Sandy Bull arrived quietly in Town early September, with no particular reason for being here, except that he digs London and was vaguely looking to buy himself a new oud. Very few people in England have heard his music, and even fewer his name. In San Francisco he is amongst the ranks of the few "respected musicians", which in some ways is surprising and in others not. He's made it purely on the undoubted strength of his music and not on the name of the band he came from; indeed he is his own band.
He was born in New York. Brought up in Florida, lives in San Francisco. His Mother played the harp when he was a kid, and toured colleges and ladies clubs billed "From Bach to Boogie Woogie". He was listening to Leadbelly and Woodie Guthrie from the age of six and began playing himself when he was fifteen - originally intending to become another folk guitarist/banjo/player/ singer.
"After I finished high School in 1959, I went to a music college in Boston and began doing some gigs, occasionally backing singers like Joan Baez, but I got very quickly tired of singing songs and playing my own accompaniment, and it became more and more evident that I could probably do something more original in the instrumental field. Aside from a few other people's songs, I didn't have anything I wanted to sing about or say that was original, so I started out playing my guitar alone."
He has produced three albums so far. Philips have never been particularly anxious to release Vanguard cuts over here unless the market is already made, so respect for Sandy as a musician has so far been reserved for San Francisco and the rest of the States. It's high time. His latest album was E Pluribus Unum, recorded last year in New York: Just two tracks, No Deposit, No Return Blues and Electric Blend. Lengthy improvisations on a theme that takes you along with them if you can relax sufficiently. So many things happening simultaneously in his music that some analytical dissection is necessary, in that it provides the first insight into the production of his loose, swaying sound.
No Deposit, No Return Blues uses seven instruments, all played by Sandy; his guitar, his bass, a bass drum, his oud, tamboura, high hat and cowbell. (The title is a reference to part of the stimulus for the production of the music. Throwaway bottles for Coca Cola these days. Yes.) The tracks are laid down deep enough at first to suggest a pattern, percussion and bass, etc, and then the guitar moves in and along the sound shell that the basis creates along with the player. The variations on a theme are endless; the influences have no choice but to hang out. Indian music, Arabian, Persian and Oriental sounds float into the matrix and move themselves delicately aside with the man's roots in American country music. The geographical locations don't matter too much. There is what can only be described as a direct line to the subconscious that brings itself into existence when the sound is free enough and the music is so honestly open. Any further analysing of music that moves so close to the rhythms and simple patterns of creation becomes high-sounding and impossibly abstract. Music has no function when described on paper.
He has always played alone. On stage he usually plays an improvised piece, using a tape and original melody as a starter: the rest depends on the audience and his state of mind at the time. His reasons for continuing to play alone, when all or most of his contemporaries have found their superstar niche in a band of some kind, are very simple. "You know I love to play with other people at some time or another, because that feeling of sharing the music is something you don't get anywhere else; but as far as concerts and gigs go, if I can make a living alone I prefer to spare myself all those ego trips that usually go down within a band." He is only alone with his music until you begin to listen. Involvement is easy and advisedly essential.
The changes in his music were a direct reflection of the changes that started to go down in his head during the early years of his playing. Specifically, he began turning on. "Yeah, around 1961 I got busted for possession of marijuana in Texas. I got a little bit too careless and got caught. All that caused a big change in my head, you know, I was young and up to that time I had no paranoia at all. Luckily the case went federal so instead of getting a few years on the work farm picking cotton, I got a couple of years probation. It was between semesters at music college, so I didn't go back."
New York remained his base until the mid sixties; "I started playing in New York with a band called 'the Samplers'; there were three of us and I played banjo and sang. We didn't last too long; I suppose we were just a bad imitation of the Weavers. Then I started playing a few clubs on my own. 1961/2 I was playing clubs like the Gaslight and Folk City in Greenwich Village, along with cats like Cecil Taylor, and Bob Dylan who had just come to New York. I met him a couple of times and played on the same bill now and then. I was beginning to hear all kinds of music that I'd never heard before, and I had a whole lot of new influences to absorb. I was listening to so many kinds of different music and had friends who played all kinds of music like Billy Higgins who was playing drums for Ornette Coleman. He played some things on my first two albums. (Fantasia 1963, Inventions 1965.) I always liked bagpipe music, and eventually managed to get to play them - well at least I got to a point where I could make noises and keep them going for a minute or so. The sound of those things always did something to me."
Listening hard to his music in order to define the influences is wasted energy. The whole is a listening experience, and the parts take secondary importance. He talks of his instruments as having an ancestry but uses them for the sound they help him create, rather than for the country of their origin. The oud that he plays probably has its predecessor in the lute, or vice versa. It has no frets, and allows him to slide easily from note to note on the six double strings, giving what has to be a more direct line of communication between his inspiration and the instrument. It sounds that way. His electric guitar is a custom Fender that he describes a being "sort of a cross between a Stratocaster and a Jaguar". It has an extra long neck and three pick-ups and is tuned a fourth lower than the usual electric guitar, making incredibly exciting noises. Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar are two names he mentions when speaking of his early influences; "I began to notice similarities between Indian music and the sounds I was making with the bagpipes, and the ways that music from all over the world is tied together in various ways. So I started tuning my guitar like a sitar, drone type tuning, just tonics and fifths. Playing every night in a club was making me tired of playing the same piece of music in the same way. I decided that I'd work toward a point where I could play the same basic piece of music and never have it sound the same way twice; trying to get something out of an improvisional idea rather than the usual extended jam. I know that I'm influenced by music from different countries and areas obviously, but I try not to capsulate those sources. I think it's a mistake; too many guitarists do that."
The recording quality of his albums is sometimes patchy, the mixing often slips up noticeably, and no one is more aware of this than the performer himself. He makes the albums, Vanguard helps. There are times when the use of the cowbell is slightly mystifying. The rhythm from the guitars and percussion has just been established and the pace of the number set when the cowbell chops in on what sounds initially like a completely opposing rhythmic structure. Stay with it and a new and primitively strange beat begins to emerge, a product of opposition; get your head accustomed to it and the cowbell stops. Entertainment. "I got on to working with tapes mostly because the backgrounds that I need are so simple that it just isn't necessary to use other musicians it would a waste of their talent, and I can express myself or improvise much better by providing my own backing sounds, really just to complement my own guitar playing. The multi-tracking on my first two albums was really very primitive, in a way so was the third one. The first album has two parts of a William Byrd canon I play on banjo, that felt like it came over well, but there are other things that I am not too happy about. The challenge of playing along with a tape on stage is to see how many and what kinds of melody lines I can invent over the backing track. Sometimes I get good things happening, some times not so good, it depends. I have a pretty small repertoire of actual songs; I try to use those to take me on to something else."
His short stay in England (and Ibiza) doesn't look like including any gigs, as he has very little of the necessary instruments and equipment over here that he needs to play successfully on stage. In the States he works regularly at places like The Matrix San Francisco. He describes himself as "being in a state of transition" at the moment, but begins work on a new album immediately after he gets back to the West Coast. On the last album cover a quote from Sandy says; "I'm going to keep listening for what will come out of all the kinds of music that reach me, some of which I'm able to join together and others that I haven't been able to fuse yet." He foresees many changes in his music; "I hope, of course, that it changes for the better and reaches more people. I was using a lot of drugs for the three albums I've done so far but the next one is going to be clean," he says quietly. "I know now that just playing for people makes me feel good, and that's enough".
Original text Copyright ©John Coleman