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Comedian Steve Martin finds musical success



Most people know Steve Martin as the "wild and crazy guy" featured on Saturday Night Live and as an actor and comedian. During various comedy bits, Martin would often play the banjo as a way to break up his set -- though the songs usually lasted seconds, instead of minutes. Now, Martin is on his first-ever tour as a musician as he tours in support of his critically acclaimed album, The Crow. Martin, who will be backed by the Steep Canyon Rangers on the tour, recently held a press teleconference where he answered questions from journalists around the country. Below is a transcript of part of that call.

You've long incorporated music into your comedy act. What made you decide to put the comedy aside and focus on the music specifically?

Steve Martin: Well, I haven't really performed comedy live for over 30 years and so that was an easy thing to do. You sort of get fried on it. But how I got into the music was, you know, I'd been playing these songs my whole life and in the last five years I wrote another 10 songs. And I'm a guy who likes to see things in a slot on a shelf -- meaning I wanted to sort of get these songs done and polished, and finished so I could say, well I did that. And it was a whole kind of life opening up for me -- another kind of life that's music-centric rather than comedy-centric and it's really, really nice.

How did your first appearances actually playing the banjo in public happen?

When I started doing comedy, I didn't really have enough time so I just put in everything I knew. I did magic tricks. I juggled and I played a few songs on the banjo. And that's how it all got started. And basically the act never changed. It just got bigger.

I think it's kind of one thing to play; it's another big step to write and record. And then it's another big step to tour. So I'm wondering if there's any degree of nervousness about going on the road to do a straight music tour as opposed to a comedy tour?

Yes, I was very nervous. But that's why I've done about six local shows just to get at ease. And I think I'm finally at ease. But it did take a while because, you know, it is very different from playing in your living room to playing on stage. Now I had played on stage before in my comedy acts and when I was opening for the Dirt Band, and that sort of thing. But that's a long time ago. Now, I'm much more relaxed and I feel more confident.

Has anybody asked for "King Tut"?

You know, the strange thing is I've done about six shows so far. And I've mostly played and I'd have a few one-line jokes or funny introductions, but it's not really a comedy show. It's a banjo show. But people seem happy and they know it's a music show. And then I can get away with doing some jokes. If they thought it was a comedy show and I played nine banjo songs they might be upset.

I would imagine that you have a comfort being on stage for so many years, but then again performing music has to have a different feeling for you than comedy. I was just wondering how the two compare.

It's a very different feeling. It's funny, when I would be doing a comedy routine I would constantly be going "this is working, this is working, oh that didn't work, this is working." But you can actually feel in the middle of a song a connection to the audience. And it's funny how it can sort of arise all of a sudden because I'm playing these songs that most people have never heard before. So, they have to sort of get into it and be able to understand the song. And you can sometimes just actually feel it happen. It's a very different feeling than doing comedy. It's hard to say why because in comedy you're always thinking what's next. And in music you know what's next and it's kind of thrilling when it happens because it's new for me. When I was onstage, I never played a song that lasted three minutes. I played a song that lasted 15 seconds when I was doing comedy. There's something a little more casual, too, about it in my performance because I could talk between songs. But when I was doing comedy I was talking all the time. I think I'm in a comfortable place with it and -- because I was very nervous about playing onstage at first. But now I feel better.

I assume you go out with a set list where you're not kind of adjusting to play off the crowd, too. And that would be a difference.

Well, we do have a set list. And the reason so far that we haven't needed to change it in the middle of a show is because we haven't had any bad audiences or something. But also, I'm playing three different banjos, basically because I don't want to have to retune one banjo while the audience is standing there waiting. So, I can keep a banjo in open D tuning or an A tuning and just pick it up, and not bore the audience. But at some other point we might just become -- "Hey, let's do this other thing next, you know."

You are going to be the first performer in a new theater that we're opening here in Charlotte, the Knight Theater.

Oh, that's scary.

Is that intimidating at all?

Well, usually the kinks aren't ironed out. But I'm thrilled.

How important is the venue to you? What kind of venue do you look for? And do you really want to go to a place that you think is going to bring a crowd that wants that kind of music?

Well, I think the venue is everything. I can remember when I was doing stand-up, I'd walk into a place and just feel my heart sink because I knew it was going to be trouble. The venues we've got seem to be really, really good. When I was a kid in high school, we had this really lovely theater, and it was a proscenium stage and it seated 1,500 people. And it had great acoustics. And that's always been my ideal. And when I was doing stand-up, that was always my ideal because the audience is really focused. They're not sitting around on picnic tables, you know.

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers will perform at Knight Theater on Oct. 1. Dave Barry will open. Tickets begin at $54.

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