Alex Machacek (Interview): "But what if you saw off your own hand?"
Updated: Jan 12, 2021
When talking about musicians who push the boundaries of their instrument, you can't not mention Alex Machacek. The guitarist and composer has been a household name in the international fusion jazz scene for many years now. Not only is Alex highly regarded by listeners and fellow players alike, but also praised by famous peers: Shawn Lane had been a fan of his, Allan Holdsworth often mentioned how much he appreciated his work – and John McLaughlin once said about him: "Alex Machacek's music starts where other music ends".
Hailing from the Viennese music scene, Machacek first made a name for himself internationally through his collaboration with Zappa alumnus Terry Bozzio and their joint project BPM (together with saxophonist Gerald Preinfalk). A few years after the release of the BPM Record, Alex and his wife, singer Sumitra Nanjundan, moved to Los Angeles, where they live to this day.
The list of his collaborations is long: He released albums with Gary Husband, Marco Minnemann, Jeff Sipe, Matt Garrison, Neal Fountain and recently with FAT (short for Fabulous Austrian Trio). He has toured with Planet X, The Virgil Donati Band, UKZ and many more. And he has a lot in the works for the future.
I spoke to Alex Machacek via Zoom.
Let's talk about your beginnings. You were brought to the guitar by classic rock bands like Queen.
My sister was a KISS fan. We shared a room back then, so I could not escape the music. I didn't them too much. Later on she also became a Queen fan, and that I really liked. I wanted to learn guitar, but I had no idea what exactly I wanted to play. Back then that meant you'll learn classical guitar in music school. At some point I found out about Dire Straits. One of the good things about them was that Mark Knopfler also played without a pick. That came close to being a classical guitarist - and I really liked the music. Even his singing. So I had this Dire Straits phase. I had a friend who used to make me tapes with music from Deep Purple and Iron Maiden. I liked that at the time too. We're talking about the very beginnings here. At some point I got a Joe Pass record from my stepdad. That's when I thought to myself, "What's going on?". Then later came the usual development: you meet people who ask you, "Hey, do you know John Scofield? Do you know Mike Stern? Do you know Pat Metheny?" Then you educate yourself and get an overview of what's out there. After that you just find the next thing and then the next.
Do you remember the day you bought your first electric guitar?
I saved up for a year and bought the cheapest electric guitar they had at the music store. The salesman told me afterwards that they toasted with champagne to the fact that they had sold the guitar. Because they didn't think that it could be sold. It really was a terrible guitar.
What brand was it?
A Strat copy?
Yes, a kind of Strat copy, but with two humbuckers, if I remember correctly. I was so embarrassed that it was a Kawai, I cut off the finish on the headstock with a razor blade. It was just inlaid, it wasn't even sprayed on. I turned it into a no name guitar. I didn't even have a case or a gig bag in the beginning, I just went with a plastic bag. At some point I also bought an amplifier. I can remember that story well, too. I had saved for a long time. One guy in Klosterneuburg sold a Pearl amplifier. It was a transistor, like a Fender Twin. He wanted 3000 shillings for it. I then asked him: "Can I have it for 2988 shillings only? Because I need twelve shillings for the bus". He said: "But you really don't want to take the bus home with that thing, do you?". It was twin size, 2x12 speakers. The guy was extremely nice, he then drove me home from Klosterneuburg to Vienna. Slowly but surely I hoarded equipment.
Were you already playing in bands at that time?
Yeah, I was. In the beginning I played on borrowed amplifiers. First with friends from school. You know how it is, you get to know people, you play more often, you go to concerts. In Vienna there was the city festival. The young bands played on the stage at the Neuer Markt. There you could get an overview: How do the guys play who are five or ten years older than you? Then you find out where rehearsal rooms are and you get to know more people. Later I went to the conservatory and of course you also meet new people there. Being a musician is still a very social profession. It's important to get to know people - because they can point things out to you. "Do you know XY?" "Never heard of it!" "You should listen to it, you'll like it".
When did you get serious about playing guitar?
I didn't graduate from high school. I had a deal with my mother: I said "I don't want to graduate, I want to go to the conservatory". We agreed that I wouldn't have to go to school anymore if I passed the entrance exam. I had already completed my compulsory schooling. My mother said yes, even though she didn't want to, but she thought I wouldn't pass the exam anyway. I did pass it, though. Then she grudgingly said, "Well, what are you supposed to do now. Okay, go for it." But I was serious about playing even before that. I was so in love with playing. I mean, I still am, but back then even more so. My school friends and the parents and their parents often warned me: "But what if you saw off your hand?” Which of course happens constantly in Vienna. You read about it all the time. "You should finish high school“, they said. But I watched my schoolmates who graduated high school. By the time they started actually getting into any subject matter, I was already deeply involved in it, and already had played a lot by then. I never regretted not having finished school. That was not important for my path.
