I recently had the distinct pleasure of talking to M.R. Poulopoulos, about music in general and his latest project “Harvest the Heart”. in particular . Below is an edited version of our conversation.
TMD: Let’s start from the beginning, when and how did you become interested in music and what were some of your early influences?
MRP: There’s a wide gap between when I became interested in music and when I became serious about playing music. My interest in music goes back to early childhood, always enjoyed singing along to tunes on the radio. Became fascinated with the Beach Boys when I was probably 7 or 8 years old. But playing music didn’t really come along till freshman or sophomore year of college, as being exposed to people who played music, enjoyed sitting around playing music.
Prior to that, in grade school and high school, neither had a lively or robust music program, you know like learn a tune for the winter or spring concert; and in high school there was nothing.
And I guess I got serious about playing guitar around late second semester of sophomore year, tried to figure things out and make my own sounds.
TMD: What sorts of things were you listening to at this point, that might have helped shape the sound you were looking to create?
MRP: Initially pretty typical college guy stuff, Pink Floyd, Grateful Dead, a lot of Phish, but eventually I started exploring my own stuff and got deep into Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, trying to learn some licks and trying to understand how they structured the lyrics over the music, followed Muddy Waters from his early acoustic blues up through his electric period. I think I discovered Neil Young about this same time period….
TMD: When you were starting to figure out the blues structure, were you taking any kind of music theory classes in school or did you pretty much figure it out on your own?
MRP: I’d say by and large it was the help of friends, sitting and playing and watching where the hand placements were, figuring out chords and such. I took a history of Jazz class that I really enjoyed, did a lot of listening in that class, from early King Oliver, riverboat jazz, right up through contemporary jazz. I also took a guitar instruction class, where I would bring in some tunes and and he would help tab them out, no heavy theory to it, to this day I’m still befuddled by the “Circle of Fifths”, more like the “Vortex of Fifths”!
TMD: Let’s talk about the songwriting process, are you always thinking about potential songs, forever carrying around a notebook, waiting for that inspirational thunderbolt?
MRP: I’d say that I’m pretty much always thinking about songwriting possibilities, but in actuality, when I get to the act of writing them down, I do it pretty much all on computer, walk around the apartment, trying out lyrics and musical ideas, but only when I’m satisfied do I write it down on the computer. Lot of stuff can come when I’m driving, just turn off the radio and try different things out, which later I can record onto my phone for safekeeping until I’m ready to see what’s what.
TMD: How about collaborative songwriting, much experience with that, do you enjoy that sort of experience?
MRP: You are familiar with the Palatypus, duo? We didn’t do a lot of songwriting together, it was more bringing mostly finished stuff to the studio and then doing some editing of music and lyrics together, clearly a collaboration with the arrangements, who plays lead, harmony vocals etc. Over the past year, I’ve been doing some songwriting with another local guy, Dan Johnson, (of Dan Johnson & the Expert Sidemen) who hosted the Americana nights at Valentines, and then last November I took part in a conference of folk musicians put on by the Northeast Folk Music Alliance, where I met a songwriter named Greg Klyma, he and I co-wrote a tune in about 40 minutes, one of those rare moments of shared inspiration, tucked ourselves away in a corner of the hotel and came away with a song. So not too much so far, but I’d say it’s something I’m definitely interested in doing more.
TMD: So the new record, I have to be honest, I was a bit surprised to see a new one so “soon”, although I went back and it’s actually been two years since Greenhorne….
MRP: This record is greatly different than Greenhorn, the idea with that one was to have a laidback recording, which hopefully translated into a laid-back listening experience. We recorded it live, all the musicians in one room, a lot of movement in the tunes, tempo shifts, new elements being added. With the new album, I wanted to take a different approach, a more serious approach to the recording process. I also wanted to fill this album out with more and different players, the focus to be the music as opposed to the songs or the songwriter, a cast of musicians who understood the sound, appreciated the sound and knew how to play under it.
TMD: Tell me about this “cast of characters”, the players of instruments….
