Ottmar Liebert on the cover of one his two new albums out this year, "Bare Wood."
(Courtesy photo/Greg Gorman)

In a 23-minute conversation with Ottmar Liebert, we discussed everything from the glory days of radio to the weather in Santa Fe to men wearing lederhosen.

Oh, and music, too, of course.

Liebert is known for his distinctive sound that blends both old and new – a style he calls contemporary flamenco.  A self-professed lover of San Antonio, Liebert and Luna Negra return to our city Thursday, July 31, at the Aztec Theatre. It will be Liebert’s first time playing at the historic downtown venue.

“I saw some pictures of the Aztec and it looked amazing so we’re really looking forward to it,” he said.

Not only will he be playing in a new venue, Liebert said the audience can expect “something a little different.”

“I have two new albums out instead of just one, and they have a different sound. One is called ‘Bare Wood’ and that album is very acoustic, organic – woodsy if you will,” Liebert explained.

“Jon Cagan has this wonderful old German upright bass that’s over 100 years old,” he said, and that will join Liebert’s flamenco guitar and an instrument called a cajon.

“It’s Spanish for box. It’s a Colombian instrument that was brought into flamenco in the late ‘70s and has now become quite popular, even in mainstream pop bands. It’s much smaller than a drum kit but it has a really cool sound,” Liebert said.

“Then for the second half we use a bigger palette and the percussionist will switch to his modified kit; he uses two cajons and snares, and Jon switches from his upright bass to bass guitar. And I still play mostly flamenco guitar but with the occasional touch of electric guitar. And it’s a little bit more like the other album I have out this year, which is ‘three-oh-five.’

Liebert said the band will play other material as well.

“We try to touch on some of the older stuff, and rearrange songs that we haven’t played in a while. It will be a mix of tunes from the new albums but also from our past catalog,” he said.

“So far we’ve done a six-week tour on the East Coast and people have really enjoyed this combination of the more old-fashioned, traditional acoustic sound in the first half and the more modern sound in the second half,” he said. “As musicians, we really enjoy doing both. Obviously playing different instruments requires looking at the music in a slightly different way. There’s a rich warm quality that you can get from the upright bass that you wouldn’t get from an electric bass guitar. Hearing that contrast of those two halves is a lot of fun for us.”

While the two albums have different sounds, there’s one song that bridges them.

“A song called ‘Fire Opal’ is on both albums. ‘Bare Wood’ is the version I first came up with last year which is really a slow ballad, just upright bass and flamenco guitar. At one point I was playing that and thought this could really be fun if I did it as sort of an electric rumba, so the same song is also on the other album but sounding completing different and quite a bit faster,” he explained.

“We start the first set with the slow ballad version of ‘Fire Opal,’ and we end the second set with the upbeat version from ‘three-oh-five,’” he said.

Liebert was born and raised in Cologne, Germany. He began playing guitar at the age of 11, and as many young men, had dreams of being a rock and roll star. He was influenced by Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin and Jeff Beck, but didn’t allow himself to be pigeonholed into one genre.

He eventually moved to Boston, still playing rock and roll, but then settled in Santa Fe, N.M., in 1986. He’s been there ever since.

“Moving to Santa Fe was probably the smartest thing I ever did,” Liebert said. “From the very beginning I was hounded by music industry people and record companies that wanted me to move to Los Angeles, and I refused and stayed here.

“On one hand, I probably missed out on a helluva lot of opportunities but I think it preserved my sanity so I know I did the right thing by staying here,” he said.

He spoke with awe of the beauty of his surroundings.

“Last night was one of those magical evenings. The sky got dark and then suddenly it started to hail,” he related. “And we’re not talking about rice kernel-sized grains of hail; it was probably up to half an inch sized balls of ice coming down and it was really heavy for about 15 to 20 minutes and then it stopped and the sun came out. Then you have this phenomena that I love here where the air is dry and the ground is still humid enough from before the hail that you have this steam floating above the ground. It’s spectacular.”

