Part of His DNA - Tobin Mueller

Mick Theebs had the pleasure to sit down and talk with the insanely talented and prolific Tobin Mueller, whose body of work spans a wide breadth of genres, including jazz, funk, prog, musical theater, and solo piano. Scroll down to listen to some of his music and learn a little about what drives him to create. 

Tobin (far right) at age 15 recording with his mother and brother.

MT:  How did you get your start playing music?

TM: I grew up in a musical family. I was the youngest of 4 children. All of us had to take piano lessons and learn how to play a woodwind instrument. After the Osmond Brothers came out, Mom got the idea to arrange four-part harmonies for the four of us. As a family, we sang Simon and Garfunkel tunes, Burt Bacharach, stuff like that. Plus, my mom was a jazz singer. By the time I was 14, I was accompanying her on piano.

MT: You did covers?

TM: Yes. Mom didn’t compose original music. She loved the old standards. She was an alto, so I know all of the alto harmonies to every Christmas carol, for example. I still prefer singing alto parts to singing melodies. When I grew up, harmony wasn’t just second nature to me, it was more interesting, more integral to making the song sound good than the actual melody. Even today, when I compose or arrange, I begin by choosing the harmonic style. Harmony and modal choices create the setting for me.

Tobin at the piano at 17.

MT: You have made music across a range of instruments and genres. Can you go into detail on how your style has developed through the years?

TM: My journey was not an ordinary one. I had always loved theater and wanted to be a playwright. I had written two plays that were produced before I graduated from high school. The first play I wrote, I also composed (and performed) the background music…  I ended up liking the background music better than I liked the plays. Ha! That was the first inkling that maybe I should be a composer too.

MT: So music wasn't the first thing you wanted to do?

Music was something I did every day. It was part of my DNA. It was as natural as breathing. My mother brought me up to love music first and pursue it as a career. But I wanted to be a writer. That’s what I imagined I was going to be. Theatre was a big social force when I was coming of age. I also wanted to write musicals, combine music and writing. I absolutely love West Side Story and Cabaret. They opened the door to a new kind of Broadway musical. But writing the script, designing the contours of the story,  and inventing new ways to communicate with an audience were what intrigued me the most.

Tobin's sister Toni in 1970.

MT: Everything was changing back then. What changed for you? 

TM: My sister died after a very long illness when I was 15-16 and she was 19. That changed my internal life completely. She became my main interior muse and tireless critic.  Music was a very strong interconnection between us. She was not merely a fabulous guitarist but she taught me music theory as well. Her dying wish was for me to learn how to play “River”, the Joni Mitchell song, and not just play it, but understand what Joni is doing compositionally. I embraced the complexity of Joni Mitchell’s cross-genre folk-jazz. Complexity was a theme with me. I embraced the fusion of rock and classical in progressive rock bands like YES. When I went to music composition school, I studied Stravinsky, etc. I developed a style that would eventually be identified as Post-Bop. Modal Bop without hard edges, with multi-genre influences. I called it New Age at the time, but a different kind of music developed in the 80s that ended up claiming that name.

MT: How did you become a professional musician? 

Tobin hard at work at the Factory Underground in Norwalk, CT. 

TM: Coming out of college, I got the chance to write educational musicals for children. It was something I never imagined doing, children’s music (except for my own kids), but it helped me grow, made money, became my full-time job. To present these musicals around the country, the company I was writing for (CenterStage Productions) wanted us to be able to perform the shows. So I started a performing troupe. The kids were fabulous. As the performers got older, I wrote more and more complex music. Instead of writing about classroom topics like astronomy and economics, which is what I did originally, I started writing musicals based on classic literary characters like Robin Hood and Frankenstein.  Then one day we were performing in Madison, Wisconsin, and a woman highly connected to the United Nations saw us and loved us. With her help, we performed on the floor of the United Nations in New York City.  I had asked a bunch of artistic directors from Off-Off and Off-Broadway to come see us. A few did, and one of them contracted me to begin writing music for the 13th St. Theater. A few shows were so popular, their runs were extended. That’s how my New York career began. From there, other shows were performed on several other Off-Broadway stages. Each show got bigger and more expensive, until 9/11 hit and the wheels came off. I only had one show after that. But it was a great 20-year run.

Tobin's mother, a musician herself, was a formative influence on his development as an artist.

MT: You are ridiculously prolific! I have a stack of CDs all with your name on it. What drives you to create so much music?

