Paul Richards, Hideyo Moriya and Bert Lams first met in 1987 as students in King Crimson founder Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft course. They then toured as members of Fripp’s League of Crafty Guitarists and String Quintet before, at Fripp’s suggestion, forming the California Guitar Trio in 1991.
In the years since, they have built a steady following through their eclectic and electric albums and live shows. A typical CGT show can include anything from stunning original material and complex classical compositions to classic rock covers, surf music or something off the “Napoleon Dynamite” soundtrack. They’ve toured and recorded extensively with famed bassist Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon), and they’re probably the only act in history who’s shared a stage with both Jon Anderson of Yes and indie rock icon Bonnie “Prince” Billy. They return to Chattanooga Tuesday night, playing an intimate show at Barking Legs Theater.
Richards and Lams chatted with Nooga.com about life on the road, learning to laugh on stage and why they love playing Chattanooga.
How is life on the road these days? How does it compare with previous years?
Bert Lams: We used to play mostly clubs with CGT, but since we started working with our agency several years ago, we have been playing in nice theaters and performing arts centers around the country. Our basic setup is still the same: We rent a minivan, book our own hotels and take care of our own travel details. In the past, we had to cut corners to make the tours profitable and go home with some money. We'd share hotel rooms and try to cut corners where we could. These days, we book individual hotel rooms (thanks to Priceline, we can get some great deals), we try to eat healthy when possible and we also cut down the travel distances on performing days. We now don't drive more than 200 miles on a performance day. If it's more, we make it a travel day, so we can rest up and be in good shape for the concert the next day.
You've been sharing some dates with the Montreal Guitar Trio. How did that relationship come about, and how do those shows differ from a typical CGT show?
BL: We've always enjoyed playing with other musicians, and collaborations have been an integral part of our history. Working with other musicians gives us a different perspective and has opened up many opportunities for the CGT in the past.
We met the MG3 at a music conference in Eugene, Ore., about four years ago. We liked their music, and we saw that we have some things in common: Both trios are very eclectic and like to play just about any kind of music that resonates with them. We were on the same flight on our way back from the conference, and during a layover in Chicago, we discussed getting together for a few concerts. A few months later, we played a series of concerts in Canada with them. With only one rehearsal day, we had to be really fast and prepared. We sent each other MP3s of pieces we wanted to play together. The rehearsal was incredible: As soon as we sat down together, something very special happened, and the sound of both trios meshed together, creating something very powerful. The shows are very dynamic, especially because we showcase the separate trios in the first part of the show. During the second half of the show, both trios take the stage together, and the audience gets to share that magic moment that we all felt four years ago in our first rehearsal.
Though you met as students of Robert Fripp, you've gone off and created your own thing in the years since. How much of your playing is still influenced by your days with Robert?
Paul Richards: The three of us studied with Robert for several years, and we've played many concerts with him as part of the League of Crafty Guitarists, the Robert Fripp String Quintet and also over 130 shows as opener for King Crimson. His influence will always be integral to who we are.
After 22 years of playing shows on our own, we have obviously developed our own style that is uniquely CGT. And, over the years, we have been very much influenced by other great musicians whom we've had the opportunity to work with, like Tony Levin and the MG3.
How has your playing progressed over the years?
BL: There is more focus on musicality and dynamics. For instance, playing with the likes of Tony Levin has showed us a different, more open approach to playing together and our sense of keeping time. We used to play much more "metronomic" in our beginning years. We've also loosened up a lot on stage; we used to be much more uptight onstage and worried about every little thing that went wrong. Over the years, we've let go of all that, and now, we just laugh about the little things that go wrong during a performance. It's these unexpected things that make it more fun, anyway, and why people come to see us play, after all.
How do you differ as players? Who's the fastest player? Who's the most prolific songwriter?
PR: We differ enormously as players, but, at the same time, when we are playing Bach fugues or circulations, we can play similarly enough to make it sound as if it were one player. Hideyo is the fastest player by far. You can hear this on his solos in “Melrose Avenue” and “Dance of the Maya.” We all contribute fairly equally to the songwriting, with each of us going through phases of being more or less prolific.
What do you learn from each other?
PR: From Bert, I learn to have an ear for the classical music. With Bert's formal classical training and great sense of musicality, I rely heavily on him to guide us on the classical arrangements that we play. From Hideyo, I learn about rhythmic approaches to playing. Hideyo used to be a drummer and has good sense of time and a percussive style to his playing. You can especially hear this in the middle section of “Echoes” and on the surf guitar tunes, where Hideyo’s driving the rhythm.
"Echoes" is an album of covers. "Andromeda" is all original compositions. "Masterworks" is all classical music. Your earlier albums are a blend of everything. How do you decide what to record? Do you have any specific plans for the next album?
BL: Our first albums were a reflection of what our live concerts were like. But after we recorded our Christmas album, we recognized the need for more coherence in our CD releases, and we liked the themes that went along with each project. Our focus now is on writing and arranging music for a studio album with the sextet (CGT and MG3).
You've worked a little with vocalists. The cover of "Freebird" on "Echoes" with Bonnie "Prince" Billy is a standout track. Do you think you might ever do an entire album with a singer?
PR: I really enjoyed working with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and I love his singing on the two tracks on "Echoes." He sang with us a live show recently in his hometown of Louisville, and it was amazing. We also had Jon Anderson from Yes join us onstage to sing “Heart of the Sunrise” in Los Angeles and Quebec City. Those shows were career highlights for sure. I would love to do a project with a singer. Perhaps something will come about with Jon or Bonnie “Prince” Billy. We'll see.
You've played Chattanooga several times at this point. What is it about our little city that keeps you coming back?
PR: I love Chattanooga! We've had some great shows there, including our first time at the Riverbend Festival. We have some serious CGT fans in Chattanooga that come to see us every time we are in town. And we always have lots of new fans at the shows, too—perhaps some who found out about us on YouTube or Pandora Radio or our recent Guitar Player Magazine feature—or maybe this interview!
What can we expect at the show Tuesday night? Any surprises?
BL: We will play a selection of our favorite CGT songs, and we've also prepared some new arrangements. One of these arrangements will be played for the very first time on this upcoming leg of the tour. It is a very challenging piece, and it's also a venture in new territory for us. You'll have to come see us to find out what it is!
Bill Colrus writes about (in no particular order) local news, culture, music and media. You can find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.