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Chris Poland

Interview with Ohm

 

I arrived at The Baked Potato (a legendary L.A. area jazz club) at 8:15 on Wednesday, November 23rd. It was the day before Thanksgiving, in addition to Pag’s birthday (he couldn’t understand how everyone knew, but it was posted in their online forum). I waited outside as the birthday boy went scouting for Kofi, and had the pleasure of talking with Chris in the meantime. By the time Kofi was present, and we were ready to get started, Chris was surprised that I was the one conducting the interview. I had met Chris on a few other occasions, and he expressed to me, “I thought we were just hanging out.

It is upon this gesture that I present this interview. A refreshing lack of pretense and ego can be found in the most tremendously talented of musicians. They are comfortable performing as a working class band, even though to many, including myself, they are nothing less than the heros of modern music. In a world that is characterized by it’s unfairness, sometimes the greatest bands in the world can be found playing a tiny club instead of a stadium. In pondering this, I’m comforted by the words of Robertino Pagliari, “Just playing in these small rooms, there’s a very honest appreciation of what’s going on… you don’t see that in life anymore… I think this is the one circle where there’s still some honesty and comradery among all of us. With this, I give you guitarist Chris Poland, bassist Robby “Pag Pagliari, and drummer Kofi Baker, sharing a revealing look at what many have come to know as “Ohmage.

Chris Poland

Chris Poland

JS: For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with your history, how did you come together?

CP: We had started out playing fusion together (referring to Robby in The New Yorkers), originally, when I first moved to California in the late 70s. We did until we couldn’t take it anymore, because music shifted and all this fusion just died on the vine, and all of a sudden The Knack came out with “My Sharona and that was it. So then we kind of parted ways, but we got together for certain recordings and stuff, and had gotten into our different bands. Then one day we hooked up when all these bands had basically dispersed, and we were like, you know what, why don’t we do what we’ve always liked to do, and what we always wanted to do, and just do it because that’s what we should be doing. And that’s what we’ve done. And originally it was Koko Bermejo as our first drummer, then David Eagle and now Kofi Baker.

JS: Describe what The New Yorker days were like a little bit, playing with Gar, etc…

RP: It was real intense. Kind of like what we’re doing now, but we had horns on occasion and there was another guitarist, Gar’s brother Stewie. So Chris would either do the melodies or the solos. There were a lot of harmonies going on and we could enhance all that. It was just very intense. We had a lot of great material. I think, if we had the gear and experience we have today, it would have been a lot better than what it was. We did it for as long as we could, then Gar started up with Megadeth, and Chris eventually went with that as well. But it worked it’s course and it was a good band.

JS: How did you acquire Kofi Baker, and in what ways has he altered the group?

KB: Me?

JS: You.

KB: Well… I think… I’ve made it more… like me… (With a mischievous smirk) than the other drummer (laughs), that’s probably the best way I can put it.

RP: I was playing with Kofi while David was still in the band. We had just finished recording the first record.

KB: He was cheating on David with me.

RP: We were doing a sideline thing called Buttermilk. And I didn’t think Kofi could hang with us, but I gave him the CD. (Laughter). I said maybe you could try out with us and see what you think. And we’ll tell you what we think.

JS: Was it an instant click?

RP: Well I had enjoyed playing with him a lot. So, I remember talking with Chris about it when David Eagle was going through some personal problems and had to take care of some things. It was time for a change, and I suggested Kofi would be a good replacement, I enjoyed playing with him and thought he would be a good addition to the band.

KB: It was because of my age, see, because I’m young. They wanted someone young.

RP: Plus you can lift all the gear. (more laughter)

KB: They wanted someone they could push around, and tell what to do, you know?

JS: Who are your biggest influences?

KB: Frank Zappa, for me… that would be mine.

