Interview: Steve Martin, banjo extraordinaire

Just two wild and crazy guys
By CHRIS GARCIA  |  October 5, 2009

steve-martin-banjo-main

Steve Martin: Wild and Crazy Guy emeritus? Well, not quite. Though with the release of a melancholy memoir, Born Standing Up, Martin signalled that comedy isn't the only love of his life. His current tour, which arrives at the Wang Center on October 7, is a musical outing inspired by his Rounder debut, The Crow: New Songs for the Five String Banjo -- his first music release since "King Tut" topped the charts in 1978. Along with a few other writers, I had the great pleasure of speaking with Steve over the phone from his Los Angeles home the other day. He was ostensibly promoting the tour, but I managed to sneak in some comedy related questions. He was as nice and thoughtful as I imagined him to be, and, of course, very funny.

Born Standing Up has a bit of a melancholy tint to it. It also transmits the impression that you were generally unsatisfied with stand-up at a certain point. However, when it comes to your banjo music, say in the song like “Late for School,” you sound so satisfied and joyous. Can you describe the satisfaction you get from making music and how it satisfies you differently from performing and writing comedy?

STEVE MARTIN: Well it’s very clear difference, almost everything else I do involves words. And the music doesn’t so it’s automatically a different - I think it’s a different part of the brain and it’s a way to be emotional in an, you know, in an utterly different way than you would normally. You’re actually bringing it out through an instrument rather than, you know, telling someone you love them you can play it.

If you’re trying to express like a subtle emotion, you can call it melancholy just for example, you know, you can do it by playing. And you can adjust it by playing. You can play the same song after you play the same song sad. So it’s really just a different expression. And I like the relief of it. You know, instead of finding the right word you’re plucking the right note at exactly the right time.

Do you feel it’s an easier way for you to express yourself than you do, say, with your writing or acting?

STEVE MARTIN:  I don’t know. I always doubt that phrase “expressing yourself” because I’m not sure if that’s what it is. It might just be the love of the music or the love of being on stage or it may have nothing to do with self expression at all. But let’s put it this way, I don’t know why I’m expressing if I’m expressing something through music, whereas with words I know exactly what I’m expressing because you can read it. But I don’t know if it’s really expressing myself. It’s just being creative, I think.

A lot of the songs on this album like "Banana Banjo" or "Pitkin County Turnaround," you originally did on your 1981 comedy album, The Steve Martin Brothers. Was there some catharsis in getting to redo these songs?

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