COUNTING CROWS: NEXT STOP, AMERICA

8/27/15

Aquarian Weekly

Buzz Feature

 

COUNTING CROWS: NEXT STOP, AMERICA

Lead singer Adam Duritz Talks Evolution of Live Performance, Spodify, Bands Assholes Like, and the Inspiration of R.E.M and RUN-D.M.C.

 

The current Counting Crows tour, which appears to move seamlessly from the last Counting Crows tour, and the one before that, has been promoting the band’s last record, the ethereal and infections, Somewhere Under Wonderland for nearly a year through Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Europe, finally beginning the leg of its U.S. jaunt late summer into autumn…and on and on. More than most, the Counting Crows is a touring band. It caravans entire families and friends across thousands of miles in order to make each night a special occasion. Its lead singer and principle songwriter, Adam Duritz calls it an economic necessity, but in the same breath believes it to be vital to the creative process. “Truthfully, I think a lot of my creativity is satisfied by playing every night,” he tells me. “I don’t necessarily feel the need to write.” With each performance, the songs take on new meaning and subtle and not so subtle changes – expressive, as well as musical.Layout 1

Back home, just beyond the literary and cultural beacon, Washington Square Park, the center of New York’s Greenwich Village, Duritz is gearing up for U.S audiences. Fresh off another successful Outlaw Road Show, this time in Nashville, a three-day, thirty-two band review in which he is co-founder and host (with friend and blogger Ryan Spalding), and gleeful front-row fan, he says without hesitation, “It’s my favorite thing I do, it’s more fun than anything else.”

Random conversations with Duritz has been one of the highlights of my career; whether discussing songwriting, performing, the struggle to achieve, as well the more challenging struggle to handle, fame or just bandying about goofy pop culture and literary minutia. He is a man of various tastes, but an admitted lunatic about music; cherishing its history, absorbed in its influences, and never daring to take for granted his place in it. Devouring any subject I throw at him, he is never guarded, and yet he chooses to share his thoughts carefully. Duritz is, after all, a word man. He provides context to the shifting moods of his band, a perfect six-piece amalgam of equally voracious music freaks that instinctually understand how to serve his songs, build upon them, and then restructure them for fun and art.

The Counting Crows may tour a lot, but they are never to be missed. Maybe that’s why they tour a lot. Performances are always a new and intriguing expression and to be there to witness it is a joy. They are the eternal live act – in and out of the studio – and Adam Duritz is their clarion.

 

When we last spoke early last August, Somewhere Under Wonderland had yet to come out, but you mentioned having played the songs live for awhile, and you were really jazzed about their reception. You’ve been touring this whole past year; Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, so how have they evolved and how do you feel about how they’re coming across on the tour?

 

They’re coming across great. The only thing that’s weird is that we still haven’t really played America yet since the record came out. We did like a week and a half in the Midwest around Christmas last year, because we had to play a couple of little festival shows… but it’s weird we’ve been touring for so long on this record, including a whole summer playing America before the record came out. It’s easy to forget because we’ve been to Europe twice, we’ve been to Australia, New Zealand, we’ve been all the way across Canada…Vancouver to Newfoundland, places I’ve never even been before in Canada… but we haven’t played America. We’re all looking forward to that.

The songs have caught on great, but we thought that when we wrote them too. We thought they’d be great live, we thought some of them were immediately great live. We played “Palisades Park” the entire summer, and it worked when nobody knew it. So it certainly started working when people did know it, it became very powerful. I had a lot of trouble over the summer with “Scarecrow”. It took me awhile to get really good at “Scarecrow”, and “Earthquake Driver”, they got really good eventually. I had trouble finding my way inside them as far as live songs, but that came eventually. It takes a little bit of figuring out how to get your head around things you’re doing live.

 

What do you mean by getting “inside a song”? 

