigg and I have talked about that – the expressiveness of the nylon-string.
M: I love the subtlety of nylon strings. I love jazz on nylon. But it's rarely done well.
K: You do that solo Joe Pass pianistic thing really well.
M: That is the best compliment I have ever received! I usually have to explain to people who Joe Pass is.
K: That was the first thing I noticed when you were playing in the li'l room at the Kessler.
M: Well, I went from that to having a fall out with Dad, so no music school. But five years later I was still floundering at A&M, had a panic attack, walked of campus and never looked back. Starting gigging five nights a week. But while at A&M, I met many students of different nationalities because of the nylon guitar. Nylon strings are more common in mainstream music in pretty much every country. Except us.
K: I was about to say -- the universal language of guitar.
M: But that was my intro to Paco de Lucia, Gipsy Kings, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and I would get CDs from Koreans, Turks, South American, Spanish, French, Austrian students. And try to play the songs for them to impress them. The “Desperado” song, for one. “Bamboleo.” “Girl from Ipanema.”
K: A pretty good way to get a musical education.
M: Then I used the internet to search like things and build a repertoire of different pieces of music. For a long time I did a lot of classical repertoire; problem is it’s rather stiff compared to jazz. But the Brazilian music -- very good combination. Rhythmic, jazzy, nylon.
K: Very sensuous. And lets you play all the music, rather than just "guitar."
M: So after being flustered with flamenco for so long I finally realized -- I want to be “Brazilian” more than anything. Now, I do sing lots of Spanish, but there's a pretty strong Brazilian influence in it. However, all the rasgeado -- that comes from my time trying to learn flamenco.
K: Very fiery and dynamic.
M: At some point I'll give it a stronger go, but there’s only so much time in the day to learn “absolutely everything about guitar playing.”
K: That's a lifetime study. How fluent are you in Spanish? Conversationally, I mean.
M: Not fluent enough, but I'm working on it. Spanish fluency is one of my major summer projects this year.
K: Are you supporting yourself through music, or do you have another gig?
M: Well, I was supporting myself solely through guitar playing 'til 2008. Then disaster struck.
K: How so?
M: Love. I stopped playing completely, got a job, and then, via discussions with my “love,” decided to go back to music school and get a related job so that when we were married, I would be happy and have a stable job (teaching, or something similar, but a steady paycheck as goal.) My grades being bad from A&M, I went to Brookhaven. Got straight A’s. She was in law school and moved to Austin. which was only a 2 year deal. But that was long enough for her to get tired of me. She left me the day before I got accepted to TWU. I held on hard, but I was always the one with the positive outlook. She was afraid she'd have to pay for my schooling. But anyway, now I'm in TWU, I'm studying music education and am going to finish with cello. Depending on how much sense it makes, I may or may not go for graduate study. Ideally, I learn the cello well enough to pursue grad work and eventually get symphonic work and do gigs/recordings when possible.
K: Have you done any recordings of your guitar/vocal stuff?
M: I'm recording an album of originals now (all guitar.) Once that is done, I’m going to do another album that will be vocal covers (like the Buena Vista Social Club’s “Chan Chan” [see Liles' vid below]), but they will also feature lead work. I have about 16 originals to record once school is out. And an accordion! Any instrument you play adds something to your primary instrument, assuming you’re engaged and not just screwing around with it.
K: Sounds like a busy summer.