Michael Kollwitz,
One of the earliest Stick players hits the Billboard New Age charts

interview by Steve Adelson, Introduction by Greg Howard

ARTIST WEBSITE: https://www.michaelkollwitz.com

Placeholder imageReading through Emmett Chapman's Book Free Hands, one gets to see many photos of the early adopters of his instrument and playing method. On page 58, Michael Kollwitz passionately wields his old ironwood 10-string, then in a duo with drums. A prolific 27 releases later, Michael's most recent albums have been making a splash on the Billboard New Age charts. His latest outing is a duo of a different sort, with EWI (electronic Wind Instrument) player Walton Mendelson, and was awarded a silver medal at the Global Music Awards.

Michael has lived for most of his career in California, Hawaii and Arizona, and was interviewed by recent Arizona transplant and Stick guru, Steve Adelson.

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The Stick EWI Project, with Walton Mendelson

INTERVIEW by Steve Adelson

Steve: What is the history and progression of your recordings through the years? What's been the motivation and themes for each recording? Seems you've been very prolific the last few years

Michael: I was a real latecomer to the recordings. I bought my first StickĀ® in 1976, and I took lessons with Emmett for over ten years. In the mid 80's I began a professional sales career in the two-way radio communications field, and although I always played a gig or two on the side every month, I never had time to record. I lived in Scottsdale AZ for most of the 90s and in 1995 I met a recording engineer, Clarke Rigsby, in Tempe AZ . He recorded six songs that I put out on a cassette tape at the time. That was my first professional recording, and to me, it sounded terrific. My first CD 'Steppin' Out' was released in early 2000, and it included those six tunes in addition to other songs I had recorded on mini-disc in a tiny apartment in Sacramento, CA. A few years later, there was a significant downturn in the telecom and communications field, and I was out of a job after 25 years in that arena. After that I stepped up my Stick playing and had eight more releases between 2002 and 2007. I moved to Maui in 2007 and I was immersed in Hawaiian music and played with many Hawaiian musicians on The Stick. I had six more releases, all recorded on Maui between 2007-2013. My music got happily imbued with the sounds of slack key, steel guitar and ukulele in Hawaii. It was a fertile period or me. Chance meetings with Carlos Santana and Mick Fleetwood added even more fuel to my creative fire. After returning to the Mainland in 2013 I had 12 more releases including two that featured only the SG-12 instrument, which I fell in love with since Emmett developed it in 2010. 'Peaceful Journey' was recorded in Lake Tahoe, NV, where I lived for a year, and 'Rainbows' was all SG-12 live recordings from an arts show I played in Hawaii every other weekend for six years. All I can say is it has been a fantastic ride, and I'm thankful to all those who have helped me along the way.

Steve: You live in Sedona, AZ, amongst the red rock mountains. How has your environment affected your writing and playing?

Michael: The area where I live now is at 4000' in the red rock country just outside of Sedona, Arizona. I've always gained inspiration from nature, and yes, it dramatically affects my playing and compositions. One of the things it has done is to slow me down, be patient and wait for inspiration to materialize. As a kid, I was in the Boy Scouts, so I've always been a nature lover. A day sitting quietly in the forest or a camping trip still does it for me. Once inspiration strikes- if I can hold on to it- it's time to start tracking! I can honestly say for every song I've released, there are probably a half dozen more that weren't. Someday I'll go through all this material and see what else I can find. There has to be a few good ones in there that were overlooked. It just takes so much time to do that; it's unbelievable. I've found one of the hardest parts of recording is critically listening to what you've recorded. I always want to try it a different way, a different take or whatever. You keep pushing ahead and, before you know it, you have so much material it's hard to stop and go back and really listen to everything.

Steve: What's your approach to playing solo as far as arranging and orchestration? How does this differ when you perform with others like your EWI {electronic wind instrument} partner?

Michael: The vast majority of my solo recordings are done without overdubs and usually in one continuous take. Sure, if there is a nasty note or awkward phrase, I'll edit it out, but most of the recordings rarely get an overdub of any kind. For example, the three albums in my 'Serenity' trilogy consist of 46 songs, and only one of them had a small overdub where I added a bell tree sound. It seemed to fit nicely so I left it in. When I record solo I just sit down and track for hours. I won't even listen to the recordings for weeks or sometimes months before I start working on them, so when I do, I have fresh new ears. When I record with others like Walton Mendelson, the EWI player, we do pretty much the same thing. It takes an enormous amount of time but production is probably my favorite part of the whole process. To hear something beautiful come from something I didn't even think was worthwhile initially gives the same feeling as the father of a newborn baby has.

