BF: Another payoff was that Slam magazine opened a Beijing office, in part, to help you become a credentialed journalist, which allowed you to cover the Olympics two years later.
AP: That is interesting; in all the years I worked for Slam, and Guitar World, I may have left some things on the table in terms of not working for other people, but I did it all in community, and had loyalty to them, and ultimately, they had loyalty to me.
In the first year there, I did a lot of work for Slam and Guitar World, and that really helped me. I was making this big leap, but having those guys remain supportive of me allowed me to go over there without feeling like I was walking away from everything. I knew there was a likelihood I couldn’t maintain the same pace- and I didn’t- but having that connection, and having them extend that to me, made a big difference.
BF: One such piece for Guitar World was a “day in the life” with Derek Trucks and Doyle Bramhall II when they were both playing with Eric Clapton and the tour came through China.
AP: That piece was really important to me. I had already been talking to Woodie; we already had the first jam, but we really hadn’t gotten together yet. But I went down and saw that concert and got so inspired, I just had to make something happen, so I started pursuing him aggressively. And I don’t think I would have gone down there if I wasn’t doing the story for Guitar World.
BF: One musician you shine a light on in the book is Tim Lamb, who often went by the nickname “Tragocaster.” It seems like his influence was key in your decision to form what became Woodie Alan.
AP: Absolutely, and that’s why I wanted to find a way to mention him. I don’t know how many times I went to play with him, probably eight or ten times, and then jamming when he didn’t have gigs at friends’ garages or something. He was a great guitarist, with a great band. The first time I went, as I described in the book, it was a very intimidating situation to walk into. The band was just great and it was hard to get up there- I felt a bit overwhelmed. We’ve all seen great guitarists who are “head cutters,” who are happy to make someone look bad. And, if you’re lucky, you’ve also seen guitarists who are the opposite- great guitarists who are happy to make someone look good. And I knew he was very much the latter. So when he pulled me out and started trading licks and everything, it made me feel so good. For sure, I never would have had the confidence to get up and do what I eventually did. And that’s why I went out of my way to put him in the book.
BF: You discuss the idea of “Third Culture Kids” in terms of your own children, but what about the possibility that you were a “Third Culture Artist”?
AP: I never really thought of it that way, but we were creating something different, and I guess that’s sort of what it was [laughs]. At the bottom line, what we were playing was [American], but it was filtered through their experiences, and their experiences were… diffuse. They knew certain things really well and they didn’t know other things at all. They didn’t really know the connection between any of it.
I have that scene in the book where I play the Allman Brothers for Zhang Yong for the first time, which was just an incredible experience. Then I realized, “Oh my God, these guys don’t know the Allman Brothers- I just can’t believe it.” So I burned some CD’s and I talked to Woodie and he said “Oh, I know the Allman Brothers”, and he had some sense of them, but not really. One of the things I gave him was _At Fillmore Eas_t, and he called me up and said “Man, Derek Trucks is incredible!” He had no idea who Duane Allman was, or that that was forty years old.
Because of that, I think it was easy to not play cliches. When we first started playing, I burned Woodie a CD of the original versions of most of the songs we were playing, and then once we had the basics down, I said “Don’t even listen to those again, forget about them. We’re just going to create these songs on our own.” The basis of what we were doing was American music, but it was filtered through a weird, different way.
Mostly it was all good, but sometimes there would be funny things. We did this gig where we had to play four sets, so had to expand our repertoire for that. So we had some rehearsals, and I brought some stuff in. Zhang Yong had played in a lot of cover bands and he had a song he wanted to sing, and it was “Proud Mary.” And we sort of worked it up and I said “We can’t play this.” And he said “Why? It’s a good song,” and he just didn’t understand. I have nothing against playing covers, but I felt that was one tune that was impossible to play and not sound 40. Most of the time it was really positive, and we just proceeded forth and did our own thing.
BF: Which brings another main thread of the book forward, which is the idea of “investment.” By the time you reach the festival in Xiamen, playing for 5,000 people, the story itself had been propelled forward by defined moments of investment by each main character. For instance, you met Dave Loevinger, which then propelled you to hook up with Woodie Wu, and so on.
AP: That is true.
BF: As each member became continually invested, it somewhat closed a world music circuit; as the blues came from African traditions, became Americanized, and then Woodie Alan found a way to bring more of a world sense to it.
AP: That’s certainly a nice way of looking at it. I felt like towards the end we were exploring more Chinese overtones, and that’s one thing that got left behind by me leaving when I did. [Also] we weren’t rehearsing new stuff as much, because we were trying to finish the recording.
But Zhang Yong plays the guqin, which is a traditional stringed Chinese instrument, and we used it on “Beijing Blues.” It comes in and out and it sounds almost like a slide [guitar]. I think it was the second night of the Fujian Festival where he and I opened with an acoustic guitar/guqin duet. He was [going to open] with a solo piece, and twenty minutes before we went on, he called me over and said “Play these chords” and we worked it out for five minutes. It sounded pretty cool and it was the beginning of something. I feel like if we had another six months or a year, that was the next step. [Zhang Yong] was the guy who had the real, traditional Chinese music background, and he was definitely starting to bring it in, but we never had the chance to fully explore it.
BF: You have a deep love and appreciation for Derek Trucks, who has often added sarod and Qawwalli influences into American blues and jazz. Was that an influence at all?
AP: Not really, but Derek was an influence just in that, after the initial introduction to the Allman Brothers that I made them, Woodie then became obsessed with Derek. Derek became a very big influence on his slide playing and over the last four to six months we were playing together regularly, Woodie pretty much quit playing lead guitar and only played the lap steel, which isn’t totally reflected on the CD. So Derek Trucks was a huge influence on Woodie. I always thought his lap steel playing was very good, but once he got into Derek, he became obsessive about it and he took his playing to a new level. Yet, he never sounded like Derek, and to me, he sounds unique and completely like himself.
BF: As a writer, you’ve never been fond of ambivalence in the artists you’ve covered, yet in the book you are very open about recognizing that very quality in yourself in certain aspects.
AP: I always felt, given the right opportunity, I could write an award-winning column. I always had that confidence in my abilities as a writer, to see things and express them. But the band was something I always thought about, but I can’t say in any way that I had the same kind of confidence that, given the opportunity, I would be able to do that. And it was more out of the blue, so in a way it was way more gratifying.
Going back to the beginning [of the band], we didn’t rehearse much and then I had that meeting with Woodie, where he basically said “I think we can be pretty good if you’re willing to rehearse more.” And so we started doing it. I could have made a bigger point in the book, but after the email I got from him, I had the sense that he was going to want to break up the band.
There was a point where, especially if you’ve come up being a critic and writing about music, it’s easier when you play music to keep it loose and think “oh, we’re pretty good for guys who don’t rehearse a lot.” So, in a way, it’s a crutch, cause you’re saying “I’m not trying that hard” [laughs]. But once we started rehearsing more and taking it more seriously, I felt a little more vulnerable, and that was something I had to get over. I had to take “it” more seriously, be more professional about it, without taking myself more seriously in a way.
That was a big leap- once we started doing that and seeing payoffs, there was a point where I said “This is it- I’m all in. Now I’m going to start critiquing myself the way I would critique anyone else.”