A Q&A with Jean-Pierre Durand of Incendio
By Geoff Gehman
When Jean-Pierre Durand feels like bitching about the musical grind, he shuts himself up by remembering how his favorite punk bands refused to bitch about the musical grind. The guitarist tends to forget the hassles of being a professional performer—the touring, the promoting, the endless balancing of financial and artistic profits—by recalling that the Minutemen and the Dead Kennedys never cried when they had to drive lousy distances in lousy vehicles.
A punk attitude has helped Incendio, Durand’s band, survive and thrive for 15 years, an impressive stretch for a group of independent instrumentalists. From the start Durand and his co-founders, guitarist Jim Stubblefield and bassist Liza Carbe, who doubles as Durand’s wife, have been dedicated to creating tunes that are lilting and lush, danceable and listenable. Their pilgrimage has taken them around the globe, and the dial, to Spanish jazz, Celtic pop, electronic chamber music and Latin trance. While they defy categories, Durand feels a kinship with Steely Dan and XTC.
On July 24 Durand, Carbe and Stubblefield will return to the Mauch Chunk Opera House, a place they admire for its responsive acoustics, rich stories and many kindnesses (i.e., lending Durand a guitar after his instrument basically broke down). Joined by two percussionists, they’ll perform such sophisticated, cinematic numbers as “Midnight for Maya” and an arrangement of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjez and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,”
Below, in a conversation from his California home, Durand discusses his Peruvian musical heritage, his early jones for Tom Jones and his fondness for the part-time beer fan known as “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely laid you flat? I guess that life just wasn’t the same after you heard “Purple Haze” in seventh grade.
A: I remember listening to “Purple Haze,” staring at the turntable, saying: “What is this?” Hendrix was a guy who melded a lot of approaches: rock, blues, psychedelia, country. He knew all the major guitarists from all the major genres. I think “Purple Haze” is where that melting pot first came together.
Actually, the first musician I ever loved was Tom Jones That blue-eyed soul coming out of that great voice, that great personality, really resonated with me. “Live at the Flamingo” is just an amazing CD; his version of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” is just cooking. His guitarist, Big Jim Sullivan, was a huge influence on other guitarists. His drummer, Chris Slade, is currently playing with AC/DC.
I’m not sure that kids today are as wrapped up in their favorite acts as we were; I’m not sure they’re writing in their notebooks about Lady Gaga or Foo Fighters. When I was growing up there was the Rush and the Styx camp and people who loved Van Halen and you wore that passion like a badge. You were hearing about Hendrix and how did this guy die and how did this guy make such a deep mark in only three years. Back then I was besotted with an R&B approach; that soul-based Curtis Mayfield kind of thing resonated with me as much as any of the shredders For the blues I went to Hendrix, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Albert King, Albert Collins. In turn they sent me way back to the cornerstone people like Robert Johnson. It becomes a wild ride they don’t teach you in school; it becomes your private road.
Q: Your parents came to the States from Peru. Did any of the Peruvian and Argentinian records they played while you were growing up worm their way into your ears, heart and soul? And have those Latin strains filtered onto the Incendio soundtrack?
A: Those songs had a huge influence on me, but I didn’t realize it until later. My parents came to the United States in the ‘60s and they listened to tangos and Peruvian waltzes when everyone else was listening to the Beatles. My mom loved Trio Los Panchos, one of the most popular Latin groups, with and without Eydie Gorme. She listened a lot to Julio Iglesias’ “Caminito.” Caminito means a sidewalk or a small path and it’s basically a song about a guy revisiting his old path: All I have is you, which is this little path. It’s super-sad and heart-breaking, kind of like Tom Jones doing “Hard to Handle.”
My father listened to a lot of Julio Sosa, who sang these Argentinian tangos about loving hard and dying hard. He was the Latin equivalent of Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.” Some of his stuff is melodramatic and over the top, but the arrangements and the playing are stunning–the piano, the accordion, the way the orchestra breathes together. He died in a car accident; it seems that all the great tango performers died early and tragically. He died in his prime and like Hendrix was frozen in time.
When it comes to band influences, Jim [Stubblefield] likes jazz and progressive rock and Liza [Carbe] loves progressive rock and 20th-century classical. XTC’s pop production is a big influence on us, too. I absorbed a lot of my parents’ music second hand. I’m thinking specifically of “La Flor de la Canela”—“The Flower of the Cinnamon.” It’s a Peruvian waltz, kind of the unofficial Peruvian anthem. That’s one of the tunes that came flooding back from my childhood.
