Steve Martin is on ‘Alert’Steve Martin understands if you hate him. After all, he’s got money, wit and intelligence on his side. His talents are innumerable. And his resume probably gives hives to over-achievers: Comedian, actor, author, playwright, painter, musician... and master banjo player? Yep. That’s right. He’s just finished putting the finishing touches on Rare Bird Alert, his bluegrass, banjo-heavy followup to 2009’s The Crow, recorded with the Steep Canyon Rangers. And even Martin’s not quite sure how he bcame this rennaissance man.
“I don’t know how this happened,” he says, on a conference call with WE and media from across North America. “I really don’t. I think I only do three things and one is comedy, and that includes, to me, acting and music and writing. They’re all kind of just all part of one big creative umbrella. You become a creator, you write a joke, and then you become a fixer, meaning an editor. And that’s — that is involved in everything I do, whether it’s comic acting or performing on stage, writing a novel, or writing music. You are creating it and then you are fixing it. So, I look at it all as just one big conglomeration that has several tentacles.”
Rare Bird Alert exemplifies this perfectly. The album is steeped in serious bluegrass traditions and musicianship, but packs plenty of Martin’s trademark humour throughout. “Jubilation Day” is catchy bit of Americana about the joyous end of a romantic relationship, while “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” is a nifty gospel parody. Longtime fans are also rewarded with a bluegrass version of Martin’s famed “King Tut.” Even though the banjo was a staple of Martin’s earlier comedy routines, he admits he was hesitant to combine his two loves at first.
“Once The Crow came out and was received well, I felt a little more relaxed,” Martin says. “And I guess it’s true that when you’re a little more relaxed maybe what’s more natural to you comes out easier... I have a friend, Pete Wernick, who plays the banjo and he said, ‘People would be disappointed if you’re not funny.’ So I just relaxed a little bit on this and decided whatever comes out comes out, you know?... There’s humor and it’s fun, and we also are serious musicians, or at least I am. The group is definitely serious musicians, and so I wanted to put that on.”
Martin’s admiration of the banjo dates back to his teenage years. Now, at 65, he’s still as awed as he was back when it was love at first sound.
“It was about the 1960s, there was a folk music craze led by the Kingston Trio that was sweeping America and the banjo was a part of that craze, and I heard it and I just loved it,” Martin recalls.“And there are a lot folk music groups that eventually led me to bluegrass music to hear Earl Scruggs play and other great three-finger banjo players, and I started buying any banjo record I could get my hands on.”
Martin has continued to find inspiration in sources both obvious (he’s a huge admirer of Grammy Award-winning banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck) and unlikely. After seeing Chris Rock’s new play, The Motherfucker with the Hat, he’s considering writing a musical using his songs as a foundation.
“There are a million ways to be inspired,” Martin says. “Sometimes it’s somebody sitting around by accident, for example, playing the banjo and making a mistake, hitting the wrong chord and going, ‘That sounded good, what was that? I’ve never heard that before.’ Sometimes you’re inspired by a deadline. Mostly just letting your mind wander and finding something fresh that you never thought of before.”
So much inspiration, not quite enough time, particularly with a full agenda the rest of the year, including a starring role in the Vancouver-filmed, competitive bird watching comedy The Big Year. Martin doesn’t know how banjo factors into his future, but he’s hopeful it’ll be prominent.
“This banjo playing moment, whatever it is, I don’t know how long it’ll last,” Martin says. “I hope it lasts a long time because I love it.”
Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers play July 26 at Centre for Performing Arts, 6:30pm. $49.50-$89.50 from Ticketmaster.