Guitar Mash & the Music-led Life: An Interview with Mark Stewart
November 16, 2014 marks the THIRD ANNUAL GUITAR MASH BENEFIT CONCERT + JAM + AUCTION at City Winery NYC! Along with Music Director, MARK STEWART and Artist Chairs, TOM COLICCHIO (Top Chef) and CHAD SMITH (Red Hot Chili Peppers), the concert will feature performances by DAVID BROMBERG, CHRIS “CRITTER” ELDRIDGE (Punch Brothers), VALERIE JUNE, ROBERT RANDOLPH, DUKE ROBILLARD, SCOTT SHARRARD, NANO STERN and QUINN SULLIVAN.
Guitar Mash is a movement. From metal shredders to acoustic aficionados, Guitar Mash uses live events and social media to create opportunities for amateur and professional guitarists to play together.
Guitar Mash was founded in 2012 with the goal of creating opportunities for people to be actively involved in music, and to make music with other people. It was founded on understanding the guitar to be The Great Connector, that which gathers people around the proverbial campfire. What began as an untested experiment in communal music-making grew with the beautiful leadership of our musical director Mark Stewart into the acclaimed Inaugural Benefit Event at City Winery November 2012, and a series of “Campfire Jams” around the New York area, as well as stints at events like Make Music NY.
In addition to connecting amateur and professional musicians, Guitar Mash has helped people rediscover their potential to create, and has inspired many to reacquaint themselves with their guitars.
In anticipation of this year’s GUITAR MASH event, HEARTSTRINGS MAGAZINE interviewed Mark Stewart. In addition to being the Music Director for GUITAR MASH, the rather accomplished Mr. Stewart also hails as music director/instrumentalist for Paul Simon, founding member of Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Polygraph Lounge, and has performed with musicians including Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Joan Baez, Edie Brickell, James Taylor, The Everly Brothers and many, many more. During our conversation we discussed topics as varied as, touring with Paul Simon, his childhood family-band, Stony Brook University and didgeridoos…oh yes, and of course…Guitar Mash.
Lauren Jahoda: You were born and raised in Wisconsin — how did you end up in Park Slope, Brooklyn?
Mark Stewart: Well, New York is one of the centers of the cultural universe and I completed my graduate studies on the cello at SUNY Stony Brook (Long Island). I chose Stony Brook for two reasons — it had a world class faculty and also because of its proximity to New York City. So I thought when I was done with my studies, I would have at least some knowledge and also some gigs going on already in town and would start my professional life in what really is the most vibrant of American cities, culturally and musically. And so, that’s precisely what I did. That is, in a nutshell, how I ended up in New York.
So while you were in graduate school, you were gigging in NYC and the Long Island area?
Yeah, I was gigging in town and my name was starting to get around, but it was as a cellist. Also when I finished my doctoral studies in ’89, I got a gig as a college professor at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania. So 3 days per week I was out in Pennsylvania teaching at Mansfield and the other 4 days I was gigging with different groups.
Were you strictly playing cello at that time?
I was doing both (guitar and cello) by then, but I was known as a cellist in New York.
When did your career as a professional musician begin taking shape?
The first thing that changed things for me was that I got a call from Bang on a Can. They were putting together Bang on a Can Allstars, and they called me and asked if I was interested in being their guitarist. That was in 1992. Of course, I was thrilled to get that call and I started doing that. But that was only one music scene in NY. The second was two years later, when I resigned my college job and moved into town full-time. I got a call from the lead guitarist for the Broadway production of Tommy. He was having a hard time finding a sub and the problem was finding a real rock and roller who could follow a stick, a conductor. And he was speaking to a cellist friend of his and his cellist said, well I know a cellist who’s a real rock and roller and he gave him my number. So I got the call and I worked my ass off for a month to learn that book, and went in and succeeded and overnight I had a reputation as a guitarist. It was a strange fluke. You spend a long time working your way up, which I was prepared to do on the cello and was involved in doing just that. But with the guitar, it was overnight, just because of my strange skill set — a rock and roller who could follow a stick.
How did you become the Music Director for Paul Simon, and eventually for Guitar Mash as well?
I was suddenly in the Broadway world, and I did that for about 5 years and one night I was playing the opening night at Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center and Paul Simon was there that night. I was the head musician and at the reception at Tavern on the Green, he had a lot of questions for me, and the last one was, “Can I get your phone number ?”(laughs). So he came over just a couple of days later and we had a great afternoon together. A month later, I joined his band. I’ve been playing with Paul since ’98. And yeah, I get to play everything with Paul — guitar, cello, wind instruments, banjo…it’s just a lovely gig.
As for Guitar Mash, I grew up with a father and mother who led everything in song, so that was always very natural. We sang at home and we also had a family band called the Stewart Family Troubadours. 15-20 concerts per year. Medieval, Renaissance vocal music and instrumental music, and American folk music. We played from when I was 6, until I was 16. My two siblings– my older brother and younger sister– and my parents. So when I say “led in song”, my dad was an Episcopal priest and a very vibrant celebrant, he would get the entire congregation to sing and he would improvise call and response things. So I grew up seeing a lot of joy in music together. So Rebecca Weller (Founder/Producer of Guitar Mash) called me a couple of years ago with this idea and said people tell me you’re my man. That’s the short story.
