Musician, actor and producer Gary Farmer isn't interested in relaxing right now
FARMINGTON — Musician and actor Gary Farmer had good reason for scheduling his band, the Troublemakers, for a grueling, month-long tour that includes 26 shows across seven states in August and September. He figures it'll get him in shape for what he's got coming this fall.
Farmer — perhaps best known for his starring roles in the films "Dead Man," "Powwow Highway" and "Smoke Signals" — will put aside his music for a while later this month as he begins rehearsals for a stage production of the new musical "Indian Joe" at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, Conn. When the Goodspeed Musicals production opens Oct. 22, Farmer, who has the lead role, and the rest of the cast will find themselves performing eight shows a week through a run that is scheduled to end Nov. 15 — unless it gets extended or, even better, taken to Broadway.
So, even at age 62, Farmer apparently doesn't mind setting and maintaining a performance pace that would leave much younger artists gasping for breath.
"That's part of my mad reasoning," Farmer said via telephone from his home in Santa Fe earlier last week as his band enjoyed a short break before hitting the road again for the last leg of the Troublemakers tour, which includes shows this weekend in Aztec and Cortez, Colo.
Staying busy is something Farmer is used to. Over the course of his career, in addition to acting and playing music, he's been a television producer and magazine publisher, and done radio work. He's the first to admit that balancing that many interests — and trying to maintain any semblance of a personal life — can be a challenge.
But the Ontario native and member of the Cayuga Nation wouldn't have it any other way.
"I always believe as a performer, the best thing I can do is perform," he said. "When you've been at it for 40-plus years, it becomes a way of life."
In regard to the Troublemakers, Farmer believes he's captured lightning in a bottle. He's enthusiastic about playing with guitarist/keyboardist Derek Miller and singer-songwriter Marc Brown, two other Native performers with lengthy music résumés. Brown is an Alaska native who has recorded 12 albums and earned a Best Blues Recording title from the Native American Music Awards. Miller is a native of Canada who has toured with Buffy Sainte-Marie and earned two Juno awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys). Bassist Jaime Bird Yellow Horse and drummer Jme Russell round out the group.
"Their creative input into my music has made us kind of a powerhouse," said Farmer, who sings and plays harmonica.
The group's most recent effort, 2015's "Road Songs," was recorded at the studio of longtime Santa Fe music scene kingpin Jono Manson in Chupadero. The material is heavily influenced by the blues, but also features elements of rock, pop and reggae.
Farmer said he and Manson have been friends for a long time, and Farmer enjoys working with him because he said Manson has never rushed him through the creative process.
"It takes time to create a recording, and Jono's allowed me to do that over the years," he said. "He's the consummate artist and friend — and a cool guy."
Music has been a part of Farmer's life for as long as he can remember, leading him to bounce from group to group.
"I've always been the guy who winds up ... in somebody's band," he said, laughing.
As a vocalist and harmonica player, Farmer said he has been greatly influenced by Howlin' Wolf. He believes Native people have just as much of a kinship to the blues as African-Americans, pointing out that the members of many nations, including his own, were accomplished farmers, and that agrarian background has a direct correlation to the blues.
"So that music — blues, jazz — is just as much Native American music as much as it is black American music," he said. "That's part of my artistic exploration, where I've ended up creating my own form of the blues and fashioning my own style."
Farmer described his musical explorations as part of his effort to find some truth for himself. It's been a long journey.
"When I left my family, that's the one thing I took with me," he said. "The harmonica's always been my instrument."
And while Farmer is used to taking on a lead role, as he frequently does in his acting, production and music careers, he was happy to note that he doesn't feel the burden to do that all the time with the Troublemakers, given the ensemble nature of the group and its exceptional talent.
"For years, I was a frontman, and that's all I did," he said, recalling some of his other bands. "But I found I don't get to be a musician then."
Performing alongside Brown and Miller has helped ease that burden, Farmer said, and he finds himself enjoying the chance to focus on his harp playing.
Of course, Farmer is well acquainted with the dynamic of serving as part of an ensemble in his acting career. He's had the chance to share the screen with many of the biggest names in the film industry, appearing with Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, Angela Bassett and Edward Norton in the 2001 thriller "The Score"; Meryl Streep, Nicolas Cage and Chris Cooper in 2002's "Adaptation"; and Johnny Depp, Robert Mitchum, Billy Bob Thornton, John Hurt Gabriel Byrne and Alfred Molina in the 1995 western "Dead Man." But it was Farmer's work in the critically acclaimed, low-budget independent films "Powwow Highway" (1989) and "Smoke Signals" (1998) that really helped establish his reputation as an accomplished actor.
Farmer laughed as he talked about working with De Niro and Brando, recalling how De Niro rarely spent any time on the set when he wasn't filming.
"He doesn't like sitting around because everyone's always going, 'Hey, that's Robert De Niro,'" Farmer said.
The late Brando, often regarded as having one of the prickliest personalities in show business, was actually a delight to work with, Farmer said, recalling how the Academy Award-winning actor liked to torment director Frank Oz for his work as the voice of the Muppets' Miss Piggy.
In "Dead Man," Farmer was much more than a face in the crowd, co-starring with Depp. Farmer said it took a while for the actors to develop a relationship.
"We gradually got to know each other as filming went on," he said. "There was no instant bonding. He's comfortable in his own skin, as I am, so he doesn't need a lot of attention."
Farmer was right at home on the set of that film, as the Jim Jarmusch-directed production had a heavy musical vibe, featuring a scorching guitar soundtrack by Neil Young and cameo roles by the likes of Iggy Pop of the Stooges and Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers.
Eventually, he and Depp became good friends, Farmer said, explaining that Depp once took him to Germany for three days to gorge on wiener schnitzel. And when Depp was in the process of putting together a film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,", he took Farmer with him to Lexington, Ky., to meet Thompson, as Farmer was being considered for the Dr. Gonzo role that eventually was filled by Benicio del Torro.
Farmer recalled that trip with a great deal of fondness, explaining how he shared a hotel suite with Depp. When they returned to it that night, Depp insisted that Farmer take the big, fluffy bed for himself. When he woke up the next morning, Farmer was surprised to find Depp curled up on the floor at the foot of the bed.
It's a story that illustrates Depp's genuine and well-grounded nature, Farmer believes.
"He's a kind-hearted man," Farmer said. "I don't think he'd be as successful as he is if he wasn't."
Farmer didn't have the opportunity to grow as close to Brando on the set of "The Score," but the "Godfather" star made a big impression on him anyway.
"With Marlon, the main thing was his integrity as an artist," Farmer said. "That meant a lot to me. And he was funny, always with the antics."
Farmer said he's learned that making people laugh is as much a means of valid artistic expression as making people cry. Either way, it leads to making people think, he said, and that's the whole point.
"Critical thinking," he said, describing his goal. "However I can do that, whatever the medium."
Farmer's next move will be a return to the live stage, where he'll play the role of a homeless Native man who enters into an unlikely friendship with a Texas beauty queen in "Indian Joe." Tony Award nominee Elizabeth A. Davis wrote the songs for the production, and Farmer is excited about the opportunity the role presents and the message behind the show. No matter the medium, he said, his goal is to promote Native arts and help pave the way for younger creative types to carve out successful careers for themselves.
"That's what keeps me young," he said. "I try to inspire people to carry on the arts in places where it's been pushed down."
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