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Vintage Michael, from a 1979 N.A.M.M show poster

Steve: Tell us the chronology of your Stick journey, your start, direction, study, exploration...

Michael: I've just entered my 44th year as a Stick player. Before meeting Emmett in 1976, I played the trumpet in school bands for 10 years, but I really didn't have any skills on guitar or keyboards, so I made a conscious decision to play only The Stick, and it has been my sole exclusive instrument for all these years. Watching the discoveries and refinements that Emmett has made over the years has been nothing short of incredible, and I am eternally grateful to him. He still provides me with inspiration and encouragement. I saw Emmett play in a college coffeehouse in 1976 and I will never forget that day. I was astounded that one man could make all that music with something that looked so unusual. I was hooked on The Stick and all I could think of was how to get one! The day I picked up my first instrument Emmett gave me a lesson that lasted about two and a half hours. As you can imagine, my head was spinning by the time I left his house. On the way home, I stopped at the Arby's in Hollywood and wrote down everything I could remember. I continued that process after every lesson and still have those cherished notes. He sent me copies of pages that eventually became Free Hands well in advance of its publication because he knew I needed more. I still have that notebook as well. It is a prized piece in my archive. A few days after that first lesson, Emmett called me to apologize for giving me so much in that first lesson! Like I said, I was hooked.

Steve: What's been your instrument arsenal over the years, Sticks, effects, amps, etc.?

Michael: For the first twenty years or so, I collected gear. Too much gear! By the mid-90s, I had so many amplifiers, cabinets, and effect pedals I probably could have opened my own music store. Unfortunately, some of the cabinets and amps were so heavy that I got a double hernia just carting all that stuff around. After I recovered from the painful double hernia surgery, I started selling it all off. Why I thought I needed so much darn gear I'll never know. It didn't help my playing much except I was plenty loud! After unloading all the amps I settled on just two battery-powered Crate Limo amps that I used exclusively for about 15 years. I could play anywhere and they only weighed about 24 pounds each. I also shied away from effect pedals and preferred to work on my playing technique instead. It was liberating! Over the years, I've owned about 20 Sticks: 10-stringers, Grands, Altos, and SG-12s. They came and went. If I didn't develop a personal connection with an instrument, I'd sell it in a few years.

I also sold some of them to finance custom instruments. Today, I have only five Sticks- all custom made for me. I have a 10-string custom instrument that Emmett made for me in 1989. It fell into the hands of Tom Waits for about five years (it's a long story...) I also have three custom Grands and a custom SG-12. Two of the instruments, a Grand Stick and an SG-12, were made out of Hawaiian koa wood that I sent to Emmett from Maui. I think they are the only Sticks ever made out of koa, and I absolutely love them. Not only are they beautiful, but they play like butter. My recent favorite is a bamboo Grand made for me by Emmett in late 2018. Before Emmett finished it, I sent it to an inlay artist in Marin County. He pieced together hundreds of tiny pieces of dyed wood in a fantastic design that consists of a koa wood vine connected to four hibiscus flowers. It reminds me of my time in Hawaii. For me, it is an honor to be playing an instrument this gorgeous. I have yet to try the NS Stick or the new RailboardĀ® Sticks, but I hope to someday.

From Stick EWI Project album, In the Moonlight


"In The Moonlight" (2020)

Twelve original duo pieces featuring the unique pairing of Michael's MIDI-equipped Grand Stick and Walton Mendelson's Electronic Wind Instrument.

Available now through Apple Music, iTunes, CD Baby and BandCamp.

Steve: Who are your musical inspirations, players, composers, philosophers?

Michael: In the early years, Emmett was my biggest inspiration. Everything was brand-new, and at each lesson, he seemed to have a new discovery that I could incorporate into my playing. Other than Emmett, I was influenced mostly by keyboardists like Keith Emerson, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock. I also liked some guitarists like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Eric Johnson. Overall my all-time favorite band is Steely Dan. Donald and Walter knew how to make incredible records, and I'm still fascinated by the techniques they used. Donald's poly chordal approach is still staggering when you pick apart and analyze the songs and you realize no guitar player could ever do them justice.

