This interview appeared in the October 2004 issue of Metronome Magazine
METRONOME: Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in New York city... in the Bronx. I lived there until I was twenty-one. Then I came to Cambridge, MA. to go to graduate school.
METRONOME: Did you grow up in a musical family?
There was always music around. My mother and my sister and I sang all the time. We used to sing three part harmonies. My cousin is a jazz musician... a jazz pianist and his wife is a jazz singer.
METRONOME: Did you take music lessons as a kid?
I did in school. In the sixth grade they had exams to see if you were musically inclined. If you were, they pulled you out and put you in a music class. I was musically inclined so beginning in the seventh grade to junior high and high school I learned how to play the violin. I was in the school orchestra for those six years.
METRONOME: How did the test determine if you were musically inclined or not?
I don’t remember. It was some sort of test. It was probably nothing more than, “listen to this music and sing it,” to see if you could carry a tune.
METRONOME: Who were some of the bands and musicians that influenced you as a kid?
When I was in high school I listened to jazz. I still really enjoy jazz. Then in college— I went to college in the sixties— Bob Dylan hit the scene. I used to go down to both the West Village and East Village in New York on weekends and see people play. I remember Richie Havens in Thomkins Square Park. He used to play there every weekend in the open air. Then I got more into folk music. I wasn’t really into pop and rock.
I left pop and rock totally for awhile when Elvis went in to the Army. When he came out, he was just too slick! He had his Vegas days and his movies and that didn’t turn me on. Then when the Beatles came out and Bob Dylan went from folk to electric, that stuff just blew me away.
METRONOME: How did you feel about Dylan going electric? Did you feel betrayed as a fan?
It didn’t bother me at all. He’s such a fantastic songwriter that it’s hard not to be in awe of the guy. So many of his songs are just perfect. His words are so cutting. Even now, his musical style is incredible. He’s influenced so many people. To a large degree, he brought intelligent lyrics to pop music.
METRONOME: When did you actively get into a band?
I hadn’t been in a band until seven years ago. I always performed solo.
METRONOME: Tell us about your first solo performances.
I’ll never forget the first time I sang in front of people. It was in Brookline, MA. at a place called the Rusty Nail. In 1969, I got friendly with a musican around here named Willie Wright who used to sing in bars and owned a head shop on Commonwealth Avenue. One time he was playing at this place called the Rusty Nail and I asked him if I could do a few songs in between his sets. Willie always used to go out and get stoned in between his sets so he said, “Sure man, go!”
The bar was really crowded and I started to sing and got so nervous that I not only forgot the words to the song... I forgot what song I was singing. Finally the audience started to yell, “Bring back Willie.”
Two weeks later I tried it again because I decided the only way to overcome that was to go out and do it. The Club Casablanca in Harvard Square had music and I played between one of his sets there. I got up the courage enough to ask the bartender/manager if I could do a night there and he said, “Okay.” So about six months after my initial attempt to get in front of people and sing, I got my first paying gig there.
After that, I played a lot of the places around the Square. There used to be a place called The Idler that was there for many, many years. I played there for eight years.
METRONOME: You mentioned earlier that you came to Cambridge to go to graduate school. What college did you attend?
M.I.T. I hold a degree in Mechanical Engineering.
METRONOME: Is that what you do during the day?
During the day, I manage a research program that studies ozone depletion in the stratosphere and global warming. I’ve been doing that for many years.
METRONOME: How many albums have you released?
There are only two that you can get a hold of. A band CD called, Not Life Threatening and my new solo release, Armando’s Pie.
METRONOME: Tell me about the band project. When did you put a band together and why?
I gave up music for a long time. I was playing at The Idler for eight years and I got fired one night. At that time I was married with two kids and I felt as far as my time was concerned that I had to focus on my day job. So I gave up music for a long time.
Then about nine years ago, a few things happened. I gave up pipe smoking. I was looking for reasons to be positive about that because I really enjoyed pipe smoking. So I said to myself, “Hey, you can start singing again.” When I smoked I couldn’t sing because I had no breath control.
