IT’S ALL ABOUT STRUCTURE
SEXMOB’S STEVEN BERNSTEIN
FOR SEXMOB’S STEVEN BERNSTEIN, IT’S ALL ABOUT STRUCTURE
Of all the funky-psychedelic slide trumpet players I know, Steve Bernstein is—get this—one of them. Is he the only one? Yeah, sure. But see, tradition has it that every time I see Steve he tells me that of all the kids—now, adults—he knows, I’m one of them. That’s been going on for nearly 20 years (when his son and I became friends), so forgive me if this feels like the only appropriate introduction. Thing is, though, while I quite literally was just one of the kids Steve knew, Steve is the only slide trumpeter—funky and psychedelic or otherwise—I know. . . really, who anyone knows. Steve is to slide trumpet playing what King Arthur was to sword pulling and what Thomas Blackthorne was to sword swallowing. He is the instrument’s architect and owner, influencer of all slide trumpet players to come.
That’s part of the appeal. “It sounds weird, but when it comes to slide trumpet I'm the king,” he tells me over homemade iced tea (with globs of honey sticking to the bottom of our glasses) in his Nyack, NY backyard. “By king, I mean that I have absolute power. You can't question it, because who else plays it?”
The prize of Steve’s kingship is the ability to write the rules. And the first and most important rule is this: The slide trumpet is a “pure emotional instrument.” Notes, psht. . . “I mean, notes are cool but most people don't really give a shit,” Steve says. “But when people feel emotion, they feel something.”
What that something might be depends on the moment—when you walk in on one of Steve’s bands (Butler, Bernstein & the Hot 9 or Sexmob) playing, or where you turn on one of his records. Steve’s music—Sexmob particularly—takes you on a journey through the seedy and the sordid, the absurd and the comical; there are somber moments and moments of joyous exuberance. It’s all fluid.
Which brings us to Rule No. 2: “On one of my records you'll never hear something where it'll go: ‘You play a head, then one person takes a solo, another person takes a solo, another person takes a solo, and then we play the same head again.’ That would never happen. It's gotta go somewhere else.” Where? Outward. “Part of being of the psychedelic generation, I think, is that we thought of things as exploding forms. Everything was exploding out. We're coming from this post-Eisenhower thing. Like color TV was new. Things were black and white and suddenly they were in color.”
The analogy is useful for conceptualizing Sexmob’s music. Imagine some of the jazz classics—Steve’s jazz gods include Louis Armstrong, Rex Stewart and Duke Ellington—and then imagine that music retransmitted through a vibrant kaleidoscope. This isn’t to say that jazz musicians—those artists included—haven’t been making colorful, mind-expanding avant-garde records forever, but that the OGs weren’t riffing off of the circus and Federico Fellini on the same album; they hadn’t reimagined Martin Denny’s exotica music as, well, Sexotica.
And, there you go: Sexotica, the theme joining this magazine together, comes from the title of Sexmob’s 2006 album, which comes from Martin Denny, the “father of exotica.” Steve went down the Martin Denny rabbit hole, which is full of beautiful, mysterious-looking girls, Polynesian and Chinese melodies, xylophones and gongs, in the ‘80s, back when hipsters were hitting garage sales and finding that their parents were into some far-out shit. “It was really unknown in my generation,” Steve says. “But the generation ahead of me, their parents all had it. It was all pre-Beatles stuff. And it was hi-fi relaxing exotica music.” He adds: “It was cool.”
It was natural then that when a friend’s friend wanted to produce an electronica record for Steve, Steve would propose filtering electronica through exotica, and that that record would be titled Sexotica.
When I’ve told people what the magazine’s theme would be, the common response has been “What? What does that mean?” And the answer, I guess, is that it doesn’t really mean anything; it’s the result of a musician’s brainstorming sesh. But on the other hand, within the word, you can find “sex,” “exotica”—and if you squint, “erotica” and “electronica.” So if you want meaning, there you go. But, c’mon, just feel it.
Let's start with the names: “Sexotica,” “Sexmob.” Where did the names come from?
