Bruce Mathiske is not strictly ‘country’, but his guitar playing is too sublime for me to split hairs about. Bruce has played all over the world and has a very interesting story – and I’ll let him tell it through this interview.
Bruce is currently touring Australia – dates are at the end of the interview. His new album, My Life, is out now.
I’ve been listening to your album and it’s really lovely actually, it’s good—
—mood music but also good working music, if that makes sense.
Oh, well that’s good. As long as it’s good for something.
[Laughs] I’m sure it’s good for many things. So I’m going to actually start by asking you: What does music mean to you?
Music means – what does it mean to me? It’s so many things; it’s evocative of so many things. It’s – I think it heals, it transforms, it energises; it’s the greatest creative force there is, for me.
And it was a big question and I asked it because you’ve had quite a journey through your life and your life through music. So I knew that there would be something there to say. So I guess over the – have you found that over the course of your life, ’cause you did start playing music very young, that music has meant and done -– meant for you and done different things for you over time?
Yeah, that is true and I think throughout the whole time, the guitar has been the constant, I guess. From the age of seven, it’s been the constant companion. I can create on it and wherever I go the guitar is always there. I go there, it’s my friend; I go and talk to it. What I love about the guitar, the acoustic guitar too, is I can take that everywhere and you don’t need to plug in things and this piece of wood and strings, and all the magical sounds you can get out of it and all the different styles of music; it’s absolutely limitless and that’s what I kind of love about it.
I’ll ask you a technical question; what sort of guitar do you play?
Well at present on the road, I’ve got a nylon-string guitar and I’ve got a steel-string guitar; both are acoustics and the wood was made in Vietnam. The woodworking, and they use electronics I think from America, and they’re called air guitars but nylon string and steel string.
And do you – have you found over the course of playing that you – I mean, have you stuck to the same style of guitar for a while, because I know that guitarists, in particular, they have certain types of instruments they like to work with and some guitarists will just have the same guitar for decades.
No, I’m not precious about that. The guitar for me has always been like a tool, I have them as a friend but I’m really more interested in the sounds I can produce. So it’s that marriage between, I suppose, man and beast, almost. So I’m not that precious about the brand or the style; you pick it up, you play it and you learn to, like a marriage, you learn to love each other I guess, and it becomes second nature, that marriage between me and the guitar. So I’m more interested in the music that actually comes from it as a tool.
I don’t know if you know Ani DiFranco or know of Ani DiFranco.
I remember once seeing a quote from her where she said that she’d keep playing the acoustic guitar, or it was something like she’d keep playing it while ever she could continue to discover new sounds out of it, or that was a powerful motivation for her.
Yeah. Well I’ve got to say that’s very, very true and what keeps me absolutely motivated and excited is that new piece, verse and arrangement or a composition or that new style of music. You might hear one funny rhythm on a community ethnic station and it’s like, wow, that’s just sensational, I need to actually try and emulate or try and adapt that to the guitar and get my own voicing out of that. So yeah, any one thing is the most … yeah, and that makes you not sleep at night, you can’t wait to get up and play and experiment the next day. So yes, that’s absolutely true.
And is it partly to do – what you can coax out of the guitar, is that that combination of the strings, of what the guitar is made out of but also finding different resonances within the guitar?
Yeah, well what surprises me is that it’s absolutely limitless. So yeah, and over the course, I guess, you go through different technical phases but ultimately you want to sound like yourself. So a guitar, for example, where you place your right hand makes a difference, how you move your left hand gives you that little vibrato. So that becomes your voice and what was apparently obvious to you this year changes next year. So you’re finding these new little nuances all the time and I think that’s what’s exciting.
And I guess a lot of people who don’t know much about playing musical instruments at all would probably be surprised to hear that ’cause they think oh, it’s six strings [laughs] but as you said, it’s a bit like an extension of yourself.
Yeah, very much. I think the thing with guitar is you can pick it up and everyone’s picked up a guitar at some stage, played three chords and from that you can play and sing and accompany yourself playing a million songs and the guitar’s very easy to play, easy. But at the next stage when you actually do instrumentals and proper arrangements, that’s when it becomes a different instrument again. But that’s its beauty and I don’t expect everyone to want to play like me; I think it’s fantastic as an accompaniment for your voice as well but that’s a different thing, but with the same instrument.
