Conversation with Don Rooke

Toronto, Ontario is home to a vibrant and creative music scene with a very eclectic range of musical styles. Musican/composer/lap steel player Don Rooke is one of Toronto’s finest secrets. While Don is not someone who you’ll find in the clubs on any given night (in fact, his appearances are rare, indeed), his various projects, most notably The Henrys and, more recently, Three Metre Day, are wonderful examples of the thriving creative spirit coming from the north.

Don is a very interesting and down-to-earth man, and he’s the kind of musician you have to ply in order to get him to speak of his achievements, which are many. The Henrys have been featured performers in numerous festivals around the world and also appeared on the BBC several times. Don also performed with Mary Margaret O’Hara on “Night Music,” which was one of the finest music programs to appear on network TV in the US, and they have released 5 CDs, as well as 1 compilation. Don has also appeared on recordings with Mary Margaret O’Hara, Sylvia Tyson, Holy Modal Rounders, Vance Gilbert and others, as well as having released a solo recording, Atlas Travel. Don is a member of Three Metre Day, which has just released its first recording, Coasting Notes, featuring singer/songwriter/musician Michelle Willis, violinist Hugh Marsh, as well as Don’s considerable playing and writing, to very favorable reviews.

Three Metre Day is currently embarking on a mini-West Coast tour (November 1-6) in support of their new release and, for those lucky enough to live in the Bay area, Don will be conducting a seminar at Gryphon Strings in Palo Alto on Nov. 5 from 2-5pm (click for more info). You can listen to a live broadcast of Three Metre Day on November 5 at 10am (PST) on West Coast Live.

Mike Neer: I listen to your music quite a bit and I hear so many different sounds in your music—it’s almost like a musical geography lesson. It seems like you’ve managed to incorporate sounds from around the world without being too traditional about it. How much do these sounds factor into your writing?

Don Rooke: Well, there’s no conscious World music attempt, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t feel qualified to do that. For me it’s more textures and tone. As far as the writing is concerned, one of the main things that I try to achieve is to be non-idiomatic. If it goes in a direction that’s obvious, then I don’t love it. After the song has taken shape, then I try to get some textures happening. For instance, one of the effects I use—and it’s the cheapest effect in the world—is to take a piece of foam and put it under the strings. This gives it sort of a kalimba sound–or even use it with a ring modulator and it gives a texture that’s pretty hard to define. It’s kind of primitive sounding.

MN: I just get the feeling that your music is very free-spirited and nomadic—it’s very centered and grounded, but yet it wanders and paints different landscapes.

DR: One of the benefits of living where I live, where there’s really no history of slide playing, like Texas or Tennessee or California, there’s really no idiom that is natural to me as a slide player; it’s more just standing on the outside, just picking things that I like and trying to blend them to come up with a mix that’s a little bit different. I think that’s a bit of an advantage in terms of finding your own voice.

MN: Well, you may have touched on the sole advantage of growing up in New Jersey. [laughs] I think we can relate in that respect. I hear things in your music that really hit me because I’m open to them without any expectations. It almost reminds me of how I feel when I listen to Ry Cooder, who was very influential for me. I hear a tune like Maria Elena, and it just has an earthiness to it—a Latin feel, but not completely. I was wondering if you were influenced by the same things.

DR: Oh, for sure. I recorded that song on Joyous Porous (The Henrys, 2002). I did it in 3/4. It was one of those things—I based it on Don Gibson’s version, his arrangement. I had the usual palette, with the pump organ, but I did something that I kind of got into and did a few times, which is to record things and then start stripping it down. I remember Dave Piltch (bassist) getting that record and saying, “It’s the first record I played on where there’s less on the record than when I played on it!”
It’s really fun to arrange by taking things away, where suddenly there’s a duo where there was a quintet. And a solo doesn’t have to be 12 bars; somebody else takes over part of the way through. I find that to be fun and fascinating, too.

MN: Let me ask you about your composing: Are a lot of your ideas generated by playing the instrument or do you write them on guitar?

DR: I wish I had a good answer to that. Sometimes it’s chord changes and I write a melody to it. I try to avoid writing what you might call “lick driven” songs. I really want to have melodies rather than have a lick and base a song on it. That’s what works for me. So sometimes I write chords and then sing or hum a melody over it—find some way around the vocabulary of the instrument. You know, you’re doing things that you don’t naturally fall into because you’re a slide player.

MN: When you think of your instrument, do you think of it in terms of being a dobro, or a steel guitar or a slide guitar—as if it makes any difference—but you mentioned “lick driven” tunes, and I know exactly what you mean, as so much of the repertoire for each of the respective instruments is lick driven. I’m wondering how you see the instrument….

