Philadelphia based guitarist Eric Carbonara achieves a rare state of beauty with his third full length release, The Paradise Abyss. With his 34 year-old handmade spruce and cypress flamenco guitar, Carbonara has created an album where technique and feel harmonize perfectly with composition. Listening to this record gave me the kind of feeling I usually only get from instrumental records from the finest gypsy flamenco players… or say, from the music of Ornette Coleman! This is the kind of feeling that transcends time and reveals the true spirit of it’s inspired maker. The Spanish call this Duende, and when listening to The Paradise Abyss, I could feel it’s presence!
The album begins with the composition “Abortion of Autumn”, a piece elegantly expressed through the use of flamenco and classical techniques, Carbonara’s skilled use of tonal colours conjuring a scene of natural warmth and beauty. On “Draw Me Out From My True Self”, aggressive rasquedo technique gives way to another gorgeous melodic progression. “Dawn Never Dusk” begins with a slightly dark melody that exudes a deep, contemplative feeling, which eventually flows into a cascading waterfall of plucked notes, shifting to blissful calm before ending in a light dance. Both “Gaggle to Jolly” and “Dance of the Sinister Nymph” are driving, spirited pieces, full of Andalusian dynamics and colour. “Charles Smokes a Cigarette” lands squarely in Davy Graham territory with it’s moody jazz-blues feel. The record finishes with the composition “Infinite Breath of Lady Greenland”, a simply stated, picturesque folk melody that reveals infinite intent with circular picking patterns that seem to dance into the heavens.
To get more insight about this album, I interviewed Eric during the month of November.
W&W : How would you describe the evolution of your playing and composition as it relates to The Paradise Abyss?
The Paradise Abyss is much more composed than [previous album]Exodus Bulldornadius… there’s still a good bit of improvised bits throughout Paradise, but during the writing of this album, I was much more aware of what I was doing, that I was writing autobiographical narratives… that I was telling a story, with every note being a word. Exodus felt way more cathartic as just raw expression, while Paradise feels more like i was thinking before speaking. During Paradise, I often felt conflicted when a composition started to become something that wasn’t in harmony with the truth of what the story was about… I was even a little worried that I would start to make life decisions based on a subconscious desire to have the songs sound sadder and more evil!
I really fleshed out the compositions on this record after my first study in India. It was there that [my teacher] Debashish and I talked a lot about playing each and every note with intention and meaning, to be able to improvise with intention by breaking down mental obstacles, and by constant devoted practice. When I got back, I started chopping away at the parts of the composition that were just wanky riffing or attempts at shredding… I tried to replace the desire to speak with the desire the listen, and rebuild the pieces to only tell the heart of the stories, and let them speak for themselves. So as far as the compositions, the biggest evolution came with me finally giving the art of writing the attention it deserves.
Musically, there’s a lot of right hand technique that Debashish helped me with, that’s what we spend most of our time working on. There’s much more of an attempt to play better on this record than on Exodus, on that album I had no frame of reference to what sounded good or bad… I never spent much time with other guitar players, never had teachers, never really cared that much. Around then, the guitar just happened to be the instrument that i was using to express myself, but it wasn’t until after I toured a lot to support that record that i started having a deeper connection with the instrument, and a desire to play it the best i could. So while Paradise is very much an account of where I am as a player and a writer, it’s also an account of me acting more deliberately, as opposed to just combing melodies that sound nice. These compositions were basically victims to how my life played out… sometimes for the best, sometimes for the worst!
W&W : On The Paradise Abyss you seem to use a lot of guitar techniques drawn from flamenco guitar playing. Have you formally studied with any flamenco guitarists from Spain? What is your attraction to flamenco technique, and the colour and feelings of the music from that culture?
I only ever took two flamenco guitar lessons in my life. One was from a Spanish-born Australian guy who lives in South Philly, who helped me with the rasgueado technique. I went to him and said, “Teach me how to sound like a machine gun…” and he said “First you need to learn how to sound like a water pistol!” The second lesson was with the guitarist Frank Rourk, an awesome guitarist from Richmond, VA who performs under the name Frankzig… http://www.myspace.com/frankzig. We met when we shared a bill in Richmond. Later on, when he was playing a show in Philly, I cooked him dinner and got a lesson from him. He taught me a better way of holding the guitar, and a better way to hold my right wrist, which helped with speed of the rasgueado and definitely helped me to sustain it longer… it’s all in the wrist. So that’s it as far as flamenco lessons, just two hours total… I simply can’t afford anything more. I would love to find a teacher in Spain though, and while i’m in Spain for a tour this coming March, I’ll be doing some scouting for one.
