Piping Up, Out and All Around
Piping Up, Out and All Around
A Q&A with Mike Katz of the Battlefield Band
By Geoff Gehman
Mike Katz is the Frank Zappa of bagpipers. That is, he’s definitely a rare cat: a Jewish Los Angeleno who plays Highland and small pipes in the Battlefield Band, Scotland’s most prestigious, adventurous balladeers, hornpipers and strathspeyers. He’s also a whistle specialist, a guitarist, a composer of spry tunes with wry titles (i.e., “Mexico 1 Armenia 1”) and a fan of not only Zappa but George Clinton, the Zappa of parliamentary funk.
Not only that, Katz has a long beard that makes him an honorary member of a ZZ Top yeshiva and writes a wickedly fun, slightly surreal tour diary for the Battlefield boys. In one entry he suggested that the allegedly fictional J.R. Ewing was actually killed by the allegedly dead Jim Morrison.
Katz should be able to jazz up his diary after the Battlefielders’ rocking-and-reeling Oct. 6 gig at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. In a recent Skype chat from the Scottish headquarters of Temple Records, the BB’s label, he identified the piper tribe as cunning, thrifty and attracted to danger.
Q: What was your initial attraction to the pipes after you picked up the habit at age 10 from an older brother? And please say its “insolent” sound because I love the word “insolent” and have been dying to write it for years.
A: I still think the attraction is to that “insolent” sound, as well as the massive volume and the intricate harmonies and the delicate melodies connected to the droning. All these droning instruments are attractive, whether they’re for Scottish traditionals or blues or Indian ragas. It’s a sound, and a process, you get lost in—even pipers. I suppose it’s like drugs, a kind of narcotic.
Q: Have you had any recent epiphanies about the pipes, any mysteries you’ve finally solved?
A: Bagpipers are kind of the opposite. You discover you solve nothing over time.
You have no control of the pipes when you’re playing because the reeds are not in your mouth. So there’s always a possibility of something going horribly wrong; there’s always an element of hope and faith. I sympathize with [guitarist-producer] Robert Fripp, who said that one of the attractions of working with Mellotrons and tape loops back in the day was the element of danger.
One of the attractions of touring, besides playing music, is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. The life of a traveling musician is often mundane and weird. A lot of people don’t like weird. I do.
Q: Can you recall any weird scenes inside the goldmine on the road?
A: Well, I was walking around [Greenwich Village] one afternoon and I saw this guy who lives on my street in Edinburgh. I vaguely know him; he knows me from drinking in a pub back home. New Yorkers wouldn’t be surprised at such a chance encounter because New York is really quite small, so you’re always meeting people you know in odd places.
Q: Why did you decide to sign up with the Battlefield Band besides the group being well known and adventurous and around a long time?
A: Well, I wanted to be a guitar player in Los Angeles and I realized that would never happen because the world is full of guitar players (I also studied philosophy at Edinburgh University, and that didn’t get me very far either). The thing that attracted me to play music is playing with people. When the opportunity to play with a band came up, I had no hesitation to take it up. Plus, [the Battlefield was] one of the busiest bands with bagpipers.
Besides, I didn’t want to do what most pipers do, which is put on a kilt and play weddings and funerals and [Robert] Burns dinners.
Q: Why did you and the boys decide to cut Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is”?
A: That was actually [longtime manager-producer] Robin Morton’s idea. He’s from Northern Ireland and a lot of people in America would be surprised how many people in Northern Ireland and Scotland are influenced by American music, especially soul music. “That’s How Strong My Love Is” is very much like a gospel song. It’s also very similar to a great deal of traditional songs here and in Ireland.
Q: I’ve read that [Battlefield vocalist-guitarist] Sean O’Donnell has tried to “crowbar” Steely Dan chords into BB tunes, Steely Dan being one of his favorite acts. Does that mean you’ve tried to sneak in strains of Frank Zappa?
A: It is a sort of miraculous thing. You play things and people say they hear things and you say [skeptically]: “Yeahyeahyeah.” You keep playing things and you hope for the best for whatever comes out of your hand and head. Strangely, a lot of Mexican music comes out.
Q: Have you tried your hand at klezmer, being a Jewish musician who occasionally plays Scottish Dixieland?
A: Not really. Klezmer is much bigger now than it was when I was a kid. When I growing up in Los Angeles I was very keen on John Zorn. I love “Naked City” and all that crazy jazz. I guess the closest I came to klezmer was that I once played in a Mexican dance band.
Q: Name one major way the band has changed since the departure of Alan Reid, keyboardist, songwriter and last original member.
A: Well, Alan was replaced by Ewen [Henderson], who’s a Gaelic singer and a fiddler. Having two fiddlers means you can do a ton of harmonic and dynamic things you couldn’t do with one fiddler. And because we all play each other’s instruments [Henderson doubles on pipes], we push each other to get better at things we’re not that good at.
Q: What do you miss about not having Alan around?
A: Alan is a great guy to go on the road with. He’s been around so much, he’s always calm; nothing fazes him. You’d really want him on board if the ship is sinking.
Q: Let’s put your feet to the fire: How have you put your stamp on the band?
A: Despite all this talk of Frank Zappa and John Zorn, I’m actually a fairly traditional musician. I like to go back to the old, original manuscripts of tunes and discover how and why things were said. You can find many of the origins of modern music in those manuscripts. I’m really not a fan of fashion. You can get lost in fashion and lose your eye on the ball.
Q: Into what new territories would you like to take the BB? How about doing a Chieftains and recording with popular musicians from all over the map? Or how about doing a Paul Simon-esque project a la “Graceland” or “Rhythm of the Saints”?
A: Well, we did a bunch of things with Uzbek musicians. The danger with those configurations is that you don’t really understand the other person’s music. When Scottish musicians get together with American musicians, all they want to do is play American country music. The problem is, the Scottish guys aren’t as good at country as the American guys. To me, there’s no point in playing bad country music.
The most important thing is to first try to get work. It’s the same for us as most everybody else. You wake up every day and try to find tunes. Most of it is rubbish. Some of it’s okay. You just keep your ears open and see how it goes. It’s a slow process, and the world’s a slow place now.
Q: What did Dr. Carol G. Katz do to earn her name on a jig on her son’s solo record “A Month of Sundays”?
A: It was for her 60th birthday. It’s a common thing for pipers that if you write tunes for weddings or birthdays, you don’t have to buy anything [chuckles].
A lot of bagpipe and fiddle tunes were named after landowners, heiresses and other rich people. My friend [and fellow piper] Allan MacDonald calls it “the crawling piper syndrome.” You name a tune after a patron to curry favor when in reality the tune has been around for centuries–and because the patron won’t know any better [chuckles].
Q: Would you like to inspire Jewish pipers the way Sandy Koufax inspired Jewish baseball players?
A: Since there are far fewer Jewish pipers than Jewish baseball players, I think it would be better to inspire Jewish baseball players [laughs]. Let’s just say it would be an elite team.
Q: In one of your typically entertaining tour-diary entries you suggest that J.R. Ewing was really shot by Jim Morrison. I’m dying to hear an explanation.
A: When I was growing up there was a rumor that Jim Morrison hadn’t really died, that he was a 300-pound biker living at Edwards Air Force Base in Barstow [,Calif.], which was the Back of Beyond for someone from Los Angeles. We live in a time of impatience, when most people don’t have patience for lots of rumors, so you have to make one big rumor.
[Pauses] Write down your rumor and I’ll endorse it.
Mike Katz: The Scoop
First tune he couldn’t forget: “Sharleena,” a “lost” track on “Chunga’s Revenge,” a pivotal 1970 album for Frank Zappa. “I used to listen to it every night before I went to bed,” says Katz. “I would get so lost in it, it was almost like I entered a dream-like state.”
Played in a California pipe band with Eric Rigler, later a member of the Battlefield Band.
Met his Scottish wife at Edinburgh University, two reasons why he says “aye” and “wee.”
Joined the Battlefield boys in 1997 after stints in Ceolbeg and the Scottish Gas Pipe Band.
Participates in music-and-cooking sessions in a kitchen at Temple Records, the Battlefield’s label.
A basketball fan, he has especially fond memories of the 1980s run-and-gun Los Angeles Lakers with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa. Being a quarter Irish, he enjoys a good reel and hornpipe. He can be reached at email@example.com.