Musician, Mentor, Young Man, Living. (Read)
I know Mark Godfrey from way back. We went to the same high school. I once played in a band with his cousin. He’s younger than I am. So I’ve seen him grow up some. Come of age. People you know do this in your midst all the time. It’s a special thing when you finally see it.
Mark plays in Pram Trio, a jazz ensemble as much for classicists as those interested in cutting new paths. He also teaches bass at Upper Canada College and gives private lessons.
We met at a proper Toronto drinking hole. Stayed long enough to see a shift change through. The ceiling featured a huge, painted mural. So did the waitress’ arms. Next, Mark will be playing places like this all spring during Pram Trio’s upcoming tour. They’ll stop at our old high school, too. We talked about that over hawaiian nachos and cheap beer.
The upright bass. Why that instrument?
Because I couldn’t study electric bass in university. It was never something I even thought about. It was always something of a novelty for me. I started playing electric bass in Grade 7 for fun. I did it in jazz band. I did it in church band. I remember asking my Dad to teach me and he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll teach ya.’ Every day one summer, we would get up and he would say, ‘OK, I want you to work on playing these particular things in succession. This is a major chord. This is a minor chord. Learn how to play those.’ I love my Dad but…
He didn’t really have any knowledge at all. But he’s a great coach. A great teacher. Even if he doesn’t have knowledge on the subject. In Grade 9, I ended up in jazz band. My cousin said that I played bass. And Spiro Grima (ed. note- Mark’s high school music teacher) said, ‘Come try out for jazz band.’ Andrew Schneider was doing it before that. He wasn’t a bass player. He was a guitar player. There’s a blast from the past. Just rattling off names…
They’re all still in there.
In Grade 10 I decided I wanted to pursue music as a career choice. The music teacher said to my Mom, ‘Mark can’t study electric bass at a university. He needs to learn clarinet.’ Which I had been playing. So I started taking a lesson every week. There were some colleges you could study electric bass in. But I really wanted to do the university thing for whatever reason. It’s just always what I’d planned to do. Then I ended up going to a couple of camps. The first one was a leadership camp. The second was music. And, at the end of the summer, I went to a jazz camp. I showed up with my electric thinking I was hot shit. My nose completely out of joint. It was the worst ensemble and I was the only one there with an electric bass. I was in a bad mood. But I decided to look at it as an opportunity. And it really made me realize jazz is so much bigger than you or me. If I wanted to do it I had to learn this other instrument.
So I ended up going to the University of Toronto and heard from the Director of Music that if I wanted to get in I had to play upright bass. So I rented an upright, went back and did my audition, and somehow got in. It was never something that I had anticipated. The audition process was kind of surreal for me. It was really cool playing with musicians who were that good. Guys who were in fourth year at the University. I had never played with musicians who were that into this style of music. The vibe was really cool. I played a tune on upright and they asked me to go back to electric and then play upright again and they were like, ‘No, we like you better on upright.’ Which blew my mind. Because I had only been playing for the instrument for, like, two months. I had been playing electric for six years!
What kinds of fears and insecurities did you have to accept with this instrument?
It’s interesting. There are certain things you never get over. I remember when we did Battle of Bands when I was in Grade 10. Under the name Cesspool. We played a Simple Plan song. We played a Blink song. Do-do-do-do-do…
The stuff you’re nervous about sticks with you. Getting up in front of someone and performing was never something I had much anxiety about. But as soon as there was somebody in the audience that I thought highly of… completely different ballgame. Someone you know knows more about the instrument. Or you think is going to judge you. I would love to say that changes. But, man, I played last night in front of some people I really respect and… it doesn’t. This is the sadistic or negative thing about being a musician. You’re always trying to get to that uncomfortable place performing. But when you get there you see more… Where you want to be is always still ahead.