 

Well… you want to be present while singing it… you don’t want to be doing a copy of a version you did before, you want to be singing it as you are there… and I have no problem on songs like “Palisades Park”, which theoretically could be harder, or “God of Ocean Tides, or most of the stuff on the record like “Dislocation”. I knew where to go with it.  I think because “Scarecrow” and “Earthquake Driver” were so strong melodically and rhythmically as they were written I sailed through recording them on the record. I think a lot of that was because when I was singing them on the record that’s the first time I was really singing it, and I was very present in it. When I got on the road with the songs the particular melody and rhythm is so strong in those songs…was so strong in my head…that it felt like I was covering my own song for awhile there. I couldn’t find a way to really… put myself into it, to really feel it while I was singing it. It took me awhile to find my way into those songs. I want to be present singing stuff and I want to sing it like it’s happening right now, whether it’s “Mr. Jones” or ‘Scarecrow”, and sometimes that can be harder the stronger a song is melodically, especially if it’s melody and rhythm like those two are, you get really locked into what you’re doing and it can be hard to express yourself because you get locked into singing a certain thing a certain way.  It took me awhile to open up those two songs, those were the two I had the most trouble with on the record. But they turned out great. Since then “Scarecrow” has been the second song of the set most nights.

 

Are there songs now you’re singing that you prefer the versions you’re doing now to the recorded version, they’ve become this other thing entirely?

 

Sure. Well… I mean from the first album there are certainly songs which I prefer now.  Most albums I don’t really think about preference. We were so young on that first album, there were some songs which I think are great songs that we didn’t really nail in the studio as much as I hoped. They just didn’t get a chance to grow as much. I think “Anna Begins” is better now. I think “Murder of One” is better now. I’m not really sure about that because honestly I haven’t listened to that album in so long… the version on the record is a timeless document and I really wanted it to be one and for the most part it is, which doesn’t mean I’m going to sing it the same way every night. I’m still discovering things every day.  It’s not so much that I prefer the live versions to the other versions, that’s just today’s version. I’ve learned more since then… you know? Yeah, I don’t know if I would say preference is the right word, except for some of the songs on the first album where I definitely prefer them more now.

A lot of our recording takes place live. We get in there, we’re playing in a room together. We’ll work until we kind of get the form of the song we want.  And someone will nail something. It could be a bass part, a guitar part, a drum part… and everyone will go over their parts, but often we’ll just keep a lot for what you already have. It’s not like you’re laying down a drum track and then you’re laying down a bass track, we’re playing all together. Even if the drums are the first thing to go down, it’s a drum track that was played with everyone. So largely when people go back to look at their parts they’re leaving a lot of their parts in there from what was done live. We tend to play live a lot. I think there’s all kinds of interactions going on while we’re playing on the record. We’ll go back and fix things and hone things and develop things… but sometimes the thing you did while you were all playing together is the one.

 

A lot of bands take time off, they’ll write, they’ll get together, they’ll record an album, they’ll tour the album, they’ll break, rinse and repeat.  You guys did a lot of touring even without a record, you did the covers record, you toured even more, you did the whole combination tour where you toured with other bands… then you put this record out and you’re touring it everywhere. 

 

Well… we kind of have to tour. I mean, there’s no other way to earn money. And now the only way to promote your band is tour. Radio promotion doesn’t exist half the time nowadays, so we tour. This is our job. I don’t think there is a structure to it other than make records when you want to make records, tour when you want to tour.  We’re just trying to work and survive generally.

 

I’m glad you mentioned that. I know you’ve run labels and you’ve been in bands and you’ve worked in other bands… I’m just curious what your thought is about the way music is disseminated now… forget about iTunes but even like Spotify, I know a lot of artists are against it, they don’t get compensated fairly for that. It’s very hard for an album to stick now… singles come out and you have your few moments and then another thing comes out… How do you personally feel about how music is disseminated and how it’s affected your profession?

 

Well, there wasn’t a really good mode before, and there’s not a really good mode now. It’s just a different version.  Look, the way it worked before, it was terrible for ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the bands. It barely worked for anyone. The record companies were terrible and they succeeded enough to make some bands really famous, but they failed with an uncountable number of bands. Their methods were so dumb it, they just didn’t work. Most of them bribed radio stations and that worked for awhile, because there was so much money being made, but the last ten to fifteen years the income from record sales is gone, and that’s a lot of money…gone. We’re barely getting paid by Spotify. I understand why someone like Taylor Swift doesn’t want her music on there. She’s famous and she’s selling more than anybody, and she doesn’t need them on there. So she doesn’t. I get that. I don’t blame her for that at all. For us it’s probably good to be on there. I’m glad they’re paying. I don’t think we’re getting paid fairly, but whatever.

