Interviewed by Lisa Panepinto
This interview was originally published by Cabildo Quarterly Online, here. cabildoquarterly.tumblr.com.
Eric Green is a blues swamp funk rock musician & Maliseet and Penobscot tribal member who grew up around Indian Island, Maine and spent several years living as a musician in New Orleans. He’s recorded numerous records and is active playing shows around Maine. Check out his music at: http://www.myspace.com/ericgreenband
[Eric playing The Girl from Ipanema on the piano]
Interviewer: You sometimes play straight up jazz when you’re solo don’t you, on the piano?
Green: Not typically what you’d call jazz, it’s more improvisational with whatever the form it is. I do play some of what you would consider jazz structures. A couple songs I wrote but most of them are standards and I improvise within the forms. I never studied jazz in terms of approaching it like jazz; it’s more just songs. I don’t have a big arch top guitar, the whole trying to sound like a certain type of jazz. What I do best is the rootsy stuff I think. It’s something to keep me occupied [laughs] so I don’t go crazy.
Interviewer: Yeah, like a blending.
Green: Yeah, it’s an American art form, a changing art form, basically.
Interviewer: What are some projects you’re currently working on?
Green: I have a bunch of loose ends going and songs. I started getting into advanced harmonies, and I’ve kind of been putting all my energy into that for the last couple years. I’ve got to get my little studio area here piped up, that’s one of the things. I have an album that’s ten songs and I need to go back and finish it up. I’m kind of watching what happens with everything before I write the last song or two to tie it all together. I’m not in a rush at all. I don’t care about the music business or anything [laughs]. You know what I mean? I’m just doing it because I’m just doing it. But I really have been enjoying learning about advanced harmonization, and learning standards and stuff.
Interviewer: When did you first start writing songs?
Green: I first started writing songs in the early eighties. I was living up at Carrabasset Valley in a little A-frame on the water. I had gone up there to work and I kind of discovered music. I got a guitar and it seemed really natural to make up stuff. I didn’t have enough technique to learn anything else so I made up my own stuff. I did get a little recorder and I started recording it. My first rhythm track was like with two river rocks, it was really primitive [laughs].
I started writing stuff and some of the songs people liked, and then I just kept doing it. It was also a really good way of communicating. I was like a suicidal, fucking raging kid and definitely music kept me alive, and writing songs as well, being able to put something down, because when you sing it just kind of releases. It’s a release or something it seems like. I take all this for granted now but that’s where it all comes from I think. I never really wanted to be a rock n roll star or anything like that. It was a survival thing, and then it was just like, I can make a hundred bucks doing this at a club and get free drinks [laughs], that makes sense to me. So I started playing in bars really quick [laughs] and writing songs. Some of them were uncomfortable when I played them, because you know, you’re just putting your shit out there for any redneck to squash [laughs].
Interviewer: You started out on guitar?
Green: Yeah, guitar was the first thing. I did acoustic for a long time and then eventually it had an American roots finger style element, but it was like contemporary folk. I would make albums all the time and just distribute them among friends. I have so many collections of songs, but of course, I don’t really want to play those songs anymore – except for one or two of them, they’re so dated you know, when you’re just starting out.
I scored a gig within a year of starting, for John Hammond Jr. at Raoul’s Roadside Attraction in Portland, which was rated number one nightspot in Maine. So I got a chance to open for a national act my first year of playing, and that just fueled me. I met John Hammond, it was electrifying, and I got sucked into playing clubs my whole life. Everywhere I lived I played clubs and opened for a bunch of different national acts. I would play the music that I liked but mix my songs in with it, and that’s what I’ve been doing all this time [laughs].
Interview: How does being Maliseet Penobscot inform your music?
Green: One of the big things is I have some kind of environmentalist lean by default I think; but sometimes when you’re playing in a mill town you’re the enemy then, and so it becomes really uncomfortable. The cool thing is, some of the songs that explain that kind of thing I’ve managed to slip in in between other songs that other people like.