The story behind Sexmob's name is ridiculous and random with the fortunate consequence of living on. When The Knitting Factory opened the second club—they started as a very small club, moved to Leonard Street (in Brooklyn), and became this big downtown music emporium at that point--they were like the first place that had draft beer. They had a tap bar. They had a big club with a good sound system and a balcony and a nice backstage with its own bathroom. It was really nice. Then downstairs was the second room that was almost more like the old Knitting Factory—very austere but with a little bar in front of it as you went down. The third floor was just like a big bar with all these tents. And people weren't doing that yet.
And we were all in our late 20s, early 30s, and it was just a totally great hang. All the NYU kids would go there because there was lots of beer and you didn't have to pay to get in; you'd just come to the bar.
So Michael Dorf ran it. And his little sister and my little sister were going out at Wesleyan. So me and him were way more than just club owner and trumpet player. So we were hanging out and he said, “I'm going to do this thing where people are going to play at the tap bar, but late, after the shows are done. So that way people who want to keep drinking will stay and drink. And we'll pay you $100. You can have a regular spot and work out some new stuff. It'll be from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. We'll call it ‘The Late Night Hang.’ Do you want to do something like that?" And I said, “Well I just started working with the slide trumpet and I'm putting together this little group to mess around, figure out how to play the slide trumpet.” He said, “Ok, cool. Want to do Thursday night?” I said, “Yeah.” And he asked what I was going to call the band. I said, “Well, how about I call it Steve Bernstein's Slide Trumpet Quartet?” And Michael was like, “That sounds like four slide trumpets.” I was like, “Okay, how about Slide Mob?” He said, “Oh, that's cool.” And we're just hanging out in the afternoon, shooting the shit. And we're just throwing things out, so I go, “How about Sex Mob?” He's like “Okay.” And I said, “You'd put that in the paper?” (Because back then everyone bought ads. If you did a gig there was an actual ad in the Village Voice that had your name. It wasn't like you had to post to Facebook. Someone paid for an advertisement.) And he was like, “Yeah, okay, sure.” And then we started talking about some other things.
I didn't think I was naming the band Sex Mob. We were just calling it Sex Mob for the hell of it. And then the spot became this legendary hang and the band became greater and greater. And we wound up having another late night hang at another place. And then the name just stuck.
When did the slide trumpet start?
Well again, it's like a fairytale story. I bought it in '77. This is crazy. I was 15 years old. Me and Peter Apfelbaum, who plays tenor sax in all the different bands and who's been my best friend since sixth grade when I joined his band, we drove across the country to Woodstock. So we're taking some random car ride with somebody, and they want me to go to music stores in Woodstock. And understand, I didn't get high. I was just so high on life that everything was psychedelic anyway. I remember driving across this wooden bridge in the woods and there's a guitar store. Someone wanted to go there, so me and Pete went, and on the wall were the slide trumpets. And there was literally a tag that said "$25" in crayon or magic marker. And Peter and I both bought the trumpets.
I messed around with it and could play a little on it. And when I moved to New York I played the little bit I could play on it at my gigs. And people always liked it; it was cool.
Now, there's a guy named Dave Douglas—who's kind of in the avant-garde wing, super alpha male, gets a lot of things done, really good at his instrument, and he's my age—and we're at a festival. It's like my first tour as a leader. And I think it could've been his first tour as a leader. He's one of those guys where there's a lot of clarity. He's very cut and dry. He says to me, “Man, that slide trumpet's really cool.” I say, “I know, Dave. Everyone just loves it when I play it.” And he goes, “Why don't you practice it?” And I was like, “Oh, I never thought about that.” I would just pick it up and play it. So when I started practicing it, I decided I should put together a band where I just play it.
Was it a natural transition from normal trumpet to slide?
No. That's why no one plays it. It's really weird. It's like English and French; that's how different they are. We're using the same letters. Phonetically it's the same. But there's so much different that goes into it.
What was the appeal?
