Garaj Mahal: Simplifying The Equation (Interview with Fareed Haque)

These days, when it comes to bands that groove – real deal, rich texture, bass heavy, beat driven, ass shaking groove – there are pretenders and there are contenders, and Garaj Mahal has earned the heavyweight belt.

It’s scary to think that Garaj Mahal may only still be in its larvae stage. Since their formation in the winter of 2000, the band has garnered a remarkable amount of praise, immediately placing them atop the overcrowded groove-rock masses. Yet they are far from the garage band their world-tinged moniker may lend one to believe. The four distinct musicians are all highly trained, impeccably skilled masters of their craft, with long musical histories, prestigious resumes, and numerous respected accolades. Though contrary to expectations, the complex compositions of past experiences have little to do with this new outfit, but rather their collective focus on minimalism is what truly demonstrates their craft.

Guitarist Fareed Haque is perhaps considered one of the brightest and most talented guitar players found anywhere. A renowned jazz and classical guitarist, his distinct versatility has created him the privilege to perform with Sting, Paquito D’Rivera, Cassandra Wilson, Joe Henderson, Dave Holland, Javon Jackson, and Medeski, Martin and Wood. Off stage, he currently holds an associate professorship in jazz and classical guitar studies at Northern Illinois University, amongst many other notable credentials. But it’s ultimately his searing solos that draw most attention. Elevating each song to epic proportions, by weaving his classical elaborations and jazz sensibilities, he has provided Garaj Mahal a signature audio attraction.

Bassist Kai Eckhardt has held the rhythm down for John McLauglin, Al DiMeola, Bill Evans, Omar Hakim and Zakir Hussein, and he even earned his U.S. citizenship based upon his endearing musicianship. Drummer Alan Hertz, honed his chops recently, playing with KVHW, another “supergroup” of sorts that featured Steve Kimock, Bobby Vega, and Zappa alumnus Ray White- fusing the dance and jazz elements in the band together with a powerful undercurrent. And keyboardist Eric Levy, a student of Haque’s at North Illinois, rounds out the four some with his omnipresent intricate keyboard nuances.

The release of Garaj Mahal’s Live Vol. 1-3 releases on Harmonized Records showcases the band in all it’s live glory. From the outlandish jazz of “The Paladin” to the patient and consuming version of Madonna’s “Material Girl,” they redefine the element of groove-rock, bringing a notch of sophistication to 80’s fluff, while continually going above and beyond.

With the recent release of their first studio album, Mondo Garaj, Fareed spoke with Glide about finding that musical magic through the simplest of paths.

Mondo Garaj was actually recorded in 2000, but it’s finally being released this month. So is it primarily a look at the initial stages of the band.

Yeah, it was recorded a while ago. It was actually the very first music we made together. We literally met in the studio, everybody met Eric Levy in the studio, and I was pretty confident that it would be a real natural hookup. And it ended up being that right away. So we shook hands and started recording. Eric knew some of my music from having played in the Fareed Haque Group, and Kai, Alan and I had played together in a few other configurations, so it wasn’t like we were all strangers to playing together. Certainly we’ve done, I don’t know how many thousands of gigs, and so I think we’re much more of a band now. We definitely have a vibe that we get into when we just sit down to play, that’s very effortless, and I think back then what you hear is us kind of exploring what it is we do. At the time we were excited about trying new things, seeing what worked and what didn’t work. Some things that probably didn’t work then would definitely work now, and vice versa.

The four of you are certainly accomplished, well-schooled musicians, with extensive musical histories, but coming so strong onto the rock scene, what is your reaction to the band being immediately deemed a “supergroup?”

Well, I guess a “supergroup” is a weird word. And I think we’re dwelling on a pretty silly idea, that getting people who can play really fast together means that they’re gonna make better music. I think that’s pretty much bullshit. Everyone [in the band] is a strong instrumentalist, but our focus is on groove. So whether we can play fast or not [is irrelevant] with the focus on groove. And getting people dancing is something new. Because it tends to be the people who can’t play, historically, who can’t really play, that play in dance groups…and people who can really play, play sit down and listen music. And I think that’s really changing now. A lot more musicians who can play, are playing dance music. Back in the roots of jazz, the greatest players – Basie, Ellington’s band – those were all dance bands. They were hip dance bands, but they were dance bands. And there was nothing unhip about playing dance music. For some reason, in the past thirty years, people have come to associate dance music with unhip music. And if you’re a technical virtuoso, you shouldn’t be playing for dancing. There’s some sort of stigma that our critical establishment associates with playing for dancing. I think that’s something that musicians are trying more and more to fight against. There should be no stigma. Music is for dancing. Music is for listening and dancing. There shouldn’t be one type of music for dancing and one type of music for listening. I think that’s a really shortsighted, limited view.

It may be groove music, but in the same context, it is highly technical. Much more so than a typical college band locking in one line and prematurely billing themselves as a groove band.

