Steve Tibbetts
Steve Tibbetts

Steve Tibbetts

About Steve Tibbetts

Steve Tibbetts is a contemporary American guitarist, producer, instructor, recording engineer, and composer. His fusion of exotic and urban landscapes offers a widely acknowledged, totally original approach to the creation of sound. He plays acoustic and electric guitar as well as numerous percussion instruments including kendang and kalimba. His compositions often weave together elements of experimental, jazz, rock, ambient, and world music, with the recording studio acting as an additional instrument. Tibbetts calls his music "post-modern neo-primitivism." His recordings often include fellow Twin Cities resident go-to percussionist Marc Anderson (Robert Fripp, David Sylvian, Don Cherry, Taj Mahal, et. al). Though he has recorded intermittently at times, and is considered an industry outsider whose music falls between genre cracks, his cult following has not diminished over 40 years but has, in fact, grown. Almost from the very beginning, his recordings -- evidenced by 1986's Exploded View and 2004's Selwa, the latter recorded in collaboration with Tibetan nun Choying Drolma -- have followed a stubborn aesthetic rooted in his global travels and relentless exploration of natural and manipulated sound.

Tibbetts was born in Madison, Wisconsin and spent his early teen years there, learning to play guitar at age 12 when he heard the Blind Joe Mendelbaum Blues Band play distorted guitar at the Dane County (Wisconsin) Junior Fair. In an interview, he claimed he was overwhelmed by "the splendor and majesty of it" -- and the fact that the band was extremely loud. It was the jumping-off point for his musical investigations. (Later influences were jazz guitarist Bill Connors and Harvey Mandel -- Tibbetts asserts that he lifted his fingerstyle playing from the latter.) After moving to St. Paul, Minnesota for college, he began his sound experiments using his acoustic 12-string and electric guitars, as well as distortion boxes, pedals, and anything else he could rig. It was in St. Paul that he met Anderson, and the pair have worked together on and off ever since.
Tibbetts' self-issued, self-titled debut album was issued in 1976, and gained some airplay on both of Minnesota's public radio stations. The few critics who heard it at the time had no idea what they were listening to. Yr (his first album with Anderson, who has been on all but one of his albums) followed in 1977 on Frammis. Both albums were later reissued by Cuneiform. Tibbetts continued his study of sound and global musics, learning to use unusual open-string tunings and scales, always with an ear toward blending sonic atmospheres and musical traditions. He signed to ECM after sending label boss Manfred Eicher an envelope stuffed with negative reviews. His debut for the label, the ambient 12-string-and-percussion-set Northern Song, was issued in 1982. While the album drew favorable reviews, it was largely responsible for spawning new interest in his first two recordings. He followed Northern Song with Safe Journey (1984), Exploded View (1986), and Big Map Idea (1989). He stopped performing regularly in 1988 and became a world traveler, for which he is almost as well-known as he is as a musician. Tibbetts spent the next few years roaming the globe and collecting sounds, expanding his studio, and recording when time permitted. The Fall of Us All was released in 1994, and was his last record for ECM for eight years -- it is considered his masterpiece. While in Nepal working with a study-abroad program at a small monastery in the Katmandu Valley, he heard Tibetan Buddhist nun Choying Drolma singing prayers. Tibbetts had a tape recorder with him and wanted to capture her singing but was so blown away, he forgot to take the recorder off pause.

He went back to Nepal the following year and taped Drolma for hours. He returned with her music -- with her and her guru's permission -- and began framing the centuries-old chants and prayers with guitar, bouzouki, and other instruments and sounds. He experimented with gongs and horns. He sent a copy back to Nepal for the nuns and one to Hannibal Records, which released it through Rykodisc in 1997. Titled Chö, the album gained global acclaim, prompting a joint world tour with Drolma.
In 1976, Tibbetts was working in a record store when a friend played him a recorded example of the Norwegian hardingfele fiddle, whose sympathetic (drone) strings under the fingerboard deliver a rich, resonant tone and an enormous sound. Almost 20 years later, he saw the Finnish band Värttinä, who had a hardingfele player in the group. Tibbetts finally arranged to work with the musician, but the latter dropped out at the last moment and suggested Knut Hamre. Tibbetts left for Bali to administer a study program and took Hamre's music with him. Impressed, he returned to work with the fiddler on the album Å, issued by Hannibal/Rykodisc in 1999. Tibbetts returned to ECM for 2002's A Man About a Horse. The album was cut under difficult circumstances but Tibbetts made the most of them: While working on his gutters he had an ill-fated run-in with a hive of wasps, and fell from his ladder onto his hand. With some immobilizing surgery pending, he laid down several hours of raw material that he would dissect digitally at a later date. The sonic canvas was lush, yet precisely what he wanted -- and included some thunderous drumming from Anderson. It was recorded so seamlessly some critics complained about the lack of his trademark sheets-of-Marshalls electric guitar sound. In 2004, Six Degrees Records issued his second collaboration with Drolma entitled Selwa, which was received with the same enthusiasm as its predecessor.
Tibbetts spent the next six years traveling, teaching abroad, and recording almost constantly. In 2010, he released Natural Causes for ECM. The set featured the track "Gulezian," co-written with guitarist Michael Gulezian on which Tibbetts layered over 20 guitar tracks. The artist had not recorded for six years when he entered his St. Paul studio with Anderson and cellist Michelle Kinney. The resulting Life Of was, in its way, a sequel to Natural Causes. Tibbetts played 12-string and piano and mixed the record in Macalester College's concert hall. ECM released Life Of in the spring of 2018. ~ Thom Jurek

    Madison, WI
  • BORN

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