"You have to know two hundred sambas by heart, because if you're at a session in New York and you don't know them all, they're going to kick you out!"
How did you feel about your time at the conservatory?
It was both good and bad. It always depends on the teachers. There were terrible teachers who make you wonder, "Why are you even teaching there?". And there were good teachers - and a lot of teachers in between. What was great was that I got to know more people. They called me and asked if I'd like to play with them. To open a session, an art opening, a real gig - or form a band. That was great. Other things, content-wise, I could have done without - but it's been so long now, I'm not mad.
You've made your peace with it.
Yes, but back then I was rebelling against it. The conservatory in Vienna has a very rigid focus, now maybe even more than ever. I thought to myself: "That's nice and everything, but there is also a lot of other music out there". My teacher let me do what I wanted anyway. He didn't push me anywhere. I wasn't too fond of big band lessons. There’s a good story about that: The rhythm section always had to come at half past nine in the morning for the rhythm section rehearsal. Once it was a totally snowy day, it was freezing cold. I was the only one there at half past nine. The big band director at the time wanted to do a rhythm section rehearsal with myself only. I was reluctant anyway, I think it was the second to last time I had to go. Several guitarists always had to share the rehearsal because there is only one guitarist in the big band. I was a bit snappy, it was almost like a fight. The teacher said: "Don't always be so unwilling, Mr. Machacek". I just said: "Well, but I am not interested in any of that. I don't like the music, it doesn't interest me". "Yes, but you can learn so much in the process. If you know how to read big band, you can play all the jobs". I then said, "Yes, but those jobs are all occupied right now. Should I live off child allowance until they're free?" That's how the conversation went. Meanwhile, the other students came into the room. It was funny, they heard the teacher and me talking to each other - and immediately left the room. Nobody wanted to stay in that room. There were two worlds colliding. He was very much in love with big band music, and I appreciate that. I just wasn't. But he respected me. The last few times I was there, he always asked me what we should play. "What song should we play, Mr. Machacek?". Or: "We won't have a trombone solo, we'll do a guitar solo". And me: "I don't need a solo!". Actually, it was quite a good conflict. After all, there are those teachers who just run over everything. He took me seriously enough or respected me enough to listen to my opinion.
Because you said the thing about "there's also other music". Was there a lot of jazz police present?
Of course. It's not just in jazz, you have that in every genre. There's the country and western police, the pop police, you can use that anywhere. Especially if you're not on the same line, it gets harder. "You have to know two hundred sambas by heart, because if you're at a session in New York and you don't know them all, they're going to kick you out!" But I was like, "Yeah, but I'm not in New York." I loved the music though. But it was just always that. But maybe that's the point of a school, I don't know. Considering that it's a vocational training, it could be more open. Although I'm sure the teachers would say they're open anyway.
What happened next?
I graduated and then went on to Berklee. I graduated relatively early because I started so young. I was like, "I'm so young, I can go on to college then." I then started IGP [instrumental and vocal pedagogy, MB] because I figured I might need it someday. I actually did need the degree. I started that - and then I went to Berklee for two semesters, where I had a scholarship. There was a workshop in Italy where you could win scholarships, I won a part of it there. Then I sent in another tape, got another scholarship. So I collected money. You could also apply for support from the Ministry of Education. So I did two semesters there, which was very interesting. And then I came back and finished IGP and graduated.
How old were you when you finished the conservatory?
I think I was 21 years old. And then at 24 I finished IGP.
Then I was playing. With all kinds of different people. I was in bands that lasted quite a while. I played for a long time with Doretta Carter, with Nouvelle Cuisine, with Marianne Mendt. I've never been able to make a living from just one band. I worked with Klangforum a couple of times, I played banjo with the Wiener Symphoniker for two summers. I had a duo with my wife Sumitra, we played quite a lot. I also had my own band. It was always a mix of different sources of income, so to say. I was also teaching, I started early with that. When I was 17, I taught at a music school. A teaching post for electric guitar was opened - and I got the job. Plus, I did private lessons.
In 1999 you released your first solo album "Featuring Ourselves" - under the name McHacek. [pronounced mac hay-sack, MB.]
