Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Listening to Howard Fishman’s music, you’re likely to hear a myriad of influences he has picked up from his travels: New Orleans, gypsy, cabaret, bluegrass, jazz, folk, big band, just to name a few. His apartment/work space is filled with evocations of activity. CDs line the wall, along with paintings and collected trinkets. His guitar is relegated on a chair to the side, the space instead focused on an electronic keyboard with Buster Keaton’s The Frozen North playing on a laptop perched above. Howard will be performing January 19th as part of the New York Guitar Festival.
KAUFMAN: For this concert, will you be performing with your quartet or by yourself?
FISHMAN: It’s going to be a quintet, I’m going to be using different collaborators from my different projects, which is going to be fun. I have a dozen different projects which include different personnel and I’m sort of pulling from each of them and assembling this very special little mini-orchestra to do this specific thing.
KAUFMAN: Who are you taking from each project?
FISHMAN: One is the Biting Fish Brass Band, which is a New Orleans brass band, and from that group I’m pulling Kenny Bentley, the Tuba player. Another group I use is called No Further Instructions, and from that group I’m pulling Skye Steele, the violin player. Dave Berger plays drums in several different projects of mine, and he’ll be on drums and percussion for this. Scott Barkin will be playing electric guitar; Scott and I have just recently started working together and we’ve been doing a lot of duo, two guitar stuff, so this will be a nice opportunity to insert him into the mix with a larger group.
KAUFMAN: Now, the piano – you’re using it for compositional purposes, you’ll be playing a guitar on stage?
FISHMAN: Well, it’s funny. It’s the New York Guitar Festival, and I’ve been asked to participate because I’m a guitar player but I actually think I’m going to be playing mostly piano for the piece... I haven’t actually run that by the powers that be... I should probably ask them if that’s OK, because if it’s not, I’ll just move what I’m doing on piano to guitar and I’ll play guitar. I don’t often play the piano live because most of the things I write have words, and I can’t sing and play piano at the same time. I just can’t do it. But because most of this is not going to have words, I feel free to play piano and on the piano I’m better able to conduct and orchestrate what’s going on better than if I were just on the guitar. So I think I’ll be playing mostly piano, and giving a lot of the guitar stuff to Scott Barkin.
KAUFMAN: Did you choose the film?
FISHMAN: I did choose the film. I chose The Frozen North for a couple of reasons: first of all I was attracted to the title of it because one of my projects is called “we are destroyed”, which is like a folk opera based on the Donner Party, so I’m familiar with The Frozen North, or frozen situations anyway. I also just like the fact that this particular film of his seems to be more obscure than a lot of his other ones, a little harder to find; I’m generally attracted to things that are a little more obscure. They present more challenges but offer a wider spectrum of possibility.
KAUFMAN: And regarding the film’s content? It’s essentially a dream, and there’s comedy, but also violence, a sort of darkness to it. Were you drawn to that? Did it influence your choice?
FISHMAN: Very much so. I was very much drawn to the unexpected darkness that is in this movie. Within the first couple of minutes he tries to hold up a saloon full of people at gunpoint, and then he goes and finds what he thinks is his wife cheating on him, and he kills her and the man she’s with! And it’s like, whoa, Buster Keaton is stepping out a little bit! There’s something about it that feels different than what you would expect from Buster Keaton.
KAUFMAN: Are there going to be vocals in the performance?
FISHMAN: I want to be careful what I say about what the piece is going to be because the piece keeps changing, and it may change yet. As of today, there are some vocals, but I might change my mind. I mean, it’s like the Buster Keaton movies, right? So much of the silent era stuff is “fly by the seat of your pants”, and I’m not a film expert, but that’s what it seems like to me, there’s a lot of in-the-moment spontaneous things that are happening on screen, and they’re leaving a lot to chance. I’m kind of treating the music the same way. I want it to have that visceral spontaneous quality as well.
KAUFMAN: Did you think right away that any of your musical influences would be appropriate for this film?
FISHMAN: Well, I guess the biggest challenge for me is not second-guessing what I think the audience will like. My initial response is to go against what the expectation would be for a Buster Keaton soundtrack, nothing that sounds anything like the period. To go totally the other way, go avant-garde, experimental, weird, modern – that’s my instinct. But, some of my music is rooted in that time period, so it feels like, “am I being dishonest by not including those stylistic choices?” I think its going to be a mix, but like I said I’m trying not to second guess too much, because I feel like I could go in either direction. I mean, it’s a great problem to have; there’s no wrong answer. But I feel like it could go in a lot of different ways.
KAUFMAN: Did you do any research for this, either part of your normal process or outside of it?
FISHMAN: I’m always interested in the back story of anything that I’m working on. People have compared me to Buster Keaton before... I’ve been trying to figure that out as I’ve been reading more about him, because I’ve never known a lot about Buster Keaton before this. But I’ve been reading about his life, and I’ve been reading about his career, I’ve been watching some interviews with him. He’s a very interesting character, he reminds me a little bit of my grandfather. I think in one of my very first reviews they compared me to, “a cross between Buster Keaton and Lou Reed.” Now that I’ve been watching more of him, I think people are mainly talking about the sort of “stone face,” which I don’t feel like I have. I know that people have said that to me in the past, “Gee Howard, you’re awfully hard to read,” so maybe that’s what it is. Or maybe people think I’m just funny, maybe I fall down more than I think I do. I don’t know.
KAUFMAN: It could be your energy in your performance and also your independence in pursuing your own thing. Do you feel any connection to him on that level?
FISHMAN: Oh yeah, totally. I love that he didn’t care what people thought, I love that he broke the rules, I love that he did things the way you weren’t supposed to do them. I totally identify with those things.
KAUFMAN: How would you classify yourself, or do you have a problem with labels because of your work doesn’t fall into labels?
FISHMAN: I just feel like that’s the job of writers and marketing people, to translate music into language. When I do it, I tend to get frustrated. To me, it’s like asking “what kinds of things do you think about?” Well, I could tell you what I thought about five minutes ago, but I can’t tell you what I generally think about. In the same way I can tell you what kind of music I might feel like making now, but I don’t know what kind of music it’s going to be an hour from now or the next time we play. I do borrow from a lot of different places. To me, the genre is not as important as what happens between the performer and the audience. I feel that is the most important thing. Things like genres, to me, are like colors that a painter would use. By themselves they don’t mean anything, but when you put them into a bigger picture, which is the performance, you stop looking at red and blue and yellow, and you see a picture. And I feel like, ideally, that’s what I want the audience to do. They might initially say Jazz, Blues, Country, Gospel, Avant-Garde, Classical. They might initially see those colors, but then eventually they see the picture and the colors stop being important and are just part of the picture.
KAUFMAN: Could you play us a piece?
FISHMAN: Well, I don’t want to give away what the music is going to sound like, but if you want to watch me work on it, I’m happy to play a little bit of it. I’ll put on my headphones, you won’t be able to hear me play the piano, but you can imagine what the sound is going to be like. But I won’t play it now, it’ll give it away.