The Exotic Sound Of Steve Tibbetts Natural Causes, the guitarist's new album, features longtime friend and collaborator Marc Anderson. Anderson plays gongs, steel drums and exotic percussion, while Tibbetts plays a 12-string guitar.
NPR logo

The Exotic Sound Of Steve Tibbetts

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Exotic Sound Of Steve Tibbetts

The Exotic Sound Of Steve Tibbetts

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Steve Tibbetts plays a 12-string Martin guitar. The model has been played by everyone from Arlo Guthrie and Roger McGuinn to Paul Simon and Leo Kottke. But in Tibbetts' hands, this all-American classic sounds like it comes from another world.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: "Natural Causes," the new CD by Steve Tibbetts, also features long-time collaborator Mark Anderson playing gong, steel drums and exotic percussion while Tibbetts bends melodic lines on his guitar to create a sound more like India than Indiana.

Steve Tibbetts joins us from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Welcome to the program, Steve.

Mr. STEVE TIBBETTS (Guitarist): It's great to be here.

HANSEN: And it's nice to have you. Let me ask you first about this exotic quality to your music. Years ago, you went to a concert that was a big influence there in St. Paul by Sultan Khan. Tell us who he was, what he plays and why he's important to your music.

Mr. TIBBETTS: Well, it was one of those concerts you go to for no particular reason other than somebody calls you up and says, maybe you should come to see this show if you're not doing anything else. And this was a call from Marcus Wise, a tabla player I've worked with for many years. And he said Oliver (unintelligible) playing with his son Zakir Hussein(ph). These are two great tabla players and they're being accompanied by a sarangi player named Sultan Khan.

A sarangi is an instrument that is played upright. It's got three or four strings that are bowed, and if it's miked well, it's like singing, it's like the Ganges at dawn.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TIBBETTS: I had no idea who he was, but this concert was in an auditorium in a high school gym, very modest setup. But the way he played just caught me completely unawares. It was as though the instrument was singing. But Marcus said the next day, he called me up and said, how did you like the show? And I said, it was amazing and I think it might change the way I play guitar. But it really was something quite astounding, the way he bent notes, the way all the color came off of the instrument.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TIBBETTS: This guitar, this particular guitar started to sound like that and it's probably because the frets have ground down almost all the way to the fret board. So, it does have a little bit of...

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. TIBBETTS: That quality. And I took it into my guitar tech, Hoffman Guitars, and Ron said, I said do I need new frets on it, and he said, do you like the way it sounds. I said I like it. He said, don't fix it.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: I want to ask you about that 12-string guitar. I read it belonged to your dad.

Mr. TIBBETTS: Yeah. He was given it by a church group that he used to advise. And one Christmas I came home and had a look at it and asked him if I could maybe take it back to college to me, and he didn't respond until I was on my way out about four days later. He said, take it.

HANSEN: Oh nice. Were the frets already pretty flat when you got it?

Mr. TIBBETTS: No. He didn't play it much above the third fret but...

HANSEN: You are a sound engineer as well. I mean, you actually worked as a sound engineer at Minnesota Public Radio, right?

Mr. TIBBETTS: After a fashion. I tended the board overnight when the signal came from Collegeville. So, mostly I was just a babysitter. If it went off, if it went off the air, I'd have to get on and give the weather or something. And I think I was nervous enough, even at 3:00 a.m., that you could hear my heart beating over the microphone.

HANSEN: Oh my. Has that influenced your philosophy at all about using electronics and effects in your music? I mean, you process it, you shape it with electronics? 'Cause it sounds so acoustic.

Mr. TIBBETTS: This record is very acoustic in its production. I didn't add much in the way of EQ, equalization or compression at all. But I'll use anything that sounds good, honestly. I don't have any scruples about folding in gongs or barking dogs or backwards cats - anything is fair game.

HANSEN: As long as it fits the artistic vision of the piece, right?

Mr. TIBBETTS: Yeah, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes later on you hear these things and think, what could I have been thinking? But, in this case, it seemed to all weld together quite well.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: I want to ask you about one specific cut called "Padre-Yaga." Now, really is this how it happened: you would record, like, five to 10-second bursts of music and then, you know, sort of put that aside and then weave the whole song together? I mean, how did you make it into a whole piece?

Mr. TIBBETTS: Well, it's kind of a mystery to me. It's just a matter of going to the studio and being desperate for two or three years in a row and trying to cobble together any song that works. Honestly, it's not really thought out that much.

HANSEN: So, I mean, it sounds like you were making squares for a quilt and then decided what the quilt was going to look like.

Mr. TIBBETTS: That works, or just doodling. I had a third grade teacher once, an art teacher, who would just doodle a huge loopy thing on a piece of paper and then ask her students to make it into something. And that was a great exercise. It left some people blank, others would fill in eyes and beaks and fur and so forth. And that's quite honestly what we do.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You know, I have to admit that it's the rare musician who sends out a press release beginning with a quotation: I am partial to silence. But you use it. I mean, breaks and decay and full stops. I mean, these are part of the tools that you use.

Mr. TIBBETTS: Yeah, they are.

HANSEN: Well, yeah, that's obvious, yeah.

Mr. TIBBETTS: All right, all right, all right. Silence, let's see. These days it seems like music tries to cram as much sound in as loud as possible for as long a period of time and it can be a little bit wearing sometimes. It appears to me that sometimes you can define a composition or a couple of notes by the silence that goes around it. And also this is a part of a legacy of ECM Records too. There is room of silence as well as for hell bent electric guitar.

So, it's an open forum there. If silence works, this is the label that it works on.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: I'm speaking with guitarist Steve Tibbetts, and I'd like the engineer at Minnesota Public Radio to open Mark Anderson's mic. He's the percussionist with you in the studio. Hi, Mark.

Mr. MARK ANDERSON (Percussionist): Hi, Liane.

HANSEN: You and Steve have played together for, what, 30 years. You've been on all of his recordings. What is the communication like between you when you play?

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, it's changed over the years, I guess, because of all the years. Actually, preparing to play this piece today, we hadn't seen each other for, I don't know, a couple of months probably, something like that, and hadn't played together much for quite some time. So, we got together yesterday and played. And it took a couple of minutes to warm up.

And then I noticed, actually, yesterday as we were rehearsing that it's just so familiar - his phrasing and his sound. Some language that he and I have developed, I mean, that he largely has developed but then when we're together the language that we developed together, it felt so familiar and came back. So, I think it's inevitable, you know, if you play with someone for that many years that something happens that you can't really even describe, I guess.

HANSEN: Well, we're all looking forward to hearing what you're going to play for us in the studios of Minnesota Public Radio. It's a tune that's called "Attahasa." And before we hear it - it's going to take us out - let me thank you both for appearing on the program. First, Steve Tibbetts, thank you so much.

Mr. TIBBETTS: Well, thanks for having us.

HANSEN: And Mark Anderson, thanks to you.

Mr. ANDERSON: You're welcome. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music, "Attahasa")

HANSEN: That's guitarist Steve Tibbetts and percussionist Mark Anderson performing in the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Their new CD on ECM Records is called "Natural Causes." Our thanks to NPR engineer Craig Thorson for that recording. You can also hear the full performance, as well as cuts from the new CD at our website,

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.