My mother’s dying words were “Make History, Not Money.” She died in 1997. She could hardly speak. Those were the only words she could get out, but I knew what she was trying to get at. She was telling me to stop writing for other people, to write what you love, to not waste time or talent. Life is short.  My philosophy is that “I have to get this other song down because I might not have that much more time.” My sister’s death had taught me about mortality early on. There’s an intensity to all things. That’s always driven me to keep creating.  I hate wasting time. My catalog of CDs include much of the music I’ve written for myself, without the pressure of producers or directors or business partners, music unconnected with my theatre career.

MT: It seems you are particularly interested in creating music in reference to other art forms. Your latest album is called Afterwords and all of the songs are meant to embody select pieces of literature.  Can you go into detail about how the process of writing a song about another piece of art works?

TM: There’s always something very visual and scene-oriented about my music. There’s a story behind each piece. Sometimes it’s a personal narrative, like a journal, sometimes it’s about a character, sometimes about an era, a time and place. In one of the songs from Afterwords,  “Learn Something”, Merlin the Magician is talking to the young Arthur. I wanted music underneath his words to reflect my father’s era of jazz because Merlin was like my father. As soon as Merlin is done talking, I break out into this post-bop stuff with the idea that learning is this thing where your mind opens. The piece is designed to illustrate the idea of learning as an exciting opening of the mind.

MT: You have worked with very diverse artists: Grammy winners Dave Brubeck, Michael Hedges, Ron Carter, Michael Hedges, and Donny McCaslin; as well as notable rock stars Jon Anderson (from Yes), Brian Welch ("Head" from Korn), and Scott Rockenfield (Queensrÿche), plus lesser known yet top notch musicians like Ken Schaphorst, Entcho Todorov, Woody Mankowski and Janet Planet. Who was your favorite?

TM: Maynard Ferguson, the famous trumpeter and band leader, was the hippest human being I have ever encountered. Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck was perhaps the kindest, had the biggest influence, a huge mentor, an amazing innovator. Saxophonist Woody Mankowski, with whom I’ve collaborated many times, was the most generous and helped me create some of my happiest music. But the legendary bassist Ron Carter, who has played on over 2200 albums during his long career, has to be my favorite. “Come In Funky”, which I did with both Woody and Ron, is my most playful album.

MT: I’m sure that you are already working on your next album. Can you tell us a little about what the future holds for your work?

TM: My health really went south around 2009. Part of it had to do with exposure to dust near ground zero at 9/11. Part of it has to do with a genetic disorder, A1AD. So I am in a race against time. I have three albums planned, all different concepts, before I can’t really play anymore. As opposed to deciding which ones I’m going to do first, I’m just going to go wherever the moment takes me. I hope to get these three albums done in the next four or five years. I want them to encapsulate my career, to complete the thirty albums that proceeded them, to speak for the whole of me.

MT: What are going to be the albums?

TM: One is going to be a double album of standards. Disk one will be dedicated to my father: uptempo jazz he loved, like “Straight, No Chaser” and “Sing Sing Sing”. Disk two will be slower, dedicated to my mother who loved ballads. I’m calling the album Standard Deviations. Then I’m going to do a whole album of quiet new solo piano compositions, titled Listening. I’ve already written the first piece for that one. If my stamina and joints hold out, I’m going to do a whole album of high energy jazz fusion, combining post-bop with prog rock keyboard stylings and funk, but using only solo piano. Prestidigitation is the working title, named after the finger magic of my Dungeons and Dragons’ wizard character, Tobryn. (I play DnD once a month with my four kids via Skype. Haha!) I’m excited about each project, looking forward to completing them in the next years at the Factory Underground Studio, my favorite area music studio. After that, I will put out a Best of Tobin Mueller box set and probably retire, although my wife tells me I will never stop. 

MT: What words of advice do you have for aspiring artists?

TM: Embrace the many aspects of yourself; don’t be put into a box. Learn something new every day. Whenever you are by yourself, find that kernel of uniqueness in yourself and those things that nourish it and helps you express it. Never lose those things only you do, or if you haven’t identified them yet, do so. It doesn’t have to be better than others. It doesn’t have to be faster, cleaner, more inventive. It just has to be something that no one else does. And always remember why it is unique: because your artistry comes not just from your technique and craft, but from the life you live. It’s the life that you live that creates unique artistry. Never divorce your life from your art.    

For an even closer look at Tobin, watch this video where he discusses his Masterworks Trilogy with Factory Underground's Marc Alan: