Michael Lloyd Vick, aka Michael ATONAL Vick, is an artist, a multi-instrumentalist, a promoter, a music instructor, and, as Guitar Player magazine dubbed him recently, the Ringleader behind the Fretless Guitar Festival. In Asian circles, he is also known as VVV, often with Free-Bananas. He is an accomplished musician on both fretless and fretted guitar and bass, among many instruments in his music arsenal. Although his music education began with the classics on the piano, he quickly discovered and pursued his passion for the guitar, and the rest is history in the making. Some of his major music projects include the Michael Vick Trip band and the WIT’S END group. The last time I checked online, he has 7 albums available for purchase on CD Baby, and that doesn’t even include his numerous contributions to other artists and projects, of which, most notably, is the release of the 2-CD compilation album called “Village of the Unfretted”, featuring music from 35 of the world’s most prominent fretless guitarists. In addition to recording music, Michael also gives master classes, performs at charity events and various live gigs, such as Bass Fight, is an activist for stem cell research, and is heavily involved in the promotion and organization of the annual NYC Fretless Guitar Festival. Along with Jeff Berg of unfretted.com and other talented musicians, Michael has been instrumental in pushing the fretless community into the limelight.
Although one can easily spend a long time listing all of Michael’s accomplishments, it’s much harder to describe Michael and his music in conventional terms because he is ATONAL! He is the kind of musician who will unfret just about anything and everything in his experimentations with sounds, and, in doing so, he creates music that transcends boundaries of traditional genres. For him, it’s not enough just to play music; what’s more important is to create. Technically, I think Michael has the aptitude to outplay many indie musicians and make tons of dough from it, but in my opinion, he chose the more solitary path because a true musician never compromises his creativity and individuality, and, in the end, that’s the most important thing one can have. For the average Joe out there, experimental music will probably never gain the same status as the more generic and easily digestible songs that often populate the charts, but then again, Michael is anything BUT generic. Listening to Michael’s music is a liberating aural experience because his music challenges your ears to hear beyond what is conventional. (Yes, this experience can be both exciting and dangerous.) To me, Michael embodies the spirit of a true indie musician, the one that is always free and unfretted! I thank Michael for his generosity, creativity, atonal music and sense of humor, and for taking the time to give this extensive interview, which has been both educational and fun for me.
VVV: Michael ATONAL Vick = VVV + Free-Bananas. I came across this equation on your website. Would you please explain this equation to me? I think I am at my WIT’S END. :-)
VVV: I am Michael ATONAL Vick. Who is also VVV (in Asia), and together one is bound to get Free Bananas LIVE with Lucky The Spirited-Dragon. Keep in mind that this is clue #4.442c. I originally started giving out Free-Bananas with WIT'S END in 1995 after the retiring of a friend who used to wear a fish mask on his head with his body draped in a long robe while wearing a shit head hat and holding a pitchfork in his hand dancing next to me in The Michael Vick Trip. At times, he would even have smoke coming out the eyes of the mask due to the fact that he had smoke something while doing that. Yeah, I definitely have a lot of names, but far too often it seems that WIT'S END will suffice.
MT: When and how did your passion for the guitar begin?
VVV: I was fairly young and heard groups like Boston and AC/DC plus I got hear Joan Baez and Neil Diamond through my parents. I must also add that my passion in truth is uniquely growing like the beginning, and that is what is so lovely about learning music. The tone of the Guitar has always had a special touch with me too.
MT: What was the first guitar you played? Do you still have it now?
VVV: It was a blue Yamaha electric, obviously with frets. No but my Mom wishes I did…..
MT: For the non-musicians, what exactly is atonal?
VVV: Atonal music basically has no specific key and tends to have a very Chromatic sense with irregular rhythms. This School of Music was pioneered by Arnold Schoenburg and his 12 Tone Serial Technique or Dodecaphony.
MT: You studied classical guitar and performed with symphony orchestras, but when and why did you decide to become ATONAL?