It just sounded really cool. And I could do things that I thought about doing but couldn't figure out how to do on a trumpet. You can't make the sorts of “bl-blooah-blooaah!” sounds on a trumpet because there's notes. And I wanted to make those sounds. I was like, “Why not play like that?” I mean, notes are cool but most people don't really give a shit. But when people feel emotion, they feel something. And when I was playing it, I noticed people reacting—because it's such a pure emotional instrument. And in a sense, it's that way because that's how I play it. It sounds weird, but when it comes to slide trumpet I'm the king. If I play it, that's the law, that's the rule. Because who is to say otherwise? By king, I mean that I have absolute power. You can't question it, because who else plays it? You can't tell me you can't do it; I just did it. But with trumpet, I'm following the kings. And I'm carrying on tradition and trying to add my own thing to it. But I am the tradition when it comes to slide trumpet.
At the beginning, I was trying to play like a trombone player. But then when I got done translating, I started finding things that no one had told me existed, because no one had ever bothered to try and find them. So literally, I'm just finding things all the time.
Now, obviously people have purchased the slide trumpet and learned to play something on it. I've talked to a bunch of older musicians, trying to figure out why it exists if no one plays it. Someone said their teacher in the army played it. Someone said someone played it on a song on a Woody Herman tour. But one of the things I found is this old picture of Louis Armstrong and then a famous picture of the guy before Louis Armstrong. So the best I could figure out is that it was vaudeville instrument. So if you go to see the circus, it's like the guy playing the little mini trombone, playing something silly.
A lot of artists talk about how eschewing a certain level of professionalism in their instrument or medium can benefit the art because it's rawer.
I wouldn't say non-professionalism, because I want to be a professional. I want to get paid. But you want to have something that's so immediate that it's not thought out, that it's not perfected. Sometimes as pleasing as things are, if they sound perfect, it's just the feeling of like, “Yeah, I know what that is.”
And you guys don't rehearse?
We had one rehearsal when we were playing a sponsored show. They wanted me to do waltz, play like a Sexmob waltz concert. So I had to write waltz shows. And back then it was all by pencil. So I had to sit there—and waltzes are really long, and the way it's written it just takes a lot of pages. But that was it.
So why didn't you rehearse?
Well, no one was paying me to rehearse. So why would I rent out a rehearsal studio? But also, we had these regular gigs. Every gig I would just bring a new sheet of music and we would just kind of play that same song over and over. And we were playing for a bunch of drunken people. So a song would probably come up three or four or five time in a night. So eventually you'd find something on it. And it was 2 a.m. So we were just having a good time playing that music. That's really what that band was about.
If you really look at it, music is at its best a transformational social situation. I'm someone who has always played for audiences. And you would make the audiences feel something. So with Sexmob, I don't even think we ever had a rehearsal with all four people. We just played for people. That's how we learned to play.
So where'd the name "Sexotica" come from?
Same kind of brainstorming session. My friend Danny Blume had made a record with another guy. The guy was a real crook, but he'd give you some money up front, so you'd figure it out, budget it and wind up with a record out.
So the guy had made these electronica records and he was taking jazz musicians and doing electric stuff with them. So we're sitting around, having dinner, talking about the idea. And he asked if I had any ideas. I said, "Well I've been really into this Martin Denny stuff. This exotica music. I could almost make an electronica-exotica record." And the guy just looked at me and went, "Yeah, 'Sexotica.'" And I was like, "Yeah." And that was it.
Now, this guy Martin Denny had made exotica records. It was really unknown in my generation. But the generation ahead of me, their parents all had it. It was all pre-Beatles stuff. And it was hi-fi relaxing exotica music. These kind of Polynesian Chinese melodies played with xylophones and gongs. And Martin Denny specialized in it. His covers always had a beautiful girl. It was this genre, and certain freaky people had rediscovered it in the late '80s. They’d find it at garage sales for like 10 cents. And it started getting passed around by hipsters. It was cool. And it was a time before you could just press a button and hear something. You actually had to have something physical to hear it. And there was a big exotica phase, and then the stuff that was like impossible to find was reissued on CD.
Backing up, how did you get into jazz?