It’s just something you have to let out if you write a song, especially if it works, it’s good if it has that thing that makes someone else tell you, wow, that song’s good, you should play that more, so you play it. What’s been weird for me is that my art has been tied to the business end of it from the very beginning, which is different. I’ve had to be practical on one level. In other words, I can’t just blatantly start calling out corporations and be expected to get jobs making money from the same corporations. I have to survive too. I think all artists have this fine balance of how truthful are you going to be, because it’s like, people tell the truth all week and when they go out to the bar they don’t want to be reminded of what they’re going through already.
As far as my writing, I just sit and something will pop into my head and everything will line up right. I’ll be sitting there and hopefully have a recorder going and I’ll just go play it and maybe do something with it.
Basically just the way I think gets me into trouble. It shouldn’t, but in some markets it does, more in the rural markets. I hate to say it in terms of market, but I’ve had to make money off of my music. I don’t bend to the market too much, I do what I like, but if you do that one song that one night you win all these people over for life, versus just being self-indulgent, being pissed off and singing about it.
One thing I love about James McMurtry is, especially with the help of Stephen King, he’s somehow been able to slip the truth to the people who wouldn’t necessarily share his views; it’s almost like fooling. You watch the Colbert Report, there’s a lot of people that that shit goes right over their head and they think Steve Colbert’s a Republican and his satire his real. That’s part of the consuming public in our country; it’s really sad that it’s like that but I see it all the time. Go up to Lincoln around seven in the morning and go to the gas station where they’ve got chairs where you can eat an egg sandwich. There’s a whole bunch of guys and they’ll all be sitting there talking some shit. The rednecks are my worst enemies. I do pretty well on the coast [laughs].
Interviewer: You were living in New Orleans as a musician and then you came back to Maine, how important have those places been to your music?
Green: New Orleans was incredible. It’s a reality check for musicians. Here, there will be a band that went to high school together and everybody knows them and they play gigs and everybody shows up. You can’t do that down there, because there’s real musicians down there, generations of musicians, families that have been making their life off of real fucking music for years. So it’s a real test if you can play in New Orleans for a while. If you can keep getting gigs in New Orleans, you’re doing well, because it’s a tough market. The reason why it’s so hard is it’s such a rich musical culture. The Louis Armstrong stuff has blown up and evolved, because it is all about the gumbo and all the different flavors, they’ll reach into these other genres, it’s just a great thing. It opens your eyes musically, but it’s also a reality check because the best players are playing around town with different people. Sure it’s a soap opera, but if you’re playing and you’re hot, you’re playing with everybody. You’re going to play. There is no, you can only play with my band, you get a lot of that up here, the drama that’s like, is this is a marriage or are we doing something here. It cuts through the drama. You’ve got to have a thick skin because it’s the real deal down there, there’s no [whining sound], it’s the real fucking deal. You’ll get put down hard if you mess around, so that’s kind of a reality check as an artist, but also, it’s so incredible, the sound of a brass band wailing that sloppy sound.
New Orleans totally influenced me in terms of being serious, even though it’s a really lazy atmosphere down there. I had to leave there because there is so much going on that I couldn’t concentrate.
I’ve noticed since Katrina, the song writing down there has gotten a lot better. It was just about [sings] “Mardi Gras party! Party, Mardi Gras party!” Now there’s a little bit of a social justice vibe mixed in with the music, so it isn’t all just Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras world or whatever, there’s something more than King Cakes, there’s real people attached to it.
Interviewer: You’ve stayed independent and original to your own blend of blues-funk-swamp; how has that freed you up as an artist?
