Interview- KW’s shady past

In preparation for my upcoming appearance at the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, I did an interview with local journalist JC Lockwood. JC was particularly interested in my background in rock n roll, and my long descent in the dark groupie infested, drug crazed world of classical chamber music.  JCL- You know, I laugh every time I hear the line “If your husband survives the operation, he’s going to be a vegetable the rest of his life” in “M. Potatohead.” Dumb humor is forever, I guess. So you were studying cello by day and doing stuff like this at night?  

KW-I got my first rock album when I was about 12, which I suppose was pretty late actually. It was Queen’s News of the World, which, if I say so myself, is a pretty damn fine first album to have. I’ve always felt drawm to playing whatever kind of music I listen to, whether it was classical or the folk music my dad played and loved, so I suppose the die was cast as soon as I took the shrink wrap off the LP.

Within a year, I had my first electric guitar, and a year after that, my first band, which I played with off and on throughout high school. I had a broader range of interests when I was in high school- writing, science, stage crew and the rock playing as well as cello in all its guises of solo work, chamber music and orchestra. When I headed off to college I declared myself done with all that and was just going to focus on classical stuff, but in a moment of madness I packed a guitar “just to have something to relax with.” Practically the first guy I met at IU was a keyboard player with a great voice and his own PA system, so I was drawn back in and kept playing all through college.

JCL-There was no conflict in your mind?  

KW- No, there certainly was conflict. On the one hand, I was quickly becoming aware of how competitive the cello world was and that I really couldn’t afford too many distractions from praciticing. On the other hand, I found the orchestra experience at IU very, very depressing. In spite of a seemingly unlimited number of gifted players, the conducting faculty seemed to range from washed up to never was any good. Rock gave me a chance to connect to a visceral kind of music making I used to get from orchestra but lost there.

JCL- It was just “music is music?”

KW- It was in the sense that almost everyone I played with was a music major and brought the same training and seriousness to the band that they did to their lessons and recitals. On the other hand, particularly with the Watchmen, where I had a much bigger role as a song writer, it was also a question of the power of rock music as protest music.

I may sound like an old fuddy-duddy saying this, but I think the potential for true outrageousness in rock music still existed back then, more so than today. The 80’s were such a suffocating time to be a creative young person, and the rather corporate environment at IU was no place to break out of that. We were fed up with politics, with style, with mass media, with pointless war, with vacuous pop culture, and we still thought the sheer craziness of rock n roll could be a protest against that. There was just enough space left to carve out a bit of space that hadn’t been explored yet. It seems today like every possible kind of rebellion and angst has been used and re-used. Rock can’t shock anymore. 

JCL- Did you have a preferred ax, guitar or cello?

KW- My first good guitar (my first one was a really hunk o’ junk) was an Ibanez Roadstar, which I completely customized and love to death. It almost got burned to a crisp in a fire two years back, but somehow survived with just a bit of scorching around the edges, which actually looks kind of bad ass anyway.

My cello is mostly a Mariani from the 1600’s. It’s a bit of a mutt- it has been cut down and the top replaced, but I love it and have no desire ever to own another one. It’s my voice.

JCL- Did you think, or hope or dream that you would make it as a rocker?

KW- When I graduated from IU I planned to give the band a go- I didn’t apply to grad schools or take orchestra auditions that year. We were busy making demos and had just hooked up with high-powered management when the band imploded.

All the rest of the guys stayed in rock or related musics and some have been quite successful short of stardom, and I’m full of admiration for them, but my body took a real beating in the years I played. All those late nights, moving PA systems, smoke, noise. I still have back problems. I think I would have had quite a laugh if I’d ended up as the next Pete Townsend, but I’m not sure I would have survived as working indy rocker touring 320 days a year.

But, did I ever dream of stadium tours and living in a castle? Why not.

JCL- You said your rock bands got some notice from labels? What do you think would have happened, if, say, Watchmen were signed?

KW- Our agent was lining them up, and he had “a plan.” The band was racing against time- the kind of agressive, funky  rock we were playing was huge at that moment (it was the peak of the popularity of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Fishbone), but the 90’s would not have been kind to us. Grunge, in retrospect, is a very pop-oriented, neat and tidy style, and since then, it’s been mostly tecno-pop on the radio. We might have gotten a couple of albums out there, and we had a couple of decent singles, but the moment for that music was gone within a year of our breakup.

JCL- Did you understand the  band as a fling, a way to blow off steam, get chicks?

KW- It was definitely a way to get chicks.

 JCL- Are you still in touch with the old band?

KW- Barely- I’ve talked to each of the guys from Watchmen maybe twice in the ensuing 18 years. A couple of them I’d love to have the opportunity to play a gig with and catch up over a few cold ones, but our lives are all awfully full. I’m still very close friends with the lead singer of the Screaming Yaardvarks, who is now a Grammy nominated producer and enigineer.

JCL- Do you play guitar at all now, do you own one?

KW- I play a bit when I’ve got a quiet night around the house. I still have about 5 or 6 guitars, depending on what you call a guitar.

JCL- What kind?

KW- One nice acoustic, the old Ibanez beater, a jazz axe, a beautiful copy of a 57 Strat like the one Stevie Ray Vaughan played on with the V-shaped neck and a couple that sit in the cases. None of them are the sort of thing a collector would fancy. I had the best amp in the world, but it was ruined in the fire….

