New York-based guitarist Stephen Ulrich is known for the suspenseful “crime jazz” and surf-rock tones of his instrumental trio, Big Lazy, but he has a side career writing soundtrack music. The new album Music from This American Life captured his sonic creations for the popular public-radio show.
How did you get involved with NPR and “This American Life.”
I’ve written music for the HBO film Bored To Death and the art-forgery film Art & Craft. Big Lazy has licensed a lot of music to “This American Life,” so they knew the tone of my compositions. It’s been a dream gig where the producer just lets me do my thing and then makes subtle tweaks. Effective film music doesn’t scream “listen to me” – it might tell us what a character is thinking, not what they are saying.
How is this solo album different from Big Lazy?
Big Lazy’s music – call it crime jazz or guitar noir – has one foot firmly planted in rock and roll, the other in evocative film/experimental music. The solo album leans more toward cinematic, yet still has the off-kilter guitar twang of Big Lazy and some of the swampy, noir-ish vibe.
“Surprise, Arizona” has an alluring mood with tremolo guitar. It feels like there’s a story going on, even though there are no words.
You put your finger on it. It’s narrative and lyrical without a story. I think “This American Life” commissioned me because my music has a sense of events unfolding, plots thickening, and a vague sense of looking for something. None of it was written for a specific story. I hope one effect it has on listeners is allowing them to inhabit the music and write their own story.
You’re from a suburban town in Connecticut. How did you evolve toward that darker Eastern European sound?
I was always drawn to moody music and films. I remember seeing Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets which was shot in New York’s Little Italy, and thinking, “I want to be there.” Later, I submerged myself in the New York City underground music scene and reinvented myself. Much of the crime-jazz influence came from film composers – Elmer Bernstein, Quincy Jones, Bernard Herrmann, Henry Mancini, and Angelo Badalmenti.
“Fellow Traveler” has intriguing echo effects.
I played my Eastwood Sidejack Baritone through a vintage Gibson Falcon. The delay is from an MXR Carbon Copy pedal and the dirty/clean tone comes from my Klon Centaur; in 1996, Bill Finnegan called and, in a most unassuming way, said, “I make a pedal I think you might like.”The $250 price seemed outrageous at the time, but I bought it and Bill overnighted it to me. The Klon is very transparent and doesn’t scream “distortion” – it just sounds like me playing after one shot of mezcal.
Your style and approach speak to the pre-Clapton/Hendrix era of electric guitar. Who are your guitar influences?
I studied guitar as a teenager with [jazz guitarist] Sal Salvador in a dusty back room at the Ed Sullivan Theater, in Manhattan. Sal told great stories, like getting a last-minute call to play with Charles Mingus and Bud Powell. Through him, I was introduced to music by Charlie Christian, Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, and George Benson, while everyone sounded like Hendrix and Clapton when I grew up. Punk also opened my ears to new music, but led me to Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup, Link Wray, Howlin’ Wolf, The Shadows, The Ventures, Nino Rota soundtracks, and more-modern players – Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, David Tronzo.
What were your instruments and amps for Music from This American Life?
I played my ’55 Duo Jet, which has some strange karma. It was given to me by a Cuban guy living in a boat in the East River. Oddly enough, he gave it to me in Brooklyn, a block from the old Gretsch factory. The metal was corroded from living on a boat. Luckily, I have Curt Wilson, at Old School Guitar Restoration & Lutherie, to keep me out of trouble. I play two custom builds by Mehmet Dogu, both beautifully engineered instruments. One has Roadhouse pickups, the other a custom from Kent Armstrong. My baritone is an Eastwood Sidejack. I recently found an early-’60s Danelectro Convertible in a pawn shop in my Jersey City neighborhood. I also played my ’65 Telecaster and a vintage Gretsch lap steel.
You get such a fat, acoustic-edged guitar tone. In this age of modeling and direct recording, do you still mic amps in the studio?
I rarely go direct; I prefer my Carr Telstar, ’65-reissue Deluxe, and a pair of ’60s Gibson Falcons, all miked. They have that beautiful, gritty hum that drives recording engineers nuts (laughs).
This article originally appeared in VG’s April 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.