It’s not a new thing that record companies are paying bands unfairly. They’re not as concerned with paying bands as they are with getting paid. They’re overly concerned with getting paid. But there’s another side to this, which is that it used to be too expensive and nearly impossible for a band to make records, and it was incredibly impossible to distribute them. It was so expensive to get your records distributed. More than that, if you’re shipping physical CDs on trucks to record stores across America, and if you’re an unknown band, the best you can hope for is they’ll take one or two. And even if they love it, and they tell their customers to buy it, now all of their copies are gone. Now there’s this album they love, they love to sell it to people, but now they don’t have any. And that’s not good. Now it’s cheap to make records, you can do it on your computer. It’s really easy to distribute things because you just upload them onto Bandcamp. That has made a huge difference for musicians but even more-so for fans.  That enables bands to stay together without getting signed by a major label, I have friends that have made seven or eight albums and have never been signed. They’ve had time to get really good. And their bands are stunning. That would have been impossible years ago, because you couldn’t have survived together for that long. It’s still really brutal, but it is at least possible now, where it was impossible then.

So as a music fan, there is a world of great music out there you can listen to and it’s a great time to be someone who likes music. It’s not as clear what you should like, so you have to go look for it, which is hard work and it’s a lazy world… but it’s all out there. There’s so much great music being made nowadays. Like I said, for me I’ve lost seventy percent of my income. That’s brutal. But I’m not so blind that I can’t see that it’s so better for most people. It’s not better for me, but it’s better for everybody else and I’m not the only person in this world. The truth is, as well as being a musician, I am a music fan. As a music fan, it’s better because there’s so much out there that wasn’t out there before.

It’s harder to make millions and millions of dollars, almost impossible nowadays. But it is possible to make music and survive and that’s kind of cool. I don’t know if I can give you a yes or no answer whether it’s better or worse now, because it was terrible then and it’s terrible now, but it’s also better now in some ways. Like I said, not for me as a musician, but as a music fan, it is better. I don’t want to tell you that the record business is shit now, because it’s not, it’s just the record company business has kind of gone to shit.  But it was always shitty, it’s just shitty for them too as well as for musicians. It used to just be really shitty for musicians. Now it’s shitty for record companies too. Welcome to the club. I don’t have a lot of sympathy.

Duritz_2015

 

Do you recall what inspired you to write songs?

 

I can very much remember my freshman fall term in college. I read Carolyn Forché’s book, The Country Between Us, which is a book of poetry. She was a huge influence on my writing. These three things happened that term in college; I remember reading that, I got my first R.E.M record, and I wrote my first song. I think that there was something about the impressionistic nature of the early R.E.M, that first EP, Chronic Town that really hit me that it was all about expressing whatever I felt like…even though I didn’t write anything like it, that it sort of made it okay to write. I remember that was sort of a big deal at the time. I was pretty hugely affected by the Run-D.M.C. records. There’s something about Run-D.M.C. and R.E.M. I’ve always loved them together in a weird way. There’s a way in which the vocals and the instruments flow in and out of each other on the R.E.M records, you don’t even need to know what words he’s singing. Run-D.M.C. is the first stuff I really remember that there could be more than one rapper in a band. They generally said their verse and it passed to the next guy. With Run-D.M.C., they were so interwoven… that was when they started doubling each-other’s words and popping in and out of each-other very quickly. The interaction was much faster the way it is in jazz or the way those R.E.M records were, it was really woven all together. I remember thinking that the DJ and the two rappers were just flying around each other on that record. It was exhilarating, the speed at which they bounced in and out… it wasn’t like “This is my verse – this is your verse…” It was like they were in and out of each-other’s sentences, finishing each other’s sentences; it really made me think about what a band is like in a way.

I know people compared us to The Band at times, but it may have been even more Run-D.M.C. than The Band that influenced me in that way; the way they aggressively moved in and out of each-other’s music. I was really blown away by that, the speed and the pace of it. For me, that translated into what a lot of people see us doing with the interaction on stage and with each other – improvisations you might associate with The Band or Van Morrison, but in my head a lot of it came from Run-D.M.C. too.

