Suitcase guitars and cigar box ukuleles
By: Kathryn Eident, August 2, 2011
Jeff Conley - Say there, friend-- is that a suitcase you are playing?
When musician Jeff Conley had his gear stolen after a show one night, he could have called it quits. Instead, he got inventive. Using second-hand guitar parts and antique-store finds like old suitcases, Conley built himself a collection of instruments that now define his sound and image.
Whether he’s solo, playing a mellow, folksy acoustic set on a salad bowl guitar, or jamming with his band on a guitar made from a clarinet case, Conley’s music will stay with you. Often compared to Jack Johnson, Conley’s original songs also evoke ‘70’s greats like James Taylor, Paul Simon, and even Bob Dylan.
Conley explores personal themes in his lyrics–whether it’s about the struggle to make it in today’s crazy world, or singing an ode to his lost antique Gibson guitars. His upcoming album, to be released this fall, will give listeners a taste of Conley’s live shows, as well as his special brand of “studio” recording.
A Cape Cod native, Conley loves playing for live audiences. These days, Conley keeps a full schedule of shows, singing at the beach bars of Cape Cod and the mountain resorts of New Hampshire. He’s also the organizer of the annual Naukabout Festival, which brings together independent and emerging bands from across New England each summer at the Barnstable County Fairgrounds.
Conley spoke with InsideOUT about how he makes new music from old things—and what it’s like to organize a successful music festival.
InsideOUT: How would you describe your sound to someone who’s never heard you before?
Conley: Its something I’ve been struggling with a lot. I think my sound depends on the room. Especially when you play solo, you need to cater to the room. It also keeps your set list interesting because you can do your set list one night one way, then the next night do it another way–like at a higher tempo or whatever. I change songs literally 5 seconds before I play them. In its simplest form, I’d say it’s acoustic roots-rock with a folk influence.
I/O: Which artists would you compare yourself to?
Conley: I get a lot of Jack Johnson—but I think it’s because he plays a lot of percussive guitar, a lot of staccato, short notes. It’s not a lot of heavy strumming. I do that because it keeps me in check, because I play drums with my feet. It’s very percussion-oriented. I think the writing in a lot of ways is light-hearted too, and [Johnson] writes that way, too.
I/O: You had two 1960s Gibson guitars stolen from you one night, and it prompted you to do something out of the ordinary. Can you tell me about it?
Conley: They’re worth quite a bit of money and it was pretty devastating. But I had a full schedule of shows. I had to keep playing and I had a lot of parts lying around, so I was like, ‘I’m never buying a guitar again’. So I wound up trying to make do with what I had. I had some old necks lying around and some old parts. I started with a ukulele and that actually worked so it kind of progressed from there. So it wasn’t for fun, by any means. People thought ‘oh that must be fun to make’. It didn’t cross my mind that it could be a ‘thing’ until well after the fact.
I/O: What kinds of instruments have you made, and what do you use?
Conley: I’ve made a salad bowl guitar, a ukulele made from a cigar box, clarinet case guitars, a trumpet case bass, foot drums made out of suitcases and hockey pucks. I built a stomp box for Zakir Hussein, who’s Bela Fleck’s percussionist. I actually have suitcases filled with parts. I buy guitars for 20 bucks that are broken and take pieces off them that are still good.
I/O: Have you ever had any of the instruments break or go wrong on stage?
Conley: No, none of the homemade stuff has. A couple of years ago I bought a 1941 Harmony Archtop guitar that was beautiful. I wound up painting it and I put in new electronics and all sorts of stuff. I must have cut one of the braces inside and not realized it, because on stage one night, it literally buckled. It was kind of like that turkey from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where they went to cut it and it goes, “pooossh!” So I was in the middle of the song and had to do the rest of it a capella.
I/O: You’re not just into old guitars; you love old motorcycles and cars, too. If you could have any car, regardless of price, what would it be?
Conley: I’ve always loved a 1960 Porsche 911. It’s like a little bug.
I/O: Organizing a festival like Naukabout is no small feat. What inspired you to put a show like this together?
Conley: Part of the reason I started Naukabout was for selfish reasons: I wanted to play with bands like [Bela Fleck]. And if they weren’t going to let me open for them, I’d get them to headline for me. (Laughs) We’re all friends, we’ve all played shows together. It’s kind of like a family reunion for us. It’s like having a wedding every year. I get married every year to the Naukabout Festival. (Laughs) And then a couple weeks after it’s over, you have to start planning your wedding again. It’s nuts.
I/O: You have a new album out. What can listeners expect to hear?
Conley: I really wanted people to get an accurate impression of who we are. So there are a few live tracks on it from shows. It’s both upbeat and mellow. We recorded a good part of it at a house I was living in in New Hampshire. We emptied out the dining room and set up a bunch of mics all over the place and just hit ‘go’. We stomped on the floor, things fell over and smashed and you could hear it. You could hear people walking up the stairs. But I’m ok with that. Because that’s what we look like, too. We look homemade and broken down (Laughs). I think, to get what we’re doing, you have to see it. Yeah, you can hear a suitcase guitar, and a suitcase base drum, but it doesn’t do the same thing unless you see it.