CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Béla Balogh and Courtney Von Drehle of 3 Leg Torso (Part 1 of 3)

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I am happy to present the first installment of a new series I will occasionally feature on my blog: in-depth interviews with performing musicians.  My first offering is a conversation I had with Béla Balogh and Courtney Von Drehle, the co-founders of 3 Leg Torso.  This interview will be presented in three parts.  -VA

What was your first experience performing?

Béla Balogh [violin, trumpet]:  I don’t really remember it, it was so long ago.

How old were you?

BB:  Oh, probably four, or something like that, maybe five, I don’t know.  It was a really long time ago.  It was probably with a bunch of other little kids who were part of my violin class, and we would perform at what was then Marylhurst College, which is now Marylhurst University, and they had a little theater, and like I say, it’s such a long time ago I hardly remember.  But I do remember performing in concerts like that.

Did you enjoy it?

BB:  You know, I didn’t think of it as being enjoyable or not enjoyable, it was just something that I did.  It was kind of like eating or doing things that you would normally do around the house.

Courtney Von Drehle [accordion]:  Your house had a lot of music going on in it – my house was different – it was more regular, it was more common, because your dad [violinist and conductor Lajos Balogh] did it all the time.

BB:  Yeah, definitely.

Do you remember as a young child watching your father performing?

BB:  Oh, yeah.

Was that something that you looked at and said, “That’s something I want to do”, or was it just kind of expected?

BB:  Once again, I don’t remember that, but I’ve seen pictures, or my dad has said, “You would want to take the violin out of my hand or your granddad’s hands”, so like I say, I don’t remember that, but I hear that’s kind of what I wanted to do.

What’s your first memory of being aware that you were performing?

BB:  One of the first things I remember, it wasn’t on violin, it was in church.  It was around Christmas time, and I remember we were singing “We Three Kings”, and I was one of the kings.  I remember I was very nervous and I was up on the altar, and we had a full congregation, and I remember repeating exactly what the king before me had been singing.  I wasn’t supposed to obviously do that, I was supposed to sing my own line, and I didn’t.  And I remember about three-quarters of the way through that it was like, hey wait a sec, I’m singing the other guy’s line, I should be singing mine.  And, you know, nobody said anything, nobody did anything, but I do remember that, that’s one thing I remember.  It was like, oh, there was some stage fright involved there.

Did that come back to haunt you?

BB:  Oh, absolutely, yeah.  It still does, sometimes.

I want to come back to that.

BB:  I’m sure you will!

What about you, Courtney?  What’s your first memory of performing?

CVD:  Well, I have a couple early musical memories which aren’t legit performance, but they kind of are indicative.  And actually, I think there’s a different thing when we’re talking about performance versus playing.  When we do 3 Leg, we perform in this certain way which is different than just going and playing music.  So I think these early memories are about, really, performing music, but not being a performer, perhaps.  But I remember I went to an English all boys’ school, and the whole school would have a music lesson together, as a choir.  And the teacher was teaching something and we’d all sing.  And then she told everyone that they shouldn’t sing what I’m singing.  They were all following me, and I was singing the wrong thing!  But they were all following me.   And that’s kind of interesting.  So I recall that, and I was pretty young.  And then the next memory I have in this indicative way of some sort of commitment to this was, maybe I was 15, and we were on a ski vacation at Christmas in Switzerland, and we went to a church for the service.  And we were singing a hymn, and then the priest or whatever said, “Ok, this verse, just the kids sing.”  And none of the kids sang.  But I sang, and I sang really loud and clear, and I thought I was doing a great job.  I have no idea whether I was, but I was like, I’m stepping on this opportunity!  Those are two early recalls of some sort of predilection towards this.

How did you begin to form the idea that that’s what you wanted to do for a living?

