LIVE VOODOO - an interview with Karl Werne
Music lovers, mentally take off your shoes and get ready for a beautiful ride. - P. Milano

PAM: How long have you been playing music?

Karl: Well, aside from washing dishes at an Italian restaurant for 4 days as a teenager, it's all I've ever done for a living. No, wait, I also built fences with a buddy for a summer in junior high school. That was it - music ever since.

PAM: What got you started? What influenced you to play music?

Karl: Hmmmm - a tragedy, really. I was the youngest of six kids - we traveled around a lot cause my dad's job - he was the officer in charge of the Immigration / Naturalization Service - we moved to Virginia Beach from San Diego when I was 11 years old. After being here only a couple weeks, I watched him die of a heart attack at 43 years old. Suddenly I found myself across the country from the friends I had - feeling pretty isolated and forced to grow up fast - I didn't really relate to anything or anyone around me - except - my old albums. Every time someone went real deep - either writing like Paul Simon - screaming like Zeppelin - or playing guitar like Pat Metheny or Frank Zappa - something rang true inside me and made me feel like I wasn't so alone in this. I think everyone has that feeling - that NOBODY knows what it feels like inside them. Music was the only thing I knew that bridged that gap and threw out a life line - made me want to do that.

PAM: Lessons, or self taught?

Karl: Self taught.

PAM: PAM: So when did you start playing out in public?

Karl: As soon as I picked up a guitar, I joined a local church group - that immediately put me playing and singing in front of people every week. By the time I graduated from high school I had already been out playing clubs professionally for two years. I had a partner, Chris Kemp. I could not believe I found a guy at that age who was writing his own songs! We played off and on for years - in fact I wrote my first song to him when he found out his dad had 2 weeks to live - turned out to be true - song was called "Hold On"

PAM: I read on your web site that you opened for Bruce Hornsby, how did that happen and what was that like?

Karl: I stepped out of high school into the Lewis McGehee Group, a trio with Lewis and Michael McCarthy - voted number one local acoustic group at the time - Lewis knew Bruce from college and we did a limited number of dates on that "The Way It Is" tour as the opening act. The thing I remember most was seeing Hornsby live so many nights in a row - you realize how much improv he does - what an amazing player - his intro to The Way It Is got longer and more impressive every night. Heís also a real warm and human guy, on or off stage. I am, to this day, a huge Hornsby fan.

PAM: Who else have you played with?

Karl: Letís see - there were brief stints with many players - the most influential past band members were: Randy Caffee and Robbie Meade. We were known as a band called Instant Karma. I was still playing electric at the time. They were great players and a lot of fun - and between the two of them they could quote the entire movie "Arthur." (bursts out laughing) Robbie and his wife, Lynley, are now The Calypsonuts. I was the engineer for their CD, "Six More Weeks..." It was a lot of fun working with them.

PAM: Who else do you play with now?

Karl: Well, two of the biggest turning points in my musical life happened at about the same time.

When Instant Karma decided to call it quits, I couldn't imagine only playing solo - and it was too hard to keep a full time band alive - so I decided to try a duo. I called the most inspiring player I knew to see if he was interested in playing a few dates and trying it out. That player was saxophonist Eddie Williams, who played with Secrets, The Little Big Band, his own Eddie and the New Band, and many others. He was a prominent jazz player of the area, a teacher at the Governor's School of Music and way out of my league. In fact, if I knew just how in-over-my-head I was - I probably would not have called him. I'll be damned if he didn't agree to play those dates. It's been 10 years now - longer than any other partner I've had. Every gig is still a celebration of life and music, an exploration of improv and dynamics, and a personal challenge to go as deep inside as possible and share what I found a long time ago: the healing power and grace of Music. Five years into this partnership, a third member joined us, long time electric guitarist extraordinaire: Curtis Eley, from Fat Ammon's Band, Street Talk, and The Little Big Band (w/ Eddie Williams) among others. Curtis brings a wide variety of textures to the sound - a nice 'icing on the cake' without sacrificing the spontaneous and creative air that we had come to enjoy. Recently we have been playing more in Kitty Hawk, NC and sharing the stage with a wonderfully creative percussionist and vocalist, Dan Martier.