It was just there like anything else. I was into comic books and wrestling and jazz. And we had a jazz band at school. So in fifth grade, playing in the jazz band, it's like “Oh, this is fun.” Play at the concert, people like the concert, get a good feeling.
And my friend Peter Apfelbaum had a band. And we'd play bars. We'd sit at these bars in seventh grade and play for drunk people. And if a drunk lady liked you, she'd dance up to you and put a dollar in your belt. It's like, “This isn't so bad. This is cool. We're having fun, just playing away.” And I just got passionate about it. I had very passionate teachers and Pete was very passionate about it.
Tell me about how your love of Duke Ellington developed.
Peter loved Duke Ellington. And I had a couple Duke Ellington records. I guess it was the beginning of 12th grade, when I first started going to John Coppola's for lessons. He was in San Francisco, and that was kind of a big deal to go to San Francisco from Berkeley [where I grew up]. And he was a guy who had started touring in the early '50s when he was a teenager. Back then, big bands needed people. If your mom gave you permission you could just get a job, go on the road, and get paid. So a lot of young people did that. And that's what pop music was. There's no electric guitars.
While everyone else was a post-hippy, he still kind of wore like a dress shirt and slacks. He was just from another zone. So I get there, and of course I'm all full of myself. I tell him, “Man, I just want to let you know: I'm really into modern music, this guy Lester Bowie.” Lester was a very avant-garde trumpet player, very modern. John goes, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let me tell you something.” He puts on this song by Rex Stewart and it's 1940 Duke Ellington stuff and it's totally far out trumpet playing, kind of like what Lester did. And John just goes, “Yeah, people have been playing music for a long time. Let's just work on learning to play the trumpet, okay.” Like, You didn't come here to tell me what you like. You came here to learn to play the trumpet. And it was this great thing.
John and I stayed close until he died a few years ago. And he started the installation of that. And then my teacher in New York, Jimmy Maxwell, who was really another enormous influence, he would send me home with cassettes of his favorite [performances].
Can you tell me more about that?
It's just my worldview. I just take my worldview and put it in.
What's your worldview?
It's what you see in front of you. It's kind of haphazard but it's also pretty specific at the same time. And there's a lot of information. It's just what I like and what I don't like. Like, on one of my records you'll never hear something where it'll go: “You play a head, then one person takes a solo, another person takes a solo, another person takes a solo, and then we play the same head again.” That would never happen. Because my structural thing tells me it's gotta go somewhere else.
It's part of being part of the psychedelic generation, I think, is that we thought of things as exploding forms. Everything was exploding out. We're coming from this post-Eisenhower thing. Like color TV was new. Things were black and white and suddenly they were in color. Take my room. My room is like a psychedelic version of my teachers' rooms. They had what I had but it was much more controlled. My stuff is all over the place. But that's also slightly how my mind is.
What's the relationship between jazz music and exotica and jazz music and sex?
Think about this, they used to play jazz in whorehouses. That's kind of where it got its start. Also, you look at the covers of exotica records, and it was very sexy—in the sense that the exotic was sexy, the unknown was sexy.
What are some of the cooler things you've seen touring clubs around the world, playing late nights?
It's different everywhere. We don't just play jazz places. We play opera houses, we play museums gigs in the afternoon, we play piazzas in Italy for the old ladies in the front going “Complimente! Complimente! Picochete. Gratsi, mile, complimente!” They grab your cheek, they kiss you, you know.
That's the amazing thing: When you go to a place, whatever the culture is, you enter it. You could be playing at the Pori Jazz Festival in Finland. Finland is dark ten months a year. In the summer, it’s light all day, and they just drink. They come to this jazz festival and people are literally walking and vomiting at the same time—it's a jazz festival. I haven't played Pori in a long time, but that's one culture.
