Milwaukee Talks: Daryl Stuermer
He has appeared on the Oscars, he's toured the world with Genesis, Phil Collins, jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and others. He's recorded with many artists and has a string of acclaimed solo discs to his name, his latest having just won WAMIs.
We're talking about Milwaukee guitarist Daryl Stuermer, of course. Stuermer recently took some time to chat with us about his career, his latest record, what he's working on, the Milwaukee music scene and more.
OMC: How did you get into playing the guitar? Did you love music from childhood?
DS: In grade school I was in band as a trumpet player, and about when I was 11 years old, I picked up the guitar because my brother, who is two years older...
OMC: Is that Duane?
DS: Yes. At that time he was playing the guitar and he sang and he put a little band together. You always get very influenced by your older brother or older sister or whatever, so, that got me into thinking that the guitar was something very cool. I got involved with it and within about a year, it seemed like a very natural instrument for me.
I continued playing the trumpet, but I started getting more interested in the guitar. Probably by the time I was about 15 years old I really was involved playing the guitar, and I thought that this was where I was going to go, in one way or another.
OMC: And was Duane your role model or were there more famous people that you were looking up to?
OMC: Well, it started out with my brother being an older brother and we started playing in some bands together. But as far as the guitar players that were very influential to me at that time, in those early years, I'd say blues guitar players. There was a guy named Michael Blumfield and Elvin Bishop and then BB King. All these people were very influential. But when I was about 15 years old I also started hearing jazz guitar players and I realized that when I was listening to the jazz guitar players, I couldn't play what they were playing. So, that got me more interested. I was thinking, "where the hell are these notes coming from?"
OMC: Obviously you decided to go somewhat in that direction; how did you proceed to learn how to play what they were playing?
DS: Well, what I started doing first was...one record that was really influential to me -- this record's probably out of print -- it was by Joe Pass. Joe Pass had a record called "Joe Pass Plays the Rolling Stones," and I thought, "OK," because my background is a little bit more of rock and blues. I thought, "OK, I know these songs" and then when I heard it, I thought, "Oh my God." I wanted to learn the solos he was doing and so I'd take the record and I would slow the record down and learn it from there. I could hear the notes but they'd fly by so fast.
When I was probably 15 or 16 I decided I would take lessons and I started learning from a local guitar player named George Pritchett. He was at Crown Music (in Bay View) at the time, and I lived on the south side of Milwaukee; that's where I was raised. I think I took lessons for about a year and a half.
OMC: He (the late Pritchett was one of Milwaukee's best-known guitarists) must have been a pretty great guy to get lessons from.
DS: It was great because, first of all, my respect for his playing was very high because he was doing things I couldn't even imagine playing, and he and I got along, actually, very well. That's when I started learning to read music on the guitar. I could already read music on the trumpet but not on the guitar. So he got me into reading, he got me into chordal things, which were more jazz-oriented. Then he would take a song like "Shadow of Your Smile" and he would say, "What I want you to do with this song is learn it and play the melody and play the chords. And then I want you to play a combination of chords and melody, and then I want you to solo over the top of it." So that got me more involved with the songs.
OMC: And you got a wide-ranging education, then.
DS: I think so. Even though he didn't respect rock players, I did. So I had a real combination. I had a lot of respect for guitar players like Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Howard Roberts and Kenny Burrell; these were probably my favorite guitar players at the time. At the same time I loved Eric Clapton, I loved Jimi Hendrix, you know, and any of those players that were very popular at the time.
Then later on as I got older, all of a sudden there were guys playing a combination of the two like John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell. So I got more involved with the fusion of the music.
OMC: When you were in bands in Milwaukee at the time, what was it like? Was it easy to get gigs, were you treated fairly well?
