The following is an unreleased interview with Trace Bundy that I made with him a little while ago. Trace remains not only one of my very favourite musicians, but also one of my favourite interviews. I am grateful for his generosity and am delighted to share this with Cultivating readers.
LES: Trace, you have a well told story about how you and your brother came to buy your first guitar when you were 10 or 11– a shared purchase for a vast $10 and got a magazine teaching how to play Metallica songs. That always makes me laugh – because it proves an old proverb “Once you begin the weaving, God furnishes the skein.” and the idea of not despising small beginnings. I later heard you tell that you couldn’t afford formal lessons and you just had to figure it out for yourselves. Looking back, how do you think that not being able to afford guitar lessons affected the development of your style and level of craft?
TB: Guitar playing began as my brother’s idea, and he had to work hard to convince me to spend this tiny sum of money on a guitar. I was a frugal kid, and $10 seemed like a lot of money. My brother’s love of heavy metal meant that we spent our time learning Metallica songs that we still jam out to when we are together. Since guitar lessons were out of the question, I dove into learning guitar on my own. I never knew the “proper” way of learning, so I was free to think outside the box. I made up my own guitar theory, which I called “Trace’s seven chord theory.” When I took a music theory class in college I realized that I hadn’t discovered anything new. My goal became to know music theory well enough that I could “break the rules” in every song I wrote. I’m grateful that I never had formal training in the sense that my music developed organically. Of course the downside is that I have plenty of bad habits that would make a classically trained musician cringe.
Music has always been a passion, and something that I have loved doing, and having fun has always been my goal. In high school I spent a lot of time learning songs I loved, and jamming with my two best friends, Tim & Jonah. We would play Bob Dylan covers at the local coffee shop, and talk for hours about song lyrics. It was the glue of our friendship and our faith. As adults, the three of us make our livings playing music. That $10 guitar had a profound impact, not only on my life, but also on the life of my friends.
LES: One of things that truly surprised me to read that you were an engineering professor at CU Boulder. “After teaching rock and ice climbing for 2 years, I decided to go back to grad school and get a Masters in Civil Engineering. I defended my thesis and was soon asked to teach 2 engineering courses at CU. During those two years as an adjunct professor, my musical style continued to rapidly change as I experimented with different musical ideas and guitar techniques. I then released my 3rd album “ADAPT” and soon after hit the road as a full-time musician.” Engineering seems about as far removed on the spectrum of thinking styles from music as most of us could imagine, but I am guessing there is some overlap there. How would you describe the overlap between those two poles of thinking processes? Did something good come out of the engineering studies there still bears some fruit in your life and pursuits now or was that a waste of time?
TB: My father would always tell me that I needed to find a career because I “wasn’t going to make a nickel playing the guitar.” It was engrained in me that I needed to get my education, and I chose engineering because math came easily to me. It wasn’t until I came back for grad school that I found myself excited about what I was learning. Water Resource Engineering is an important field, and as someone who is passionate about the environment, becoming an engineer had great potential as a meaningful career path. But music remained my true passion, and I pursued it in my free time until it began to make sense as a realistic change of career.
Engineering taught me to pay great attention to detail and patterns. It might seem strange, but music and engineering use a very similar side of the brain. I’ve heard that one of the most common double majors with Engineering is Music (the least common is Psychology). Engineering can be an art and music can be a science. For me, both are inextricably linked.
A huge benefit of my engineering degree has been training in design and spreadsheets. As a musician I have run my own business, and those skills have helped me be successful. Today my father is my biggest fan. I think he’s happy that I pursued my passions and took the risk to leave engineering behind for music.
LES: In almost every one of your concerts you have spotlighted others as a part of the concert even though you are yourself billed as a solo performer. Nothing about you comes across as a solo or ego-centric performer. The level of engagement between you and others you share the stage with is always very supportive and appreciative, whether it is with a seasoned musician like Josh Garrels or with a very new and young talent like Sungha Jung. How does the role of collaboration on – and off – stage work with you as solo performer rather than you in context of a full blown band?
TB: Being a solo performer has its benefits, and there are times when collaboration is difficult for me. Music can feel very personal, and at times it can be hard to open myself up to critique and collaboration. But, music has always been connected to friendship for me, and I love celebrating others through sharing music. Most of my life happens off stage, and having quality friendships is what my life is about. Josh and Sungha are great examples of people who I am friends with first, and collaborators second. When you maintain that kind of attitude, the music reflects that.