And given that you do sing on your album – and I imagine you do live as well – do you find that process from moving towards the guitar being your accompaniment and then to it being your central performance instrument, is it a big transition or is it just all on a continuum?
Yeah, it’s not such a big transition any more. I started liking the – I’ve always sung probably two songs, maybe three, in concert and just over the last few years, I actually started liking my voice a little bit. And it’s a tool on stage I guess, it’s a resource I want to use more but not just conventional singing, if you like, as your voice is an instrument. And I haven’t found the solution of what I’m after yet ’cause I play the didgeridoo on stage as well and it’s like, well, I have my voice there I’m not utilising very much but I haven’t found the manner in which I want to do it, which is exciting too. That search, I think, I don’t know … something to look forward to.
And just while I mention Ani DiFranco, her explorations of acoustic guitar ended her up with RSI. I think she had to take quite a few months off performing and I think that’s a reminder of how physical the instrument is and ’cause I was reading that you used to practise for 10 hours a day and you still practise for about five hours a day. So I wondering that physicality of playing, do you think those hours of practice really kind of make your hand – it’s almost like training, almost like a runner would train.
Yeah. That’s very interesting because there’s two distinct aspects to guitar playing: one is the creative and one is the sheer athletic side of it, because it’s quite a technical monster, the guitar. So that is true. For whatever reason, when I was taught very early on, I’ve got really, really correct technique and I was taught in the bush, I think an organ player really my first teacher, but for whatever reason, I play correctly, like it’s a holistic thing, almost. And I know anyone who’s gone through stages of playing a lot usually has problems like that, that’s not a rare thing but I’m very conscious of it and I think posture and all those things, yeah, it’s an athletic thing and I don’t think people would realise that.
Do you also find – ’cause performing, I think, is also quite an athletic thing in that you’ve got to gear yourself up, you’ve got to put a lot of energy into it and then you have to wind yourself down. So do you have special preparation for performing?
Yeah, that’s – I do funnily enough, because I’ve been off the road for a while. Tonight is my first show back for a while and you do get a bit – a bit of angst goes through but I find now it’s better to remain calm. I used to sort of get myself hyped up but as soon as I set foot on the stage, something comes over me; I’m really, I don’t know, that white-line fever thing. I just become 10 foot tall and I’m bulletproof. So that’s something that just happens instantly, but I find as the tour goes on, you have to do less and less warm ups; you’re sort of just always on. So at the start now, like, I’ll warm up probably for an hour before the show but by the end of the tour, it’s like, nah, five minutes, just take the guitar out of the case and tune it up. So it changes as you become match-fit, if you like.
Well, I guess you’re doing a lot of other practice anyway. So it’s not like you’re going a few days without playing and then appearing on stage.
No, no, I’ve always got the guitar and in between interviews and back at the motel room, I pick it up ’cause you always work into the next thing too, like at present, I’m on tour playing the current things from my album but whilst that album has really been finished in my head for a long time as a studio process, you’ve kind of moved on. So I’m working on new tunes but I’m not yet playing live.
And do you find performing – ’cause it’s you on stage and I think it’s daunting enough being in a band and looking out and seeing people around. So have you ever found it’s quite challenging to just be you on the stage knowing that all those eyes are looking at you?
Yeah, that’s funny, but I find solo, there’s a better connection between me and the audience ’cause sometimes we’ll have gigs on stage or a band, I have in the past, and then I become part of the band a little bit; we become our own unit. I find there is somehow some special connection between soloists and audience that only happens if you’re on stage by yourself. So you’re right in that there’s probably a little more pressure and yet the rewards are also greater.
And I was just thinking when you were talking before about playing guitar in between interviews and back at the motel, it’s a different kind of lifestyle, I guess, when you have that. It’s not an obsession so much as it is a lifestyle, but it’s not how most people walk through the world because a lot of people just go about their daily business and, even if they have creative aspirations, they don’t do anything about them. So do you find – have you ever found that it’s sometimes been difficult to relate to other human beings? [Laughs] I mean that in the nicest possible way.
