Numb Right Thumb
2:00 AM, post-Sam Rivers. I’m at Stardust. It seems to be a Film Festival we’re at, but I’m not paying attention to the movies. For we have got word that one of Orlando’s few creative improvisational music ensembles, Numb Right Thumb, will be here, and so we tramp over. It’s been a pleasant night so far, nice DJing, old New Yawk style Punk Rawk, and poetry. I am speaking to someone doing an improvised film presentation using multiple projectors. He’s talking about some obscure French filmmaker, and my mind is wandering. I hear a wail. I excuse myself from the (marginally intoxicated) gentleman’s presence and step inside. I see the band. My eyes widen. My socks excuse themselves via the roof. I sit. I watch. I am stunned. “Damn,” I say to myself. “This is really good.” I am hooked.
Numb Right Thumb is sight to be seen. 6 folks on stage, each one highly attuned to what the other members are doing. A drum, saxophone, guitar, upright bass, assorted percussion and noisemakers, and a theremin. A theremin with the minister Aaron Jarvis behind it. Clearly, not what one would expect. But fear not! Numb Right Thumb’s music is eminently listenable. The drums provide a solid backbone for the remaining band to create an amorphous, fluid, and cohesive mass of sound. The mighty Colossus himself never knew such bone crushing strength and lithe dexterity.
I spoke to the even tempered and demure Steven Garnett about his band, his guitar, and the nature of life and improvisation (much more of the latter than the former, I’m afraid.)
How are you?
I’m doing well. And you?
I am fine.
Do you know what philosophy means? The actual word philosophy.
Ummmmm… Philosophy is the study of… I can’t remember.
I can’t remember either.
I would think it would have to do with the study of thought, and thought processes, but no, I don’t. Do you know what language it’s from?
I think it’s clearly a Greek/Latin derivative.. That’s the best I can offer. I hate it, because I tutored SAT Verbal Prep, and it’s astonishing that I did.
I’m Steven Garnett of Numb Right Thumb, Orlando’s only six-piece improvisational group. We started in the fall of 1998. We were a band member, Jim Ivy, who is the saxophonist/clarinetist/sampler. He was approached by some people who said, “can you get some people real fast to do an improv set for a film festival after-party?” Jim, at the time, was still in Obliterati, a band that has just recently disbanded. Yes, sad to say, because I had played with Jim in Obliterati and he knew that I was itching to get something going, even if it was a one-off. He included me and some other people. We named ourselves Numb Right Thumb after the inevitable numb right thumb that follows having scissors in hand for too long. Cut stuff for an hour, papers that are too thick to be cut with scissors, and you are trying too hard, trying to cut say 30 pieces of paper at once when maybe it should be ten. The thumb goes numb. It’s not very clever, it’s not related to our music; that’s probably exactly the sort of foil that is relevant to our music. There’s a lot of disassociative thought coming together to make a point, one three-word concept. And we are a sextet now, we have been a different-sized band due to members departing and coming in, but that is the current line-up right now as far as numbers. Instrumentation is me on guitar; a stand-up bassist, Nadeem Khan, who put in time with Obliterati also, although there he was a drummer; Jim Ivy; Dana Fasano on a standard drum kit; Mario Schambon on assorted percussion, marimba, bongos, whatnot; and Aaron Jarvis on theremin.
How do you work with a theremin when you are improvising? Is it different then working with another instrument because of it’s limited timbre?
Indeed. It has received at times glowing praise and faint disregard by certain audience members. Which would lead me to believe that it is sometimes exactly the antidote, and sometimes not. What I believe is that Aaron Jarvis — who is also an ordained minister — has a keen sense of placement and that when it is perfectly utilized, it is the most ambient bed on which the other sounds can work. That it might be scary to some people because they do associate it with horror films from the 40’s or 50’s. I think that that is where their frustrations really come in. I think people just plain get scared. In their mind there are unfond memories of movies like Werewolf Meets Dracula . That’s not to critique our band.
It’s interesting that you say the theremin provides an ambient bed, because I would think that it would stand out as a sort of voice. And it would be… not quite a leader, but it would play the role of a singer in the band.
