Juni 2013 | jazzpodium | alexander schmitz
Interview with Elias Meister
'Follow your dreams'
It is impossible to pin down his playing to one style. Born ’83 in Munich and living in New York City since ‘07 Elias Meister has a lot to talk about thanks to his incredibly broad musical interests and activities. The release of his new album “Open for Business’ (follow-up to his 2011 debut 'Illumi’s Journey') was the reason to ask him for a transatlantic interview. Critics attest the quintet, which is lead by guitarist Elias Meister and drummer Francisco ‘Pancho’ Molina, an eclecticism, which successfully combines contemporary Jazz, Classical and Pop influences, Latin references, a big dose of Rock and a mature sense for the beauty of simple songs.
How would you describe yourself to someone who does not know you, but is interested in what you are doing?
As a musician and composer I am very interested in exploring music, which is new to me. I studied Jazz Guitar and released my second album in 2012. Besides Jazz I play nylon-string guitar (mainly Brazilian Music) and Folk Music. For a few years now my interest in Indie Rock has been growing, which I first discovered with my band ‘Mon Khmer’ and I am also part of the Electro-Pop project ‘Bowmont’. Apart from playing guitar I recently started to explore my voice. To add my voice to my guitar is a very interesting experience to me.
Do you consider your self a jazz guitarist in the traditional sense? If so, what is the reason for that? If not, why?
I would say: yes and no. I am very rooted in the language of Jazz and improvisation in general. Jazz education equips you with a lot of musical devices, which opens up possibilities to express yourself artistically in very different styles. I like to play traditional and contemporary Jazz very much and do so often, but sometimes I feel like Jazz is developing into a sort of ‘academic’ music that puts more emphasis on complexity than expression. In my own development as a musician I try to create music as a form of expression and as communication between the musicians and between the musicians and the audience. This takes me a little further away from the classic forms and language of Jazz. Lately I also have been experimenting more with sound effects.
How would you describe your own style as a guitarist and composer – first “Illumi’s Journey” and now “Open For Business”? Some critics have called you ‘eclectic’. How would you describe your own musical personality?
As a composer I am currently gravitating towards simpler and memorable tunes. I prefer to create the complexity through the interplay of the musicians and improvisation rather than the composition. Leo Genovese easily turns a simple chord progression into an adventure for example. I rather give the musicians more freedom. To me the term ‘eclectic’ is also not a negative one. I play many and very different styles, which is evident in my playing. And I think that even though I play many styles, you can always distinct my personal voice and character, regardless of the genre. The broader the sound palette that you have at your disposal the more you can find different ways of expressing yourself in any case.
To describe yourself more detailed as a person: You were born and grew up in Munich?
Yes. I spend all my childhood and teenage years in Munich and moved to Boston in 2004 to study at the Berklee College of Music, I was 20 at the time. Since then I am living the US.
When and how did you discover the guitar?
I started to play guitar when I was 13. I had two very good friends that wanted to start a band and needed a guitar player. They told me: “Why don’t you learn guitar?” So I bought a guitar and I haven’t let go of it since.
What kind of music did you listen to at that time?
Already a lot of old Jazz. Oscar Peterson, Jim Hall, Miles etc. I was also really into Classical Music at that time, mostly Bach and Beethoven – actually less Rock than you would expect from a teenager. My passion for Rock started later.
Did you start self-taught or did you have teachers from the beginning?
I learned guitar by myself at first, but I had a musical foundation through my flute lessons. I started composing when I was maybe eight years old, which is probably due in part to me being a pupil at a Waldorf School, where there was always a lot of music. The first thing I learned on the guitar was the bass line to ‘Hit the Road Jack’, which I played only with my index finger. We also played that song with our band. After half a year a family friend taught me some more chords and songs.
What kind of formal training as a musician/guitarist did you have before 2007?
I had weekly private guitar lessons since the age of fourteen, first with Thorsten Klentze then with Ahmed El-Salamouny and Geoff Goodman. In my school we had an orchestra and a choir, which I was part of. And I also took a class at the ‘Freies Musik Zentrum München’. From 2003 to 2007 I studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
How did you become a Pop writer and producer for the Bavaria Film Studios composing music for movies like “Die wilden Huehner” and more? Who is Jakob Anthoff, your partner for that?
Jakob Anthoff is a very talented singer and producer, who I have known for a long time through my sister. When I was 15 or so we started making music together and wrote a few songs. We stayed in contact even when he was studying music in Liverpool and I was living in Boston. He had the contact to Bavaria Film. As of now we did music for five different movies.
Let’s talk about your time at Berklee. How did you get to be there?
When I was quite young someone told me that if you want to study music (especially jazz) you should do so in the US and even better at Berklee. I applied for a scholarship at the college and after I got one I just moved to Boston. Berklee was an incredible time for me. I had some extraordinary teachers: Hal Crook, Mick Goodrick, Joe Lovano and many more. But what was almost more important to me was to be surrounded by young, super talented musicians who studied there and came from all over the world. For example I learned Brazilian guitar mostly from my roommate from Brazil. There were always different people to play with and experiment with music. There were a lot of long nights with jam and recording session. At a school with 3000 students everyone is breathing music around the clock. A lot of the musicians I play with today I met through Berklee in all kinds of ways.
When did you move from Boston to New York?
After I graduated in 2007 I moved to New York City. I’ve been living in Brooklyn since then, apart from a short stay in Harlem.
Could you tell us a little about how you got started in NYC? How did you establish yourself?
It takes a little while before you find your place in this city. It was very helpful that a lot of Berklee graduates move to New York. I knew Hammarsing Kharmar, the singer of our group Mon Khmer, through common friends in Boston. When I arrived in NYC I called him up and asked him if I could sleep on his couch till I find a room. We started playing music and today our group is one of my main projects. I really like that in New York most people are very open to playing with new faces. There are so many talented artists moving here that anyone who you meet who says: ”Hey I play music too!” might be the one who you are recording your next album with.