Any place you start to come back to over 25, 30 years, you become part of their thing. When I come to Vienna, there are people who have come to see me in Vienna since I was 30. That's 25 years. In certain cities, you have relationships with the music fans. I have a friend who had a kid when he was a young guy. He had some trust fund money. His parents had a place in Cabo San Luca. We'd just go stay at his parents' place on the beach and play gigs. Just playing outside, playing jazz outside at a little plaza in Cabo San Luca. Not the one that's where all the tourists are, right next to it. There are some totally homegrown gourmet restaurants, with those crazy chefs who’re like, “I'll just go down there, they have all these fresh ingredients, I'll just make food.” We'd play on his deck. He loved music, and we'd eat.
I have a friend who designs concert halls. He designed Jazz at Lincoln Center and SFJAZZ. With SFJAZZ, you play in there, and it’s the greatest. It’s the pay-off for all the years you spent practicing, all your years of shitty clubs. Often times, if a room is really dead, you have to push really hard; if a room is too live and coming back, you have to pull back a bit. It might be too loud in one place, too quiet somewhere else. But this guy built this room where no matter how many people are onstage, you just play and everyone in the audience can hear you and you can hear yourself. He built these reflectors. As a musician on stage, you hear all the sound, you don't have to yell. So incredible.
What’s the most psychedelic place you've played?
There have been lots of psychedelic situations. The world was psychedelic. I wasn't psychedelic myself. I opened for the actual Grateful Dead, New Year’s. I've opened for versions of The Grateful Dead three times. That's psychedelic. It's a room full of trippy people. I mean, I was at work. It's pretty hard to be on psychedelics and play a brass instrument.
But Eugene Country Fair was probably the most psychedelic place ever. Eugene Country Fair was this country fair made by hippies—I guess in the late sixties. Ken Kesey's family was from Springfield, which is right next to Eugene. San Francisco got too hot. . . . Have you read “Electric Koolaid Acid Test”?
Have you read “Sometimes a Great Notion”?
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest”?
They are worth reading, man. They're fun to read. A lot of my structural stuff came from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Really? How so?
Read the book and tell me.
I've seen the movie.
None of the structural stuff is in the movie. A lot of this stuff came from Burroughs, too. Like “Exterminator!”-era Burroughs. It's interesting how a lot of stuff you read in your 20s goes on to affect you. I'm not a big reader. But in my twenties I read them and the structure of them kinda struck me. I don't know if I even consciously said, “I want to make my music like this” as much as I said, “Okay, that's a way to structure things.” It's going every direction. They would do things where multiple linear stories were happening at once. Maybe you had to read for a while until you could figure out who was talking, figure out whose perspective it was. He'd be changing narrators and you wouldn't quite know until you read for a while what narrator was telling the story. Burroughs would just cut it up. A sentence would run into another sentence. You'd get an impression of the story, because it'd be the whole story. But it wasn't in that same order—but still, the whole story was there. You got the story.
My thing is really about structure. All my music is about structure. Even "Sexotica" was about structure. I told the producer, "Here's the deal. I want 50 percent acoustic, 50 percent electronic. But the idea isn't that every song is 50-50. You should have one song that's like 80 percent electronic and 20 percent acoustic. I've always thought about things like that. I think structure's like the key to everything.
Anyway, back to Eugene. A lot of people left San Francisco in the ‘60s because it got weird. People started to run away and come and the drug scene got really bad. This idealistic thing moved. Eugene was one place it moved.
I was there in '84. I was at an age where I would have been a graduating senior, but I had a semester left and I took a semester off. I worked for the The Flying Karamazov Brothers, so I went to work a job at the Goodman Theatre. It was a paying job, two months long. From that, we went to the Olympic Arts Festival in LA. I'd worked for this period of time, had some money, and they said, “We're going up to the Country Fair. Wanna come with us?” I said, “Why not.” So I go up to the Country Fair. I get up there, man, and you know, I'm 22 years old. There weren't that many graybeards at that time, because even the people that founded the fair were in their late-30s. And the Grateful Dead helped fund it. They were behind a lot of this stuff. They were the instigators of a lot of this stuff. The mud people. Ken Kesey, the guy with the bus. Everyone had buses.
