Adam: My first experience with digital audio was Voyetra. It was basically a MIDI orchestral arranger. Before Voyetra I was using Cakewalk for its MIDI capabilities. Do you remember how you discovered MIDI?
Adam: A buddy of mine had a Yamaha drum machine. I had a Casio CZ-101; I still have one.
Mackncheeze: We did an album with a CZ-101.
Adam: The sounds that you can get out of that thing, it’s the only place where you can get those sounds. We did so much with that thing, so much.
How I figured out MIDI was that the drum machine had MIDI in and out and I had a set of MIDI cables. The very first thing I did was use the drum machine controlling the keyboard. From there it was like, “What else can I do?”
From that point on digital audio workstations would combine both the digital element and the MIDI element.
I was already at the point where I was editing MIDI with Cakewalk, that was before audio was integrated. I was using every component of MIDI, I learned everything that it could do. If the performance wasn’t doing what I wanted I would look at another control to see how I could manipulate the response; that would get me closer to what I was hearing in my head, basically just playing around with numbers. You have the value 0 to 127 in about a thousand different places. What am I going to do, what are the combinations of 0 to 127 going to be? At the time the possibilities were endless.
Me: Do you manipulate audio transfer with MIDI?
Adam: Sometimes. One of my songs I took the vocals, I turned it into a MIDI file. I’ve got that file playing strings in unison with the vocals; and it’s dead on.
Now I consider using MIDI like ketchup; it’s an accoutrement. I don’t like ketchup; I don’t put ketchup on anything but meatloaf. Sometimes I need to make a choice of which is the more direct route to accomplishing my goal. Sometimes using MIDI is faster, sometimes manipulating the audio is faster. Mostly what I’m doing with MIDI these days is globally tweaking the velocities. I don’t do the surgical shit I used to.
I’m glad I know the surgical process because every now and then I’ve got to go in and just change one note.
Mackncheeze: I’ve never had the patience to go to that level. What made you make the transition to multi-track recording?
Adam: It just kind of happened; probably very slowly. It was one of those things where I just looked back and said, “Ten years ago I was doing that and now I’m doing this.” It wasn’t a conscious process; my abilities would outgrow the equipment that I was using. I’m like, “Okay, I’ve got to get more money to get more equipment.”
Mackncheeze: Awe, so you’re a gear slut. Tell me about your guitar processor.
Adam: It’s a DigiTech GSP 2101 which I bought in 1992. It was really ahead of its time.
This thing is not a modeling preamp, it’s a tube preamp. Every effect that is available is in there; wah to resonance to everything in between. If I could get it done with a tube amp I would use that. The DigiTech has tube distortion so if I need that crunch it’s there, there is no solid state processing. It sounds like an amp.
Me: What are your philosophies on recording?
Adam: You have to capture the mood as early as possible; without losing the mood. Get the best sound that you possibly can; get the idea down while the mood is there. The first impression is always the most important. Whatever made you want to record that idea in the first place, you’ve got to capture that, if you can capture that on tape you can recreate it.
You can learn that mood. If you can make it feel the same way, you’ve nailed it. I don’t know if I can actually do that but at least I can capture the mood, the groove and tone that inspired me in the first place. Then I get the euphoria when I do something great, now I’ve got something to build on.
Mackncheeze: What is your songwriting process?
Adam: Pretty much what I just explained; it’s never planned. Usually I’ll be getting ready to practice, I’ll turn on the amp, I’ll put on a drum loop, drag the loop out for about a hundred measures, and I just start jamming. As I’m playing along something inspires me, I will stop and press record. Most of the songs that I write, if I write a song and finish it, it’s usually right then and there. From beginning to end I have about 90% of it, the whole concept is there. Every single song is different.
I have no habits when it comes to songwriting. I could sit and just jam on rhythms for hours; work with a drum loop and just go. Why? Because it feels good and that’s it.
Mackncheeze: What are your current projects?
Adam: I’m working with John Wright, a great friend and great guy. We first met when he came over to just to do a quick 3 to 4 singer-songwriter type demo. That turned into the Stone Lantern CD. Nothing that I have written is on that CD. We took the project up to Paradise Sound in Index and had Paul Higgins lay down drums. I did all the mixing and mastering here.
Videos that Joe O’Hearn and I are working on for the Wicked Snake Bite project.
I’m working with Amy Turner.
Working with other musicians, it needs to be instinctive. Practice is everything; if you don’t practice you don’t see the results.
Mackncheeze: Some challenges you face?
These days everything takes time. The other day I was getting mad because I was thinking, “I have to work today but I have no errands to do.” I was thinking I was going to get 3 to 4 hours of practice in. It was 8:30 before I could sit down to do anything; I barely had enough time to warm up. I was too tired and not in the mood anymore. No one’s fault, it’s just the way life is.
