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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Why do you think—and you’ve touched upon this a little bit—why do you think the banjo particularly became your instrument of choice? Why not the xylophone or the tuba?

 I just loved the sound of it. And you’re right because there was the mandolin. There was the fiddle. There was the guitar, everything. I just loved it. And I can’t explain that. That’s just primordial. When I heard it I literally could separate the other instruments out with my ears and just listen to the banjo. I loved both its melancholy aspect and its dynamic speed.

 What would be the perfect performance night in your mind? Would it be the band playing together to their best of their abilities, or the audience engagement?

I'd say it’s both those things. It’s where we’re playing great and the audience is responding to subtleties. We all remark when we get off stage if we’ve had a good show and if we’ve noticed a few audience members just sort of watching our hands. We kind of like that for some reason, I don't know why.

You know, I judge my playing first of all, like how well did I play. And then there’s this overriding thing of how well did the show go, how well did the audience like it? There’s a million ways to appreciate your own work,  really.

You talked a moment ago about the liner notes and the process of putting those together. One of the things I noticed in reading the liner notes is that it seems that your songwriting process is to take an observation of something quirky or unusual and then play around with it and make it funny.

That’s one way to do it, to find something— for example in "Jubilation Day"—that idea started out like, "Oh, I think I’ll write a song about a guy who breaks up with his girlfriend completely guided by his self-help books, his shrink and" . . . there was one other thing. But the song quickly changed into he was with the worst girlfriend in the world, and it was a liberating event for him to break up. And that’s what that song actually became.

With "Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back" I just had that phrase. I thought, "Wow that’s a nice little phrase for a song," because that is kind of in a nutshell what a lot of peoples' relationships are like, especially at first because you’re not really clear if you want the person or not. I kept that line in my head for a long time.

So that really started with a line. The Atheist song started with an idea. The song "You"—which the Dixie Chicks sing—really started with the melody. And the melody dictated what the song was about. So there’s all kinds of different ways to do this.

 I have a new song, which is not on the record, about Paul Revere . . . and that came from reading a modern history book on the real story of Paul Revere. But I came up witha  sort of twist on it, that it’s sung from the point of view of Paul Revere’s horse. So it’s Paul Revere’s horse telling the story of what they did that night. So, you know, every song is a little bit different.

I'd like to know more about the Dixie Chicks’ involvement  with Rare Bird Alert, actually. You just touched on that a little bit. But they’ve been kind of off the radar since Not Ready to Make Nice and winning the Grammy Awards. So I was interested in how you went about getting them involved with the song "You," and how that worked.

Actually, it was a suggestion by Maureen O’Connor, who’s on the phone right now. And she had worked with—correct me if I’m wrong—a person who had worked with the Dixie Chicks and their name came up. And it was perfect for  "You." I jumped at the chance because I know they have great harmony. And the song is made for harmonies. I used to do it on stage with the band, with The Steep Canyon Rangers. They sort of volunteered to give up the song on the record to get the Dixie Chicks. I still do it with the Rangers in the live show. And when you see the show you’ll know that they do an admirable job too.

But the Dixie Chicks were great to get. They did a beautiful job. And they were really delightful to work with. And there was no acrimony—you know, one of the rumors on their breakup. They all seem to be very very close friends in the studio.

 Having looked at your website, I know that according to your concert rider all venues on this tour were "required to have Béla Fleck on speed dial" in case of emergency. I’m wondering if you’ve taught him these songs in advance.

No. Béla Fleck is a friend. We’ve played together a little bit. He’s on another planet when it comes to his playing. But he’s a very good guy. In fact he’s on the board of my banjo award thing. And I’m playing tonight, actually, with his wife Abigail Washburn at the Metropolitan Museum. We’re doing a charity thing for a friend of ours.

We're friendly, but he can’t keep up with me, let’s put it that way.

The banjo and bagpipes probably get made fun of or are the butt of many more jokes than other instruments. Any comments on that? And do you know any good banjo jokes?

No—I try to forget them because I love the bagpipes and I love the banjo. I’m trying to present the banjo  . . . you know, the banjos in the '20s and '30s were always presented by comedians. And they were usually sort of, you know, dressed in coveralls and wore straw hats. That’s why we dress up. A lot of the bluegrass acts now are dressing up. So we’re trying to kind of change that perception.

Banjo jokes and bagpipe jokes are like Polish jokes. Now, they’re not really politically correct. So I’m trying to change that image, trying to put it off on another instrument—maybe the harp.

 Is there anything out there that’s written about you that’s incorrect that keeps coming up? Or do you think people have misconceptions about you?

I'm trying to think. There were  a few, years back, but I don’t see those things anymore. One was that I was in Mensa. I’ve never been in Mensa. One was that I was a Mormon. Never been a Mormon. There are a few incorrect quotes I see on the Internet but they're not even worth correcting. There's some quote from my act which was "to be a millionaire, first get a million dollars." It’s a shortened version of a routine I used to do, but it’s an incorrect quote and doesn’t strike me as funny. The real quote is too long to explain; that’s why they shortened it.

Given the subject matter of your film that's coming out this October [The Big Year], how much does the title of the album Rare Bird Alert tie into that? Or was it a complete coincidence?

It ties in, but not in a commercial way. We were involved in bird watching and the lingo of bird watching and that just seemed like a good title. There is a thing called a rare bird alert that people dial up on their phone apps and get a rare bird alert.  Actually, my wife suggested it as a title for a song. Which it was until it became the title of the album.

Does being on the road now remind you of your comedy tours way back when? And do you do the old-fashioned bus thing? How do you roll?

Well, I have a joke about it in my act but I don’t want to spoil it right now. We do travel by bus. And I like it. Especially because of the guys. When I was doing my stand-up it was just me alone. And that was hard. Sometimes now I can fly home after show, spend the night in bed. I stay in classy hotels. It’s really nice. And I do 10 days at a time so I don’t kill myself.

And there’s always the guys around. When I roll into town, I’m not sitting alone in the room. We practice or work on a new song or talk about the show. It’s good.

What was your last appearance in Connecticut?

I think it was in Stamford—am I saying that correctly? My play—Picasso at the Lapin Agile—played there. I wasn’t on stage but I was the author. And they did a great job of presenting it. I think it was about 10 years ago.

Q & A: Steve Martin

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