RP: Yeah, I think it would have to be Cream. They were the reason I really got more involved in what I was doing. And of course, Return to Forever, Weather Report, bands like that…

CP: Me too, Cream, Hendrix, Led Zepplin’s first two records…

KB: These two guys are old… (Ginger Baker of Cream is of course Kofi’s father)

CP: …all their records, you know, all of Zeppelin… all that kind of stuff. And then I listened to McLaughlin, Jeff Beck, instrumental stuff, then Weather Report and all that stuff.

JS: Can you describe for me your writing process? All credits simply go to “Ohm. Does it come together collectively? Do one of you bring something to the table and you play off of each other?

CP: Sometimes I’ll bring a song to the table, and then we just kind of rearrange it and cut the fat off. Other times we just start jamming, and then write a song right there on the spot. But because we’re all putting our time in, I figure that… if Kofi comes in with a full song, and we do it, we’re adding our stuff to it so it might as well be everybody’s. Otherwise, why bother. Why sit there and meticulously, you know… “I got fourteen riffs on this song and you only got four! (laughing), so you know…

KB: That’s what split Cream up.

CP: So I just look at it like, you know, if everybody gets the red and the black, then everybody is going to try and make it happen.

JS: Some tracks off your latest release seem to push towards a more traditional jazz-fusion sound (If you can call Ohm traditional). But in particular, songs like What If, or Rooms of Telemetry remind me almost of an arrangement Weather Report would do. Was this intentional?

CP: No, it just happens. Like we don’t sit around and think, “Hey, we’re going to do this style‿. We just have a bunch of songs… Sometimes I’ll come in with some songs, and we won’t even ever play them again, but then we’ll come in and do a song and say, “Hey, that’s the one. You know… that’s how it works.

RP: We’re not really married to anything, but sometimes they just come out a certain way. We never go in with the process of, “What was Zawinul doing here? And “What would McLaughlin write here? We just put it together, and if it’s not happening, we’re not married to it.

CP: Sometimes, like with Amino, and with What If… with a lot of the songs from both records actually, things happen when we’re recording them, where we’ll just go, “Let’s rewrite this whole thing. Right there on the spot. With a lot of the songs on this record, a lot of melody came into play after recording the drums and bass. We started to look at it and go, “Yeah, right here, let’s do something. Or while we recorded it, we changed a little bit here and there, seeing ahead and knowing we wanted to make it a little bit different down the line when we mixed. Even tonight we’re not married to anything… it’s like… something’s going to change. Sometimes we’ll redo songs just so we can play them better live.

JS: Kind of keeping with the spirit of improvisation?

CP: Exactly, so they’re good for the audience, and you know… forget the record, we want to try and play it live and have everybody be interested. Sometimes we’ll just abandoned the record and just do it however we’re going to do it.

KB: Yeah, I abandon everything I play, before I play it…

RP: As you’ll see tonight… (laughter)

JS: Is that for real though, do you just let go on stage?

KB: Yeah, I play it different every time.

 

JS: Some great tracks off your live release made it onto AAF, some didn’t. Any chance of hearing tunes like Terra Incognita, or You Don’t Know on future studio albums?

CP: Oh yeah, you know what, I mean… there’s this song called Photograph, I really like… we have You Don’t Know, and Terra Incognita… a lot of the songs have seen the light of day, here and there, as demos and stuff… and on the live record… but that’s just the stuff we’re saving for the next record, or when it’s right. It might be the next record, or it might be the one after that, I don’t know. Mostly, right now, I just want to take some time off in the next couple months, after January and February and just try and cess out maybe five or six new songs.

RP: Yeah, we’re going to start putting some new stuff together… we have a lot of ideas floating around. You can tell when we’re jamming and stuff, a lot fresh ideas are coming up, but we’re not taking any time to put it together…

CP: Yeah, what’s happening is, you know, everybody’s got their thing. Kofi runs a drum school. Robby’s got his thing, I got my thing. And, we’ll get together, and we’ll realize we only have one or two days a week to keep our chops up, and we got a gig every week. So when you do get an idea… it’s kind of like…well, last night, Kofi’s like, “Hey can you set up to record?. And I couldn’t, because we had just done that MI thing (Musician’s Institute, DVD shoot), and everything was torn down. But we got a lot of stuff on tape right now, where I think we could probably write three songs out of just what we have. One of our biggest strengths is our arrangement process. It’s very meticulous. We don’t just go, you know, “Ok, that’s working. Actually, that was a little bit looser on Amino Acid… we wanted to keep it more open and jammy. Even though there is an arrangement going on, we didn’t want to make it so strict. And that’s probably going to happen again, because it seems to be more free that way and more fun.