LES: In an announcement about you playing at Heaven Fest this comment was made. “As an acoustic guitarist who performs mostly instrumental music, he’s not usually identified with the Christian genre of music. But Bundy said he comes to Heaven Fest, not because he’s a Christian artist, but because he’s an artist who happens to be a Christian.” Could you talk with us about the difference and why you think about this the way you do? What role does faith play in your life?
TB: My faith journey began in high school at a Young Life Camp in California. I was transformed by the grace and forgiveness that comes with the faith, and have been working out what that means ever since. Having not grown up in an evangelical home, I wasn’t exposed to “Christian Music” in the same way some of my friends were. It never dawned on me that music needed to be “Christian” to be sacred. I noticed that when bands identified with the Christian Music Genre, they often spent the rest of their careers only playing for Christian audiences. My desire has been to remain outside the box of genre, and especially to be able to play for all kinds of audiences. My music is instrumental, which means that the listener is able to create their own “lyrics” as they listen.
My hope is that my listeners have an experience of God as they listen – that they leave my concert with a smile on their face, with more joy and wonder than when they walked in.
LES: I read an article by Brenda Jank about the practice of keeping Sabbath and in it she writes: “Night and day. Winter and summer. Hardwired into the fabric of creation is the rhythm of life—of rest and productivity. Modern technology has created a culture with no rhythm. It’s on, it’s loud, and its lure is relentless.” That notion tied in with what I watch you practicing so vividly in the way you play and the inclusion of so much percussion in your music – always cultivating rhythm. It is something you seem very much at home with musically.
TB: With a very full life with a wife, small children, a thriving and demanding career both in performing and teaching, lots of travel, many friends… How do you practice balance of all those elements in your life? How do you see your experience with rhythm in music carrying into the way you live?
Creating and maintaining balance in life is something that I’m not sure I always do well. I have seasons of intense travel and seasons of being home. My family and I try to create rituals around my departures and arrivals – the day after I come home we spend the morning at our local coffee shop, reconnecting and eating our favorite pastries. Becoming a father has grounded me in many ways, and created a new rhythm for my life. The life of a musician is fluid, and it can be difficult to create a schedule – parenting has helped build that into my life.
LES: Let’s talk about capos and percussion, the use five fingers – techniques that are unique in many ways to your style. Why did you stop using a pick and what drew you to want to develop a more complex musical style? What other artists influenced that drive? In particular what influences has Phil Keaggy had on your playing style?
TB: After playing guitar for a couple of years, I began to feel constrained by the use of a pick. It dawned on me that if I were to get rid of it, I would have five “picks” in the form of my fingers. That epiphany changed my guitar playing immensely, along with my grooming habits (as I now visit a nail salon for acrylic nails every six weeks…). I was introduced to Phil Keaggy sometime in college, and was given a context for instrumental music. Because I can’t sing well, I always believed that I could not make it as a musician. People like Phil Keaggy changed that. I have met him on a couple of occasions, which has been quite special. I hope to collaborate with him more in the years to come and am grateful for the way he has been a pioneer for innovative and exciting guitar music.
LES: One of the things that just captivates me – and doubtless your audiences at large – is your inclusion of so many kinds of “guitars” – everything from the fabulous McPherson to the fascinating creations by your dad (stick-tar and sew-tar…) to your iPhone. In fact, it is your inclusion of not only a remarkable range of instruments and equipment, but the beautiful balance of other musicians that creates a genuine sense of magic and wonder about your performances. Your “performances” have never felt like so much as a performance itself as an invitation and inclusion into an experience of delight. I think about it long after I leave one of your concerts, and long after I can’t quite hear the music in my memory, I remember the sense of astonishment. As someone who has built a reputation as an extraordinary acoustic guitarist, why do you incorporate so much variety in your music?
TB: Music has always been something that brings me joy. I might be in my mid-thirties, but in my heart I’m still a kid. For me playing the guitar is only partly about mastery and mostly about having fun. Once music becomes an obligation or a dull part of my job, then I need to re-think how I am approaching my instruments. Playing the iPhone, or one of my dad’s homemade guitars reminds me that playing music is fun. I always hope that my audiences leave with a sense of joy – and if that is my goal, then I need to feel joyful on stage.
LES: You use highly stylized graphics on your website and on CD material – some of the best in the business and very distinctive. Do you take a role in defining the look of the hard product as well as the music itself? How would you describe the role of visual media in your concerts and web presence?
TB: Art and design are an important part of my music. In a digital age, where albums are mostly downloaded, it’s easy to lose sight of the value of beautiful album artwork. Creating a beautiful physical product remains important to me. I collect vinyl records and love understanding more about a musician’s work via their design and media presence. I do take an active role in design, collaborating with my designers to make album and website art that reflects my music and my sense of aesthetic.