Mackncheeze: Where do you see yourself headed? What are your motivations?
Adam: My motivation is the same that it has always been; it is to make me happy first. I don’t think of money. The ultimate goal is to just have some fun and do it. If I’m in a situation where it’s not fun anymore, if it’s getting too political, or people in the band or arguing the difference between an F or an F#, as far as I’m concerned, pick one or the other, we’re not cutting a Yes album. I refuse to argue about music; it’s not worth it, nor am I interested. I can’t motivate myself for something I’m not interested in.
If there’s decent money on the table then I might be interested other than just doing it for fun. Money can be as much a motivator as a cool voicing you’ve never played before. “Triads, you want to pay me for triads? What kind of triads do you want?”
Mackncheeze: So you’re running Sound Forge and Cakewalk? Is that a new version of Cakewalk?
Adam: It’s the new version; it’s the one that Bandlab took over. Bandlab bought Cakewalk from Gibson after Gibson pretty much abandoned it; they just stop developing it. I had paid a lifetime licensing fee for it and then Gibson dumped it.
Mackncheeze: What is it you want to say?
Adam: Music is just for everyone to enjoy, it’s not a competition, it’s not a statement, it’s not a protest. I hate protest music, some great stuff has come from it but I’m not interested in messages. I’m not against messages, obviously that would be very stupid. I just don’t need a message in the music. I grew up on Van Halen, Rush, AC DC, Judas Priest; I like instrumentals, I like jazz , there’s a lot of country I enjoy, I love the early days of rap. I can listen to some old Judas Priest and say to myself, “That was pretty Neanderthal wasn’t it?” Did they do a good job of it? Damn right they did; not a lot of deep messages there.
Good lyrics? I don’t really hear the words as much as I do the syllables; it’s like I’m color-blind in that way. I hear the syllable with the notes and if they flow that’s great. I could listen to a song my whole life and not know the words.
I don’t care what the words are, I just want the music to flow. Someone could ask me what the words to a specific Zeppelin tune are and I’d have to say, I don’t know. If someone starts singing it and I’ll say, “Oh yeah, I know that song.” If they speak the words I’ll have no idea what the song is. Music is about feeling good, I don’t care about the message.
As far as my own playing? I’m probably like every other musician, I am my own worst critic. I very rarely like my playing or what I do. If I capture the moment, I like what I did right there, something I can listen back to a lot.
Adam: I love music. I do what I say I’m going to do and that nails it. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it; I’m not going to tell you otherwise or act otherwise.
Mackncheeze: What got you started in all this?
Adam: Weed and Kiss. Seriously.
A friend of mine had an old Sears guitar and a Vox AC 30 amp. We didn’t know what we had. Before we knew how to make it work we would just turn up the amp feedback on the reverb and throw out obscenities. We didn’t sound any better than my six-year-old nephew who’s right now trying to learn guitar. We were having a ball; we destroyed the amp and the guitar.
We were sitting in my friend’s bedroom, listening to Kiss and I had the guitar in my hand. I played seven notes, and you know that feeling you get when the music you’re performing is just perfect, you get that high, it was like, “Hey, these things actually work.” From then on it was like, “Hey, that’s it!” The magic was there.
It’s like being addicted to a drug. Sometimes it happens in the studio, sometimes it happens on stage, sometimes it happens just thinking of an idea. I’ll be in bed thinking about something and telling myself I’ve got to record this thing.
For the rest of my life I’ve always been searching for that feeling. Ultimately, when you are playing music, you’re trying to please yourself. You hope everybody else likes it but if you please yourself then there is success. That’s what it’s all about for me. It’s such a rare occurrence and I’m trying to get back to that point again. I know it’s only going to last a minute or so, and then I spend the next three months trying to make it happen.
The best thing that ever happened was Facebook because the people that really mattered in my life, we are now all back together again. Most of us stayed involved with music one way or another. We loved every minute of it and still do. We share our projects with one another with a little more expertise than we had when we were younger.
Mackncheeze: So your high school band experience…
Adam: We had different bands; we weren’t actually doing the high school dance scene or anything. There was a group of us and we knew we were good; we were having fun playing and we knew we could play.
Mackncheeze: So tell me about your dad…
Adam: My dad is amazing. Growing up we used to hear him every single day just playing scales on piano; all scales and exercises everyday, four hours at a time. We grew up listening to virtuoso practice everyday. It was the way it was and that’s how my father lived.
We would go into Manhattan regularly and my dad would be working on some Off Broadway show. There were always good musicians and good music around the house: classical, jazz, Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach. He would be listening to this stuff and then just rip it at practice.