DR: Over the years, probably my main ax has been the Kona, and I see that as more of a primitive thing. I’ve got it tuned just like my dobro is tuned, but the sound of it—maybe the little less sustain or the more natural woody thing, whatever it is—I think it dictates a different style of playing which is different from dobro or steel guitar. I use them all and I love them all—metal-bodied National, all these things—and I love pulling all these things out and finding a place for them. But my centerpiece is probably the Kona, even though I decided not too long ago that it was too quiet to be a stage instrument; plus, it’s uncommon enough and rare enough that you have to be careful with things like that. So, I look at that instrument a little bit different, as a slightly more delicate thing. I probably look for melodies and chords on it more and just play more simply on it.

Don Rooke and his 1920s Kona

MN: I love playing those. I have a friend with a Kona and I find the range of tones I can get out of the instrument to be much wider than most other instruments (acoustic) that I’ve played–I think maybe it’s a bit more….

DR: Touch responsive. You know, Cooder, he said–talking about acoustic versus electric—“the acoustic has a lot more information.” The tonal qualities are so much more complex, including noises that you may not necessarily want to hear, such as scratching. Those are available on the electric, but there does seem to be a bit more info, like he said.

MN: Yeah, that’s a really good way of putting it. I tend to embrace all those extraneous sounds. I’ve never been hung up on the idea of having a bar that would eliminate the sound of sliding on a string. If I didn’t want to hear that, then maybe I shouldn’t be playing the instrument.

DR: Sometimes it’s nice to turn it on its end and scrape it down the string, too.

MN: Exactly. You like to play around with sounds and get a lot of extra texture, but I can just hear you alone sitting down and playing the songs without hearing all the other instruments…

DR: Knocking and wheezing… [laughs]

MN: But that’s what makes your compositions so strong. With all the other elements stripped away, there is still the song. I think what is unique is that no one else has written for and recorded the instrument in the way that you have. It is interesting that a lot of the younger Bluegrass musicians are starting to embrace that compositional element in their music, such as the Punch Brothers.

DR: Well, it’s not lap style, but David Tronzo is pretty ridiculous, too. I love watching that guy play. He’s been up here (Toronto) and we opened for him once. We played OK and then he came on with a trio and I felt like I’d just been in a boxing match–not that it had anything to do with me—but he had that whole New York intensity. This was before he moved to Boston to teach.

MN: I enjoy him very much, too. The one time I saw him play was with John Zorn and he had a really in-your-face style. I was really struck by what he doing.

DR: I mean, talk about a voice…between him and Derek Trucks, I could feast on 2 those styles for years.

MN: They’re tapping into a whole other range of expression.

DR: There’s also the steel being using in ambient ways, too—long note kind of stuff, with reverbs—it’s nice to have that kind of opportunity, which I don’t get very often, but every once in a while I play on a soundtrack or do that kind of thing.

MN: I don’t get many opportunities to do that, either, although that was what I did when I first started playing the instrument. I wasn’t looking to play any kind of traditional music, and I’m still not, but it’s part of the process for me. I was always into what Daniel Lanois was doing and I was trying to figure out a way to get there.

DR: He just had a concert up here yesterday, not too far from Toronto, with Emmylou and Ray LaMontagne and a few other people.

MN: I take it you didn’t go….

DR: Your correct [laughs]. Actually, there was nobody in the house yesterday and I went downstairs and turned my amp louder than I normally can and worked on my sound and played along with some drum loops and had a blast. I played for hours, which I rarely do. My practicing regimen is nonexistent.

MN: So when you do play, you’re trying to create music every time you touch your instrument?

DR: I have a few things that I practice; one of the things that I do, probably for 5 or 10 years now, I’ve practiced acoustically on a lap steel that I’ve screwed down black cardboard over the fret markers. It occurred to me—it must have been 10 years ago—that I was too visually oriented for pitch and it didn’t make any sense. So, I covered the frets and, as you can imagine, it was pretty abysmal. But I’ve done it for so many years now, and I still don’t have the guts to do it onstage, to just look away and play, but I can do it here. I think what it’s given me is the ability to correct a note without thinking about it—I’ll just go up or down without thinking about it.

