Leif Sorbye interview
February 15, 1999
by Steph Perry
Lief Sorbye founded Tempest over 10 years ago. As Lief puts it, “Tempest is a rock band that plays electric folk music.” The band’s line up has had many changes over the years, the only remaining founding member besides Sorbye is the drummer. The group gained momentum as a live act and still performs extensively each year. Tempest enjoys performing at festivals and has a dedicated fan base. Lief called me from his home in the San Francisco bay area to talk about Tempest’s new album, his side project Caliban, and what it’s like to develop a new instrument, “It’s like an evolution. You get into exploring uncharted territory musically, and then you get the instruments crafted to fit that exploration. It goes hand in hand: with developing the music, is also developing the tools to play the music.”
The latest incarnation of Tempest includes Lief Sorbye (lead vocals, mandolin, octave mandola, flute), Michael Mullen (fiddle, violin, vocals), Adolfo Lazo (drums) Dave Parnall (guitars), and John Land (bass, vocals). Their current album, “The Tenth Anniversary Compilation”, was released on Magna Carta records in the latter part of 1998. Check out tempestmusic.com for biographical and touring info.
How has the fan response been so far for the 10th anniversary record?
It’s been really good, actually. It was an album that was custom made for the existing fan base. It was songs from our back catalog that’s difficult to get these days. This is our seventh release, and the first four of them are now really difficult to get, but the fans are still requesting songs from those albums live, and so it was a token to them to re-record them with the new line up. So it was a way to service our fan base as well as give some of this old material a new injection of energy. People want to buy what they hear on stage, you know? That’s the nature of the game for us because we do a good hundred shows on the road a year.
What’s the status of the next studio album?
We just barely started working on new material. We’ve written a handful of new things but we yet haven’t arranged it, so I’d say by the earliest, the end of the year maybe the beginning of next year we’ll be ready to record another album. We’ve been fairly prolific in the studio. Since we signed with Magna Carta, I’ve released four albums since 1996. The road work and the live work and all the business connected with it takes up 90% of my time, but we’re looking at always working towards the next record.
Why did you and Michael form Caliban?
Tempest is a funny band in that we have one foot in the rock and roll world, and one foot in the folk world. So we kind of cater to two styles of venues. We cater to the sit down listening houses that usually combine the acoustic and traditional music, and then we cater to the rock and roll clubs that are a whole other voltage, you know? A lot of times you get requests from smaller venues that can’t accommodate our needs for sound and everything else, but I want to be able to give them something. So we started doing acoustic duo gigs as a supply and demand type of situation. I’m a working musician and play an average of 15-20 dates every month. So, for me, it’s a way to keep busy and make money and have plenty of work. Michael and I can go out and do mid-week gigs around Northern California when Tempest is not on the road. It helps me to play the source material in a more intimate acoustic setting and kind of stick closer to the traditional way of playing the music. It gives me a lot more background to arrange it for a rock band.
Did you enjoy your work on the “To Cry You A Song” Jethro Tull tribute?
It was actually pretty fun. I just played with Glenn Cornick yesterday. He was the original bass player for Tull. We talked about it last night! He enjoyed it too. I thought it was a fun project and I thought it came across pretty good.
Were you entitled to pick the songs you worked on or did someone ask you to do certain songs?
I picked them. What happened is, Tempest had played “Locomotive Breath” on the tribute album, and we had played that song live many times, years ago, as an encore. So we kind of knew the song would work. I also did “Mother Goose” as a solo for the tribute project, and that was a song that I’ve done live, and we added it to Caliban’s repertoire after I recorded it for the tribute album. It was all stuff I’d been familiar with, you know? It was kind of fun and light, and not a very serious thing. I think that came across on the tribute album too. I have a little bit of an affection for that particular tribute album.
How did you come up with the idea for a double-neck electric mandolin?
It was a convenience type of situation. When I started the band, I used my acoustic instruments and I didn’t cut through the wall of sound then that we were producing on stage. So I was able to find some electric mandolins. But I play an octave mandola and a mandolin, and I figured I needed something custom made. Instead of having two instruments made, and have to switch back and forth all the time, I got the two necks on one body. Out of that came a whole new style of playing for me, all of a sudden I had two necks to my disposal, and I could go back and forth within the same piece of music. It became it’s own instrument. As we speak I’m getting an acoustic double-neck made, hopefully I’ll have it by March 21st, I’ve been working on getting that designed for me in Britain. It’s become like a style for me that I developed out of sheer convenience to have something to work with within Tempest. You know, Tempest is kind of my brain child and my vision and I kind of have to find the right instrument to project what I wanted. The band kind of developed the instrument for me, you could put it that way.