Q & A: Steve Martin

The actor, playwright, composer, author, comedian and—as he would have it, "eruditer" and "human cannon ball"—talks about his two current passions, banjo and bluegrass.


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I was wondering how you thought performing with you has boosted the careers of James Taylor and Paul McCartney.

Oh yes—you know, those guys were struggling! Actually it was quite a thrill. I have a lot going on and sometimes you don’t remember things so clearly. But I remember every detail working with Paul McCartney that day. And I remember every detail of working with James Taylor two nights ago. And he was such a gentle guy. Paul McCartney was completely delightful to everyone in the room regardless of position. Very funny. They were just really really nice.

I've found with most celebrities at the highest level that there’s a reason they get there and stay there. Now I can’t say that as a generality. This goes for musicians in the bluegrass world too. They are wickedly smart and really funny. Most are college educated. And they’ve made choices along the way that this is what they wanted to do. It’s really surprising the background of a lot of people in show business.

Did Paul McCartney really say you sounded terrible as a singer?

It wasn’t quite like that. He thought I was going to sing on the track "Best Love" and I said "Okay, but I’m a terrible singer." And when we got togther to work on it he said, "When you said you were a terrible singer I thought you were being humble, but you weren’t." It was done with a sense of humor.

I was just looking at your blog which I really enjoy. And you put up there that those three cent and seven cent royalty checks. Now that you’re actually putting out records and working with labels and you’ve been sort of introduced to the music industry, I was wondering how the music business might remind you of the other businesses that you’ve come into contact with, like movies and television. What are your thoughts on where the music business is going? It’s sort of in chaos right now.

Well, that’s a very hard question to answer. All I see is on the Internet is "Download Steve Martin records for free." And I know that those sites are filled with viruses and everything so people get screwed. In my case it's more common that people take videos that I own, put them on their site and sell advertising. And there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. It’s not really hurting me. I’m in a different position. But I can imagine that at another level it’s hurting hundreds of thousands of artists.

And I don’t know what the answer is to that. I was told that it used to be, records filled concert seats. Now concerts sell records because they're sold live at the concerts. The business has completely changed.

We have two packages for our CD. One is deluxe, sold on Amazon. And one is a regular CD. The deluxe package is outselling the regular package. And it means that, yeah people actually do want to buy a package. So maybe that’s a good thing that they actually do want something to hold in their hands. But I don’t really have an answer for you because I can see that it’s bigger than I thought out there in terms of piracy.

You mentioned the package, and I love your liner notes. Can you talk about your process for putting those notes together? Do you enjoy that?

Yeah, I really do. I like writing about every song, telling the story of every song. You know, some I do better than others. But I like telling the story of how we got the records together and telling the story of what the year was like. I remember when I was younger and I'd get an album they had liner notes. You read every paragraph of those liner notes because you wanted to get into the artist’s head. It’s a good tradition for me. I really do enjoy it.

And I love the way the designers—Greg Carr and Salli Ratts out of Colorado—they just do a fantastic job designing these records. They did The Crow, too.

I was just wondering if you would ever consider bringing your comedy and banjo playing to maybe a special events show on Broadway? 

I really don't know if I have the stamina to do eight shows a week. That to me is very hard. If I had to do two shows in one day, that'd be like when I started out. But I have thought about some kind of musical involving my music. I thought that would be kind of interesting. I have thought of it in that way—as a creator of something, rather than a performer. So that’s in my head. But whether I get it done or not I don’t know.

You were recently featured in the "American Masters" documentary about the Troubadour Club in LA. And I was just wondering what it was like being a part of that historic part of American music history.

Of course, at the time we didn’t know it was historic. It’s just people hanging out. But it was a very exciting time—I was listening to Linda Ronstadt and precursors to the Eagles. And I was hearing comedians. Actually, I was one of the few comedians there, if not the only one. Cheech and Chong came in but that was way later. Everybody had sort of moved on by then. But it was a real hang out for musicians. You know, I think I talked on that show about how Glenn Frey came up and pitched me names for his group—Eagles. So, it was a real undiscovered bar scene with a lot of talent floating around, including talent "spotters" like David Geffen.

As you’ve mentioned The Crow was a complete triumph, very acclaimed, great reviews. In preparing material for Rare Bird Alert did you feel that you wanted to capitalize on that first album’s success, yet chart some new territory creatively?

Well I didn’t think about that at all. I just had 12 new songs. But I knew I was going to do it with The Steep Canyon Rangers. So I didn’t really think about topping The Crow. This was just the next album.

 I knew I wanted to do it with just the band. The Crow has a lot of other musicians on it. This one features just the six of us, except for a couple of cuts. That’s really the only difference from The Crow.

Q & A: Steve Martin

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