Catching Up With... Christopher Guest
In This is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, mockumentary auteur Christopher Guest explored comedic depths with befuddled and belligerent musical acts that performed songs like "Lick my Love Pump" and "Barnyard Symphony" with apparent barefaced sincerity. Offscreen, however, Guest's musical life is a bit more righteously serious. He's an accomplished guitarist and mandolin player, and his most recent musical group, bluegrass-infected The Beyman Bros, recently released easygoing debut album Memories of Summer as a Child. Guest took a few moments to talk to Paste about the group's formation and his personal musical history (which years ago converged with the mighty Guthrie family), as well as an upcoming acoustic tour for Spinal Tap and Wind's The Folksmen called "Unwigged, Unplugged, and Undead," coming up this Spring.
Paste: So how did The Beyman Bros come about?
Christopher Guest: We all knew each other. I grew up with David Nichtern, and I've played music with CJ Vanston for almost 20 years. CJ has been the keyboard player for Spinal Tap since '92. And David, while not working with CJ, has known him for a little bit. And It all came from playing with David, just the two of us, with just a couple of acoustic instruments, and it was really started as something that might be some kind of meditation music. It evolved from there into some other areas.
Paste: Why meditation music? Are you involved in meditation yourself?
Guest: David is a Buddhist and a teacher, and his wife is a yoga teacher, and he puts out a lot of records that connect to that world. He does live shows where it's based around meditation and that kind of practice. That's not what I've done in the past. We've played a lot of bluegrass together and other things. And it started from that, and it kind of veered in a different direction. I wouldn't say it's meditation music now. It's something else. I don't know what you'd call it. It has some space to it. It's not punk. Unless it's Buddhist punk or something. It has the acoustic part that we wanted, and it has some other layers that CJ put in, which was interesting—the accordion, the mandolin, and the clarinet are not things you hear all that often in this stuff.
Paste: You've done both improvisational music and comedy for a long time. Is there a major difference for you when musical improvisation is also comedic?
Guest: Well, there is in the sense that musically there's nothing inherently funny about improvising musically. Well, there could be, I guess. Comedy comes largely from characters that I've played. Whether it's Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind, it's a very arcane, or twisted, way to make music. Because it comes, even though I'm playing it, it comes from my person in the movie. It's not what I would have written. I wouldn't have written some of those songs or played them that way. So there's a great freedom and kind of weirdness from doing that. This record is different. There's nothing inherently funny about this record. The improvisations are purely musical, and they just go where they go. But in the same way you can't explain improvisation to someone who doesn't do it, you can intellectually explain it, but they just look at you as if they have no idea what you're talking about—because how does that click to a non-musician? Or to a person who isn't an actor, trying to explain that you just talk, and that's what happens. You can't convince anybody that that actually can happen.
Paste: This record seems like it might find an interesting audience, seeing as it's being released by Dharma Moon, whose mission statement is "dedicated to music for a new emerging lifestyle... balanced, healthy, vibrant, and self-aware."
Guest: Well, that cuts me out, I guess. No, obviously that's David's path and the work that he does, which is very much more specific. I do something else, and CJ does something else.
Paste: I've heard that you don't ever go back and watch your movies after opening night. Have you gone back to listen to the album?
Guest: No. I mean, I heard the master, and I actually heard a song on the radio. They played one of these tracks on NPR as a background to something. But no, I don't go back and listen to things I've done, whatever they are. I move forward.
Paste: So what are you moving forward into?
Guest: Well, I'm going on tour with Michael McKean and Harry Shearer beginning in the spring. We're going to about 30 cities. We're playing music we've written over the last 25 years, some of it from Spinal Tap, some of it from this group we pretend to be called The Folksmen and some other songs. And we're doing it acoustic, so it's a very different approach to that. It'll be a different kind of show. We'll show some DVD stuff that people haven't seen. The work I've done with those two guys intertwines with my films as well because the three of us wrote the music for Waiting for Guffman, we've done the Spinal Tap thing, we've done the Folksmen thing. We've worked in many incarnations together, and it felt comfortable now to do this without wigs on. No strange clothing.
Paste: What do you mean by "different kind of show"?
Guest: When you've been a character in a movie—and this has happened when we've done concerts as Spinal Tap or as The Folksmen—people see you as characters walking out of a movie. And you appear in public, then, to play, it's a very schizophrenic thing. You wonder what's going on because you're not doing it as comedians, you're doing it as an extension of the movie. The movie's kind of living on, but now it's live. And I think that's a rather unusual situation, which hasn't happened before, where someone from a movie walks out from the movie and continues that thing. You don't have the people in The Perfect Storm going to the theater and standing on a boat. But in music, it can happen and has, in the last 25 years. We've toured all over the world. And in this case, now, it's us playing these songs, and we did this at the Museum of Modern Art a few years ago, and it was really a nice experience, and we've done it a couple of other times, so we decided to continue that.
Paste: You play mandolin in The Beyman Bros and The Folksmen. How did you start playing?
Guest: Well, I went to school with Arlo Guthrie. We were in high school together, and he had a band. And I said, "Well, I play," and he said, "What do you play?" and I said, "I play guitar," and he said, "No, I play guitar." So I said, "Ah, of course," and he said, "Why don't you play the mandolin? You can play this mandolin," and it turned out to be Woody Guthrie's mandolin, which was a crazy sort of premise at that point because I was a fan of his and it seemed insane that that was happening. We played music in high school. We would play shows around in Massachusetts. And I liked it from then on, so I kept playing.
Paste: That's a pretty incredible way to get into an instrument.
Guest: Yes it was. But it happens all the time, you know. I started on the clarinet. I was going to a music school—my mother took me—and the guy said "What do you want to play?" I said the drums and my mother said, "No, you don't. You don't want to play the drums." So I said, "Maybe the trumpet would be cool." And my mother said, "I don't think so." And then the clarinet was handed to me. And the clarinet, of all instruments...if you want to get girls, that's what you want to play: The clarinet. It couldn't have been more nerdy or bizarre, playing the clarinet. But I studied classical clarinet, went to the high school for music and art in New York City, and then found the guitar and the mandolin after it. I pulled out the clarinet for this record, though, and played a little bit.