Sometimes writers really surprise me. Rest of the Story is a short story collection and album by writer and electric bassist Chris Tarry. Actually, Rest of the Story is an album first with nine jazz compositions, then a small collection of fiction containing four really tight, interesting, at times surreal stories. The collection itself is the case for the compact disc containing the album. The album is actually the rest of the story. You have to buy Rest of the Story to understand how awesome the concept and how impeccably it is executed, is but there are some pictures below and here is a short video about the project.
Chris Tarry is a Canadian musician and writer, and winner of three Juno Awards (the Canadian Grammys). His music has appeared on more than 100 albums including 8 he has produced himself. His writing has appeared in PANK, Metazen, Drunken Boat, and others. He lives in New York. I interviewed Chris about his music, his writing and the Rest of the Story.
I really enjoyed the short stories in Rest of the Story. Most writers, it seems, have themes or obsessions they continue to return to in their writing. What are your obsessions as a writer?
I’m obsessed with family. Mostly because I come from a great one with very little in the way of drama, historically. So in a lot of my stories I like to investigate the family drama, explore it, see what kind of mess I can get myself into. I’m fascinated by all the nasty dirty things inherent to the Human Condition. If, as a writer, I can convey real human emotion inside a fictional space, regardless of where the story takes place (on Earth or say on Epsilon 5 or something), and fill it with believable real-world anchors, I feel I’ve accomplished something.
How is a story like a song? How are they different?
Well, I guess it should be said that we’re dealing with contemporary jazz tunes on this book/album, so there are no lyrics. But I believe very strongly that there is a narrative that exists inside a strong melodic phrase regardless of lyrics. A great melody can tell a beautiful story, and that is what I wanted to explore with this project, that connection between the two. Stories are obviously different in that words are so literal, but I believe that when narrative is working well inside both (melody and a story), it speaks to the same place inside all of us. When I was young, I asked a music teacher of mine what made a great jazz solo. He said, “Tell a story ma man, just tell me a story.” And that has always stuck with me.
Do your writing and music inform one another?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this question since the book came out. I have to say that writing has informed my music more than the other way around. I’ve always had a bit of a natural ability to compose music, so I think in the past, this ability made me lazy, compositionally. When I started to take writing more seriously, that all changed. It used to be that I’d be fine with a melody here, a bridge section there. Whatever. I was playing with the best musicians around and they could make anything sound great. Once I started writing (words) more seriously, I got deep into revision, and this respect for the heart of what makes good writing great (revision), made its way into how I approach composition today. Revise, revise, revise.
Do you think of musical cadence when you write?
Yes, always. This goes back to my thinking on melodic phrasing. A story, regardless of discipline (music, literature, ect), for me, must have a narrative, and the cadence is integral part of narrative.
What are some of your literary inspirations? What are some of your musical inspirations?
I’ve always written, even when music was the focus of my life (practicing, developing, ect). In (I think) 1996 I read a story in McSweeney’s 6 called “The Workshop” by Roy Kesey, and it leveled me. In about 2009, after I had solidified a career as a bass player here in New York, I started to take my writing more seriously. I got a few things published but I wanted to grow as a writer and I remembered Roy’s story. So, I did a search online and found his website. I got in touch with him and started studying with him via email. So to say he has been an inspiration writing wise, would be an understatement. And then I was fortunate enough to earn a spot at the 2010 Breadloaf Writers Conference. Wait, let me back up…
In May 2010 I was doing a jazz composers residency at the Banff Center in Canada. while I was there, I met the super-cool author Meg Wolitzer, who was there as part of the writing faculty. I had just gotten into Breadloaf, and we were having dinner so I asked her who I should sign up for for my Breadloaf workshop teacher. She suggested that Jim Shepard (who was teaching at Breadloaf that year), would be an excellent fit. So, I put down Jim Shepard’s name on the acceptance form having never really read much of his work. Well, long story short, he changed the way I look at writing forever. Truly inspirational. I’ve been lucky enough to have kept in touch with him since, and through Breadloaf (directly or indirectly), he has helped me out with most of the stories in this small collection.
Musical inspirations, wow, that’s a long list. I got into jazz around the age of seventeen. I heard the bass player Jaco Pastorius and he changed my view of what the bass could do. I could name any number of amazing teachers I’ve had over the 20+ years I’ve been playing the bass. My first teacher growing up in Calgary, Canada. He taught me a love for the instrument that goes very deep. And then, all the musicians I play with daily here in New York City. I’m fortunate to play with some of the best in the world, and they humble me on every single gig. The whole experience of playing music in the toughest city in the world, it’s been integral to my musical development compositionally and technically on the bass.
Who are some of your favorite jazz artists, both contemporary and historically?
Well, I grew up listening to bands like Weather Report, Pat Metheny, ect. After that, I went back and got into studying the older cats. I’m a huge Coltrane fan, tried for many years to play Coltrane solos on the bass. The album Miles Smiles killed me when I was about nineteen, changed a lot of things for me. Modern day guys? I’m really into Brad Mehldau, Keith Jarrett, Radiohead, ect. My music though, is heavily influenced by the musicians slugging it out here in New York. Players most people have never heard of. Guys like David Binney, Miles Okazaki, Donny McCaslin. We’re all taking on this city together, and it makes for some fascinating music. I think, anyways.
What is your favorite song to play by another composure? What is your favorite composition by your own hand? Why?
The first part of the question is a tough one, because you have to include the great American Song Book, which is large and unruly. I mean, I play a lot of standards as a jazz musician, and those can be hard to separate from the list of the greatest tunes ever. As a jazz musician, I’ve spent most of my life figuring out ways to navigate these classic tunes, so it’s hard to pick just one. Just one though? The Victor Young tune “Stella By Starlight”. I still cant wrap my head around that tune.
I’m pretty happy with the title track on the album “Rest of the Story.” It’s a really through-composed tune (meaning very specific composition choices made by me and written down on paper for the players to read), it is very representative of this new revision process I mentioned. I threw out countless chords, ripped up stacks of music. I really tried to make it exactly what it came to be, and that fills me with excitement. It’s a wonderful thing when one feels they have realized something fully. I feel this way about this tune, and to some extent, a few of the stories.
What is jazz?
Jazz is movement. Jazz is development. Jazz is the creation of something new and logical and beautiful in that space between thought and the moving of ones fingers. It’s teaching yourself how to tell a story inside a given framework (chords, melodies, ect).
How did you fall into bass playing?
Back in 1988 I’d been playing saxophone in the high school band. My buddies had started a rock band called Molotov Cocktail, and I wanted to be a part of it. They had actual girls coming to their shows, and that was pretty exciting. So I traded my sax in for a guitar. When I showed up to my first rehearsal there were like eight guitar players and no bass player. I wanted to be in the band so bad that I switched to bass. I had no idea what a bass guitar was. I eventually fell in love with it. Started practicing eight hours-a-day for many years, that kind of thing.
What does it take to walk a good bass line?
One note at-a-time, very even quarter notes, all the same volume, and a good knowledge of chordal harmony.
What do you love most about a beautiful album design? How is album design being affected by our ability to buy and download music electronically?
This is one of the things I wanted to take on with this project. I’ve always loved wonderful album design, how the whole thing, when done well, can become this sort of wonderful art project—different artistic disciplines informing each other in cool and interesting ways. The thought that beautiful album artwork could be integrated into a final product even in today’s digital age intrigued me.
Tell me a little about Rest of the Story. How did this project come about? Who was involved in the design and production? Why did you decide to self-publish/self-release this project?
I wrote all the music during a residency at The Banff Center in May 2010 and then recorded the album over a two day period at a studio in Connecticut the following June. After it was recorded, I took a backpacking trip with my brother on the coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. My brother works for the advertising agency Rethink in Vancouver. I asked him if Rethink might be interested in getting involved with the design of the album. He said, “Yes,” and introduced me to Jeff Harrison, a Grammy nominated designer who also works at Rethink. From there, Jeff brought in Rethink illustrator Kim Ridgewell, and everything just kind of went from there.
As far as self-publishing, I guess this is where there is a grey area of what this album/book actually is. I think about it as an album first and a book second. Sort of like an album with super crazy liner notes. So in that sense, it is not self published. It’s released on one of the best jazz labels in the country, Nineteen Eight Records and that lends it a lot of legitimacy and professionalism on the music side. But in another sense, it is a small collection of various short stories (four of them) that I’ve had published in different places (one of them thanks to you over at PANK). So in a sense, I guess that part of it is self published. But the record label and myself think about it as a CD first and foremost. There’s no ISBN number, it’s treated like a CD in all the ways that make a CD a CD. Stamped, labeled, and shipped as such.