I had to know where I stood on the guitar before I realized how astronomically good my father was. There was nothing he couldn’t do. Give him any tune and he could play it stylistically perfect in any interpretation: Fugue, jazz, classical, whatever he felt like doing. That’s how he played all the time, it was amazing.
Mackncheeze: Did your dad teach you? Did you go to school?
Mackncheeze: Where did you learn all your theory? You know theory backwards and forwards.
Adam: We were sick of Reno and my friend Bob Knight, who is an amazing bass player, we both moved to Washington. My dad was already here and said there was a pretty good music scene going on.
After we moved to Washington from Nevada, I went to Bellevue Community College for a year. I had been playing guitar for four years and playing in bands for regularly three.
Mackncheeze: What casino was your dad working at in Lake Tahoe?
Adam: His regular gig was playing dinner piano at the top of Harrah’s, but he would also get side gigs at other casinos. Before that he was the piano player and arranger for my grandfather’s band, The Al Tronti Orchestra, at the Sahara Tahoe. My dad played with Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Sonny and Cher, The Jackson 5, Frank Gorshin, The Carpenters, Phyllis Diller, with whoever. Think of the major acts of that era and he played with them.
After that my dad had to hustle. He came to Seattle in about 1982 or 1983 and did a 20-year stint at the SeaTac Holiday Inn playing the main dining room.
I came up in late ’84. When I had first moved to Seattle I took Bob with me to an audition for this band called The Earl White Review. Bob was getting ready to audition for the band and I was talking to Earl and he found out I was a guitar player. He asked me to bring my guitar and amp to his hotel the next night and I sat down and played with some tapes.
I was playing along with a bunch of tunes he had and he asked me if I wanted to play in the band. I said, “Oh yeah, this will be kind of interesting.” I’d only been playing for four years; I wasn’t a seasoned pro by any means. I had been playing mostly 80’s pop metal, and now all of the sudden I’m playing covers like Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, a huge amount of Motown, some goofy hits from the 40s to the mid-80s.
That was a Tuesday that I took Bob to the audition, it was a Wednesday that I sat in the hotel room and played to the cassette. Thursday I showed up for rehearsal and by Friday the guitar player and the keyboard player were gone.
I didn’t know any songs on the set list and we opened on Friday at the Cotton Club on Martin Luther King way. We were booked for a week. My plan was to follow along discreetly with the set and try to stay out of everybody’s way until I learned the music. But now I was told I had to carry the whole thing and I didn’t know any of the tunes. That night we played a lot of Blues.
I worked with Earl for about a year and then that ended because of extenuating circumstances. After my tenure with Earl I went to Bellevue Community College.
That’s where I learned theory. Because I was living with my dad at the time, if I had questions about something that didn’t sound right, he would direct me into the way I needed to go. My dad was an arranger and he was used to writing out music for an entire orchestra. He would do all the copying for each part for each instrument; every bit of it was second nature.
Mackncheeze: How did you get involved with recording?
Adam: Before I even knew how to play I would plug my guitar into my dad’s stereo quarter inch input. I didn’t have an amp at the time. It sounded like garbage. I recorded onto a little Radio Shack cassette thing. I was farting around with the cassette player, I would play something through my dad’s stereo and record it and then I would jam along with the playback. I decided it would be cool if I could record me trying to play along with those cassette recordings; I bought another cassette player.
I had this cheap little mic, I had my little practice amp, I would play back the cassette recording and jam to it and record it onto the other cassette player via the little mic.
I realized the cassette player had outputs, so I was able to accomplish a multi-track recording by recording one track into the right Channel and another track into the Left Channel. I was 15 years old and I realized I needed to do something else. I utilized that for a while before I got a 4-track cassette recorder. It was a Tascam Ministudio Porta One, which I still have.
Mackncheeze: You never got rid of it?
Adam: I keep it because I still have old recordings that I can play back.
We recorded my dad at Kearney Barton Studios in Lake Forest Park. His Studio was immaculate. He had a full size grand piano. Hendrix had recorded there a few times, among others, a veritable whose who.
I mastered my dad’s recordings on Cool Edit Pro which was freeware. I paid 10 or 20 bucks for the pro version in about 1994, 1995. I didn’t know what I was doing; I just winged it and it turned out okay.
That was my first mastering experience. For that time, it was basically a light version of sound Forge. That was my introduction to a stereo digital audio processing workstation; strictly working with stereo files. That’s when I when I made a distinction between recording and mastering. I was using DOS 2.0; this was before Windows even existed.
Endorsed by Genzler Amplification, MTD Basses, GHS Strings, Tsunami Cables, Access Bags and Cases, Bartolini Electronics, Sonic Nuance Electronics
Sean: As a bassist, I’ve been playing for 25 years.
I fell in love with the instrument. I quit middle school band. There wasn’t a spot in the school band for an electric bass player. The band director was upset with me because he was a saxophone player. I had been performing in early morning classical quartets with him, and he was grooming me to follow his footsteps.
