Exclusive Interview: John McConnell of Turnip Stampede

On the forefront of Central New York jam-based music is the whimsical powerhouse Turnip Stampede. Comprised of an ever-changing lineup, the founders, core of the group, and geniuses behind the music are guitarists Adam Fisher (lead and vocals) and John McConnell (rhythm and vocals). I was lucky enough to catch up with John McConnell who was more than happy to sit down and talk. We spoke about the differences between Turnip Stampede and the various side projects associated with the band as well as the various ways one can go about getting paid to play. We touched on McConnell’s gear preferences and his composition techniques.

Basically, Turnip Stampede (or just Turnip for short) is a combination. In John’s own words: “We are not a band in the traditional sense.” Turnip’s album, Can You Hear What This Looks Like? is a combination of John’s silky voice and Adam’s shredding psychedelic leads with the addition of extra percussion from The Beet-niks and brass instrumentation by The Unickhorns. Composition-wise, the burden is shared. Most (‘Open Soul’ was written by Brett Cody-Adelman & arranged by Adam Fisher) Turnip Stampede songs are written by John and Adam, and produced in large part by Adam himself, as well as their close friend Scott Sterling. As far as John McConnell’s ‘solo’ work, It’s About Time is a twelve-track chill-fest featuring all original John McConnell songs, some of which are also performed with Turnip Stampede. Both albums are available on iTunes and cdbaby.com. Personnel varies on It’s About Time, from just John to a small ensemble including Adam Fisher on bass.

Highlights from Can You Hear What This Looks Like? include ‘About Today,’ Ridiculous Eyes,’ ‘In My Head,’ ‘Open Soul,’ and ‘My Friend.’ Some of the best songs on It’s About Time are ‘Chameleon Man,’ ‘Who’s in Control?,’ and ‘Up On Stage.’ Half of the material on It’s About Time can be found on Can You Hear, however the Turnip recordings are quite different. McConnell’s ‘solo’ work is way more laid back, and a perfect vehicle for his shimmery voice to fly. There’s a lot more going on with Turnip Stampede. Two guitars, bass, keys, drums, and whatever else happens to be present at any given show. Melodies and rhythms ooze from Turnip more than any one instrument shines, but don’t get it twisted: no one is inaudible by any sense with Turnip on either the recording or live. To get a better idea, put on ‘Ridiculous Eyes’ from Can You Hear and hold on tight during the chorus…”It’s been an hour since I seen you but it feels like a year…” Then put on McConnell’s ‘solo’ version and kick back to relax. Same song. Totally different version. If you’re looking for B-sides, Turnip/McConnell is where it’s at.

by Elliot MetticeTurnip Stampede is known mostly as a live band. You can usually find them at their regular clubs: Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Syracuse and Rochester, as well as Old City Hall in Oswego, NY. Because of their improvisational nature, every show is a new, fresh experience. Though you may recognize the songs from one recording or another, the Turnip boys always manage to kick out their jams with never-ending originality. Why is this? Even John doesn’t fully understand it. Fundamentally, Turnip Stampede is about having fun and promoting creativity which feeds their appetite for organic jamming.

Fletcher Crangle

Fletcher Crangle

Another aspect of their live act is the unforgettable painter Fletcher Crangle. Fletch is known for his eclectic art that he creates – live on stage- with the band. Of course each piece is for sale, and demand is growing. Because there is only one copy of each piece, fans have begun to associate each piece with the show at which it was created, and essentially making Crangle’s art into limited-edition concert posters. One thing is for sure: there’s a lot going on around these bands and musicians, and it’s all amazing.

I had a few questions for John about how it all started and where they’re at now:

TN: So John McConnell: guitarist, singer, is it a rhythm thing? Is it a lead thing? Does it matter?

John: You know, in the band’s context it’s a rhythm thing. I’ll have an occasional lead, but the lead guitar role in the band is Adam (Fisher). In a solo context, I utilize the loop station a lot; I’ll throw some leads in there, but primarily a rhythm thing.

TN: And how long have you been together, in one form or another?

John: Well I’d say about six and a half years give or take. But we are not a true band in some sense of the word. You know, we all have our own other musical things happening. We’ve probably played more live shows than we’ve rehearsed.

TN: That’s cool because it shows in the music, which you could say has a very organic feel, you know, in the best sense of the word. Now, compared to the recording (Can You Hear What This Looks Like?), when playing live how true do you stay to any one sort of song structure, even if it’s just the one that’s in your head?

John: Sure. You know, there’s room for improvisation on every tune that we do. It just so happens that some of them, out of organic experience, we stick to a form more regularly. Like “Grey Road,” we usually play it how it is on the CD. Not for any particular reason, and to be honest now looking at this (track listing), in terms of original songs, we tend to do a jam on more of the songs that Adam wrote. I don’t know if that’s because of the nature of the songs, the construction, but there’s no real rhyme or reason. There’s definitely the ability to improvise on any tune.

