Richard Hallebeek Interview
Dutch guitarist Richard Hallebeek has created a guitar player’s dream. His album The Richard Hallebeek Project II (RHPII), brings together 8 all star musicians, all playing with Hallebeek over his brilliant compositions. Guest include Greg Howe, Eric Gales, Alex Machacek, Guthrie Govan, Randy Brecker, Kiko Loureiro, Jose De Castro, Andy Timmons, Sebastiaan Cornelissen, Fran Vollink, Lanlle Larsson, and of course Hallebeek himself. The album ranges in genres and styles, with something for every listener. Hallebeek took some time to discuss what went into the making of RHPII, his personal influences, and what it was like working with such amazing musicians.
Neal Shaw: RHPII is packed with virtuosic players. How did you go about selecting who you would collaborate with on the record?
Richard Hallebeek: I had played at some of the bigger guitar festivals in Europe; Ziua Chatarelor 1 in Bucharest in 2009 with Mattias Eklundh, Guthrie Govan and Jose de Castro and the 2nd edition in 2010 with Andy Timmons, Brett Garsed, Michael Angelo Batio, Greg Howe and William Stravato. Then at the European Summer Campus in Sicily, 2011 with Allan Holdsworth and Kiko Loureiro and after that at the ‘Meeting Of The Spirits’ festival in Leeuwarden, with Greg Howe and Carl Verheyen. It was around the time of the first ZC festival in 2009 that I had already been thinking about a new album. I had played as a guest on a lot of other albums, Lalle Larsson’s Weaveworld trilogy, the two ‘One Spirit’ albums, and some collection albums like Guitar Addiction with 60 guitar players. It’s always great when people ask you for their albums, because it means they hear something worthy in your playing, so I always consider it a compliment. But it was time for me to record something more personal.
Being at those festivals, with all these guitar players, seeing that instrumental guitar music is very much alive and it was drawing a big audience and seeing all the different colors we all had to offer in instrumental guitar music, I started thinking about a new album. RHPII started in my hotel room in 2009 in Bucharest, I had just listened to Guthrie’s clinic all afternoon and was inspired by his classic rock influences. I started writing that main riff for ‘Bring It On’, that I recorded to my iPhone and thought it would be cool to have Guthrie on that song with his rock riffing. Jose de Castro, and his powerful blues playing also impressed me. I would imagine him playing on a harmonic more advanced fusion song, but making it sound really powerful and more down to earth with his blues playing and some serious pentatonic.
Later on when I got back home the idea evolved. I thought it would be cool to do a follow-up to the first RHP, released in 2004 (with Shawn Lane and Brett Garsed), but make this one bigger with more guests, and make it more of a hard-hitting rock-fusion affair. People probably know me from my more non-commercial work with guitar synths, songs with long melodies, odd meter stuff.. I thought it would be cool to travel in a more mainstream rock-fusion direction and see if I could still sound like, and be, myself.
I finished four songs for RHPII, introduced the idea to the other band members Frans Vollink (bass) and Sebastiaan Cornelissen (drums), whom I have been playing with for years, and they are my favorite rhythm section. They liked the overall direction, and just like on the first RHP, they brought in a couple of songs too. Like I said, I wanted this cd to be more straight ahead jazz-rock, so I requested that from the other guys too, to bring in songs with that vibe.
So most of the players I already had in mind while playing at those festivals together with them. I played with Randy before on Go For It and with Alex Machacek before on a cd called ‘U-turn’ from Sebastiaan Cornelissen.
I was already in touch with them and so it would be easier to set things up.
The first special guest that was confirmed was actually Eric Gales and that’s the only guy I hadn’t played with. Eric’s manager got in touch with me about the interview I had done with Shawn Lane years ago, in 2001. We started talking and then I thought it would be cool to get Eric for a song we had just recorded, called ‘Pain In The Jazz’. But I wasn’t quite sure if he would be into playing this more fusion’y direction. Eric’s manager was into it, played the song to Eric and he was really into it. Eric was the first to deliver his solo in December 2011.
NS: When composing the songs for the record, did you have in mind which artist would play on each piece, and if so, did that change how you wrote the pieces?
