Best know for playing saxophone for The Stooges’ 1970 album Fun House, Steve Mackay is coming to Beijing with his band Sikhara to play a show as a part of the 2012 JUE Music & Art festival. He talks to Time Out Beijing about working with Iggy Pop, his solo career and the persistent reports of his death.
Can you tell us a bit about where you live and how you usually spend your days?
I live in Pacifica, California, 15 kilometres south of San Francisco on the Pacific Coast. When not touring I perform locally with local and visiting groups and solo artists and respond to emails and plan upcoming travels. My wife and I enjoy walking on the beach, which is across the street from our apartment!
Your musicianship as a sax-man has been widely celebrated over the years, but it also seems that you have never fully abandoned rock instrumentations – is that something deliberate?
My most extensive experience has been in rock bands since I was a teenager in the 1960s, even when the saxophone was not a popular rock instrument. Rock has roots in blues, jazz, and even country and western, and I have always enjoyed putting my saxophone where saxophones are not usually heard. As in my work with the Stooges, Violent Femmes and Commander Cody. Also, I tend to write my own vocal material on guitar, although what I will be performing in China will be instrumental and more improvised and free in nature, in keeping with my collaborators. I guess you could call me eclectic!
You parted with The Stooges in 1970 for a new musical direction – did fans find it difficult to understand your decision?
I originally was invited by Iggy Pop to record the Fun House album in 1970, after he heard me play with my own group, Carnal Kitchen (just free drums and sax at that point). The initial 6-week commitment to play and record in California turned into six months of touring in the USA. During this period in time the group fell into a downward spiral of drug use. I wanted to get away from that scene but still remained in the group until Iggy (gratefully!) fired me, citing his desire to change direction musically. It was an amicable parting and we remained friends, although we lost touch with each other in the late 1970’s. He went on to record Raw Power with the James Williamson-era Stooges and then on to his long and productive solo career; I went back to Carnal Kitchen as we became a more standard Jazz quintet, and later five years of blues and Detroit Rock with the Mojo Boogie Band before I moved from Michigan to California in 1977, following the route of my Ann Arbor friends in Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, who had moved there and found success several years before.
You’ve probably been asked about this before but this Wikipedia page suggests you were declared dead by the press for a while. Did you find it humourous or was it actually a difficult time for you?
A British rock journalist, Nick Kent, mistakenly declared me dead of a ‘drugs overdose’ in a poorly researched book about the Stooges written many years ago. (It was actually poor Zeke Zettner, who was a bassist in the group, in 1975). There was also a second rumour when another Steve Mackay, an author and Marathon runner, died of AIDS in San Francisco in the late '90s. My joke about these was, ‘I was wondering why my phone wasn't ringing!’. To quote the American humorist Mark Twain in a similar incident in his life, ‘Reports of my demise have been seriously exaggerated!’ In fact, I did almost die from a collapsed lung that led to surgical complications in 1983, but the press or Internet never reported that!
You then hooked up with the Radon collective. How did that happen?
I spent many years as an electrician in San Francisco, playing only occasionally, until around 1999, when a new generation ‘discovered’ me and my work on Fun House. It was at this time I met my friend and biographer Loren Dobson, who interviewed me for Black to Comm , a small rock fanzine. He then introduced me to a rock instrumental/improv group named Liquorball and I played with them on several occasions in San Francisco and San Jose. One evening I was performing with them at a now-closed venue in SF, the Cocodrie, and we opened for their visiting Radon label mates Temple of Bon Matin, another improv group from the East Coast. They asked me to sit in with them and I agreed once I saw that they too had a saxman (Vinnie Paternostro of New Jersey). Our friend Scott Nydegger was part of this group and nominal executive of Radon Records, whose first recording was by Liquorball, all part of what would become the Radon Collective with bands from all over the US and even Europe. I was invited to headline shows in Portland, Oregon, New York City, and even Portugal - and all this before the Stooges reunion in 2003!