But as far as practicing, lately I’ve been practicing with a metronome set really slow, because my job in Three Metre Day really is rhythm playing, which is uncommon on slide guitar, for one thing, and I’m glad that I don’t use fingerpicks because I can use the tops of my fingernails to simulate strumming. I wouldn’t call myself a great timekeeper, so I started practicing with a metronome incredibly slowly. I set it around 18 or 20. The advantage I’ve learned is that it’s up to you to fill in the gaps, whereas if you set it fast it’s kind of doing all the work and you’re just playing along with it. If you cut that into 4 or 5, then you have to try and arrive at the same time as the next beat, which seems about an hour away. I’m glad I discovered that because it seems to have made a difference.

MN: I think it’s great to get into the groove element of playing the lap steel. It’s one of the things I enjoy doing the most. I love playing backup and coming up with little rhythmic figures. I think the instrument is very capable of being expressive in that respect.

DR: Yeah and kind of funky because you can bend the notes not perfectly—you know when you’re playing an E7 chord on guitar and you hammer on with your first finger on the G string to G#. Well, if you do that by bending the steel, say you’re in C at the 8th fret and you just twist it up to simulate that—it’s kind of funkier because you get all that in-between stuff.

MN: In some ways you can really get away with a lot on steel.

DR: Yeah, and if the player’s relaxed and good then it just sounds even better. Personally, I love hearing those notes that aren’t right on.

MN: Yeah, I really enjoy those elements in your playing, as well. It’s great compositions, but also great playing and the two go hand-in-hand perfectly.

What got you into playing the hollow neck guitars?

DR: You know, what actually made me have to have a Weissenborn or a Kona was David Lindley’s solo on “To Know Him Is To Love Him” on the Trio record (Parton, Ronstadt, Harris).

MN: No kidding, that’s fantastic. You get the feeling that the instrument had never sounded better than it did on the record, such a beautiful recording.

I just listened to that over and over and said, “I’ve got to get that!” Then I was talking to a friend of mine who knew a guitar dealer in upstate NY and he had something. So, I took this Martin 000-28 down there, a nice guitar from the early 80s, and I didn’t know what he had, and I was sitting there waiting and I was hoping it was a deep-bodied Kona, and it was. No strings on it, and it was all dusty. When I went home, my wife thought I was out of my mind. This was way before Weissenborns had become a thing.

MN: Which tuning are you using on the Kona?

DR: The same one that I always use, which is a dobro tuning with an A on the 6th string, one octave higher. That’s another story: that was because I was listening to Pontiac (Lyle Lovett) and there was this dobro solo and I’m thinking, “God, how does he do that?” and I’m trying all these things, slants and this and that. It was a thing going up in 2nds—alternating strings, whipping up the neck. I couldn’t do it, so I thought, “What is expendable on my instrument?” [laughs] And I said, “I play with a bass player, I can get rid of the bass string, I don’t want to mess with the configuration.” So, I just tried putting that higher A on the bottom and I got into it and it gave me another interval. It opened a lot of doors—just fretting that string, I could play a Gmin if I fretted the Bb at the 1st fret. Eventually over the years I found a ton of things.

The punch line of the story is that I found out it was Paul Franklin who played that solo and he played a Peda-bro. [laughs] I didn’t even know it existed, but it changed my whole approach.

Listen to The Henrys – Avenues Of Forgiveness

Click on the image below for the tablature/notation:

Click here for full tablature in pdf

That’s great! And thinking about it, you can even get some of the more nebulous chords, like sus2 chords.

What kind of bar do you use?

Stevens—hung in with the Stevens.

MN: It’s not a rounded tip or anything like that?

DR: No, just the old traditional Stevens, although, I like the old ones with the patent on them, the new one by Dunlop, I think 925, is kind of nice–I like it better than the new Stevens. I just like the coating on the old ones, I think it’s better.

MN: So most of your writing is done in this tuning?

DR: Yeah. I have a thin Weissenborn-style distributed by Madonna and I have that in C tuning. There’s a video of the tune VF61 with The Henrys on YouTube with that guitar.

MN: It’s funny, the G tuning is probably the most common tuning in existence for slide and yet, by retuning that one string, you’ve turned it inside out and given it a new face, even though you still have all of the other stuff available.

DR: It’s kind of flexible that way. The other thing, in retrospect, this kind of dumb epiphany I had—being a guitar player—the strings 2, 3 and 4 are the same as 2, 3 and 4 on guitar, so what it meant was that visualizing all those b5s and all those things, I could easily go to those 3 strings and know what I was doing.

Did you study music?

No, not at all.

But you’ve been exposed to probably an immense amount of music from classical on down, I’m sure….