KB: Yeah, what he said… (laughter)

JS: Any chance of hearing some of the great vocal numbers, you do live, on any future recordings?

RP: Well, we’ve been talking about, bringing like ten favorite cover songs, if you will. Maybe putting our own twist on it, you know… and possibly in the future, writing some vocal tunes. Just so we can mix it up a little more, and just see how it flies. I think the best way to do it, with covers, if we could come up with some really cool arrangements of some already classic tunes. And then we have a couple in the can that we’ve started fussing with a little bit. We just gotta get lyrics together and things like that. So we are looking into that, but not necessarily becoming a vocal band. At least to be able to mix it up, and break up some of the excess. But right now we got a song we do called Sitting On Top Of The World, which was a Cream arrangement, we’ve adapted from that and kind of made it our arrangement. But getting permission and stuff like that… but as far as releasing something, we’d have to look into that… but I think for now we might pop in with a couple of covers, just to see how that flies, then eventually start breaking in some of our own tunes. It’s really what the fans think, if their into it and stuff, then we’ll continue on with it.

 

JS: Well, unlike most instrumental bands, you guys have someone who can actually sing. (Robby is a stunning vocalist, imagine Bon Scott, with a Stevie Ray Vaughan like wail)

CP: Absolutely, the thing is, you kind of alienate a lot of people, when you don’t have like three, four, five vocal songs in your set. Because some people appreciate the instrumental stuff, but they don’t want to hear 28 songs with no vocals. So, you know… and plus, it’s fun to play off a vocal…

KB: My quote is, if you’re in a fusion band, the best thing to be is to be gay, cause all you get is young boys coming (Laughter… and Chris shakes his head). But if you have some vocal tunes in there, then you get the women turning up, and then it makes it more fun… see… but, you know…

CP: Makes sense… I guess… you don’t have to print that man… (more laughter… and yes, I printed it…)

RP: yeah, he ain’t the highest card in the deck… (Kofi laughs). I think when people read that they might not figure that out…

(Laughter subsides)

JS: What can fans expect to find on the promised DVD?

CP: Yeah, that’s not gonna happen…

JS: (Disappointed) Really?

CP: I mean… it’s going to be a little bit different than what we promised. I think what we’re going to do, is kind of make a collage of all our live performances that we have that are good. Because we had some trouble at MI getting everything to come across the way we wanted… so… of course my amp blew up at the show, and I didn’t have a back up, so it was kind of a little weird…

RP: We’re thinking like a first four year retrospective, or a documentary type, you know, so we can show some early footage, and different footage from different venues, including MI…

JS: (Relieved) So the DVD is still planed…

RP: I’ts planned…

CP: It’s planned but it’s not going to be just one show…

RP: We figure it might be more interesting for the fans anyway, to see the evolution of the band, from the beginning to where we’re at today. The first five years, or whatever… then, you know, eventually do one in the next five years… make it like an ongoing series…

CP: I like that idea…

JS: Fusion is often marked by a lot of instrumentation, do you ever see yourselves moving beyond a trio, into incorporating keys, horns, etc?

CP: Hmmm…

RP: The fusion word is… I don’t like…

CP: Yeah, we’re not a fusion band…

RP: We don’t like using the fusion word, because people, they kind of compare you now to “happy jazz and stuff…

KB: What the hell are we then? (Dramatically) We’re not even a fusion band!??