VVV: Well, I am not perfectly Atonal. Now that is an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one. I don’t specifically play everything in a strict Atonal style, and what is even funnier is that my Heart leans more towards Microtonal sonic explorations. Although, I do often play heavily Atonal sets, and that began around 1999 with my CD “Floating On A Time-Scale InBetween”. I initially got into Atonal Music because I was in need of new sonic avenues, and I must add that most of my musical explorations are very intuitive, even my original Atonal leanings.
MT: What are some of your musical influences and favorite musicians?
VVV: Wow, how much time do we have? I will first say that I enjoy all styles with highlights from Indian (North and South), Classical (Any), Jazz (Any), Progressive Metal Electronica Fusions, Musique Concrete etc., and for Artists (last names only) Zappa, Partch, Davis, Hendrix, McLaughlin, Velez , Pastorius, Rhoads, Kottke, Gould, DeLucia, Jordan, Roland-Kirk, Debussy, Segovia, Christian, Theremin, Vitous, Coltrane, Hussain, Grappelli, Paganini, Hedges, Williams, Menhuin, Hellborg, Van Halen, Corea, Breau, Bach, Manring, Wonder, Shankar, Holland, Laswell, Zorn, Grisman, Dolphy, Cobham, Varese, Heifitz, Gaye, Pass, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Gurtu, Glennie, Fripp and Crimson……………….for ex.
MT: In your 2004 interview for guitar9.com, you described your music gear as:
VVV: “I play many different, yet similar, instruments to achieve my sound. May I start with the one and only Tele C, Old #8 to you; a Fender Fretless Telecaster, an Ibanez Fretless Bass, Alvarez/Yari Classical, Ibanez Electric, Guild Acoustic, Fender P-Bass, Cordoba Classical, Orphariontar with deep Scalloped Frets, 12 String Rogue Acoustic, Santa Rosa Mandolin, Lauren Fretless Baritone Ukulele, Ovation Acoustic with Floating Tremolo System from the inventor Mr. Dave Story, Lauren Short-Scale Fretless Classical, Dixen Ukulele, various Flutes/Nose-Flutes, Clarinets, Recorders, Tablas, Dumbeks, Casio Keys, Xylophone, Various Sonic-Toys, TKO Drum Kit, Butter Knives, Spoons, Hair Ties, 2 Boss RC-20 Loop Stations, Boss Stereo Chorus, Boss Super-Shifter, Boss Turbo-Overdrive, Dunlop Cry Baby Wah Wah, Lexicon LXP-5, Fender TWIN, SWR Workingman's Combo 15, Peavy TKO-65, Peavy XM4 PA, Metal Slide, Dunlop H3 Picks, Shure Mics, BEHR Condensers, Tascam US-122 USB Audio/Midi Interface, Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge / CD Architect / Vegas and Steinberg Cubase.”
MT: Wow! How many roadies do you have?!
VVV: Depending on the performance, it can be anywhere from 2 to 8. I personally say the more the merrier, but I typically assign specific duties to keep it all organized and secured which means that certain people in the “crew” only watch the various posts around the venue.
MT: How did you learn to play all these instruments?
VVV: Many of these instruments use similar techniques to play but have blatantly different feels and outcome of tones. Please keep in mind that I can play more instruments than I own, but I still need to practice to keep up all of the various “chops”.
MT: Since that interview, have you added more instruments to your collection?
VVV: Yes, I recently acquired the Godin Glissentar which is an 11 string fretless acoustic/electric guitar based off the Arabic oud and 12 Tone guitar minus the frets (TRUE). I have also created some homemade instruments that are prototypes, and I cannot speak about them in detail currently.
MT: Which fretless guitar would you recommend to a beginner fretless guitarist?
VVV: Well, I tend to say unfret an inexpensive guitar and see if you like the tone and feel. Try www.unfretted.com for strict details. Although, this type of initial guitar won’t play anywhere near an Electric Vigier or Acoustic Godin. It will help one to realize how different exact Intonation is from a fretted guitar.