Q: I’ve read that the band’s most recent record, “The Shape of Dreams” [Incendio Music, 2013], is (a) a return to your eclectic roots and (b) your most progressive album. Did making the CD send you in any unexpected directions?
A: Our first album ended up being very eclectic because it was the first time we were blending our approach with Jim’s approach. Every subsequent album had moments that were very progressive, with a smattering of electronics and definitely some jazz. We made one album that was much more heavily electronica, an album as close to smooth jazz as we could get, one that was almost chamber music. “The Shape of Dreams” is an attempt to recapture that diversity. “Mitra’s Dance” is a Californian interpretation of Middle Eastern, Sephardic music. “Of Sword and Shadow” is in 7/8 and out of the progressive-rock notebook. I think we achieved a good cross section with “Aleph.” The spark of that was the novel by Paulo Coelho, who also wrote “The Alchemist.”
For better or worse we don’t sound like anyone else in the genre. While other bands pattern themselves after traditional Spanish groups or offshoots like the Gipsy Kings, we sound closer to a Spanish-guitar Steely Dan or a Spanish XTC–although some people might not believe those comparisons.
Q: I’m always curious about the afterlife of songs, how they zag when you expect them to zig after you release them to the world. Can you identify an Incendio tune with really long legs, that has visited some strange places?
A: We didn’t expect such a strong reaction to “Ledges Road,” which is Liza’s song about growing up on Ledges Road in Ridgefield, Conn. It’s one of our most downloaded songs, as well as one of our most requested songs on Pandora. It’s moved a lot of people. I think it was in New Mexico that someone came up to Liza and told her that it was the last song she had shared with her grandmother before she passed away.
Vocal music is about the singer and instrumental music is about the listener. When you write a sad song with sad lyrics, chances are people will feel sad. When you have instrumental music you have far wider room for interpretation, for feeling. We do a song called “Barcelona” and we hope it takes you to Barcelona or whatever your concept of Spain happens to be.
Q: You became a professional musician after meeting Liza, who in the early ’90s toured with Lindsey Buckingham. How has she changed you as a musician and how have you changed her as a musician?
A: Getting together with her gave me permission for me to be me. The circumstances of my life–having immigrant parents and going to Catholic school and attending a nice college like UC-Berkeley—meant I was all set up to become a banker or a realtor. Until I found Liza I hadn’t found my tribe. A lot of the people I had met were interested in music but dabbled in drugs; they were distracted. Liza was all business; she was all about having a band. She was as serious about music as I aspired to be, and she had the discipline to follow her goal. Our partner Jim is pretty much the same way; he has a laser-like discipline in his approach to his instrument.
Liza brought to me a background in classical guitar and classical voice. What I brought to the table is a little down-home blues feeling, an in-the-moment, go-for-it attitude. I have a pretty good ear, so I can jump into situations with little or no rehearsal and sound decent. Thanks to me, she’s more willing to dip her toe into the improvisational side of things. We’ve been married musicians for 19 years, so I think we must be doing something right.
Q: Have you made a recent discovery that made playing live easier and more satisfying, a revelation that eluded you for a long while?
A: I wouldn’t say it was anything philosophical. The goal is always to present the music as well as you can, so most of the improvements and quantum leaps tend to be on the mechanical/electronic side. You have stay healthy; I’m a foodie, so probably that’s been harder for me. You always have to improve your rig. The mental side doesn’t change a whole lot because I’ve always been dedicated to practice and execution. What has changed is: How do we improve our sound? How can we lock with the drummer better? How can we maximize our presentation with the drummer and the percussionist? I like to remember what [Frank] Zappa said: “It’s amazing how your sound can go from ‘great’ to ‘suck’ from venue to venue to venue.”
One of the reasons we’ve been together for 15 years, without major label help, mostly agented on our own, is our punk attitude. There are a lot of punk bands I loved, especially the Minutemen, Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys, and what I liked about them is that mostly they didn’t complain. Their attitude was: We have to be in Albuquerque in 72 hours; let’s get into the van and go. That attitude has separated us from a lot of bands. Not many bands would have put up with being on a very slow arc for 15 years.
Q: What was your toughest time in the music trade, when you might have considered giving up gigging for a living?
