Conrad the archeologist

A Conversation with Conrad Praetzel (continued)

CP: I guess at this point I would say I'm a "recovering archeologist."

PM: [laughs] Well, congratulations.

CP: [laughs] Yeah, thanks. One of the reasons for that is that it's really very hard to make a living as an archeologist. Though actually it's kind of silly to think of going from trying to make it as an archeologist to trying to make it as a musician. It's probably even harder to make it as a musician...

But I worked as an archeologist from the late 80s until about 1996. What started out as kind of taking a break--I thought I'd take the summer off and get on a dig, like the old days, because I'd done some of that in the 70s--that three months turned into eight years!

PM: How interesting, though, that on the musical side you're also involved in a form of archeology. At least on the Clothesline Revival album, you're unearthing a lot of old field recordings and different music, bringing it into the present and having your way with it.

CP: That's true. If I had another life to live, I could definitely see studying ethnomusicology. I've always been interested in that.

PM: So getting back to Tom Armstrong, he's local to you--he's in San Francisco now--but he came to the West Coast from Iowa, right?

CP: He's from Illinois by way of Iowa, yeah. Tom is an incredible, well, I guess "interpreter" might be the word, of a style of country western music from the 1950s and 60s--

PM: The golden era.

CP: The West Coast style, really. The style done by people like Wynn Stewart. And the thing is, Tom's so good, he just sounds like one of those guys singing back at that time. It's not like he's copying anyone, and it doesn't sound imitation at all, he just totally pulls it off.

PM: His authenticity is unbelievable.

CP: It is. And so many people have commented on that.

PM: The whole mentality of it, and the sentimentality of it, he's there, all the way.

CP: Yes, he really is. But before he recorded his first album, maybe two or three years before that, he was in an art punk band, you know?

PM: Was this is San Francisco?

CP: I think it was before he came to California. The country thing happened later on. He told me that originally it was one of those things where he was buying these old albums and really liking the music but, also, he didn't really take it seriously. Then one day it hit him that he loved this music, and it was what he wanted to do.

PM: He was kind of goofing on it at the same time as he was enjoying it, and then one day he wasn't goofing on it anymore.

CP: That's it exactly. And now it's so much a part of his life. I mean, he really lives that music. He writes it, he sings it. That's become his complete persona, you might say.

PM: Along with Armstrong, there's another amazing vocalist on the record who comes from more of a folk place, but in the very traditional sense, and that's Wendy Allen.

CP: I heard Wendy the first time at the Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco. She sang a cappella and she totally blew me away! She had the most mesmerizing quality to her voice, and she just stood there with her eyes closed and went off into these songs. It was great.

PM: She really reminds me vocally of Anne Briggs, and I was amazed to see there was an Anne Briggs song on the record.

CP: You know Anne Briggs then?

PM: Oh yeah. I picked up her first album in the early 70s when I was in England.

CP: Wow. Well, when I heard Wendy, it's definitely something I thought of also. I love Anne Briggs' stuff. And I thought, "I've got to work with this woman." I later gave her a copy of Anne Briggs' a cappella vocals to check out.

PM: When you saw Wendy at the Cafe Du Nord, that night she was just singing a cappella. But she also works with at least one Bay Area band. What are her outfits there?

CP: Well, she's in a group called The Court & Spark--I'm not sure if she's still singing with them or not, but she has definitely been part of their last two albums. She has a band called The Low Country with her husband Scott Solter.

PM: And he's also a recording engineer in San Francisco, right?

CP: Yes. Scott's an engineer, and he was actually the engineer on the Court & Spark albums, too. I've really dug what he's done with them. So there was a good rapport with both Wendy and Scott, we connected right from the start. He came over with her when we did the recordings, and they were basically looking through my CD collection. And they were pulling out all these CDs, and it was like [laughing] I had the right CDs, you know?

PM: [laughs]

CP: Some of the more obscure things. Wendy and Scott are definitely kindred spirits in that way.

PM: So, who's the next partner in crime--how about the guy who sings on "Little Maggie"? That's a fabulous vocal.

CP: That's Aric Leavitt. I've known Aric for, oh, probably 30 years or more, 35 years. He really introduced me to bluegrass, and probably to Hank Williams, too. He plays banjo, and back then he was already an incredible banjo player. He'd taken lessons from Jerry Garcia of all people.

PM: Was Garcia a claw hammer guy as well as a bluegrass picker? Because "Little Maggie" is claw hammer playing.

CP: It's interesting that you mention that. It's very rare for Aric to play in that style. It was something he just kind of tried at the moment and we thought, "Hey, this works! Maybe we should do it that way." But Aric is more of a bluegrass-style player. He learned that style from Jerry Garcia in the early 60s--I think Garcia was already with the Dead but they hadn't really made their mark yet.

PM: They were still probably the Warlocks or something.

CP: Yeah. At the moment--and probably he's been doing this for a number of years now--Aric makes a good part of his living from playing street corners, and playing in front of the post office down in southern California.

PM: Doing it the tried and true way. continue

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