Tribal Tech’s Scott Henderson sits down with Ian Patterson
No band has done more to promote the good name of fusion music these last twenty five years than Tribal Tech. Formed by guitarist Scott Henderson and bassist Gary Willis in 1984, Tribal Tech emerged from the slipstream of Weather Report – who would disband shortly after – and over the course of the next 16 years recorded nine albums of progressive fusion music drawing from blues, jazz, rock and funk.
Willis’s move to Spain seemed to signal the end of this dynamic quartet, but in 2009 rumors surfaced of a possible reunion. These rumors gained currency over the next couple of years and eventually, in early 2011, the first new Tribal Tech music in over a decade began to see the light of day in the form of extended jam sessions. These jam sessions resulted in Tribal Tech’s 10th studio album, X, reuniting the seminal line-up of the band, with keyboardist Scott Kinsey and drummer Kirk Covington joining Henderson and Willis.
The energy, harmony and driving grooves on X, mark it as a high point in the band’s discography, and suggests that there is plenty of fuel left in the band’s tank.
Ian Patterson: Scott, congratulations on X, it’s a really strong album. You guys must be pretty pleased with the way it’s turned out, no?
Scott Henderson: Thanks very much. Yeah, I’m really pleased with it. I think it’s our best recording.
Ian Patterson: I think a lot of Tribal Tech fans might agree with that. Why did Tribal Tech decide to reform, and why now?
Scott Henderson: We never really broke up. It was just that Gary Willis, after his divorce, he met a really nice Spanish lady and he moved to Spain. It was really difficult to keep the band going then, though there was always interest from the label. Then when Willis came to Texas to visit his family for a week, we decided to fly him to LA and record.
Ian Patterson: Was the music on X all put together in such a short space of time?
Scott Henderson: The basic tracks only took three days because we don’t really write music, we just jam and we’ve been doing that ever since Thick (Zebra Records, 1999). When Tribal Tech started out it was pretty much a composition-based band. We’d done six albums before we found an agent to get us on the road. You know, when you’re not touring and just playing a couple of gigs in town and the going into the studio you end up writing more as your creative outlet. We were writing a lot of structured music where there wasn’t a lot of interplay going on; there wasn’t a lot of organic playing on those old records because we weren’t on the road playing a lot together.
When Scott Kinsey and Kirk Covington joined the band in the early ’90s we started to tour. The more we toured the more we realized that the more structured the music, the more it’s the same every night and that made us feel like a Top 40 band – playing the same way every night. So, we started writing less, taking sections out of the tunes and jamming more to make it different every night.
That eventually led to just ditching the whole compositional approach, just jamming, and then composing over the jam. It’s like the guy who started it all, Miles Davis, with Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970), though our intention was to take it a step further, not just go in and record a 30-minute, one-chord jam, but to jam like a compositional blueprint to write on later. We started with Thick, and then Rocket Science (Tone Center, 2000) and that led to this album.
What’s changed is that Rocket Science was more one-chord jamming and there wasn’t much harmony, but on X we wanted to get back to the old Tribal Tech where it sounded more like tunes. We were careful this time when we were jamming to call a lot of chord changes and be more harmonic.
Ian Patterson: How important was it for you guys to reform around an album of new material? Was there ever talk of getting together and just touring the old repertoire, like Return to Forever did a few years ago?
Scott Henderson: No, because we’re not really a touring band. It’s tough in this economy. I tour in a trio, Willis tours in a trio, I mean, that’s how I bought my house. The economy doesn’t make it easy for a quartet to tour playing this kind of music. If we get some financially good offers then we’d consider it, but it’s unlikely.
Ian Patterson: So there’ll be no Tribal Tech tour to support this album?
Scott Henderson: Not so far. We’d love to tour, but we’ll see what happens.
Ian Patterson: I guess that the technical side of things in recording a Tribal Tech album has come a long way over the years, even since Rocket Science; how much post-production work went into the music on X compared to the previous record 12 years ago?