There was a marching band. I was in the marching band. We would wear Sgt. Pepper's kinda things. We'd wear band jackets. There were jugglers, street magicians. So I get to this place. I don't know where I'm going, right? I end up in these woods. It's just these paths through the woods. It might be two different figure eights—you get lost in it. I get there and everyone is setting up their booths. I'm helping people make tents and booths. People have to rebuild their booths every year. Now it's more of an EDM party place, but it was not then. It was people walking through the woods. It's not a stage; there was one stage, but that's not what it was about. It's just kinda hippy people playing on stage. There was a midnight show that was really psychedelic. At 6 p.m., they'd shut the fair down and everyone that didn't work at the fair had to leave. But then the real party started. Talk about psychedelic. You're walking around these woods, man. Phew!
What was happening? People just having sex in the woods?
Sure! Why not? It's not an orgy. You could just be staring at the stars, tripping your brains out. Anything could be happening. People could be selling gourmet chocolate donuts, chai tea, and tofu burgers. But it wasn't like Burning Man, so me me over the top. That's why there are no pictures of it. It was just an experience. It was way more gentle. I'm just saying this as an observation. Burning Man is just like AHHHHH! But the bands would just be little hippies playing flutes and drums. It wasn't some boom-boom-BOOM! shit going on.
The midnight show was like jugglers and reggae bands. Reggae was the big thing. If you wanted to get loud, you had some guys going do-do-doo-do-do [humming mellow bassline]. People were just floating like little fairies through the woods. And there was a sauna. That's where the whole beauty thing came from: people would just get in the sauna. There were three different-sized saunas. One was just giant. And people were in their chanting and singing a song. That had to be the most psychedelic thing ever. Especially that first night when you're like, “What the hell is going on here, man?”
To wrap things up, can you give us some recommendations—music, influences?
Duke Ellington, obviously.
Count Basie. I came late to Count Basie. I did the Robert Altman film, Kansas City. That's where I got the bug. I was into Sly and The Family Stone. That's a really early influence, stuff I didn't realize was an influence until later. It was in my genetic DNA, then when I got reintroduced to it I was like, “Oh, right, that's that stuff I heard in third grade.” It was just always there.
Parliament Funkadelic, that's my music. If you say, what is my music from my time? P-Funk was our music. The Art Ensemble of Chicago were very influential. Pete was really into them, took me to see them, we heard them. Their sound was very much of that time. If you look at it now, especially with the Art Ensemble, people don't know what to make of it. It's so different from what's in the world now. They were very theatrical. Very much a ritualistic situation with them when you see them play. It was like going to a gig, it was like being involved. It had a big effect on us.
[Plays a psychedelic, dissonant song from Paris Session in 1969.] See, it’s not a groove that just keeps going, a groove, then something comes that doesn't belong at all, and something else is going to come afterward. They really taught me about structure. Also, the idea that a gig isn't a gig; it's an event. If you notice, anytime I do a gig it's not like, “Oh, Steve Bernstein Quartet.” It's an event. Make everything you do an event.
How do you do that?
By doing it! Saying “Okay, what is this going to be?” Even when I played at the Nyack Library the other day, I was like, “Okay, I'm going to have a theme. I'm going to have some new stuff for it, put a new band together.” It's not just, “Oh, a gig.” That doesn't interest me. It’s asking, “What would work?” What's going to work in that environment? It's going to be a bunch of older Nyack people. But I also want people from the neighborhood to come. So, it’s gotta be some stuff that's swinging. And then, some people come Friday night; they just want to come out and nod their head and groove tonight. The old people cannot get scared. So the volume will have to be at a certain level. But I can't have it be corny and boring. I want it to have a certain amount of dance impulse going through everything. Pulse. So people feel like it's Friday night. But still respectful of the library. So that kind of defines what it is. It's an exhausting process because each process becomes something new. That's what was so great when I was just doing Butler, Bernstein & the Hot 9 all the time: you knew what that was. When you're doing different things all the time, there are piles everywhere.
Does it ever fail miserably?
No. It always works. That's the beauty of live music. People will find something. Survival is human nature. You're not going to let yourself sound bad. It'd be better to play something wrong that sounds good than something right that sounds bad. You'll naturally get to something that's okay.