Yeah, no, that’s my life. No, that is very, very true. I’ve spent the last three or four days in Melbourne actually in the city centre and going backwards and forwards and doing interviews and things like that and I got caught up in the 5.30 pedestrian traffic afterwards and it’s like, this is bizarre, this is normal, isn’t it, and that seems weird to me. I know to most people what I do seems weird but normal, if you like, is a strange beast.
Was there ever a point in your life where you had to make a decision to live like this? I mean, it sounds like you live very much in creative flow or, like, in a musical space the whole time, but it’s not as if you come out of the womb that way. So I was wondering if there’s a certain point in your life in which you decided that this is how you were going to live.
Yeah, well, I moved – I become a professional musician I think when I was about 21, but I mean that was really playing in clubs and restaurants and beer gardens and pubs and things like that. That’s a lot different than when I decided, probably two or three years later, to become an artist. There’s a big difference now and I think you can go anywhere and it’s almost too easy to make a living out of playing music and be pretty ordinary at it at present.
Well, I think you’re right in that I think people kind of accept what they see. So if there’s people doing mediocre performances around and about, if the audience doesn’t know the difference, then they tend to think that that’s the way things are and I think it can make people lazy, I think it can make audiences lazy and musicians lazy or any kind of artist lazy if they’re not being pushed to do the best that they can. But part of it is having an educated audience.
Yeah, I think it’s got to come from the musician first. There’s too many musicians playing things they don’t want to play just to make a living, and my theory is, no, go and do something else for a living and play the music you love to play.
I’m really strong on that ’cause at present around Australia and the world, we’ve just got quantity music.
Yeah, right, and you can expand on this if you like, I’m finding this fascinating.
Yeah, well no, it’s a real thing ’cause if I was in the state of Bruce, I would like all background music banned. I think it should be abolished. When music’s on, I like people to listen generally, but it’s in clubs, it’s in pubs, it’s in shopping centres, toilets, everywhere you go and there’s this music and it’s just this background chatter and it’s actually an annoyance. At sporting events, if there’s a goal kicked or down at the motorbike races at Phillip Island, they’ve got music playing in between races and it’s, like, get rid of all that and when music is on, it should be something to be revered, I think, and listened to. I think an album is a movie; you put an album on and you listen, and you listen to the whole thing from start to finish. You don’t put an album on, then go and do your ironing or mow the lawns but that’s my theory on it.
Well also I see when I go out and see bands, I mean, I love to listen to the music but the people I’m with will often want to chatter and lots of other people are chattering and I always think, come on, this person’s here performing for us, let’s just shut up and listen, but it is interesting that people will in fact take the trouble to go to a venue to watch music and then not watch and listen; they’ll just talk.
Well, maybe the cover charge has to be steeper. Well, that’s the reason I play in theatres and arts venues and things like that because when I play, people listen. So that hasn’t been a problem. After you’ve done your first million pub gigs, you sort of move from that.
Well, understandably you want to because I think also playing with that kind of background noise would affect the way you play ’cause you start basically adapting to having all those different sounds around.
Yeah, that’s very true and then I think it affects your creativity, then you start writing music to account for that. So you wouldn’t write anything esoterical or something dreamlike, because it’s like, we’ll start playing stuff that’s, sort of, up tempo ’cause that’ll get their attention. So you’re dictated to by that and you should never be dictated to by outside forces.
Yeah. And I’m also thinking the role that music plays in all cultures really, it’s existed forever. I don’t know that we could identify a point before which there was music and it’s so critical and people do respond to it so emotionally but it is really fascinating that yes, as you say, there’s this quantity music, this background music, but people don’t listen to it. I think that’s the other aspect: that they hear the noise but because they’re not listening, I wonder if they ever connect to music in a real way.
Yeah, that is – well that’s one of the questions I have. I have no answers for you on that.
[Laughs] Oh, it’s more a discussion now, Bruce, we’re just talking.
Yeah, we’re just talking because if they don’t, they’re missing out on so much. That connection to music, it’s such a wonderful thing but I think people get up of a morning in their homes and they either switch on a radio, a cassette or television, but they don’t listen or watch any of it; they’ve just got to have some chatter on in the background. So I don’t know what the – I think, yeah, I don’t have an answer for that other than they’re missing out on the greatest art form there is.