MT: If you could take only one instrument with you to a deserted island, which one would you choose? Why?
VVV: I am the instrument; so maybe a young lady of my liking too. (implied)
MT: You are known to unfret and modify various instruments to get the sound that you are looking for. Which instrument did you first unfret? How did you learn to unfret instruments?
VVV: I initially removed the frets from my Fender TeleCaster (Korean) named “Tele-C”, and it was and still is to some degree, very hard to play. The strings were so “High” off of the neck that at one point you could fit a small finger under them, but that “TeleCaster” tone still cuts right through no matter. I used common sense and asked Mike Poirier, a guitar tech friend, a few questions after starting the process. I love to experiment and create; so destroying a guitar by removing the frets certainly fits that criteria.
MT: Unfretting an instrument is obviously more complicated than just the physical removal of the frets. Could you briefly describe some of the key considerations involved in unfretting an instrument?
1. Don’t use an expensive guitar.
2. Take your time.
3. Be careful not to damage the neck when removing the frets.
4. One might need to heat the frets up with a soldering gun (or similar) to unglue the frets.
5. One can use a slow dry epoxy (or similar) to fix unwanted gaps in the neck if they occur or refinish the whole neck.
6. Fill the slots from where the frets lived with a slow dry epoxy (or similar) because the neck could very possibly bow in especially after one puts strings on.
7. If one decides to smooth the neck thoroughly use atleast 2 grades of sandpaper light and thick.
8. For strings use heavier gauge flatwounds and tune down at least a Whole Step to keep the neck from possibly bowing in, and this will help the guitar keep its tuning better too.(Some professionally made fretless guitars can handle roundwounds, but they can be a nightmare for a home modified fretless guitar by chewing through the board.)
9. Remember that one can remove the whole fingerboard. That is frets and all, then replace it with glass, metal, carbon fiber or some similar plastics etc. A fully metal or carbon fiber fretless guitar would be beautiful with the fully emphasis on the “beauty”. Check out www.unfretted.com for even more detailed accounts and ideas.
MT: You are a big proponent for fretless guitars and basses. One of my favorite quotes by you regarding playing a fretless guitar is: “Playing FretLess Guitar is like having Sex without a Condom. It is more Dangerous and just Feels better.” Okay, I understand the “feels better” part, but in what way is it also “dangerous”?
VVV: Keeping your Intonation and holding resonating chords or even single strings can be very dangerous for ears only associated with the 12 Tone Equal Temperament System, and sex can sometimes be dangerous for, well…………….
MT: Does the fretless guitar have any limitations whatsoever? Of course, much of it depends on the skill of the player, but does the fretless instrument have any intrinsic limitations in terms of sounds that are otherwise obtainable with a fretted one?
VVV: Any limitations in the end would come from the individual, but I must also point out that certain simpler techniques on a fretted guitar can become extremely hard on its fretless counterpart. Again, any sort of limit would occur from the player, but there are very unique differences in tone and feel that each player must recognize on theirs own. Most of these are very, very obvious too; so hopefully it doesn’t live as a “final” limit to their perception of the instrument but as more of an opportunity for sounds.
MT: Do you play fretted instruments anymore? If so, under what circumstances would you pick up a fretted instrument?
VVV: Yes, I do on occasion, for example, at an informal jam, teaching lessons, BASS FIGHT and $$$$. I play a lot of instruments, and I don’t like to discriminate against any instrument, even the u-um “Computer turbo-turntable, Yo!!!”. It is really not that farfetched to catch me playing a piece of zinc or a razor………anything. I am also very interested in Quartertone and Multi-Fretted Guitars like the 62 or 19 Tone Guitars Jon Catler and Neil Haverstick use, respectfully.
MT: In addition to being an accomplished musician, you also give master classes. Among the various topics and techniques covered in your classes is microtuning. What exactly is microtuning?