At that time I became a really, really rebellious teenager. I basically said fuck you to everything, dropped out of band and found my own way.
My high school musical experience was completely different and was totally wonderful. The band director was a very forward thinking technological guy. His name was Duane Duxbury. He ended up developing a curriculum using digital technology. This was at Jackson High School in Mill Creek.
At the time it was incredible, totally valuable and I didn’t realize it. I started building first hand experience with multi track digital recording. We were recording on High 8 tapes. It was a digital format that looked like little cassette tapes used for VHS recording. The unit was a Tascam DA 88 which could record 8 tracks; we also had a DAT Master recorder. The school got a number of the very first CDR drives. I remember being so excited to use it and buying my first blank CD for like 20 bucks in 1997 dollars. It would take 30 minutes to burn 40 minutes of content.
I got involved with Jazz choir. That was another very serendipitous thing. The Jazz choir director was an opera singer. She was a live stage person but really had no background in jazz. She was unrestrained and was a free spirit. Her name was Janet Hitt.
At one point I decided I wanted to make my living as a session musician. After high school I directed my studies to ready for that course of action. I planned to move to LA. I studied under Steve Kim; he got me ready for the move.
Mackncheeze: How was that move to LA?
Sean: ( Laughs ) That’s a whole another long story. In the end it didn’t work. It was the early days of the internet and I had done apartment shopping online. I found a place but had never seen a picture of what I was getting into.
I freaked out when I saw the place I was supposed to live. It did not have a kitchen. It was one of the few freak-outs I’ve ever had in my life. I decided LA kind of sucked. I was there for 2 weeks.
I came back and finished school, graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in linguistics and a Minor in music.
The whole experience did not stop me from playing professionally. I’m a hired side man and a recording artist. Now my focus is doing my own solo stuff.
I have worked hard and I’m starting to get notoriety for the work that I’m doing. My focus now is in composition and recordings.
I had a recent revelation. My time is normally playing with a bunch of different bands. It’s not music that I have a personal stake in. I’m a hired player. It pays a lot of the bills. The realization is that I’m ready to make a pivot away from that. I convinced myself for so long that was the way to legitimately make money.
Perhaps I’m still in the process of rediscovering that teenage excitement. For me it’s about having ownership, not playing other people’s parts, not just being a hired player.
What I’ve learned is that when I’m playing I always speak with my own voice. My favorite players are the ones who come up with their own statements and their own voice.
In a total sense, I really like a lot of chime and attack. I love players like Geddy Lee and Chris Squire and Les Claypool and Flea. I love guys who play with picks; I love present, harmonically rich sound.
I have always been a band leader, a singer and a front person. As a bass player that is not a commonality. It’s the way that I express myself in music.
Mackncheze: Who are you touring and working with.
Sean: I have a company by the name of Fairchild Sound. It does a number of things, it is my umbrella company for working as a contract player to create videos for a brand. I’m a consultant. I use it for any sort of business endeavor. It’s really not a lot of what I do. Most of what I do these days is teach and record.
Recently I have been working with Miller Campbell. She is a second cousin of Glen Campbell. I do a lot of regional shows with a Billy Joel and an Elton John tribute band. I play on remote recordings which is the majority of my session work.
I worked for Behringer for a short time. This was 7 years ago. When I was working for them at NAMM, we were doing a series where I was interviewing artists all day long. I got to interview Don Randi who is the keyboardist for The Wrecking Crew. He owns The Baked Potato jazz club in Studio City, California. Still playing. Wonderful guy, great guy. Lots of really great stories. For some stupid reason he seemed to to like me.
In my time with Behringer I was also on the team that did product reviews for salespeople. We were doing feature walk throughs, like what Sweetwater does. We were doing this on the equivalent of what, eight years ago, would now be Zoom technology. The stuff was available to the public most of the time and we would put it out on YouTube.
Mackncheeze: How did you get the gig with Bass Gear magazine.
As a bass specialist I had been writing reviews because I am incredibly nerdy. I was always into technical aspects of music and gear. I had been writing reviews on Talkbass.com for a long time. I believe the editor saw what I was doing with one of the bass products at NAMM. I received an email from him and he asked, “If you ever want to do that stuff for us we would love to have you involved.” I was hugely impressed. I was like, “Oh my God this is great.”
It’s a great publication; they care a lot about bass gear. It’s all very technical. It’s the former Bass Player Magazine. They were recently bought out by the UK’s Bass Guitar Magazine.
It used to be in print. By the time I got my first piece published it was the last print edition. I’m excited that I got to see that but also bummed that the print format is gone. At one time the distribution on that was 300,000. That’s globally.
