Howard Fishman

Interview by Joyce Peters

May 2002
Reprinted courtesy of Taconic Press

I recently caught up with Howard Fishman by phone from his apartment in Brooklyn to try to get a sense of what The Howard Fishman Quartet is about.

JP: Besides being a musician, you’re also an actor and director. How do those pursuits feed one another?
HF: It’s all the same thing for me — performing, self-expression. The genre isn’t as important as being able to do it and having a place to do it.

JP: You went from playing in the subway to debuting at the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. Describe how that felt.
HF: It was extraordinary, like something out of a story book. It felt great, totally unexpected, magical. The Algonquin was not a place I ever thought I would play. We went from very gritty to very urbane and sophisticated. Even when we played there, we went to the subway to play on our days off. I loved them both equally.

JP: What about audiences?
HF: People at the Algonquin were easier to please. Both greeted us with the same kind of expression of surprise and delight in finding this music that was so different. People were thrilled at hearing something that sounded so fresh.

JP: I know you bristle at this question, but how do you describe your sound?
HF: It’s like asking someone to describe their thoughts or emotions. It sounds like I’m being dodgy, but I’m not. It’s not a fair question. There are too many things that go into it.

JP: Describe your strangest gig.
HF: That’s a good question. Nobody’s ever asked me that one. One of the strangest was the Algonquin because we were a band playing in the subway then suddenly were were playing at a super posh place. I keep my expectations low. I expect a strange gigs if the owner is missing all his teeth and doesn’t speak English, that to me is not that strange. That’s the unexpected.

JP: Do you have any pre-show rituals?
HF: I always get there early to not have any pressure or feel rushed. To get a cup of coffee and feel out the room. I write out a set list.

JP: Is your set list based on your feel for the room?
HF: It’s not a “set” set list but I jot down a bunch of tunes I want to play.

JP: What adjectives would people who really know you use to describe you?
HF: Private, loyal, [long pause] obsessive, perfectionist and maybe a little too serious.

JP: What do you want to happen next with your music?
HF: I like the way things are going now. I manage the band – there’s no one on the staff, so it’s a full-time job. I’d like to have more time to write, practice and play….to think more about music.

JP: Whose praise is most meaningful?
HF: Probably people who have never heard me play before. I love to make contact with strangers to have some sort of meaningful connection with strangers. That’s why I play music.

JP: What are your limitations?
HF: I have a gravelly and untrained voice. I’m basically an untrained singer and guitarist, but it can be a strength because whatever I do, it’s certainly honest. It’s not some trick somebody taught me.

JP: What are your strengths?
HF: I think I’m pretty good at being a bandleader. So much of what we do is improvisation and it can change drastically with the audience and room. I’m pretty good at steering the boat.

JP: Describe your apartment environment. What’s around you?
HF: I’m a news junkie so there’s a coffee table with tons of books — too many books! A huge pile of unread printed material that just haunts me every time I wake up [laughs] because I can’t throw anything out unless I’ve read it. Too many CDs and some paintings.

JP: What can we expect from your performance at The Towne Crier?
HF: I hope you can expect a good show. It will be a fairly intimate, traditional show with plenty of room for improvising for soloists. Any time there’s live a performance, there’s a possibility for something great.