Rest of the Story is not available for download. Why did you make that choice? Did you consider how you could translate the concept at work in this project digitally?
It has to do, in part, with a little bit of what I said in the previous question. But I’ll say this, I’m a jazz musician. People who are into the kind of music I make are a very specific and select group of music listeners. I can set up my shop and they will search me out, because they are small, and they are mighty, and they are very resourceful and passionate. The same as people passionate about great literature. So, in a way, I felt I could get away with doing a project of this magnitude and my fans would get it. Not only the music fans but the writing fans. Everyone.
As well, the fact that the whole package and artwork are such a huge part of the whole thing, meant to be experienced together as one. I wanted the distribution channels controllable, so I could make sure people were experiencing this album in the way it was intended. One reader at a time, one listener at a time. I may eventually make it available for download. But for now, it’s only available through the record company’s website: http://www.nineteeneight.com.
Both the music and publishing industries are grappling with how to deal with technological advances that, in many ways, challenge the existence of books and CDs as physical objects or artifacts. What can we do to preserve these things? Should we fight to preserve these things?
I think in the end, the CD (or even book, perhaps) will be an object relegated to the live concert event. I haven’t purchased a hard-copy CD from an actual record store in I can’t remember how long. I have, however, picked up many albums after seeing a live show (readings as well). I love that thing where you go to the merch table and buy a copy of the bands CD you’ve just heard. It’s almost a throwback to the old days, an artist pedaling their wares kind of thing. So is this a good thing? I’m not sure. It’s a more direct thing, and maybe that’s good.
Your website has an exhaustive amount of information about you, the musicians you work with, and it’s also a commerce portal for people who want to buy charts, DVDs, etc. HAs having such a comprehensive website been beneficial to your career?
Yes, the website has been amazing. In kind of the way that I mentioned previously. I can set up my lemonade stand, and those that love my particular brand of lemonade will find me, because it takes guts to like the kind of lemonade I’m brewing (do you brew lemonade?), anyway, not everyone likes modern jazz, in fact, most people don’t listen to it. So, in a way it makes everything easier. I may not have a billion fans, but the fans I do have are so very loyal. I wouldn’t trade them for a million Lady Ga-Ga’s (I’m not sure what that means but I like the sound of it).
As far as some of the other things available on the website. A lot of people who listen to my music are music students, so the charts and other stuff at the site have been a great for them. They can download the tunes, play them in class, compare their versions to my recordings. It’s a beautiful thing, and I still get goose bumps when someone sends me a YouTube link of people playing one of my tunes. It’s like being there with them in the room in the most magical of ways.
How do you feel about the re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy in 3D?
I am, of course, a product of the Star Wars generation. So funny you should ask, because I was just listening to NPR debate this whole Star Wars 3D thing. My take? I loved it when George Lucas built a full sized version of the Millennium Falcon and used it for no more than thirty seconds of screen time. The actors could walk around on it. The camera could get into all the dusty corners. It’s what made it real. I wish more directors (including the present day George Lucas) would realize that this was what made Star Wars great. Now all we have is actors talking to tennis balls on a stick. It just isn’t the same.
How would one calculate Chris Tarry?
Melody + Story = Infinity
What’s the worst bar you’ve ever played in? Why?
I’ve played some bad ones. One that sticks in my mind is in a little town just outside my hometown of Calgary, Alberta. I was seventeen and playing in this CCR tribute band called Catch 22. We went on after the striper. Need I say more?
Do you tour? What do you love most about being on the road?
I’m on the road quite a bit playing with different groups. And not just jazz. I play and tour with a lot of pop and other type acts. There’s never enough time (because touring is work and don’t let anyone tell ya any different), but I like searching out the best of what a town has to offer. Stuff like the best restaurant, or the best coffee, or something like that. I’ll walk into a store and say, “Best pizza in town, where?” and the whole place goes nuts. Sometimes an argument ensues between a couple of passionate locals. It’s great. I love seeing the things that make a given town proud.
What do you love most about your music and writing?
The fact that I get to do it for a living. It’s a gift. It really truly is.