THE NORTH COUNTRY PRIMER #1: MICHAEL WOHL, SEATTLE WA
Originally published at North Country Primitive in March 2015
In the first of a series, we fire eight questions of varying quality at an unsuspecting musician. First up is Seattle-based guitarist, Michael Wohl, whose Solo Guitar album is available at his Bandcamp page on compact disc. Our thanks to Michael for taking part in this. Please be sure to look him up at his website and his Bandcamp page.
Tell us a bit about yourself and the musical journey that took you to a place where you concluded that playing an acoustic guitar on your own was a good idea…
I’ve played guitar since I was nine years old. I am now 28 so I guess that was 1995. The bands that made me want to start were Nirvana, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins - big dramatic 90s rock bands. My dad was really into Queen and got me some of their albums - I really liked Brian May’s guitar. Still do. It seemed like pretty much the only acceptable thing for a young person to do was to play in a band. So I set out to do just that.
My mom and dad wouldn’t let me play drums, but a guitar was okay if I started on an acoustic. I started taking lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music, the legendary Chicago spot, back when it was on Armitage. I lived very close to the school, also in Old Town. People like Big Bill Broonzy, Pete Seeger, and Josh White played there back in the day. So I guess the irony is that I went there to take guitar lessons because I was into Kurt Cobain and Kim Thayil, but I’d get dropped off early for my lessons, sit around, and hear people playing all sorts of folk and traditional music. I heard a lot of blues and bluegrass and I guess it crept in my mind along with big loud rock. I heard Jimi Hendrix at around that same age and I was pretty much a lost cause for anything other than playing the guitar at that point! I took guitar lessons from a teacher there named Ramsey Gouda. He also showed stuff from Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Clash and David Bowie. So I was lucky to get exposed to a lot of really wildly different music.
By the time I was 12 or so, I was trying to start bands with my friends and playing wherever would have us - rec centres and stuff. It was pretty cool at the time. A lot of them let us book our own bills and they actually paid us! Pretty cool, now that I think about that. We played in punk and metal bands, because that’s the only thing that makes sense for teenagers to play! So at that point, I was full on into Black Flag, Iron Maiden, Minor Threat & Fugazi, things like that. I played in punk bands until I was about 20. That was my first experience going on tour, putting out records, and all that cool stuff. I was in a few different bands and had a lot of fun and got to travel around and meet a lot of people that I am still friends with.
Then I moved to Seattle. I moved pretty, uh, impulsively, so I spent a lot of time hanging out by myself and I guess I started coming back to acoustic music and folk music around that time, because it’s the best music to play by yourself. I got headlong obsessed with Neil Young and Bob Dylan and the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music when I was around 20 and didn’t play in a band for a couple years. I got into John Fahey and all the Takoma Records stuff around that time too. And of course Doc Watson, Blind Blake, Mississippi John Hurt, and Skip James.
After that I started playing in rock ‘n’ roll bands. Heavy stuff inspired by the 60s and 70s. Ten Years After, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac stuff, the Allman Brothers, Deep Purple and all that jazz. But I had already started playing this acoustic stuff by myself, so I’d come home from getting stoned and jamming out and play by myself on my acoustic guitar and write all these songs I didn’t know what to do with and learn old songs too. After a while I had quite a few, so I started recording them to teach myself a little about recording - then I started playing that material out for other people. And that’s how I got to where I am now. I guess I never decided that playing acoustic guitar on my own was a “good idea” per se. I always did that when I was by myself. The decision was maybe that I should start sharing it with other people and performing that way. I can’t say for sure why I did that, I just felt like I had a lot I wanted to say that I wasn’t communicating.
What has influenced your music and why? I guess I kind of answered that by rambling on in the first question. I just try to listen to as much as a I can. I think that’s really important. If you’re not playing, be listening. Anyone who picks up a guitar - or whatever instrument - and plays it like they mean it might be an influence to me. I think playing a guitar is absolutely the most fun thing a person can do - when I see another person play one and really feel it, really enjoy themselves, it communicates something to me that makes me want to play one too.
