Paul Metzger: I represent the outsider

Paul Metzger: I represent the outsider
Photo courtesy of the artist

Paul Metzger is unlike any instrumentalist you know. For one thing, he's a self-taught banjo virtuoso -- though the instrument he plays is less of a banjo and more a crazy instrument experiment gone horribly right. In the late '70s, Metzger began performing small surgeries on his banjo, adding extra strings and performing minor transplants. Today, Metzger is on his third version of the original creation, complete with 23 strings -- and while the look of it is slightly Frankensteinish, the sound is unbelievably stunning.

Metzger's 8th solo recording and his latest album, Tombeaux, is a haunting, textural thing that steps out of space. Metzger weaves sounds together with an understated eloquence, and the three compositions on Tombeaux are as intricate and detailed as if they were being performed not by one musician but by four. But then, what would you expect from an artist who was just recently awarded the McKnight Fellowship for Performing Musicians?

Tonight at the Turf Club's Clown Lounge, Metzger celebrates the release of Tombeaux along with free-form improvisation quartet Kvarteto Improvizi. Ahead of his gig, Gimme Noise caught up with Metzger to talk about the album, the Fellowship, and the origins of his instrument.

Gimme Noise: Tell me about what it took to make this album.

Paul Metzger: I wanted to do the record all alone instead of going to a studio. I wanted to do it at home, and that ended up being kind of a tricky thing, because you have to push buttons and stuff rather than just sit and play, but I wanted to get that intimate kind of sound and feeling of just being alone. It was different for me to do it like that, but I really like it.

Do you think you'll be recording at home for your next album?

I don't know. It was just the material and the mood it put me in for that recording. I really like going somewhere else, somewhere that has an interesting vibe to it. I've recorded in old churches before, and I like that as well. I like a room that has a vibe to it, so it just depends on what feels good for a place and what direction that the music is going in.

How long was the album in the making -- your process, that kind of thing?

A lot of the material I was using was quite old. "Sepulchre" goes back to the '80s, and the other ["Of the Passing"] was created on the spot, and then "Beau Soir" is from 1883, it's Claude Debussy. Building up to recording, that process, that takes a long time for me. I feel like I need to have something to say with the material. I need to have something to say rather than just play the instrument. I would say [this album took] two years.

Give me some background on the banjo that you play. It doesn't sound like a normal instrument at all.

It goes back to... Well, I'm a little bit of an old-timer, so my musicianship, I guess, started in the '70's, and at that time it was like, if you're interested in something and pretty broke, it was all about the library record collection and books. I was really interested in world instruments -- instruments from India and Afghanistan and that region -- and I checked out records like that. I wanted to create those sounds, and so to begin to approximate some of the things that I was hearing on record I would add strings to it, slowly, and I could fill a few holes in and get closer to the sound that I was hearing on the record. So really slowly, over time, developing sort of the banjo to have more strings and more sounds, more resonance. And it just took its time. The banjo I'm playing now is the third one that I've worked on. Each time that I'd work on a banjo, for the next one I would have more of a head start on how I wanted to do it, and that's what I end up with. I end up with a sound that's unique, and has a lot of different opportunities to do different things.

You were recently awarded the very prestigious McKnight Fellowship for Performing Musicians. Tell me about how that came out and how you feel.

The way [the Fellowship application] works is that it's just an open call... like, send in a CD work sample. So you send in a thing, and my idea, being a self-taught musician -- people like myself, that are sort of the outsider, are just as legit in what they do as a conservatory-trained player. So I just wanted to throw my hat into the ring and sort of represent the loner. I think that's an important little slice of the musical eye, when there's the established set of musical learning, but there are other ways as well, and I always wanted to put that out there. I certainly never expected that I would get a Fellowship for it. [Laughs] But I just wanted to have that voice in the mix, because the kind of players that I hang with, the people that I know, come from a similar place that I do, and they're people that are astounding--they'll peel your head back with what they can do.

[The Fellowship application] was a somewhat elaborate process. You know, they whittle it down to nine people, and then you perform live for these four judges in a weird kind of concert, and that part's a little awkward. I felt, on one hand, it's personally a little bit embarrassing, because I don't like that process that much as far as being involved in that particular kind of thing, but I do like the idea of having a representative of people--people such as myself... I don't know the word. I like the idea of them being part of that particular kind of thing, because it's kind of prestigious. So I'm just like a person that represents the outsider, you know. I like that. I like that aspect.

I know a lot of people who do this kind of thing, solo vocalists and musicians, and they're sometimes kind of marginalized... If what you're doing is not of an established method, it's difficult for people to understand what you're doing. It's more like, "What the hell is that?" But it's a legit, serious pursuit. I like that.

Tell me about the release show at the Turf Club. What can we expect?

So the other musical combo -- I can't pronounce it, it's Italian [Kvarteto Improvizi] -- is a string quartet, and these are all people that are sort of in my hand. They're improvisers, they're trying to expand the vocabulary, they're doing the dangerous thing of group improv, and they're really outstanding. Really wicked combo. So they'll play, and then I'll play some solo banjo stuff. And hopefully it'll just be a nice, pleasant evening for listening to music. It's certainly not like party music or a fun time at a bar. You sit down and you listen to it and it's for the people that are interested in doing that. So I'm hoping a few people turn out whose ears turn to that sort experience.

Paul Metzger will be performing this evening at the Turf Club's Clown Lounge. Doors at 8 p.m. $5. 21+.

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