VVV: Well, it is more typically referred to as Microtonal Tunings based on the Harmonic Series. Here one can create their own Just Intonation Tunings, as well as any of the various Equal Temperament Tunings like the ever popular 12 Tone Equal Temperament System ie. 12-TET. While I am a Student/Teacher of Microtonal Music, many of the advanced and excellent Microtonal Players/Composers/Groups that I have really enjoyed are Harry Partch, the Catler Bros., La Monte Young, Dan Stearns, Neil Haverstick, Birdhouse and acoustic guitarist Rod Poole. There are obviously more, yet all of these mentioned present a wide range with lots of fretless guitars and some with more frets than any sane player would want on a neck, bent and all. It is great to hear a world of sounds beyond the 12-TET, even Acoustically.
MT: Besides taking lessons from you, what kind of advice would you offer to an aspiring musician making the transition from a fretted to a fretless guitar?
VVV: Be patient and remember, “perfect practice makes permanent” and always strive to be unique through the knowledge of your Soul.
MT: How would you describe your style of music? What do you hope the listener will get out of your music?
VVV: World-Experimental featuring Fretless Guitars and Basses with Structured-ImproviZations in Acoustic and Electric atmospheres rich in a melding of original and fundamental Traditions with a Futuristic and comprehensive approach to all Sonics. High and Happiness with a richer vocabulary of sounds to hear and enjoy!
MT: What inspires you to make music?
VVV: Life and sound experiences with the idea to create something unique and possessing feel and technique balanced in any Key or Tuning.
MT: At age 18, you formed the Michael Vick Trip band. In 1995, you formed the WIT’S END group with Patric Kelly and James Webb. How are these groups different in terms of their artistic expressions and explorations?
VVV: The “original” Michael Vick Trip had an experimental blues/rock sound with more vocal tunes and a few covers too. I also had the fine Charleston, SC Bassist Kevin Hamilton playing with me no matter what Drummer including Geoff Cormier on tunes like “For Thou Art The Golden-Roman……Go Away!!!!” and “The Voyage”. WIT’S END (W.E.) was initially created with me and Patrik William Kelly in Atlanta, Ga as a heavy Duo group that at times was felt as a direct assault with Jazzy intentions. Soon after, James Webb joined in on Bass, Percussion and Vox, and WE’s sound developed with Vocal tracks like “2-Fisted-Samba” and “Blood-Less-Sores”. WIT’S END as a trio focused on more long form rehearsed and improvised song structures with more than a few 20+ instrumentals like “3-rd-Ven” and “Mirrored with Red-Linen”. WE also had long percussion work outs like “Albe-Nocture”, and WE loved to hit electro-acoustic tones with layered Flutes, Vox and Percussion delays like “Bill Or Change” and “Religious-Imposters”.
MT: In your opinion, what does it take to be a good musician? Is it all in the techniques or do you think there are certain things that one just can’t learn?
VVV: A good musician can have variety of attributes, and typically all standouts have an excellent feel and the technique to communicate it. To say that one cannot learn something would be very foolish to believe, and I do appreciate that each individual animal etc. can express various different feelings via sounds. Most issues with learning music come from not having enough time to practice or becoming mentally defeated in worst case scenarios. Learning an instrument can be a very intense experience, and one should enjoy what they create to some degree. Why do people play “covers”?
MT: If you could jam with any musician in the world, who would it be?
VVV: My band of clones ie. The MVC’s or currently Percussionist Evelyn Glennie and passed, Tony Williams.
MT: Of the music samples that I heard so far, I have yet to hear you sing. (Of course, I haven’t listened to your entire repertoire, so this question may just reflect my complete ignorance.) Are you working on any vocal tunes?
VVV: I have used singing from the beginning, and most of my CDs for sale are about 15-25% Vocal tunes. Although, I don’t typically use the Voice in a “poppy” sense either. My current project “UnFret My Heart w/ Free-Bananas” is about 40% Vocal Tunes, but in a style similar to singing Melodies with Spoken-Word dialogue. For some on-line stuff, I have a few vocal tracks at www.myspace.com/themichaelvicktrip
MT: What are some of the projects that you are working on now?
VVV: I am finishing up a new all acoustic/electric fretless guitar and bass CD “UnFret My Heart”. This recording will feature a smorgasbord of FretLess / UnFretted Guitars, and it will also feature a few contributions from Neil Haverstick and Dan Stearns for good measure. I am also about to release the Live BASS FIGHT CD / DVD www.BassFight.US, and a Re-Mastered version of WIT’S END: Interjections Part 2. Recently I improvised a Solo for a CD / Web Tribute to Derek Bailey from 3 Pups Music with www.kronosonic.com. Also, please check out www.artistforcharity.com for a track that I contributed a fretless guitar solo on my Glass-Neck “V5”, CD / Web. I am also currently organizing this year’s New York Fretless Guitar Festival, which will have performances and Workshops from many of the top players in field.
MT: When you compose music, do you have a vision of the finished work before you experiment with different sounds or do you improvise as you experiment?
VVV: Well, that can vary tremendously, but everything you mentioned can be true, as well as; some Composing secrets I cannot reveal at this time.
MT: In 2004, you were asked about your goals for the next 5-10 years. Your response was:
VVV: “Aside from being older, and I say, wiser, maybe doing many small to mid European and U.S. tours, with up-to-date CD/DVD web distribution, or whatever the modern format will be. I would also say completing my newest instrument designs and doing some endorsing and worldwide clinics. Hell, maybe meet the girl of my... Well, if I haven't by the time you post this interview. Huuummm? Oh yeah, have some kids you know, and more money (mainly for music). I'll be continuing to unfret any fretted instruments that wind up in my way. And build upon new tunings and sonics never felt possible. Currently, my 36 tone system is coming along nicely.”
MT: I know that it’s less than 2 years since you gave this response, but have you achieved some of these goals already? Do you have any new ambitions or goals to add to this list?
VVV: Yes, I have, to varying degrees, and many of them are extensions of others currently developing. My main goal is to continue extending my knowledge and have the patience to communicate my sounds into the future. I still would like to make some $$$$ doing this too!!!!!!
MT: What is the 36 tone system?
VVV: This is a sound system consisting of 36 Tones / Notes, and I have variations on how the notes are achieved. For example, I created a box like instrument / structure with strings stretched across various sized sound-holes top and bottom, and in between that there is a movable metal bar to change the pitches. This is prototype idea based off of Tradition with ears towards the Future, and this system is very broad in the tones one can explore if they are willing to take chances.
MT: You are the director of the annual NYC Fretless Guitar Festival. How do people register or buy tickets to this event?
VVV: One can purchase tickets for the Festival from the Knitting Factory on-line at www.knittingfactory.com and at the venue the day of the Event. One can also check for updates at www.fretlessguitarfestival.com , www.atonal-hole.com & www.unfretted.com for updates.
MT: According to the article Fretless Wonders, published in the December 2005 issue of the Guitar Player magazine, you were dubbed the Ringleader behind the NYC Fretless Guitar Festival, which also served as a party to celebrate the release the 2-CD compilation album “Village of the Unfretted”. Could you briefly tell us what it took for you to get the album and the festival off the ground?
VVV: Yeah, the CD Village Of The Unfretted would never have gotten off of the ground without Jeff Jahloon Berg as the Producer, www.unfretted.com, and then you have the 35 Artists from 16 Countries. Remember that these are many of the top Fretless Guitarists in the World today. Then the other key figures were yours truly (Promotions), Emre Meydan (Artwork) and Tim Mirth (Mastering). As for the NYC Fretless Guitar Festival and CD Release 2005, that was created to celebrate the diversity of the instrument and introduce the CD Village Of The Unfretted too the World. So basically, what it took for both projects was the focus of many individuals working together for a similar purpose. There were also a lot of behind the scenes and in front of the scene groups who helped including the 2 main Sponsors Godin Guitars and Vigier Guitars. Oh yeah, special thanks to Eddie DeGenaro and Eric Rhodes for the Free-Bananas!
MT: How does it feel to read about yourself and your achievements in magazines like Guitar Player?
VVV: I am glad that everything is having an impact because many of these concepts have been around for awhile, and often they have been misunderstood or overlooked. By the way, Barry Cleveland was the one at Guitar Player mag who took a chance on the Fretless Guitar, and it makes sense because he is an experimental player himself. I must also mention that various French Guitar mags covered the CD and Festival, and a few other US mags are coming along the way too.
MT: In the unfretted world, you are quite a celebrity. Has all of this publicity changed your life at all?
VVV: Yes, some but nothing a little sleep won’t cure.
MT: How is the preparation for the 2006 NYC Fretless Guitar Festival coming along so far?
VVV: Nicely, I have the tentative Dates for either late September or early October, and this years Festival will still be at the Knitting Factory. We will also have Fretless Guitar WorkShops and MasterClasses this year, along with the Performances, and every Event will take place at the Knitting Factory. This includes the WorkShops/MasterClasses starting early in the afternoon on Saturday. Just a quick hint on some of the players who might perform this year: Fuze, Bumblefoot, E#, Evett, Vagh, Vigroux, McGill, Powell, DeGenaro, VVV and Zjaca, and we will possibly have 2 of main the Microtonal Guitarists on the scene today, Jon Catler and Neil Haverstick. The line up will be determined after the final Date is set, but as of right now, all of the players mentioned are very interested in performing this year. We are striving for the NYC Fretless Fest to not just be the most “original” Fretless Guitar Festival in the World, but also to be the most “original” Guitar Festival in the World today. I understand that this is a bold statement, and it is meant to be. While the Guitar of the today many times comes off as a novelty/cliché Instrument. This Festival continues to establish the Guitar (fretless or fretted) as an innovative Instrument with many new roads to cover.
MT: You are also a proponent for stem cell research. Does this cause have any personal significance for you?
VVV: Yes it does and in a very proactive way. I feel that Humans are at a point where “real” differences can be made. This is not to say that times before ours did not have this burning need, but acting like a complete “reality” fool for whatever Profession isn’t the best way to go after it $$$$$$$$. If the United States Government cannot allow “Professionals” to work at the highest levels of the Sciences for human cures via Stem Cells; then we as citizens must educate ourselves on more than the “spiritual after-life consequences” of Stem Cell Research. As you can tell, I am Pro Stem Cell Research because it can Help Save Lives.
MT: What do you enjoy doing when you are not busy making music, teaching, and promoting?
VVV: I like to play competitive sports and investigate Nature. I also train “Darble Plunder’s: Parachuting Cat Troupe”.
MT: How long have you had long hair?
VVV: Since 1992, although; I did shave my head in 1997.
MT: Do you have any tips for keeping the tangles out of long hair?
MT: In many of the photos, I see you performing barefoot. Why is that?
VVV: I typically use my toes to run the floor mixers, but I did just get some grounded floor socks.
MT: You are/were based in North Carolina. What is your favorite Southern comfort food?
VVV: Well, I am a bit more South currently; so that should help because it is more on the “Southern” side. For my style, I prefer anything made with Love by someone else in a “home” style setting with porches etc…….
MT: What is your favorite movie?
VVV: “Desperate Living” by John Waters. I don’t really watch a lot of movies, but “Desperate Living” is so funny and Dirty plus gross (Sorry Charmin). I must also add these cult classics “2-Shots to Memphis: A Romantic Comedy About When The Gay Life Goes Urban” starring Cheech Marin and David Lee Roth and “Lou Ferrigno As The Big Fudgey”. Both of these are from circa mid 80’s.
MT: Thank you very much for the interview, Michael!
VVV: Thank you for the long InterView and until next time, remember that Love must first come from within…….This is my Peace for a shredded World, Universe not included.
Interview by Mikki Tarro Friday, April 14, 2006