What have you been up to recently?
I got back from a West Coast tour in September and have been chilling out, writing a lot of new songs, learning some other traditional tunes, trying to expand the proverbial songbook. I went to Maui with my fiancée’s family last month and played some amazing music with some people out there. Some people who sang Hawaiian music, some who played more bluegrass and folk tunes. One of the coolest songs I’ve ever heard was by a player out there, a trucker ballad about being a pilot on an ore freighter bringing back minerals and things from the asteroid belts and missing life back on Earth. Heavy! I’m booking more shows for the spring and summer and hope to hit the road sometime soon. And I’m working on a new album, which has been taking a long time cause I keep writing new songs that I want to be on it.
What are you listening to right now, old or new? Any recommendations you’d like to share with us?
Right now, like this second, I’m listening to Dave Van Ronk. The last two records I bought were Japanese bamboo flute music and a guitar duet album that looked nice, but I haven’t listened to either yet. I’ve been listening to a lot of Djalma de Adrade, aka Bola Sete, lately. Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings - they’re so good, I can’t believe they’re real. I listen to a lot of jazz around the house. A Love Supreme has been on there a lot lately, Bill Evans live at the Village Vanguard. I just got a nice collection of Chopin’s mazurkas at the record store for like six dollars. Bela Bartok. I’ve been hooked pretty hard on The Dead - Europe ‘72 particularly. The label Lights in the Attic from Seattle put out an album by Karen Dalton that I can never seem to get out of my head if it rains called 1966.
I also listen to stuff from bands I’ve played with and people I know around the West Coast. Lonesome Shack and Gravel Road are two really good electric blues bands from Seattle. Some really insanely talented, psychedelic, heavy-as-hell blues bands from California, JOY and Radio Moscow. A favourite record of the past year is Bruce Langhorn’s soundtrack to the movie The Hired Handon Scissortail Editions. It’s the soundtrack to a Western from the 70s he did.Takoma Records alum Toulouse Engelhardt sent me a copy of his new record, Mind Garden, and it’s really great good too. Wonderful guitar instrumentals, really nice spatial and textural stuff, with some insanely formidable picking. Marisa Anderson’s Mercury is another phenomenal solo guitar record I’ve been listening too. That came out on Mississippi Records, along with Creekside by Lori Goldston, a solo cello record I got last spring that I really love.
The guitar nerd bit: what guitars do you play and what do you like about them? Is there anything out there you’re coveting?
For my acoustic stuff I have a Martin 000-15 with a slot headstock, a 12-fret model. It has a nice wide nut and ample string spacing for fingerpicking stuff. I gave it a bone nut & saddle and changed the tuners and now it’s a dream to play. I was coveting a D-18 for a while, but I was lucky enough to get a really good deal on one recently, so I’ve been playing that a ton.
Banjos: yes or no?
Banjos…don’t have one myself. I like when other people play them. When I play them I find myself wishing I was playing a guitar.
What are you planning to do next?
Finish the album I’ve been working on. Hit the road and play those tunes. Play as much music as I can and meet people in as many different places as I can go. Most of my acoustic guitar recordings were done between a year and a half and almost three years ago. They don’t really reflect what I’ve been up to these days. Instrumental numbers, while I do play them, don’t make up the majority of what I’m doing - usually about a third or less even of my set when I play live. I’ve been more focused on playing live than recording for the past year… I have more fun doing that than recording, I guess. These days most of what I’m doing is singing and playing guitar with a few instrumentals here and there. Some traditional songs, many original songs, some fingerstyle, some picked. The last thing I wanted to do was get pigeonholed and lost in the cloud of open tuned fingerpicking. I love that sound, don’t get me wrong, but it’s only one component of my sound and style. That stuff alone doesn’t scratch my creative itch. I don’t feel fully expressive or like I’m really communicating what I have to say with limitations like that.
What should we have asked you and didn’t?
I don’t know, it’s hard to think of questions to ask yourself without getting pretty existential! Thanks for contacting me and keep in touch.
You can listen to and download Michael’s music at his Bandcamp page.