RH: Some of those songs I wrote for ‘Pain In The Jazz’ were written with the special guest in mind. Some parts were written inside the comfort zone of the guest, but sometimes I took the guest a bit outside his comfort zone, just to excite or challenge him a bit, but it’s all done on purpose, with respect for the player and with a thought. ‘Bring It On’ for instance, was written especially for Guthrie with the classic rock riff. But the solo part has a quick change in the B part that is not really common to Guthrie’s style, but that’s done on purpose, to take him out of his comfort zone a bit. ‘Third Phase’ is a classic fusion song that needed a kick ass blues/rock player in the outro to keep it rocking. I had played with Jose de Castro on two tours we did in Holland with Guthrie Govan, Jose and me. Jose has enormous blues power and he stole the show at many of the gigs. He was the choice for that song. The ending part, he plays over has a rock vibe, so it fits in his style, but the chord changes are a bit more advanced. You can still play E minor pentatonic over the whole chord sequence, but you can also follow some of those changes. Jose has a great ear and catches some of those changes too, while just being himself.
A couple of other tracks were already there and it was pretty clear who would fit on there. Sebastiaan Cornelissen wrote ‘Think Of Something’, a slow bluesy track with hammond and some cool changes in the solo parts. I have always loved Andy Timmon’s lyrical side with his great tone, great phrasing and bends and vibrato. Coincidence was Andy was just playing at that time with a jazz trio with Hammond around his home town Dallas. So this track suited him really well. Still, not many people might know him like this.
The track ‘Pain In The Jazz’ is an example of a song that was already finished but a guest was added later on. When I got in touch with Eric’s manager and thought about a solo spot for Eric, I throught it would be really cool to hear Eric Gales on the outro of that song. I have been following Eric ever since he came out as a child prodigy, playing with his brothers. The track ‘Pain In The Jazz’ has that ‘70’s vintage jazz-rock vibe, which I have never quite heard Eric play over. But I knew it would be awesome to put him in a situation like that and I was sure he would dig it. Luckily, Eric really liked that track and kicked major ass on that solo.
‘East Side Bridge’ is a song from Frans Vollink and had a long solo part with rock-fusion changes and a vibe typical to rock-fusion. This was immediately my choice for Greg Howe. I really liked to hear Greg rip it up over a longer solo part, playing through those changes.
NS: This is your second record featuring Randy Brecker. Brecker is also the only non-guitarist guest on the record. What inspired you to incorporate trumpet in your music?
RH: Randy is one of my all time favorites. The Brecker Brothers are the fathers of cool groovy fusion and I have all of their albums and know every song. Randy is a really down to earth, approachable guy. He’s also playing on the One Spirit CD I did, and is actually a fan of the work we did with the One Spirit CD’s, so he was also into participating for RHPII.
The song ‘Amelia’ is from Jaco Pastorius, but we did a special arrangement for RHPII. The arrangement needed a trumpet and a sax player to play the melody, so when Randy was recording it, it was a logical choice to let him continue from the melody to the first solo.
It was also cool to lighten up a bit on the guitar side. There are 7 guest guitar players on the album and also, I play guitar solos on every song. This song with trumpet and sax balances things out quite nicely.
NS: With so many musicians featured on the record, was there a specific musician that perhaps intimidated you to record with?
RH: They all did! There was one point when all the solos were in from all the guitar guests and I did not record a note yet. I was listening to the whole album beginning to end and I was thinking well…. now it’s my turn…! How am I going to do this? Why would anybody be interested to hear me next to these great players? They sounded so good and I thought, what possibly could I do to add to this already great playing?
Then I just started recording, let the music do the work, and let itself speak where it wants to go. And all went fine.
It’s easy to start a guitar-war, you know, these guitar albums where everybody sounds like they want to outplay each other. I’m happy RHPII doesn’t sound like that, but everybody is actually playing with each other and it sounds like everybody is having a good time playing off each other.
NS: Are there any musicians you hope to collaborate with in the future?
RH: There are so many great players that I want to play with, in different styles and lots of styles outside my own comfort zone, and not just guitar players. It would not do justice to mention names, and the list is also too long.
One thing I learned in the past is to always play with people who are better then you, so you get to be on your toes. I felt I have never left that place and am still struggling!
NS: What did you take away from recording and playing with the late Shawn Lane? I can hear his influence in your playing.
RH: Shawn was spending lots of time in Holland in the last years of his life, in The Hague. I write for a music magazine called Music Maker in Holland, I interview musicians and that way I get to ask my favorite musicians I the questions that I never see in the bigger guitar magazines. I met up with Shawn for an interview, it clicked, and we ended up hanging out together over the year after that. I came back more then once to his place, we listened to music, talked about movies and books and we played together. I also took lessons from him that ended up in three-hour jams.
