Kip Winger: Dancing With Ghosts, Part One

Kip Winger: Dancer, rocker, composer.
(Courtesy of Winger.)

Winger has become associated not only with the big hair and big hooks of late ’80s pop metal but also its subsequent demise, thanks in particular to ribbing from Beavis and Butthead. In retrospect, frontman Kip Winger is glad that his talented band’s fortunes changed. Rather than continuing along a potential path of making cookie-cutter hit songs — and he certainly wouldn’t have minded the riches associated with that — he got to delve into music he wanted to make. While many Winger fans would learn of Kip’s youthful training as a ballet dancer, many have never known of his passion for classical music. While the singer / bassist (and outside of Winger, guitarist) never attended a famous conservatory nor wrote symphonies at a young age, his ears were attuned to orchestral sounds. He taught himself and sought out the guidance of various music teachers when he could over the years. His first major classical work, Ghosts, premiered at the San Francisco Ballet to positive acclaim earlier this year. He’s also still recording and touring with Winger (Karma came out last year), so he’s been straddling two worlds. Which suits him just fine. (Read Part Two here.)

It seems like every decade is reliving two decades earlier in terms of pop culture. Eighties rock is back with a vengeance recently.
It is. It’s funny, half the audience was 20 years old last night.

Do you find that more in Europe than America?
Not necessarily. Maybe not as many young people, but there are a lot of young people showing up in America that are rediscovering the music.

Doesn’t it seem that European audiences are more respectful of bands with a history?
That’s true. There are more loyal fans. I like it. I’m kind of moving out of it, but I’ll always do my band because I just dig hanging out with the guys. They’re such good musicians, and playing with them is so much fun.

Winger circa 2009.
(Courtesy of Winger.)

There are a lot of people out there who don’t realize how good the musicians in Winger really are. It’s interesting, because unlike a lot of musicians who have been transitioning into doing classical pieces and film soundtracks, you generally had a background in classical ballet and classical music since you were a child. You were always there to begin with.
I was and I wasn’t. I was self-taught, man. When I started studying ballet at age 16 and heard the music, I thought, “Wow, I’ve got to write like this.” I did a lot of stuff on my own. I virtually taught myself music back then, and I never had a chance to go to music school. I always went to the music school and found the best composition teacher and the best theory teacher and privately studied with them because I’ve been on the road since I was 20. I’ve always wanted to go back to school, to be honest with you — just blow it all off and go back to school and fill in all the gaps — but I haven’t had the chance to do that. I’m still looking for an online program actually. Now I can test out of the first of almost everything. Theoretically I do have a background starting from when I was 16, but it wasn’t traditional.

Isn’t it ironic that many people who didn’t formally study music go on to be quite successful with it?
I always say to people, when they find out I do that [classical], is that there’s no reason to. The only kind of music that I hear anymore is big orchestra music, so I had no choice. John Lennon certainly didn’t know how to find middle C on the staff, and music is really not about reading and writing. The only reason I learned how to do it is because I heard that stuff and stopped hearing rock music a long time ago.

How do you balance out working on your classical music with recording and touring with Winger? And how do you stay motivated with rock as you move more into the classical world?
It’s kind of taken a natural flip in an odd way. The work has come in a steady stream, and I’ve been studying and writing in the off times. Ghosts was my first real big deal, and it’s kind of starting to flip now where the focus is changing to that. I’ve been lucky. One has fed the other, but I haven’t had to juggle it too much. The rock stuff comes really easy because I’ve done it for so long. The last rock record was Winger. We wrote the tracks in 10 days, and it’s one of our best records. Studying feeds the rock thing because I can easily look into the music and not be stumped because I don’t have another riff or something. When you have a background like mine, you can easily look at music and see ways to get more ideas out of something rather than somebody who might not know all the tricks that you could use to facilitate that. But as I say, my main focus is really classical because that’s all I hear. The thing is you can’t write it in 10 days. I can’t. Ghosts took a year and a half to write. I’m getting faster, but it’s a much different medium.

Don’t you think that a lot of your expanded musical capabilities has come from life experience?
That’s a good point.

You met Ghosts choreographer Christopher Wheeldon back around 1997, correct?
I did. I was dating a girl at the New York City Ballet, Zippora Karz, and having been in the ballet world but from afar, I was a fan of most of those people. So when I got the chance to go back and meet everybody — [Ballet Master in Chief] Peter Martins and all those dancers that I’ve known about — it was a big deal for me to hang out there. I always knew that I wanted to write music for ballet because as a kid I always heard the music and thought, “Wow.” That was my exposure [to it], listening to Stravinsky and all that. I could give you the list, but I should mention Honegger because he is my all-time, deceased, go-to music teacher.

So you started working on Ghosts about three years ago?
Yeah. Really what happened was Zippora played Peter Martins a small piece of music that I did about 10 years ago, and he liked it a lot and passed the message to finish it and come back. At that point I knew I wasn’t ready to do that, and I didn’t want to blow that opportunity. As fate had it, I met this guy named Michael Kurek, who at the time was the lead composition teacher at the Blair School Of Music at Vanderbilt. I started studying with him, and he’s really the guy that helped me get over the hump from an amateur classical to professional classical sound, really taking the tools that I had and adding the elements that I needed to really understand what would make good music in that genre. I still take class from him every now and then.  [continued below]

The recording of Ghosts.
(Courtesy of Kip

So I set out to write a piece for Chris Wheeldon. I wrote the first movement and recorded it as a chamber piece that is actually on my third solo album [From The Moon To The Sun]. I didn’t hear anything for a while, and all of a sudden I got this e-mail that said, “I loved it. This is great, but it’s too short. Can you make it 20 minutes?” Of course, to get that e-mail back is amazing, so I spent about a year writing the other two movements and getting the first movement a little bit more tweaked. I went to New York and recorded it with a group of A-team musicians. You can hear the actual recording on iTunes. I recorded it and just delivered it to him. Later I found out he was wondering if he would hate it — here’s this guy who fully recorded this classical piece, and what if he didn’t even like it? But fortunately he really liked it and sent me an e-mail saying that he wanted to use it for the San Francisco Ballet. It took a while, dude. I sent it to him and quite a bit of time went by, and then that happened out of the blue. Bullseye. He’s extremely busy. He’s probably got about 10 commissions in the queue with the biggest ballet companies in the world, so it was fine. I don’t know of any choreographer right now who is bigger than Chris Wheeldon. I didn’t expect him to get back to me right away, but it did take a while, and I was thinking to myself, “I wonder what’s going to happen here?” I couldn’t have wished or imagined it to turn out better than it did because he did an incredible job on that piece, and the orchestra just killed on that. The interpretation by the conductor, Martin West, was amazing.

What did you think of the performances?
The performances were awesome. It was absolutely incredible. We had the top principal dancers. And they’re going to use it for Hong Kong Ballet. Tan Yuan Yuan, the woman who does the pas de deux, is like a national treasure in China, so she’s going to do the pas de deux with the Hong Kong Ballet in May, I believe.

Have you ever had a chance to play in China?
Never played. Never been. I’m really happy that my first exposure there will be as a classical musician.

Another photo from the Ghosts recording session.
(Courtesy of Kip

Despite the fact that a lot of people know that you have a background in ballet and classical, there are probably many fans who have actually no clue about that side of your career. I don’t always assume that many fans know so much about who they listen to.
Absolutely. I totally agree. I grew up in a band doing Black Sabbath with my brothers. I was playing at eight years old. Even to my brothers this has been an unknown world. They knew I did it, but none of them really understood any of it, so it’s kind of been my own secret path. Secret in the sense that I never really hung out with anybody else who was into it. My circle of friends was all a pack of wolves rock guys, and then in the daytime I would be studying all this stuff and being connected to the dance world. I never really had a chance to hang out with any of the people in the dance world, so I’m coming over into this world and knowing it really well and fitting in very well because I was always into it personally, but I’m just now accumulating my people there. It’s a strange existence in a way because in my heart I’ve lived in this other world for so long. I sent this piece to a very well-known choreographer, and he listened to it. It’s funny because I was thinking about taking some [classes in] conducting, and my publisher’s a lifelong classical guy. He turned me onto this guy named Scott Yoo, and it turned out that Scott had “Seventeen” in his iPod when he was going to Juilliard. He told me was skeptical when I e-mailed him and said that I did classical music, but after he listened to Ghosts he realized that I was actually a classical musician disguised as a metal guy.

Part Two: Kip Winger discusses the staging of Ghosts, Winger’s most underrated songs, being honored by the State Department and where his career is heading.

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