Santa Fe is a welcome oasis to return to after a demanding tour schedule, but Liebert downplays the rigors on the road.

“One, I’m used to it because we’ve done it for almost 25 years. Two, I’ve never understood why stars travel on airplanes because having to check in, check out and wait at the airport is much more tiring than getting into a bunk and waking up in a different town on a bus. I much prefer the bus to flying,” he said.

“And then I always think of my grandfather who worked 12 hours a day in a factory and I think my job is pretty easy. Of course, there are times when you’ve been on the road for five weeks and you think, ‘I’m sick of this. Now I can go home.’ But in the end it’s doing something that we love and that’s a real advantage.”

Liebert spoke realistically about the push behind traveling, admitting that because of the state of the music business today, performers don’t have much of a choice.

“CDs don’t sell so well anymore. People have to tour or else, which in my case it’s fine and I love it and my health is there, but it upsets me for those musicians, maybe in their 70s or 80s. Their income from records has basically disappeared so unless they’ve had enough income in the past to invest and make a living that way, they still have to tour and any sort of health issue creates a serious problem of having income,” he said, adding, “It’s not like when you’re 60 or 70 years old you can just switch professions.”

Ottmar Liebert. (Courtesy photo/Luis Alvarez)

The five-time Grammy nominee enjoys a diverse array of music.

“The last few days I’ve been listening to some Brazilian albums that I’m rediscovering from the ‘70s, but I also listen to classical music. I love American music, funk music, jazz, Charlie Haden’s quartet. I’ve been listening to a bunch of his albums that I have,” Liebert said. “I’m always amazed when people say they only listen to heavy metal, or they only listen to traditional flamenco, or they only like Bach.”

Liebert, who has 38 gold and platinum albums to his credit, said sticking to one style is just not in his nature.

 “I feel like, wow, there’s so many colors out there, so many different flavors, how can you be stuck on this one thing?” he asked. “There’s different music for different moments in your life. It’s one of the things I really miss about radio because for me, I consider great radio to be in the ‘70s and ‘80s until about the mid-‘90s, when the DJs actually made their own choices instead of a computer or a playlist that’s put together by asking people in malls to vote on songs.”

Speaking about radio obviously struck a chord with Liebert, who was passionate about his opinion.

“I miss that part of the curation when you’re so amazed at the juxtaposition of two pieces. I remember many times calling the local radio station trying to figure out what they had just played. And now we sort of have to depend on friends to send you the music,” he said.

“Every time I do an interview on a radio station like that I try to tell the listeners that it’s something precious, and if it’s not supported, it will go away. It’s something we all need to support because there really is no replacement for it,” he said. “There’s really nothing like finding a DJ who knows what they’re doing and having them serve you up some great music.”

One of Liebert’s fans, Pam Shockey of San Antonio, said she’s been following his music nearly 30 years.

“I first saw him in Santa Fe in the ‘80s. He was playing for his supper at the Santa Cafe Restaurant and other small places. I followed him everywhere,” she said. “He is super nice and very friendly. I fell in love with his mesmerizing blue eyes and his style of flamenco music. His story of why he plays barefoot is amusing. I have most of his CDs, several are autographed. It was so cool when I first heard his music on the Sunday Morning JazzShow on Q 101.9. I’m so glad he made it big time.”

Liebert spoke enthusiastically of his love for San Antonio, noting the city’s rich German heritage.

“Was there a soccer championship celebration?” he asked with a grin that was evident even over the phone.

When I told him of running into two men in lederhosen walking down Grayson St. on the day of the World Cup finals, he laughed, and then added, “My two favorite teams have won championships this year – the Spurs and the German national team. It’s been a good year.”

A good year indeed, and one that will be even better after seeing Ottmar Liebert and Luna Negra in concert July 31. 

The show is at the Aztec Theatre, located downtown at the corner of St. Mary’s and Commerce. Tickets run from $22 to $40.Doors open at 7 and the show’s at 8.


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