CVD:  Well, I always kind of thought music was magic.  And it was around 12 that I started listening to music and enjoying it a lot, and I started playing guitar around then, too.  And in my last year of high school, the jazz band leader came up to me in the lunch room and said, “Hey, I hear you’re a good guitarist.  You should come and join the band.”  So I went and joined the band.  He was a really good saxophonist and a composer, and a really nice guy, and very inspirational.  And so, I think playing guitar, and being a young man, before that I was committed to being a rock star.  That was just natural.  I don’t know, I feel that’s probably natural for a lot of young men who play the guitar.  But that fellow was a good role model for someone that had really good command of music, and had a good way of communicating to us as students.  And then, I remember in his report card to me he said I’d be a good asset to any band.  And I was like, oh, cool!

So do you remember enjoying being up on the stage at that point and getting the audience’s response?

CVD:  No.  I mean, I remember we put on a few shows in high school, and I do remember enjoying them, but I don’t remember the experience of performing.  I remember there was a lot of fun in playing music and working out music with your friends.  The performing part, back then, I don’t remember it being frightening, but neither do I remember it as, like, oh, cool, look at me, or whatever.

Did that ever happen to you – the moment where you said, wow, I really dig this audience experience?

CVD:  Hmmm…

Has it happened yet?

CVD:  I like it, but I like improvising in front of and with an audience.  I like the interplay that goes on with the audience and with the fellow musicians.  And when things are being invented, I think that’s really exciting.  That’s the high that I like.  I’m not, like, oh, cool, look at me.  But if I’m inventing something, or if we’re inventing something together, that’s a pretty satisfying experience.

The way you do things with 3 Leg Torso, you’ve got really tight arrangements, yet there’s also the room for improvising in there – the classical fused with jazz construct of having everything worked out but then you have your cadenzas that you can do your thing in.  And in your shows, it seems like there’s a lot of room for the spontaneous to happen anyway, not just in your musical improvisation – the interplay between you and the audience or between you on the stage.  Was that a conscious choice that you made when you set out to do what you do, that there was going to be room for that?

CVD:  We do have crafted stories that, depending on the evening, follow strictly along the lines or expand beyond.  I’m happiest when they expand beyond.  Then it’s like, oh, cool, we’re surfing now.

Another form of riffing.

CVD:  Yeah, absolutely.

And have you gotten to the point where you feel that can read the audience or the venue and understand what’s going to work and what isn’t going to work?

BB:  Courtney sometimes has problems…

CVD:  …Béla sometimes makes assumptions that I’m going to make a wrong call, and then we do a song and everyone likes it, and then he goes, “Oh, I’m sorry!”

But when you set out to do this, when you started as a trio, was this what you wanted your shows to be about, or did it evolve?

BB:  No, it did totally evolve.  I recall one of our early shows, where we played at Umbra Penumbra, which was over in Southeast Portland.  It was just the three of us, and the place was packed, there was hardly any room for people.   And I think we just kind of started being funny.  And for me, it was the stage fright.  That’s how I dealt with stage fright, by being funny.  Not trying to be, but just doing something that would make people laugh.  So that would loosen me up.  And I remember we were kicking our shoes off.  While we were playing, to the rhythm I kicked off both my shoes, and I think they went out into the audience.  Just things like that.

CVD:  I kind of recall that…

BB:  And it was all very spontaneous.  Some things, like Courtney says, are scripted – loosely scripted – but a lot of things that we do are just off the cuff.

And you guys are the front men…

BB:  Yeah.

So your side men have to be ready to adapt to whatever.

BB:  Uh huh.

Have you had any train wrecks around that?

BB:  No, I don’t think so.

CVD:  I think that, as time went by, when we started, I was committed to this direction we were taking in music and thought that was pretty exciting.  And then somehow, we started adding stories to it.  And when we did that, there was a commitment, too, that this should be entertaining as well as a musical experience.  Sometimes we’ve had issues where we have to talk to people in the band.  Because when a guy’s telling a story, that’s the focus, and sometimes band members don’t always remember that.  And, you know, they might want to make a phone call, or something like that…

BB:  No, no phone calls.  But they’ll tune, which obviously you have to tune, but it’s very distracting.

