You Play Guitar? Jack McDowell & Stickfigure
Welcome to our first installment of "You Play Guitar?" Here at Guitar.com, we feature a wide variety of players-from the axe legends atop Olympus, to the emerging young talents who someday may join them, to just about everyone in between. But there's always been one thing uniting the disparate guitarists on this site-they make or have made music for a living.
As a change of pace, we'd like to throw the spotlight on some folks whose names you may already know, but not necessarily for playing guitar. You may know them for starring in movies, scoring touchdowns, stumping on the campaign trail, and making millions in the business world. In our new "YOU PLAY GUITAR?" column, we're going to be talking guitar shop with some pretty serious enthusiasts, some of whom will shock you with their six-string knowledge and dexterity.
For our inaugural installment, we're going to feature an unusual case-a man who dabbled in guitar-playing and music-making while earning his keep in Major League Baseball and who nowadays fronts a successful indie rock band.
He's Jack McDowell, remembered by some as the guy who flipped off Yankee Stadium (while a Yankee, no less), but hailed by most as a three-time All-Star and a Cy Young Award winner. His 12-year baseball career included stints with the Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, and Anaheim Angels.
McDowell first started cutting records and performing while still in baseball. His first band V.I.E.W. self-released an album and an EP over a three-year period in the early 1990s. V.I.E.W. ultimately evolved into McDowell's current outfit, stickfigure. stickfigure formed in 1992; its debut record Just a Thought (1994) and the follow-up Feedbag (1997) were released by local labels in Chicago and Boston.
When elbow problems brought McDowell's baseball career to an end in 1999, stickfigure became a full-time gig. The former pitcher spent three years writing and recording Ape of the Kings. Colorado-based label What Are Records? picked up the band in early 2002 and subsequently released the album. At What Are Records?, stickfigure joins an artist roster that includes such musical luminaries as Frank Black, Glenn Tilbrook, David Wilcox, and Tim Finn.
Stickfigure recently took its Replacements-esque power pop to small clubs across the country. Guitar.com caught up with McDowell before a gig in Philadelphia to chat about his musical background and the transition from two seams to six strings.
Guitar.com: When did you first start playing guitar? What drew you to the guitar over other instruments?
McDowell: We had a piano in our house, and my older brother and sister took piano lessons growing up, but, for some reason, I didn't... From the time I was a kid, I loved the sound of acoustic guitar on record. Songs that were dominant acoustic songs seemed to jump out at me... I asked my parents when I was seven or eight years old if I could take guitar lessons, and they went out and got me a nylon-stringed guitar. That was that. I started taking lessons and went on from there.
Guitar.com: What were some of those acoustic songs that stood out for you at an early age?
McDowell: One brother [of mine] was a huge Beatles fan, so obviously I listened to all that stuff. Between the acoustics and the Rickenbackers, I think you have all the pretty guitars you can listen to there. [Also] early Who stuff... you'd hear them jamming on the acoustic a little heavier than most people do-that [was] always fun to listen to as well.
Guitar.com: Do you remember the first song that you learned to play?
McDowell: When I was learning finger-picking style, I think the first finger-picking song that I learned was John Denver's "Sunshine on My Shoulders." I think the first strumming song was "Peaceful Easy Feeling" by The Eagles.
Guitar.com: Did you primarily learn through lessons or did you work through books as well?
McDowell: I took lessons for two years and went through all the grades of the Mel Bay books. From those two years on, I've basically been self-taught. Listening to records and copping stuff off [them].
Guitar.com: Did you have any guitarists that you particularly admired or emulated?
McDowell: Probably the biggest influence on my style was Peter Buck. When I really started getting into guitar seriously and learning song structure, the early R.E.M. records were a great basis because there wasn't a lot of overdubbing-it was just one guitar part and him playing the song. You could really tune in on what he was doing, His arpeggio style filled out the songs, and that was really how I learned a lot of what I do.
Guitar.com: Given all your baseball commitments, how much guitar did you get to play as a teenager?
McDowell: In my teenage years, I didn't get to play much-I just dabbled in it and always was jealous of the kids forming bands in high school while I was running around doing 17 summer leagues of basketball, football, and baseball. I didn't have that much time to do [music]. When I got to college and narrowed it down to just playing baseball, there was a little more down-time for me to play guitar. When I really started writing songs and playing a lot of guitar was when I signed professionally [with the White Sox organization]. I went back to finish up school at Stanford, and I was just going to school-no sports stuff going on-and I was bored. I was sitting there going, "Man, usually my life is so crazy running around from here to there, and now I've got all this free time." So I brought my guitar to school. Almost immediately, when I picked it up and started playing, I started writing songs, and that was that. Once I got the songwriting bug, that was it.
Guitar.com: Once you got to the big leagues, were you able to keep up with your playing?
McDowell: I used to take it on the road. Every once in a while, when I was with the White Sox, I'd bring it on the plane, and we'd mess around and do stuff. That was fun. There were a handful of years when I'd actually take a portable four-track on the road and kind of throw down ideas and work on songs in a hotel room.
Guitar.com: Did your teammates appreciate your musicianship?
McDowell: There were always a couple of guys on each team who listened to similar music that I did, but there were not that many that were listening to The Replacements, The Smiths, and R.E.M. They were all, for the most part, country-music listeners, Top Forty, whatever's "in" slamming their heads on the radio. They didn't really dig much deeper than that. But I'd always come across a few people who had similar musical background as me as far as what they listened to and where they came from.
Guitar.com: Do you think your baseball celebrity helped stickfigure ultimately get signed?
