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An Interview with Pat Metheny

Pat Metheny is a musical prodigy. He became a professor of jazz guitar at eighteen and a singular, melodic voice in contemporary music by his twenties, defining the sound of modern jazz guitar. Since the 1970s, he has collaborated with many of the most significant artists in history, including Joni Mitchell, Ornette Coleman, David Bowie, and Jaco Pastorius. 

Metheny has a devotional relationship to music. He dismisses the idea of talent in favor of disciplined work, and is known for practicing the guitar for eight hours a day. He tours nearly constantly, performing over three hundred shows a year. For each one, he spends four hours in preparation: he avoids conversation, runs purposely mindless exercises, and abstains from all food. After the show, he writes ten pages of notes on the performance, critiquing the sound, music, and environment. He has never tasted alcohol or tried any drug, in order to stay focused on music.

Over forty years, Metheny has won twenty Grammys and released over fifty records, in varying capacities and with various groups. He talks about the “serious business” of music and refers to himself as “compulsively productive, with emphasis on the compulsion.” But despite his diligence, Metheny is all smiles. He sports an iconic plumage of rock-and-roll curls atop his head and has performed at least once in nothing but a Speedo. He is a man who relishes the luck that has graced his life of virtuosity, and believes in playing every concert as if it were his last.

Since the early days of his career, Metheny has never neatly worn the role of a “jazz musician,” and he refers to the genre, dismissively, as “the j word.” He is a composer, improviser, and innovator, working primarily in a musical style that has, in the last forty years, become characterized by conservation, institutions, and aging audiences. Thankfully, Metheny constantly pivots, playing noise music, film scores, chamber music, Americana, and in mechanical percussion ensembles of his own creation. His best-known work, with the Pat Metheny Group, blends many international styles and brought him arena-sized audiences in the ’90s; it continues to influence musicians in rock, jazz, and hip-hop.

For the following talk, Metheny initially resisted a phone interview and requested that I send him questions by email. So I sent my questions, and in a twist, he asked to have a phone conversation. Then a few weeks later, at midnight, nine hours before our conversation, he sent an email filled with exhaustive answers to all my questions. This left me without anything left to ask.

In this way, he forced me to enter our phone conversation with nothing but my ears and voice, just as he would. I decided to interpret this as a lesson in improvisational dialogue from one of the masters of improvisation. What follows is a collage of both conversations

—Ross Simonini

I. THE RADIO STATION IN MY HEAD

THE BELIEVER: Listening is the foundation of all music, but especially of improvisation. How have you come to think about listening over the course of your life?

PAT METHENY: As a musician, particularly in the general areas that I have been able to hang in, the listening skills that someone brings to the table are usually the most faithful identifying characteristics of their true musicianship, or at least the kind of musicianship I am always on the lookout for.

There is a particular quality of listening that transcends style or genre or even ability and that is almost universally present in the musicians who have meant the most to me, both as a fan and as a listener. Most of all, I am drawn to folks who can combine a deep understanding of music and an aspiration to the highest levels of fluency in that kind of listening skill.

The ability to hear inside the intention and meaning of the moment at hand, in a soulful and creative way, represents a key element shared across a wide spectrum of not just music but all sorts of other things in life as well.

That begs the question, then, of where music begins and ends. More and more, as the years go on and my general understanding of music expands, what was once a blurry line has now pretty much disintegrated. It is all music if you listen to it that way. But that is a totally personal and subjective response to the world. Over the years, I have been amazed at the variety of responses people have had to my music, whether they are from informed musicians or folks who don’t know much at all about how music works. 

BLVR: Right. Listening doesn’t even require sound, since you can “listen” to music in your head. What about hearing? Has your relationship to hearing changed after a lifetime of loud music exposure?

PM: Hearing was the entry point for me, no doubt, with music being the carrot. I am still figuring out what the stick is. There is hearing, and then there is listening. They are related on a hardware level, but in practice they may or may not be related, depending on what human OS it is all running on.

It is worth noting that for a huge chunk of the past fifty years, I have spent a few hours each night standing with (mostly) my left ear inches away from various super-
talented musicians who are hitting large pieces of metal with wooden sticks—often as loudly and intensely as possible. And those are my favorite people! Drummers.

So, with a certain amount of damage done, back to the issue of hearing versus listening. There is no question that the environment of being on bandstands over that pretty substantial period of time has taken a toll on the hardware side of things—but, honestly, so far not in ways that have affected me seriously.