Things definitely changed when we went online only. One of the things we struggled with is creating a format that makes it feel like a periodical publication. We publish a couple of issues a year. It’s a big collection of reviews, interviews, editorial pieces and stuff like that. It’s graphically laid out to look like an issue of a magazine, which is very cool.
In my entire life, my kids are the best thing that’s ever happened. My kids are centered and focused and on their way and they are artists. I told them if you’re not ready to go to college, don’t go to college. Their college is paid for, they don’t have to worry about it. My son said he didn’t want to go, he hates school. I said don’t go. Right now he is making wine with me. He is going to Europe with his sister and when he gets back he’ll be working harvest.
I’m a kid who grew up in the state of Washington. I’ve lived here my entire life. I have walked into pretty much all of my opportunities. I’m someone who wants to be the best human who I can possibly be. I have been able to chose from opportunities that have presented themselves. I am so lucky, so lucky.
Mackncheeze: Everyone that I talk to, who are at the top of their game, says the same thing.
Tom: We don’t make a lot of wine. It’s amazing to pull it off at 4,500 cases. We have three full-time employees. I love my staff, I have the best staff ever. They are beautiful people. They love their job.
I love all the moving parts. I get to do everything. I get to manage people, I get to work on the financial side and the marketing side.
I get up every day and get to work by 7:45 or 8. I take my dog for 45 minutes and we walk the orchards and vineyards. It’s so beautiful. I might see a four-wheeler or a tractor but there won’t be any people or cars.
I love the people I work with, the people I deal with, it’s especially about managing relationships. Life, when you throw in wine, is so much more fun. Everywhere I go I take wine and make new friends; not always but most times.
Mackncheeze: How do you draw the line between science and Alchemy?
Tom: Humans are 90% sensory-based. As winemakers, if it doesn’t smell good or taste good, people are not going to want to drink it. I just don’t pay attention to what numbers say. I have never been a proponent of scores.
I tasted wines the other day and I said to myself, it’s just not a good day to be tasting. It’s like playing music, sometimes your guitar sounds out of tune when it’s not.
Mackncheeze: Back to the science thing: What part of your career did you embrace the science of making wine?
Tom: The whole time. At this point I don’t use as much science. I’ve dialed it down to – what is it do we need to know.
Before we make a picking decision, as far as longevity of the wine goes, we are looking at the balances of our sugars and PH s. It changes every year. That’s pretty much what we look at before we pick grapes. After we pick grapes, we use chemical analysis to see if we need to make any changes. We test, we cross-flow everything, test before and after filtering. We have gotten away from using commercial yeast. We will let things ferment on their own.
We call our wines uninoculated, that’s the fairest way to state it. Most natural yeast cannot finish a fermentation of wine that is over 22 brix, the alcohol will be too high. Most natural yeast cannot handle that much alcohol.
We use an outside source for testing. We run tests at the beginning and end of fermentation. It’s nuts, every year the results come back differently. Two years ago our Merlot fermented dry with a white wine yeast. Last year we had a wine that fermented dry with a yeast we have never used before, it had never even been in the winery.
Tom : That’s technology and the applications we use.
When it comes down to picking decisions, walking in vineyards, I know what the numbers are. We’re just walking through and asking ourselves, how does the fruit taste? What are the chemical constituents of the skins and seeds? That’s the art part of what we do.
Mackncheeze: Hypothetical question: You’re a Roman winemaker two thousand years ago, with your vineyards, how would you approach wine making?
Tom: I’d have to see what kind of equipment they had. I think criterion would be the same: Does it smell good? Does it taste good? I guess I wouldn’t be worried so much about cost.
Mackncheze: You understand the history of what you’re doing. Tom: Where did Syrah come from? Mackncheeze: It would have been Persia? Tom: Legend has it the Phoenicians brought Syrah to Europe from around present day Syria.
Mackncheeze: As an entrepreneur, as an artist winemaker, what is it you would like to say?
Tom: The main thing is, I wish people were more aware of what was the last wine that they were drinking. I think about it all the time, I really do. I want wines that I make to taste like the person who made them loves their job. I see so many people in this industry, to them, it’s just a business. I want people to understand that there’s a difference between my $25 of Cabernet and my competitors $20 bottle of cab; there’s a huge difference. We truly care about what we do. We take every step to make sure that the wines are true to what they are. A customer will know where our wines are from and know how they’re produced. I saw an ad for the sale of 75,000 gallons of Cabernet. No consumer is going to know its source. That’s wine manufacturing.
Mackncheeze: Lot of that going on.
Tom: I want people to know we make our own wine. Only three people touch it. What we do is our testimony. We Care.
Mackncheeze: This has been great.
Tom: Yeah, this has been fun. I always tell people I like answering questions because it helps me to remember what I know.
This interview involved sharing a bottle of 1998 St. Innocent PinotNoir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Mackncheeze: Tell me about the kids and playing music?
Tom: They both grew up playing instruments. My son played trumpet for a year and didn’t really like it. My daughter, Amelia, played Cello. She had her great-grandmother’s Cello. She played cello for a couple of years and is pretty good.
A couple of years ago I thought, I’m going to buy Winston drums. I bought him a drum set for graduation; he loved them.
It was really strange because my buddy Jared, I was out to dinner with him one night, and he asked me, do you know anyone who wants to buy a bass? I said I would. Two hundred bucks and a case of wine later, I got a bass.
I already had a Stratocaster and acoustic guitar. So we have electric guitar, bass and drums. Winston and I would start playing a little, and my daughter started playing bass. It’s one of the most awesome things in the world to come home after work and have my children be there. I walk into the basement and I say, oh my God, I love my children. They love it.
I bought Amelia her own bass. I didn’t know what to get her for her 18th birthday, I just didn’t know. I was perplexed; I was in Spokane and I went to the guitar store, and said, “Hey, I’m getting her a bass.”
I figured she would like a black one, it would be cool for her. When I gave it to her it was the best thing in the world. She was so happy and so excited. I gave her a bass amp. She can practice at home and also play at my house. It’s one of my favorite things in the whole world. I love it
Mackncheeze: For you, what sparked your interest in playing music?
Tom: I started playing piano when I was in second grade. I really didn’t like it but at the same time I liked it. In sixth grade I started playing trumpet. I liked trumpet a lot but then my music teacher quit. Then I did shop and pottery.
My former music teacher came back and he asked me why I quit band. I said, “Because you left and I didn’t like the other guy.” He asked, “Will you come back? I don’t need a trumpet player but I do need a baritone player.” I said okay and I went back to band class.
When I went to high school I didn’t see any baritone players in jazz band. So the band instructor told me he would buy me a valve trombone. In my freshman year of high school I played valve trombone. The next year he told me I needed to play regular trombone. So my sophomore year I played regular trombone and my junior year he bought a bass trombone. By my senior year I said, I’m just going to smoke weed and play Hacky Sack.
Mackncheeze: ( Gut Laugh ) How did you become intrigued with wine?
Tom: I got married in 1995 and moved to Walla Walla seven days later, no job. I started working at the Walla Walla Country Club. Mornings I mowed Greens, afternoons worked the pro shop (this is pre children) and I worked the clubhouse at night. Finally the golf pro asked me to work full time. I passed my players test and entered the PGA as a Club Professional.
Tom: And then he got fired. I said to myself, I don’t want to work for anyone else and I don’t want to do this anymore. So I got a job as a commercial loan officer at Banner Bank. In that time I met Eric Dunham. He was living on the top floor of L’Ecole 41. It was a small world thing because I gave Marty and Megan Clubb and their daughter golf lessons. I also gave Megan’s parents golf lessons, so I knew them all. When I was in between jobs, Eric called up and asked me if I could help out at L’Ecole. Eric was beginning to open Dunham Cellars.
When I worked at the Country Club, part of my job was to act as the host part of the winemakers golf tournament. There were only eight wineries at that time. I started at L’Ecole in 1998. Rick Small, Chris Doucet and John Abbott would come out and play golf. Jean Francois played as well, so this got pretty big.
I was helping out at L’Ecole and Marty asked if I knew anyone who would want to work there and I said I would.
I hooked up with Mike Corliss. We started talking and he said if I ever wanted to do a winery let him know. That was a great opportunity . That was in 2001 that I started with Mike. In the process of ordering fruit, I contacted Tom Waliser, he has a vineyard in the Rocks. Andrew Will had to back out of a fruit purchase, so I called Tom and he said, “Come down and pick up some fruit.” He then asked if I would be interested working for him making wine.
For two full harvests I was making wine for both Tom Walesir and Mike Corliss. There wasn’t a production facility for either winery. The first vintage of Corliss and Beresan were made at L’Ecole 41, which was great because I was helping Marty out and simultaneously making my own wine. We did that in 2001 and 2002. In 2003 I left Corliss and started with Ash Hollow; that was a short-lived brand.
Mackncheeze: I’ve never even heard of it
Tom: I got to manage 50 acres of vineyards so that was good. I learned a lot about growing grapes and vineyard management.
Mackncheeze: So you just fell into this?
Tom: Yeah the whole thing. When I worked at L’Ecole they sent me to school at UC Davis. When I first got there I had no idea what they were talking about. When I went back the next year it kind of made sense. Year three, I got it; between schooling and practical application is what set it straight.
Mackncheeze : So you have no degree? Practical experience is the whole thing?
Tom: Yep, at that time, most people in Walla Walla learned how to make wine by making wine.
I was at Ash Hollow in 2003 to 2004. In 2004 my dad passed and I said to myself, I’ve got to do my own thing. I was tired of working for other people. So I quit and found an investor who helped me start my winery. I was just about ready to pull the trigger on that deal and my buddy Mike Sharon, who was the winemaker at L’Ecole 41 said, “Why don’t I help you out.”
In 2005 we started Balboa Winery with $40,000.
Mackncheeze: Really, that’s nothing.
Tom: Tom Waliser helped a lot. He created space for me so that I could vinify wine. We were the first people to use screw caps in Walla Walla.
Mackncheeze: Really? I haven’t seen any of your wines with screw caps.
Tom: I have four wines with screw caps.
I like the concept. I think it’s a much better capsule. The wines age fine. That’s the big thing, before it goes in the bottle, you have to make wine correctly.
Mackncheeze: That’s what you’re all about, making wine correctly.
Tom: Two and a half years ago we merged Beresan Wines and Balboa Wines.
I was thinking about this earlier. I love my job now more than I ever. I get to hang out with really great folks. I love playing golf, I love playing guitar, I love making wine, these are things which will never be perfect. I can always try to be better.
This is my 22nd year of wine making. I love walking through Vineyards and tasting grapes and running the numbers. I love the group of people who go through a harvest together, it’s seven days a week, 12 hour days, you become extremely close with that group of people. Some of my closest friends are people I have worked with during harvest.
I could go on for days.
The whole relationship between sunshine and dirt and plants and temperature, I mean, it’s different every single year. You have to be able to adapt. You can’t make wine the same way every year. That’s what I love about wine, we are always trying to capture wine at its peak regardless of vintage. Last year was tricky. It was a cooler; the fruit was ripe but sugar levels were low. Physically, the grapes were ready to go, so we picked. A lot of wineries did not.
Mackncheeze: The wine was more complex?
Tom: Yeah it was. I like cooler vintages. The 2011 vintage wines are still great. They will be great longer than the wines from 2015. I would never say one vintage is necessarily better than the rest, it’s always a reflection of what that year was. That’s why we make wine the way we do. Our wines reflect vintage; this is what we were given.
Scores are very challenging. How are you supposed to score wine if you haven’t been part of the process? You weren’t there, how do you know? You don’t know the soils, you don’t know the harvest, you don’t know the vineyards. There could have been six 100-point wines in that release because that’s the best you could have done with both grapes and vintage. It’s extremely difficult to judge a great wine unless you know how it was made.
You want to talk about the art side of what I do? It truly is an art; I mean, we’ve decided to use as few of commercial products as possible. That decision we made because we feel our wine is more like a wine should be. A lot of wine making is just a job; some winemakers make a wine because its profile is predetermined.
As a young winemaker, I was geared towards younger wines, but now I think it’s much more fun to drink older wines. I have wines I made in 98 and 99, it’s so fun to try them.
Mackncheeze: How you feeling about them?
My office is in a wine library. In that room I’m surrounded by every bottle of wine I’ve made for Beresan. I remember the sense of all the work, this is where I was, this is what went on that year. It’s great, I love it.
Marco: ( Laughs ) Somebody crazy ( More Laughter ).
Why was Jesus a carpenter? When God had the ark of the covenant built, He made it from wood, covered with gold. I believe wood represents mankind and gold represents God’s purity covering mankind.
Why did He do that; wood covered with gold? Jesus was a carpenter. He is the gold that covers us.
I tell people, misery is a good teacher; you learn things you can’t imagine.
I come from a very rural part of Brazil. There wasn’t a lot of money. I started to make instruments because I was playing in my church.
Mackncheeze: How old were you when you started?
Marco: Fourteen. I started to play guitar. The church I played at had one really bad bass . I would take it home and bring it back before service. I tried to buy a bass with credit but didn’t have enough income. I decided I wanted to make my own.
I could not afford the instrument so out of necessity I started building basses. At that time all the good instruments were coming from other countries. Good instruments were the equivalent of buying a decent car. I had no tools, it was crazy, but I had a drill. I drew out the body on a piece of wood and then drilled out the body like a stamp. I would use a file to file out the shape.
I said to myself, “If Fender can build a bass, why not me? I’m a man just like he is? Why not?” My friends told me I was crazy, “You’re never going to make a bass better than Fender.”
So I started building one; I had no information. At that time there was no internet. I tried to figure it out.
The first basic idea is to have a truss rod. Because I had no information I had to figure out how to do things.
As a musician, if you don’t have information about music in the world, you still have the heart of a musician. You create your own music, you develop your own style.
By the time I was able to collect information on how others were doing it I had established my own style.