Scott Henderson: There’s a lot more post-production, but there were a couple of songs that weren’t touched. The ballad was pretty much left as is, and I’m really proud of that one because I think it’s the best piece we’ve ever created by jamming. Between me, Willis and Kinsey we’ve got pretty big ears and we know what the chords are going to sound like before we go to them, but that doesn’t always guarantee we’re going to make a great choice. We were taking turns calling the changes and that one just came out really nice. We’re within a few feet of each other and not monitoring that loud, so it’s easy to call chord changes. That tune came right off the cuff.
Ian Patterson: It is a great tune. It’s nice to know that you guys were playing and recording standing just a few feet apart, as today so much music is made by sending files back and forth. It seems like the days of a band being in the studio together to record are almost a thing of the past.
Scott Henderson: We had to send files when we started changing stuff. We split the music three ways; I took three tunes, Willis took three tunes and Kinsey took three tunes. We’re each the producers of our three tunes. If I changed something in a tune, snipping something out or adding some harmonies, then I needed to change the bass lines, so I’d send that to Willis. He then usually does something better. So, yeah, we’re changing the music and files are being sent around but essentially we have these really organic jams which the whole thing started with. Nobody is going to touch any of that interplay which happened during the basic tracks because that’s the best part of the record.
For instance, the second tune, Got Faith ‘n’ Phat was a jam, and none of the jam got touched. But what got added was the melody [sings the melody]. That was added later as an overdub. So we write and overdub at the same time.
Ian Patterson: That’s a great answer, and I think it explains a lot of the music on X. The intro to Mech X has a space-rock vibe reminiscent of the Ozric Tentacles, then there’s a searing blues-metal solo from yourself and a dramatic finale; can you talk a little about the genesis of this song?
Scott Henderson: The intro was done after the jam. That bit was done at home. The intro was just a drum groove, and I didn’t know how to fill that space. I didn’t know whether I should add music or maybe soloing, but I thought I’m soloing enough on this record, so I went for the sonic craziness. Once we got into the riff, which we hinted at in the jam, Kirk took a solo over that riff and I just added the slide guitar at home. I also added the melody and the harmony at home. That section with all the chords was added later.
Ian Patterson: The intro and first minute or so of Time Lapse could almost be a Matt Garrison composition; how did that come about?
Scott Henderson: That’s a Willis tune. A little bit of the melody was in the bass track. I think he had used some of that melody in the bass track and he liked it so he decided to use that melody. A lot of that tune happened live and not a whole lot was changed on that one.
Ian Patterson: Another standout track on X is Gravity, and it perhaps shows the greatest influence of keyboard maestro/bandleader Joe Zawinul.
Scott Henderson: On that particular tune me and Willis didn’t play; that’s just Kinsey jamming with Kirk. Kinsey, like Joe, is a truly great improviser, and he pretty much improvised all of what you hear on that tune. Willis added stuff later to it, but one of the things about X is that we didn’t all play together all the time, because if you do, it’s easy to get locked into a one-chord jam. We did a lot of trio playing where one guy takes a break. I wasn’t there for Working Blue – I was having lunch, so I added all my parts later.
Ian Patterson: That approach has really freshened things up, that’s for sure. Working Blue is a really ripping track but for me one of the most memorable parts of the tune, and the album, is the two-note Kinsey motif which comes in around halfway, over which you solo, and which then appears again at the end of the tune. It’s a very simple motif, but highly effective.
Scott Henderson: That’s one of my favorite tunes on the record. Kinsey is just so good at improvising harmony on the spot.
Ian Patterson: The Indian-flavored Ask Me a Question is a great, grooving track, very atmospheric and with killer playing; how did this song develop?
Scott Henderson: That wasn’t one of my tunes and to tell you the truth I wasn’t there at the jam.
Ian Patterson: Were you at lunch again?
SH: I don’t know if I was eating lunch or watching TV, but they did that one without me. In fact, I didn’t even hear that track until we were listening to all the jams. For this record we came away with 30 jams and we had to pick ten. It was hard because most of those 30 jams would have been cool to work with. We finally picked ten and I was one of the ones who felt really strongly about Ask Me a Question because I felt the groove was very cool. When I started overdubbing I asked Kinsey what he wanted because it was one of his tunes, and he suggested that I play electric sitar on it. I thought that was a great idea so I did all the sitar parts at home.
Ian Patterson: The ending to Ask Me a Question is so abrupt, I wonder if maybe the only way to escape from such an inescapable groove was to hit the ejector-seat button.
Scott Henderson: I played this lick which I guess Kinsey liked, because he decided to end the tune at the end of the lick. Actually that tune went on for about 20 minutes [laughs] and we didn’t want a 20-minute tune on the record so Kinsey shortened it.
Ian Patterson: Let’s Get Swung sounds very organic. It reminds me of Miles Davis funk circa Jack Johnson [Columbia, 1971].
Scott Henderson: That went down in the studio pretty much exactly as you hear it. It was just one of those jams where we were calling chord changes.
Ian Patterson: The closing track, Corn Butter is incredibly funky; it sounds like it must have been fun to jam.
Scott Henderson: That’s exactly as it happened. I did only one guitar overdub, a little Univibe part in the middle – but it was so finished that we didn’t even assign it to anyone.
Ian Patterson: It’s a great album closer. Scott, your playing not just on X but in general, displays a very wide-ranging vocabulary; how much of this vocabulary are you aware of and how much of it surprises you as you’re playing?
Scott Henderson: Well, I wish I was more surprised than I am. I think any improviser would say that. We all have our licks and our vocabulary, but the goal is to play stuff that we haven’t played before. The truth is, it doesn’t happen as much as we’d like. It’s not that easy to do, particularly on the faster tempos where your fingers have to do things they’ve already done before just to keep the tempo up. The way it works for me, and I think for most improvisers, is that the slower you play, the more you can be totally creative. The faster the tempo, the more you have to rely on the vocabulary you already know.
I feel like my mission on this record was just to be as melodic as possible. One of the things I’ve been guilty of on past Tribal Tech records is playing too damn many notes. I was younger then and maybe had something to prove, but these days most of my students can play 20 times faster than me, so I don’t even try to go there. I’d rather just try to put the right note in the right place. That and getting good tone is pretty much all I’m concerned about these days.
Ian Patterson: Your playing on X is really melodic, and the playing of the band on the whole as well. A lot of people will really be hoping Tribal Tech tours again, but if that can’t happen, is the intention to at least record again?
Scott Henderson: This one went really well and everyone had a great time, so we’re saying Willis, you should come visit your family more often. We’ll do a record every couple of years.
Ian Patterson: You have tour dates coming up with your trio of bassist Travis Carlton and drummer Alan Hertz; do you guys have plans to record any time soon?
Scott Henderson: I have four good tunes, and I need about five more and then we’ll record. Right now I’m working on a record with [bassist] Jeff Berlin and [drummer] Dennis Chambers which we did a couple of months ago. Now I’m working on the overdubbing and the layering. It’s a cover record; we’re doing a lot of Weather Report, Herbie Hancock and that kind of stuff. I want to make the tunes sound really fat. I’m working on Mysterious Traveler and there must be 40 guitar tracks on it.
It’s funny, when you listen to Weather Report it all sounds so smooth and organic, but if you listen closely it’s like a Star Wars movie, it’s so detailed. There are all these amazing little parts in the background that are mixed low, but they’re there. Joe [Zawinul] was a total master at layering sounds. I hadn’t heard Mysterious Traveler in awhile, so when I listen now, I hear so many parts in the background that I want to recreate. It’s a lot of fun hearing keyboard sounds and trying to see how close I can come to them with all my pedals and gadgets. I’m having a great time with this record.
Ian Patterson: Those sound like two exciting projects to look forward to. Best of luck with them and with Tribal Tech’s new album, X.
Scott Henderson: Thank you so much. I’m really grateful to have this interview. Every bit of press is a huge help in spreading the word to people who have an interest in the music.
Ian Patterson: Thank you very much Scott. It’s all about spreading the music as much as possible, because it makes all of us happier, richer people.