Well I don’t have a problem with that. If you can play something that works, then you’re done, that’s it, next. It’s not like you’re playing something simple, and therefore it’s not really valuable. There’s this idea that complex is good and simple is bad, and I don’t really buy that. Simple is very good, and sometimes simple is way better than complex. Some of the best things in life are unbelievably simple. So what you have is a group of musicians, like myself, like Alan, like Kai and Eric, who appreciate simplicity, and see that ‘well, maybe there’s some way our technical virtuosity can also serve the simple goal.’ And we’re not really that obsessed with our ability to play, we’re just trying to bring in some different sounds. And that may be different, because I think a lot of players who do play fast, are pretty obsessed with their abilities.

Those unfamiliar with your background are often blown away by Garaj Mahal, because while you may be providing “just a groove,” it’s delivered with a true mastery of the instrument. And that’s something younger audiences rarely hear in bars.

Well I think they’re ready for it. Most of the kids that come to hear us are dancing their butts off. And I think they’re usually surprised, happily surprised, that potentially complex music is still shaking their booties. It seems to me the fans make less of a big deal out of it. They’re like, ‘wow, the drummer is really good.’ And ‘wow, somebody told me it was in 7/4, oh well’ (laughs). I don’t think they’re really as aware of it other than the fact that there is a lot of variety, and a lot of different styles we can cover, because of our collective experience. And other bands may be more monochromatic. So we have a pretty wide palette that we can choose from. But for the most part…it just comes down to, if you’re having a good time, then we’re having a good time (laughs).

I tend to see audiences receiving sort of an education in world music through Garaj Mahal as well?

I agree. But at the same time, one of the reasons they are able to appreciate what we’re doing is because, drum ‘n bass, and house and bhangra, and all these world musics are so cross-pollinated that it’s not that freaky for them now to hear this kind of music. They’ve heard sitar and they’ve heard a lot of other recordings, and as a result I think people, especially young people, are less and less limited. One of the coolest things, I remember once, sitting in with a band, and being just a little too buzzed to play well, and so I said to one of the guys, ‘if you really want me to sit in that’s cool, but I don’t really want to play any solos, so I’ll just sit back here and play rhythm guitar.’ And I remember kids coming up to me afterwards, ‘my god, we loved the way you played rhythm guitar!’ Which is a very perceptive thing. The real thing that’s going on here is not that the musicians are that different, but that audiences are different. People are listening to music in a different way…they’re listening into the music, they’re listening to the arrangement, not just the notes. ‘Oh, we listened to this remix of this tune, and there’s a Spanish guitar in it, an Indian percussion, an African percussion.’ So now they’ve heard those sounds and they hear them performed live and it’s not that much of a reach for them. So the culturalization of America is happening all around us. It doesn’t take us to bring it to them, in a way it’s more like they’ve already been exposed to it, and we’re just taking it another step in that direction.

So within all of the cross-pollination of music, how do you view the current state of rock?

I think we’re in a pivotal time for music right now. And I don’t think we’re in a bad time at all. I think there’s a tendency to say ‘oh, the radio sucks, the record companies suck, music sucks, musicians suck…’ and there were plenty of times when it was worse. I think there’s a lot of fantastic music out there. Technology is really serving musicians better, more completely. And we have a lot of opportunities right now. The question is, ‘what are we gonna do with it?’ Are we gonna slip back into letting the corporate machine dictate how we live our lives as musicians and as audiences, or are we gonna sort of take the reign. I mean, I’m not on a major label anymore, and I’m selling more records than I ever have (laughs). So things are really changing. It’s less glamorous, and much more real, and there’s something kind of comforting about that.

You were Eric’s professor years ago, so playing with him now, does the student become the teacher?

Oh sure! I learn all kinds of stuff from him. And all of us have had to go through getting over our impressions and ideas about each other. Particularly the younger guys. They look up to us on one hand, and on the other are like ‘oh, you guys are old.’ You know, and all of the ‘you guys are old,’ ‘your not old,’ ‘your smart,’ ‘your too smart’ …it’s always something. And we’ve started to get over that and just see each other as people and put it all in perspective. So things are pretty healthy right now. We’re four pretty intense people, so it’s intense onstage as well as off.

Is that the magical formula of the band? Four intensely, complex players can collectively become the most simplistic of sounds?

Well it’s actually pretty amazing. We had a gig [recently] and they told us the wrong start time, so we were an hour late, and we were all frustrated, and everybody was tired, and came in on separate flights…Kai and Alan had left at like 5 in the morning in order to arrive by 5 in the evening, so it was a long day of traveling. So we get there and we don’t have our own gear and we don’t have a sound check, we don’t have a line check, and then just boom! That shit is on like a motherfucker! It’s just on! It’s like you push a button and it’s just on! And that’s a rarity that a band can have that kind of automatic pocket. And we have better sets and worse sets, and all sorts of things can happen in spontaneity, but it’s on a lot! And when it’s on, it’s pretty surprising how magical it can be.

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