Voices to hear: Interview with Brian Stoltz

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brian stotlz

This interview originally ran on the site Voices to hear.
Brian Stoltz is a singer/songerwriter from New Orleans. He has worked with such artists as Bob Dyaln, Neville Brothers, Dr. John, the Meters and Aaron Neville. He has released three solo albums on his own.

1) For many artists, they cite a defining moment for themselves when they knew they wanted to be a singer. For many it was the appearance of Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show, to another generation it was The Beatles’ appearance on Sullivan half a decade later. Is there such a defining moment for you?

It was 1963. I was eight years old when I first heard The Beatles sing “She Loves You” on WTIX-AM in New Orleans. I was launched into a transcendent, joyous state. I had entered a whole new paradigm. The world made more sense. Around the same time, the radio was also playing “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. That’s when music changed for me. Until then the radio was just something in the background. I listened to my mother’s records like the “Sheik Of Arabi” and some old Fats Domino records. I was attracted to music – interested in hearing new sounds – but hearing The Beatles for the first time was a powerful, emotional experience. By the time they appeared on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night television show I was, in my mind, a musician. There was never a time in my life when I thought otherwise. Providence just handed it to me.
In September 1964, The Beatles came to New Orleans to play City Park Stadium. I begged my mother to take me, but she would have none of it. Looking back, she was probably in fear of getting crushed by the manic crowd, but being refused, I was very upset. Things calmed down when on the day of the show she came home from work with a copy of “Meet The Beatles” for me. I was ecstatic! This was my initiation into the art of album-listening. I was nine years old telling people that I was going to be a musician like The Beatles. They would laugh and say, “You are? What instrument do you play?” They would laugh even harder when I told them, “I don’t play anything – but I will”.
There have been many defining moments like when I first heard Hendrix – and when I got Dylan for the first time. But hearing The Beatles on the radio for the first time is the all time defining moment.

2)When you are not creating music what are you listening to? Who are some of your favorites?

Currently, I am listening to a few new things – The Raconteurs CD, “Consolers Of The Lonely”, Radiohead’s “Rainbows” and probably my favorite new release, Drive By Truckers’, “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark”. I saw them on one of the late night shows. They did a song called “Two Daughters And A Beautiful Wife” – one of the most beautiful songs that I’ve heard in a long time. I bought the record and found that there are a lot of good songs on there. I am also listening to the latest Neil Young record, “Chrome Dreams 2”, a Chris Whitley “Anthology 1991 – 2001” and a Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions “Anthology 1961-1977”. I am still listening to Tom Waits’ “Orphans” and his “Real Gone” albums.
There are a lot of records that have held up over the years that I keep in rotation like the entire Dylan catalog, most of the Hendrix releases, including many bootlegs that I have, the Beatles catalog and an assortment of old local records like “Best of Lee Dorsey”, Earl King (The Imperial Years), Dr. John’s “Desitively Bonnaroo” and assorted Allen Toussaint.

3)What would you say is your greatest moment so far as an artist, either on record or live?

There have been so many great moments like finding myself on The Rolling Stones’ “Tattoo You” tour with The Neville Brothers, after being out of work for six months recovering from carpel tunnel surgery. Another tour that I hold fond memories of was the first Amnesty International “Conspiracy Of Hope” tour. We were on the road with U2, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, The Police and a host of luminaries, raising awareness of the plight of political prisoners around the world.
But the memories that remain the clearest are of being in the studio with Bob Dylan, working on his “Oh Mercy” album (1989). The producer, Dan Lanois, set up the recording gear in an old house in uptown New Orleans. This was a quiet, but intense time. I was open to taking in as much as possible from the situation. Having the opportunity to watch Bob work was a real education and inspiration for me. There was no pomp or real pressure to perform – just a few guys sitting around in a tight circle playing real music. These more quiet moments are burned into my memory with more intensity than any of the hoopla that accompanies big tours.

4)Do you believe music can change the world or is just something to listen to? How can music influence current events?

Everything affects every thing. I don’t feel that music by itself can change much, but the ideas in songs can make a difference. The thoughts we have and the things we say can make a difference. Every thing affects everything. We are living in an age where it is important for us to explore the things we have in common – the things that link us as human. It is time to forgive shortcomings and differences and face life in a fearless manner. Music can influence current events when artists speak fearlessly – and we are living in a time where we just can’t fake it. Songs can inspire individuals to change, but it is individuals who must bring about change.

