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Interview with MILAN POLAK

November 2004

A border between classical music and rock has been crossed over long ago - and is being crossed still. There are good sides to it and bad sides, too. Many musicians stumble, while significantly fewer emerge fully-fledged to create in the space between the mass and the elitist and bring forth very tasty fruits. Guitarist Milan Polak, now stepping the Hamburg cobblestones, is mixing different strains in his strings, but there's a mighty emotion oozing out of it, a rare thing for a cold academic. He has some interesting stories to tell about his yesterday, yet we talked about today and tomorrow.

- What is the musical literacy, with an academic education, for a rock guitarist - a blessing or a curse? Does it get in the way of a feeling or contributes to it?

Good question! I think in the beginning it is more of a curse. You get into all the theoretical stuff and if you're not careful you start losing track. You get caught up in all the harmony and theory stuff and carried away easily with what is "allowed" to play and what not, etcetera. But the thing you have to realize is that it's all art after all and art has no rules.

As a famous jazz musician once said, "Learn everything, then forget it and play!" I agree completely! The sad thing is that most aspiring guitarists get stuck in the theoretical stuff if they start learning it and never get out of this trap anymore. But if you manage to leave it behind, it's the best thing that can happen to you, I'd say. So, if you reach that final goal it's rather a blessing, but if you think you stink!

- Do you consider yourself a rock guitarist – with a stress on ‘rock’?

To be honest, I do not consider myself a rock guitarist at all. My musical influences and interests are far too scattered to different styles, and I think if someone listens to what I do close enough they'll notice and agree. I see myself more as a musician and composer. The guitar is just the tool I have chosen to express whatever comes out of me.

- Getting into the rock guitar lore, which of the following players is closer to you on the emotional scale: Jimi Hendrix, Paul Kossoff, Ritchie Blackmore or Steve Howe?

None of them, actually. All these guys have been around long before I first picked up the guitar. I was inspired by Randy Rhoads, Angus Young, Brian May, David Gilmour, Van Halen, THE BEATLES' tunes, later on Malmsteen, Vinnie Moore, Paul Gilbert, Nuno Bettencourt and then Steve Lukather and Shawn Lane. So I guess, I am emotionally close to rather those guitarists who have been inspired by the ones mentioned in your question.

- How do you work on projects like J.A.M.? Work together with your playing partners in a studio or just send the tapes around?

In the case of J.A.M. we spend a lot of time in a chatroom, communicated via e-mails, sometimes talked on the phone and sent CDs and files around including transcriptions of the songs with instructions and info about the harmonies, etcetera. Especially with Alessandro Benvenuti, I tried to keep close contact making sure we both would understand each other's songs as good as possible to make the best efforts to get results that sounded well prepared and rehearsed. Ale and me would call each other up and play the recordings and/or solos to each other. With Joel Rivard living in the USA, it was a bit more difficult but we managed that also.

- With the work method applied to the J.A.M. project, how much of a real jamming went into it?

Well, you know the answer before asking the question already. Obviously not a lot. With three guitarists in three different countries - actually even different continents - and no production budget at all whatsoever it is kinda hard to get together and record an album like that jamming... I came up with the name "J.A.M." when we were looking for a name for our project. I found out that the first letters of our first names spell "JAM" - Joel, Alessandro and Milan - and made the suggestion, and everybody liked it. The actual jamming rather took place when recording some of the basic tracks for the songs. Maybe you can call the way I recorded my solos over Joel's and Ale's songs more of a jamming approach. I usually loop the chord progression to solo over and start jamming over it. That way I can come up with spontaneous stuff that I usually keep. But then again, on some of the tracks the chord progressions demanded a little analyzing and preparation - for example, polychords... (Laughs.)

- Did teaching music teach you something new that you haven't learned while studying it?

Yeah, definitely! It might sound corny but what it taught me most was not what to do but what not to do. You hear all these scales and arpeggios all day and you see people learning and practicing that stuff, all the different techniques and what not but at the end of the day it's the music that counts, and a lot of guitarists seem to forget that. When you teach for a long time and answer the same questions over and over again and see more and less talented people learn all that stuff, it can also sort of mirror-image what you could sound like and you start to select, “I don't want to sound like this, I don't want to do that...”

I get a lot of demos and students regularly tell me to check this hot new player out and listen to that guitarist, and I really have to say it all does not impress me! I have spent some time with the amazing Shawn Lane, I am friends with Steve Lukather, I taught at the A.I.M. with Todd Duane, I lived together with Joey Tafolla, I had probably more than a thousand students - I am jaded. I have seen it all already ten-fifteen years ago. There are so many great players out there technically speaking it doesn't do a thing for me. The only thing that counts by the end of the day - and that is the only thing I care about - is whether the song is good or not.

I have heard so many demos of guitarists with bad songs and awful drum machine programming playing fast scales or sweeping arpeggios up and down the neck and I always have the same questions: “What are you trying to tell me? What's the message or use?” Not that I haven't gone through this phase myself. I've had this time also in my life and I believe that every virtuoso guitarist will eventually touch this phase but move on - it's the song that counts and the song is the only tool that will be able to separate you from all the other guitarists in the sea of technically flawless shred.

- What is more interesting experience - studio work with its many possibilities or a concert with its spontaneity?

They both have their interesting sides to them for me. To work in the studio is more like painting pictures. I usually connect it with the procedure of songwriting and creation. Playing live is a different sort of creation. You spontaneously create while you are playing, you only have one take, one shot to go and there is the immediate feedback of the crowd.

The older I get though, the more I approach working in the studio as playing live in terms of keeping it simple, making sure it's re-producable live and it has the same edgy attitude. I went through my phase of over-producing stuff but I find myself reducing tracks and parts more and more. Sometimes I kinda feel bad thinking, "Damn, I just bought this brand-new studio, I have three zillion tracks to record on and I am only using three of them!.. (Laughs.)

- How often do you play live these days?

It really depends. Sometimes every weekend, and then not at all for weeks. When I moved to Hamburg I was playing every weekend and it was exciting to be in a new country, a new city where there are more possibilities to play live than, for instance, in Vienna - which is no big art, by the way. Then I bought my studio, finished the J.A.M. CD, started to work on my new vocal songs and reduced the live-playing.

- What musicians would you still like to work with? Not only guitarists, I mean...

Definitely, Steve Lukather. He is one of my favorite guitarists or musicians. I care more for musicians than plain guitarists. I like Paul Gilbert a lot. His songwriting on "Burning Organ" is very good. Stevie Wonder is one of the best musicians of all time in my opinion. I like Jorn Lande and Joe Lynn Turner as singers, Eric Martin, Devin Townsend. I like the band KING'S X a lot. I like Bryan Adams. Kip Winger is a good songwriter and singer. Brian May is a very interesting person to work with, I guess, and so would Nuno Bettencourt be. I played a couple of times with Marty Friedman, a very underestimated player and nice guy - that would also be an interesting mixture, I guess. Billy Sheehan, who I have already jammed with, and Mike Porcaro are great bassists. There are so many great drummers: Virgil Donati, Pat Torpey, Vinnie Paul. There are so many great musicians I admire and respect a lot and I am probably doing a lot of them very wrong at this moment by forgetting to mention them...

Then I am working on this project with the classical violin player Lidia Baich, who is a very much respected virtuoso in the classical music world. We have recorded some almost impossible to play Tchaikovsky scores. I also have this project planned with English super guitarist Mario Parga. It will be an acoustic album and it is scheduled for 2005.

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