Interview: Mike Boguski, “Blues For The Penitent”

Probably best known as the keyboard player for Blue Rodeo, multi-instrumentalist Mike Boguski recently completed and released “Blues For The Penitent,” a personal and reflective collection of piano pieces that truly showcase his musical talents.  Originally planned as an album that he could put together in just a two-day burst, three years would pass before Boguski considered the project to be complete and ready to share.

Working alongside renowned musician and producer Michael Timmins (Cowboy Junkies), this collection of twelve tracks embrace many of the life-changing moments experienced by Boguski during this creative process.  In order to deal with both the loss of his father and the breakdown of his marriage, he would not only find refuge in his musical comfort zone, but sought to push the boundaries beyond his conventional repertoire, through the ambitious exploration of improvisation.  And with this personal challenge came the realization that the concept of a new recording could not be complete until he himself found fully comfortable with this technique and process.  “At that first session with Mike Timmins, I’d laid down 10 straight instrumentals, none of which felt particularly interesting,” Boguski explains.  “I decided to do a completely free take of [Neil Young’s] ‘On The Beach,’ and I could tell from Mike’s reaction that I had stumbled on to something special.”

Boguski would ultimately include both this Neil Young classic and an interpretation of Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live Is To Fly,” on the album, interspersed amongst his ten original compositions that were all constructed on the principles of ‘free-improvisation.’  Go ahead and immerse yourselves into these pieces that resonate very closely with Mike’s life-lessons, such as “Madawaska Moonlight,” “Eva” and “Memorial;” delivered in an avant-garde jazz style one moment, and then as a roaring improvised bar-room blues piece the next.  And for those who have had the good fortune to attend a Blue Rodeo concert recently, it would be hard to ignore the subtle changes and improvisations that Boguski has shared during specific tracks that allow him some solo time under the spotlight.

We caught up with the band in Brantford last November, and quickly noticed the on-the-fly changes made during both “Disappear” and “Diamond Mine,” and the noticeable differences in tempo and pace (especially during “Disappear,” which can be found on our FB page).  “I have a tremendous sense of pride in being able to bring the music of Blue Rodeo to life, and that will always be a part of me,” states Boguski.  “But now there is definitely a part of me that is very eager to write and perform my own music, and I think this new album is the start of how that’s hopefully going to take shape.”

Team GDW recently took time to chat with Mike Boguski about this amazing new solo release.

You are a well established instrumentalist within the Ontario music scene, and recognized as the keyboard player for Blue Rodeo, a role you have thrived in for going on ten years now.  For our readers who may have little familiarity with your music, please provide a brief overview of your professional music history.

I’ve played professionally since I was young. My television debut playing piano was actually at age 10–the same year that Outskirts came out, so I’ve been on the scene since the beginning! Up until around 2006, I had been spinning my wheels doing all manner of music jobs such as playing piano in lounges, at private parties, wedding bands, etc. After years of doing those kinds of gigs I was starting to lose my passion for music. Someone I was with at the time asked me, “What would you really love to do musically if you could do anything you wanted?” No word of lie my answer was, “To play in a band like Blue Rodeo.” So this person said, “Get a day job and only take gigs with bands that are in that genre.” So I took a day job and did exactly that.

I eventually ended up in a band called Revival Dear. They were an Ian and Sylvia Tyson-type roots rock band that were being produced by Lawrence Gowan’s brother, Terence Gowan. Terence was a pretty experienced keyboard player, and he really showed me a lot about the ins and outs of how to play keyboards in a rock band. At the same time, a little club called The Dakota Tavern had just opened up, which at that time focused pretty much entirely on original bands playing roots-rock. I remember the first time I walked in, and thought, “Is this for real, or am I having some kind of hallucination?”

I quickly got recruited to join a band called The Beauties, who were holding down a Sunday night residency at the Dakota. The Beauties were rootsy for sure, but they did it in a more dark, almost Velvet Underground-meets-The Pixies kind of way. When I first joined, I remember how much they hated the way I played the organ. Having been influenced by players like Ray Manzarek, Bobby Wiseman, and Terry Adams, I really liked playing outside solos, or anything that sounded like The Doors. I was very quickly told, “Either play like Al Kooper on Highway 61 Revisited, or you don’t get the gig.” I quickly adjusted.