If I have to trace the signal path from input to output in a real-time situation, once I have ideas coming in on the bandstand, the response to them gets processed in ways that are not really connected to the more qualitative mechanisms of pitch, rhythm, and so forth.

At this stage of the game, those elements are kind of a given, and my focus has been on areas that are somehow less tangible than the sort of linguistic aspects of music that are fairly easy to discuss. I suppose if I really became unable to register those elements on the bandstand, it could be different. But I think it would have to get really severe for that to happen.

On the general “output” side of sitting in a room by myself working on music or playing or whatever, my general relationship to whatever I am working on is happening before translating ideas on any particular instrument.

Certainly, the guitar is my most effective and immediate translation device, but I often sit at the piano to check things, since it is about ten times easier in every way than a guitar. But since the late ’70s, computers have played a pretty huge role in things for me too.

But ideas are once-removed from all this. And somehow I think after a particular relationship to music is established, where the mechanical aspects of it can kind of disappear as a barrier—and that happens only through lots of practice and work and experience—then it gets possible to just get right to it. The “hearing” part of it, in an external sense, becomes less critical for me, even though bringing those ideas into sound—so that other listeners might get a glimpse of what I hope to offer them—still remains a practical destination.

BLVR: Do you find you want to hear certain things now more than before?

PM: Yes, in every possible way. I am a way, way, way better musician now than at earlier stages in my career, and whatever improvements have occurred have mostly been attributable to my ability to become a better listener. It is a lot more fun and satisfying for me now because I am many times more effective at representing what I hope to have come out of the ax or the pen or the band than I used to be. It has been immensely rewarding to know I can get to stuff with a much higher degree of precision—that what is coming out is so much closer to what I’d hoped for. 

As players, we often describe an early fundamental goal as being able to “play what I hear.” At this stage of the game, I can play about 25 percent of what I hear—it used to be about 10 percent. So still a long way to go. It kind of drives my family nuts that I don’t want to listen to the radio when we are driving someplace. I wish they could hear the radio station that has been blasting in my head since I was about five. The goal remains for me to get better at rendering that stuff so they and everyone else might also hear what I hear. 

BLVR: Has your ability to distinguish harmonies and rhythms only improved, or is that progress not always linear?

PM: There are many parallels with language in music. The ability to recognize the specifics of each moment in time using the methods we have come to define as melody, harmony, and rhythm is central to being able to hang, particularly in the general community of folks I have been so lucky to be a part of over the years. 

And yet it is kind of a given that to deal with any language, you have to have a pretty expansive command of the vocabulary that makes that language what it is. If we are talking about getting on the bandstand with Herbie Hancock or Gary Burton or any musician at that level, it is sort of like if you were going to meet someone who was one of the greatest speakers of a very specific language—like ancient Flemish or something.

To be an effective and functioning participant in that hang, you would have to be almost spectacularly fluent in that language. But even so, fluency doesn’t really mean you are not going to bore the crap out of the world’s greatest ancient Flemish storytellers. You gotta have your own story to tell. If it is told in perfect ancient Flemish, all the better, but in the end, the language is just the delivery mechanism. It’s the story that counts.

So my life over a half century has been that of someone using a very detailed dialect in a very rich language, maybe even one that could seem pretty arcane to the novice. Required in that language is the ability to hear and instantaneously identify the building blocks of music—harmony, melody, and rhythm—accurately and on the spot. And like anything else of value, mastering the basics is a quest that never really ends. You can never spend too much time working on the traditional elements at the root of the language while continuing to expand your ability to hear and decipher the top level of what is going on, and the infinite subtexts that the best music almost always seems to carry within it.

But it’s the story that counts.

II. “THE STANDARD IS CLEAR”

BLVR: You keep elaborate notes on your performances. 

PM: True.

BLVR: Can you tell me a little about the nature of these notes, beyond the who/where/when details? 

PM: There is a lot of who/where/when in there, actually. It has been very useful for me to remember what I played the last time I was at a place, what the problems or good things were about a venue or a promoter, and even technical things like there being a big radio antenna on top of the building that caused a huge buzz in everything. Things like that.