CP: I would consider Frank Gambale as a very good definition of saying he’s a fusion guitar player, because he’s very jazz oriented, a lot of his chording and voicings are all leaning towards that, even though he’s kind of rocked out. But we’re more… I think we’re just totally experimental rock instrumental stuff… you know, where we all listened to a lot of fusion, and we’ve drawn from it, but, I wouldn’t per say, say we could go out and… you know, I don’t like to say I’m in a fusion band…

RP: But I mean, as far as having a horn section and everything, I mean the possibilities are always there. As far as being as a band, (smiling) I think if the money is really good we can add a few more players… but you know… we really work well as a trio, and I think maybe in the studio we can try having additional musicians and see how something might fly…

CP: I know for sure, that if you payed Kofi enough money, he would play in a fusion band… (laughter)

KB: I’ll do anything for a hundred bucks…

JS: Do you ever write a song and say, “You know, it would be great if there was a keyboard part right here…. Because I know sometimes, like, from the live album to Amino, you hear some overdubs you did, and I can imagine you doing it live and thinking, it’d be great if I just had this one extra guitar part…

KB: He just sets a lot of delay on his guitar…

RP: We were actually toying with the idea when we had Sister Cheryl recorded, of having the owner of the club, Don Randi, come in and play the piano for backing… but it never came about…

 

CP: But there’s something about three piece that’s very challenging and rewarding too when you make it happen. If you pull it off, it’s great, and if you don’t, it’s really sad. But the fun is just trying.

JS: Well, you don’t sound like a three piece.

CP: Well that’s the biggest compliment of all man…

RP: Yeah…

KB: We sound like a duo… (huge laughs)

JS: Chris, one of your defining characteristics is your dramatic tone changes and effects, yet you cycle through them so smoothly they are sometimes barely detectable. How did this develop?

CP: That started back with the New Yorkers. I would use two amps, and have a clean sound, and actually have an A/B box to switch to a distorted sound. Between that, at times I would run a guitar synth with my clean sound, in another project I was doing. That led me down the road of saying, you know what, if I had more sounds I could buy and have at my fingertips, the easier it is to play in a three piece format. That’s the way I think about even writing. Sometimes I’ll sit at home and write it on an acoustic guitar, and I’ll realize, ok right here I can have this, or I can do that… but when I come in, is when it really comes to bare, when you hear it there and you’ll be like, man, I need something here. So I might ask these guys to give me five minutes, and Ill go to all my stuff, and I’ll make a patch that stops it from being so empty there. And that’s why I have a bad back, from lugging all my gear around. But without it, you know, we would need a fourth guy with us. But, yeah, some of the writing process does revolve around the effects that we have, and how we can use them in the song. Whatever we can do to make it better is what we use.

JS: Robby, can you explain your setup and how you achieve the wild sounds you pull out of your six string.

RP: Well, I’m set up in stereo… thanks to Chris, he’s why I have the sound that I do. Because I was just an amp and cord guy….

CP: You know what, I think what he’s getting at is the wah effects and the harmonic sliding things…

RP: Yeah, just a chorus pedal… a wah-wah pedal and a chorus…

JS: It almost sounds like you have an envelope filter at times…

CP: Well, that’s his foot doing that…

RP: Yeah, it’s all wah… and muting strings… certain strings on slides… It’s kind of hard to explain, but with your right hand you can do a chord harmonic, but as you’re sliding you can mute certain strings that just… instead of three, two will come out and one a year later… and it’s kind of… I can’t explain it really, it’s just my own little technique that I kind of developed over time… but being an amp and a chord guy, a lot of it came from your hands, because I never knew hot to put a rig together.

CP: He does now though…

RP: And actually, when we started playing, you know, Chris had these great effects, and all this time and effort put into getting great tone and things. He finally had to convince me and say, look man, you got to get a good amp and a good pre-amp and at least have a couple of effects so it’s not so dull. So he’s really responsible…

CP: Yeah, but I got tapes of him playing bare bones where you can’t tell the difference. The only thing that’s different, is when he’s going stereo, is all of a sudden there’s this massive split, and you kind of look to the left and the right wondering what happened there. But all the stuff happens with his hands. I can honestly say that with the wah-wah, it’s his right hand making a lot of those weird sounds. If you were a bass player, you’d have to come and watch him and then you would understand.