 

Your songs are very interpretive, that’s one of the reasons I’ve come to you and really enjoyed speaking to you about them, but in almost all of them there’s a connection between you and the fans that is unique. Counting Crows songs are extremely relatable on a personal level. 

 

Well, I think I had it in the beginning, and I have it now, but there are also periods in the middle where everything I did was shit on, because that’s what happens. We really do love to discover music and we love to be the ones to discover it. Especially me or you, music geeks, we love knowing music other people don’t know, and we love showing it to them. But inevitably you gamble on the success like we did, then as a fan you find yourself having to share the band you like with the dipshit across the office, who you don’t like. And he was always listening to absolute crap music, and now he’s a Counting Crows fan too. Now it’s not fun to be a Counting Crows fan anymore, because I’m not sharing them with that asshole. So for a few years everyone hates you, because that’s human nature. It just fucking happens. I’m not bitter about that, that’s life. I understand what it’s like to discover cool music and I also remember when my band got co-opted by all the dipshits across the hall, who I don’t like. So I can’t really rage too much about the fact that it happened to me. It only happened because we had so much success. It was a little brutal at times.

 

Okay, then, have you been affected, negatively or positively, by your fame? And how has that informed or detracted from your writing?

 

None of that affects how you write songs. You’re in your bedroom at one point… writing about yourself and you really wanted to open up about how you felt.  And then people listen to it. I don’t know… it doesn’t change for me what I wanted to say, I still wanted to talk about how I felt. You’re really just writing to yourself. It’s very tertiary…peripheral that everyone else listens to it. It’s great for your career and earning money, it’s wonderful. But it doesn’t have a lot to do with what you’re doing; especially because during the period when you’re doing it, because when you’re writing and recording, none of those people are around. There is no feedback at that time. So it seems a lot like when you were younger and no one was listening to your music. At some point you do go back to that room and write, and that’s the same as it is now.

When we went in to record our first album, before anyone had ever heard of us, you’re in there recording by yourself.  And when you record now, when everyone in the world knows who we are, you’re in there recording by yourself. The response comes so far after the fact that I can see how people do let it get in their head, but it’s easy to not let it get in your head because you’re not really facing it everyday. You’re not getting feedback as you’re writing or recording, at least outside the band. But that’s always been the same. People worry about that stuff too much. We were always really independent. We never had to bounce songs off our labels. We had that creative control from the beginning. We were always sheltered from that.

 

And you’re finally getting to play these more or less new songs for your home audience.

 

Yeah, it kind of reminds you how big the world is. People wonder why there’s time between albums for bands. It’s because it takes time to get around the world and play it for everybody. So much time, in fact, that it’s been a year and we haven’t played it at home yet. We’re getting to that now. It’s kind of nice, because you might be getting kind of burned out at this point in the record, but it’s great to be coming to America for the first time now. It’s exciting.

 

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RECALLING THE ETERNAL WAVE – A Brief Conversation with the Legendary Brian Wilson

Aquarian Weekly

7/1/15
BUZZ Feature

James Campion

 

RECALLING THE ETERNAL WAVE
A Brief Conversation with the Legendary Brian Wilson

 

You know the old showbiz axiom about luminaries needing no introduction? Okay, so here’s one of those.

There is no need for anyone to wax poetic about Brian Wilson, musician composer, arranger, producer, hit-maker, icon. For over half a century there has been Brian Wilson. In one way or the other he has influenced the cultural and artistic landscape of the American experience. He was the heart, soul and musical and philosophical engine of the Beach Boys. His songs created the great California myth of what I once called “the sun-drenched hymn to hedonism.” Pretty good resume. He has survived well-documented traumatic hardships from childhood to his years of fame and fortune and the inevitable 1960s cliché fallout of drugs and madness and break-downs, both mentally and physically.wilson_380

Much of this is covered in the new biopic about Wilson, Love & Mercy. The film features two actors, Paul Dano and John Cusak, portraying Wilson as a young man at the height of his musical powers while unraveling from mental illness, and the middle-aged overly-medicated period when he was being manipulated and exploited by the tyrannical Dr. Eugene Landy, played sinisterly by Paul Giamatti. While Wilson did add his expertise and memories to the filming, which he commented was “very factual, accurate, stimulating,” he ultimately found it hard to watch. I saw it weeks after speaking to Wilson and was very moved. The studio sequences recording his two masterpieces, Pet Sounds and Smile truly capture the mood and the significance of the times and add to Wilson’s already legendary status, while his ascent from the abyss is truly inspiration.

