by Chris Sampson

Chris Siebold is a guitarist out of Chicago who has played with some of the finest members of the jazz world and most noted for his work with harmonica legend, Howard Levy. We sat down for an interview with Siebold to talk about his craft and where he’s headed.

Chris, can you tell us when you first were drawn to music? What are your earliest memories?

There was always music in our house growing up. I think I started stealing my mom and dad’s 45’s at the age of 5. My dad played the drums, the guitar and sang. My mom was an accomplished pianist and she tried to sing. She had good pitch, though!

What was the first instrument you were first drawn to?

The first instrument I was drawn to was the drum kit. My dad was a drummer, so I spent my younger years playing (and coloring on) his drum kit.

I used to play along with Chuck Mangione albums. I was four or five. The music of Mangione, Chick Corea, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Santana, Dave Brubeck, The MJQ, Paul Simon (and Garfunkel) and The Beatles filled my young and impressionable head at the time. I was 5 or 6 at the time.

When did you first pick up the guitar as your instrument? AND was there any other instrument between the drums and guitar?

At the age of eight, my mom and dad bought me a bass guitar. It was a Fender Bullet. I played along with Rush, Yes and REO albums and whatever else I dug at the time. I nagged my parents to get me a guitar and they got me a Sigma acoustic when I was ten. I still have it.

What was your first concert?

Willie Nelson, I think. Followed closely with Paul Simon.. at the old Poplar Creek. My first rock show was Def Leopard at Alpine Valley in 1983. I went with my brother, Geoff, my mom and a friend of Geoff’s. Willie and Paul were family affairs, too. I’m a giant Willie Nelson fan.

When do you recall becoming a performer?

I became a performer in my 4th grade Production of Peter Pan. I was a pirate. I didn’t have any lines but got a laugh because my zipper was down. That was it, I was bitten by the showbiz bug! However, from the age of 6, I wanted to be a rockstar; but not the dopey Bon Jovi type. I wanted to be a guitar god ala Yngwie Malmsteen.


Was Yngwie the first guitar god you remember having that impact on you?

No. Actually, Alex Lifeson was, then I heard Al DiMeola. Holy shit! Steve Howe was a gigantic influence. Other early favorites were Grant Geissman, Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin, Chet Atkins, Jody Payne, and Frank Zappa. My life was forever changed when I heard Allan Holdsworth at 13. I loved Yngwie, though. I lost interest after his 4th album, Odyssey. Steve Morse and The Dregs, also!!

Tell me about how Holdsworth impacted you

I neighborhood oddball friend, whom I still know and love gave me Sand. I literally had heard nothing like it before. Imagine when I found out about his association with Bill Bruford!

When was your first music gig? What was it?

I had been in Orchestra and Concert Band and Jazz band as a drummer/percussionist in middle school, but my first public performance, solo, was a bass solo I did in a talent show in the 6th grade. I called it “Blacklist” for some reason, though it was printed in the program as “Backlift”.

The first “paying” gig I had was with my band in high school, No Apparent Reason. We played a concert to benefit the school’s benevolent society, Service Over Self. We sold tickets and a lot of people came. We sold our demo tape as merch. It was a magical experience and I’ll never forget the feeling of accomplishment afterward. Somewhere, there is a video of it.

As a trained orchestra and concert performer, reading music had to affect how you responded to guitar, yes?

They were separate entities. Percussion was a job. Guitar was instinctual. I was self-taught. I didn’t really learn to read until high school jazz band, but I sucked until my junior year at Elmhurst College.

Did you put bands together in those days?

Yes. In HS I got into Todd Rundgren, Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello and The Beatles. My obsession with Frank Zappa was at a fever pitch. I wanted to play that music, so I sought out people who were into it. I was always into Rush.

Tell me about getting into college studies

It was a rude awakening. I was a cocky, snot-nosed punk. Studying music theory, history and jazz brought me down a few pegs. Also, trying to analyze music by sight was a bitch. Then, I’d go to music business class and learn that nothing, not all my dreams of being a star playing esoteric music, really matters without good marketing.