My teacher put it a really good way. You start playing jazz and you’re 18. ‘I think I’ve got the hang of things.’ Then you say, ‘Oh, that guy’s got his stuff together.’ Then you’re 24. And you’re like, ‘I’ve totally got the hang of this.’ Then you’re like, ‘He’s got way more shit together than I do.’ Then you’re 34. Ten years later. You’re married. You’ve got a kid on the way. You’re like, ‘Man, I am starting to PLAY this shit. I know what’s going on.’ Then it’s: ‘These young guys are the ones that have it going on.’ It’ll happen again when you’re 50. When you’re 65. Then you’re 90. You’re 102, lying in your deathbed – ‘Oh! I’ve finally got it.’ And then you die. I have totally diverged from the question here.
The nerves of performing in front of people I idolize or admire is always a tricky thing. They’re looking at you for who you are and what you do. If you want to be depressed about being a musician, compare yourself to other people. Because everyone’s different. Everyone’s working on things at different times. But that’s something that I’ve never really gotten past. I can stand up in front of anyone and be OK. But you perform the best when you’re not really worried about what other people are thinking. And you can apply that to any part of life. But it’s something that you constantly struggle with. Or at least I constantly struggle with it. You just try not to get caught up in it. Focus on what you’re doing. And be OK with where you are because of the reasons that’ve gotten you to that point.
Well said. Take a drink.
I thought when I was younger that when you have it, you have it. But now I find that you have to work to get back to it. The more you know, the less you know, right? The more I learn about my instrument or this industry, or this style of music, the more I realize I don’t know. What’s that, two?
Who’s counting. It’s interesting hearing you talk about everything that’s gotten you here to this point. Where you dream of one day being?
I’ll let you know when I find out. Ideally, doing what I’m doing. But more of what I want to be doing. You never really stop identifying things you need to work on. I really like that about this career that. This was the big reason that I didn’t go the teacher’s college route. I was really passionate about doing that for a big part of my life. That’s really what I saw as the end goal: Get a job as a teacher at a high school and inspire kids who were like me when I was in school. But in university I looked back and realized I have a much stronger passion for performing then I thought I initially did. It could even be a self-fulfilling situation. And I do really enjoy the teaching part of it. So the ideal gig would be doing all of this for X number of years and really experiencing it. Experiencing the touring, experiencing being the side man, experiencing being the leader. And teaching. Having a role like my teacher had with me – at a university or a community college. Not to the point that you’re teaching all the time. But you have balance. Consistency. Teaching one day a week. Teaching people who want to learn. I think everyone who teaches wants that. You want to be teaching people who want to figure out what you’re into. What you’re trying to get at. And the notion of teaching yourself out of a job is really cool for me. My teacher said this to me: His job is to teach me so I don’t have to go to him for questions. To get me to ask questions of myself so that I can figure it out. Because I have a passion for teaching that’s something I think I’ll always be into. But the performing aspect… there’s really nothing else like it. Especially in this genre. Because it is self-fulfilling. And once you get past that, it really is amazing to interact with other musicians. Regardless of age. Regardless of instruments. And to be able to keep doing it.
Right now… I’m 24. The way I learn, the way I interact with people is completely different than the way it was four years ago. You can’t imagine what it’s going to be like when you’re 60. The guys’ records who I buy are guys who are 60 right now. They’re making this creative music even though it isn’t necessarily popular music anymore. There’s some serious stuff in there.
Between Toronto, West Elgin and New York, we know a lot of the same streets. When you walk them, what kind of thoughts do you have?
It’s interesting to think about the things that would be different had you made certain decisions. Because those places – Toronto, New York and West Elgin – I don’t think there’s a lot that could’ve happened in my life that would’ve changed the fact that I actually walk those streets. So I always find if there’s no agenda – which rarely ever happens – it’s thinking about what had to happen for me to be here. Or what ways I could have gotten to this physical point. If I had gone to study kinesiology at Western or Laurier, walking around Wallacetown would’ve been feasible. But my mentality would be completely different. And it’s the same thing here in the city. I wouldn’t have been here had it not been for my music teacher telling me that trying to study kinesiology and music at Laurier would’ve been the worst decision of my life.
Right? Would I have this strong desire to experience something else in New York had I not taken this Grade 12 music trip there?