In the last ten years, I rarely sit and listen to music anymore because when I feel musically inspired, I'm usually working on my own material. Sometimes I'll have soft music playing in the background that doesn't require me to think too hard about it. It's either pleasant, or it's not, in which case I usually turn it off. For me, silence and quiet are essential to concentrate on anything for more than a few moments. I've always gained some of my inspiration from writers and philosophers. Six years ago, I found an obscure book by Marshall Vian Summers entitled 'Steps To Knowledge,' and after following the steps for several years, it completely rewired my brain. I've been a student of his writings ever since. I'm amazed that more people don't know about this man and his voluminous writings.

Steve: You've been getting some press accolades. Give us a rundown.

Michael: I've been very fortunate in the last few years since the 'Serenity' trilogy started getting attention worldwide in late 2017. I respond to almost every request, and sometimes it's a bit much trying to keep up with it all. I have some people who help me with this, so I'm not totally inundated. I have met some fantastic people as a result, and I am incredibly grateful to everyone who has helped with my journey along the way. Step 45 in Steps To Knowledge is "Alone I Can Do Nothing," and I've found that to be very accurate. There have been many times over the years where I felt very little success and I must admit that I felt like quitting. Invariably someone or something comes along that always keeps me going. I've experienced so many odd synchronicities along the way that I can't imagine my life without them. I feel very blessed.

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"Serenity III" made it to #2 on the Billboard New Age Chart.

Steve: Tell us about your history with Stick Enterprises and the Stick community. How has this been an integral part of your expressive self?

Michael: Over these many years, Emmett has always provided me with inspiration and encouragement, and he and Yuta have always made me feel like a member of Stick Enterprises' extended Stick family. Last year, after a neck and spinal surgery, he called to check on me, and we had a delightful conversation. It was completely unexpected and, as you can imagine, made my day! Regarding the ever-growing Stick community, I haven't been able to attend as many events as I'd like to. The Stick seminars that I have participated in have always been amazing and I have many fond memories of them. At some of the earliest workshops, I made lifelong friends, and I learned so much from so many. My advice to all Stick players is this: if there is a Stick seminar or workshop near you that you can attend do it without a second thought! You'll be so glad you did, and you'll make friends and memories that can last a lifetime.

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Michael and his custom inlaid bamboo Grand Stick

Steve: What's up for 2020 and beyond?

Michael: I just released a unique album that, for the first time, pairs up two little-known instruments that have something in common: they were both invented in America in the mid-70s: The Stick and the Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI). Both of these instruments could be a complete orchestra unto themselves. The first time I heard the EWI was in the early 80s when I accompanied Emmett to one of the US Festivals in Southern California. We were exhibiting in what they called the Technology Tents, and, just by happenstance, Emmett began jamming with Nyle Steiner, the inventor of the EWI, and Dave Simmons, who created one of the very first commercially available electronic drum kits. I stood there watching in awe: three inventors jamming on the instruments they had all personally created! Just when I thought the moment couldn't get any better, I looked to my left and standing there next to me, also digging the performance, was Bob Moog! I've never forgotten that day or the EWI, so I was happy to find Walton Mendelson, who has been playing different versions of the EWI for almost 30 years. They sure sound great together!

I'm currently working on a whole new series like the 'Serenity' albums but different in many ways. I hope to release the first one in late April or not long thereafter. It's about halfway finished now but still needs a lot more work, so it's 'nose to the grindstone time, and hopefully, I'll have it finished in time. I recently discovered that people on the Hopi reservation in Northern Arizona love my music and may invite me up there sometime this year. With their permission, I think I may have the opportunity to record an album on the Hopi First Mesa, and I'm really excited at the possibility of doing so. It is so close, yet it is another world in many ways.

I also started another Christmas album that I hope to release towards the end of the year. A sort of "Santa Plays The Stick- Volume II." So many people loved the last one I figured 'why not'? Plus- who wants to disappoint Santa?

I've written a book about my experiences over the last 40 years, but I haven't gotten around to publishing it. I've had so many unusual adventures over the years thanks to The Stick. I might as well share them. I'm hoping to get that out in the next year or so. I'll work on the manuscript and then set it aside for a few months and come back again, so it is always in flux. I've learned the secret to writing is mostly re-writing (laughs).

Steve: What are your favorite hikes in Sedona?

Michael: Thanks for asking! Most of my favorites are in the Seven Canyon area of the Coconino National Forest: Boynton Canyon, Fay Canyon, Long Canyon, and Doe Mountain come to mind immediately. Shaman's Cave (aka Robbers Roost) is also a good one. Another favorite that is very little known to most is a spot called Mystic Vista. I could spend all day on the top of that one! It's hard to give directions, so Google it if you want to go there yourself some time. You will not be disappointed!

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Steve Adelson and Michael Kollwitz in Arizona

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