DS: Well, it was hard to get gigs because when I started playing I was too young to play clubs so occasionally I'd be in a band -- I was usually the youngest member of the band -- and I could get into the club because I wouldn't tell them how old I was. In those early years I had a couple good bands. I had one called Family at Max which was a good band. It was a big horn group with Warren Wiegratz as the saxophone player. It had about five horn players and a rhythm section. It was kind of a sophisticated group, too. They were getting gigs. I remember turning 18 years old at a place called Someplace Else on Water St., and I remember playing there when I was 17 years old. We were playing there like every other weekend on Friday and Saturday nights.
Because I was always in a band that was playing original music, it was hard to book a band like that.
OMC: Do you think that's changed at all?
DS: I think the whole scene has changed. At least at that time you could play clubs. There were different clubs that had a lot of different groups, and so there was work out there. In fact, around 1973, when I had the band Sweetbottom, we'd play in a place for sometimes six weeks. We would be booked at a place like Vitucci's, and then we'd started playing at a place called Sardino's Bull Ring, on the east side, and we played there for two and a half years, five nights a week, and I don't see that happening today.
OMC: No, it doesn't happen today, and it seems that a lot of bands are forced into taking what they can get, which means undervaluing themselves and then they're stuck in a rut of being undervalued.
DS: Right, but the thing is we weren't really maybe making that much money, but we were making a steady living. Working five nights a week in a club, even if you were making $25 a night, at least you knew you were making $25 and at the end of the day you'd have some money in your pocket.
OMC: Now, if bands play that often, people lose interest.
DS: We were also able to play all original music if we wanted. We covered some songs yet we threw in original music. We had a really nice following. Friday and Saturdays would be a little more commercial music because there was a bigger crowd but people would come and see us on Wednesday and Thursdays and maybe Sundays and they'd know they'd be getting a little more original music. We'd usually rehearse on a Monday and Tuesday, you know, go down to the club and rehearse and try one of the new songs for that week. It was actually a very good time to develop a band and do things. It developed my playing.
OMC: When you were playing in these bands and you were making a living doing this, did you think that if you got a big break, you'd get it as a member of a band or as a leader of a band? Did it come as a surprise that your break came in a different way?
DS: I knew, at the time, a lot groups would come in (to Sardino's Bull Ring), there would be the Chuck Mangione band; in fact, Frank Zappa's band came in one night, and that's where I got my big break. I didn't know that's what was going to happen. I thought, actually, the band Sweetbottom was going to get its own record deal and we would put out our own albums. I didn't realize that someone would come in and see me play -- it was George Duke, in fact (Zappa's then-keyboardist) -- and he liked my playing and submitted my name to Jean-Luc Ponty. I went out to Los Angeles and auditioned for Jean-Luc Ponty and then everything started rolling. That was 1975.
OMC: You ended up taking a different road.
DS: I did. We had made tapes and we had done demos. We actually went out to Los Angeles for a vacation from the Bull Ring, because we wanted a week off. We were actually able to get into some record companies, which I know is impossible now. It was a different era. I know now that the tapes we were taking were not going to get us a deal. They were the real jazz fusion of the time. In reality, we weren't as good as some of the bands that were playing the fusion. We were still young...but we were trying, and it was a lot of fun.
OMC: Did the call from Jean-Luc Ponty to come audition and then, ultimately, getting that job, cause conflict within the band?
DS: I actually thought they were quite supportive. We were all out there (in L.A.) and we had contact with George Duke because he said, "Call me when you get into town." And he said, "Is Daryl there?" and he told me that Jean-Luc Ponty was looking for a guitar player. In fact, Warren Wiegratz and the drummer, Michael Murphy, drove me over to Jean-Luc Ponty's house.
OMC: They were excited for you.
DS: It must be a mixed feeling. Because I know as soon as they left they thought, "Well, if he gets this gig, we don't have a guitar player." I know that that's there, but it wasn't like a jealousy thing. They were very excited that I was getting this, and at the same time they were very sad that I was getting this because now they have to look for someone else.
OMC: So what happened after you got the gig? How did it feel to get this gig?