Seeing Love & Mercy and reading about Wilson’s harrowing but prolific journey, which takes another step with his recently released album, No Pier Pressure, it would be easy to say that Brian Wilson is the shell of the man who broke molds and conquered the zeitgeist, but that would be short-sighted. What you get from speaking with Brian Wilson today is the real guy, the guy who would never let it all crack his resolve or bend his personality into something he couldn’t recognize. He is by any credible definition of the word, a genius. He is cloaked in it like armor. It precedes him. It defines him.

He speaks in certifiable tones, but with a sweet disposition that is at first alarming and then as comforting as one of his spectacularly arranged five-part harmonies. There is no hesitation in his expression, therefore he doesn’t self-edit for effect. This is a raw psyche; the echoes of a man who brought some important stuff back from the darkness and the light and placed some high stakes in all those strikingly beautiful songs.

What follows here is about fifteen minutes over the phone from Los Angeles of the musings of a living legend, and I don’t think I’m being maudlin or coy or ironic when stating this. In the pantheon of rock and roll, especially during its most experimental, influential and lucrative period, there is Dylan, Lennon and McCartney and Brian Wilson. This is a person you hope to get two minutes with. I got fifteen. And so I asked him things I always wanted to ask Brian Wilson. It was rapid fire and it was thrilling His answers, although appearing in print as curt and often dismissive of detail, in person –hearing his cracked, sing-song voice coming over the phone line – are surprisingly effusive and to the point.

This is a man who has answered countless questions. How could you even begin to put a number on it? People want to know how the genius works, where it comes from, how it goes from the head and the heart to the canvas or the page or the recording. These are the things you think about when gaining access to the artist who has provided the world indisputable greatness. And this is what I think about when Brian Wilson is uttered in my presence. I put it to him and waited breathlessly for the key to the kingdom, so to speak. And I think this discussion, of which I send to press virtually word-for-word, is my few minutes getting to the bottom of genius. I hope I asked the questions you would ask of Brian Wilson. And I hope his answers are enough. They have to be.

 

Brian Wilson: Hi, James!

 

james campion: Mr. Wilson, how are you, sir?

 

BW: Very good.

 

jc: Excellent. I know we have a short amount of time, so I’ll get right to it. I know you’ve probably been asked this a billion times, but I have to do it. I’m a huge fan and you are one of the great composers of the latter half of the twentieth century, so everyone always wants to know where do the songs come from? What is your process? Take me through the Brian Wilson method of writing a song.

 

BW: Well, I go to a studio…there’s a studio I go to and there’s a piano there. I play chords on the piano, and then after awhile a melody starts to come. And after the melody is done, the lyrics start happening.

 

jc: And that’s basically it.

 

BW: Yeah. Basically, yes.

 

jc: When you first started writing songs, which I assume was when you were a teenager or even before that…

 

BW: Well, I started playing piano when I was like…I don’t know…twelve or fourteen? And when I was nineteen I wrote “Surfer Girl”, the first song I ever wrote, and then from there I was a self-taught musician.

 

jc: And do you write basically the same as you did when you were nineteen? Have you changed the process at all through the years?

 

BW: Oh, no, I changed a lot. I’ve changed the process a lot.

 

jc: How so?

 

BW: Well, I used to write more rock and roll type songs, thanks to Chuck Berry.

 

jc: (laughs) Right. You’ve often spoken in the past about capturing sounds on tape that you hear in your head; harmonies, various instrumentation, is there any song that you wrote and recorded that you think came out perfectly, that was exactly how you heard it in your head?

 

BW: Yeah, “California Girls”; some of it I heard in my head and some of it I heard in the studio.