Then I went to see Donovan who was playing at the Berklee Performance Center and he just blew me away. His voice and his music was as good as it ever was. Everytime I heard a great musician, I would get so absorbed by the music that I would want to play again. So I said, “Lenny, you’ve got to get back into this.” Then one of my sons got married and asked me to play at his wedding and that gave me an excuse to practice. I practiced three songs. It took me about four months and that started it.
I started to jam with a bass player, drummer and another guitar player. The current configuration of the band is Dennis Gurgul on drums. He’s been with me since the very beginning... about 1998. Plus the reason I decided to get a band together is because I thought it would be fun. I also figured it would get me to practice. I never used to enjoy practicing, now I love practicing.
For a while we were a quartet. I lost two members and Bill Gibbs joined in 2000. That’s a funny story how Bill joined. I had an ad in the paper for a guitar player and Bill answered the ad. We started chatting and I was describing my music and Bill said, “Hey, do you know a person named Patty Parker?” I said, “Yeah. Patty’s been coming to hear me sing for twenty five years.” Bill said, “Then I know your music because I used to be roomates with her and she played your CD for me. Bill plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass and sometimes mandolin and banjo. He does harmonies as well.
METRONOME: So Not Life Threatening was the first real full-length release you put out?
Yes. That was the first one we tried to promote and so forth. In fact, Metronome reviewed it and the review is on my website.
METRONOME: Tell us about your new album, Armando’s Pie. What inspired it? How did you record it?
The inspiration was that I felt that I wanted to go back to the studio and Dennis and Bill weren’t ready to go back. We had worked on the other album for about a year. So I decided that I would be really mellow with it and go into the studio once every month or month and a half and just slowly work on it. I took it one song at a time. In the beginning I didn’t really know whether I was going to put out a CD or not.
I worked with Bill Mason at Second Story Studio. I met Bill through Mr. Curt. Curt was booking a coffeehouse some years ago and he booked the band, so I met Curt that way. When the band decided to record a CD, I called Curt and asked him if he could recommend a studio. He’s good friends with Bill, so that’s how that came together.
METRONOME: What is the name of the band?
It’s called Solomon Band.
METRONOME: When did you start recording Armando’s Pie?
It took about a year and a half to complete. I started it in September of 2002.
METRONOME: Tell us about the title track “Armando’s Pie.” What inspired that song and the name of the album?
Armando has a pizza shop around the corner from where I live in Cambridge. He’s been there for about thirty-five years. The song is really a biography of him and his family. He opened his shop where he and his wife worked. Eventually his sister, daughter and grandsons came to work there. He’s a real part of the community. He was an immigrant from Sicily. He’s a great guy. I just decided I was going to write a song about Armando and his pizza.
METRONOME: He must be pretty proud of it?
He’s my retail outlet. He sells my CDs. After I finished the album, I brought a couple of copies in and he was so taken aback by it, that he listened to it and said, “Hey Mr. Solomon (he always calls everybody by their last name), you bring in those CDs. We’re selling them here.” He sells them right at his counter.
METRONOME: Tell me about the “Vegan Song.”
That’s really a song about not stereotyping people. I decided to pick a “vegan” because I think in general, vegans have a certain rep about being a certain type of person, so I decided to write a tune about a vegan that’s an atypical vegan.
METRONOME: Is it inspired by someone you know?
No. It was really inspired by the thought that one should never stereotype groups of individuals. I tried to do it obviously in a humorous way but... don’t take things for granted. Don’t assume things about people. Get to know everyone as an individual. That’s really what that song is about. Some of my best friends are vegans. Usually the ones that hunt through the countryside killing vegetables.
METRONOME: It seems like your love for history may have spawned the song “Gettysburg.” Tell us about that tune.
I read a lot of history and that was sort of an excercise. I wanted to write a song about the civil war and in order to do that, I had to research the Battle of Gettysburg. So I read up on it and this is the song that came out of it. I think it’s a pretty powerful anti-war song but the specifics are about the battle of Gettysburg where tens of thousands of people were slaughtered.
METRONOME: So you brought the past into the future...
Yeah. When you’re writing about something you haven’t lived through, you research it. That song was an excercise for me to see if I could get enough information about something I really didn’t know anything about.