In the same month as my last gig with Instant Karma, and my first gig with Eddie, I was asked by a very dear friend, Elaine Dempsey, to help her find a studio and some great musicians on this coast to help her record her debut CD, 'Miselaineous'. Elaine was a local acoustic artist who had moved to Mill Valley, CA to pursue music. She is a beautiful soul in every sense with what comes across as a strong desire to make the world a better place. She would come back at least once a year to visit her folks and usually do one show while she was in town. Her old singing partner, Lawrence Lambert, a man with a crystal clear voice and the stage presence of someone with a background in theater, would join her and my trio, Instant Karma would back them up. This became quite an event, especially after the release of that debut CD, which featured Lawrence, Eddie, Instant Karma, great local singer A.J. Long, and others. A three part harmony trio, armed with positive lyrics and a lot of heart was forming out of those shows, and after Instant Karma disbanded, we continued on officially as Elaine, Lambert & Karl. Our first trio CD, "Live Simple, Breathe Deep" sold a lot of copies very quickly when we joined grammy winning blues artist Keb' Mo' as the opening act for his "The Door" tour. As interest grew around this traveling-hippie-love-fest group, it became more and more evident that we needed a real official name. Not to mention that E.L.K. made for a bizarre mascot. (laughs) After hundreds of suggestions rejected by at least one member of the three, it was clear to all of us one day that we were ... "Big Wide Grin". There is also a live CD available under that name.

PAM: I have seen you play at Abbey Road several times, I was intrigued with your ability to make a popular song all your own, to the point where the audience is shocked and buzzing about what the song actually is. How do you do that?

Karl: I think what you're talking about is what Eddie calls 'landscaping'. (Laughs out loud again) That is when I have a song in mind - but I don't want to give it away just yet - I might just improvise in that key for a while, maybe stir up a little voodoo, create a mood and try to capture the audience with it before I spring it on them that what I was thinking about the whole time was a Beatles tune they all know - or something. It has made for some very nice evolving 'intros' with some great interplay - it seemed to start from just wanting to hear Eddie play. Play on, brother Williams, play.

PAM: What about Family? Any musical influences?

Karl: Actually, my grandfather had a big band, 'Lou Werne's Orchestra', my father, at 16, was the drummer for that band, and my grandmother was the piano player for The Rockettes. I never heard any of them play, though - except my dad used to play a chromonica around the house. He felt very strongly about music. I remember he sat us down and made us listen to all of Beethoven's 9th Symphony once - wasn't thrilled about it at the time - now it's one of my favorites. Wagner's Ride of the Valkyrie was another one. All of my brothers and sisters played or sang at one time - my brother Mike has been seen playing drums around town lately.

PAM: Life can be disappointing, what is your biggest disappointment?

Karl: That my kids and my dad never met - I was so young when he died that he still held 'superhero' status in my eyes - I have no problem leaving him there - he did a lot in his short time here - race car driver, airplane pilot, martial arts, camera man, anchor man, and more. My kids are some of my favorite people, too. They were raised on sarcasm, nice to have someone I can talk to. (laughs)

PAM: "If you were stuck on a desert island and could only listen to one cd, other than your own, what would it be?

Karl: I've gotten this question before and the answer has not yet changed - funny, the cd only has three songs on it: YES - "Close to the Edge"

PAM: Could you liken your guitar play to something, something metaphorical?

Karl: That would have to be a therapist - God knows where I would be without it.

PAM: Do you believe in God? What is your higher power?