The thing I remember from Shawn is that he was such a modest, friendly person. No ego, no ugly vibes, just such a beautiful person with so much interest in everything around him, and the love en warmth in his personality. He was always so curious and eager to learn.
I also took care of a couple of gigs for him and a clinic at the Amsterdam conservatory. I helped him out carrying his amps and setting up his gear for him since he was to sick to do that. Just being around somebody like Shawn before and during a gig is inspirational, to say the least.
I remember sitting with Shawn in my home studio in Amsterdam to record RHPI and he would sit there, listen to the track, close his eyes, get some coffee, some yoghurt, then pick up his guitar and just burn it on the very first take. Those takes are what you hear on the album. Shawn always said that he liked to be captured before the first take, if that would even be possible, because he thinks he sounds best that way at the very first takes, or even, before a first take, when he’s just warming up.
So I cannot really pinpoint a certain thing or a lick at his lesson that it is that I got from spending time with Shawn. It’s just his whole personality and the way he looked at the world around him that was inspiring to me.
NS: How do you personally compose your music? Do you come into the studio with complete songs, or do you prefer to come into the studio dry and see what happens?
RH: I enter the studio with finished songs. I compose in Logic. Most of the time I start with a little idea that I sing into my iPhone or that I play into Logic and that idea evolves over time by adding stuff to it. I like to write with the sounds I have in mind for it and I mostly compose on keyboard. I’m not a great keyboard player and somehow that helps me to reach for more uncommon stuff, instead of playing guitar where I would be to comfortable reaching for the scales and chords I know. Sometimes I will come up with a part that I end up not using but it leads to another part that I’ll keep. I have lots of ideas stored in Logic, so there’s always something to work on. If there’s no inspiration, I give myself a little assignment, like; let’s move this bass line down in half-steps, or let’s move the bass down and the melody note up and see if I can keep that going. Most of the time that works to get inspired and find new melodies.
I make a chart for the band and send them the chart with an mp3 demo of the song. The guys listen to it, learn it, and we record it. Sometimes some minor parts are changed around when needed, but most of the times, what you hear is what it was like on the demo and the original idea.
That’s not to say that I don’t let the musicians loose; I encourage them to just play and be themselves. And play the parts with their own interpretation. Especially for the drummer, I like it when he plays stuff freely so there’s something to play to in the solos.
As a musician you seem very open, eager, and excited to play with as many musicians as possible, while some artists like to stay in their own creative bubble. What draws you to collaborating? Is it to force yourself out of a comfort zone, or do you find that you learn and grow from studying other artists?
RH: I think that’s just it. It forces you to think outside of your own bubble and I grow from playing with other artists. It’s also a challenge to come up with just the right part for somebody and I feel really happy when someone realizes their creative expression through me.
NS: RHPII is comprised of an array of styles ranging from prog-rock, to blues, to some slower acoustic tunes. Are there any tunes on the record that you are particularly proud of or found difficult to record?
RH: A couple of tracks come to mind; the track ‘Pain In The Jazz’ is a track that was written very quickly. Normally I can spend months writing a song and I keep on refining voicings and change details around until I’m 100% happy. This track, I started out writing the chords and thought it would be a cool idea to just finish it with what I would come up with in about 30 minutes. I’m always jealous of people like John Scofield or Pat Metheny where you read in interviews that they came of tour and would write 5 songs in their hotel room that evening and start recording a new album the next day. So this song, I went for that goal, finish it up in 30 minutes and then just leave it like it is. So what you hear is what it was like.
Another song that comes to mind is the track ‘Speed City Blues’, that’s written by Lalle Larsson. I have played on the Weaveworld trilogy from Lalle, which I am really honored to be part off. Lalle is such a master. This track was a ‘left over’ for the last album in the Weaveworld trilogy: Weaveworld – Nightscapes. Lalle played me this track from his laptop and I absolutely loved it and could hear the potential of it being a track on RHPII. But it was ‘just’ a midi demo with organs, pianos, and midi guitars. Luckily, Lalle also works in Logic, so he just sent me the Logic project. I opened it in my computer and the big challenge was to start replacing all the midi tracks with guitars. I thought it would be cool to layer some guitars. I normally don’t do that, but I think it turned out really well here. By the way, what you here is the demo version of the guitars. I recorded the tracks as a demo and had in mind to replace those later. Sometimes, demos have a certain charm and when I listened back to it and started to replace the original guitar tracks, I felt it lost some of its original spark. So what you hear is the original demo guitar tracks. The only thing replaced was the guitar solo that I did with Lalle in the outtro.