 

jc: So when you listen to that record, even today, you say to yourself, “That is exactly how I pictured it.”

 

BW: Yeah, when it was done I said, “Hey, guys, that sounds exactly how I wanted it to sound like!”

 

jc:  And that never happened again?

 

BW: It happened again with “Good Vibrations”.

 

jc:  Those are the two, huh?

 

BW: Yes.

 

jc: Some pretty good songs, there. I know you’re a big fan of Phil Spector’s sound, and I know you were a Beatles fan, did you ever listen to a song and say, “Wow, not only do I wish I wrote that, but that is really a perfect record”?

 

BW: Yeah, “Let It Be” by Paul McCartney and The Beatles. That’s something where I said, “Boy, I wish I could have written something like that!’

 

jc: (laughs) Well you certainly did in many, many ways. Here’s something I was always interested in asking you. I think it was in your 1990 autobiography, Wouldn’t It Be Nice; you had revealed in that book that you had discovered at some point that placing certain bass lines and notes under a specific chord or specific melodies over other chord progressions would evoke an emotion in listeners; get them to feel melancholy or feel joy or spark memories in them…

 

BW: Well, Pet Sounds was my ballad album; “Caroline No” and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” were, I think, a very sweet, feminine theme to get across. Those songs were the feminine side of me.

 

jc: I remember as a kid listening to Pet Sounds and getting very emotional, and not because of the lyrics or any particular connection to the themes. I was a kid, yet, I could not escape feeling something mature when listening to that record. It was as if you got across with music these mature themes of love, loss, anxiety, nostalgia. Still, to this day it moves me. Was that something you planned or did it come together in the writing?

 

BW: It actually came together in the writing. Very fast.

 

jc:  That is generally considered your greatest work. Do you think it is?

 

BW: It has to be one of the best albums I ever produced, yeah.

 

jc:  When you heard the Smile stuff that Capitol put out a couple of years ago from the original Beach Boys sessions, much of it unfinished, do you think it captures what you were trying to do with Smile or was it your version that came out about ten years ago?
(Note: Smile was the great and mysterious unfinished opus for Wilson that eventually caused mental exhaustion and his eventual retreat from the mainstream that would cause his reduced role in the Beach Boys)

 

BW: Which version do I prefer?

 

jc: Yeah.

 

BW:  The 2004 version.

 

jc: Your version.

 

BW: Yeah.

 

jc: Did you have anything to do with Capitol’s choice of material or were you surprised that they released it?

 

BW: I was surprised they put it out, yeah.

 

jc: Were you disappointed in how it sounded?

 

BW: A little bit, yeah.

 

jc: Is it because it was unfinished business, it took you back to that time and you said, “Damn it, I wish I had the chance to finish that album the way I originally planned it!”

 

BW: Right! Right on!

 

jc: (laughs) I figured. Just from reading about you and your work on that record and how much it meant to you, the first time I saw it out, I thought, “I wonder what Brian thinks of all this?” You have a new record out, correct?

 

BW:  Yes.

 

jc: Can you tell me about the process of working with this new material and what you may have discovered when writing and recording it?

 

BW: Well, I wrote a couple of the songs back in 1998 that I use on the album and the rest I wrote in 2014.

 

jc:  So it’s been a couple of years in the making?

 

BW: Yes.

 

jc: How do you find performing now? I know that it was something you didn’t really enjoy during the Beach Boys years, but over the past two decades you seem to be playing more and more. Do you enjoy it more now?

 

BW: Some of it. I enjoy some of it, but some of it is a lot of hard work and some of it is an easy-going kind of thing, you know?

jc:  I sure do. You’re known for so many great songs. My favorite is “God Only Knows”. You mentioned that you agree that Pet Sounds is one of if not your finest collected work; do you have any fond memories of writing and recording “God Only Knows”? Do you think that’s something truly special that you nailed there?

 

BW: I worked with my friend, Tony Asher. I started writing a melody and he immediately came up with (sings) “I may not always love you…” and it was a very spontaneous writing session.

 

jc:  I bet its one of those incidents when you think, “Where the hell does this come from?”

 

BW: Right. I said, “What the fuck?”