5)How has technology affected the music industry? How has technology affected your career as a musician?

Technology has certainly changed things – some for the better, some for the worse. I have mixed feelings about it all since I am a bit challenged in the technical department. I am still trying to master e-mail. But on the upside I think it is great that, with good quality recording gear becoming more affordable, songwriters and musicians can pull up a drum loop and instantly have a foundation to create over – or that they can lay down that 3 o’clock in the morning idea in an instant. In this regard, it saves time and money. Digital editing has also given us some time-saving features when you compare it to the old days when tape was spliced with a razor blade. But the question is “does all this technology really save us time in the long run?” No, because we now have too many options – and it is within boundaries and limitation that creativity occurs. Having so many options has watered down the creative process. There is a lot of the same crap out there.
There was a time when an artist had to perform because a mic was placed before him and his performance was simply captured. The engineer used his ear to find the sweet spot and then placed his mic. It was about capturing sounds in a way that did not require much manipulation after the fact. Of course there are still many artists and engineers who record this way in the digital world, but it seems to me that as the technological bar gets raised it takes more of an effort to make things sound good because of the range of options.
My recording engineer George Cureau and I recently experienced this when George installed Pro Tools in his studio. We were already recording with an automated digital console and a 24 track HD recorder. This system is functionally old school. It allows us to record in an analog fashion, but with the time saving feature of not having to rewind tape. The console has good EQ’s in it so he can tweak sounds fast. When we transfered songs to Pro Tools to mix we discovered that the overall sound was wider and more expanded, but with no punch – and it lacked depth. It takes more plug-ins to get the same effect that we used to get with a quick adjustment on the board. So in this regard it is not faster.
I find some of the music recorded today unlistenable. My ears get fatigued listening to some CD’s. A lot of new releases are just mastered too hot. Some CD’s, even at a moderate listening level, hurt to the point that I have to turn it off. I can rarely get through a whole CD. When I listen to older records on vinyl or on cassette, the music even at a loud level, just washes over me. It is easy to be absorbed by the music. When I listen to some CD’s I feel like I am being attacked and I have to listen at a lower level. Neil Young summed it up nicely when he said that “Digital could be weaponized.” The albums that I own on CD do not sound as musical as those same records I have on vinyl or cassette. And now we listen to mp3’s which sounds smaller to me than any of those other formats. So, it’s not really getting better in quality. And people don’t care. I recently read a story about a record that Trent Reznor did. Inspired by Radiohead’s decision to let fans pay what they want for the record, Trent decided to give away a lo-fi mp3 version of the music, and I believe charge full price for the good quality, full CD version. A lot of the freebies got downloaded, but he did not sell many quality versions. Sadly, I don’t think many people know the difference anymore.
In the download age, the CD stores have become extinct. I guess this is good for the environment, but I like to hold the record (or CD) in my hand. I like to read the credits. What about the artwork and the lyrics on the inside? Sure you can download that too, but it seems that people have lost interest in that, or they don’t have time for it any more. And we are back to the days of the single. A lot of people just buy the song they want to hear as opposed to the whole album. This could be good as it forces artists to be more discriminative and write better songs, but what about the album-oriented artist who’s in-between songs are just as important as the hits that stand out?
Also, recording analog on magnetic tape allows more mystery and magic to occur. Digital recording is cleaner, but there is such a thing as too clean. That’s why they have tape saturation plug-ins to dirty things up to sound like tape. It doesn’t really, and the whole concept doesn’t make much sense to me. With things so clean, it’s harder to get sounds to mesh. The colors do not blend like they used to. The lines are too clear-cut. Not just in the music world either. Video doesn’t look better than film. Digital photos do not look better than film. When you look at concert footage shot today, it has no mystery to it. Old performances shot on film have a mystique and magical quality that lacks in today’s digital world. But like everything else in our consumer-driven age, we are slaves to the drive to produce, with little regard for what lies in essence or for the future.

6)Now for my Barbara Walters question: If you were a pair of shoes what type of shoes would you be?

Well, if I had to be shoes, I’d like to be a pair of Prada boots (which I happen to own). They are not for everybody. Some may find them pretentious, but fact is, they are very comfortable, the older they get the better they look and they are very well made and will last me the rest of my life. A true classic!

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