Some time with
multi-Grammy-nominated guitarist Jim ‘Kimo’ West
By Dean Lee and Naughty Mickie
With the 63rd Grammy
Awards less than five months away, and likely to be unlike
traditional shows of the past, we sat down with Jim “Kimo” West.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with this extraordinary
musician, he is known by some as the lead guitarist for Weird Al
Yankovic, for others he is known as a talented slack key guitar
player who performs both as a solo act and with a range of other
Hawaiian music artists and the lucky few (like us) know him for
This year, West has been involved in Grammy
compilation album entries, “Aloha Radio Hawaii” and “Rooted in
Song,” and his own album, “More Guitar Stories,” which has been
nominated for “Best New Age Album.”
West missed the NAMM
2020 music trade show in January-- something he has never done.
He was instead on the 20th International Guitar Night Tour
throughout North America. Every year, four guitar players from
around the world - who usually do not know each other - are
selected to tour together. West said he toured with England’s
Mike Dawes, Turkish fretless guitarist Cenk Erdogan and Finnish
gypsy jazz player Olli Soikkeli.
“We toured over about
two months and it was super fun because the first half of the
show would be everybody doing their own solo things and then the
second half we would take turns doing duets with each other and
then we would have a quartet at the end where we all played with
each other,” West shared.
West’s newest album “More
Guitar Stories,” is a follow-up to a previous record he put out
in 2015, “Guitar Stories.” He said that this was his first
record deviating from the Hawaiian slack key spectrum.
“Most of my records are based on Hawaiian slack key and I’m
usually writing new songs in that style or maybe doing
arrangements of older songs,” he said. “Basically the concept
was to use the Hawaiian slack key tunings, but explore other
cultures. Essentially that’s what I’m doing on this record too,
so it’s an extension of ‘Guitar Stories.’”
said there was not a direct connection between the International
Guitar Night Tour and his new album, he does have Cenk Erdogan
performing on one of the tracks.
His writing process is
a simple but lengthy collection of stored ideas.
“Most of my songs come from exploring tunings, finding new
tunings and just being inspired,” West explained. “What I
usually do on most of my records, some songs are written out of
inspiration and I just write them up and record them; other
songs come from ideas that I have stored. When I’m on tour I’ll
have a little recorder with me and when I’m playing a lot in my
hotel room I’ll come up with an idea. I catalog all those ideas
and on my computer I have hundreds of little snippets of ideas
that I put in different folders, this is a traditional slack key
piece, this is more of a world music thing. And when I’m doing a
record I’ll go back to those snippets and ideas and sometimes
I’ll burn a CD of them and play them in the car and certain ones
will pop out. I’ve got hundreds of them, I’ll never get to
recording all of them.”
West, being able to play many
genres of music, said the difference with slack key is the style
is based on hundreds of traditional tunings, many handed down
through family generations.
“The thing about the
tunings is none of your previous knowledge helps you at all as
far as your fingerings and the chords because every time you
have a tuning, the chord shapes are completely different, so you
tend to be led more by your ear than you are by your fingers and
you’ll make these incredible, happy mistakes because you really
don’t know what you’re doing on the guitar. It just opens your
mind up to creativity,” West shared.
In arranging the
songs on an album, West said that he likes to stick with
tradition so that it has a flow.
streaming people don’t listen to albums all that much, they just
listen to individual songs, but every once in a while some
people still put a record or CD on and like to experience the
journey of the music so I try and arrange it so that it has a
natural flow from one thing to another,” said West.
added that with “More Guitar Stories” it varies, starts slowly,
then moves uptempo, then down and mysterious with a West African
groove and so on.
“Nowadays people just put out singles.
An album, there’s something very special about it. I’ll continue
to make albums, in fact I have another record almost finished,
which is going to be a follow up to ‘Moku Maluhia,’ a very slow,
relaxing album, which earned a Grammy nomination,” added West.
West said his Grammy projects, in addition to his own
projects, include “Aloha Radio Hawaii” with steel slide
guitarist Ken Emerson and others. A tribute to the classic
Hawaiian music of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, eras before slack key
was recorded so there isn’t any slack key on the album he said.
“It was recorded all live in the studio, as done in the past,
except with high end equipment.”
West explained, “this
was a real unique chance to make a quality record. The idea was
to do this golden age of Hawaii record. (Producer Dave Way)
talked to me about it when I was on tour with Weird Al, I think
he called me when I was in Toronto, and I said you’ve got to get
Ken Emerson involved because Ken is the guy that really knows
how to play that old style steel guitar and the acoustic style,
he’s really good at that era of music. So we got Ken involved
and the producer lined up other musicians. It was a really great
opportunity to make this kind of record; these kinds of records
are never made any more.”
West also contributed a single
track, “Hapa Huli Chicken,” to the Americana compilation album,
“Rooted in Song.” It’s a reworking of a song he had written for
a previous album, but never used. He had never officially
released the tune, but laughed as he explained that it somehow
went viral and was even used in several online videos, earning
him some money.
As with all musicians, the Covid pandemic
has changed the way West sees the music scene now and in the
future. He said that they were lucky with The International
Guitar Night Tour, as it had wrapped up just as social
distancing was closing down the world.
“We flew back
from Seattle and the airport was completely empty. We were lucky
because we got every show in,” West shared. “For me, it’s been a
blessing in disguise because normally I don’t get to spend so
much time in my studio. Because of the pandemic I’m just staying
home a lot so I’m writing and recording music like crazy. Of
course I’m not playing any gigs, but I’m lucky because my music
has been out there streaming so I have a bit of a regular
income. But a lot of my musician friends who rely on playing
shows, they’re in bad shape so I try to support them when
they’re doing their online concerts.”
“As far as the
future goes, it’s hard to say.” West went on, “With Weird Al
this year was going to be off, but we planned a new tour for the
upcoming year, February or something like that. Of course that’s
changed, but the plan is, if possible, to try to start the tour
in the fall of next year. Perhaps by then we’ll have a vaccine.
Big concerts will be the last thing they let happen, so we’ll
see what happens.”
Additionally, West normally plays at
the annual Slack Key Festival held each January at the Redondo
Beach Performing Arts Center. West said that in 2021 he will
hopefully travel, as producer Mitch Chang is planning to offer a
virtual show with the artists playing from Oahu.
the future, he has an idea for a dreamy “Pink Floyd meets
Americana” album-- “Something for all the yoga moms in
Nashville.” After that he wants to do a traditional slack key
record, bringing in guest artists from Hawaii and it may even
include some vocals from his lovely wife, Diana.