The last track ‘New World’ is a special track for me. I was living in a small town when I was younger and after my conservatory studies I really wanted to go to L.A. and study at G.I.T.. All my favorite musicians were coming from that city and it was pulling on me like a magnet. I was around 20 years old when I was trying to get to L.A. and thinking about relocating there. I wrote ‘New World’ one evening being a powerful rock song. The vibe of the song and the melody was full of longing and about fulfilling dreams.
I ended up leaving to L.A. not long after that and playing ‘New World’ eventually in Los Angeles with a local group. I have played it live on different tours in Finland and Holland that I did for the Generator album that was released by Mark Varney in 1995. I also played it with my current rhythm section that consists of Frans Vollink and Sebastiaan Cornelissen. I recorded it in Finland when I toured there with a local band. But I never used those recordings. So that song just never surfaced.
Then I thought it would be cool to do it as a ballad for RHPII and we recorded it. But when I was listening to the album as a whole, the track just did not fit in between all the powerful tracks. There was just no room for a ballad.
Lalle was staying at my place for a couple of weeks and we were playing through some songs. Lalle really liked the way the harmony moved in New World and he was playing it on acoustic piano. Then it struck me.. this is the version that the song needs to be! We ended up recording a couple of versions of ‘New World’ on just piano and acoustic guitar. We did three versions and the one you hear on RHPII is the one that made it. The ballad version with full band will probably end up on my next album, which will be just guitar trio.
So it only took 23 years for this song so surface, can you believe it?
NS: What initially made you pick up the guitar?
RH: It was 1979, I was 10 years old and I watched Top Of The Pops. It suddenly struck me that I wanted to play the guitar after that. I don’t really recall what specific song was on, but I remember Toto- ‘Hold The Line’ and ‘Psycho Killer’ from Talking Heads impress the shit out of me. I don’t come from a musical family, although my parents always encouraged music and there was always music played around the house, from Beatles to Zappa. My parents were smart enough to send me to guitar lessons right away. That way I did not have to invent the wheel for the second time, so to speak.
Shortly after that, I became kind of a music nerd, that would vist the local library and sit there listening to LP’s during school breaks, checking out every album in the library.
NS: RHPII has been released on your personal label Richie Rich Music. What motivated you to start your own label?
RH: There were some other labels that were initially interested in releasing RHPII. When the recordings were done, one label that I kind of knew eventually wasn’t interested after all and the other labels were strangers to me. They were also kind of hesitant, while I thought this album sounded so great that it deserves somebody who puts all his time and effort in there to get the music to the people.
Also, I had put so much, time, money and sweat into this album, and it was such a personal effort, that it seemed unnatural to hand the whole package to a stranger. It felt better just to keep everything in my own hands. The birth of this album took about three years and it seemed natural to also do the last part myself. Matt Williams of Liquid Note Records, the label I was signed to before, helped me out a whole lot with details setting up your label, which was really cool of him and really helpful.
Financially, it is a much better idea. I have made more money with this album then with my entire previous album combined. That says a lot on how record companies work. And it makes it easier for me to come up with a new album, since there is some money in my hands to invest in new recordings.
NS: You have toured and studied all over the world. Have you found that a specific part of the world is more open towards progressive music like fusion?
RH: Not really. In Los Angeles, there were people complaining about the music scene and moving to New York to see if it’s better over there. In Amsterdam there are people complaining about the music scene and moving to London to check it out over there…the grass is always greener on the other side. But I have learned that, wherever you live, you have to make it happen yourself. With the Internet it’s much easier to communicate and connect. Everybody can write their own music and release it through the Internet, so that’s great. You have to find the right people that connect with you and that you want to play with. I’ve seen great musicians everywhere I’ve been.
NS: Can we expect a RHPIII in the future?
RH: It all depends on the sales of RHPII. That pretty much dictates me if there is a market out there and if people want to hear more. It looks good up until now and the cd has been doing well. If people are thinking about supporting a new release; there’s one way: buy music straight from the artist. So go to my website and order a cd or two. That way you can solidify the release of a new album, but putting the money in the artist’s hands.