CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Béla Balogh and Courtney Von Drehle of 3 Leg Torso (Part 2 of 3)

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Last week I posted Part 1 of my conversation with Béla Balogh and Courtney Von Drehle, the co-founders of the band 3 Leg Torso.  What follows is Part 2, and the conclusion will be posted in one week.  This is a new series I will occasionally feature on this blog: in-depth interviews with successful performing musicians.  -VA

One of the things I find really interesting about performance is the phenomenon of getting into “the zone”, where you lose all sense of time and space and worry and constraint, and it all just comes flowing out of you.  And we all wish we could live there all the time, but that’s not always possible.  But I imagine that you guys are so road-tested, and you’re so experienced, and you’ve been playing for a million years, that you have access to the zone probably more than a lot of people do.  Does it feel that way to you, that you can access it or turn it on and off when you need to, or is it sort of elusive?

Courtney Von Drehle [accordion]:  I heard once, as a musician you want your worst day to be so that people think you’re playing fine.  And I think that as an ensemble, we accomplish that pretty well.  And when we have a great day, it’s really good.  It’s not that we don’t get in the zone, but I don’t know that I think of getting in the zone.

Béla Balogh [violin, trumpet]:  I think I just only realize it when I’m in it.

So what does it feel like when it happens?

BB:  Well, the zone is a few different things for me.  Being in the zone is my connection with the audience and how they’re reacting to what I’m doing.  And not just musically, but also the communication that we have.  I’d say we were in the zone at a gig we did about a month ago.  It was a full house, but it was a small venue, and I really liked it just because we could see everyone, pretty much, and people would talk back to us.

CVD:  Oh yeah, at The Woods.

BB:  Yeah, we played at a converted funeral parlor.  And I told Courtney to mention something that he had mentioned before about playing there, that he was “dying to play there”.  So Courtney says, “I’ve been dying to play here.”  And this really sharp guy in the audience said, “You’re not out of The Woods yet!”  So that’s where I feel like, if they’re in the zone, we’re in the zone, everybody’s in the zone.

CVD:  It’s a collective thing.

BB:  Yeah.  And I felt like I was in the zone because I made up some stories about songs that we were about to play, and I caught these guys off guard, where they were expecting something that I usually would be saying, and when I just made this thing up quickly, Courtney couldn’t stop laughing.

CVD:  You had some funny ones!

BB:  So that’s me in the zone.  And then also when I’m playing.  I mean, I feel like I’m one of those players that just kind of plays steady, and I don’t play super-duper things that, like, ooh, wow, jeez, that was something.

I beg to differ…

BB:  Well, I mean, for me it is that way.  And so then I’m definitely in the zone if I feel like, ooh, I just played something really cool.

Something that surprises you?

BB:  Yeah, it’s like, oh, man, that sounded good!  But like I say, I’m more from the classical background, that’s like, ok, I’m steady, I can play the same thing, and not wander off and be too explorative.

What about you, Courtney?  What’s the zone like for you?

CVD:  Well, it involves taking chances, and it’s best when it’s a zone together.  Like you take a chance, but a good night it’s a zone for the whole band, where everyone plays something a little bit different, but they all play together, no one over-does it, and so the music’s a little bit different and a little bit fresher, and there’s a little bit of discovery, and it’s collective.  And I think what Béla’s saying about stories – I feel extra good making up new stories or bringing new details – those are exciting things.  I feel like telling a story is like taking a solo.  And so when you invent new stuff, it’s like you’re coming up with new musical information, too – it’s the same type of feeling.  So that’s very exciting.

How do you experience it physically?

CVD:  I’m just happy.  Just having a good time.

Are you aware of it while it’s happening?  Are you able to enjoy it while it’s happening?

CVD:   I enjoy performing, I enjoy playing, as long as things are going good.  And I don’t suffer a whole lot from stage fright, but occasionally I do.  So if none of that’s going on, I’m just up for the experience of playing music, generally.  So I don’t feel any physical difference, but I’m more fluid with the act of just enjoying myself.

Do you have a sense of yourself up on the stage?  Do you have a sense of what you look like, how you present yourself?

CVD:  I look a lot like Brad Pitt.

BB:  Yeah, after he got beat up in “Fight Club”.

Do you ever see video of yourself and just go, whoa, I didn’t know I did that, or is it pretty much in line with what you’re thinking is going on?

CVD:  Well, occasionally, but I don’t have a whole sense of that.  And occasionally I see video, and mostly I’m not so interested to see video.  I’m more interested in the doing than the reviewing.

What about you, Béla?

BB:  I think I’m pretty much on the same level as Courtney, yeah.

CVD:  You look like Brad Pitt, too?

BB:  Well, maybe.

How do you make musical decisions as a band?  Is it the two of you that’s pretty much laying down the law?  Or is it a collaborative thing where you’re working on new material, or are you presenting the material to your guys…

BB:  I think it’s all of the above.

CVD:  Yeah, definitely, all of those things.

And does one structure of that work better than others?  Or does it depend?

CVD:  I think it depends on what we’re working on, and how much we know what we want when we come into it, and how much we’re trying to explore it with everyone else.

Is everyone bringing material, or just the two of you?

CVD:  Just the two of us bring material.  But we like to get people’s input.  But if we’re the composer, we also like to be able to accept or deny that, whether it’s going along the line of what we’re trying to do.  There’s some sort of feeling of the identity of the piece.  Even if we don’t totally know quite what the parts are, there’s a feeling of, ok, that’s a right idea, and that’s a wrong idea.

So you’re going to music direct your own material.

CVD:  Yeah.

Have you ever had problems with that, where somebody else has a pretty strong feeling?

BB:  Sure.

CVD:  Yeah, I’ve had a problem where four guys didn’t like a tune…

BB:  Yeah, and Courtney was very stubborn, in a good way, about it, was just very firm with his belief that this was going to be a good tune.  And everyone – including myself – we were all very much against this tune, and there was a lot of negativity that was floating around.  But I came around.  I realized when we were in the studio working on this tune, and actually even when we were rehearing it, I think I was the least vocal about it…

CVD:  You were more willing to go along for the ride.  You’ve had experience in going along for the ride.  And as the dude bringing stuff in, too, you know the experience of having people leaning against you, too.

BB:  Oh, yeah.  And I’m actually definitely more sensitive than you are about that.  If someone doesn’t like it, I think it really affects me, to where it’s like, oh these guys don’t like it, or this guy doesn’t like it.  Yeah, I’m sensitive about that.  But when Courtney brought this tune in, the reason why I wasn’t so vocally opposed to it was because I had experienced that once with one of his earlier tunes, where I thought, what the hell is this, this sucks, this isn’t any good – and it ended up being one of my favorite tunes.  Because we had worked it, and I added some of my stuff to it!

CVD:  It’s also going to be a great tune.  I’m pretty excited about the tune, still – it’s going to be really cool!

BB:  Yeah, I think it’s going to be a good tune!

To be continued next week…