JCL-Do you listen to rock?

KW- I listen the the rock I know and love- Hendrix, P-Funk, Queen, Zepplin. Through my producer friend Sean I am made aware that there is a lot of nice stuff out there, but I can’t help but feel that rock has run its course. It used to be the ultimate music of protest- real outsider music. Now it is corporate, mainstream, mass-produced and market tested. The Stones used to be controversial, even outrageous. Now they’re  a nostalgia act you’ve got to mortgage your house to afford a ticket.

JCL- What do you like?  You said on your web that the funk band performance “came as a surprise” to people. How was it received?

KW- People really loved it. I think they really loved seeing the mixture of discipline and freedom from the kids in the band. They were totally at ease, yet totally unselfish and focused.

JCL- What did the funk band play at Oregon East’s summer music series?

KW- All originals- one on a vintage James Brown feel, one more of a slow-burn urban groove with a bit of late Miles Davis, one more of a Memphis vibe.

JCL- You directed, did you play at all?  

KW- I played piano and did a lot of shouting and grunting. Played a tiny bit of guitar on one song, but it was pretty minimal. I was afraid I’d get carried away.

JCL- Key concept here, I think, and I think it’s what you were getting at on the Rock page of your web: That there are certain expectations and entrenched positions, that classical is serious and everything else is silly, that you guys, you classical musicians, minuet when you go out to clubs? (Do you go out to clubs?)  

KW- Well, it’s complicated. Silly can be good. I think the point is that music should be honest- whether that honesty comes off as anger, tenderness, sarcasm, whatever. A plastic mentality, which exists in abundance in classical music and pop, uses music for the opposite of what it’s supposed to do.

Music is supposed to heal and enlighten. When we use it just to entertain and calm the nerves, it’s as if we’re masking our symptoms. If you’re depressed and you listen to banal music because it calms you down, you’re going to stay depressed longer, if you’re ignorant and you listen to plastic music, you’re going to stay ignorant longer.

These days, all classical musicians are supposed to like pop and rock- it is a way of branding yourself as normal and safe. How boring! How sad when a great player feels the need to say “I don’t even really listen to classical music.” I like music- all genres and eras, but I don’t like aural wallpaper.

Clubs- used to go when I was young, but my ears are my life and I can’t justify early deafness just to get access to a $14 martini. I’ve got lots of “regular guy” stuff I like to do- drink beer, argue about sports history, hike, eat. I’ve slam danced, polka-ed and stage dived, but I’ve never done a Minuet.

JCL- Or the opposite, that rock or pop music is real and that you guys are all stuffed shirts?

KW- I think the position has shifted 180% from when Hendrix was playing. Rock and pop is now the territory of huge, huge multinational corporations. No song makes it onto radio or TV until hat has been put through focus groups, marketing tie-ins have been negotiated, artists have been made over and on and on. Rock came from the poorest corner of America- the Mississippi Delta, but a young Chuck Berry or Elvis could never afford the hundreds of dollars to get in to a concert today.

On the other hand, classical musicians are out there now playing Bartok in coffee houses and night clubs, doing school concert and street performances. The concert master of the London Mozart Players just spent a year busking around the world to raise money for charity. Every orchestra and opera company has opened their doors to less-affluent listeners, and is making a point to get out into their communities and make a difference in children’s lives. Don’t get me wrong- there are still plenty of stuff shirts, but my generation and the next one know that the mega instutions that sustained previous generations so nicely are gone, and we’ve got to accept risk and earn a place for ourselves in this profession.

JCL- You think this is true? Is it an audience-identity thing, almost like a political position? 

KW- I try not to think in terms of an audience as a monolithic thing. One of the luckiest accidents of my professional life has been escaping the tribal mentality which to a certain extent permeates so much of our thinking about music. In my rock days, we were consciously making music for our peers, for our generation. 

Being a conductor and a teacher as well as a performer, I’ve gotten to be close friends with people from wildly different backgrounds, age groups and social strata. Without the tribe there, you find they’re all incredibly different- not the masses of clones we often think.

When I play or conduct, I try to remember that- that we’re not playing to “our audience” but to individuals, each of whom needs different things from the music, each of whom will respond to different things in the music. The more you respect those differences, and leave space for them, the common ground we find as human beings. What I want new classical listeners to know is that there is room for them, for their experiences and their needs and their tastes, in this music. It’s about creating space, not dumbing down.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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1 comment on “Interview- KW’s shady past”

  1. ComposerBastard

    “If you’re depressed and you listen to banal music because it calms you down, you’re going to stay depressed longer,”

    Dangerous statement. If the end effect is that it is “cathartic” to the listener, it still is healing and beneficial to that person, Regardless of my tastes or education, It’s not my right to call it banal or not for them. Only to myself.

    “No song makes it onto radio or TV until hat has been put through focus groups, marketing tie-ins have been negotiated, artists have been made over and on and on.”

    I think you are turning a blind eye to the home studio and the internet where most new music comes from today. The commercial industry is changing at an enormous rate. Sure, there will be Madonna’s and Eminems, and Spears and focus marketing testing; but, the smaller artists have a lot more freedom with their careers and publishing sources these days.

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