The idea came from a friend: Machacek is extremely shitty to pronounce in English. Believe me, I have experienced that. In English there is no “ch“-sound. Then a friend said: Well, what about McHacek? We recorded the songs much earlier. I had financed the record, it all happened gradually. I paid for the studio, then saved up some money and paid for the mixing, then scraped money together again and paid for the mastering, then the pressing. I was lucky: I had a thousand copies pressed. When the shipment came home, I realized that 1000 CDs is a lot. You sell five here, three here. But I was lucky: I got very good recommendations. There were a lot of people who were into this record - including Shawn Lane. He was in Vienna at the time and supposedly heard me live as well. But he didn't introduce himself and I didn't meet him in person.He liked it very much though and said nice things about me. Suddenly I got emails from America - from small distributors asking if they could order a few records. And then all of a sudden Japan was interested and the Japanese asked if they could order 200 CDs to sell. That was great to see how this huge pile of CDs became less and less. In the meantime it is out of print.
Of course the international interest didn't decrease when you and Gerald Preinfalk started the trio with Terry Bozzio, BPM.
I get so many requests for the CDs now, but back then I think we were a bit ahead of our time. It was very experimental, the instrumentation was saxophone/bass clarinet, drums and guitar. No bass player. For many that might have been too exhausting, I don't know. But sure, that helped. Playing with Terry helped me in the USA, too. When I came to L.A. nobody was waiting for me and I didn't know anybody. I went to the Baked Potato [a venue in LA, MB] and was like, "I have a band with Terry Bozzio. Can I play there?" And they were just like, "Yeah sure!". I got in there at the highest point. Normally you have to work your way up for years to be allowed to play on Tuesday - and I always had Friday/Saturday with Terry, always two nights in a row. That was great, there was a buzz. I was lucky and it was nice that Terry joined in. He just felt like playing. He built a smaller drum kit for it - and then we played with Doug Lunn on bass, who has since passed away. And then with Jimmy Johnson.
How did the thing with Terry actually come about? You already had a project together before that.
Gerald Preinfalk met Terry at another festival. They talked, and Terry told Gerald that he had written five movements for "string quartet, woodwind quartet and drums". And that he would like to perform that. Gerald said, "I can organize that. If you feel like it, I'll book a gig". In Vienna there is no lack of great classical musicians who play everything at the highest level. Gerald stayed in touch with Terry. The idea was not only to play these pieces, but also to improvise in between. Gerald asked me if I wanted to be part of that. I said "Sure" - I was a big fan of Terry's anyway. Gerald booked the gig, I think it was at Jazzfest Vienna. Terry sent us the sheet music of these Movements and we arranged them. He only had that in MIDI, he sent us the MIDI printouts. It was tons of sheet music. Because a normal trill on a midi keyboard can be several pages long. I arranged the strings, Gerald arranged the winds. The whole thing written by hand, I didn't even have a printer back then. I then made a massive thinking error and had to do it all over again. I thought string instruments were played in fifths. If they have to play double stops, I thought, surely fifths are the easiest thing to do. No, they aren't. Fifths are the hardest. Not on every instrument, but on violins and violas. I was helped by someone who said: "You have to do it differently". Then I had to divide the notes of an eight-part chord differently - and do the whole thing by hand. We rehearsed it then and I also wrote my own pieces. One together with Gerald, two by myself, if I remember correctly. Terry really enjoyed it and he asked me if I wanted to make a record with him. "Let me think for a minute. Yes." I kept pushing for us to write and record enough material. We then flew to Texas, where Terry was living at the time, and made this BPM record. We also toured Europe two or three times.
"We started from scratch."
When did you move to Los Angeles?
That was in 2004. It was time for a change of scene.
The choice was initially between New York or Los Angeles.
We moved here in October. In the February before that, we thought, let's take a look at L.A. We already knew New York, we had been there several times. It was such beautiful weather in Los Angeles, I thought, "Fuck it, that's it." For two weeks we looked at the city, saw concerts and thought about whether we could imagine living here. We thought, let's just try it. We knew beforehand that we wanted to emigrate and we had saved money. You can't expect people to tell you right away, "It's great that you're here.
I suppose it was difficult at the beginning.
Sure. Imagine going somewhere where you don't know anyone. Sumitra had a friend. I mean, we knew a couple of Austrians who were living here. But I didn't want to want to be part of an Austrian community. We started from scratch. Over time, you get to know people and it gets a little better. When you move to a new city where you don't know anyone, it's always quite exhausting. And the city is relatively big.
Your album [sic] was the second release on Abstract Logix, which is still your label. How did that come about?