DR: Well, the classical was forced because, in my house, I was the youngest and the others had to take lessons—for some reason I didn’t want to and didn’t have to. But my sister played constantly and my brother played a bit, so I heard a lot. My parents put up with a fair bit—I used to put on “Live At The Fillmore” (Allman Brothers) at dinnertime pretty loud and I’d sit there and listen to Duane. [laughs]

MN: Well, the youngest can always get away with stuff like that. Did you listen to a lot of Jazz, particularly the composers, like Monk or Wayne Shorter?

DR: I wouldn’t pretend to know what was going on there. I listen to less Jazz than I used to, but like you, I like to listen to Monk and stuff like that. I actually listened to more rootsy music, generally, and growing up, slide-wise, it was Duane and Cooder and Lindley and Kottke.

MN: I can hear all of those influences in your music, but in the big picture it sounds like Don Rooke. Some players are never able to get beyond that and develop their own voice.

Well, you know what that really is: it’s a testament to how I failed to be able to sound like any one of those guys.

Which is the way you want it to be. I can really relate—I’ve gone my moments where as a guitar player I tried to copy people, like Allan Holdsworth. I would get one little thing, though, and just give up on the rest, and I’d be happy with that. For hungry musicians, give us a little breadcrumb and we can make a feast out of it.

DR: My attempt at that was probably Lenny Breau, who was based in Toronto and a local hero and spectacular player. There were things he did, like playing the melody with his 1st and 4th fingers (his left hand) and comping with his 2nd and 3rd.

The thing about Lenny is that the more choruses he took on a tune, the deeper and deeper he got, like peeling layers off like an onion, the further away he could take the tune. He was so brilliant.

One thing that I love about him is that he grew up playing Country in his parent’s band and he’s one of the few guys who I love to hear playing, for instance, Hank Williams’ songs with extended chords. They don’t sound like “Oh, here comes a jazz chord,” they sound beautiful. I have a tape of him from a TV show where he plays “Red River Valley” and there’s nothing about it that you’d think he shouldn’t be playing those chords. He’s using that extended vocabulary and it all makes perfect sense in a Country context.

MN: I admire your work ethic–you’re prolific. I know the kind of work that goes into making those records, to an extent, and you really get it done.

Don with Michelle Willis

DR: Well, I spend my time at home composing and recording music. Definitely on Is This Tomorrow?, it was fun, but I worked too hard on that. [laughs] That was a big project that took years. And this one (Coasting Notes), the three of us worked hard for a year and a half.

MN: I was listening to Joyous Porous (The Henrys) and I could hear the level of detail that went into the production in terms of the rhythms and arrangements, but what struck me was how patient you are in your playing—you never try to say too much, but what you do say counts.

DR: I find it more difficult to do live; it’s easier in the studio. It takes a lot a confidence to do that live—sometimes you feel like you’ve got to keep the thing going, and I end up saying, “Why did I play so much?” I’ve got a friend who’s a trumpet player, he’s on Joyous Porous, he’s so comfortable with tacet it’s unbelievable. He could just stand there and play very little and be happy and I find that so difficult to do. It is an odd discipline trying to play less.

MN: Well, I think if you’re really in touch and trying to improvise melody or maybe doing a call and response type of thing it’s a different kind of thing. But I feel like I can hear you adding little colors here and there to the painting.

DR: That’s a nice notion.

MN: On the Joyous Porous record, what is that interesting sound on Walk West (‘Til Your Hat Floats)?

DR: That’s a piece foam under the strings. Depending on where I set the foam under the strings, I can get different harmonics—I think I had it somewhere around the 15th fret.

MN: Was the ring modulator added after the fact?

DR: I used to do that kind of thing with an Electro-Harmonix—no, I think I would have printed that.

MN: When you do go in to make a Henrys record, do you have an overall kind of sound or vibe in mind?

DR: The first few records we did, everyone was in the studio at once for a few days, but after that it became more like a science experiment and then I’ve tried to get away from that. Is This Tomorrow? was like that. It’s like I was constantly playing with it. The new one we did with Three Metre Day was all of us playing together, or as much as we could, depending on the track.

MN: Was the whole group involved in every aspect of the record, in the mixing?

DR: We hired an engineer outside of Toronto to mix it, but, yeah, all three of us were involved. It was nice to spread it around.

MN: Usually with a Henrys record it sort of ends up in your hands?

DR: Right.

MN: That’s tough. I always have a difficult time removing myself from what I’m working to become objective.

DR: Oh, I know. Sometimes I put the CD on in the car in a self-deluded attempt to decide whether it’s a good record or not. “I’m just gonna check this out to see if it’s any good.” Impossible.

MN: Me, too. There’s a fine line between crap and incredible and I can never decide where I stand. [laughs]