What made you decide to reunite with the Stooges folks in 2003?
It was around 2001 that I got a call from the late Ron Asheton, former Stooges guitarist. He was playing in San Francisco as part of a Stooges tribute led by Jay Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), with Mike Watt on Bass that was called Jay Mascis and the Fog. They wanted me to sit in with them at the Great American Music Hall in SF, a major venue, and of course I agreed. We had a wonderful time and it was so good to see Ron for the first time in 25 years and play Stooges songs with an original Stooge! He told me that maybe there would be more opportunities to play together again someday, and went on with his Brother Scott Asheton (aka Rock Action) to reunite with Iggy for his 2002 compilation, Skull Rings. I then got a call for the first time in years from Iggy in 2003 to be part of a special Stooges Reunion at the famous Coachella Festival in Palm Springs, CA. We did songs from the first two Stooges albums, including ‘1970’, ‘Funhouse’, and ‘LA Blues’. At this point it was only a one-off but before we knew it we were playing in New York, Spain, France, and Japan! We have been touring extensively ever since, mostly in Europe but also Brazil, Argentina, Russia, and even some in the US! Our last concert was in December in San Francisco, and we start up again in May with dates in Europe. I hope someday Iggy and the Stooges will come to China!
From left, Scott Asheton, Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton, Mike Watt (foreground) and Steve Mackay in 2007.
Iggy Pop contributed vocals as ‘Ypsi Jim’ in ‘The Prisoner’, a track from your 2011 album Sometimes Like This I Talk. How was the experience of working with him different from, say, in 1970’s Fun House as well as when you rejoined The Stooges in 2003?
When Iggy found out I was putting together an album of my studio sessions, he graciously volunteered to sing a song on it! ‘The Prisoner’ was from a 2006 session with Radon associate Koonda Holaa, a brilliant singer/songwriter/producer /engineer, originally from the Czech Republic but now of the US. Thanks to modern technology, he was able to send the tracks to Iggy who recorded his vocal at his hometown studio in Florida between Stooges tours. He gave us permission to freely use his name but we decided to keep a bit of mystery and call him ‘Ypsi Jim’, since he is really James Osterberg of Ypsilanti, Michigan. Perhaps this was a bit too clever as many reviewers failed to recognize his voice! This will be remedied soon, as the song will be included on a souvenir CD for the Jue Festival.
The original recording of Fun House the album, was done mostly live in the Elektra studio, including my saxophone parts, although I did do an overdub session for ‘1970’ and both tracks can be heard together at the end of that cut.
Working with different musicians can be both challenging and inspiring. How do you choose who you want to work with?
A lot of the time the musicians choose me, as did expatriate NYC rocker Sonny Vincent for a recent recording project I just did in Belgium, or Jarvis Cocker of Britain's Pulp who summoned me to Chicago for a track on his solo album project a couple of years ago. I have also recently done sessions in Washington, DC and Memphis: punk rock, pop, noise, jazz - I enjoy the variety!
Freestyle instrumentalists in general are known for pushing melodicism beyond its limits, and it could go wrong - can you think of a particular performance where something went ‘wrong’, and how you may have tried to remedy that with the next performance?
In what you call Freestyle music, there really are no wrong notes or if I think I hit something discordant I might just repeat it until it sounds intentional!
I was told you will be jamming with a few of Beijing’s improv musicians this time. Do you personally know the Nojiji collective? Are you familiar music scene in Beijing or China in general?
I really am not familiar at all with the Chinese music scene these days or with anything but what I have heard of some traditional music on recordings or the streets of Chinatown in San Francisco, but am looking forward to jamming with Nojiji collective. I am sure my musical partner Mr Nydegger has chosen my collaborators well!
Is there anybody that you haven't yet collaborated with that you'd like to work with?
I was supposed to play with Marshall Allen, saxophonist/leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra last year in Iceland but that didn't happen although I was honored to be considered and hope to play with him soon!