Well, I agree with you and I think ’cause my particular interest is country music and one of the things I love about the country music crowd is that they do listen and even in Tamworth, where there’s a lot of competition for people’s ears, people will sit down and listen when a show is on and even in a pub, they’ll sit down and listen. And I think it’s that – having that – partly it stems from having respect for the musicians, but even then they’re often musicians they’ve never heard of but they’re just sitting there respecting the fact that they’re performing and I guess it’s a cultural shift that has to happen. It’s a cultural regard for our artists but yeah, I don’t have an answer either but I think in a brave new world we can make it happen [laughs].
Yeah, well in a brave new world I think maybe we’ve got to go ten, 20 years and have no music at all and then we start again and just bring music in to be cherished and maybe it’s just got to be in music venues so people have to actually make the effort to go and watch it and listen to it, but having said that, I’m getting an ever-increasing audience. So people do want it and the kids coming through, I’m finding, all play guitar and they get it really quick and they want to play guitar and they listen and they’re interested in different stuff and when I show them some of my gypsy things or whatever else, it’s like, wow, this is fantastic. So people are interested.
Yeah. So do you teach at all?
I’ve got a few students that I kind of mentor a little bit and sometimes I don’t really have time but I can’t let them go ’cause I really enjoy it and I love how quick they get things and how quick they soak it in and I learn from them as well and I like their company. So unofficially, I’ve got a few, yes.
And I was also wondering ’cause I was reading your bio and it didn’t surprise me that playing the guitar helped you to regain the use of your hand or arm, basically, because I think it was partly the repetitive movement but also the will that you must have had to get that back that probably rewired your brain to make that work again. So you’ve had the guitar as physical therapy in the past but I was wondering if it’s ever been spiritual energy for you?
Yeah, very much and within that, and that’s probably more relevant to me later as I’ve studied more of that, I’ve realised how much I actually didn’t write when I was – or correctly, rather. It was, sort of, getting it right in the head for a start when my arm couldn’t work, I would imagine playing. So it had to join the dots like that, but yeah, so that mind thing I suppose that positive thinking of willing it to work and picturing it first in your head, which – that’s more important and any mistakes or angst you may have within the concert happens not in your arms or your fingers, it actually happens in your head. So the spiritual side of being calm and all those sort of meditative things is vital for not only recovery but just your day-to-day betterment of whatever your chosen craft is.
Yeah. And I guess part of it’s that idea of being in flow, being in creative flow, and there’s been a bit said and written about that but I think that energy that carries anyone along, accessing it through music I think is a beautiful way to do it, if people can do it.
Yes and exactly, and I think as we were saying before if people are, in sort of, a noisy environment trying to create music, they’re getting too much information from outside where it should be coming from actually what’s within ’cause that’s where the truth lies. I think that’s where the music should – you almost need to go into your little cave to create correctly.
And did it take you a while as a composer and a creator to trust what came from within?
Yeah, it’s taken 17 albums.
[Laughs] Oh, so not much time at all.
Yeah. So this is my 17th and it’s the one that I really – yeah, that went further within than any other album and that’s what made the difference, so yes.
So at a point in time you thought, right, now is it.
Yeah, for whatever reasons, like, I’m just going to sort of get in my man cave, my studio, and do whatever I actually truly, truly believe in and not ask people’s opinion, or to do whatever I think I should, which I haven’t really anyway, but I suppose there’s elements in that within all of us – but on this one it was just a total self-belief and making decisions about the personnel to help me with it, engineering wise and things like that, but all the decisions I made I just asked myself really honestly.
Right. And so when you come to compose a piece of music, ’cause a lot of songwriters who are using lyrics might start with a story idea or something that they want to express about themselves through words, but if you’re writing a song without words, does it still start with a story?
Well, I have no formula for that. I’ve got many different ways of writing music and it might just come from a mistake, it might come from a fiddle on guitar, I get a lot of ideas from just composing a piece of music. Then there’s all these bridge sections and choruses and there’s too much information. So that forms another song too. So I’m never short of ideas, probably ’cause I’ve had such a varied life I think helps that as well, I’ve got different interests. So I’ve got no one formula for writing music, which I think is fantastic, and I saw once about the tracks that are on my album, every single track on there is a totally different approach. Not on purpose by any means, it’s just I had a look at the forms ’cause there’s formulas for writing music and I think there’s too much making music – or movies for that matter or whatever else – just by the numbers. There’s formulas but in mine they’re totally different formats on every song and I thought, that’s really – the tune rather, and I thought, that’s really good, that’s what I prefer; I didn’t mean it but that’s what’s happened.