LES: Who are your heros – musically and otherwise?
I always come back to David Wilcox, singer/songwriter out of Asheville, NC. He has been my musical hero since high school, and a lot of my performances today are influenced by him. His lyrics deeply impacted my faith and in many ways his songs have been a sound track for my life. He is also a phenomenal guitarist, and it was watching one of his concerts that inspired me to write “Love Song”. I saw him use a capo to change tunings, and it dawned on me that I could write a song moving capos. It was my honor to play a show with him in Boulder a few years ago, and I have been greatly impacted by conversations with him on and off stage. He is a story and truth teller, and I hope to be more like him as I continue to grow older.
LES: In your Boulder Theatre Concert with Josh Garrels, the chemistry between you as musicians seemed like deep friendship and it is striking how he has percussive hand movements that echo yours. How do you and Josh know each other and what is the history there?
TB: Josh and I met through our wives, who were friends in Seattle. Becca and I traveled to Indiana in the spring of 2006 to go on our first Bundy/Garrels (or “Gunbarrels”) tour. It was my first time meeting Josh, and we became fast friends. We have collaborated on at least one tour a year since then. Our families find a special kindred-ness in one another as we learn to balance travel, music, and family. Josh is a phenomenal artist and phenomenal person, and I’m honored to have been able to share the stage with him.
LES: You seem to have more fun on stage, and on-line in social media than just about anybody I know. It is a word that comes up with you repeatedly and it is a quality that really seems a natural part of who you really are. How are you able to keep an attitude of play in a business that can be so terribly competitive?
TB: Humor has always been important to me. It’s probably a defense mechanism of sorts, but it’s also a huge part of my personality. I love to laugh and to make others laugh. Business is important to me, of course, but having good relationships and laughing are more important. I also try to surround myself with people who value relationships over money. My friends and family keep me grounded…and being a father means that I spend part of every day playing with toys on the floor. That keeps things in perspective.
LES: One of the things that I find really mesmerizing about you is how lightly you seem to hold yourself and your skill as an acoustic guitarist. You are very open handed about sharing with tips and techniques, teach with ease and generosity, and never seem to hoard your secrets. It is such a stark contradiction with the more commonplace defensiveness among artists and performers. What allows you to be so openly giving and do you ever feel threatened or at risk of somehow losing an edge in the market?
TB: With the rise of the internet, it is impossible to hold tightly to things. People can see my videos and listen to my music for free. If I spend energy on being angry or trying to protect my property, I will lose the joy I have in making music. If I spend a lot of energy worrying that someone will “steal my idea” and be more successful than me, it will simply lead to anxiety.
I find that generosity begets generosity…Other musician’s have inspired me, and I hope my music will inspire others. My goal has never been to become famous, but simply to get to share my music with others.
LES: The creative industries are replete with stories of gifted, skilled performers falling prey to all kinds of ruin. Addictions, broken marriages, sometimes jail, financial ruin, sometimes death. Artists of any expression seem by our very nature to be especially prone to destructive patterns. This issue is one of the founding questions behind this series of interviews. What are the elements in your life that keep you living a life that is balanced and full but not just pulled apart or swept away? What role does Becca play in this?
TB: Becca is a huge part of keeping my life grounded and balanced. For five or six years she traveled with me full-time, and I have always seen music as “our” thing instead of simply “my” thing. We make all of my scheduling decisions together, and really think about what is best for our family. Our priorities are always connection with each other above money or fame. Sometimes this is challenging, but it is always rewarding. We live in a tight-knit community of friends who are an incredible support. They support Becca when I travel and are good about keeping me in check.
LES: What gives you your greatest joy – in music and in life?
TB: My family. Watching my children grow up has expanded my capacity for love and joy.
I’m a nerd at heart. I love fixing things, creating solutions, and learning about the world. I’m also a mountain boy at heart. Rock climbing, hiking, and being outdoors is the way I most deeply connect with myself and with God. I’m a blessed person, and I am deeply grateful for this life I get to live. I mean, I get to travel the world and play my guitar for people. How cool is that!?
To read the interview with Trace Bundy for the release of his Elephant King album, click here.
To find out about Trace Bundy concerts and albums, head over to his website!
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, teacher, and business owner. A grateful lover of the Triune God, Lancia is the Founder & Executive Director of Cultivating & The Cultivating Project. She has served in executive management, church leadership, boards, and Art & Faith organizations over 30 years. She & her husband Peter have parented 7 children, & have a flock of beloved grandchildren. Lancia loves garden and website design, beautiful typography, road trips, being read aloud to by Peter, & cherishes every book she ever read by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald.