Taos is full of hidden treasures -- people who are unheralded masters of their craft, happily working away without fuss or fanfare. Music producer, composer, instrumentalist and instrument-maker Miles Davis Ironwood is one of those treasures. We spoke with Ironwood and longtime girlfriend Samantha Trujillo over tacos on the Guadalajara Grill patio.
"I was born and grew up here in Taos, listening to whatever music my parents listened to when I was younger - Bob Marley, AC/DC, African music," said Ironwood. "I played whatever I could get my hands on -- guitar, bass, piano, pretty much anything with strings. My uncle Dennis gave me a guitar so I could keep playing and learning. Then from there I was just kind of figuring out old rock and roll riffs like Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, all the typical riffs that people would want to learn in middle school. I ended up taking the guitar everywhere with me, and any time I was at a piano I would have my guitar on my lap and if I came up with something really cool on the piano I would try and figure it out on guitar. That's how I got started with different instruments. Barnaby Hazen was teaching music at Yaxche middle school. He taught me Duke Ellington's 'Satin Doll' on guitar and I was really into it."
Barnaby Hazen is a fixture in Taos music as lead singer of Babelshack and former bass player for the Pedestrians (now known as Katy P and the Business). "I've known Miles for a long time," said Hazen. "He was a student of mine at Yaxche School. When I hear of all he's up to now, it's beyond rewarding to think that all the while he was not only quietly taking so much in, but preparing to make it his own. In Miles' story we find all that any teacher who gives a damn needs to keep going."
Throughout high school and ever since, Ironwood has been playing, recording and producing music. He has an active Soundcloud with dozens of recordings of original work, ranging from Jobim-inspired Brazilian-style riffs, to elegant '70s-groove jams, to music that sounds fresher than next week. His gigs have included everything from solo guitar at gallery openings and retirement homes to DJ work at Taos Mesa Brewing.
"My mom named me, and my dad got to name my little brother. They both liked Miles Davis," he says of his iconic name. "There's a lot of musical people in my family, they sing, they dance. Every time I visited my dad's side of the family, the Diné side, there were my uncles singing or playing music. They all had traditional music if nothing else. I think it was when I was in first or second grade I began noticing that music correlated to movement in everyday life. Every action that you do every day has some kind of music that goes with it.
"After high school I started working making cabinets for hotels, I'd go travel around the country doing that. It was kind of cool to look at how the cabinets were put together, how there's a specific way you put them on the wall. I realized that building instruments wasn't that different.
"The first harp I built was after playing "Dragon Quest XI," which featured a live symphony orchestra throughout most of the game, and a particular part of the game featured a beautiful harp piece. This inspired me to build the harp. After that I just kept making instruments. I really wanted to have a fretless bass, so I googled it and realized if I wanted anything I would enjoy playing, it would not be cheap. I decided to make one. It's basically just a slab of wood with another piece of wood coming out of it, but there were a few things that were a little more nuanced. You're basically grounding the instrument so you don't get a buzz. I found that out the hard way, through trial and error. Pickup placement is important. You want the string vibrating right over that magnetic rod or it won't pick it up. There's a taper to the strings. Then I built Samantha a harp, a kind of hybrid Celtic koto."
Samantha Trujillo has been Ironwood's romantic partner for five years, but they have been friends much longer than that. "In ninth grade, one of the first things he said to me was 'What would you say if I told you I produce music?'" she mused. "We used to hang out and go to concerts together. Then one night he wrote me a song and played it outside my window. I think that was the night we got together. I've been loving watching him make these instruments. With every instrument he tries to improve on the last one, see what he likes and doesn't like, what he can do differently next time. He nitpicks every one of them but they all sound pretty good."
Asked if the instruments are for sale, he pauses and thinks about it.
"I probably will sell them at some point. Right now I have a bunch of instruments crowding the house and I need to know what to do with them. You do create them and get attached to them. They give a uniqueness because nobody else is going to have that particular instrument made with that particular wood. Most guitars are made with mahogany, maple or rosewood, but I just used whatever I could get my hands on -- pine, oak and walnut. I feel you get a nice warm buzzing noise from the fretless with the walnut fingerboard. The wood starts to show age from UV exposure, especially pine. Usually when you've just cut it, it's really light and then it darkens up and starts to turn grey like an old park bench."
And what does the future hold for this Renaissance man?
"In the near future I'm going to be rebuilding the recording studio to be more analog."
We double-check to make sure we've heard correctly. More analog? As in, less digital?
"Yes, that's right. I've gotten really tired of the way all music sounds now. No ebb, no flow, no varying tempo. I want to move away from the computer and just do it old school. I'll still have the computer set up to do things the way I've been doing, but no overdub, no nothing, get it all in one take. That's the reason the music from back then was the way it was, they had to be that good to play it right the first or second time because tape and studio time were expensive. It would be cool to get it the way I want it to sound in one or two takes. I have time to do it now. We never really do much partying or going to bars anyway, so quarantine just gave Samantha and me more time to create and go on hikes together."
Listen to Ironwood's music on Soundcloud at DJ Mile5.