Todd Mack Interview

I first met Todd Mack when I was writing The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Playing Bass Guitar. We recorded the audio CD that accompanies the book at his Off The Beat-N-Track studio. At the time I was working on the book, he was finishing work on his album, Square Peg, Round Hole.

As I got to know Todd better I also got to know bits and pieces of his history. Before moving to the Berkshires, he’d been in the Atlanta area, playing the music scene. One day a man answered an ad Todd had run in the paper looking for a fiddle player for a band he was putting together. Todd and the fiddler hit it off immediately and became close friends as well as band mates. The fiddle player had just moved to Atlanta as part of his new job, reporting for the Wall Street Journal. His name was Daniel Pearl.

In one of those odd twists of fate, Todd eventually ended up moving to the Berkshires, where only a relatively short time earlier, Danny had been living and working for the local paper. Danny had also been very active on the Berkshire music scene, playing in a number of bands.

Four years ago, Todd organized the first “FODfest,” “FOD” being an acronym for “Friends of Danny.” These concerts sought to celebrate not only Danny’s life, but also his music and his belief in the power of music and words to break down barriers and create harmony in the world.

This year’s event will tour both coasts and involve well over two hundred musicians, many of whom only knew Danny by reputation.

I’d like to thank Todd personally, not only for taking the time out of his incredibly busy schedule, but also for inviting me to participate in this magical musical event. You can find this year’s FODfest schedule up on the “News” page of the Guitar Noise Forums.

Q: FODfest is now in its fourth year and certainly has evolved quite a bit from the very first one. Can you take us back to 2005 and tell us a little bit about your initial ideas? What motivated you to do all this in the first place? Did you envision, even back then, the growth of FODfest from a single, local event to the nationwide tour it’s become? How did all this happen so fast?

Todd: Well, 2005 and 2006 were both very last minute, very informal backyard concerts at my house. I had been doing stuff for Daniel Pearl World Music Days from the onset with my radio show and it just took me a few years to get around to doing something live. It was always in the cards. I just never had the time. But four years ago, I said to myself “screw it. I HAVE to do this and there’s never going to be a good time”. So I just called up a few friends, emailed a bunch of folks, and three days later had a party. The next year I planned a whopping two weeks in advance. And then my friend Dave Keehn, who was Danny’s good friend too (we all played in a band together) flew up from Atlanta to be there for it, even with just two weeks’ notice, and that’s what sort of sealed it for me, what made me take that next step. If Dave was willing to come up on a moment’s notice for this thing, I figured there must be something to it. Something that needed to be shared on a broader level. It was always in the bigger picture, but its one thing to talk about doing something and another to actually do it. So in January of 2007, I started planning the first FODfest tour, which would take place that October and include seven cities in eight days from Atlanta to Memphis and up the east coast.

But what really motivated me to do this goes back way before 2005. Back to the day Danny was murdered. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been allured as much to the power of music as the music itself. This was something Danny and I used to talk about – music’s power to bring about change. People like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Woody Guthrie – they were all proof in the pudding. And when Danny died, I vowed to myself that I would harness that power so that nobody ever forgot who he was and the things that he stood for. From the get go, even as last minute and throw together as it may have been, I envisioned FODfest as a BIG event. Bigger than it’s been, and bigger than it is now. FODfest is about connecting people through music, regardless of their walk of life. I want it to reach as many people as it possibly can. Sure, its happened fast, but it still has a long, long way to go. We’re going to be here for a long time.

Q: Logistically, FODfest must be quite a challenge. As producer, how far ahead are you planning? Is FODfest 2009 already being worked out? When do you get a chance to sit back and enjoy all of this?

Todd: Well, logistically, this thing is really a nightmare, to be perfectly honest. This year’s tour will include up to seventeen shows in seventeen days on the east and west coasts and involve upward of two hundred and fifty musicians. The performance format is unique combining elements of a jam session, song swap, and concert into one in an acoustic setting. It’s not one that everybody understands right off the bat, musicians and clubs alike, and so it takes some explaining. Early on I realized the importance of recording and filming the concerts so people could see it in action even if they’d never been to a FODfest show.

FODfest has become a full time job for me, and an unpaid one at that. I started working on this year’s tour in November, three weeks after last year’s tour ended. Plans are already in motion for FODfest “˜09, and booking will start in January and hopefully be completed by the end of March to allow us to have a full six months to coordinate musicians and properly promote. As for the fun, sure it can be stressful especially the few months leading up to the tour, but seeing the way folks respond to what we are doing makes it all worth it. That’s the fun part. That’s the rewarding part.

Q: As a performer whose toured more than his fair share of miles, does touring with FODfest make you at all nostalgic? Do you get the desire to get back out on the road as a touring musician?

Todd: I was pretty young when I started touring. That was a long time ago. Before kids, before there was a business to run, all that. Sure I miss it. Do I miss the long, late nights, the driving in the wee hours of the morning, the crappy food, and sleeping on strangers’ floors? Well, okay, maybe a little. But not enough to get out there in the same way at this point in my life. I’d love to start touring again, but it would have to be more in line with where I’m at in my life these days.

Q: What have been the highpoints of FODfest to you? Any particular standout moments?

Todd: Caroline Aiken, Malcolm Holcolmb, the Ottoman Empire reunion, getting to play with Michael Lorant & Sheila Doyle of Big Fish Ensemble. Finally getting into Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi. But most importantly connecting with people and connecting people with one another through music. That’s what FODfest is all about. It’s what music is all about. And it’s what Danny Pearl was all about.

Q: And, on top of all this, you’re finishing up your latest CD! Can you tell us a little about it?

Todd: Well, actually it’s been done since May. Mixed, mastered, the whole nine yards except for the packaging of it – a testament to how all consuming FODfest has become. Ironically, this is a very dark album. Easily the darkest thing I’ve ever done, which is in contract to the uplifting vibe of FODfest. The new CD is called “The Thirteenth Step”. It’s a theme album, essentially. And the theme is addiction, something that strikes very close to home for me. What I’ve learned about addiction is that there are really only two possible outcomes of it. Either you truly kick your habit for the rest of your life and you go on living. Or you don’t, and it kills you, be it by overdose or just long term abuse catching up with your body. That’s the thirteenth step, either one of those definitive outcomes. Musically, the CD is different from anything I’ve done, too. It’s very layered, which I’ve done a lot of before, but in a completely different way, building mostly from a dense forest of electric guitar tracks. I put a great band together for it and I’m really pleased with the way it came out.

Q: As a songwriter, you’ve certainly written songs that cross over many genre lines. Is that something you do naturally? Does producing and recording other artists inspire your own work?

Todd: Mixing up genres is something I’ve always done, but never really set out to do. I think it’s more a result of my own varied musical tastes. I love bluegrass and the blues and jazz, but I could never be a bluegrass, blues, or jazz head who listens to nothing but those styles of music. I’d just burn out on it. Producing other artists probably does inspire my own work, but in a more subtle way. As producer, you tend to find yourself injecting your own style into an artist’s sound, so in that sense I don’t think the role allows you to be influenced by their work. But the trick is to not get trapped in that mindset and to keep yourself open to what you can learn from the artist you are producing. I am working on an album right now by a fantastic songwriter and I am really learning a lot about my own writing from producing her songs.

Q: You are someone who has lived in the music business pretty much all his life. What words of advice would you give to someone who says he or she wants to make a living in music?

Todd: Well, as somebody who didn’t heed the advice of others who told me not to quit my day job, I suppose it would be hypocritical of me to say “don’t quit your day job”. But I will say this, having other skills that you can bring into the picture can help immensely and better your odds at really making your living at music. I am lucky enough to have strong organizational skills, a must to survive in this business, but a lot of musicians don’t possess those. I suppose it’s a right brain/ left brain kind of thing. It’s okay if you don’t. Just figure out what your strengths are. Maybe you’ve got a good eye and can do your own graphic design work. Not only can you create your own marketing materials, but you could start doing it for others and earn some money in the process. Or maybe you are good with people and can start teaching to help generate some dollars. The key is you’ve got to have your fingers in a lot of pies to make it work, and you’ve got to be willing to work your butt off more than the average person who goes to a day job and works for somebody else. The large majority of us are not going to be the next Jason Mraz or Norah Jones. So you’ve got to be creative in how you bring the dollars in a way that still keeps you in music. And the bottom line is never stop believing in yourself. Anything is possible if you believe it is. And just keep at it. I’ve been doing music since I was eighteen, and as far as I’ve come, I’ve still got a long way to go. It never ends, but if you just keep your eye on the prize you get there little by little.