An interview with guitarist and composer Tim Wendel
the sonic vibes of westward travels...
Today in The Molly Zone we have an interview with Colorado-based guitarist and composer Tim Wendel!
Tim Wendel is someone Alex White, aka Commodity Creature, recommended I interview. His musical weapon of choice is the guitar, and his guitar work ranges from improvisation to composition, in groups large and small, hovering in the general zone of jazz but also pushing beyond the already blurry limits of the genre.
I listened to his first studio album Westward You in preparation for the interview and was stunned especially by the mood of its title track, which seems to capture the thrill of a sensational live performance within the confines of a recording studio. I keep trying to come up with words to describe it — fleet? cascading? abundant? — but it kind of defies description, damn!! Normally my personal diet of guitar consumption comes in the form of ye olde power chords and sloppy jammy King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard solos, so Tim’s refined-yet-liberated guitarsmanship was a huge breath of fresh air.
Read on to learn about the magic of playing in an intimate space, what it’s like to play a guitar you haven’t picked up in 15 years, and how to be a vibe-based bandleader, all with Tim Wendel.
this interview has been edited for length and clarity :)
Molly O’Brien: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat. I talked to Alex earlier this year for this website The Alternative, and then we've been in touch on social media and I had this interview-recommendation idea and he was down. So I'm glad I get to talk to people that he knows about their own musical lifestyles.
Tim Wendel: Thanks for having me on.
MO: First: guitar's your main instrument?
TW: That's correct.
MO: I'd love to hear the background of when you first started playing guitar and got into music in general.
TW: I first started playing piano when I was little. I just played with my grandmother, and then I took a bunch of classical lessons for a bunch of years. Then I became a teenager, like twelve and thirteen, listening to the Beatles and Led Zeppelin and Hendrix and all the classic stuff, and I really wanted to play guitar. My stepdad gave me a guitar and I really gravitated toward it, loved playing it and have been doing it ever since.
MO: How would you describe the genre of guitar playing that you do now?
TW: I like to live in a bunch of different worlds. I went to Temple University and CU Boulder, both for jazz. So a lot of what I've done lives in that world. And that's kind of a large umbrella world — there's a lot of different kinds of of music that gets called “jazz.” Whether we call it jazz or not, I think what I really like doing is music where I can be creative, so either improvising with musicians in the moment or being creative compositionally.
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Hey! I’m honored and excited to be recording the beautiful music of my brother @zackteran later this week. Here’s some practice sounds on his “Veiled Citadel.”
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MO: Will you talk about what your day-to-day music practice is like? In terms of practicing it, like playing it, playing it live, recording, composing, all of that.
TW: I'll give you like my ideal day-to-day because right now my day-to-day is like, crazy. I like to touch a bunch of different bases. Certainly a primary concern would just be playing the guitar every day, some improvising, some technical things, some fundamentals. For instance, right now I'm playing a classical piece, so I'm playing my classical guitar every day and working on this particular piece. I enjoy it because of the music elements, but also because of the technique that it brings.
And then I like to spend some time improvising in various different contexts. Maybe it's a jazz tune, maybe it's one of my own originals. Maybe it's just a free piece or a rhythmic concept or something along those lines. And then I also try to get to composition and recording as much as possible. I look at them in the same world because I think of composition and recording as slowed-down improvisation, with an edit feature.
MO: Oh, yeah.
TW: You just whittle away at this sculpture and you start with a block of wood and then eventually the thing inside of it reveals itself to you. For example, I'm working with my partner Wellington [Bullings] on a bunch of different songs right now that'll eventually come out in an album. And we're going to release singles along the way. And so we've been focusing on particular days where we just spend all day in the studio. That day could be four hours of guitar parts and experimenting and coming up with different textures, or it could be laying down background vocals for two hours, or it could be editing different drum grooves and different sounds and bringing them all together.
MO: That's very cool. Do you have a preference of improvising or composing? Or do they intersect in everything you do?
TW: I think that they intersect, but I find that as I'm getting older that sometimes I enjoy improvising with people more than I enjoy just playing by myself. And then if I’m working on a composition or recording, the time just kind of melts off the clock, you know?
But it ebbs and flows. Sometimes I feel really good on the instrument, and then sometimes it just feels like maintenance, like you're just trying to get the instrument to a certain level.
MO: In terms of your technical setup, do you have a preferred guitar that you play on? And how do you choose a guitar?
TW: Totally. So this is probably the one that I play the most.
This is a style of guitar that I started playing…I guess it would be 15, 16 years ago. It's semi-hollow. So there's a block in the middle and then chambers on the side. It's pretty versatile. You can get a really nice jazz sound, but also make it a bit more modern.
This one [on the right] is more of a rocker, non-jazz guitar, and gives a different edge to the sound. And then this [on the left] is what I was playing before I got into jazz guitar stuff, and I just took it out for the first time in 16 years.
MO: Oh, wow!
TW: I was playing with it the other day and recording with it and was like, Oh, my gosh, it's like reacquainting with an old friend.