A: In 2006 we knew we had to get out of LA. A lot of bars and other places where musicians can ply their trade couldn’t make money and had closed. So we took our Honda van—which currently has 475,000 miles—and we drove it across the country. We played in Liza’s mom’s hometown in Iowa and we played the Ridgefield [Conn.] library and we did a handful of shows in New York City. After we put our drummer on the plane, because he needed to go back, we were driving around Oklahoma, casually going over our finances, when we realized that after two grueling weeks we each had made 400 or 500 bucks. It was devastating; it was sort of soul crushing. But you get back on the road, and on your feet, and the feeling dissipates. Next year we had a slightly smarter, better tour and we followed with an even smarter, better one. .
We’re been fortunate to stay together and overcome obstacles. Once again, the attitude is: Just get in the van and stop crying and just do it. That being said, we do stay in nicer motels [laughs].
Q: And what was your most rewarding time in the trade, when you felt on top of the heap?
A: Well, we’re getting ready to play three weeks on the East Coast and it’s going to be nice. Mauch Chunk is a beautiful place. Apart from everybody being super kind, you get a great sense of history just walking in there. In Los Angeles people don’t care if a theater is more than 20 or 30 years old; they’re just now renovating and reinventing old theaters.
We’re going to play to 10,000 to 15,000 people at the National Gallery of Art. We should be able to promote and sell a lot of CDs and make new fans. We don’t have the benefit of the ephemeral taste-of-the-week generated by a jackpot machine. Our fans tend to be a little older, a little more sophisticated. We’ll take it; it’s fun. Great word of mouth should never be underestimated.
We don’t listen to musicians who are passing fancies, either. We’re influenced by the people who made sophisticated music emblematic of their time, who had something to say: Hendrix. Fleetwood Mac. XTC. Nirvana. Joni Mitchell. Today, you have to dig deeper if you want to hear meaningful music.
Q: So, JP, what tops your Bucket List?
A: The only thing that comes to mind is to do a night with an R&B cover band, playing stuff I love and have it kill. I’d love to play my Strat[ocaster] with a 10-piece group with horns and really cook on tunes by Tower of Power, Sam & Dave, Albert King. Anything Stax, anything with a B-3 [organ], anything where people have to listen carefully.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: At the risk of sounding like a Deadhead, I want people to be a little kinder to one another. It sounds trite, but it’s true. Sharing whatever gifts you’ve been given with grace seems to be sorely lacking in many individuals. They set the human race back from the best things we can do and the best people we can be. Those people are the snakes in my life.
Q: You and Liza have composed a lot of music for TV, film, video games and other sources. What’s the most unlikely place you heard your soundtrack/incidental tunes?
A: Probably the most gratifying place was “Bridesmaids.” We never knew it would be a big hit and would help us financially. We have to give a big tip of the hat to [co-star/co-writer] Kristen Wiig for being brilliant.
We were extremely pleased when we heard or music in the long-form Cinco de Mayo commercial for [Dos Equis beer’s] “Most Interesting Man in the World” commercial. That was awesome because we love that guy.
I think the most surprising use of our music is in the video game “Far Cry 3.” I actually rap in the piece, which is called “La Bruja [Witch] of San Martin”; ordinarily I wouldn’t rap in a million years. What was really surprising is that they play it on jungle radio. People are listening to my rapping while driving around shooting zombies. I’m not sure if it’s zombies or government soldiers. I should know but, frankly, we’re on tour and I have no idea what’s going on.
Jean-Pierre Durand: The Scoop
He moonlights in the Red Mystics, a blues band.
He and his wife, bassist Liza Carbe, have written music for TV shows, including “American Idol,” and recorded CDs for the Sonotron Music Library, including “Latin Trance Fusion.”
He and Carbe have engineered, mixed and/or produced over 30 CDs featuring the likes of vocalist Carmen Lundy and saxophonist Steve Marsh, a member of Lyle Lovett and His Large Band.
The couple wrote “Mambo’s Chambo” for their parrot, “Light Dancer” for their late reflection-chasing Rottweiler and “Jaco y Paco” as a memorial for bassist Jaco Pastorius and guitarist Paco de Lucia, both of whom died young.
The couple and the other members of Incendio have recast “I Will Survive,” Gloria Gaynor’s disco hit, as a rumba.
His guitar basically died a half hour into Incendio’s first concert in the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Sweat destroyed a string, which ruined a connection to an electronic system, which meant he couldn’t play the “Comfortably Numb” section during an adaptation of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. To the rescue came Opera House booker/publicist Dan Hugos, who lent Durand a guitar with steel strings. “It ended up being a magical show and just one more wild Jim Thorpe thing.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Jean-Pierre Durand’s jones for Tom Jones. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.