Thoughts aren’t always this deep. Sometimes I’m thinking, ‘Man, that burrito I just had was good.’ The other thing is what relationships still exist in that area. While I’m walking through West Elgin, even though there aren’t a lot of people who I’m really close with, there are a handful of them. Some people are still around. So it’s kind of similar. What would’ve had to happen differently for those relationships to happen? Or other ones to not? It’s interesting because each one of these places have kind of integrated now. It’s all one big place. A lot of my friends from Toronto have experienced life where I grew up; been to my high school and done a clinic, hung out at The Goal Post.
New York is this place where all of my friends from high school have been with me. And I have friends from New York who’ve come up to Toronto and hung out. I know my girlfriend through a connection to a workshop I did at Banff. There are all of these connections. I think that you can be in the same place and get there in a different way. It’s surreal. When I do have time to think it’s about things like that. It’s about how different it would’ve been if Mom and Dad had encouraged me to do something else. Had my siblings and I had a different relationship. Had I made the volleyball team in Grade 9. Because I didn’t. Because of that I was able to play jazz in the jazz band.
How do you compare loving a discipline, and what that takes, compared to other kinds of love?
I know this is different for me than a lot of other people. I’ve had discussions about it. I find it very hard to imagine a world where I’m not characterized by the instrument that I play. Where a lot of the friendships and relationships that I have are a result of the instrument that I play. I remember a discussion with my high school music teacher when I really vocalized that I wanted to get into music. He said to me, “There will be times when you want to drop out.” Because a lot of people experience that. You’re taking a passion and you’re trying to make it a career. A discipline. That never happened to me. There wasn’t that, ‘Man, I’m going to quit.’ I have the utmost respect for people who are able to look at this art form and say, ‘Making this a career is not what I am into.’ Not because they’re not good at it. Not because they don’t like it. Because they want to do something more. But, for me, music for me has been such a big part of my evolution as a human being. That’s a cheesy sentence. But when I was in Grade 7 I started playing this instrument and I really made it a part of what I do. That is me.
And people here are in the same situation. My buddy Taylor plays sax. My buddy Jack plays stand-up. Matt plays drums. Everyone has an association wit an instrument. My girlfriend has talked about this. My Mom talks about this. ‘Oh, Matt. He’s the drummer. Oh, Rich – he plays in your trio.’ Sometimes it can be a little frustrating. There’s a refreshing nature in hanging out with someone who doesn’t know you as that instrument. But I find it very odd. Maybe I’m just being a romantic about the whole thing. But I don’t really see it not working out. I don’t see me existing without this part of my life. In 2010, I hurt my left arm. Those points are the hardest points for me to identify with myself. Because I couldn’t play. Every time that creeps back it’s a bit unnerving. Because it’s scary to identify yourself with something that’s limited by physical ability. It’s a dangerous thing to do. But I don’t think there’ll ever be a time when I don’t identify myself like that. I can’t imagine moving to a different part of the world and starting again at something completely different. I can’t imagine not owning my instrument.
Not because I can’t imagine selling them. But because I can’t imagine what I’d be doing. I indulge in those instruments so much. And I feel it’s something that’s special about me. That other people don’t have the same passion for that instrument. It’s a very strange thing to make a passion. It’s difficult. I’ve never really been able to fathom what it would be like without it. It’s always been there. Here’s Mark. There’s his music.
It’s funny. When you come to a place like Toronto, there are tons of people like that. People get that you’ll play a place, pass around the hat, maybe make a decent amount of money, maybe not. There’s something you can share with this small community of people in Toronto. People get that you decide that you can’t go out on a Saturday night because you can’t play a major triad.
You share the trials and the triumphs.
Everyone knows what it’s like. No one who’s in this line of work has had anything handed to them. Even if it appears that way. Everyone works really hard to become a professional in their own way.
There’s no faking it.
You just have to keep at it. I’m a firm believer that if you just keep at it long enough… I have a lot of friends who aren’t doing the music thing anymore. And big props to them. They made a decision. And it’s not like they’ve thrown away music. So the power to them. But I don’t know if I would be OK with not at least taking the chance. When you have a family and you need to make money, it’s a different scene. But, right now, it’s working.