DS: Jean-Luc Ponty was a legend to me at that time, being the violinist that was with Frank Zappa and also with Mahavishnu. He was a big name to me. And the bass player was from Frank Zappa's band, Tom Fowler. We had a keyboard player that played with Cannonball Adderley's band. I was in heaven just playing with musicians of this level...over the time I was with him -- which was '75, '76 and '77 -- we did an album each year.
OMC: It must have also been exciting for you to be in a big-time studio and touring.
DS: Absolutely. It was a great time and it was a learning time for me. I had never really traveled before, and you know, to go out for the first seven weeks ... then I came home for about 10 days and then I had to go right on to Europe from there. It was very scary also, but you learn very quickly. I was about 22 years old then. It was a good experience.
OMC: It obviously prepped you for your next big experience, which was with Genesis. When you got the call to go out to New York and audition with Mike Rutherford, what were you thinking while you were sitting on the plane?
DS: They flew me out there, they put me up at The Plaza hotel. I was the first of five guitarists to audition. They had already apparently auditioned about 30-some guitar players in England and didn't find anybody that they wanted.
OMC: Clearly this was a tough bill to fit. They weren't going to just take the first guy that walked through the door and could play the guitar, if they'd already gone through 30 guitar players.
DS: Right. I had been listening to their cassette. Jean-Luc Ponty had a cassette of their "Trick of the Tail" and another one, "The Wind and the Wuthering." I knew the standard that they're looking for and I was hoping, of course, I could do it. You never know if you can, you just say, "Well, I think I can do this, but I don't know if they know I can do this."
OMC: So how long did the audition last?
DS: They sent me a cassette of about four songs...I learned their songs and I came over there prepared to play the songs. Mike Rutherford and I talked first, and he put a tape on and I started playing along with the tape. I played about a minute of the song and he said, "OK, that's enough on that one, let's go to the next one." I played it well; I played what was supposed to be played.
OMC: How did you read that? I'm sure your mind was racing at that point, wondering is it a good thing, is it a bad thing?
DS: I wasn't sure. Cause he stopped the tape. I was reading it like, "If he doesn't think I'm doing this fine, then I don't know what I can do." Because I was doing it. I think we got to song three and he said, "You know, I think that's enough. I think you're the one."
OMC: How much input did you find over the years that you had with Genesis and with Phil Collins? Did your input grow over time?
DS: I was always able to start lending a little bit of my own personality within the songs, and as years went along I knew where those boundaries were. I also knew where the freedom was. They wanted me to play the obvious parts, but when it comes to the solo, I can take off from there.
OMC: I was in England in 1987 and in a tube station I saw a huge Genesis poster for an upcoming gig and there was your face staring back at me. Have you found that Milwaukeeans pop up in the most unlikely places?
DS: I bet that was the "Invisible Touch" tour. We were playing in Frankfurt, Germany, and Phil (Collins) is announcing the members of the band and he says, "from Milwaukee, Wisconsin," and somebody yelled out "Sweetbottom." So, I thought, "this is unbelievable." He probably was a serviceman from Milwaukee.
OMC: You've played with a lot of folks -- a lot of records, a lot of tours. What's been the most rewarding experience for you?
DS: The progression from Sweetbottom to Jean-Luc Ponty to Genesis and Phil Collins, you couldn't do any of those things without that progression. But I have to say that the band that I feel the best about and that I really liked as a unit...Genesis was a small band, three main members and (drummer) Chester Thompson and I were touring members of the band. I have to say that they always treated us like equals. If they had a hotel suite, we had a hotel suite. If you wanted to bring your family on the road, that's no problem. From a whole musical, as well as financial, as well as just a feeling...that was probably the best experience I've ever had in my life. Those years, from 1978-'92 are probably the best years I've ever had in a professional sense and a personal. It was just such a great time. You couldn't ask for easier people to work with. I never felt like I was getting screwed and they were always very supportive of me.
OMC: Again, you've worked with a lot of people and a very diverse group: Jean-Luc Ponty, Genesis, Philip Bailey.
DS: Gino Vanelli
OMC: Frida from Abba.
DS: Right, I just saw her, in fact.