The Beauties rapidly became a thing in the Toronto scene, and at the height of our popularity, the lineup to get into the door on a Sunday night went all the way around to Dundas Street. It was pretty cool being part of a grass roots scene. Very quickly, all sorts of interesting people started hanging out at the Dakota on Sunday evenings. I remember Steward Copeland being there, Paul Anka, Catherine O’Hara, Johnny Marr, it was pretty funny actually, all of these famous people hanging out in this tiny little club situated in the middle of a working class, west-end Portuguese neighbourhood where the only other venue was a bizarre strip joint called Baby Dolls. Ossington Street looked nothing like it does today.

I also remember seeing Greg Keelor hanging out there a few times, though I never actually spoke with him, I just noticed him sitting at the end of the bar. His girlfriend at the time, Kate Boothman, was also a big fan of The Beauties. It was a scene where you met all kinds of interesting people. I ended up joining a great roots band fronted by John Borra, who is one of the finest singer-songwriters I’ve had the honour of playing with, and we’re actually just in the middle of putting out a new album. When Blue Rodeo is not playing, John and I are often playing together around town, or around Southern Ontario. Justin Rutledge, who I actually knew from grade 9, although we went to different high schools, was also a Dakota regular at that time. He recommended me to Oh Susanna, and as you can see, very quickly, your network starts to get focused and you start to develop a reputation as a known player.

When Bob Packwood departed from Blue Rodeo, it happened very rapidly, I believe two or three days before they were set to commence a U.S. tour. When the band started asking for names to replace Packwood for the tour, Justin Rutledge recommended me to Bazil [Donovan], and Kate recommended me to Greg. So I guess having those two references was enough to get the call. I was a huge Jeopardy fan in those days, and I did not like being interrupted when the show was on. I remember sitting down to watch Jeopardy one evening, and seeing a call saying “Starfish Entertainment” on my phone. I was hesitant to pick it up, as I thought it sounded like some cable company trying to sell me business. I answered, and a woman on the other end, who was in fact Blue Rodeo’s manager Susan De Cartier, asked me if I was available. You can imagine what type of emotions receiving this kind of telephone call might elicit. So I said “Sure, when? In a few weeks?” She just asked if I had my union card, and if I could get myself to Ferndale, Michigan in two days. I said okay and she said she’d email me 30 MP3s to learn. It’s safe to say that answering that phone call changed the course of my life.

With your brand new “Blues for the Penitent” album released just a few days ago, you finally have a collection of mostly original works.  At what point did you determine that you wanted to make this album, and when did you take that first step in putting the plan into effect?

I initially wanted to make the album three years ago. At that time however, the intention was to record an album of straight instrumental covers. A series of life-altering events transpired over a very short period of about a year. My Dad died, and six months later my wife at the time left me. My kids were very young then, and I was on the road quite a bit with the band. That is a lot of change to handle and I guess it ended up radically changing my worldview. The result was an understanding that having well-laid plans, and pre-conceptions about how your life should proceed is futile. Meaning is defined by our capacity to react to the challenges life throws at us, not the actual challenges themselves. This revelation, coupled with Blue Rodeo going through a period of limbo as to whether or not Greg would be able to continue working, ended up resulting in me going very deeply into the world of free improvisation. The deeper I went, the more I wanted to record an album of improvised works, rather than recording an arranged album.

You have teamed up with producer Michael Timmins for this album, who of course is a highly regarded musician and producer in his own right.  How did this connection originate?  Who approached who with the concept, and how was the journey from concept to completion?

I asked Blue Rodeo’s tech John Farnsworth for Mike’s number, since he also tech’s for Cowboy Junkies. Mike and I met for coffee. I asked Mike if he could help produce a solo piano album of instrumentals I wanted to record. I showed up to record 10 to 20 tracks I’d worked out thinking that would be it. I had just done a benefit show the week before for [Toronto’s] Regent Park School of music. Every member of the house band had to perform a Canadian work of music. I don’t sing, so I did a very loose, almost impressionistic take on Neil Young’s “On The Beach.” Justin Rutledge, who was one of performers that night said “Man, you should keep going in that direction.” After I recorded all of those straight cuts for Mike on that first day, I said let’s cut one more and I did a really great Keith Jarrett type take of “On The Beach.” I could tell from the reaction on Mike’s face that this was a little different from what we had just tracked. That sort of placed the seed in my head that this freer take on things may be the way to go. All of the insights I described earlier didn’t just happen in an instant, it was a slow process of transformation. The deeper I went, the more I wanted to get it on tape, and this explains why the album took three years to make.

Mike Boguski

You refer to the term ‘free improvisation’ to describe your music on this album.  Can you share one or two inspirations or memories that prompted you to delve into this ‘jazz’ side of your piano playing repertoire?

