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 really like that you’re noticing other musicians with the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, and wanted to ask about that.

When I first came into this sort of music—which would be the '60s—there was a level of musicianship that I would say was high. When I came back to it that level of quality had quadrupled; the average player was so above average. I remember this prize came about—we're talking about my annual prize for a banjo player, when I give out $50,000 cash to a bluegrass musician selected by a board of great bluegrass musicians—after my wife and I were at this little club in LA that was hosting a bluegrass weekend. And I’m listening to these great, great players; then my wife and I went to dinner and I said, "These musicians shouldn’t be playing for just 200 people." One of them was still paying off his banjo; another had a day job. So I thought this award might help give them some cash, might free them up to do something bigger and might bring further attention to them and to the music.

By the way, banjo players do earn money. I’m just citing some particular cases; some people are really struggling for their music. And I have a feeling . . . I’m hoping that bluegrass or at least some mutated form of it can cross over into a larger arena. I think there’s a lot of young exciting bluegrass players. For example, the Punch Brothers; Chris Telay is a very charismatic mandolin player. Bluegrass has commercial potential but it's still a secret to a wider commercial audience. We’ll see what happens in the next 10 years.

Was it easier to get other musicians to take you seriously? Or was it harder for them to change this image they had of you as an actor and comedian . . .

 Well, it’s a funny thing about the banjo. Sometimes when actors try to become musicians there’s a great resistance. But I’ll tell you why that is: It’s not that they’re trying to become musicians. They’re trying to become rock stars. And that’s always kind of ludicrous. It’s like they’re not "paying the dues." But the banjo looks and sounds very difficult. And it is. So, suddenly they’re not laughing when you play a three-finger banjo riff at lightning speed. It’s just as simple as that.

I always wonder, what would I think if I saw David Letterman pick up the violin and play Mozart. I would go "Wow," you know, if it was decent. I wouldn’t make fun of him.

Would you pay to see him?

Well, I don’t know about that. It depends.

You know, I have to have confidence in my own music or honestly I wouldn’t put it out there. I really wouldn’t. I look at every record—every song on every record—and I go, "Is this valid?" And I really do believe by the time it’s out there that every song is valid. I don’t want anybody . . . you have to be extra careful in a strange way.

So, I have been lucky to be able to sort of transform . . . I haven’t been ridiculed. I mean, when we got six IBMA—International Bluegrass Music Association for people that don’t know—award nominations for The Crow, it was fantastic. Because that’s the toughest group I have to pass muster with. So it has been really rewarding. And I have met the best players. And they’ve been very kind and nice to me.

 Are there any similarities or differences between doing music and all the other art forms you do, like comedy or magic?

I do think about this. Sometimes I get asked it and I never have a good answer. But the only similarities I’ve found are metaphorical. In other words they’re not real similarities. They’re just fanciful. Like, I can say, "A musical line is like a sentence. It has a beginning, middle, and end. And a phrase in a song is like a paragraph. And of course there’s lyrics. You know, lyrics are similar to book writing or sentence writing. A lyric has to flow like a sentence." But even that is different because you can kind of cheat in a nice way with a lyric. You can get away with things you really couldn’t get away with in a sentence on a page.

So, it’s really honestly from another part of the brain. When I started doing this again I felt I was using another part of my brain. I felt I was buying . . . I was staving off Alzheimer’s. That’s what I actually felt, that was coming from somewhere else. I said this on David Letterman. He asked, "How do you have time to do all this?" I said, "Well, I don’t have a job. I don’t go to work. I wake up and there’s hours in the day."

And also, I enjoy doing it. It’s fun for me to either have people over or to . . . you know, I think I’ve written more songs while watching television. You’re sort of fiddling around on the banjo and you make a mistake because you’re not watching where you’re going and you think, "What was that?" Then you try to repeat it, and more comes out of bad playing, actually, than good playing. I don’t know where it comes from.

I don’t follow many celebrities on Twitter. But once I knew you were coming here I started following you, and your account is really quite entertaining. You were talking about liking to still do comedy. Is this kind of a release for you since you’re not doing stand-up anymore?

It is. It’s kind of like going back to old fashioned comedy writing. It’s only 140 characters so you can think up something funny or odd or quirky. When I used to write for television if something didn’t work there was always next week. If I issue a tweet and I feel like it wasn’t that good I feel like I have to make up for it right away. I have to think of something really funny to patch it up. But it has been very interesting. And it’s taught me how to edit in an interesting way, to turn three words into one, which is good as you all know, you’re all writers. But we’ll see if it’s actually a detriment the next time I write something serious, like a book.

Q & A: Steve Martin

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