I studied with amazing people. Doug Beach, the jazz band director, is a world-class cat and he taught me everything I know about discipline, ensemble leadership and being a professional.

His passion for and knowledge of jazz music and musicians fed my piqued my interest.

Was there a moment when you were more caught up in a non-music role? regular job, career, etc or have you always been able to focus on being a professional musician?

No, not really. I worked in a big box hardware store and a lumberyard in college, but I graduated into a job teaching at Elmhurst and started my illustrious freelance career concurrently.

Is there a moment you could identify as a “big break”? besides the teaching job

Not really, but there were certainly big moments. Doing a few gigs with Vinnie Colaiuta as a member of Kimo Williams’ Kimotion was a thrill. Hooking up with Howard Levy was a thrill. We’ve been playing music together now for nearly 20 years. Getting the first call to play with Patricia Barber. Getting the Prairie Home Companion gig replacing one of my idols, Pat Donahue, was a big thrill, as well. Playing with the world-class, astounding local musicians around Chicago is still thrilling. In my estimation, the best is yet to come.

Being a Zappa fan, tell me about getting to play with Colaiuta, please

Well, Vinnie was a hero. He was like Superman. At the time we played together, he had just surrendered the Sting gig to Keith Carlock. I had been listening to him for 15 years already, so it was a heart-stopping moment to hear all of those tendencies that I knew so well being played out in real-time right next to me. It was magic.

How did you hook up with Howard Levy, the legendary harmonica genius?

Through a mutual friend, Larry Kohut. Larry is one of the best bass players in the world. He can literally play anything; read anything – dead-on motherfucker. He was playing in a trio at the time with Howard. Howard asked him if he knew any good, young guitar players around town. Larry and I had been playing together a lot at that time (2000, 2001) and one day, I got a call from Howard. I brought a bunch of instruments to his house: a resonator, my acoustic, a Celtic bouzouki, a mandolin. He loved the blend of the harmonica and the resonator, so I ended playing that instrument with him, 90% of the time, over the last 19 years! We played music at his house in Evanston for six hours. At the end of it, I was in his orbit and shortly thereafter was a member of HL’s Acoustic Express with Larry and Pat Fleming (another remarkable musician/guitarist). The rest, as they say, Howard and I began touring the world together as a duo a couple of years after that. I think our first European tour was in 2006. We released our duo album, Art + Adrenaline in 2018. It features the first song Howard had me try with him at my “audition”, “Fade To Black”.

You’re not the only musician in the house…your brother is also a musician, right?

Geoff is a great guitarist and songwriter, yes. My sister played the piano, too. Mainly Journey songs!

And I think I saw you playing some great Steve Vai stuff together once?

Yes. Geoff had a band called Vai-Able that covered SV and I played “The Attitude Song” with him.

Tell me about some of your projects, please.

Well, I have several. I guess I’ll start with Psycles. It’s an eight-piece band that plays my originals and my arrangements of choice covers. The lineup features some of the best musicians in the world. We recorded our debut album, Live at Martyrs’, in 2010 and I single in 2013. Sadly, the roster doesn’t allow for us to get together much anymore, but I have plans to record again this year. I will emerge from this pandemic with a lot of new material, ready to be played.

The band is Ben Lewis: keys, Paul Mutzabaugh: keys, guitar, and vocals, Tim Fox: bass, Aaron McEvers: reeds, Brian Schwab: trumpet and flugelhorn, Jon Deitemyer: drums, Bob Garrett: percussion and myself. We also have a wonderful singer in Ingrid Graudins.

The other project, which I’ve had for 23 years is the fusion band, Kick the Cat with Vijay Tellis-Nayak, Chris Clemente and Kris Myers. We have three records and we’re currently working through our 4th. We’re not prolific until we are.

Another project, which is dear to me is my collaboration with the genius composer, John Elmquist: Lennon’s Tuba. John and I write the songs, sing and play them on acoustic guitar and acoustic bass guitar, then John writes these luxuriously knotty string quartet orchestrations to the songs. Our self-titled debut is out there.

We’re currently stalled, but were 3/4s of the way done with a new album that has some pretty amazing music on it! We hope to finish it this year.