And that is actually… maybe I’m speaking from the Steven Garnett perspective. To me, the ideal is where it is just there, humming, like this constant piece of machinery, even when it goes up and down. But hearing you say that reminds me that we have played with a female vocalist, and in tandem they were quite spectacular, and it definitely sounded like two voices. And, in fact, when Aaron and Jim are standing out more during a “song,” and when the horns and sampler and theremin are rolling, he probably is the voice.
When the two of them lock in, does the rest of the band get pushed back?
I hope that that is just the rare occasion. Once in a while, we might have a meeting of minds post-show or pre-show, like a “put on your big ears” type thing. But the core of us have played together for a very long time, roughly a year and a half between live shows and performance we have, to one: be into improvisation and its delicacy, and that if somebody or somebodies need a louder or elongated voice, and it’s a rarity that that is a stumbling block.
How did it work with two guitarists in the mix, with you and Davey [Williams]?
It worked well, because on that particular day of recording we did not have a bassist at all and we had double trap kits with Dana Fasano and Pat Wood, the horn, myself, and Pat Greene with heavily processed violin. So it was not quite as bottom oriented. I think that because Davey is so able to play anything, and he really is, I highly recommend his Charmed, I’m Sure album on Thurston’s Ecstatic Peace! Label.
Oh, I have it. It’s great.
Then you know how he’s able to do multilayering on that recording. It’s him, with tracks and tracks. He is kind of able to pull that off live, it’s very disorienting.
With a delay pedal?
Right, he’s got all kinds of effects. He can lay down a bassline with a nice delay, and go off on that, or come back to it. For me, as a guitarist who is absolutely not a technician, and he has the ability, but still chooses to play “out.” I think it was ideal, because here is some cracker trying to lay some Stones riff down while this master improviser takes that and goes elsewhere, or comes back to it, or takes into an extremely vaudevillian blues. It worked, others seem to think so.
When it comes to Numb Right Thumb, how do you approach the guitar? Do you try to achieve a textural effect or are you trying to be another voice to intermingle with the band?
Both. And sometimes I try to be a hotdog.
Do you use a lot of processing?
Probably not, as compared to what a lot of people would regard as a lot of processing. I use an inexpensive heavy metal fuzz box, somewhat classic analog delay, and again, another low end phase shifter. Sometime all of them are on, sometimes none of them are. Somebody said that I was playing in a cubist style, which was very flattering, but I have no idea what that means.
I can’t really relate that to music.
Right. And I’ve actually heard that directed to other people’s music making, so I kind of see it. I don’t know, I’m just trying to play what sounds right at the right time, maybe lead, maybe follow. Again, all of us are doing that.
Do audiences seem receptive to what you are doing, or have they lately?
Probably, yeah, overall, because we’ve had as few as a dozen people out to see us, which then, as you realize, is just twice the number in the band. And then to as many as 200 people at the Kit Kat Club for the “Zalut!” show. We were not the exclusive band on the bill, by the way, and nor were we the exclusive reason that anyone would have gone out. There was exceptional art, exceptional DJing, and another excellent electronic band called Latrobe playing. Here’s 200 people at a typical downtown Orlando club applauding us en masse, and were seated upfront watching us. And I’m thinking, “OK, well, 12 people come out and applaud us, and they are pretty constant about coming out, and then it is presented to a larger group. How interesting that a larger group might find what we are doing palatable, and is it just a matter of accessibility, is it a matter of people surrendering their reservations about what’s cool, and what’s not. Can Orlando handle a band that is doing something that is really not that different from what is offered in other major cities?” But then, maybe it’s scary to think that that would actually be happening here in Florida, with a reputation down here of being more straightforward, and how dare somebody come out here and do whatever it is they feel like doing?
Do you feel any repression from the more mainstream audience?
Well, I guess that the Kit Kat thing would refute that, although sometimes it feels that that is true. I guess we are subject to anybody’s guess on whether it’s going to be right or wrong.
Do you feel that people are more or less accepting towards the band since it’s inception? Have you gained a following?
Yes. [pause] We’re not ready for the H.O.R.D.E. festival yet.
How did you get in touch with Davey Williams?