Green: I get the joy of being able to play what I want. Now in the last five or so years, I’ve taught myself to read music, so I’m having a complete rebirth, it’s unbelievable. I spent so much time on it, but I love it and it just gets bigger and bigger everyday. It’s very rewarding, and it’s funny because I couldn’t do it when I was younger, I was too distracted, but now I’m at a point where I crave it. I’m obsessed, literally. That’s where New Orleans helped too because you hear Kermit Ruffins and the Barbeque Swingers play Besame Mucho, and it’s like the nerdiest song ever, but when those guys do it it brings new life into it. Then all of a sudden you’re looking at all these other classics and you’re realizing, oh this is where that chord change I play all the time came from, all this derivative stuff. To learn that stuff you have to go the extra step I think and learn theory, but I had to school myself on it.
I think, what if I would have started earlier, but I didn’t want it like I want it now, I would have been spinning my wheels, so it kind of ended up being more efficient in the end. Plus they didn’t have the Internet when I was younger. You can YouTube anything; if you want to learn, you don’t have to wait until the next class and maybe remember it or maybe forget it, you can enter it in on YouTube and hear six different people explaining it differently until you can find what’s really going on yourself by listening to it all on demand. I couldn’t have learned as quickly when I was a kid as I learn now because it was a slower process. You’ve got to want it. You have to want to learn.
Interviewer: Who are some of your biggest influences?
Green: Man, that’s a good one. Muddy Waters, Chris Whitley, anything that’s rootsy and kind of raw, and it doesn’t matter how many notes, it just sounds good. There are so many people I could talk about, but those are two big ones of mine, just a certain part of their aesthetic.
I enjoy so many styles of music. Lately I’ve been getting into organ trios, really digging that. I’m studying this stuff, so even though I’m enjoying it I’m still applying it to something I’m doing.
Muddy and Chris Whitley are two really big ones. Bob Dylan of course, all the biggies are in there.
Interviewer: Your songs are sympathetic to the oppressed, like the river and the workingman; has social and environmental consciousness always been with you?
Green: It seems to have been [laughs]. I’ve been poverty stricken my whole life, and I’ve seen how the whole Native American thing illustrates the worst of the United States [laughs] and what this country has gone through. You’re constantly reminded of it, the lack of respect. Go into Johnny’s Pizza and look a little Native, even if there’s a Native working there, you’re still going to get this fucking attitude. Old Town is like the worst place ever, so I try to stay away from there. It’s just horrible, it reminds me of everything bad, especially when I smell that fucking mill and know about all the people that have fucking cancer from the river because of all the shit that they’ve poured into it so a select few can rich, et cetera. And now the landfills they’re putting right up river from Indian Island, it’s beyond not in my backyard [laughs]. It’s blatant fucking asshole move shit.
So sometimes I can write a song that gets that out there a little bit more, so maybe somebody listens to it and goes oh really, I didn’t know that. The cool part about it is that the actual story tells itself too. You can state fact, because it’s just the way it is. There’s some environmental shit going on right in Old Town. I seem to gravitate towards going after the people who are really fucking with the environment and everybody else has to deal with it.
Interviewer: What’s the story with your raining poison song?
Green: The “Poison Down” song? That’s about the mill in Old Town. It just so happens that a lot of the better songs have the double entendre thing going. The poison down is also how the whole mill life promotes alcoholism and pill addiction. There’s another poison going down as well, which is a byproduct of the other poison going down. So that’s got a triple meaning at least, and also, I don’t know if anybody gets it, but there’s a lottery ticket comment in it too, and I think there’s an anti-big-tobacco line in it too [laughs]. My mother chain-smoked, so all that stuff is crazy – to see her helpless. I see some of my friends who are addicted to nicotine and big tobacco and they’re outside just fucking hooked, and it’s going to kill them [laughs], but they don’t care.
Interviewer: Can you talk about what it’s been like working pretty much fulltime as a musician in Maine?
Green: You stay busy all the time, I do. The traveling sucks, the load-ins suck, but getting paid is awesome. It’s a lot of work, especially doing three sets at some of these places. I’ve had to carve my own little niche and I’ve done it before in different areas I’ve lived. I think that’s the best thing to do is find the places where you go over and there’s a future for you there and get on the roster and keep playing. You always try to bring in new stuff and do old stuff and do whatever’s on your mind. It’s this ever-changing thing that’s going on. I’ve tried to stop a couple times and it just wouldn’t stop [laughs]. More people call me and it’s like, I might as well. People call me now. I only book when people book me, and so it’s rolling along on its own basically. Every once in a while I’ll try to get into a new place and try out something different and see if it works.
