New York guitar ace Stephen Ulrich likes working with a gun to his head


By Steve Newton

Doing research for an interview with guitarist Stephen Ulrich can be a fun thing–especially if you’re a Beatles fan. Searching around on YouTube, it doesn’t take long to discover a version of the John Lennon-penned “Girl”, off the 1965 Rubber Soul album. The tune, performed by Ulrich’s instrumental band Big Lazy, is given a loungey, Tom Waits-ian vibe, and features some sweet trumpet playing by Steven Bernstein. It was included on the trio’s 2019 album, Dear Trouble.

“It’s actually really nice to take a Beatles tune and sort of put it through our kind of gothic filter,” says Ulrich, on the line from his home in Jersey City. “We had played that song like hundreds of times, and our music is accessible–it’s fun, people dance, it’s not like avant-garde–so it’s actually fun to just take one of the songs that you throw around at a gig. We had Bernstein in the studio to record something else, and we were like, ‘You know what, let’s do it,’ so we brought him and we did two takes.”

Like many musicians his age, the 62-year-old Ulrich goes way back with the Fab Four. He remembers first discovering his love of music at the age of three during a weekend visit to his cousin’s house that involved plastic Beatles guitars. But when he started playing real ones at 13 or 14 it wasn’t as if Ulrich’s main goal was to learn how to fingerpick “Blackbird”. He studied jazz with New York City bebop guitarist Sal Salvador.

“It was pretty cool,” Ulrich recalls. “He had like a dusty old music studio at the Ed Sullivan Theatre, so I would go study with him there. And I was also starting to dabble in the downtown music scene–the punk-rock, alternative-underground scene. So I kinda swerved off the road from studying bebop and jazz to playing in bands where I was the only one that could play an instrument, which was interesting sometimes. Not always.”

While Big Lazy is strictly an instrumental outfit these days, the group–which also includes bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion–wasn’t always that way. It started off as a working band with a lead vocalist, but one night he just didn’t show up for a gig.

“The singer just sort of fell off the boat,” explains Ulrich, “so we just went on as an instrumental band, and I felt it was more captivating than with a singer. On the one hand it’s kind of limiting because, you know, instrumental rock–there’s not that many bands that have truly made it. But at the same time, we started licensing music for films, because the music’s evocative of film noir, stuff like that.”

“Cinematic” is a word often used to describe the sound of Big Lazy, and Ulrich has always found inspiration in music created for the celluloid realm. He points to the “frightening” soundtrack work of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood on There Will Be Blood and Quincy Jones on In Cold Blood as particularly impressive. And he was hugely impressed by the music Elmer Bernstein did for director Otto Preminger’s 1955 drama, The Man With the Golden Arm.

“Frank Sinatra plays a junkie,” says Ulrich, “he’s a jazz drummer, and it’s a brilliant movie. And the other movie Elmer Bernstein did that I really loved, that really affected me, was The Magnificent Seven. I often say that that’s what Big Lazy is–it’s sort of like Big Sky Country music meets claustrophic film noir–kinda like East and West.”

Ulrich’s biggest breakthrough in the music-for-film world came when he scored the job as composer for the HBO series Bored to Death, which ran from 2009 to 2011. He didn’t find that boring at all. Just very demanding.

“I love working with a gun to my head, so to speak,” he says. “That’s not a good metaphor these days, sorry. But I actually like working with deadlines just because it kinda strips away all the preciousness of writing music. When I was writing the music for Bored to Death often they’d be like ‘You know what? We need a tango and we need it by 4 p.m.’  So you’re just kinda workin’ on pure instinct, you know, which I like, ’cause I feel like my best music is produced out of some sort of raw, primitive thing.”

While currently residing in the Garden State–where he lives with his wife and two kids–Ulrich has spent most of his life in New York City. His music has always gone over well in the Big Apple, and Big Lazy has had no trouble getting gigs there.

“We’re just constantly playing,” he reports. “That’s what I’m doing in New York, otherwise I’d be living out in the woods probably. I mean I’ve been in the city forever, and it’s great, and that’s why I’m still here.”

Leave a Reply