McDowell: Not really. It's funny because the people at What Are Records? really don't know baseball all that much, so it's kind of like I'm giving them a rundown on what's going on, which was one of the reasons the relationship worked out so well. They didn't have any preconceived ideas of "Oh, we can go do this. We can sell stadiums and this and that." They were just down with things and were like, "Hey, we really liked this record, and we want to put it out like any other record." When I played it for them early on... I said, "I've been doing this while I've been playing baseball, and, if you target this baseball thing, there's going to be no future in it, it's not really going to work. It's either going to hit on a musical level or not." They really got that and understood that, and it was one of the reasons why I wanted to deal with them, as opposed to some of the other people I'd been talking to, who had crazy ideas that worried me....[laughs]
Guitar.com: Does the baseball connection work against you when it comes to establishing credibility with critics and fans?
McDowell: Even with all the positive reviews in the past with stickfigure, you can always tell that [critics] love the record and want to say how great it is, but they always put something in about baseball at the end. It seems like they don't want to be the one who likes the-guy-who-plays-baseball's records. They don't want to be the only one, so they make sure they have an out at the end. It seems like even the best reviews are that way. It's funny, but I've been getting over that hump a little more now where at least people know that I have a history of [making records], and will take the record as a record and won't say, "Is it better than Dogstar [Keanu Reeves' band] or Shaquille O'Neal?" Instead of that, they'll listen to it and say, "It's as good as the new Jimmy Eat World or Travis" or something like that. Instead of the star comparisons, we get the musical comparisons, which is basically the way it should be.
Guitar.com: Are there any particular guitar parts on Ape of the Kings that you're especially proud of?
McDowell: I really love the stuff on "One Down." That was kind of my baby, that whole song, as far as all the guitars go. Also "Hour of Day" was one where I just sat there and played all the guitar parts and had different things in there, but "One Down" was cool. I just like the single note thing-very simplistic, but it just gives such a cool feel to the song. On the record, that's probably my favorite guitar part. I was totally listening to the first Frank Black & The Catholics record, which is a guitar-crazy record, when I was doing those songs, so I had that in mind. You know, two guitars going nuts. There's not a lot of layering, just two guitars, doing their thing and weaving together.
Guitar.com: Do you have a favorite guitar to play these days?
McDowell: For a number of years, I had a Les Paul that was my number one. Now it's my number two on the road because I've got an early 50s TB special that is crazy. It's the best guitar that I own. I was like, "I don't want to take this on the road and beat it up." Then I was like, "You know what? This guitar is the best one I have, and I'm just gonna start playing it." It's my number one now that I take out.
Guitar.com: Do you consider yourself to be learning still when it comes to the guitar?
McDowell: Absolutely. I have a style on guitar, but I wouldn't say that I'm a super-great guitar player or anything. Everybody comes up with something that is their style and what they do. There's nobody that has an instrument mastered to the point that they're not learning.
Guitar.com: Did you have any particular bumps along the way in your learning?
McDowell: People don't think about this often, but the first thing was that I learned how to play on acoustic guitar, and it's hard when you're strumming and singing to really go after it. You're not muting the strings as much; you're doing a lot of open-chording where you're strumming all six strings. Then, you go to electric, and you're breaking that down and doing all sorts of muting while you're playing and only playing a couple of strings at once, as opposed to strumming stuff. That was a big difference when I moved from the acoustic, folky influence to more power-pop, electric thing. That was a big difference, the difference between electric stylings and acoustic stylings. [Also] When I first started taking lessons, everything I'd play [was done] sitting down. The difference between standing up and sitting down changes your whole grip on the guitar, how your hand moves, how you're bracing chords. You never hear people talk about that-the difference in the mechanical technique of sitting down and playing the acoustic all those years and then, all of a sudden, standing up and rocking out on your guitar. It changes all the mechanics of playing guitar.
Guitar.com: Is music your full-time gig going forward? Would you consider getting back to baseball in some capacity?
McDowell: I have an interest in coaching, but that's not going to be for a long, long, long time. I've been doing music and putting down records for 15 years, and this is the first time we get to tour behind, promote, and actually go for it, so it's pretty much a 24/7 thing now. I've been wearing so many hats, booking the tours, tour managing, and what have you-it's pretty much a full-time job. We're to the point where I'm ready to pass that over to other people, but, because of the baseball thing, I wanted to have my hands in every part of who we're dealing with. I didn't want to go into this and have some outside booker trying to book shows for me because I don't know what the hell they're saying. "Hey, this is Jack. He used to play baseball, and his fans are going to come." The minute I call [club owners] up and we start talking music, they understand. They get it a little bit better and a little quicker. That's the point I wanted to get to all those on the business end so they understand what I'm doing, where I'm coming from, the passion I have for music, and that it's not some schlock thing that has been presented to them by others I've been compared to in the past...[laughs]
Guitar.com: Are there any aspects of baseball that you miss or wish would be applicable in your music experience as well?
McDowell: Probably the biggest difference is that, in baseball, if you do well and execute and win, you move up a ladder. In music, that has nothing to do with it. Some of the greatest artists aren't selling one-hundredth of the records that some of the mediocre artists are. That's the difficulty with entertainment. What's being thrown down everybody's throats is the lowest common denominator. You have to search out what's head and shoulders above what the populace is having thrown in the feedbag these days....
From an artist's perspective, my own goal with this is that there's so many people out there who I know would dig the stickfigure record, but, whether it's 500 people or 10 million people, you never know who's going to like it, but I know there are people that would. OK, so what's the best way of getting people to hear this record and know it's out there and that they probably would enjoy the hell out of it? All you can ask for is that those who would dig it is that they're exposed to it enough that they would go and check it out.
Guitar.com: One final question-if you could jump onstage and jam with anybody, who would it be?
McDowell: I don't think it could be any more fun than sitting in the middle of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, when you start going up in front of the drums and rocking out. I think that'd be everyone's favorite, definitely, as far as rocking out.