Humble, gracious, honest and unapologetic; after reading those four characteristics you may have thought I had just finished interviewing Mitt Romney. The fact of the matter is I had just concluded an interview with Jason Bieler; guitarist, songwriter, singer, and music producer. I don’t know if Bieler is chasing the GOP nomination for the 2016 presidential bid, but I did find him more qualified than half of our elected officials after thirty minutes of conversation. Then again, how many hats can one guitar God wear?
After a flurry of questions that must have left him dizzied I was able to confirm what www.jasonbieler.com proclaims, his hands are not only weapons of mass distortion but they also serve him well as a part-time hand model. As if one man didn’t already get blessed with more talent than a Julliard classroom, I then learned that his attempt to parlay his gift as a “paranormal instigator” into a reality television show came up one “Kardashian” short of a primetime slot. Like, comedian Steven Wright once said, “you can’t have everything, where would you put it?”
Okay most of the first two paragraphs are bull excrement but there is nothing fabricated about the humility and intelligence that the guitarist shrouded himself in as I was allowed to poke and prod for insight into the inner workings of such a talented songwriter. It was a refreshing interview. If I knew him on a more personal basis I would have gladly broke out my twisted and sarcastic attempts at humor but this was an interview and as a professional I wanted it to last more than eight seconds.
The guitarist, lyricist and singer/songwriter of Saigon Kick, Super Transatlantic and Owl Stretching was kind enough to take on my questions and respond with a genuine interest. Jason Bieler is a veteran of the music industry with more than twenty years under his belt and I’m certain the victim of hundreds if not thousands of questions pointed at him during that time from inquiring minds.
My focus heading into the call was gaining insight into the creative process from someone who I view as a brilliant songwriter and lyricist. Bieler’s song catalog is filled with a variety of music that spans genres from hard rock to acoustic ballads to jazz vamps and everything in between. On any given album that he has recorded your senses are treated to a plethora of sounds and lyrics that are both intellectually poetic and thought provoking.
What inspired this musical resume? What is the creative process like for this artist whose music has provided enjoyment to tens of thousands of fans for two decades? What does the future hold for his new project Owl Stretching and how has today’s technology changed the next generation of musicians? I hope you will enjoy excerpts from the conversation we shared in anticipation of his upcoming Saigon Kick reunion show that will be taking place April 25th 2014, at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Kjelden: I’m having a conversation today with Jason Bieler lead guitarist for Saigon Kick and Owl Stretching and then there are a couple of these other titles I wasn’t aware of. Hand model – is that new for you?
Jason: No, I’ve been a consistent hand model my whole life.
Kjelden: What about paranormal instigator. Are you rousing spirits during concerts?
Jason: I was trying to pitch a show about these ghosts who just mercilessly taunt the deceased, but it never really took off.
Kjelden: It sounds better than the Kardashians, but it isn’t going anywhere?
Jason: It never really took off. They just didn’t feel it had the right demographics.
Kjelden: Based on what I see on television I’m surprised.
Jason: Me too.
Kjelden: What are your days like now? You have the studio, you have these two different bands going. Are you one of these workaholic guys that is up at six in the morning and turns the lights off at ten at night?
Jason: You know I think workaholic is a strange term. I mean, I love what I’m doing so I never look at it like, I think a workaholic is someone who hates what they’re doing and still does it no matter what. I mean to me, I’m pretty lucky that I get to do what I love doing so depending on the situation you know, up early or to bed late and the majority of the days are focused on music or being creative or working with other artists and shaping the direction of the label. I’ve spent a lot of time playing guitar of late again and rediscovered my passion for that, which has been a lot of fun and then all the usual things you would expect writing and so forth.
Kjelden: It’s been twenty plus years in this as a professional musician now. Has there ever been a period of time where you’ve set the guitar aside for any length of time or are you on the guitar every day?