I suppose at the heart of it is my love for gypsy music. I’m mostly interested in Moorish-influenced flamenco music, and gypsy flamenco stuff… there’s many connections to indian music in there after all… though to be honest, I really don’t know too much about it. I have a lot of Manitas de Plata records that I listen to over and over again… his records sound just like ethnographic field recordings to me. To me, the flamenco guitarists I listen to have an uncanny ability to convey so many different emotions within one piece, and often layered over top each other… the pieces are dense, intense, and express seemingly opposite realities and conflicting emotional themes simultaneously, in a way that proves to you that while life can be complicated, it is a beautiful thing… and both the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, and all points in between should be expressed together.
W&W : What inspired the name and the music for “Infinite Breath of Lady Greenland”?
Ah, that one… I was in the UK when I started writing that, I more or less finished it in a hotel in Utrecht. A day before I left for the last UK/Europe tour, my iPod erased all my music. I had nothing, and at the last minute, I quickly put on a couple Dylan records and some Alice Coltrane. So i was traveling around the UK with guitarist and songwriter Ben Reynolds, and listening to a lot of Dylan, who I never really listened to that much, not since high school. I became obsessed with the song “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”.
During all this, we played one particular show where I met a young woman who was particularly fond of my set, so much to the point where she was in tears! After the show, we ended up having a very intense conversation about our lives, and specifically, about her late father who had also been a guitarist. My playing had triggered a lot of intense memories for her. This, to me, is the highest of honors… to write or perform something that people emotionally connect with, or at least trigger emotional responses. I was feeling particularly connected to the power that a musician can have, and i felt very humbled by that experience. So that experience, and feeling inspired by Dylan’s ability to translate the beauty of melancholy in “Sad Eyed Lady” influenced me to write that song. It was written for that woman, though i haven’t told her yet. The “infinite breath” part of the song title refers to how i was processing her story, as a gift that was giving me a sustaining and powerful breath of life, that i needed to use to exhale in a creative and meaningful way, while still retaining it within myself… like circular breathing with good vibes… hahaha…
W&W : One of my main musical inspirations is Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, but in 2005 I was introduced to the music of Debashish Bhattacharya and absolutely cherish his recordings Calcutta Slide-Guitar 3 and Mahima with Bob Brozman. You actually traveled to India last year, lived and studied with Debashish. Did your studies influence your approach to the guitar and composition for The Paradise Abyss?
The biggest impact on my studies in India came in how I now approach the guitar before I even pick it up. I have a much deeper personal connection to music in general now. Debashish and I have talked a lot about what it means to be a musician and what it takes to do it with devotion and sincerity… about musical truth and universal truth… and how practice is a type of meditation in and of itself, but towards a greater goal. When you surround yourself with incredible musicians who literally can play better than you in their sleep (that happened once), you obtain an empowering motivation to dive deeper into the art of self expression. The right hand is the brush, the left hand the paint… all that is secondary to carrying the composition, whether improvised or not, in your heart. But to speak in more tangible terms, we did spend a lot of time on right hand techniques, on subdividing beats, on polyrhythms… I’m still trying to get a grasp on what I had been taught last time… so I have to put in a lot more practice prior to going back at the end of this month!
W&W : What’s the story behind “Charles Smokes a Cigarette”? It has a really nice blues feel, and reminds me a bit of Davy Graham’s playing. It’s also quite a bit different from the rest of the album.
Yeah, I didn’t have any choice about this one sounding different… it was written in a very different method from the other ones. The story goes like this: I use to have a neighbor named Charles who used to sit on his stoop smoking cigarettes all day, and flicking the butts on my porch and on my steps. I couldn’t stand this, I despise littering of any kind, and every day i became more and more spiteful and angry about this guy who would just scream at his kids and litter onto my porch. Finally, a friend of mine suggested (probably due to being annoyed from hearing about it so much) that I do something positive with all my negative energy that I had towards my neighbor… so I put a trash can out there, and told him he was free to use it for his cigarette butts. He never did. So I decided the only positive thing I could do with my negative energy was to channel all my hatred and anger into a composition, with the intention that it would become some kind of musical voodoo. There was never any intention of referencing any particular style, however, I did try to approximate the style closer to cultural areas where the guy was from… and since he was from West Africa (I’m not sure where specifically), I thought it was appropriate and fun to try and rip off some of the Malian stuff i like so much. The voodoo must have worked because Charles was evicted about a week after the first time i performed that song! The moral of this story is that I learned how to find positive outlets to my negative energy without betraying my own moral code. I’m currently writing another ‘voodoo’ type piece now, but I won’t talk about that one until it’s finished!