CVD:  Or they’ll have a discussion.

BB:  Yeah, there have been discussions, like guys will be talking to each other.  But we nip that in the bud pretty quickly.

Do you ever have turf wars on front man stuff, between the two of you?  Because one of the things that I talk to people about is that the audience needs to be fairly clear about where the attention is being directed.

BB and CVD:  Uh huh.

Do you find that that’s difficult to manage?

BB:  I don’t think we have a problem with that.  The audience will know where the attention should be.  We’re very clear with, “Hey, man, I’m talking right now, everybody listen up.”  There have been times where, we did some kind of a gig and you got upset because I butted in on your joke – it was about bunnies or something…rabbits…

CVD:  Yeah, it was during “Giant Stomp”.

BB:  Yeah, right.

CVD:  I did get upset that time!  I’m glad you brought it up, because I really want to talk about that!  But I think it’s interesting because I don’t think we have turf wars, but there are stories that we each tell, and on some nights, one of us might not feel like telling it, and sometimes Béla will turn to me and he’ll say, “Hey, I’m not telling that story tonight, you gotta tell it.”  Or sometimes I won’t feel inclined to say something.  And so we adapt as we need to in those situations.  And that’s maybe something that the audience doesn’t have any sort of insight on.  But for us, there may be some gig where one of us is more the front man than the other because that’s just the way we’re feeling.

When you play around here, and probably in other places where people know you, they have an expectation of what your show is going to be about.  And then you end up in places where people don’t know you.  Talk about the difference between those kinds of shows, when you’re in the friendly, knowing crowd and then in the all-strangers crowd.

BB:  Well, a lot of times, people that don’t know us that are seeing us for the first time don’t quite know our humor yet.  I mean, a lot of times we don’t tell the truth, you know, we make up stories.  And people might not get that.  People might think that we’re being totally serious.  Courtney tells a story about, oh, when we met, and it was on an airplane, and this guy sitting between us ends up being a real nice guy, but we hit some turbulence, and the window blew out…and you can see people go,  “[gasp] Oh my!”  “…and Bill [Béla] flew out the window, but I happened to grab him by his feet…”  And then people start to come around and realize that we’re just telling a story.  So, sometimes it takes a little while for people to figure us out.

Have you ever had an experience where they just didn’t get it, where everything you did was a clam?

BB:  There have been times throughout a show where we were catching clams, but I wouldn’t say an entire show has been like that.

CVD:  I don’t remember an entire show like that, but the whole thing’s subject to the vibrancy of band dynamics, and so when it’s all grooving well, it all goes good.  Bands are sensitive beasts, and sometimes it’s more mechanical.  The way that we can create what is a moment that people are going to remember, we can’t really do that as well.  We can put on a good concert, but we can’t touch the spontaneous moment as well in those situations.

At your shows, I notice that there’s some eye contact going on between you and the audience in the smaller venues – you’re maybe playing to certain people in the audience, or they’re reacting on a very specific individual level to you.  And then you play large venues, you play symphony halls, which of course is a different beast, you’re doing different things.  All things being equal – pay, prestige, all those things – which do you prefer as performers?

BB:  I think that whole arrangement, where we’re playing small and large.  I love playing the large venues, with the symphonies – they’re just so different.  And that’s what makes our job so cool, that we don’t play the clubs every night, and just the clubs.  Or we don’t just play to large audiences where you don’t see half of the people because the lights are down and they’re far away.  But we do like that arrangement where we can not see the people sometimes.  So that’s what I like.  I wouldn’t say I like one over the other.

CVD:  I think they’re all fun.  If we’re having a good gig, it sort of doesn’t matter where it is, but that it’s enjoyable is the main thing.  Having said that, I’m happy with playing plenty of larger halls!  That would be cool.  I’d like more of that as a career experience!

To be continued…