Jason: You know it’s like anything, it comes and goes. There was a time I think when we were really starting to focus on the label and I was focusing on producing a lot more then. I probably wasn’t playing guitar very much for extended periods of time. I always had an instrument around or I’d pick this up or I’d do that or if I was talking to some of the artists or producing something you know, we’d go over ideas. I wouldn’t say I never touched it. I wasn’t pursuing it to the degree that I have been as of late. Strangely, it’s been a healthy thing. Sometimes you play something so intensely for so long. As a kid I was going for hours and hours; eight and nine hour days, ten hour days or every waking minute playing the guitar. And then eventually you get to the point where you are mentally incapable of having a fresh approach. By focusing on other things for quite an extensive period of time and not really playing guitar and coming back to it , it feels like a brand new instrument. Yet I think I have a lot of the same feelings I did when I was a kid first picking it up, that kind of thrill first playing the instrument.
Kjelden: How old were you when you started playing an instrument?
Jason: I wanna say I was probably, I mean this is always fuzzy to me, somewhere between probably ten or eleven.
Kjelden: Pretty early on. Did you have anybody push you in that direction? I mean were your parents influential or was it just something where you heard a song on the radio?
Jason: I think when I was, I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but I went in and got my first record, KISS Destroyer. I thought that was about the coolest thing you could possibly do and be. That record I thought was great and I thought when you’re ten that was as cool as you could be so I wanted to be a bass player like Gene Simmons. Strangely enough my mother didn’t know the difference between the bass and a guitar and bought me a guitar. You know you’re in one of those awkward situations where you know your mom’s worked very hard. You know you can’t be like, “you idiot”, so I wound up playing the guitar and then slowly started to fall into it and you naturally start to find people in your neighborhood that are maybe other types of musicians or you know guitarists. No one in my family was really a musician "per se".
Kjelden: Are you self taught, did you go to formal lessons? Myself I had a neighbor who taught me the A bar chord and the E bar chord and I would pick out a few songs and he would show me a few riffs and I kind of moved into it that way and then I just learned everything by ear pretty much after that.
Jason: Yeah, I mean I definitely learned by ear. I mean everything, all my youth was spent just learning by ear. I think you develop differently now because young guitar players, bass players and drummers. You know you’re on YouTube and you’re instantly able to see that technique of how something is done. But I think there’s a weird connection between hearing something and figuring it out, and seeing something and figuring it out. Especially when it applies to music. Um, so you find a lot of these guys with these insanely technical chops that it just it kind of feels hollow and soulless I think . I don’t know if that’s directly related to them approaching the instrument more like a math problem or not, but I think there’s something to be said when you hear riffs and you hear things playing and you use your ears to kind of pick apart what’s going on. I think you kind of a develop a different sensibility, but long story short, I spent most of my learning by hearing. In the last couple of years strangely enough, not even years I’d say last year, I really started to dive into theory. Either “A” reinforcing some of my thoughts that were natural in terms of why am I doing that or why does that sound cool to me or what’s the name for why that sounds cool? Just learning a lot more, and again like I said, since I’ve been focusing a lot more on it, it has been really kind of a whole new experience. That’s kind of where my head has been at.
Kjelden: The new Owl Stretching project, it feels like you’re moving more in a blues direction which personally I love. Is that accurate?
Jason: That’s the kind of neat thing about Owl Stretching to me, it’s fun in that I should say I really don’t care nor do I have any aspirations to do anything in particular. So, if I want to do something “fusiony” then that’s what’s gonna happen. If I want to do something kind of “ballady”, that’s what’s gonna happen. If I want to do something “heavy”, it’s just kind of you know, I'm not saying that times have caught up to me because that sounds like a strange thing to say, but I can do what I want, how I want and there’s a group of people that have been very supportive of it so far. I don’t think this relationship with people who are in to what we’re doing was possible twenty years ago.
Kjelden: You said something when we were talking about the modern really highly technical players, something that I’ve noticed in just talking to people. If you’re talking about music, the ability to emote through the instrument. I think that’s sort of what maybe you were hitting on, but you’ve been able to do that consistently from the first album I listened to up through this new Owl Stretching. I think that does come more from the soul of a creative mind than someone who can just technically pick up and play some of this. Would you agree with me?
