maverick musician assembles his orchestra and together they give the skinny on
their new album Honker.
BY ETHAN LIPTON & HIS ORCHESTRA
Ethan: I write songs in my head, usually on the go,
riding my bike around town or walking the dogs. When I started out, I wouldn’t
write anything down until the song was complete in my brain. It was a challenge
to myself: If I couldn’t remember the lyric and melody, I thought it wasn’t
worth remembering. These days I’m less brave, so I often jot down snippets or
record pieces of melody on my computer, to be sure not to lose them. Still,
most of the best songs are worked on in my head until they’re near done.
I don’t play
any instruments. That’s an obvious handicap, but I think it’s been a stroke of
good luck, because my songwriting has never been limited to what I can play.
Basically, if I can sing it, I can put it in a song.
Of course, part
of why I can get away with that is because I have my bandmates (the most
killingest trio ever) to bring the songs to life: Eben Levy (guitar), Ian M.
Riggs (bass) and Vito Dieterle (sax). I’ve been playing with them for almost
First we get
together in Vito’s apartment, where we rehearse. I’ll sing the new song to the
band as they sit there, two feet away from me, snacking on whatever Vito has
around while drinking the cheap beer I’ve brought over. Hands down, this is the
most nerve-wracking performance of the tune I’ll give. I’m not worried about me
remembering the song; I’m worried about the guys thinking the song is crap.
If all systems
are go — and they’re willing to give just about any song a chance — we’ll
start to break the tune down. I’ll sing it again and again until Ian, who’s ear
is most like mine, gets a bead on what chords and key we’re working with. All I
can do at this point is keep singing, and let them know when I hear something
that’s right or wrong. Mostly I’m just trying to stay out of the way and let
them find their own voices within the song.
I’ll let the
guys describe the rest of the process:
Ian: When I first became aware of Ethan, he was singing
almost totally a cappella. The first time I went to hear him I was prepared for
it to suck and to experience a newfound level of collective embarrassment. Boy,
did it not suck. He had me, and the entire audience, on every word, and loving
all the space and time in between. I delight in hearing the new songs in
rehearsal because it reminds me of those early days.
I work under
the belief that the song as he sings it that first time is a completed version;
it stands by itself and could be performed just like that, and to great effect.
So my instinct is to learn what’s there already and build on that. When we’re
done with it, it’s often a different thing, but hopefully with the original
As the three of
us start to learn the song, Eben quickly plunges deep into working on a guitar
part and overall approach. Vito listens to everything happening in the room,
adds thoughts about the chords and melody and begins his own explorations. It
can be hard to hear Ethan over Eben at this point, but I’ve learned to try to
let Eben go as much as possible because he’s usually onto something. Eben works
quickly and with full concentration. Getting his attention while he’s focused
like this can be like trying to wake someone from a deep sleep (Eb… Eb… Um…
Eb?). When he resurfaces, he usually has a great part and approach. Then we
start mixing all our ideas together.
thing about the history of the group: we all sort of talked Ethan into needing
us up on the bandstand with him. Me: “Ethan, this thing is great. You totally
(I know, I say “totally”) need a guitarist up there with you and I’m your man.”
Vito: “Ethan, I’m hearing sax in there, for reals (Vito does not say “for
reals” outside of my dramatic reenactments). Et cetera. I bring all this up
because it really did started with one lone homeboy rocking the mica solo, was
briefly an awesome duo with Ethan and Mike Stumm (ukulele player who talked Ethan
into needing ukulele) and has since turned into a bona fide band. That’s my
favorite thing about the project. Lots of groups aren’t really bands, like
“hey, did you get new socks, those are all right” kinds of bands. When we’re
cooking, we’re greater than the sum of our rickety parts. And we’re a
band, even when we’re sucking.
So anyway, after Ethan
sings us his bullshit songs and Ian comes up with incorrect chord changes, I
save the day with invincible and heart-wrenching guitar work. Then Vito fucks it
all up again with his jazz bullshit.
I’m beginning to think I’m the serious one in the group. Maybe
sensitive is the word? Perhaps a little too much of whatever I am? Or maybe
just the right amount. In fact we are all just the right amount of ourselves. That’s
the essential element to our success, I think, why we’ve worked together
so well for so long. There’s a symbiotic nature to what we do that I find
intoxicating. Each member has an uncanny ability to check his ego at
the door and play his role within this space. To quote a line from a
recent ELO composition … “never forget who you are.”
we think differently. We have all disagreed! But for some strange reason,
although we are four neurotic, proud, egomaniacs, we know when to shut the fuck
up. Musically, anyway. This is a quality I find to be as rare as a five-leaf
Ethan: I have so much admiration
for these guys. For their musicianship and the quality of their ideas. I’m
still amazed that I get to play with them, and that they keep answering my
emails. Despite all of us getting older and taking on bigger responsibilities
in our lives, the project continues to grow in ways that are really lovely to
me. I should add that we are fortunate enough to have a great relationship with
our audience. Because the songs are built around the lyrics, it’s an intensive
listening experience; the crowd has to work to enjoy our tunes, and when they
do, there are few things more satisfying to behold. But I would play with these
guys even if the crowd wasn’t there. Whatever anyone else gets out of listening
to our music, I get a balm for my soul out of making it with them.
Lipton on the web:
Website – http://www.ethanlipton.com/