RP: Yeah, on the first record too, I really didn’t have any effects. Actually when we recorded the first record, that’s when I said, I got to do something, because I’m boring myself to tears. So if I’m going to play a melody and stuff, I enjoy having something to go to, to at least enhance it a little bit. Because, look at all the work Chris does. It’s like I should bring something to the table to just make it a little more interesting.

CP: He actually… just picked up, I think a twelve space rack, is it? Fourteen or something… and I spoke to Martin over at custom audio electronics, and their just waiting for Pag to come in. They want to make a system for him, where he can pick and choose sounds on the record, and just say “Yeah, right here I’m using a Mutron octave box. And he’ll just press a button and it will be there. Because it will be waiting for him in a chain of events that Bradshaw sets up for you in a rack. And that’s what we’re talking about, we’re not talking about relying on something for a crutch, it’s more like, this is the sound we chose, it would great if we could use it live. So that’s what we’re striving for.

JS: So your philosophy on effects is to use them as a palate.

CP: As a palate, yeah, I mean it’s like, people love when he does his thing with the wah, when he does his sliding harmonics… I think if he had like three or four really nice custom, cool effects that he could choose from as a palate, right in the middle of songs, he would be blowing people away. Because, what you do, is while you’re playing, you say, “that! You know, and that’s what’s cool about the Bradshaw rig, because you can call it in and shut it off at the tap of your foot.

JS: All of you are very accomplished musicians. What project, besides Ohm, are you most fond of?

RP: For me it’s the New Yorkers… after the New Yorkers, I was in a lot great bands but I think my heart was in playing with Chris. I think there was a reason we met at the time we met. The guy who introduced us, I remember him saying before I met Chris, “There’s a guitar player next door to me, something about the way you play and the way he plays, it fits together, it’s going to be something really incredible. And at that time I couldn’t figure it out, until we started playing again. I think it really comes across when we play today. It’s something far deeper than just technique and riffs and stuff like that…

CP: We feel the same about music, what we’re trying to get across. So he knows what I’m going for, and I know what he’s going for, and Kofi knows what we’re both going for, which is what’s so cool about it. When Robby said, “Hey I want to bring Kofi in.‿ The first thing he said to me was, “He feels like Gar when he plays drums.‿ And honestly, when he said that I was sold. And when he came in, I knew what he was talking about. And that’s what we all have. We’re sympathetic to each others playing, and we know what everyone is going for. It makes it a lot easier, and it makes it more special.

JS: One of the intriguing things about instrumental music is where the titles come from. Without the benefit of lyrics, you have to draw the titles from somewhere. Care to share any stories about how you named some of your tunes? (This question elicited barely concealed snickers and grins, the origin of which I don’t believe I was awarded… Chris jumped in with an alternative answer)

CP: Well, like, You Don’t Know… when we got all that together, Pag just said, “You know what man… this sounds like that show homicide… like they’d be playing it at the end of homicide… after some tragic human crap happened, you know what I mean? And then he goes, “…you don’t know (laughter)

RP: It really comes down to… you see somebody walking down the street, screaming at the sky. You don’t know what that guys life was like, or what caused him to go over the edge. And it’s just kind of the things you picture about other people and stuff, but you just don’t know… you know? And that kind of melody kind of… I think the way we were putting it, was like, we could put a video together, and just have black and white, and some guy sitting in his boxer shorts in front of a fan, watching the news. And you just don’t know what this guys daily routine is like. He’s obviously very lonely, and everything… but then there’s happy things… it’s just that thing, you don’t know…

CP: Like Amino Acid Flashback… we were just in the club, and that was a jam composition. We had no title for it, we were just playing it because it was fun to play. And Kofi’s drinking an amino acid drink, like a muscle drink or something… So, this guy William says, “Why don’t you call it Amino Acid Flashback! And we went, “That’s it! That’s why we call it “William’s Amino Acid Flashback. So, I mean it’s any way… like tonight if we were doing a jam, you could name it, and we might use that…

JS: Ohm has tremendous multi-ranged appeal. You are loved by young metal heads to people who grew up with Mahavishnu Orchestra. With the public growing steadily jaded with mainstream music, do you see a breakthrough for this type of music to be commercially successful on that level?