METRONOME: The other song I get a hoot out of is called “Jews in Country Music.” What’s up with that?
That one was in response to a serious discussion on this country list-serve that I belong to. It was why there weren’t more Jewish performers in country music. To me it was obvious because the roots of traditional country music is gospel based and religious based. There are very Christian roots to country music. To me it was obvious but none of these guys were getting it. That was the song that came out.
METRONOME: What comes first, the lyrics or the music, or does it depend on the tune?
It depends on the tune. What I’ve tried to do as I’ve gotten older, is to be more professional with my songwriting. So I carry around tape recorders and pads of paper and when I think of either an interesting word or set of words, I try to get it down before I forget it. It comes both ways. Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly melody challenged, one of the things I like to do is pull out this big chord book I have and play these different voicings of chords to see how they sound together. Many times that will suggest a melody.
METRONOME: After listening to Armando’s Pie, it seems like you put a lot of thought into the songwriting. Would you say that’s true?
For the majority of the time, I can usually write a draft of the lyrics within an hour or two. Then I let it sit for a few days and look at them again. I change whatever doesn’t sound right and let it sit again. I find that time is a good editor.
METRONOME: So you do invest a lot of time in the songs?
METRONOME: Are any of the songs on Armando’s Pie, old ones that you wrote years ago?
No, all of those songs are from the last couple of years. Although I did bring a song to my band that we just started rehearsing that I must have written about thirty years ago. I actually forgot some of the lines in the verses, so I wrote new ones. As you get older, you write about different things, so when I played it a couple of weeks ago, Bill said, “You didn’t just write that, did you?”
METRONOME: Tell us about your harmonica work on the album. How long have you been playing?
For a long time. I used to play it when I was solo, but when I started the band, I didn’t play at all. I started playing it more and more when we recorded the Not Life Threatening album because I did some harmonica fills on it. I also had a guest harmonica player named Slim Cedrone come and play on some of the songs and I said, “That’s fantastic.”
He only came one night, so for the other songs, I played. Then Bill said, “You should play harmonica more.” Now I play it on half the songs when we do live shows.
METRONOME: Do you play any electric guitar?
No. I only play acoustic. A couple of years ago I got a Taylor 514CE and I just love it. I only own three guitars, the Taylor, a Guild D-44 and an Alvarez Yairi. But the Taylor is just an amazing guitar. I can do things I could never do on the other guitars. It inspires me to play.
I could see myself playing electric at some point in my life, but right now I enjoy the sound of the acoustic.
METRONOME: Do you still play the violin?
No, I haven’t played in many, many years. I don’t own a violin.
METRONOME: Where have you been playing lately?
We’ve been playing at a place called the Fireplace Restaurant on Beacon Street in Brookline. We’ve also been at O’Leary’s, the Blackthorne Tavern in So. Easton and some colleges and coffeehouses. We have a gig coming up at Perk’s in Norwood. I’m going to be a featured guest at The Cantab Lounge on Geoff Bartley’s open mic night.
Recently I did an interview on Brookline cable TV. They have a show called “Roots Rock Live” with host Patrick Keating. We talked for about a half hour and I played three songs. He also has a radio show at Babson College where he goes to school.
METRONOME: When you play live, what are you using to amplify your acoustic guitar?
I use a Fender Acoustisonic amp. Most of the places we play have a sound system so I can go direct into the board and use the Acoustisonic as a monitor.
METRONOME: Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring musicians?
I have been playing for a long time. When I was younger, I was very competitive with my music and it took a lot of the joy out of the music. I was always comparing myself to other people and it closed my mind to some of the great music other folks were putting out.
Very few people can make a living doing music. For those people that do, at least from my experience, they have to make significant compromises in what they’re doing. They’re teaching music. They’re playing weddings... they’re doing all sorts of things that are not their ideal. Music is an art and a craft, and you should do it for the joy of it, and just keep on doing it.
When people ask me what my goals are in music, it’s just to get better and better. I try to instill that in the band and I’m grateful that Dennis has been with me five or six years and Bill’s been with me four years. Hopefully we’ll stay together and get better and better.
|last updated: Sun Nov 13 11:41:57 2005||solomon_AT_harvard.edu|