Jason: I think there are some amazingly brilliant guitar players out there now that are great so I’m not just slacking off on the entire group of people. I don’t know if you’re familiar Guthrie Govan, a brilliant guitar player. I think he really said it best, music is like speech and you really don’t get interested in somebody who just speaks very fast. It’s how they phrase, the choice of the words and obviously there’s great moments for speaking extremely rapidly and then have someone like Christopher Walken who uses his phrasing completely differently and is really interesting and music is really very similar to me. It’s great to have all the kind of inflections but it’s about what you’re saying more so than the speed in which you’re saying it and then how are you going to say that and how do you say that with the most impact. And those are kind of the more musical based questions for even soloing or it applies to songwriting as well .
Kjelden: I love “All Souls Lost”, I think that new song seems radio friendly. Is it hard to get a song out on the radio as an independent?
Jason: I haven’t done anything from Owl Stretching, I mean no disrespect to radio or its ability. I just don’t want to get into that. I want to stay more fundamentally true to what I like which is I want to make a lot of music that I particularly care about and find a group of people who are into it. I just don’t want to start selling it to radio stations and going to have extended lunches with the morning show owner and the whatever his name is and sell the music. I just want do what I do and if it’s for a hundred people, a hundred thousand people or a million that’s fantastic. Whatever. For every extra person welcome and that’s awesome. Specifically with this project I want to have nothing to do with the traditional sense of how you break a band or do things.
Kjelden: It seems to me like in this day and age now, you’ve been doing this for a long time, the freedom of the songwriting and you don’t have anyone dictating to you whether that song is good for the album or that one isn’t. Is that freedom just totally exhilarating for you?
Jason: In fairness, I mean I think Saigon Kick always really did what we wanted to do for better or for worse anyway so we’ve never really been like, you know in that mix of bands where it’s oh here you have to have, it’s gonna be this or it’s gonna be that. I don’t think anyone fully understood who we were in the first place and we were very fortunate to be with an A&R guy in Jason Flom. He’s legendary, I think last of the legendary A&R guys in my opinion. His deal was just do it. I mean just do what you guys do I have no idea what you guys are doing so just go ahead and do it. So we were very fortunate in that sense to make records kind of for the most part the way we wanted to make them.
Kjelden: I want to go on to more of the writing and creative side. I remember VH1 used to have these specials, I don’t know if they still run them or not, but it was Behind the Music and there was one featuring Glen Campbell. I specifically remember he had stayed up all night writing “Rhinestone Cowboy” and he was so excited because he knew at that moment, he had written something special . I’m just wondering when your biggest radio friendly song or most successful single, “Love is on the Way”, did that feel different than anything else you had written?
Jason: Um, not necessarily. I originally wrote it and I was pretty sick at the time. I just kind of fired it out in a couple days. That really came really quick in a few minutes, it wasn't like a really sought after or worked on song. To me, again there are certain people who are, I think there are these people who have this mentality that when I have a hit that’s when I’ll know or feel really good about what I’ve achieved musically. And there’s no doubt that having a hit is a good thing obviously there’s a lot of stuff that comes with it. For me the most emotionally satisfied or personally satisfied I get is when I finish something and I go to my car to check a mix, that I like. To me that, that’s pretty much the height of what I’m looking, what makes me happy about the music is like, wow that was the vision, that’s the idea; it’s done and it’s here that’s great. Then releasing it and seeing people get into it that’s fantastic. I never really worried about the other side of it. There’s ballad on the first record that didn’t succeed and there’s been other ballads that succeeded to some degree or another. I never sat back and tried to write something..
Kjelden: There wasn’t just a moment where like, an “ah hah” moment. That probably didn’t feel any different than any other songs that you wrote at that time.
Jason: To me not that I was aware of, I mean that shows you what I know.
Kjelden: Do you write the music primarily with an acoustic or do you have a melody come in your head and you’ve got to scratch it down on a notepad?