Then there are the musical aspects. I have found that by kind of replaying the set in my mind a few hours after the show, I am reminded of things I might otherwise have missed or forgotten. When you are playing a lot of gigs—I very often do six or seven nights in a row in six or seven different cities before any day off comes along—things tend to blur together. And as any performer can tell you, you can totally mess up some things along the way. Then at the end the audience seems to like it OK, and you kind of dismiss the fact that on the fourth tune, it all just kind of fell apart. Or that every single time you get to letter J on that new tune, at that same spot in the improvising form, you forget to invoke the subdominant tritone sub before the turnaround—and it happened every single night that week. So noting those things—writing them down—really helps me know what to work on to make the next gig better.

My main job in virtually everything I have been up to over these years is bandleader. I really try to find guys who are the best people for my zone of interest at that time. And since I have always written almost all the music I’m going to get these great musicians to play, I have a particular sense of the result I hope to get with them. Taking notes is an excellent way to keep up with what I need from the other players. There is a lot of stuff written in there about dynamics, solo suggestions, touch, sound, and all the areas that fall into the bandleader part of things. 

I take a bunch of notes with me to the sound check and pick and choose my spots: if it has been a day that included a fifteen-hour bus ride getting to a place and we have an hour before the gig, that probably isn’t the time to start asking the piano player for a natural nine instead of a flat nine on that V chord going into the bridge of the ninth tune in the set—but I will be reminded to get to it eventually.

BLVR: What is the ultimate goal for you with these notes? 

PM: The fundamentals are always the main thing. Rushing, dragging, playing good notes, feel—all the basic stuff. And not just for me—for everyone. Within any set of gigs is kind of an overarching gig. I work on trying to get each night to feel like a single tune. A lot of that is coming up with a set list that has that feel to it, but it goes beyond that. Like the next step after that is to make a whole tour seem like one tune, even when we aren’t on the bandstand. Even the travel can be part of the tune when it is all going well.

There are good days and less-good days over the course of a bunch of gigs. I always wonder why that is. What can I do to increase the odds of making everything have the kind of connection that makes it more consistently fun and satisfying—not just for me but for everyone? What is really good is that over the years, my batting average on those fronts has really improved. I do think the notes thing has helped.

BLVR: Do you re-read your notes?

PM: It is useful to go back and check out what I was thinking fifteen or twenty years ago and how much it is (mostly) the same on a musical level, but also how much more relaxed I am about a bunch of things now that probably would have really bugged me before. 

I am definitely well into the not-giving-a-shit zone of my career. The thing is, I always felt pretty nonaligned with any particular scene or goal anyway, so I have mostly been in a place where I needed to create a world under my own auspices—there just wasn’t anything else to compare it to.

We have been lucky to have some incredibly inspiring figures along the way that have shown us how good “good” really is. And I consider myself, once again, incredibly lucky to have had the chance to be around a bunch of them.

BLVR: How critical are you of yourself? 

PM: I am admittedly a bit all over the place in that area. On the one hand, I think we all suck, and we should all be way better than we are, and what is wrong with us?! Let’s get it together! And by that, I mean everyone

But on the other hand, when I see someone who can play anything at all, at almost any level, it is kind of amazing to me. I think anyone who gets music out into the air that they love and that reflects even a little of their sense of their place on earth is fantastic. But I also think they should all get a lot better too.

As far as my own thing, I am extremely critical. But not in a bad or negative way. I just do my best to try to understand what exactly is between where my work is and where I would want or hope it to be. I would say it is less about being critical and more about being realistic. There is Bach. Wes [Montgomery]. Miles. Mahler. Keith [Jarrett]. The standard is clear. I never looked to who was sitting right next to me; I always looked at the level that was expressed in the master musicians who inspired me the most. And looking in that direction has been useful in terms of locating the next steps needed in my own research.

BLVR: What have you found to be the ideal lifestyle for you to maintain the level of musical performance you need?

PM: Because I started playing professionally when I was quite young, I was able to see a bunch of the ways different musicians got through the day. The main thing for me was always to do my best to sound as good as I could. Early on, I probably wasn’t qualified even to be on some of those gigs. It was incredible that I was given those opportunities. 

So my response was a very pragmatic one of living in a pretty healthy way. I have never tried drugs, alcohol, smoking, et cetera, because the various scenes I was around at a young age didn’t suggest there was much of a benefit to a lifestyle that included all that—especially as the nights wore on.

But also, and maybe more to the point, I have never felt much interest in changing up my groove. The world is pretty unbelievable just as it is. In that sense, I have been mostly apathetic about that general area of culture, especially among musicians.