So do you find now, given that you are 17 albums down, that you’re no longer that influenced by other artists you might hear, whether they’re living or dead and whether it’s recorded or live or are you still really open to influences?
I’m open to influences but not artists. I don’t listen to music much and I haven’t for a long time and there is – years ago, when I first starting picking, Chet Atkins was the man we all emulated a little bit ’cause he had that wonderful style of song picking, but as soon as I could play that style, I kind of thought, now I want to incorporate jazz and classical and rock playing within that; I don’t want to sound like him, there’s no point. So right from an early age I distanced myself from the influences a little bit, even though on my current album there’s a tune called ‘Chet Mate’ but once again, it really doesn’t sound anything like him, so I’m really pleased about that. So yeah, music I don’t listen to and if I do, it would be soundtracks and things, music to tell stories; I love that.
Right. And do you not listen to much music simply because there is that distinct difference between you being the creator and I suppose being the audience, or is it just that you haven’t found a lot of music that you like?
No, it’s really I think that I love music so much I don’t want to spoil it and get saturated. I’m really precious about when I listen to music and I listened to an album on a trip or something and so I’ll listen to it from start to finish but say if I’m travelling through the Hume Highway from Sydney to Melbourne and driving, it’s like, okay, I’ve had my little treat for that hour then I’m not going to listen to anything. And I’m really funny about my ears, for some reason, and that’s not – I don’t know why really, but I don’t listen to outside influence. I get influences by culture; I love going overseas, different cultures, sights, smells, sounds and not necessarily just music.
Well, I could understand why you’re funny about your ears, because they’re an essential part of your equipment for doing your work.
Yeah, well, very much and everyone says, “Are your fingers insured?” It’s like, nah, my ears are more important ’cause I actually hear music and that sheer love of it. I still get shivers when I hear certain things and I never want that to be diluted, that’s why I don’t listen to much music, I don’t want to overdo it.
And so – and I’ll start to wrap this up ’cause I’ve had you talking almost for half an hour and you no doubt have things to do [laughs]. So given that you’re on quite a longish tour now and it’s extending from tonight till almost the end of June, so I was wondering what your audience can expect from you in terms of is it going to be two sets or is it going to be one long set?
Yeah, no, I’ll do two sets. I’m starting in Tassie so I’m doing a two-set solo here, as soon as I get back to Victoria, I’ve got some kids joining me as well but it’ll still be two sets. I’ll be doing – I think I do probably most of the album, the new album but also there’s essential things I always play and I talk during the concert tour and tell them why I’m playing and things and hopefully take them on a journey. It’s about the guitar but some cultural things and some journey in my life and some of the wonderful places I’ve visited in music as well. So it’s a nice journey.
Yeah. And it’s a proper show by the sound of it.
Yeah, it’s a show and very much, it’s an evening with, and I’m quite humorous sometimes, which is nice in concert. So that’s an important part of it; people will have a chuckle.
[Laughs] And for you to do – like, because it is a long period of time, you were saying towards the end of the tour you might only do five minutes’ warm up or whatever, but do you sometimes feel like you’re running a marathon when it’s a long, drawn-out stint?
Well, actually it gets easier, like, after the second night on the road, your timing and everything within the concert and where you use your stories and things like that becomes so easy and seamless and after the first couple of nights, it becomes easier after that, I find. But I mean, within the four months, there’s time off as well too, but I find what’s really nice is like the repertoire then looks after itself and I can go and fiddle on some different ideas during the day and that sort of thing as well, so that’s good.
See Bruce on tour:
25 May – Zenith Theatre, Sydney, NSW
15 June – Manning Entertainment Centre, NSW
19 June – Powerhouse, Brisbane, Qld
20 June – Nambour Civic Centre, Qld
21 June – Gold Coast Arts Centre, Qld
22 June – Jetty Theatre, NSW