That’s an incredible story. When did you begin creating music?
My earliest memories include music. I was probably singing at the same time I was beginning to talk. My parents were singing so much in the house. It was just a part of life. We love to crack each other up with songs. We love to pull up a song that someone hasn’t thought of in a long time. And when I was young, my parents were just so involved in music, not only in the church but they were involved in a concert in Milwaukee called the Milwaukee Pro Musica, and so they were in a professional group singing early music — music from the early 13′, 14′, 1500s. It was modeled after the New York Pro Musica, and it was led by Noah Greenberg in the 50s in NY. When they would come over, those remarkable musicians, that’s where I learned to play the cello. They would let me bounce the bow on the string. I wouldn’t use the word “create” music, I would say my earliest memories are always accompanied or led by music. A composer Charles Warnen says an interesting thing — when people ask him about creating music he says, “Humans do not create. Humans organize.” (laughs).
When asked what kind of music you play, in the past you’ve answered: “Well, I play a little bit of popular music, quite a bit of semi-popular music and an enormous amount of unpopular music.” I love your use of the word “unpopular” to describe experimental music — how did this reference come about?
I guess it was born out of a frustration with standard labels of music, but it was also an attempt to genuinely describe what I do in a succinct fashion. What I realized, looking at the way music is categorized, was that this was the most succinct way I could describe what it is that I do. I felt like it kept the standard labels out of it. There’s a reason we have names for things. There’s a reason the blues are called the blues, there’s a reason that techno is called techno, jazz is called jazz, classical is called classical…there are all sorts of reasons and there are all sorts of music in between and so many people who live in between those words or above them or with them. That’s one of the great things about NYC. Frank Sinatra kind of had it backwards when he sang, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere…actually in NY, you can make it in a way that you can’t make it anywhere else. The reason being that there are so many communities, cultural communities, in the city and so for me, that’s why I love NY. All the things that are going on here. All the different communities, all the different music, all the different schools of thought and schools of openness. This is the place.
I watched the fascinating video that Q2 Spaces (New York Public Radio) shot about your instrument lab, while inside your home. When did you start bringing life to instruments that were left behind?
Yeah. It started early. The seeds of it began in my family’s home. We had a music room and it was filled with sound makers of all different kinds, some of them fairly recognizable — old piano and a beautiful pump organ, a harmonium — and then of course, all the instruments the kids were practicing — violin, french horn, cello, flute, those kinds of things. Then there were also instruments my mom used when she was teaching public school — xylophones, kettle drums, tambourines and glockenspiels. It was a place where music would emerge no matter who was in there. My friends would come over and they wouldn’t be kids who were taking music lessons but they always had a great time in that room. I think that was my initial inspiration for what would then come to flower later in my life. But it was when I joined Paul’s band–when you’re on a pop tour, you’ve got some free time because you have a great community of people helping you out. I’m not carrying stuff and I’m not responsible for getting myself to the airport. What I’m responsible for is being in the lobby when I’m told and playing really well every night. So I had a lot of free time and, right away, I realized that I wanted to work on projects, and something that occurred to me immediately was that I wanted to play wind instruments. I had always played stringed instruments. So when we were in San Francisco, I wandered down to this wonderful store called Lark in the Morning and found a beautiful cheap didgeridoo, and I bought that and started playing wind instruments and discovered that every single cardboard tube or metal tube was a didgeridoo waiting to happen. When I discovered that, I realized there were a lot of simple sound-makers around us, just walking through the world. I just started making instruments of all different kinds and keeping my eyes open for those instruments that have been left or neglected in the dust bin of history. I think I said something recently that they used for a title — “The Island of Misfit Toys” (below) — I think I’ll stand by that analogy.
We have these wonderful instruments, pianos, saxophones, guitars, that do everything very well. You can transpose and play in all these different keys, we have this equal tempered scale…they do that very well, but I am being attracted to instruments these days that do one thing. They don’t do a million things. They do one thing and they do it really well. If you find a great lamppost that you whack and it rings in a beautiful way — ah! (laughs) There it is! It’s a perfect example — and you get your ear right in there and listen to all those overtones. You’re not going to be able to make an instrument that does that, but you can find an instrument that does that and because you just found that lamppost, you’re there! And if you’ve got a buddy with you, you can just say “lean in, listen to this…” and there’s an audience of two. And then you move on and that lamppost says “Finally, finally somebody realized.” That’s kind of what I’m into these days (laughs).
Mark’s involvement with GUITAR MASH has been equally as hands-on and community-building, as is his continuing request that we simply lean in and join him to experience the music that is there waiting to be discovered and realized in the world around us. So grab your guitar and lean in to the City Winery on Sunday, November 16, 2014, for GUITAR MASH and the music-led life movement that awaits you there.