Slackers In Paradise
(Westernmost Records)


Two of the finest North American guitarists—Ken Emerson and Jim “Kimo” West—joined forces for the 2016 CD release of Slackers In Paradise: Slack And Steel Guitar Duets. Early in 2016, Kimo released Guitar Stories: Slack Key & Beyond and in 2014 Ken Emerson released Sacred Slack & Steel Guitar. Each of those previous CDs were and are highly influential among fans of Hawaiian and Americana instrumental music so it’s quite fulfilling to note that Slackers In Paradise is also bound to be quite a hit album among their fans. Slackers In Paradise fittingly includes 16 tracks of Hawaiian folk, blues, jazz and ragtime—all played with the finesse and expertise worthy of these modern day guitar masters. Speaking about Slackers, Ken Emerson tells, “We wrote and recorded in between my traveling and Kimo’s. He was going out with Weird Al on tour, and I was traveling all over the West Coast and Hawaii. Then my Dad had a stroke so things got pretty heavy for me, and I can say working on the record with Kimo was good for me as I spent a lot of time in Oregon under a lot of stress and then would come down to LA and get a respite from it all by jumping into the music production. It turned out to be very therapeutic. Kimo has a nice home recording set up, as well as a road rig, he worked on a lot of the editing and mixing while he was on the road with Al.” Discussing the origins of the Slackers CD Jim “Kimo” West tell, “We put this record together over the last couple years, 2015 and 2016. We did it mostly at my studio but Ken contributed a few basic guitar tracks that were recorded at Ron Pendragon’s studio on Kauai and I actually did the basic track for “Mango Season” in a hotel room when I was on tour with Weird Al.” Both Ken and Kimo have busy lives so it’s more than incredible that they not only had the time for an album of Hawaiian instrumental guitar music that is superbly relaxing. Highlights of Slackers are the many fine original instrumentals here but there’s also a very cool cover of the Rolling Stones classic “Ruby Tuesday” that almost sounds like a Hawaiian meets Baroque instrumental of one of the most beloved pop songs of the late 1960s. With hardly a note out of place, Slackers In Paradise is an instrumental guitar classic befitting the sound and vision of these two superb musicians. / presents an interview with
Jim 'Kimo' West and Ken Emerson
the “Slackers In Paradise” interview

: How long have you two known each other and why did it take so long to get an album as good as Slackers In Paradise from you? Who started the ball rolling on the idea of making the Slackers album, so to speak and how did you come up with the title? I thought the album was called “Caution: Falling Coconuts”…

Jim “Kimo” West: I met Ken on Kauai in 2001 when he was playing his regular gig at the Princeville hotel. We stayed in touch over the years and I asked him to record some acoustic steel guitar for a track of mine called “Goin’ Upcountry” on my 2005 CD, “Slack Key West”. We did it by exchanging burned CD’s as he was a few thousand miles away! Ken eventually moved to the mainland and a few years ago, my friend, Mitch Chang invited us to perform at the Southern California Slack Key Festival but we had never played together before so we booked a gig in Santa Barbara and played two sets with no previous idea of what we were going to play- it was a blast!

After playing more shows together we naturally wanted to move along to making a record. I have a studio at my place so Ken came down from Napa a few times to record and I did all the editing and mixing afterwards.

I had always wanted to call a record “The Slackest Of The Slack” but I also liked the idea of using “paradise” in the title. I suggested “Slackin’ In Paradise” and then Ken came up with “Slackers In Paradise”. I had the idea for the “Watch Out For Falling Coconuts” sign a number of years ago. They are common in Hawaii and it made for a very funny inside spread, which looks fantastic on the vinyl…

Ken Emerson: We met on Kaua’i when I was working the Princeville Hotel. I had heard of him as a well known L.A. guitarist but not as a slack key player. Later on he asked me to do a track for an album he was working on, and I added a National steel guitar to it, called “Hana Highway” or something... It fit right into the Slack/Steel guitar thing I had been doing for a long time. I was surprised we had a real connection to that area of Maui, as well as all the musical styles we were doing.

Later on we met somewhere as I am in and out of Los Angeles and Kimo said the big Redondo Beach show Mitch Chang was producing was coming up and asked me to play. So I agreed and we thought maybe a shake down gig would be good, so Kimo came up with a nice club in Santa Barbara called SOhO. We met there and had no plan or set list, so we basically just called out some tunes we knew and it turned out to be a really fun gig, one of those effortless things and the Redondo show turned out the same, in front of a sold out crowd and all ‘off the cuff’. After that we both agreed we should try and do some recording and the vibe kept preceding us. It was so much fun to record and the arrangements came very easily. The title seemed appropriate, since we are after all… professional slackers. (lol)

mwe3: Can you give some background on when the music for Slackers In Paradise was written and where was the album recorded? How many of the tracks are cover versions and how many originals are on the CD and why did you not subtitle the songs in English? What made you want to include the Fats Waller track “Lulu’s Back In Town” and what can you tell us about the Rolling Stones cover of “Ruby Tuesday” which goes back to early 1967 and is described as “Baroque pop”.

Ken Emerson: We wrote and recorded in between my traveling and Kimo’s. He was going out with Weird Al on tour, and I was traveling all over the West Coast and Hawaii. Then my Dad had a stroke so things got pretty heavy for me, and I can say working on the record with Kimo was good for me as I spent a lot of time in Oregon under a lot of stress and then would come down to LA and get a respite from it all by jumping into the music production. It turned out to be very therapeutic. Kimo has a nice home recording set up, as well as a road rig, and he worked on a lot of the editing and mixing while he was on the road with Al.

“Lulu” came about as we wanted some old jazzy stuff, with interplay between guitar and steel, since I play a lot of vintage guitars. The Rolling Stones' tune was a contrast to that. I had figured out a version of a Stones tune called “Back Street Girl”, I liked that Baroque vibe, and then decided “Ruby” was more mainstream. We wanted traditional Hawaiian as well as music that influenced Hawaii like the jazz, blues of the 1920’s and 30’s. Then, to expand the styles we included some original songs we wrote which were more contemporary, like “Aokealoa”, and some of the other covers helped expand the album and keep it interesting.

Jim “Kimo” West: We put this record together over the last couple years, 2015 and 2016. We did it mostly at my studio but Ken contributed a few basic guitar tracks that were recorded at Ron Pendragon’s studio on Kaua'i and I actually did the basic track for “Mango Season” in a hotel room when I was on tour with Weird Al. I used my MacBook Pro and a UAD Apollo interface with a couple good mics. Hawaiian song titles are generally not subtitles but sometimes record titles are.

Ken had the idea to try “Lulu’s Back In Town” so I came up with the slack key arrangement and Ken overdubbed his steel part later. Ken had the slack key arrangement for “Ruby Tuesday” sorted out already so, after we got his part down, I came up with a second guitar part which in a few places imitates Brian Jones’ recorder part. Ken actually pulled the song out at one of our first gigs in December 2015 which was a surprise. It’s been an audience favorite in our live shows!

mwe3: What guitars did you feature on Slackers In Paradise and have you made some recent additions to your guitar collections over the past couple years? Was the Slackers In Paradise album cut live in the studio or were there a lot of overdubs?

Jim “Kimo” West: Since we weren’t together that much we opted to build the tracks by overdubbing. I recorded guitar for my tunes and then had Ken overdub on them and vice-versa-we’d get Ken’s parts on his tunes and then I would work on them. I made use of a Tacoma baritone guitar on a few tracks as well as a couple Taylor 514’s and a 1970 Martin D18. I also used some ukulele and a Deering 6 string banjo. Ken used his old National tricone, a Chinese dobro and his Taylor 6 string. I think he used my metal-body Dobro resonator guitar as well. On the “Wairoa Ukulele Rag” he used his mom’s old Martin soprano uke.

Ken Emerson: I used the best sounding guitars from the collection, which usually is my 1928 National and my Taylor 6 string. Kimo has a couple nice old Martins I remember using. I added dobro to a couple to get a different sound. And we gave the old Martin uke a cameo on “Wairoa Ukulele Rag”. One of the early demos we did together was “Hilo Hanakahi”, and it was one of those off the cuff things that fit into the album. We did some over dubbing on some songs which seemed to help out the sound of them, but pretty much any of it can be played live with 2 guitars. Of course, we picked one which maybe Al would want to join in on, so that’s how the “Slack Key Polka” came about.

mwe3: Jim, what can you tell us about “Aloha Al” Yankovic on accordion playing on the Slackers CD? What’s new with Weird Al these days?

Jim “Kimo” West: Yes, “Aloha Al” played accordion on the “Slack Key Polka which of course was very appropriate. Ken had suggested we try a polka so I came up with a demo track which ended up being the record track after I got Ken and Al’s parts recorded. I’m of the road with Al this year but 2015 and 2016 were very busy. We played over 200 shows in support of our CD, Mandatory Fun which debuted at number 1 on Billboard and won the Grammy for Best Comedy Recording. One of the tour highlights was playing the Hollywood Bowl two weekend nights with the 70 piece orchestra!

mwe3: Where are you living now and how much time do you get to spend in Hawaii these days? What Hawaiian guitarists and composers are you listening to these days?

Jim “Kimo” West: I’m in Los Angeles but Hawaii is always “home” for me. I get back a few times a year for gigs and R&R and it’s nice when everyone says “welcome home!”. There are some great Hawaiian guitarists in the islands these days although most of my slack key heroes are gone now. Keola Beamer has always been a favorite of mine, especially his solo guitar recordings on Dancing Cat. Ozzie Kotani is am amazing player and composer and is well-known as the top teacher of slack key. My friend, Jeff Peterson is a great player who is equally comfortable in slack key, jazz and classical guitar and newcomer Ian O’Sullivan is following in Jeff’s footsteps.

Ken Emerson: I currently spend time between the Napa area of Northern California and Monterey, where I share a studio with a partner. It’s called Reel to Real Sound, and we run one inch tape there in a nice old school analog set up. I have digital recorders there as well. I have a little place in Central Oregon where I enjoy part of the summers fishing and tour the Northwest and Vancouver B.C. and am in the process of acquiring 3 acres in Hawaii for the future studio where we can escape the winter.

mwe3: What formats was the Slackers In Paradise album released in? I see three different types downloads are being offered. What is the difference between the different download formats and how about the CD and vinyl pressings? Was there a need for different mastering techniques between the vinyl and the CD?

Jim “Kimo” West: I know some of the download sites over various quality levels in the downloads and I’m afraid I’m not really up on the selection. CD’s of course are always available but sales are generally going down as that medium fades in popularity. Many folks get there music via streaming sites like Spotify and Apple Music which is very convenient. Vinyl sales are picking up…

mwe3: Did the songs on Slackers In Paradise require specific guitar tunings and what guitar tunings were most prevalent on the album?

Ken Emerson: Yes, certain songs require certain tunings. We strive to match the guitars in a way where we get the most variety of sound. Many times we are in two different tunings, and/or one guitar is capoed and one tuned low, etc. We also do a lot of slack/ steel duets, and Kimo will bust out the baritone and I have a guitarlele 6 string now so we can really move things around musically.

Jim “Kimo” West: We mostly were in various tunings. Ken’s part on “Hapa Haole Hula Girl” was in standard tuning but everything else was in slack key tunings. “Taro Patch” or open G was common on both guitar and acoustic steel. My baritone was in the same tuning but lowered to the key of D (A D A D F# A). I used a few other tunings as well including “Drop C” which is a variant of Taro Patch.

mwe3: What can you tell us about the Southern California Slack Key Festival and what can music lovers expect to hear from you? Also what was the Slack Key Guitar Workshop like? I imagine Slack Key guitar style is popular all over the world even places like India.

Jim “Kimo” West: The Southern California Slack Key Festival has been going now for ten years and was the brainchild of Mitch Chang, a guitarist and ukulelist from O’ahu who lives in the L.A. area. A little over ten years ago he asked me if I thought a festival would go over here and I was quick to answer... yes! I had actually approached Hawaii’s festival promoters with the idea before. It’s been wildly successful and is such a fun show with very high talent and production values. Workshops are often taught in the most common tunings such as Taro Patch but an artist like Cyril Pahinui will teach in C Major tuning since that’s that one he uses most. I have many tunings that I use but I stick to the basic ones as most folks will find them the most useful. Slack key is mostly known in Hawaii and the West Coast in the U.S. but Japan also has a big fan base. Interest in steel guitar is more widely distributed around the world. In the early 1900’s, Tau Moe and his family played all over the world, bringing Hawaiian music and steel guitar to faraway places like India, where there is now a tradition of Hindustani steel guitar.