Adam Fisher at Taste of Syracuse

Adam Fisher at Taste of Syracuse

TN: Ok, what about instruments, roles in the bands and what not? With this CD (Can You Hear What This Looks Like?) there’s a brass section for example and all sorts of madness, on your solo work (It’s About Time), obviously solo, yes?

John: Well actually with the ‘solo’ work, it ranges from solo to small ensemble. Now Adam plays bass guitar on I think nine of twelve songs on my solo record (It’s About Time) – and when I say solo that’s just to distinguish from Turnip – and he actually plays upright bass on a portion of those as well as bass guitar.

TN: Very impressive.

John: Yeah, yeah, he’s a monster. And he doesn’t play bass like a guitar player, you know what I mean?

TN: Definitely. What about songs you’ve wrote? Which songs on here (Can You Hear What This Looks Like?) are your constructions, or initially your idea or however you could put it?

John: Pretty much with this record, Adam and I brought our own songs to the table. I wrote “About Today,’ ‘Grey Road.” I wrote “Ridiculous Eyes,’ I wrote ‘Porter Street,” which should be called “Chocolate Porter,” I don’t know why it’s not. Actually Adam and Max get a writing credit on that one. I wrote like ninety percent of the tune and then they came up with some chord ideas. Um, I wrote “Who’s in Control,’ and ‘My Friend.” So I wrote six of the twelve and Adam wrote the other six.

TN: So basically songs that you’re singing on this album are mainly your construction?

John: You got it. (Laughing) So that would have been an easier way to say it. Except for track number nine, “Open Soul,” which was written Brett Cody-Adelman and arranged by Adam. Basically, the ones that Adam sings, he writes and the ones that I sing, I write.

TN:  (Laughing) Right, right. What would you say are your influences?

John: Well that’s a hard question for me because I listen to so much and I’ve gone in so many different directions musically. What got me started is so far from what I listen to today. There are a lot of people I give credit to, but honestly I’d say my influences are countless musicians, family and friends. I only have a few people who I’m in love with their entire catalogue. The music that got me into the style I’m doing now is like, Dave Matthews and Jack Johnson sort of stuff. What got me to pick up the guitar were Metallica and the Beastie Boys. Who are my favorites today? My favorite singer/songwriter is Bill Withers and um, Stevie Wonder. They’re my two favorites right now. If I could sing like anyone on this planet, it would be Stevie Wonder.

TN: I’m with you on that, man. My Stevie Wonder Pandora station is all Stevie and Late Jackson Five/Early Michael.

John: Oh early Michael is the best. Way better than later Michael. He’s so gifted. But um, guitar-wise, my favorite guitarist is Leo Kottke. And you know I’m definitely a Beatles guy and all the side projects of theirs. Beatles and beyond I like to say.

by brantley carrollTN: How about the music on the ‘solo’ album?

John: Once again let me distinguish: my solo album features all my own songs. It’s not just me playing on the album, and it’s not necessarily a representation of my solo show. It’s a representation of my songs in a different context than Turnip, and songs I don’t play with Turnip. There’s like six other songs that I don’t play with Turnip.

TN: Now “Up on Stage” is a perfect example. That’s a track on your ‘solo’ album that sounds like it would fit right into a Turnip Stampede show. How did you decide to run with that in a solo context and not with Turnip?

John: That song is really one of the first ones I ever wrote in this style, probably back in about 2003. We didn’t put “Up on Stage” on this album but I still play it often. We even played it today, it’s still a go-to with Turnip but we don’t normally feature it; we keep it in our back pocket.

TN: What about “Porter Street” or “Chocolate Porter?”

John: Well it’s called “Porter Street” and the hook is “One and a quarter chocolate porter.” The song was called “Chocolate Porter” and then Adam just said “Porter Street” one day and I was just like “Eh, I kind of like that. There’s a Porter Street down near where I live,” and now we call it “Porter Street.”

TN: It’s another example of a big difference between a Turnip Stampede version and a John McConnell version. It’s a lot more relaxed. Is that more of what you’re into now?

John: Well actually, the ‘solo’ album was recorded about six months before the Turnip album. Even “Ridiculous Eyes” was a lot closer to the version I play solo originally. You know there’s writing music and then there’s producing music. Basically Adam was the guy who pushed the production on that song. He and Max (McKee), who were both key in making that song sound the way it does.

TN: What makes you play music?

John: At this point it’s a living, which is part of what drives it. Why do I do it? What’s behind it? It’s sort of an unexplainable thing. Huh. I play because I love it, I love to create it: song-wise and jam-wise.

TN: When it comes down to it, what do you think about the different ways a musician can go about getting paid these days. How do you do it?

Inside Old City Hall, Oswego, NY

Inside Old City Hall, Oswego, NY

John: Well for now it’s primarily from clubs and bars; that’s always been the core of the financial aspect of it. You know we’ve only had the album out for a year and a half now so as far as any revenue from that, we haven’t experienced it yet. Plus we’re still trying to pay back the costs of recording and stuff. So that’s really the only way to get paid as a musician right now is the gigs.

TN: Could you say that it’s more important for people to come to the shows over revenue from record sales?

John: Oh sure, absolutely. We’re trying to avoid the whole contract thing. We don’t want to be married to any one company. Because let’s face it: in 2012 you don’t need them. The middle men have changed, and now they’re somewhat lesser evils. Like on iTunes or Cdbaby.com they take a 25% or 30% but that allows us to distribute electronically. So I guess the middle men have just changed, the whole thing has gone through a shift. Now it’s not so much about getting signed as it is advertising over the Internet. People are always asking if it’s on iTunes (which it is!). So I think it’s better to go the way we are now, forging ahead without signing contracts.

TN: So straight show revenue, as much as you can?

John: Right, as much as you can. Eventually I may reach a certain point and want to re-evaluate. Eventually some offers may be on the table, or not. We could just keep doing it on our own. It’s hard to say. But you touched on something before about getting the music out there. Bottom line if people like it I want them to hear it. As far as burning CDs, I used to do it. I don’t anymore because now I understand the other side of the situation, being a working musician I pay for everything now. I know what kind of sweat and energy goes into having a career as a musician. But hey if people are going to do it anyway I’m not going to get bent out of shape about it; I want them to hear it. Because you know eventually they’ll come around and buy merchandise or a CD for a friend or throw some tips in the jar. I’m really not worried about that sort of thing I’m just psyched about the music because I think it has tons of potential.

TN: What kind of gear do you play? What’s your guitar? What’s your amp? You mentioned the loop pedal?

Syracuse Native Riddim Master Joe Driscoll

John: I’m not really a gear head; I just kind of fake it. I’m learning as I go. As far as guitars, I’m left handed so I’m very limited because I’m all about buying a guitar I can sit down and play and not ordering one. Historically when I want a new guitar I go into the shop and say “Show me what you have that’s left handed,” and that’s what I have to choose from. Gear has never really interested me; I’ve more just wanted to play. Right now my primary guitar is a Breedlove that I love, it’s been great. It’s got Fishman pickups; I’m not in love with the pickups. My primary guitar for a long time was a Takamine. But that was out of commission for a while which is where the Breedlove came in. The Takamine is actually back in but I’ve been playing the Breedlove for so long I don’t want to switch back because the neck is thinner and it’s easier to play. But the electronics in the Takamine are the best acoustic/electric pickups I’ve ever used or heard. I use a Boss RP-50 Loop Station. A lot of people use them; it’s what our local hero Joey Driscoll uses at his show. I opened up for him in Oswego the other day. I caught up with him and got to chat; he’s a super nice guy.

TN: How do you go about writing music? Does it happen organically through jams or do you have to sit down with a notebook and bang them out? Is it lyrics first or music first or what?

John: All different ways for sure. We don’t really write much together. What I do… I’m definitely a puzzle-piecer; and for me the lyrics are separate from the music. I’ll find a piece of music that I’ve been working on for a while that happens to fit with a concept I’ve been working on for a while and it usually goes from there. I’m definitely a puzzle-piecer. I’ll write a line or two and if I think it can relate to another line or two that I wrote before, and maybe that was paired with two others, that way I have a sort of concept folder. That way I have a bunch of different working title/concept folders, and I’ll go through all these scraps every once in a while and then make piles and then they all go into the different concept folders. I’ll keep chipping away at them. Sometimes they come quick and sometimes it takes years.

TN: How about the art around Turnip Stampede, you have Fletcher Crangle with you on stage which is a pretty unique thing. How did that come about?

Fletcher Crangle (Right) with Max McKee (of Turnip Stampede and Count Blastula)

Max McKee (left) with Fletch Crangle

John: Well you know Fletcher is good friends with Adam, lifelong family friends. Fletcher is such an inspiring artist; he’s always been creating his stuff near us and around us. One night Adam invited him to a gig with Count Blastula and it just kind of stuck. He kept coming and it turned into a whole thing you know. It adds a multimedia dimension to the shows and it’s also just another way to exhibit local talent and local artists. You know what I mean? It adds a new dimension to the music. We’re all about the concept of promoting creativity.

TN: What would you say is the most important thing about your music?

John: The most important thing about our music is that we have fun doing it.

TN: Which feeds into the blurb by Blempt here on the inside cover of Can You Hear What This Looks Like?

John: That’s Fisher right there. Adam showed me that and I was like “Yup put it in there.” That’s insight into what it’s like to be in a room with us. You know we all rip on each other and we’re pretty hard on each other but we’re all about having a good time. You have to have a good time. And it’s all about positive vibes. We’re hard on each other in a positive way. We rip on each other like brothers would. It’s all about love and positivity and having a good time and that’s what we’re trying to convey to the people around us. The more the merrier, the more people in a good mood the better, and the more love that gets distributed the better.

-thenous

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