Jason: It comes from everything for me. I just kind of hear it and then it’s about just kind of finding whatever is near and closest to me to get it down. I have a terrible memory. I could write all day long every day no problem. I could write, you know twenty songs a day and it wouldn’t be an issue. Remembering any thing is a problem.
Kjelden: Do you write in pieces like you might have a melody or you might think this is a good chorus or this is a good vers? . Do you have choruses and verses and you piece them together at a later date? Do have partial bits and pieces of songs that you’ve recorded?
Jason: No, I do it all at once. I can’t say that in every single instance but I would say it 99% of the time it’s put together like that. I find for myself that if I don’t finish something I’m working on I very rarely find that passion to go back and get it later. There’s bits and pieces of songs, um but they tend to not get ever finished.
Kjelden: I wrote down five songs. Lyrically, do you write most of the lyrics to the songs?
Kjelden: Here’s my question for you, let me give you five song titles. Are you able to give me just a brief idea what the songs are about?
Jason: I might be able to.
Kjelden: Hopefully it will satisfy my own curiosity and some other peoples. “Sgt. Steve”?
Jason: Um, you know articulating what that song is about exactly is probably, you know again It’s like, I almost like leaving some of that stuff not clear. If it's not clear I’d like to leave it not clear. If I find out that The Godfather is really about a space odyssey to that guy then I’m all bummed out. I don’t need to know that. I need to know what it means to me. In that sense, you know, it’s probably better off.
Kjelden: Leave it a little more abstract and let the listener interpret.
Jason: I think that’s the fun of it, that’s the whole point. It’s not what the music means to me, it’s what music means to you.
Kjelden: “Dear Uncle Edgar”, I’m assuming Edgar Allen Poe because it talks about the prose and things like that but maybe I’m completely off base with that?
Jason: Not only was it based on that but strangely enough when I was very, very, very, young; far too young for reading Edgar Allen Poe. I had a really strange step-grandmother and I was probably seven or six,and started reading them and fell in love with all of them. So he had a huge impact on me in terms of descriptive, kind of, just one of the great American writers. But that just kind of toys with that concept of paying a little respect to him and his influence on me.
Kjelden: “Fields of Rape”?
Jason: Well the term, I mean in Europe there are all these fields of rape, which is like a mustard type seed. You know a yellow flower and when we were driving through somewhere and someone had mentioned these fields of rape and I said that was such a powerful weird statement, that the words together were just so bizarre to hear. So the song came up just kind of that strange, like fields of rape. It’s such, you just kind of figure it’s a flower field and then it just kind of started growing from that juxtaposition.
Kjelden: One interview you had done had said something about a regret of touring with Cheap Trick and I think they had encouraged you to get on stage with them and you didn’t take the opportunity. I’ve got to ask you, what were you thinking?
Jason: That’s a good question. You know they were a great group of guys and they didn’t ask once. I mean they would ask almost every couple of nights. It’s just one of those things where for me when I remember seeing Cheap Trick on this TV and “Live at Budokan”, it was an epic thing. There was this weird thing where I just didn’t want to insert myself into that memory of how I perceived that band. It’s all self problems and nothing to do with them being intimidating as much as I just wanted that vision to be of them doing what they do and for some reason it just didn’t feel right for me to insert myself in it. At that time. At this time I’d probably say what the hell were you thinking! Go play “Back in Black” with Cheap Trick, it would be great. So should the opportunity arise again, I will probably take them up on it, but at the time it just felt really strange.
Strange being the operative word, there is something about creative minds that is strangely interesting. Creative writing class will never spawn a vivid imagination and creative minds are difficult to repress. Most artists that I have met feel a compulsion to create and as an audience we should all be grateful. Without them, their would be no poem "The Raven", no "Catcher in the Rye" and no "Sgt. Steve".
For more information on Jason Bieler go to www.jasonbieler.com.
For information on Saigon Kick go to www.saigonkick.com
Kjelden Cundiff is author of "The Cold Dark Highway" and "The Cold November Son" both available wherever fine books are sold. He is a freelance writer and columnist for www.examiner.com.