Interview with Cliff Starbuck

cliff starbuck
Cliff Starbuck

Interview and Photos by Scott Preston

I had a chance to catch up with a friend and former bass player of ekoostik hookah Cliff Starbuck. I was curious as I’m sure many of you are how his move to LA went and who he is jamming with in the Sunshine State.

Cincy Groove: How was it for you when you first moved to LA from Ohio?

Cliff Starbuck: It was definitely an adjustment. There’s a lot of things they do differently here. Musicians aren’t usually in just one band, people often put musicians together for a gig according to who is available. Usually the shows consist of several bands, each playing a set that lasts an hour at the most. There are rehearsal studios all over town, bands rent a room (you can also rent amps and drums at these) and rehearse the set of songs that they plan to play at the next show. This was all pretty foreign to me.

Any expectation I might have had that the music lovers in this city were eagerly awaiting my arrival was squashed pretty quickly. There are 10 million people in this city, and it seems like half of them are musicians. The competition is pretty fierce. On any night of the week, there are dozens of national acts of all kinds, all over town. As a member of Hookah, I had the privilege of being able to make a comfortable living as a musician. And although I certainly didn’t think I was making a lateral move financially, I was surprised at how little most bands are paid here. It turns out that it’s mainly the bars that don’t pay- the paying gigs are at restaurants and stuff like that.

What I was really looking forward to was playing a lot of different kinds of music with a lot of different people, and I’ve definitely been doing that. I think I’ve gotten a lot better, especially at learning songs quickly. A few people have made me chord charts, usually I figure them out by ear. I’ve also had to focus on staying more in the traditional role of a bassist, just staying in the pocket. With Hookah I often felt like I could stretch out with melodies and countermelodies on the bass, but most bands aren’t designed that way. A lot of the music in LA is more pop influenced, which is something I needed some experience with.

So, to make some extra money while I worked my way up to the paying gigs, I signed up with a place called Central Casting to do some background acting. The only qualification one needs for background acting is availability during the day, and to fit the description of who they need for a show. I got cast as a bar patron most of the time, but I’ve been edited out of everything that I was on so far. The only thing that hasn’t aired yet is the season premiere of Parks & Recreation, it actually airs tonight, Jan. 20 – glad you mentioned it or I’d have forgotten to check. I’ll be dancing in the bar near Rob Lowe if I’m in any of the shots. I was also playing piano in a hotel bar on Californication, a guy on a date in a restaurant on Mad Men, and a teacher walking through the hallway in Parenthood. I haven’t done any background acting lately, I started getting pretty busy with music, and I help out a dog rescue organization sometimes, and teach an art class for children one day a week.

Cincy Groove: Who have you played with since you have been there?

Cliff Starbuck: When I first got here I started looking on craigslist every day for “bassist wanted” ads. Usually they have a link to their Myspace page, and if I liked the music I’d send a message with a short resume and links to, the Cliff & Colin Myspace, etc. Then some of them would respond with some songs to learn and set up an audition. The first band I auditioned for turned out to be really good, a guy named Kevin Earnest. I’m not sure how to classify the music, but it’s Beatle influenced. He’s a singer songwriter who plays mostly piano and some guitar. He’s been working on finishing up an album that we recorded, I think he said it’ll be out in January.

But due to the supply and demand thing I mentioned, not only are most bands unpaid, but they don’t play very often- a few times a month seems to be the average. So I started auditioning for as many bands as I could, thinking that at least one of them would start making some money. I’ve always felt that no gig is ever a complete waste of time, you’re at least becoming a better and more diverse musician. And gigs usually lead to more gigs if you play well. Then I met a drummer who told me something he had learned- playing for no pay leads to more gigs that don’t pay. I believed him, but what was I going to do, sit around the house and wait for the phone to ring? Not too many people have heard of ekoostik Hookah out here. So I kept at it.

Eventually I started getting referrals from people who had heard me, and I’m playing with some more professional acts these days. One referral came from a guy who used to see Hookah when he was in college in Dayton- he’s now making a documentary about LA singer-songwriters called Legends of Lala. He found me on Facebook and asked if I was looking for gigs, and hooked me up with an Australian guy named D Henry Fenton, it’s a really good, professional band- also very Beatles influenced alt-country/pop. Most of the other gigs I’ve been getting have come from playing with the LA Hootenanny, a big band (10 to 15 people sometimes) doing some classic outlaw country, bluegrass and folk songs. Some of the offshoots I’ve joined through them are Dean Chamberlain (a.k.a The Honorable DHC), Blame the Public, and a bluegrass/old timey thing with Natalie Myers, Ian Patrick, and Manny Quintero. Natalie and Manny actually went to music school in Columbus at Capitol, he played bass with Men of Leisure for a while.