CP: I don’t think so. I think the only hope for a band like us to make the kind of money a pop band makes, is maybe in film. I mean, Joe Satriani broke the ice with that one single he had… Jeff Beck, I don’t think he ever had a top 200…

RP: Blow by Blow was his only… but at that time it was…

CP: It was happening then… so, no. This is a labor of love. This is painful. We sacrifice a lot to try and do it. We know we’re not going to pay the bills doing it. But for some reason we keep coming back.

RP: Keep on trying.

CP: (laughing) Yeah, keep on trying…

RP: I think you get more out of it when you see a fan getting off on what you’re doing…

CP: Yeah, I mean, just the fact that you’re here even asking about it makes it worth it. There’s a hundred times a day, I know he hears me whining, just sniveling… and he just goes, “Well man, don’t worry about it… it’s going to be better… You know? And we know it’s not! (Laughter)

RP: Just playing in these small rooms, there’s a very honest appreciation of what’s going on. You don’t see that… really, you don’t see that in life anymore, cause everybody’s full of shit. I think this is the one circle where there’s still some honesty and comradery among all of us, where we know we’re a small breed.

CP: But we’re not alone man… being with Frank Gambale out on the road, maybe one of the best electric guitar players that ever lived. With Joel Taylor on drums and Rick Fierabracci, who’s playing with Chic Corea now… we were all struggling just to get the gas to get to the next gig. So, when you think about it like that… when you think about the fact that Michael Brecker, just a couple records ago, sold five thousand units and might be the best living sax player in the world. That’s what the deal is. If you’re going to play this kind of stuff, you gotta really like it. You just got to live with that and deal with your life, and make your money somewhere else.

RP: But I do think the computer and online stuff is opening more doors to what’s going on. People now can find it that can’t get it in the Midwest or something. You know, they see it online, and they can buy your records… I think it’s helping a lot.

CP: I gotta tell you something… my wife’s a music lover. She loves all types of music from Metallica to Matchbox 20. And us, she’ll be here tonight and she digs us, she’s never missed a show. The difference between us and a lot of these bands like Matchbox 20, is they’ll stand up there and their whole shtick is like, “We do this for nothing. Well… we f**king do it for nothing.

RP: Yeah… how long are they gonna do it for nothing? Let’s see…

CP: And that’s the bottom line…

RP: They’d get tired a lot quicker, you know? (Laughter)

CP: When he said that, I just looked at him like… you f**kin ass.. You do this for nothing, dude, your backline… just your stage… the effects they have for their stage lighting and stuff is a million dollars of research. But anyway I don’t want to snivel (laughter). Just trying to make you laugh…

JS: Final question. You formed in ‘97…

RP: Like December of ‘97…

JS: Ok, so right at the tip of ‘98. But your first release didn’t come out until ‘03. I remember when I caught you in ‘99, and I was just rabid, looking for something to take home. We’re you just waiting for the right time?

CP: You know what, I started working for a bunch of studios in town here. And there was rumor they were going to build a place. We were making six song demos we were sending out, trying to get deals. And that was just two track live stuff. And that stuff sounded really good… but… one day, you know, I said that’s it. I’m going to build this building, and that took a year. We had to build like a 100 studios. And it took another six to eight months to build the studio, once we built the building. I had to buy the gear… so that’s what happened… I basically did everything that every smart person in the music business tells you not to do. I invested all my own money. But, you know, somebody had to do it. So… that’s what took so long… but, now, we could make a blues record next week… and if you have a project, just give me a call (laughter).

JS: Guys, thank you so much, it’s been a real pleasure.

Special thanks to Steve Bauer for making this interview possible, and to Rob Shay for the photographs. Find more information about Ohm here: www.chrispoland.com

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