The current lineup of Lennon’s Tuba is John Elmquist: acoustic bass guitar, string arrangements, and vox, Andrea Tolzmann: violin, Katherine Hughes: violin, Chuck Bontrager: viola, Victor Sotelo: cello and myself on acoustic guitar and vox.

I have a trio with Tim Fox and Frank Alongi that plays my original tunes in jazz sort of setting. I also have my solo show.

I play lap steel and guitar in a wonderful group led by my dear friend, Paul Mutzabaugh, called The Unknown New. It truly is beautiful material, written and arranged by Paul.

Tell me about your work on Prairie Home Companion

Well, around 2014, Garrison was tiring of the Shoe Band. Richard Dworsky, the illustrious motherfucker music director of the show and another hero of mine, asked Howard if he could recommend someone who can play and sing. Howard, being the wonderful and generous man that he is, said, “I know just the guy!” Bless him. I got a call from Rich, asking if I can join them at Town Hall in NYC in March. I couldn’t because I was the music director of a Beatles festival at Pick Staiger Concert Hall at Northwestern that weekend. It was impossible. I had to turn it down. I was devastated. Then, in May, I was in a taxi heading home from O’Hare, having just finished a wonderful tour with Howard in Austria and Germany, when I got another call from Rich asking if I can join APHC in LA at the Greek Theater in June. I think it was the 7th. I said yes, of course, and flew out to do my first show with Garrison, Rich, and Co. That weekend, the guests were Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart and Greg Brown!

I was asked to do their season opener in September and one show a month from then on until December, when I was officially asked aboard. I was flabbergasted and fucking over the moon. I came to the show as a fan!! I listened to the show with my mom in the ’80s! My college friends and I got high to it in the ’90s. I saw the movie in the theater and owned the 25th Anniversary Special. I was familiar with the show and the format and I absolutely loved Garrison’s writing. Still do!!

Then began the adventure of doing the weekly broadcasts from some of the finest venues in the nation, doing cruises, 5 and six-week bus tours, more broadcasts for two years straight. I can make a list 5 inches long of all of the legendary and insanely talented singer-songwriters and musicians that I played and toured within my tenure. We were supposed to do one last cruise last month, but alas.

It was the best gig I will ever have. The pay was terrific, the whole organization was staffed with wonderful people, we traveled in style and stayed at fine hotels. I have so many treasured memories of my time on A Prairie Home Companion that I could probably write a book about it. You asked me about an “arrival” moment, I guess this is one. On my third broadcast, I brought along a tune to try with the band. It was “Amor Afastado” and I had written on a tour of Brazil with Howard. I was encouraged the previous week to bring something in, so I did. Garrison heard it in rehearsal and liked it, so it went on the show. In those days, I was still music directing at Willow Creek Chicago church, so I drove to those shows at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. After that show, having had my tune played by the band and introduced by Garrison with supportive good humor, I drove the 6 hours back to Chicago, but I didn’t feel the road beneath me.

Tell me about the scene these days in Chicago music. It is certainly a legendary town for music. how does that play into your work?

Well, it is very alive in the jazz/jazz-ish community. People are composing and arranging like mad and a lot of wonderful music is getting made. There is also a gigantic tribute band market in town. I do what I can when I can. I try to keep an even keel between art and commerce. I’m still finding my way.
There are so many wonderful venues in town. I really hope they all survive the pandemic. So many are struggling right now.

Do you have a few favorite spots to play?

Absolutely. One of my good friends owns Martyrs’. I think it’s the best sounding room in town. I love Reggies and Space. I love the Fulton Street Collective, the Green Mill and Tonic Room. I love to play the summer music festivals. I don’t think they’re happening this year.

For those up and coming guitarists or other musicians, what words of advice would you give them at this point in time?

Stay at it. Stay positive and believe in your dreams. The world is so fucked, you might as well try to make your dreams a reality. Just don’t stop. With persistence, the stone will break.

News broke today that the great John Prine died today from coronavirus. Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share on him?

He was a legend, especially in Chicago. He was a genius songwriter with deep empathy for people from all walks of life. He was the genuine article. He will be sorely missed.