Karl: I am a recovering Catholic. I believe that there is a light, or force, or music, or love - or whatever you want to call it - inside everyone. But I believe it is something each of us are responsible for rather than something to be blamed when we're not. I would rather all 'miserable sinners' and 'god-fearing christians' just stay away from my kids. I do have what I consider 'faith' but for a long time I have seen no 'organized' place to put it. One pleasant surprise in the last few years has been the Unity Christ Oceanside who asked me to come sing at their church, hearing my lyrics 'leaned more towards a spiritual side'. They were very patient with me on the phone as I ranted about how 'when organized religions build walls around their church, they leave people on the outside of those walls, which misses the whole point, and that's not what Jesus would do' and blah blah blah .... Eventually they convinced me to come - so I brought my daughter, Anatash with me and we walked into them setting up for their service using a picture of Jesus from the shoulders up, with his head back, laughing. My eyes teared up a bit - it was not an image I thought I would ever see. I have returned several times as their 'guest music' and even met with them and found them their music director. I have never felt so at home in a church before - I think I even did a service once wearing my 'What Would Jesus Bomb?' t-shirt.

PAM: What is your most significant musical or personal achievement? Not to be too personal or anything, but ...

Karl: Nothing is too personal, that's the thing. I think in terms of reaching people. It is very common at our performances to see people laugh and cry and open up to us to a degree which might be a bit uncommon for the venues we're in. It is, as I said earlier, why I do this. To really connect to another person, lyrically or musically, on a personal level is quite an achievement and seems to be a common goal among the players I share a stage with. I am quite a ceremonial guy - we toast with Emergen-Cs (vitamins), or a group hug, or something before each gig to make an effort to try and connect with each other - which sets the stage for quite a personal evening.

PAM: "Can you describe the enjoyment, you obviously get, from playing barefoot? Maybe in one word?

Karl: 'Free' - I am just much more comfortable without shoes on - and it's a reminder to relax - I have a microphone and big speakers, so often I set the tone of the room - believe me - you want me relaxed.

PAM: "Favorite dream venue/event to play, past or present?

Karl: Playing State Theaters on the Keb' Mo' tour with Big Wide Grin was one of the best times of my life. There have been many moments going on lately - too many to count - I have had the pleasure of playing with a lot of my heroes lately - and a long list of players have been sitting in with me lately on my weekly 'solo' gig at Abbey Road on Mondays.

PAM: Can you name some of the people that have been joining you, just out of the blue, on Mondays at VB's Abbey Road?

Karl: Dana Silvercloud - ex navy monster bass player, my brother-from-another-mother
Jimmi Bonner - conga player, used to be with Hotcakes, great voice
Barbara Nesbitt - great singer for "Rare Daze" and "the Perpetrators"
Brad Brewer - young sax player for Sol Libre - nice watching him coming into his own
Paul Stalls - old partner of mine - sings led zep, sting, etc - quite the beatles fan w/ a left handed Hofner bass
BJ Leiderman - wonderful piano player - does some of the theme music for NPR
Jimmy Masters - upright bass player - another local 'standard' in the jazz scene

I also have this great Thursday gig in Duck, NC with Dan Martier and a rotating third member every week - we set it up as an excuse to play with some of our heroes - which have included:

John Toomey - ODU Jazz Prof - piano player - one of the best anywhere
Charlie Austin - fiddle player extraordinaire - old regular at the grand ole opry
Laura Martier - Dan's wife - world class singer - has recorded with john toomey and eddie, etc
Eddie joined us for one - Dana Silvercloud played one - it has been a whole lot of fun

PAM: "Can you name a musician, dead or alive, you wish you could play with?"

Karl: Well, if we're going for the all star team - Keith Jarrett, jazz pianist. But I would like to bring a couple friends along ...

PAM: "Favorite guitar?"

Karl: I'm playing a Taylor 915 these days - it is the nicest guitar I've ever owned.

PAM: "Any comment on Politics? The world we live in? Give us five words."

Karl: NO MORE F*#!@ING WAR. That's four words huh? One more word? CARTER. Bring back Jimmy Carter.

PAM: " Can You leave us on a profound note?"

Karl: Good lord, haven't you had enough?! Just come see the show! - you can find me at karlwerne.com and bigwidegrin.com. Peace to you, brotherman.

PAM: "Thanks Karl, I hope everyone gets to hear and experience how special you are, just like I have. Thanks for lettin' me in."

 

* this printing of the article contains the full interview before it was edited by the magazine