As it turns out, now, at age sixty-six, when I look around at folks my age who had very different kinds of relationships to those things, I can see that there are some real benefits to the way I lived that got me to this point. But generally, [substances] were never a thing for me one way or the other. I certainly don’t have any moral problem with everyone finding their own best path to get to whatever it is they are shooting for.

III. “I DON’T KNOW”–ISM

BLVR: You seem to be one of the most remarkably happy musicians (and artists) working today, and your music often expresses this. Does that ring true to you?

PM: Someone once described the music I have been involved with as “not happy, not sad… it’s just the way it is.” I took that as a compliment at the time, and I think I kind of know what that person was saying—and I would say that maybe I kind of agree with their sense of it all. But I always flinch when I hear musicians refer to what they do as “my music.”

I don’t feel like “it” has that much to do with me, in a way. But at the same time, of course, I know it does. I do tend to think of it as an “it” that has been there all along. I do my best to extract things that seem to me to have been around forever in a way that is a faithful representation of what I perceive them to be. 

But in that description lives that pesky I word. There we are, back at the stick.

BLVR: You’ve spoken of feeling lucky where others have not been—born with immense talent, opportunity, health—but have you used any kind of philosophy to maintain your attitude through the years? 

PM: I didn’t expect anything to happen that was remotely connected to what has ended up happening. But I wouldn’t be surprised to find that that same sentiment exists in about 99 percent of the population. The luck part of things for me maybe centers most around the chance circumstances that led me to grow up where I did and the fantastic opportunities that a few musicians around KC [Kansas City] gave me early on. Everything that happened after that sprang from those experiences. So in the amazing community of players I get to hang with, I do my best to provide other musicians with opportunities in the same way I was given them. 

BLVR: I know you are interested in the conversations around the new atheism (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, et cetera) and the refusal of religion. How has this kind of thinking been useful to you in life?

PM: I grew up in the heart of the Bible Belt [in Lee’s Summit, Missouri]. And the next town over was Independence, Missouri—where Joe Smith first located the Garden of Eden, [before the Mormons were] chased out to Utah. I can remember some early encounters with those various crews as a little kid and thinking, Those are some scary, crazy neighbors we have over there! 

We had evangelical revivals around the edges of our town, and I would sneak over and stick my head under the back of the tent where they kept snakes that they would pretend to pull out of people and stuff. And then they’d go around and collect money from families sitting there that I knew to be among the poorest in town.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was so clearly weird and struck me as being really jive. I know this general area is a zone in our culture where you should be respectful and let everyone do their thing. I do my best to be polite about it, but I have no problem saying “I don’t know” to things that are outside our realm of current understanding. I actually love being in a state of true “I don’t know”–ism. 

Regarding those guys you mentioned: Yes, I read their books and enjoy their arguments, which are often built on a relationship with the most worthy principles of the scientific method. And yet at the same time, a state of “I don’t know” opens the door to an understanding of the most salient aspect of the zone I have been so fortunate to hang in across these years: soul. 

IV. “THE GUITAR IS A TRANSLATION DEVICE”

BLVR: During the pandemic, what has been your process of musical composition? 

PM: In a bunch of ways, staying in a room for ten or twelve hours a day (mostly) by myself, working on music in whatever form it happens to take, is just about my favorite thing to do. This period right now is easily the most civilian life I have had since junior high school. And it makes me understand why people like civilian life.

I get up very early every day, between four and five. I have three kids, so those hours before 7:00 a.m. are really valuable as a chunk of truly uninterrupted grazing time. Plus, for whatever reason, right after I wake up I can get to things from a different angle than I can later in the day. So I have maintained that during this whole period. My thing sometimes is that I can’t wait to go to bed because I can’t wait to wake up. 

BLVR: The harmonies and chromaticism on the new album feel different from much of your other work, hinting at Ligeti and Shostakovich. Do you ever think in terms of contemporary “classical” music?

PM: The issue of genre has always been a puzzle for me. I see music as one big thing that is virtually borderless. Or, more to the point, it needs no borders: it exists within its own realm that renders boundaries meaningless. 

When I read articles about music and musicians, often they are more about the particular culture and politics that surround a musician than the music itself. It is kind of an understandable dilemma.

I am probably like most musicians in that I became a musician because I am a fan of music. My immediate response to the music I love is an almost overwhelming desire to understand why I love that particular thing so much. I think that, once again, I benefitted from growing up in a place where there were not a lot of indicators to me of what was good or hip or cool or anything—as a ten-year-old in Lee’s Summit, I just took music for what it was, based on my own perceptions.