It’s awesome because you have time to do other things. You want to put as much time into your music as possible. I think of it as a job, so even on my days off I’m either working on repertoire or fixing shit. There’s always something to do, because it is like a business. You’ve always got to be working on new stuff for the future. You have to keep it fresh. I go through phases where I’ll write for a while and then I won’t write for two or three years, then I’ll write a bunch.
I have all kinds of stuff that I haven’t even looked at. I’ll start editing this stuff and I probably have a whole other album of ideas. Then I can make a decision and I’ll bring a drummer in. So it’s ongoing, and I guess I’m going through different phases. It’s perfect, I get sick of one phase after two months, now I’m going to go into editing mode or I’m going to go into recording mode, but I’m not pushing any of it, I’m just taking it as it comes, as my time lays out. It’s kind of a natural continuum.
I have enough people who want me to work for them that if the money thing is a problem, I make a phone call and I can get paid. But the more time I have where I’m not doing other jobs, the better in a lot of ways, because it’s just an endless time thing. You put more and more time and more time and more time into it. I never have to worry about not having something to do. It gets really busy at certain times of the year and I’m running all over and I have no time to play, so in the winter I shed as much as I can. This is my shedding season right now because I worked at the ski resorts this year more than usual, so I was constantly traveling. I have to have a couple times a year where I get three or four eight hour days working on different stuff, repetitious stuff. This just happened in the last three or four years where I started doing this, and sometimes you’re learning your own songs. So yeah, it’s a full time job basically, and you don’t get paid much for it, for a long time, so unless you have a trust fund, it’s really hard to just do it.
Interviewer: You’ve collaborated with many different musicians, and some visual artists over your career; can you talk about collaboration?
Green: I think some people respect each other enough to be able to work together; that’s what it comes down to for me. Nobody wants to be wasting the other one’s time. I don’t want to waste somebody’s time. I’ve only had a few people I’ve been able to actually write with, because everybody’s got their thing. I think collaborating’s a lot harder when songwriting. It has to be the right people definitely.
It depends on the context, where is the media, where is it going, who’s going to hear it, all that kind of stuff. It’s complicated, and it’s not always you who’s complicating it. There has to be mutual respect all the way down the line or else you’re going to get something that’s not the real thing.
Interviewer: Who are some of your heroes?
Green: Oh man. I have a lot of heroes. Some of my heroes aren’t the heroes you would think, they’re local people who nobody knows, they’re not famous. They’re like my buddy Ready Teddy McQuiston down in New Orleans. He’s a hero of mine, and he’s really in a bad position right now. He goes way back in the record industry, he worked with Little Richard for years, and he did all kinds of stuff, he was a DJ, but he would do these back flips, standing back flips and stuff. He worked with Joe Tex and Ernie Cato and all these different people, and he slipped and fell last year. Now he’s totally paralyzed and he has to talk through a voice box, and this guy would dance, he would stand on his hands. There are pictures online of him doing a handstand on Little Richard’s piano. He came up here and played with my band after Katrina, and I had already known him from New Orleans. He’s one of my heroes, just because even in his seventies, he wouldn’t stop. He toured and worked with James Brown, all kinds of people, Solomon Burke. He had all these archives of cassette tapes of him interviewing Champion Jack Dupree and stuff, but he couldn’t play a musical instrument. He would dance and sing and do gymnastic maneuvers, which was like this unbelievably weird thing. No matter what happened to him he always played. He’s one of my heroes. And there’s, not necessarily Dizzy Gillespie, but some of those guys who were traveling around in school busses through the south playing music and getting shit on by the whites basically. That’s really tough. Those are some of my heroes – people who had to endure that kind of oppression, definitely.
