Robert Mirabal
By Ronnie

"Alternative" seems to be the catch phrase for today's music scene. But, it also is a curse in the "flavor of the month" mentality that goes along with the alternative scene. Enter Robert Mirabal. The first thing that caught my eye was ALTER-NATIVE printed in bold letters on his MIRABAL CD. I was skeptical at first, "yeah sure, a new take on alternative?" But then I heard his music and realized I was dead wrong with my first impression. Robert Mirabal has an approach that is both unique and bold, perfectly synthesizing Native American drums and flute with rock 'n roll, to make an interesting hybrid. He is also a story teller supreme, blending the Native American perspective into modern rock 'n roll (which is sometimes its own worse enemy in rejecting change & growth-hence the continuous re-hash of faceless, indistinguishable styles that permeate "alternative" music).

However, Robert Mirabal is not just a rocker with a Native American slant. With every release he was progressed; from simple flute albums to his present synthesis. His growth from album to album is a gamble that not many take in the world of music. Now he has progressed to the next level via visual arts. His "MUSIC FROM A PAINTED CAVE" (both the name of his new CD and video) presents an overview of his work with stunning stage theatrics and presentation. It is in heavy rotation on PBS, so YOU can both see and hear the experience that is Robert Mirabal.

Robert recently granted me an interview via phone. We discussed the progression of his music, what inspires him and where his music is headed next.

E.C.: How do you classify yourself, since you've done flute albums and rock influenced albums, is there a definitive Robert Mirabal or are you always evolving?

Robert: I guess I'll always be a flute player, and I guess I'm constantly evolving, I'm influenced by many different things. So I guess I'm a collaborator.

E.C.: Is the alter-native title the best description of your music?

Robert: (laughs) yeah.

E.C.: Your main instrument is the Native American flute. You're almost like a present-day Jethro Tull; you bring in an instrument that's not normally associated with rock. How do you write the music for your songs? Are they just in your head and you write the music in your head when you write the lyrics?

Robert: I'm always writing something, story form. Some songs, like lyrically, like verse, you know, the chorus and the bridge and that kind of thing, usually comes out of a story that I've written and then I take excerpts out of the story. I embellish on that. And then sometimes, you know if it's just a musical thing I keep playing and keep playing it and sometimes it has its own storyline, you know musically. But most of the time it comes out from writing and looking at people and things, and experiences, how I define their experiences through my own eyes.

E.C.:So do you consider yourself as more of a writer than of a musician?

Robert: Yeah.

E.C.: How do you fit in with the native flute renaissance?

Robert: I think it's the same thing, I think it's evolving, and the way I approach it is much more different than some of my colleagues and counterparts. They've gone more into the jazz and the formatted style of music. You know some people consider me to be more new age than others, but you know I tend to go beyond that because I think anybody can put a keyboard line and put flutes on top of it and make it sound new age-y, you know? Make it sound like a movie score or something like that. I make my own instruments and I create different scales for different mouth, just to create the basic chromatic scale for the pentatonic scale based on like A minor or something like that. But the new American format is spiral, I try to bend that a little and then I kind of force my band to follow me instead of me following them. That's what makes it I think more of a renaissance type is that I've created a band that follows that particular scale rather than me following the basic chromatic scales.

So I think to a certain extent, I studied that style a little, well a certain style, like the traditional style in Japan, and anybody who is so in tuned with what we hear today as a perfect pitch, and you go out there and listen…and some of the music, music is just…You know that saying where somebody has their fingernails on the chalkboard? Man, I'm like oh shit, this is considered traditional? I'm more and more fighting for that style. And so, for me, I tend to lean towards pushing my bandmates as well as myself artistically. Some instances, you know, there's a lot of G minor flute players, so flute players begin to sound the same.

E.C.: You did about a half a dozen flute albums and then you sought a new direction, the result being your CD MIRABAL. You touched on rock, folk, hip-hop, African, techno, all within the confines of your Native American theme. How exactly did that come about?

Robert: A lot of that stuff was just…we had recorded a flute album, it was a score for some Japanese dancers called Land. We were done with the recording and most of it, and then I just started playing with my keyboard, took my keyboard along and did that song called Tony and Allison, and it's kind of like a folk-pop type of storytelling. I got a Robbie Robertson- type of vibe to it. I was signing to Warner Brothers down in Nashville, the president heard it and he said "You should more of your stories to music" and that's how that evolved. I had already like 20 songs that I had did. Mark Andee's guitar player. That's just kind of how it evolved from him edging me on saying "well, we've got some money to do another album, let's do it". So that's how it evolved, I was just influenced by many different things at the time, and those were the songs that they chose..