Well, right away I don’t dig the use of the word “jazz” to describe what I’m doing on this album. In 2019, there is very little, if any “freedom” in what constitutes jazz performance. Jazz today is simply another variant of Western classical concert music. I mean, I know that is going to ruffle some feathers but it’s true. Jazz is pretty much “painting by numbers.” The very mention of the word conjures up images of Wynton Marsalis charging $250-$500 a ticket to play at Lincoln Center, or students trying to master Coltrane’s Giant Steps in order to pass their 4th year final performance exam at Berklee all to the tune of a $45K tuition bill. I did a semester at Berklee back in the day and it took a lot of gigs to pay that tuition bill!

Now, I’m not disrespecting the genre, or those who have given their lives to study and master it, I’m just trying to show that there is a world of difference between playing “free improvisation” and soloing over a 32-bar jazz standard, or a 12-bar blues. For example, I taught both my 7-year daughter and my girlfriend how to freely improvise in about an hour. I’m not sure I could have them playing Gershwin, or a 12-bar blues in the same amount of time. The kind of free improvisation I’m referring to is about sitting at the piano and having no idea about what you’re going to play next beyond having a feeling, or intention. It’s a highly personal experience where you completely submit yourself to the moment of inspiration and the role of chance. In short, I wouldn’t put George Shearing and Cecil Taylor in the same boat, although iTunes probably does.

My “inspiration” to pursue free improvisation was not a choice based on wanting to try on something new for size, it was a vessel for psychological survival. My entire world had come crumbling down in the span of six months. In a very short period of time I lost my Dad, and very shortly afterwards was told I had to leave my house, and was then told that I could no longer see my kids whenever I wanted. To top it all off, I was told by the government that I now had to figure out how to live off of 10%-15% of what I was previously earning. Those kinds of changes are a little different than deciding to write a love song to express sorrow about “the one that got away.” These are the kinds of life changes that fundamentally alter how you look at the world at every level. Undergoing such a profound set of changes over such a short period of time naturally led me to free improvisation as the ultimate source of expression and refuge. In free improvisation, you are truly free, and are bound by nothing other than your willingness to accept everything as a potentially meaningful point of departure.

You offer gratitude to Toronto jazz-pianist extraordinaire Steve Koven on the album cover, who is indeed a true master of improvisation.  What is it about Steve’s style that resonates with you? Toronto is a Mecca for great jazz pianists – Jim Clayton, Lisa Tahara and Adrean Farrugia are certainly three that we’ve had the pleasure of seeing perform.  How connected are you to this vibrant Toronto piano community?

I studied with Steve Koven and Casey Sokol last year at York University. I’ve primarily heard Steve play up at York where he teaches free improvisation. I did go to one of his jazz shows, and the influence of his free improvisational approach comes out even in his straighter jazz playing. He’s willing to take the kind of risks that a lot of other players may not take, and by risk I’m not referring to “hipness.” In fact, one of the things about Steve’s playing that I’m drawn to is his willingness to extract the maximum amount of expressional material from what can be considered sometimes pretty minimal components. Bobby Wiseman’s playing follows a similar trajectory.

Beyond Casey and Steve, and the few emails I’ve exchanged with Bobby from time to time, I’m not really that connected with Toronto’s jazz piano community. It’s fun to watch virtuosos like Hilario Duran or Robi Botos do their thing, but it’s not my world, professionally speaking. Other than the one time Richard Underhill sat in with us during a tribute to the late James Gray, the jazz world and the Blue Rodeo world don’t really cross-pollinate all that much, although I do remember a lounge gig I did years ago at the Gladstone Hotel where Roberto Occhipiniti was subbing in on bass because my regular guy was unavailable. Roberto is obviously a huge name in the jazz community, but I think he thought I was some Humber [College] kid doing jazz standards, because when I pulled out my book of charts, he gave me that “I don’t need your charts” speech. What he didn’t realize was that I wasn’t playing standards, but instead was doing an entire set of Grateful Dead tunes. If you know anything about the Dead, you know that they are all about quirky forms, and seemingly nonsensical chord substitutions that occur during weird, non-repeating sections. To Roberto’s credit, he did pretty well, though I wouldn’t call him a Dead Head.

You included two ‘improvised’ covers of both Neil Young’s “On The Beach” and Townes van Zandt’s “To Live is to Fly” – both very interesting choices.  Please share with us the reasons for including these covers, and the relationship between yourself and each tune.

Towne’s “To Live is to Fly” is simply a masterpiece on every level: lyrics, delivery, everything. It’s one of those songs that captured exactly what I was feeling during those worst moments of darkness. It speaks to the “highs, lows and wasted days” of everyday living. Townes was partnered with the bottle, and for a good twenty years, the bottle had a pretty strong hold over me. People are not as different as we think. We all live each other’s lives to some degree, and I think there was a small part of me that lived like Townes. I’m deeply connected to his music, and that song in particular. That sentiment needed to be captured.

Neil’s “On the Beach” is one of those tunes that evokes the endless horizon, or the feeling of being moored out at sea and not knowing where the shore is. Kind of like a mirage. It’s one of those beautiful, minor blues tunes that invite the performer to get lost, which is exactly what I do on my interpretation.

I am intrigued by the recurring “Blue Piano” tracks, numbered 2 through 5, and especially the intensity reached by number five, with significant key strokes and piano body knocks.  You end the track with such a powerful, aggressive almost, final note.  Please describe the story being told through these tracks, and most importantly, your interpretation of that final strike.

The “Blues Piano” improvisations started as a bit of a homage to Bobby Wiseman. One of my favorite things about the Diamond Mine album was how the band gave Bobby the opportunity to record some of his free improvisations. I was pretty young when Diamond Mine came out, but I do remember being very drawn to the oddity of the pairing of this Beatle-esque sounding, country influenced, MuchMusic band with these very outside solo piano tracks, and of course the very long, expressive organ solo on the title track. So, as a homage to Bobby, I started with #2, as the original is his improvisation of the same name on Diamond Mine.

With regards to the increasing intensity, I guess you can interpret that as the heart of darkness in all of us that if left unattended to, can destroy whatever security structures we’ve built for ourselves. It’s all a myth really, structure and security. In a matter of seconds, it can all come undone and if not reckoned with, the darkness can quickly take over. The final strike can be seen either as a warning about the untamed darkness within, or, can be seen as the resilience of the human spirit in the face of destruction. No matter what happens, we must move forward. In free improvisation, there’s no time to stop and collapse. You just keep going forward.

We had the pleasure of seeing you in Brantford performing with Blue Rodeo last November, and did not miss your improvised solo pieces during both “Disappear” and “Diamond Mine.”  How do you challenge yourself to discover these subtle differences each time, and how encouraging are the other band members with your ever-evolving interpretations of their songs?

Those moments have now become parts of the songs themselves. We’re all up there working together to tell a story for the audience–to create a moment. The biggest inspiration for me is becoming the character in the song. As it’s sung, I try to feel what Jim or Greg are trying to share in the few minutes they’re up there telling the story before the solo takes place. When it comes time to solo, I’m sharing a freely improvised impression of what I think the song means to me. Of course I’m projecting my own personal experiences into what I’m playing that night, but it always starts with the song.

There are many great things about being in Blue Rodeo, but perhaps the greatest thing is the freedom to play whatever I want during those moments. I’m not saying that everything I do is always received with open arms, but if a criticism or suggestion is made by a band member, that only makes the experience that much more organic. People who don’t give a shit about you, or what you do, rarely offer criticisms or suggestions. Everything comes from a passion to create a strong impression. Many times, Jim or Greg, or any of the guys have offered suggestions that I don’t really understand or agree with at the moment they’re delivered, but more often than not, I try to follow the path they’re suggesting, and a few shows in I’ll say “Wow, they were right, that does work better!” To work in a team environment you have to be willing to try things that push you out of your comfort zone, otherwise, why bother playing in a band.

Although you will have numerous BR shows as part of your 2019 calendar, do you have plans to take these new solo compositions out onto the road?  What do you feel are the greatest challenges presented to an instrumentalist such as yourself when promoting your own material?

Obviously I would love to book and play as many freely improvised piano shows as I can. Realistically, being a single Dad to a 7 and 10 year old, and still doing 30-40 shows a year with Blue Rodeo, and continuing to run my charity The Cold Manitoba Project takes up a considerable amount of time. Did I mention that I’m also up at York this year taking three courses to finish off my degree? Once school finishes up in April, I’ll start tackling booking shows to promote the album, and possibly book a small tour.

We shall include the track “Crossing The Lake” as an accompaniment to this article.  If you could summarize the story behind this particular track in three sentences or less, what would you say?

I have a cottage up on a lake near Barry’s Bay, Ontario, that I live at in the summer. That improvisation captures the feeling of pure bliss that I have as I cross the lake to the island where my cottage is located.

Visit Mike Boguski’s website.

Photo credit: Heather Pollock

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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