Please tell us a little more about your Rock band Mon Khmer. Is it as mean as the name might suggest? How would you characterize the band?
The name is nothing mean or aggressive. It describes a family of languages in Southeast Asia, one of which is spoken in Northeast India, where our lead singer is from. The word ‘khmer’ is an old ethnological term. The association with the Khmer Rouge, which is common especially in Germany, has nothing to do with the band. All the musicians in the band have very different musical and biographical backgrounds. However, we come together and create something new and different, hence the idea of naming it after a family of languages. The music is based on simple, sometimes monotonous grooves and sweeping guitar effects. There are some more classic pop hooks as well.
Did the experiences with this group have an effect on your work as a composer and guitarist in the jazz idiom? Did it affect your last two jazz albums?
Very much! On the one hand I started experimenting with effects, rock grooves, distortion and so forth. On the other hand it is a very different feeling to be on stage and everyone is sweating and dancing, in contrary to sitting down in a jazz club and listening quietly. That feeling of filling a whole room with my sound is something I know more from my rock shows, but it is something I aspire to while playing jazz and at lower volumes as well. I am trying to channel some of that energy in my jazz concerts. There are also a lot of Jazz musicians, who do that: George Garzone for example. Anyone who has ever heard his free jazz trio ‘The Fringe’ knows that. That has almost a Jimi Hendrix vibe.
Are you still playing with Rita Maria? She was one of the corner stones of your first album after all.
Rita is moving back and forth between Portugal and Ecuador for a few years now and I live in New York. So we got some geographical difficulties to overcome. Every time we meet and start playing however, we feel that our musical connection outlasts the periods where we don’t see each other. Last summer we played a few concerts in Berlin with bassist Carlos Bica, which was a wonderful experience for me. Afterwards we had a few duo shows in Munich and also a quartet gig at the Unterfahrt in Munich
How important is the nylon string guitar for you?
I used to play it more actually, but even if I don’t do it so much anymore, I still like it a lot. There is something more primal and pure about only using your own body, wood and strings to make music instead of working with amps, cables and effects.
Would you say that your new CD ‘Open For Business’ is more modern and maybe even more radical than ‘Illumi’s Journey, even though George Garzone keeps it grounded in Bop? Is that because of Pancho Molina’s influence or is it due to an ongoing development on your side?
Both for sure!
To put it a little different: Is there a direct development from ‘Illumi’ to ‘Business’ or should we wait for another album that is thought of and produced by yourself alone to see your development as a musician more clearly?
The cooperation between the two of us is very important. I wouldn’t have made an album like this on my own. Especially the South American influence is coming from Pancho. This mix is the interesting thing to me however. I think it is very exciting how the different characters of the musicians work together to create something new. I am currently working on my next album that I am doing as a ‘sole’ leader. But ‘Open for Business’ is just as important a part of my work as a musician. Pancho and me have been planning this album for a long time and it was something that we really wanted to make happen together. A song like 'All my Life' would have worked on ‘Illumi’s Journey’ as well though.
I am going to ask a little different one more time: How would you characterize the two album stylistically? What do they have in common? What are the differences? And also: what are the differences concerning the guitar playing? Or was your approach basically the same?
That’s a difficult question, which could be answered more easily by someone else. For me the main concern is always making music. I would describe ‘Illumi’s Journey’ more as contemporary jazz that is strongly influenced by Kurt Rosenwinkel and Brad Mehlday, that sort of school. ‘Open for Business’ is influenced more by South American music, Leo’s and George’s avant-garde playing and of course Pancho’s way of composing, which is very different from my own. The guitar playing on ‘Open for Business’ goes much more in a Rock direction. My sound and expression have also gained clarity in the time between the albums. What is a major difference as well is that the guitar is the only harmonic instrument on ‘Illumi’s Journey’, which allows more space for it.
Could you tell us briefly about Pancho Molina, George Garzone, Ben Street and Leo Genovese? Who picked whom for the new album?
I know Pancho since my time in Boston, where we already played together. After he moved to New York roughly three years ago, we started playing together a lot. George and Pancho did a tour together a few years ago. I have been an admirer of George’s playing for a long time and since Pancho had the contact already, we decided to ask him. Pancho also picked Ben. Apart from the fact that Ben is one of the best bass players in general the unity and understanding between bass and drums is very essential, which is the case for the two. I have been playing music with Leo for a few years now. His has such a light-hearted as well as very deep approach to music that it is hard to find – and that on every instrument he holds in his hands.
Please tell us a little about the three of your compositions on ‘Open For Business’. I would describe you as a ‘conceptional’ composer. How much improvisational freedom do you grant in your pieces on average? How much is written out?
There’s a lot of room for improvisation and interpretation. The lead sheets are similar to that of a Jazz standard: melody, basic chords and feel. I wrote ‘Time Traveler’ especially for the musicians on the album and apart from the melody only the beginning bass line is written out. ‘Loose Blues’ has a simple song form. The only unusual thing is that the B part is an improvisation. On both songs the solos are on the form. In ‘All My Life’ both melodies are composed and there’s a collective improvisation at the end. The introduction is improvised as well. The form is similar to a Pop song with verses and a refrain that gets repeated.
A few last famous words…
…well, I am very happy that I get the chance to create music with such incredible musicians. Would I describe my current life to myself as a 19-year old, I wouldn’t believe it. A lot of people have told me to follow my dreams and stick to what I really want to do and recently we got a 4-Star review by Downbeat Magazine for ‘Open For Business’. I can only pass this advice to the younger people: Follow your dreams.
By Alexander Schmitz