MRP: Most of them are folks that I’ve met in the two years since Greenhorn, with John Rice being the only constant, Tommy Krebs on drums, I’ve known him for years, guy just knows how play, great feel, Roger Noyes, plays pedal and lap steel, I came to know him through Dan Johnson, another easy choice, then Lawrence Scudder, who’s from Somerville, MA. who I met at a show at Caffe Lena, he’s helped me get some shows in the Boston area, he’s got great feel, and a long musical history, and don’t let me forget Ryan Dunham, on harmonica, he plays on both records, and he and John play in the Red Haired Strangers, a solid, solid harmonica player.
TMD: All the tunes on Harvest the Heart are newly written for the record, or were some leftovers from Greenhorn?
MRP: Some of them might have started to come to me as we were making Greenhorn, but remember that Greenhorn has 15 songs on it, so when these started to percolate, it made sense to save them for the next project. But it also wasn’t a matter of having 25 songs and deciding that this song went on one record or the other.
TMD: People are listening to music differently today, primarily due to the technology, and the ability to access vast collections with ease, the whole shuffle concept, in other words people are not necessarily listening to an album from beginning to end. Does that knowledge factor into the making of a record for you, say in the sequencing of the songs , does that conversation take place in the studio?
MRP: The discussion takes place, especially in regards to the sequencing, I try to not concern myself with whether people are going to chop up the album, and recognize that there are certain tunes that are going to be more popular than others, hopefully there’s enough content as a whole to bring people in who like different sounds, a lot of people like “Ink Fades”, and another group really digs, “Mad in the Mornin’”, an upbeat tempo.
But in terms of the shuffle concept, I cannot be too concerned with it, what’s most important is putting everything together so that it makes sense as a whole, a whole album that is.
TMD: Let’s talk about playing out live, you do a lot of that in and around the Capital Region, how far afield have you gotten?
MRP: Probably a couple hundred miles, I’ve played in Portland, ME, I play in Boston 3 or 4 times of year, Southwestern NY, near Corning, NY, placed called the Blackeyed Susan Restaurant, great spot, good audiences. I try to stay away from New York City, got kind of burned out on that whole scene from when Matt (Durfee) and I were doing the Palatypus thing, seemed like a lot of work, for the return. Later this spring I’m doing a show in Lancaster PA, which is a big leap South for me.
TMD: How about festivals, is that something you aspire to?
MRP: I would love to play festivals,
TMD: What’s your take on the whole festival thing, which seems to have mushroomed in the last ten years…
MRP: I hope it doesn’t peter out before I get a chance to play some….I think its great, there’s a lot of interactions between the musicians, opportunities to share ideas and tunes.
TMD: Do you have a favorite type of gig? Coffee House or Gin Mill?
MRP: Each has it’s charms, sometimes I can put out a great performance cause no one’s listening, because no one’s listening, there can be those five or six people that you connect with, then there are shows that are pin-drop quiet, where the attention is solely focused on me, that can be intimidating, that’s something I think I need to work on, opening myself up more and present myself in a sincere manner and not force the tune because people are paying attention, sort of translate that moment I had at the bar to the stage…
TMD: Share your thoughts on the increasing phenomena of audiences expecting to “participate” in the performance, either by talking to the performer or shouting out requests and the like…
MRP: I think each performer handles it differently, some like Martin Sexton, who I had the privilege of hanging backstage with, clearly relishes a give and take with his audience. One of the best responses to the whole shouting out request thing, came from Jeffrey Foucault, who, in response to a series of shouted requests, said, “those are fine tunes, but I’m going to play this one instead”! My own experience included a gig in Shelburne Falls at a small cafe, where late into my second set, an intoxicated guy rolled in and began editorializing (in positive fashion) about my set. I finally said calmly, Dude I’m really trying to have a good time with you, but you’re making it very difficult right now, and that seemed to get across to him.
TMD: Final question, unabashedly lifted from one of my favorite music publications, “Mojo”, what’s your favorite Saturday Night record, vs. your favorite Sunday morning record?
MRP: Is shuffle a good answer? Shuffle probably is the most accurate answer. Actually most Saturday nights I am playing out myself, so okay, for getting in the mood, my go to recording at the moment would be Bela Fleck’s “Drive”, or Strength in Numbers, “The Telluride Sessions”, and a great mellow out, Sunday record would be anything by Kelly Jo Phelps, he’s amazing.
M.R. Poulopoulos has two local shows this coming weekend, please check his webpage for all the details.