As far as musically or writers: Hunter S Thompson, the usuals.
Snooks Eaglin is a guy who’s a hero of mine definitely. He’s a blind New Orleans guitar player that passed on recently; he was an incredible person. Those are a couple of my heroes [laughs].
Interviewer: You’ve played pretty much everywhere, for causes sometimes, and just getting people out, do you feel like that’s kind of community service?
Green: I do. I am making money for live performances. I always call it the brandy belt [laughs], like there’s the Bible belt, well up here there’s the brandy belt.
I always like to bring this music that I’ve learned in other places. I lived in Oklahoma for a while, I was a member of the Oklahoma Blues Society and I opened for all kinds of national acts there. So I had this southwest blues thing, and then I was in New Orleans where I learned all kinds of different stuff, so I try to bring this stuff rather than a lot of the cover radio kind of thing my so called competition plays, mainstream acoustic classic rock. I always like bringing these other styles of music here, stuff I’ve learned on the road, and just giving them an option, playing a lot of New Orleans stuff. There’s a big rockabilly scene in Oklahoma City; I guess I must have soaked some of it in because we do a lot of rockabilly stuff as well. Just taking my influences and bringing it and having it be something different than a lot of the other acts playing around, trying to bring variety.
There’s a good vibe with the whole New Orleans thing, it’s just a great big open vibe, and so I do favor some of that stuff, but I also love the hillbilly stuff that’s the roots of this area. Sometimes I’ll play that Dick Curless stuff and I’ll win over a couple people from the area who will listen to the New Orleans stuff and then will listen to my stuff and then before I lose them I go right back to the hillbilly shit [laughs]. It’s a never-ending wrestling; it’s kind of weird. But those are all influences that I love. I pick the stuff that I think is real to play and or good songs. I want to play stuff that’s good you know. It is always nice too when you get compensated, it’s nice to be making money off your work, especially after you’ve poured so much of your everything, and lost everything to it. The investment makes no sense at all; it’s unbelievable. I often call it a curse, because it’s like, you do this thing and you’re almost not sure why but you keep doing it because it’s just one of these weird things and so then you find out you’re making money off it and it’s kind of nice.
It’s a lot of having a thick skin is really what it is. You can’t expect applause, you have to just play your songs and try to keep it good because that will kill you if you expect people to react, because the more you do, the less they will. That has to be the last thing you care about; and you can’t wear your heart on your sleeve, you can in your song, but in between songs you can’t. You have to not let any of it affect you, it’s weird, you have to totally have armor; sometimes a couple bourbons work really well as armor [laughs].
[Plays some cha cha on the piano]
Green: I’ve been getting into the Latino thing too.
Interviewer: Do you feel part of a tradition of Maine artists like Dick Curless?
Green: I most definitely do, yeah. I mean, I usually do about a hundred and fifty gigs a year and like three sets a gig; I definitely do. But the difference between them and me is that I did not go to Nashville, I went to New Orleans, and I didn’t really get involved with record companies. I have always done what I wanted to and not cared. I got tied up in that, but I realize from what I know from being Indian is to never trust the motherfuckers. That’s what I know. You want to trust them and you try to do amazing things, you overcompensate with everything you do just trying to measure up, but you can’t trust them. I’ve had friends of mine who have gotten signed and ended up owing the record company like sixty thousand dollars, because it didn’t happen right, and not only that, you end up with all that fucking mental scarring of the whole being involved with show biz bullshit. Everybody acts like you’re their friend when things are going good, people you don’t even know. A couple times I’ve done well and I’ve tasted a little bit of that; I really didn’t think I could live like that. Once you get to a certain level, the fucking vampires come out or something, the bloodsuckers that want to suck off the fame, so I just never bought it.
