Below, you can read our interview with Thomas Wolff of Germany’s multi-genre fusion jam band, Pork Pie Hat, and listen to music from their album, Goin’ Wild. Check out our full music review of GOIN’ WILD by PORK PIE HAT, HERE.
Q: Give us the bullet points of the genesis of Pork Pie Hat. How did yourself (guitars, guitar synth, sound effects, production), Markus Hawig (stage-piano, synthesizer), and Dieter Kowalczik (drums, wave drum) finally settle into your trio in 2017? What synchronicity led the three of you to this destiny together?
A: Firstly I have to make clear that all three of us are semi-professionals, though active and obsessed with music for many years. In my opinion you need to be obsessed when you want to make it as pro, but the same dedication is needed when you do music in the limited off-time left-over from another job. Nobody wants to dabble in music when your heroes are divinities like Jeff Beck, John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth, Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, Ronny Jordan, Billy Cobham, Toto, Dave Weckl, Chick Corea, Mike Stern, and Pat Martino. So, I got in touch with a bass player three or four years ago, nice cat and funky slapping. We had some sessions in my studio, before he introduced me to a session trio, which was him and Dee and Markus.
We had several sessions as a quartet. Fun, excitement, developments, but the quartet broke up after a year, somehow exhausted by maybe too often rehearsing the same tunes. Half a year later I got in touch with Markus and Dee again, and then we had sessions in my studio. Just stage-piano/synth, drums, Guitar/guitar-synth, and it was magic. During the last two and a half years the trio has constantly evolved. I think, since end of 2019 we really nicely developed our way to compensate the missing bass player. Markus is doing unbelievable lines with his left hand, and I got more confident to use my guitar/synth/L6Helix bass-sounds. But we are three. Listen to the drum kick, all three of us contribute to the bottom lines.
Q: Tell us about the music scene in NRW, Germany. We suspect that there aren’t too many trios such as Pork Pie Hat around. Are we correct?
A: Actually I can’t be sure. My main job for about 30 years forced me to be a frequent flyer, mainly around Europe. So I did know better about the scenes in Istanbul, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Pristina, Skopje, Athens, Bucharest, Sofia, Malta, Zagreb; and it was fascinating how many great musicians you find everywhere being masters of their genres. But your question hits a point, I am really glad and thankful to play in this trio. We have had sessions with good bass-players in between and it was nice, but nothing compares to the trio. It is hard and challenging sometimes, but the freedom and the immediate reactions between the three of us are a trip. So this is very special. There might be a classic organ/guitar/drum trio around, but I believe PPH is unique, not only in NRW.
Q: What listeners may not know is that you guys prefer to hunker down in the studio and don’t really play live. You guys could bring a real swagger to a live audience. Tell us why you don’t prefer performing live?
A: As mentioned before, we do have our professions outside music, time for music is limited. Live performances would be nice, definitely, but we are sound-obsessed. We wouldn’t want to work below our studio standards. Hearing each other and having the sound right is so important. To pack our equipment, set it up and reverse with no supporting crew—we have to abandon that. (All of us are over 40.)
Q: All of Pork Pie Hat’s albums are recorded in improvisational style, live, with no overdubs!!! How long did it take for you as a musician to be comfortable and confident enough in your skills to be able to record in this way, free of worry over any possible mistakes?
A: For me, it’s a lifetime experience. I am self-taught on guitar. Of course, I still study and read little bits here and there (which makes clear for me how limited my knowledge is), but the most important for me is listening to my band mates, feel the drums and keys, searching for a wave and then riding it to the peak. I just know that something will happen, when I concentrate on what I hear. Other than this, if I listen to some of my soloing on our tracks, I wouldn’t know how to do this again. I can trust on Dee and Markus, they are so versatile, supporting and sometimes ruling, throwing in their ideas.
Q: How long did “Goin’ Wild” take to record? Tell us a fun studio session story!
A: I record all our sessions through a Yamaha TF1 / Tio 1608-D console straight to Steinberg Nuendo Live2. The complete session will be transferred later to CubasePro for levelling and EQing and I cut out the times with dirty jokes and takes I believe to be not worth to keep. So, after that, there are between 9–15 tracks in the session project GOIN’ WILD ready for mastering.
Q: The album’s 6th track, “Funk Tank”, is one bad-ass groove! What was the inspiration for it?
A: Hard to tell, really. What I know is that I started to play around with the funky groove (open A string) for a long time in variations and last autumn I found the riff/lick you like so much (1:24). I played this much on acoustic steel-string, in sessions (as well with a bassplayer), and developed it to the current and final form with 4 parts. We have three quite different versions of this tune; different because we really always improvise. When you listen to all three versions, you clearly understand how we’re working.
Q: Can you tell us about the first moment you picked up a guitar?
A: Oh not really. But I can tell you that my dear father (oboist in a philharmonic orchestra), pushed me to learn the piano. But both of us—teacher and student—failed. I was fascinated by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks, and Yardbirds (guitars). So he gave me a deal to take lessons with a Flamenco Guitar teacher, but do my piano lessons in return. A pity we failed. Reading music and studying basics is a must, at least it’s an advantage.
Q: What was your first guitar? Do you still have/play it?
A: It’s gone, I think it was an Aria.
Q: Perhaps in some unspecified amount of time, Pork Pie Hat’s musical career explodes in the best of ways…what does that look like for you?
A: We really focus on studio works, but maybe will do some selected club concerts some time after Corona Virus is under control.
Q: You get to collaborate with anyone of your choosing. Who is it?
A: For myself, I like to do duo sessions with other musicians. For the trio, we’d like to do sessions with a sax player or vocalist.
Q: Your favorite album of all time?
A: The Inner Mounting Flame, Mahavishnu Orchestra, John McLaughlin
Q: Your favorite song of all time?
A: Everything Must Change
Q: What would you like fans to know about you that they’re most likely unaware of?
A: It’s sometimes different than it seems. Listen to Clueless Yet Confident, Living Down The Street, or Mood Swings. They seem to be quite conventional, near to smooth jazz compositions. The truth is, that there was nothing but the three guys of PPH. Later I named the first one based on the situation. All three tracks are 100% improvised, never played before and never played again after recording.
Q: Any shout-outs you wanna make?
A: Read music, study theory, work on your technique and sound. But always ENJOY and have fun.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Let’s stay home and take care, to overcome the virus! If that’s done, it’s sessions and giggin’ time again. In the meantime, please put some PPH tracks into your playlists and share it with your friends. We love to see streaming stats in the states and elsewhere, showing that others share our love and taste for groove and sound.