I’ve known Davey for a while now, after having seen him at an improv festival in Tallahassee, I believe that was in ’92. We stayed in touch, and he’s stayed down here before. And I guess I knew he was coming down. And in collaboration with a friend who at the time was booking shows at the Go Lounge, he was asking for names, so I said. “Why don’t you find out about Davey? He’s only in Alabama.” Davey made two or three gigs while he was down here in January of ’99, and that’s when we got the recording done.
Since the Go Lounge has closed, have you found it more difficult to play shows in Orlando?
There was a short spell where that was very evident, and I believe it is remedying itself right about now.
With performance space that’s opened up?
Yeah, that’s been going for a while. It’s not a substitute for a bar downtown, but it’s a great place, and it’s a place that we would regard highly. We nurtured our sound at Performance Space Orlando. But I would say that we have played at Sapphire, and it hasn’t been a bust, and we have played at Sapphire, and it has been disastrous. There is a new venue that has opened, and the Kit Kat is having shows, which is promising enough. There is a place that was formerly called the Crow Bar, and then called Walk the Dog, now called the Bodhisattva Social Club, and they are going to try to have shows. They are going to try to start getting more “out” or atypical music. I guess the opportunities will expand other than having to make it a gallery place.
Can you describe a time where the Numb Right Thumb thing hasn’t worked? When the music is just off, say because of a bad audience?
I think that’s a more psychological thing to try to put it on an audience as controlling how we perform. I mean, you want to have people interested in what you are doing, but it probably just comes down to musical misinterpretation. Like if somebody isn’t listening so that a groove is being repeated, or maybe I’m playing a riff, and I think it’s really clever, but the fact is that it’s done and I need to get off the riff so it might elongate a feel that really shouldn’t be done. Pretty much we have agreed before that we haven’t played a show that from start to finish was a flop, but there may be moments in the improvisation where it’s like, “Golly, we had no direction, that was helpless.” And it’s good that somebody disrupted it, shocked it. Maybe all of a sudden, the saxophonist just starts screaming with his horn, or the percussionist decides that it’s time to bring down the walls of Jerico. Wait, I guess that would be the other way around, because it was a horn. Usually, we can fix it if it’s going bad. I would like to think so.
Especially with improvisation, you can remedy a situation that’s going strangely.
Who influenced your style of playing?
I just listen to so much music that — again, I’m not a technician — I feel game enough to play anybody’s part, whether it be Skunk Baxter off a Steely Dan record, Keith Richards, to a Thurston Moore, to just a Steven Garnett having a particularly good day.
Were you classically trained?
For two years in junior high school, I took guitar lessons, but the focus was John Denver songs, open chords, and what I guess would be starter music. I never really got past that, I really wanted to play bar chords and hard rock. This was in the mid-70’s, and it really wasn’t an option. I had to learn the basics first, so I decided to figure out the rest on my own.
Wow, I did the same thing, except I just tapered off.
Well, there was a big gulf where I just didn’t touch a guitar because I just deemed it irrelevant. It was like, you’ll never have an occasion to mess with a guitar again.
With a lot of really “out” guitar players, do you think that the instrument has emerged as a new lead instrument, especially in jazz?
Probably, it’s kind of “chic” now. The Sonic Youths of the world — which is a really good thing — made rock ‘n roll not considered a dinosaur. But, Sonny Sharrock was doing crazy stuff on Pharaoh Sanders records, and Davey has been doing this since the mid-70’s, and the Fred Friths have been rolling around supporting themselves. Arto Lindsay, who knew nothing about the guitar, made it quite something in DNA, and James Blood Ulmer, who, truth is I don’t know much of his music. I gather that it has always been there, but now, and maybe you find this so because you’re a little bit younger than I am, there is a wealth of opportunity for you to listen to really good music, it’s blessing or at least a treat, because somebody your age could have equal access to Coltrane and Albert Ayler as, say Papas Fritas. I don’t know that 10 years ago that the independent rock community was willing to let things cross over so broadly.
Do you think that all of this “cross-breeding” of music has helped the scene, or has it produced a lot of people who are half-heartedly making it?
It could probably be both. I don’t necessarily regard what we do as vital, but it is done with heart. And I think that there is a big difference between somebody who perceives what they are doing as really vital, and there is no heart and there are certainly many bands in the American and International landscape who I think are treading water for a paycheck.
That’s all I have. Any last words?