W&W : On The Paradise Abyss you use a handmade flamenco guitar. You’ve had this guitar for a while now, and Paradise reveals a close relationship with this instrument. Can you describe your connection with the guitar, and if you felt it’s sound has matured with age since your first recordings?
I’ve been playing guitar for about 16 years now, but only within the last several years have i started to actually truly embrace the instrument…
A month ago I was at a party, and someone (after talking to my painter friend about his work) asked me “What do you do?” I said, “I play guitar”, and the response was “Yeah, well, i mean, everybody plays guitar, so what?” hahaha… this is a common attitude, which is both sad and funny, true and untrue. For over a decade, I just played the guitar without ever thinking about it, I hooked up lots of delay pedals and experimented, which is very important… but i never learned any chords or where to find notes on the fretboard… I spent a lot of time just trying to make sound shapes from visions in my head. Still to this day, most of my playing comes from physical shapes, objects, colors, and the way they move and interact with each other inside my head… a friend convinced me once that I have synesthesia, which may or may not be true…
But after hearing Manitas de Plata (I found an LP on South Street for .99 cents) I became obsessed with the power of the guitar… I realized that I had virtually no musical training and no concept of basic theory… so in a sense, I felt autistic, I was able to think and express myself abstractly, but I wasn’t able to express myself in a concise and accurate way to people, and that bothered me. Exodus Bulldornadius was written as a cathartic expression without much thought about “composing”, but there’s one song on there that was my first attempt to truly learn how to play in a more expressive and meaningful way, called “Caravan of the New Thorn”. It’s about the conflicting mixture of happiness and anxiety I was feeling when I was moving into a home I had just bought, far away from my friends. That piece was largely pulled from a few Hungarian gypsy traditionals that I was trying to learn at the time. This was really the first time that I fully embraced the guitar as a tool to convey everything inside me, from the most subtle fleeting thought to the painfully obvious, from sheer bliss and love to the dark abyss of paranoia, hatred and madness… and all points in between and overlapping…
The fact that I play a hand-built guitar [Eric’s guitar was made in 1976 by American luthier George Wilson, without the use of any power tools] that has such beautiful wood, that is simple and traditional in design, it reminds me that one doesn’t need much in order to make music, and more importantly it reminds me to try and live my life more simply, without bells and whistles, but focused and devoted.
So now when i think about someone saying “Oh you play guitar, so what? Everyone does”, I think “Yes, tons of people do, so you should be predisposed to listening to someone play it… so have a seat and listen to my take on it.”
W&W : You had this recording pressed on vinyl only, and you designed and then hand-assembled each of the 500 sleeves. I think this makes for a very unique and personal presentation for your music. What are your ideas behind releasing your record in this fashion, and will your future albums be released like this?
Well, I did press 500 LPs but I also printed about 750 CD digipak covers. Both the LP and CD covers were done on an offset printer at the art school where I work (The University of the Arts). The CDs are actually CD-Rs but i have a Blu-Ray burner at work, which allows me to burn metadata like CD text and all the necessary embedded codes that a normal CD plant would do. Since CDs are dead now, I didn’t see much point in paying someone else to make them… but still, they’re necessary for a lot of promo purposes.
The idea behind the jackets is basically that I wanted to see if I could do it, and i wanted to strip everything down to the point where I was in complete control, understood and was responsible for every step in the process of making music, from conception, to performing, to recording, to manufacturing… not that I will always want to have that control, but I always want to understand each step of the process. I mean, you wouldn’t send your kids to a school with out checking out who the teachers were, right?
The original idea was to print all the covers on handmade paper that I would make from weeds in my garden. I abandoned this idea when the printer who was helping me told me that the offset printer would shred any handmade paper to pieces, and that I shouldn’t try it… that and the fact that i have yet to really understand how to properly make paper! So I printed them on a typical LP jacket paper, and had to move 600 pounds of album covers up broad street to my office, where they currently live. I have to cut, score, fold and glue each cover, both for the LP and the CDs. It was great at first, because after a couple months of researching, talking to people and making prototypes, I figured out how to do it. After you do about 50 of each you start thinking, “OK, I know how to do this now, I can do this anytime I want… oh wait, I have 450 more of these to do… ugh!” I’m going to hire a friend in January to help me finish the rest of them.
This whole aspect of the project seems insane, and people have been telling me I’m insane for doing it, but the logic will reveal itself soon enough. The next album will be the one I’m working on in India, and I think I’ll limit that to 100 lps only, no digital downloads, no CDs… and i’ll screen print them on handmade paper, which might have stuff I bring back from India infused in the paper… so each one will be a little different. Now that I understand how to make the packaging, I feel like I have a lot of freedom and power to create really unique albums… and that’s where my heart lies, to find the best way to personally make packaging that i feel is as special as the music.