Ken Emerson: The Southern California Slack Key Festival is a great showcase for some of the best players in the world, like Ledward Kaapana, Jeff Peterson, Sonny Lim and George Kuo among others. I like it because I can play both slack key and steel, sometimes in the same song. The format was loose this year, like being on the beach, and it was a gas to be able to hang out on the stage and watch my favorite artists perform. With all the hard work playing all over the world, when I got to places like France, the slack key guitar is still not as well known as the steel guitar. So there are places that still need an introduction.

mwe3: I saw that Slackers In Paradise is dedicated to Michael Cord. Can you share any other thoughts on Michael Cord and his important contribution to Hawaiian guitar music and is the Cord International label being kept active by Michael’s wife?

Jim “Kimo” West: Michael Cord was a friend and probably the world’s top archivist of older Hawaiian music. His compilations are wonderful and so well done. And all out of a genuine love for the music. Besides all the compilations, he released many of Ken’s CD’s. His wife Maryann still maintains the label although I don't think they are releasing any new stuff.

Ken Emerson: Michael was a real visionary in keeping vintage Hawaiian music alive and saving old masters so they can be enjoyed forever. It was fitting to honor him. He was my main producer and record label for many years and his loss is immeasurable. Maryann Cord will continue to run the label and host events like our upcoming workshops and concert in Ojai. She has just redone the website.

mwe3: What other guitarists and albums, CDs, etc, are you currently listening to, both Hawaiian slack key players and other jazz and rock guitarists who you find inspirational? Do you see Slack Key and other forms of Hawaiian music gaining in popularity?

Jim “Kimo” West: Lately I have been listening to tons of CD’s for Grammy voting consideration, so that is just about every style imaginable. I do love really good jazz and world music and of course classic slack key and Hawaiian music from folks like Gabby Pahinui, Atta Isaacs, Moe Keale (who Ken used to play with), Hui Ohana, Ray Kane and others. I listen to a lot of public radio in my car and I like the element of surprise, not knowing what I’ll hear next. I do see slack key going popularity. It’s music that is organic with a rich history and a contagious feel-good sound, a sound that comes from the “ ‘aina”, the land. Often people who hear me play have no idea what it is exactly I’m playing but they just like the way it makes them feel.

Ken Emerson: I still listen to a lot of players that have passed on... My favorites including Gabby Pahinui, Atta Isaacs, Sonny Chillingworth Ray Kane. Also the old steel masters like Sol Ho’opi’i. I enjoy the contemporary artists like Keola Beamer, Led Kaapana, Jeff Peterson, Ozzie Kotani, Cindy Combs and many more. I listen to a lot of jazz and all types of music. So much to hear and so little time! I think Hawaiian music will continue to be popular as new artists come up and whatever my contemporaries and I come up with while it’s still our time.

mwe3: So now with Slackers In Paradise released and getting airplay what other plans do you have for 2017, like new solo albums, and chances for any live shows around the country or the world?

Jim “Kimo” West: We will focus on live shows for 2017 and hopefully get to spread our “slacker” music around the country and maybe the world. I have a few other solo projects on the shelf but the priority is Slackers In Paradise. Last year I collaborated with Grammy-nominated producer Arun Shenoy in Singapore on a project called A Stagey Bank Affair. A really nice record with terrific players and recording quality. I contributed two songs which were produced by Arun and his excellent team from India and Singapore. It was up for Grammy nomination this year but sadly got pushed aside by some entries from artists with “big name appeal”!

Ken Emerson: Now that the New Year is started we are looking into bookings. Kimo has this year off with Al, so we are going to try and get on a roll and travel about some. We have things coming up this spring/summer and will be traveling into the Northwest. We have a tour coming up for Hawaii in May, including George Kahumoku’s Slack Key Show on Maui, and the Blue Note in Honolulu. We also have some extra songs we recorded, so at some time we will look at them and think about what we want to do for the next project.


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