I’ve also really gotten interested in pedals, and how a pedal relates to an amp and how you use an amp. That's been changing the way that I hear guitars. Also with recording, because the guitar feels differently when you're in an ensemble playing live in a space than it does when you're recording. Sometimes you’ll find that, oh, this sound that I like to play with live doesn't necessarily come through in a recording, or it gets in the way of these other instruments. So that's been a huge eye-opener for me. I would say my concept of how instruments sound and how I am trying to craft sound has changed astronomically in the last year or two as compared to like the previous 15 years.
MO: And is that from focusing more on trying to record it? Also, when you're recording stuff, are you engineering things yourself?
TW: So to answer the first part of your question: yeah, big time. I think having to record has made a huge difference in terms of how I'm hearing things live.
As far as engineering stuff, I'm certainly not a skilled or trained engineer. I’ve been doing it in my room here with various different instruments, and most of the time it's me and guitar, or my partner singing, or doing things with synthesizers. Or reaching out to friends and having them either come over or record remotely. And then other times, we'll go to a studio. I've never engineered recordings for drums or anything like that.
MO: That seems hard. I mean, it all seems hard, but drums seem especially hard.
TW: Yeah, I’d love to figure it out one day, but I also don't mind paying awesome people to make great sounds for me.
MO: Totally. Yeah, I have a podcast where I talk about music writing and Glyn Johns, who produced Led Zeppelin and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, he wrote a memoir and it was pages and pages of him describing, like, just micing drums at a studio. I was like, Oh, my god.
TW: I know. So intense.
MO: So your first album [Westward You] came out in 2022 - will you tell me a little bit about how it came to be?
TW: So there are seven pieces on there, some written quite a while ago. I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, and then lived Philadelphia for ten years, and have gone back and forth between the East Coast and Colorado, so a lot of the pieces had elements of different experiences that involved that type of traveling from the East Coast to the mountains, and the feelings that come along with it.
And I started getting interested in arranging for larger ensembles — not a big band, but more voices than, say, four people. I started writing these arrangements for a core group of a seven-piece band: guitar, bass, drums, piano, and then two saxophones and a trumpet. And some of the arrangements have multiple flutes or multiple clarinets and different things like that.
We recorded with the core group one weekend and then added different woodwind overdubs and whatnot over the next several months. I got it mastered and was all ready to have it come out, and then the pandemic threw everything for a loop, and it put me back another two years. But I finally got it out this past summer.
TW: Yeah, it feels good.
MO: So with this album being made with a larger ensemble, and being the bandleader for that many people — what's your, like, musical leadership style? I feel like that’s a weird job interview question.
TW: That’s okay! The thing is, I think the best music seems like it can just work regardless of how you direct it. Like Charlie Parker can be played slow or fast, Bach can be played slow or fast. But other music requires a little bit more specificity to get going.
First of all, I am humbled to play with so many great people who I really don't have to say very much to anyways. They just kind of get it. That's the best, really: to not say anything and then be surprised by the way that they envision the music. A drummer is going to play something cooler than I'm going to imagine for drums, and a bass player is going to play something cooler, all the way around.
So I try to say very little, but when direction needs to happen, it's like, hey, let's give this this type of feeling. I don't really say anything too specific, it’s more general gestural direction. A vibe. Which is like an overused word, but, like, that's kind of what I'm looking for.
MO: Hey, it's used a lot because it applies to a lot! In terms of live performances, have you done any performances that have felt like particular career standouts?
TW: We did an album release for this back in August, and that was really fun. Of people that were on the record, some were from here and some from Philadelphia and some from other places. A lot of people came out and the energy was good.
And as I mentioned before, I do a lot of co-writing and co-producing with my partner Wellington, who’s a singer-songwriter in the soul world. We played a concert down in Durango recently of her original music that was really fun, as a trio with a pianist. It was a nice, intimate listening room, and it just felt good to play music without any louder instruments like electrified bass or drums, and really bringing the audience in with that smaller type of ensemble.
MO: And has there been a musical experience that you’ve seen that you haven't played in that has been particular memorable to you?
TW: I've been fortunate to hear a lot of music in the last year. The past few months have been such a whirlwind. Besides dropping in on all the great local musicians around here, last summer we went to England to a music festival called Love Supreme.
MO: Cool! Good name.
TW: Great name, and great festival. A really diverse lineup. I saw some of my favorite artists, like the guitarist Bill Frisell, and then also the singer-songwriter guitarist Lianne La Havas and Erykah Badu was there. It was all these different generations and different genres all coming together.
The audience was really, really cool, and there were all these great local players. And it was my first time being in Europe as an adult, too. So that was a great experience.
MO: I feel like England really has mastered festival vibes…to say “vibes” again. They seem like they know what they're doing over there.
TW: Yeah, the vibes were super strong. Oh I guess I should say, I did see two concerts recently that were great, both at the same place, the Boulder Theater. Hiatus Kaiyote, who I love, they're a great band from Australia. And then the guitarist Julian Lage, who I really admire. Oh, and then I saw The Bad Plus, who are also great players.
MO: That sounds amazing! Thank you so much for your time chatting today. Anything you'd like to plug before we sign off?
TW: The record’s out there, so if people would like to check it out, you can find Westward You on all of the streaming platforms, or it’s on Bandcamp if you feel like purchasing it. And I’m out and about in the scene playing various gigs here and there. Also huddled up in the studio, working on new stuff with Wellington Bullings, so be on the lookout for that.