So John Philip Sousa and the Beach Boys and Ornette Coleman and Henry Mancini and Miles Davis and the Beatles really had just one thing in common for me: they were people I heard by way of record albums. Beyond that, I didn’t worry about it too much. It seemed to me that there was way more overlap than difference between them. Basically, my life from then until now has continued that process of trying to understand, with the added aspect of being able to reflect back on the things I have found to be true along the way.

Included in that comes the development of a pretty intense relationship with the nuts and bolts of the way music functions. Included in all that would also be a way of thinking of music that goes beyond purely diatonic harmony into a zone where all twelve notes are available all the time, as you reference in the question.

BLVR: Is notation essential to your composition process? 

PM: Being able to read and write music at a high level is absolutely essential. I have written lots of notes for lots of musicians over the years. My earliest efforts to write music came from a practical place. I found it hard to get to what I wanted to get to as an improviser while playing standards or blues forms or even Wayne Shorter or Thelonious Monk tunes.

I found that by writing things for the folks I was playing with, I could create an environment that was particularly well suited for me to get to where I wanted to go as an improviser. As things continued in my own bands along the way, there were periods when I needed hundreds of pages of written material to ultimately deliver the setting I wanted for myself and the other folks on the bandstand. There would be no way to get to those kinds of results without utilizing the incredible resource of standard music notation that has evolved over the past few hundred years.

Where the new record is somewhat of a departure is in the fact that there is no improvisation. The entire world of what these pieces offer is there on the page, from start to finish. What is most exciting to me is that folks a hundred years from now will find the same notes on the page that will indicate in full detail how to find the story contained within.

BLVR: Do you compose daily? 

PM: My general sense is that I have to show up. It is like fishing. You gotta go to the pond. You might go and not catch anything. But if you don’t go, you definitely won’t catch anything. 

BLVR: Do you ever wait for inspiration? 

PM: There is often waiting involved. But at a certain point, I just start. It is not at all unusual that in the end the first few pages are thrown out and the good ideas start to show up on page six or something like that.

And there are times when stuff just appears, almost out of thin air. The tune “Are You Going with Me?” unfolded in exactly the amount of time it takes to play it as a finished thing. I never changed one note of it. 

On the other hand, I have things I know are there somewhere and that I have been looking at and waiting for the next steps for them for decades. And quite often I get a breakthrough about things that seemed impenetrable at the start. Patience is really useful in every aspect of musicianship, but especially in writing.

BLVR: You seem like a musician who always looks to push your limits.

PM: If that is true, it isn’t a willful thing beyond just the fact that my favorite place to be is in a spot where I don’t quite know what I am doing.

BLVR: How are you challenging yourself now? 

PM: I don’t think like that too much about myself. I will say I am drawn to creating challenges when writing music for the astonishing array of musicians whom I get the chance to hire along the way. Take Antonio Sanchez, for instance, whom I have been lucky to be able to use for lots of projects. Having Antonio in a band is like having Albert Einstein on your math faculty: you don’t want to ask Albert to teach eighth-grade algebra—you need to provide him with a platform to go beyond what he knows he can do. When I write for Antonio, I try to come up with things where I know he will shine but also find things in himself that he might not have known about before.

That was also true in this recent project with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. I wanted to offer them things that, in my opinion, would be the kinds of things that showed them to be the fantastic musicians they clearly are but also to give them stuff that would push them to places they might not normally get to.

BLVR: Have you ever found your virtuosity to be a hindrance to realizing ideas? 

PM: Virtuosity? I feel like I can barely play the thing. When I see a video of my incredibly homespun way of getting ideas out, it almost makes no sense that what is coming out is coming out like it (mostly) does.

The guitar is a translation device for ideas for me. I don’t worry about it too much—kind of the way I think most people don’t really worry too much about what exactly their tongue is doing while they speak. Maybe if they have to speak a word they have not encountered before, they would have to practice how to say it a bit, or maybe learning and speaking another language is a good analogy for how some tongue training would parallel what I need to do when something comes up that I can’t do at all on the instrument.

But what really counts is what is going on before the mechanics of speaking or, in my case, the playing or the writing: the ideas. That is where my attention—and work—is mostly centered. That said, I feel now like I can get things to sound much closer to the way I really hear them, with a much higher degree of success than ever before—and I enjoy the whole process more and more all the time. 

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