I’m still stuck with the curse of music so I just keep doing it, and I’ll tell you what, it’ll keep you out of trouble. That’s one thing that it did for me when I was younger, it kept me out of trouble. Instead of going down and raging at the fucking bar I stayed home and worked on something; that was early on before I started playing out. Then you’re getting paid to hang out at the bar, it’s such a better thing. If you’re going to go out to the bar you might as well get paid. That was a nice thing, but I don’t think any of it was motivated by money; it was more out of dysfunction so I’d have weed money. Weed made me able to deal with the other stuff.
Interviewer: Your band has been cross genre and intergenerational, you’ve had a lot of young people in your band and young audience, does that help keep you inspired?
Green: It does, it is inspirational to me that any body cares, whatever age. It inspires me when some eighty-two year old woman in a wheelchair goes yeah I like that song. There’s this timeless thing about good music.
Have you seen that DJ thing with DJ Premier Pretty Lights, and there’s like five of them, it’s called Re-production something? Anyway, they take these five DJs and they each get assigned a genre of music to produce an album using what they do as a DJ. One of the guys, that guy Shazizzil or Fizil or whatever, he grew up with his dad listening to the Doors and he’s an Los Angeles DJ. I forget what his name is, his head’s shaved on one side and one side’s long and he always wears these big bug glasses and he’s like a dub stepper. I don’t even know what it is, it’s just him and all these light shows and he’s like [makes thumping, techno noise]. So he gets the original members of the Doors to come in, and Robby Krieger must be eighty years old, he’s got white hair and he looks like a skeleton, but he still fucking rocks when he does his part. He’s barely alive but he’s so ultra hip and cool. I don’t think it matters, if you rock, you rock, there’s no age thing.
Whether or not younger people will come to see you play and like the music, I never know. We play on these islands and all these weird places and you never know who’s going to like what or why. You don’t want to give them what they want completely, but there has to be some sort of what’s on the menu.
Interviewer: You don’t know what their taste is.
Green: Totally. I mean all those guys like the Meters said you have to just play so much stuff, if you’re really playing places you just have to play a lot of stuff. One night they’re a country band, another night they’re playing jazz, the next night their playing funk. We kind of do all that in one night; like the Steve Jones band the Boneheads, they’re really eclectic doing that all over in Maine. There are a lot of people doing it in other states, but in Maine it seems like it’s all classic album oriented rock a lot of it.
Interviewer: What’s your vision for the future?
Green: I’ve got all these new tools and all this new information and what I’ll do is try to mix it with what I do, put it in the pot.
This next project that I do may be a little bit more sophisticated in some ways, a portion of the harmonics stuff, but it’s still got to have a primal thing underneath it. It may be just harmonizing in a different scale; it may be like [plays piano] using McCoy Tyner stacked fourths, using something like that and then just borrowing from it a little bit.
As soon as I get my little studio area done I’ll work for like three months, all the tools will go away and I’ll work on that for a little while. It’s exciting.
Interviewer: When you put out a record it’s always on an indie label of your own?
Green: I have my own label but I have never mass-produced anything; it’s all been two or three hundred pressings that I do myself and sell them at gigs or through the mail and that’s it. It’s always been on a shoestring. Things are pretty good right now, but it’s been really lean for long periods of time. There are times when I had no way of recording anything for long periods of time, but I have all the stuff right now to do it. The last nine songs that I have recorded for another album all came out really good. My mother passed on right towards the end of it and I just kind of froze up on that project and realized I needed to compartmentalize it and put it over here and move on completely. That may have been symbolic of what I had to do with my own life, mirrored in my production. Basically I’m working on so much new material that it’s just crazy. I haven’t been writing per se in the last eight or nine months, but I can at any time, I can actually write on demand [laughs].
I have some songs out there that have a life of their own and they’re out there doing their thing. I have no delusions that one of my songs is going to be a big hit, it will be enjoyed among people who come to our shows and like it or not, and we’ll get some live recordings of it and it will live on in mp3 form and that’s it. If somebody has a better idea tell me what it is. Surviving off of my music and being able to do what I want seems like payment enough in terms of it’s awesome.