Some other acts I played with earlier in the year were Mandalyn May, Danny Fingers and the Thumbs, Marcus Singletary, and of course my old pal Colin John came here for a couple of tours up the coast. At one of the shows here with Colin I met another Delta blues player named Josh Nuni who I’ve been working with. I feel like I’m forgetting someone.

Cincy Groove: Have you been playing more banjo ?

Cliff Starbuck: Actually I have. Back when I was still checking craigslist (it was probably the last time I did), I saw an ad from a new venue downtown looking for “old-time, jazz and hillbilly” acts. I responded and the guy called me immediately, asking if I could play the following night. It turns out to be one of the coolest bars I’ve ever been to, it’s called Villains Tavern. Even though my solo material was a little rusty, they kept asking me back. In fact, they often call me if they have a last minute cancellation or something and say to come and play that night. They have one band per night, (which is uncommon in LA) and they pay good money. After a few solo shows I started bringing in other musicians to keep it interesting, and I’m pretty excited about this group with Natalie, Ian and Manny. They’re totally into (and quick at) learning any songs that I feel like doing, and they were already doing a lot of stuff that I’m into- Gillian Welch, Allison Krauss, bluegrass and old-time. It’s really fun, lots of vocal harmonies. We’re trying to come up with a name, possibly The Great Depressionists.

I’ve been playing more of everything, really- the Hootenanny usually has a bassist, a banjo player and a harp player, so I play accordion or piano with them sometimes and substitute if the bassist or banjoist can’t make it.

Cincy Groove: Who are you currently playing with?

Cliff Starbuck: Well, any one that I’ve played with before might book something, but the ones that are staying busiest right now are D Henry Fenton, The Great Depressionists, Josh Nuni and Dean Chamberlain, but it all comes in waves and clusters. We have a Kevin Earnest album release show coming up too.

Cincy Groove: Plan on coming back to Ohio to perform?

Cliff Starbuck: Yeah, I do. My nephew has an Ohio wedding in the middle of May, so I’ll probably try to do some shows around then. If anyone has ideas for places I could play in the second half of May, let me know.Colin mentioned to me that more people tend to come out to your Ohio shows once you’ve moved away.
I’d love to do some pickin’ with all my former bandmates. There’s no substitute for some folks, ya know?

Cincy Groove: Were you influenced by Captain Beefheart at all?

Cliff Starbuck: I hope so, I’ve definitely tried to be. A lot of the experience of listening to Beefheart for me is hoping that some his complete unbridled creativity will rub off on me. He really made me rethink the normal rules and constraints of songwriting. It’s kind of like reading Finnegan’s Wake. You feel your mind expanding and surrendering to a new and more inclusive acceptance of ways that language and music can be used to evoke images. A song doesn’t need to be “about” something, it can just be a series of images or words that sound good together.

In the early to mid 90’s I put myself through an immersion course in the work of Frank Zappa, and I first heard Beefheart on Bongo Fury, one of my favorite Zappa albums. Then I got Trout Mask Replica, which to me is kind of the musical equivalent of a bitter-tasting hallucinogen. You take it in because you know it’s going to help you somehow, to dissolve what’s blocking or narrowing your creativity. Dan Cade, whose recommendations I always take seriously, encouraged me to check out some of his other albums. A lot of them are really fun to listen to. Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot are pretty accessible, kind of like 60’s R&B with a colorful twist of surrealism.

Cincy Groove: Have you thought about releasing a solo record?

Cliff Starbuck: Yeah, I’ve been putting some thought into it. I’ve been doing some recording at home of old sheet music and stuff, thinking about getting some demos put together for people to learn from. The guy who books Villains Tavern has offered to produce it. People have been asking me for one here, and I guess I could sell a few in Ohio.

Cincy Groove: What has been one of your more interesting experiences in LA?

Cliff Starbuck: It’s an interesting place, I do a lot of driving around – sometimes it seems like I’m in a new neighborhood every day, and there’s still hundreds more.
When Colin was here we needed a small PA for a couple of the shows, and he said he had a friend who worked at an equipment rental place who would let us borrow one. We drove up to North Hollywood to pick it up, and it turns out this is not only an equipment rental, but storage space too. He showed around this giant warehouse full of gear, stacks of cases up to the ceiling, stenciled with names of famous bands and musicians. The Eagles, Van Halen, John Fogerty, all the big name drummers like Steve Gadd, on and on. John Fogerty has an insane collection of vintage equipment, one of every fender guitar from each year they were made, and stuff like that. It was pretty weird, just a nondescript looking warehouse in a nondescript part of town. I guess they all have to keep it somewhere, and it’s safer if it’s all in the same place.
You do you see famous people around here sometimes, but I try to act like everyone else does in LA and ignore them. I did meet Steven Tyler though, he was really nice.