Hendrix played left handed on a right handed guitar. He had his own style. He had the drive to be a player; he had to figure out how to do it. A player can play exactly like another.
I used to make my pickups in Brazil. I did not have good materials. I had to push myself to make something good. I had a lot of wood but no magnets or wire.
I had to work with materials that were inferior in quality, coming up with results that worked, finding my own way to do it. By the time I moved to the USA I had established my techniques and now had materials available. With quality materials I could apply my own style.
In Brazil, I did not have tools. I had to learn to make my own tools; everything form scratch, even down to paints and lacquers.
Mackncheeze: You made your own lacquers? My Lord!
I started living in West Seattle. I could not find a job because my English wasn’t good.
Mackncheeze: How is you’re Portuguese? You’re Portuguese Good?
Marco: So, so ( Laughs ).
I ended up working construction. Very heavy outdoor work. One day one of my co-workers asked why I was so happy.
Let me explain: in Brazil work is much harder, much heavier. Here, work is much lighter. Misery is a good teacher.
Bass is a weird instrument. Bass is an instrument working with other voices in music. Look at music as a graphic. You have the four voices of basic theory. The primary job of the bass is to play the root. In a trio bass has much more freedom, but in a four piece, you have to content yourself not to overplay.
Music is about the moment.
Mackncheeze: What is it that drives you?
Marco: Being a Luthier; it’s a little crazy. For an example: you’re a drummer, what motivates you? You spend an hour after a show tearing down gear, there’s no money in that, but it’s the passion and love, that’s why you do it. Its not logical.
Building an instrument is the same because it is difficult business wise. I’m not going get rich off of this.
Working with the musicians I do, some of the ones I endorse, this is very good. Whats good is because they are real players. They are in love with what they do.
As a successful musician, to make money, generally you have to play music that other people like. It’s the same for me. First I made instruments for me. That’s where I started. Now I make instruments for others and end up tweaking the process as I go along.
Mackncheeze: What are some of your struggles?
Marco: Being a luthier is hard because being a luthier is not very different from being a musician. It’s how I divide what I’m doing for myself and what I’m doing for my clients. Basically it becomes what people can pay me. I have to down grade some guitars in order to make them approachable. The instruments I make for myself are too good.
Playing music is very complex and most people do not understand what a musician does. That’s one thing I tell my customers; they don’t understand what I do. We sell ourselves, our time, our skins, to do our job. That’s part of life. It’s part of the struggle between art and the real world. I make instruments for what people are asking for.
But every bass I make is for me. It’s hard to find the balance. That’s the difficult thing, because I want to do more.
Part of the challenge is that most amps on the market are made to work with Fenders. That’s part of the standard. I had to downgrade the quality of my pickups to adapt to the Fender standard. I can’t be too creative. But still, this is fun.
Mackncheeze: What has been the most exciting thing in your life?
Marco: Watching good musicians who play my instruments, who enjoy my work. It’s like enjoying cooking, making food for someone, food that they enjoy. They understand why you did it. It’s like serving the best wine in the world.
I kept getting better and better and better. I probably had built about fifty basses before I got it. At that point, I figured it was something I could do. People started to ask, “Could you make one for me?”
The instruments are a very complex. People have no idea because they think it is normal wood working. The basses are almost alive. Every bass is different. The one thing is-they basically communicate with the musician, the sound of the instrument, musicians feel the instrument, they kind of interface while playing. They just play different.
Mackncheeze: What are your sources of wood?
Marco: I try to be as local as possible. I have tried hundreds of different woods; woods from Brazil. Musicians are very traditional. Most guitars are expected to be made from ash or alder. I use a lot of alder. I don’t like to use ash a lot.
Leo Fender is a genius because he found a way to make a good guitar a less expensive way, what Henry Ford was to cars. Fender made a production line. He chose ash because it was easy to work.
Sometimes I use pine. For fretless basses pine sounds good. I haven’t yet made a fretted bass with pine. Pine is pretty knotty so we have a lot of waste. But it sounds good.
I have used Douglas fir and it works well. One of my favorite woods is cedar. It sounds really good.
When I moved to the United States I started working construction. I had no money but making instruments was still my hobby. I had some extra Douglas fir beams and I cut those and made some guitars. They sounded amazing.
People buy things with their eyes.
I judge a piece of wood by its feel. Musicians taste the instrument like people taste food. People don’t understand why we are so absolutely in to that because that can’t feel what we feel. We taste the sound with our ears and with our hands we feel the touch of the instrument. There is dimensionality to it.
It’s hard for me to understand a luthier who doesn’t play. I ask people, would you ask a blind guy to paint your house?
Mackncheeze: What do you want to tell people?
Marco: It’s about our relationships. Every customer becomes a friend. I make instruments but I collect friends.
Mackncheeze: This has been great. Thank you, Marco.