Souvik [Dutta, label founder, MB] was a huge Shawn Lane fan. That's how he heard about me. When I came to the U.S., Abstract Logix was doing work for Shawn Lane and was just starting to become a distributor. It wasn't a label at the time. We talked on the phone a lot and hit it off. At one point I went to see him. He said he had so many airline miles on his credit card, I should come to North Carolina sometime. So I went to see him, looked at all that. At some point I said to him, "Why don't you make a label? You've got the perfect background and you know what people like and don't like." He then actually did that - first came the Jimmy Herring free jazz record, then came my record, and then more and more. I was the instigator. Souvik had a regular day job in the beginning, then he just did Abstract Logix. But, as we know: The streaming world leaves its mark. Abstract Logix is still around, but he's not doing it full time anymore. There's not enough money in it anymore to survive on.
Funny, I thought listeners of such specialized music genres were more willing to buy.
Partly that's true. You have to do the math: We're talking about very small numbers. Before the Internet era, some people sold 10,000, 12,000, 15,000 records in jazz. In that direction, the more famous ones much more. With my album [sic] he pressed 3000 at that time and had them pressed again, as they were sold out. From the records that came after that, he pressed less and less. Because in the meantime it's only the minority that still buys CDs. There was also the time before streaming, where things were simply stolen. I mean, Streaming is also stealing, because what do you get for it? Nothing. I have a record with Jeff Sipe and Matt Garrison that was on a blog a week later with a download link. That was a problem, because you couldn't even recoup. Meanwhile, there's just Spotify and the other platforms. You don't make much money with it. It don’t want to complain but just want make it clear: The current system we have simply doesn't work. It pays so little that in the long run it will turn off the musician's profession. Because it's no longer affordable to make music.
In Los Angeles, you became a household name in the fusion scene, working with all kinds of greats.
That went step by step, steadily. As always in life, there are better and worse phases and sometimes nothing happens. And sometimes too much happens at the same time.
John McLaughlin once said about you: "Alex' music starts where other music ends".
That was a very helpful quote. In the time where I found my feet: That was already a more difficult time, or an interim time. Most of the small labels had already closed down and the whole internet thing hadn't started that big yet. A small label can't spend an insane amount of money on advertising. So now you have a new name - what does it take? When a celebrity says something good about you, it really helps. Back then I used to get my checks from Abstract Logix monthly, now only annually. I remember well, after that quote from John, the check was a lot higher. People need that: “Well, if John McLaughlin says that, then it’s probably great”. That's about opening a door for people to even listen in. That's getting harder and harder these days because people don't need labels anymore. There's an insane amount. It's getting harder and harder to get attention. Whereby I have to say: My genre is much smaller. If you want to be a pop star or a singer/songwriter, it's much harder. The fusion field is manageable.
You play Strandberg guitars, you have your own signature model. The company has become more and more popular in recent years - also because multiscale and headless and special instruments are becoming more popular due to a new generation of players on YouTube and other social platforms. Also, the word "shredding" is no longer a dirty word. Is progressive guitar having a revival at the moment?
I've been playing headless for a very long time. Let's just say the last five or six years, the jokes about Headless are getting fewer. It used to be the same old joke: "It's broken, there's something missing on your guitar." Multiscale has been around for a while, a lot of the solo acoustic guitarists have multiscale. For electric guitars it was boutique companies like Conklin that made them. It's an evolution. And regarding the shredding thing...I think YouTube has an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is you always have someone to show you something. In our day, you had just recording and you had to get that first. You didn't have a tutorial where someone showed you everything note by note. You were lucky if there was a transcription book and even luckier if the transcriptions were correct. People learn differently these days. It's pretty direct. You want to know something, you look it up on YouTube, and chances are there's a tutorial. When I started at the GIT [Guitar Institute of Technology, MB] in 2006, there were 17-year-olds who were good at certain things and they uploaded it to YouTube. The technical skill increases. But what gets lost is a much more important thing: making music. Sitting at home and practising, or as I call that kind of thing, doing some training has its place, but making music is much more important. I noticed that many of the youngsters had great manual skills, but failed at very simple things. They failed at playing with each other. That was often the case. At the GIT, two guitarists would go into a room, play over jam tracks on their laptop - come out and say "Ah, that was a great jam" One solos over the jam track, finishes, the other waits and then solos over it, when the other one is finished. That's what they call jamming. I come from a time when jamming still meant playing with each other. e.
But thats also means that there is a lot happening in the guitar market that pushes the whole thing forward. There are so many new companies, Abasi Guitars, Solar Guitars …
Yes. Strandberg is doing really well. They can't keep up with the production. There is a new generation that is looking for something new. There are people who want a Strat, a Les Paul, an SG or an ES-335 - and there are people who are looking for something else. And these new companies are stepping into exactly this market segment.
What brought you to headless guitars in the first place? The ergonomics?
As a Holdsworth fan, it was interesting to try something like that. And then: once you've played headless and the issue of head heaviness is no longer one... and it's just more practical - you very much don't want to go back. The Strandberg is the lightest guitar I've ever played. Once you get used to an instrument being so light and fitting so well, you don't want to go back. Sometimes I have to record something with other guitars, I have a 335, a Strat - it's always a little weird.
What about recording - do you also use guitar plug-ins?
Yes. I don't mic amps anymore. I have an Axe FX - and I'm experimenting with the cab and power amp simulations from Two Notes. I recently played with an AC-30 amp from Logic with good impulse responses from Two Notes, and got great sounds. Most of the time I record dry - unless it's a special sound that has to stay exactly the same.
"Every time i listen to [Zappa], I think to myself: 'Alex, you have to work more'"
You’ve always been proficient at producing as well.
Yes, that's what you call making a virtue out of necessity. It started with that: When I recorded in a studio, I was always interested in how it worked. And sometimes I didn't share the sound engineer's opinion. That's when I thought, "If only I could do this myself." Nowadays, producing is easy. The power I have with my current computer, I wish I had that with BPM or McHacek. McHacek was still on two-inch tape, those were different times.
You recently recorded a song with Vinnie Colaiuta.
Yes, for Steve Hunt. I played with him a lot for a while for the Holdsworth tribute. Virgil Donati had organized that, first in New York, then in LA, and later in Australia.
Another in the line of great drummers you've played with.
Yeah, I think I’ve played with almost anybody. I played with Chad Wackermann, Marco Minnemann, Gary Husband. On some record I played with Simon Philips. Mike Mangini, Thomas Lang, Gary Novak - the list is long.
You made a whole album with Gary Husband - but with him on piano.
Yeah, 2013, on a record called "Now." That was great. It's the only album that doesn't have a single distorted sound of mine on it.
Colaiuta and Bozzio, of course, are both drummers of Zappa, who was a big influence for you.
I had a friend who always told me that I have to listen to Zappa. But he played me things that I didn't like at all. My love for Zappa came later, when I was 21. I was lucky: at that time all the Zappa CDs were always on sale at the local record store. I bought a lot of his music. Just the other day I searched for Zappa on YouTube again. I don't like everything he did, I mean who likes everything an artist has done? But every time I listen to him I think to myself: "Alex, you have to work more". The guy is just a total role model. The things he has done and how often he has arranged numbers for various line ups… a true workaholic, and he has done really great stuff.
And what about the influence Allan Holdsworth had on you?
For me, Holdsworth came before Zappa. I had a friend who lived in the same alley. He called me up and said, "You've got to come, I've got a record, you won’t believe what you hear." I was lying on the floor, listening to it - and I was just like, "Man, I have no idea what's going on here. But I dig it."
Did you know Holdsworth personally?
Yes, I knew him well. A mutual friend from New York once came over to L.A. and asked if he could sleep at our place. He said he was going to Allan's birthday party and that I should come with him. I said, "Oh, I don't know." It was Allan’s 60th birthday. But then I went along and introduced myself to Allan simply as "Marc's driver", that was my friend’s name, not as a guitarist. But someone told Allan that I play guitar and we started talking. A mutual friend used to give him my records and he always liked them so much. He used to call me up and say, "That's a hell of a thing you've done there". We met quite often. He lived a little further away, in the San Diego area. We had some very good times together.
Do you still teach?
Very little. Occasional Skype students, but not much. I stopped teaching at the GIT in 2013. After seven years, it was time. I thought to myself: "That's enough now".
But you still do workshops and such?
Yes, I do the Schönbach Jazz Seminar every summer. Sometimes I also do masterclasses at the Musician's Institute. I also did a masterclass recently for Strandberg, a little bit here, a little bit there.
What's next for you?
A few things. There's a new FAT record coming out and we're going to play live, if that’s possible. There's also a new band that I don't want to say anything about yet - but you'll hear about it when the time is right. With two guys from New York. Also, it has been on my mind for a long time to do a solo record. Solo guitar pieces. I don’t know if I can do a whole record with only solo pieces. I thought: it could be half-half. Half of it solo, the other half with loops and soundscapes I can recreate in a live setting. What else is planned… well, there are so many things planned!