OMC: What do you think it takes for a musician to be able to be able to contribute something or add something to music as wide-ranging as that?
DS: You just have to be very open. I'm not into one style of music. In general when I do my own thing...it's a little bit of rock, a little bit of jazz, a little bit of pop. But, in the end, I love all those things. And sometimes part of the problem I've had was really narrowing it down to a specific style. Where a record company picks my record up and says, "Oh, I know what this is." Because they don't what categroy to put me in.
OMC: Do you think that's hurt you?
DS: Yeah, I do. It doesn't hurt me as an artist. As an artist that's what I love.
OMC: But from a business standpoint record companies want to be able to put you in a box.
DS: Yes it has. Because I signed up with GRP Records back in 1987 for my first record, and we put it out and they didn't do anything with it because they didn't know what to do with it. They couldn't put me in that smooth jazz category and it wasn't heavy enough to be rock and roll. Plus, being instrumental, you're already limited.
OMC: Tell us a little bit about your new record. What made you decide to focus all your energy on recording new versions of familiar (Genesis) songs?
DS: That came about in kind of an odd way because I wanted to do another solo album and I had about four songs ready to go. All of a sudden I said, "I probably should cover someone else's song." It's a little bit more well known. It might even help me in the door. And I started thinking about people I really like, like Sting or Billy Joel or Elton John. Songs that people like that write. Steve Winwood. And I thought, "Why don't I just do a Genesis song? That'd make a lot of sense."
I recorded one and I said, "I really like how this sounds. Let me try another one. I'll do three songs and I'll pick one to go on the album." What happened was I liked them all and it seemed like a concept started growing. I put my other four songs on hold and I just did a whole album of their music.
I had to find songs that actually translated to the guitar. I might want to do a song like "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight," but it doesn't translate well on the guitar as far as a melody. So I had to pick things that were more melodic, more almost known, like "Follow You, Follow Me" or "Hold On My Heart," where you could hear the melody immediately.
OMC: And did the four that you left behind become the starting point for your next record?
DS: It did. It was great, because right away I had four songs ready for another album. I've started where I left off. I took some old songs that I wrote back in '74 and '78 and I revisited those and I'm putting those on my new album, too.
OMC: What's it called?
DS: The title will be "Waiting in the Wings." I'm expected to finish the album probably the end of June. I will probably do some shopping of the record (to labels); you never know. If someone gets very interested or they have a good deal for me...I'm weighing that out. I really like having an independent label because I have ownership of the music and that's the main thing.
OMC: What's your feeling about the Milwaukee music scene these days? Is it pushing forward? Is it stagnating?
DS: I just wish there were more venues to play, at clubs. Like a Shank Hall. I wish there were more venues like that, where people can do it.
I don't know if it's going forward or not, because I don't think the music industry is going forward, and I think that all shows in what's going on locally as well as in other city. I think what's happened is that everything's become so homogenized now and the only people who are getting good budgets for records are the N'Sync guys and the Britney Spears; these are all the obvious people.
It's very hard for anybody else. I think this is why people are starting their own labels or going for boutique labels. I saw Aimee Mann on television saying, "I own my own record. I sold 250,000 records but yet I can make a lot of money off this record." I really like that she's doing that and that Prince did it.
I'm not these people. I'm not looking to be a star, of course, I'm not in that group. I play the kind of music that doesn't get old. It's never "in" and it's never "out" -- it's just there. I have an audience for the type of music that I do and I really appreciate the type of audience that I have.
Daryl Stuermer's latest disc, "Another Side of Genesis," was released on his own Urban Island Music imprint and is available via his web site, http://www.darylstuermer.com.
Stuermer performs Fri., May 25, at 7:30 p.m., at Whitefish Bay High School Auditorium, 1200 E. Fairmount Ave., with Cantorei Singers and The Whitefish Bay High School Choir. The show is a benefit for The Whitefish Bay Community Center Project. Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 on the day of the show. Call (414) 964-1313 for tickets.
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