E.C.:Did you ever get a negative reaction from people who thought that you strayed too far from what Native American music should sound like?

Robert: You know, there was enough flute players at that time so that other people could get their fix off of it, it really didn't matter. And in the live shows I was playing a lot of flute music, it was just that that album gave me a stronger fanbase. So those that really weren't into it, they've kind of followed along. The fanbase got much bigger.

E.C.: Some of the co-writers that you've written with, Mark Andes, Reynaldo Lujan, Kenny Aronoff, what aspect do they bring to your writing?

Robert: All my writers, I'm really interested in how well they conform to some of the things that I've done, like lyrically, rhythmically, melodically. And that's what intrigues me, I think songwriting is a relationship forever. And there's some people you click with and some people you don't and I notice that more of the legends like Mark Andes and Kenny Aronoff, they're laid-back people. They know their form, they know their talent so it's a lot easier to write with them because they've been-there-done-that type of attitude, they don't have that drive based on desperation. A drive that is more artistic rather than just to do it. And I read them the story and how it comes about, I tell them what the song is about and where it came from, how we create.

E.C.: When you did your TAOS TALES CD with the cello, how did that come about?

Robert: That one was kind of like the bridge between the more traditional albums and MIRABAL. I've always enjoyed cello, it's something that I've always wanted to do. It was either a keyboard player or a cellist and I found a cellist that was in Santa Fe that was willing to explore a rock theme as well as a more native theme. And the keyboard could easily cover with the cellist and it was so much beauty and body to the music and to the composition with a unique western acoustic instrument, a classical instrument, that I kept it. It's always been my favorite classical instrument.

E.C.: It hasn't been used that much in rock, other than Beach Boys' Good Vibrations or ELO with some of their stuff…Speaking of which, which rock bands did you listen to growing up?

Robert: When I was a kid I listened to ELO, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, all the classics. I got really influenced in songwriting by Mellencamp. I ended up, my producer is Mellencamp's guitar player, and Kenny Aronoff is the drum player for Mellencamp. And Mark Andes used to play with Spirit a long time ago. It's weird because I saw those 2 groups in the span of a month I saw them when I was a kid. I was like 14 or something like that and I saw them. But lyrically I think who influenced me a lot was the way that Mellencamp wrote about the simplicity of the human experience.

E.C.: He's more of a storyteller.

Robert: Yeah, and that's what I liked. And then of course Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. And I listened to a lot of people like…you know, I also got really influenced by jazz trying to figure out a different avenue of performing. When I first started I was performing just the flute, I liked Miles Davis, Whiten Marcel and the album a few years back and some other jazz bands with classical jazz instruments. Different people like, what's his name, that guy who plays coronet?

E.C.: Chuck Mangione?

Robert: Yeah. The way he approached, in just one note, like how he would just blow it and make it sound so different. Same note, different breathing techniques. All that time I was still living the traditional life here at the pueblo singing and dancing and performing. Living a basic year to year life in my culture. I was just surrounded by many different influences, traditionally as well as contemporary.

E.C.: When I saw your special on PBS, seeing the costumes and the rock versions of the songs you did, do you remember the band Redbone from the '70s?.

Robert: Yeah.

E.C.: They wore the Native American costumes, but it was more of a gimmick for them.

Robert: Yeah.

E.C.: Now I've got a few questions about the MUSIC FROM A PAINTED CAVE. Does music from it represent all the aspects of Robert Mirabal?

Robert: Yeah, it's up to date. There are certain things that aren't in there that I wish would have been in there. But then there is like an evolution of just a voice, the flute, and then there's everything that I've ever done artistically and in my life. To a flute, to a duo, to a trio to a quartet to a full blown rock band. So there is that evolution of sound that embodies who I am and who I've become.

E.C.: Yeah, there's a lot of songs on that for a single CD too. I think that's really cool. You talk about the painted cave in your memory. Is that were you find the inspiration for your songs, do you get in that mindset?

Robert: Yeah, I think that happens a lot like when you're sitting with somebody and they tell you some story and all of a sudden your remember something else, will it be a dream or will it be a story that you heard or whether it's an experience. So that's what I considered. You're in a cave and you light a flashlight and you only see bits and pieces of things and there's certain things that are in haze, that are in a hazy light, and other things in total darkness that eventually you will begin to see.

E.C.: So you can turn out all the distractions.

Robert: Yeah.

E.C.: You did tours to support both the MIRABAL and the TAOS TALES albums. How did that evolve into the production into the MUSIC FROM A PAINTED CAVE?

Robert: I wanted to do a show that was based on a lot of theatrical elements and I wanted to do more than just festivals in the summertime, I wanted to do more than just wow, this is a club, you know a dance club. I wanted to expand what I was artistically and I wanted to play halls that house respectable shows. But the only way I could do it was by creating a very somewhat traditional format Native American performance music, and then that will satisfy who I am in this day and age with my, sort of a more rock influence music. I fuse those and marry all those together and created a relationship with, through the dances and through the outfits, literally creating a lyrical format, what the song is about onstage. We had been playing the MIRABAL stuff for a while in different clubs everywhere. And then when we pull down like in the clubs, the cello and more of the flute stuff, it worked you know? I was just trying to create a balance and that's how the show came about.

E.C.: You play a lot of school gigs don't you?

Robert: Yeah, we try to. And the best thing that I've found out is that we try to, like if the show was tomorrow, we pull in and then we set up the whole show and then, we do a rehearsal and a run-through, and we set up all the lights and the school kids may come in the next day and it's so much more better for us to create an atmosphere, using the fog and the lighting to tell stories. 'Cause that's when it makes more sense I think. Because that's when everything becomes fantastic for them. I used to go in and do a lot of classroom stuff and that just didn't seem effective for me. At least now at the theatre we can do costume changes and make it more, show a lot of dynamics.

E.C.: What about your influence on younger people? I've seen a lot of underlying theme from your songs that embrace pride and responsibility rather than blaming problems on others. Do you see yourself more as a role model or a teacher?

Robert: I think more of a teacher. A role model, there's certain responsibilities that you carry on. Whether you like it or not I think there's a role model status. But I think I'm more of an educator. Pointing out differences, pointing out little things, you know. A role model is more responsible than a teacher. A teacher just creates ideas and lets the students, lets those ideas unfold for themselves. I try to educate rather than to pound my chest and to say to don't do this and don't do that. Go to school isn't good enough for me. It was when somebody told me that. Stay in schools, stay off drugs that kind of stuff, it's just not, it's kind of like putting a Band-Aid on a compound fracture. It's obvious that it's a compound fracture, you can't just hide it and put a Band-Aid on it. I'd rather just tell people, "hey, this is what you should do with a compound fracture."

E.C.: There's a lot of messages in your songs, like on the new one Navaho Fire, it seems that the main message is hope. Is that your main message?

Robert: Yeah, I think we're in a world that's changing so fast, that all we can truly truly offer to one another is hope. I mean, people go through divorce, tons of girls, and it's like knowing that somebody's there dancing with you or just staying with you or creating ceremony or going to the theater with you. A sense of hope is I think what we need today in this day and age.

E.C.: For your band name, who came up with "Rare Tribal Mob"?

Robert: I did.

E.C.: Is there a special meaning to it?

Robert: It's an anagram.

E.C.: Oh, for Robert Mirabal?

Robert: Yeah, the way it's spelled. It's weird, it was all the letters of my name and it spelled that and I thought it was pretty cool. When you're touring in a group of like 18 and 20 people, and you have the same experiences day in and day out with the foods and the sleep and everything you become a tribe. And the "rare" comes from the native part and that's something that we normally don't see. The "mob", it comes from more of the inner-city vibe. Like you're a tribe but yet still we infiltrate different things, different mindsets and different places. So it's kind of like a, when I first heard about it, when I first read about it, it was like wow. It seems to fit with where I'm going.

E.C.: How long are you going to tour for MUSIC FROM A PAINTED CAVE? I saw part of your tour schedule, it's pretty extensive.

Robert: Yeah, me and my brother, one of the flute players, we did 21 cities in 22 days in the different mission, we'll do something like that in June. The show's been chosen to air in June again and in August again. Who knows? It may extend out to Europe, but it all depends.

E.C.: Now with personal appearances, is that gonna be a repeat of the tape or are you gonna reappear again?

Robert: I'll probably reappear at like selective stations where we'll probably have shows. We're doing what they call a virtual, where they just send it off to all the stations that I'm not at live.

E.C.: Yeah I saw the Atlanta one. On the new album you're embracing new styles and elements to your sound. For example, Navajo Fires, is almost a blues. Again, your music always seems to evolve. Do you know what's next?

Robert: I'm just experiencing a lot with like the old albums, back in the 60's and 70's and 80's albums, and then I'm just working with like creative, some different sounds. Get some ambient albums that you can get through the internet through like from European sources. I'm just experimenting, I'm just exploring some things. But I'm working on a new show that will have more of that techno live, but not to the point where that's all it is. I'm looking more at storytelling, some of that old stuff. I'm not quite sure but there's stuff that's constantly brewing. I'm trying to incorporate the next album into a show too.

E.C.: When will the next album be out?

Robert: Probably next year. But I'm not sure. We'll be lucky if it comes out next year.

Click here to visit the official Robert Mirabal web site