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Interview With Greg Howard
By Waldo L. Jaquith

Election night, November, 2000.

Greg Howard and I are sitting in Mudhouse, a popular café on Charlottesville, Virginia's Downtown Mall. It is unusually slow, even for a Tuesday evening in November. Presumably, people are at home, watching the presidential election results come in. About a dozen of us, mostly complete strangers, are comfortably spread out in the quiet restaurant. Periodically, as some bit of news is announced by a newcomer, we find ourselves engaged in conversation with our fellow election-watchers.

Inevitably, Greg and I discuss the presidential race, and politics in general. I'm sporting an "I Voted!" sticker on the breast of my leather jacket, and I notice that Greg is not similarly adorned. I ask him about it.

"I'm fundamentally opposed to the whole system."

Whoa. I'm not going there.

. . .

You may have heard of Greg Howard. You may have even heard of the instrument that he plays, the Chapman Stick. Perhaps you've heard snippets of his music, often played between segments on NPR's "All Things Considered." But you probably know probably very little about him. Didn't he once sit in with Dave Matthews Band after Stefan hurt his hand? In fact, didn't he tour with the band for a while? Is he the same guy Leroi is saying "hey" to at the end of "The Last Stop" on "Before These Crowded Streets"?

How about this: Greg Howard is one of the keystones to Dave Matthews Band's existence. I'll bet you didn't know that.

. . .

"My father was a musician, by avocation. Early in his life, he was a trumpet player. He played in big bands in North Carolina, mainly while he was a university student. He was a pretty good trumpet player. My first specific musical memories are of him playing along to big-band records. Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Bunny Berigan, stuff like that. Both of my parents always encourged me to get into making music."

Greg's first instrument was the Magnus Chord Organ, which is essentially an electric harmonium. (Years later, he found out that this was also DMB saxophonist Leroi Moore had one of these when he was young, too.) His father's inspiration and his own interest kept him busy with music through school. He played clarinet in fourth grade, he performed in the school band. At thirteen, Greg wrote his first composition - it was performed by his Junior high school concert band.

"It was hideously bad," Greg says, smiling.

Greg, in his inexperience, forgot to transpose each instrument's part to the right key, so no two of them were playing along. Also, he later realized, he wrote all of the notes backwards.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Greg discovered improvisation the following year. Having seen Oscar Peterson perform, he turned to the piano in the school band room. Soon, he was performing original songs in rock bands, singing, and making tapes of his bands' jams.

In the early 80s, by way of King Crimson's Tony Levin, Greg encountered a brand-new instrument: the Chapman Stick. The Stick was invented in 1969 by California's Emmett Chapman. An aptly-named instrument, it's pretty much a stick, with ten strings running the length of it. The strings are tapped, not plucked, and it is played with both hands. Imagine playing electric guitar by simply chording, but not strumming, with the volume turned way up. Now imagine that you can play bass, rhythm and melody, all at the same time: that's the Chapman Stick.

Greg got into the Stick when his band, "Continental Drift," broke up. He decided to give up the keyboard. He preferred the piano, but that wasn't practical for gigs. He'd played saxophone, and had grown to love its expressiveness. After reading about the Stick, he realized that he could have the best of both the sax and the keyboard. In 1985, at age 20, Greg acquired his first credit card (putting him in debt for the next half-decade) in order to buy his first Stick. He immediately cut back on sax and keyboards and focused in on his new instrument. To accommodate his new passion, he chose the non-time-intensive English as his major at Charlottesville's University of Virginia. Greg immediately started writing music for the Stick, finding that it "took him out of the box that [he'd] been in," and made him "think about music in a different way."

In short, it was love.

. . .

"Looks like Gore's gonna take Florida."

Smiles all around the room.

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