 

jc:  (laughs)

 

BW: Yeah. Yeah.

 

jc:  That song has been used in so many films and it never fails to move people. Did you ever see it used with visuals, in whatever capacity, and agree that it works on that level?

 

BW: Most of it works, although I’m not really sure where it ended up, whether television programs or movies or whatever, but I do know that whenever they do use it I hear, “Good job.”

 

jc:  (laughs) What part of your legacy do you enjoy the most? What is the talent you are most proud of – the songwriting, the producing, arranging, your building the Beach Boys into this iconic piece of Americana? How do you want to be remembered?

 

BW: Well, to tell you the truth my singing means more to me than anything.

 

jc: Sure. I’m sorry I didn’t even bring that one up. Of course, the singing. Would you say that’s also the most fun you had working with the Beach Boys in the studio, getting all those wonderful vocal harmonies together?

 

BW: Yeah, that was the fun part! The hard part was producing. That was the hardest part of it for me. Producing was rough, but singing always came very naturally, effortlessly. You know…an artist expresses.

“Don’t take drugs, write songs on the natch.”

jc: And that is your most cherished expression as an artist, your singing.

 

BW: Right. Right.

 

jc: There’s a film out right now about the famed Wrecking Crew, a working studio session band that played on so many hits of the 1960s, including a lot of the Beach Boys stuff. Can you talk about working with those kind of top musicians in the field and producing the incredible records you did with them?

 

BW: I worked with some of the more well-known musicians in Los Angeles like Hal Blaine (drummer), Carol Kaye (bassist), John Randy (keyboardist), Steve Douglas (saxophonist), and so many others. They worked with other producers around L.A., but we did some great work together.

 

jc:  Is there a song you heard when you were a kid that turned you on, influenced you more than the others?

 

BW: Well, “Rhapsody in Blue” comes to mind. I think “Rhapsody in Blue”. That was the song that got to my heart the most.

 

jc:  Do you listen to any music of today that moves you, influences you? Who are the great songwriters today?

 

BW: Well, I listen to a lot of 80s music. There’s so many artists from the 80s, Rod Stewart, Billy Idol, Blondie, just a lot of groups I like. I listen to 80s music all the time.

 

jc:  In all the years you’ve collaborated with quite a few lyricists and songwriters, is there anybody that you wish you could work with that you haven’t?

 

BW: Paul McCartney.

 

jc:  I can’t believe you two guys haven’t written a song together; after all the years. You guys respected each other’s talents so much, influenced each other to greater works, the Beatles pushing the Beach Boys and vice versa. It’s hard to believe there is no Wilson/McCartney composition?

 

BW: Are you kidding? I haven’t had the chance!

 

jc:  Somebody has to get that going.

 

BW: Yuuuup.

 

jc: Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson that would be something.

 

BW: That would be a trip.

 

jc: (laughs) Sure would. What is the one thing, you would say, a songwriter today needs to focus on? What is your advice for the kid now cobbling songs together and starting a band?

 

BW: I would have to say…okay…okay…I would say don’t take drugs, write songs on the natch.

 

jc:  Got it.

 

BW: Don’t take drugs, write songs on the natch.

 

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AN OPEN LETTER TO PETE TOWNSHEND ON THE OCCASION OF HIS 70TH BIRTHDAY‏

Aquarian Weekly
5/20/15
REALITY CHECK

James Campion

AN OPEN LETTER TO PETE TOWNSHEND ON THE OCCASION OF HIS 70TH BIRTHDAY

Dearest Pete,

First off, happy 70th.

This must seem a surreal sentiment considering you will forever be known for having written that you hoped to die before you…well…you know. However, in a very distinct way you never really did get old, did you? I mean, of course, we’re all careening towards oblivion, but what never gets old is integrity, passion, impetuous adherence to art and an unflinching, unrepentant pursuit of truth. You know the stuff that makes us nod our collective head and go, “Yeah…yeah” – this is what has allowed you to remain true to your screed.pete-townshend

But I did not write this to belabor the obvious. Seventy years is quite a run for a 60s rock star. As you have broached eloquently in many an interview, too many of your contemporaries and half your band are no longer with us, and it is not as if you did not face the effrontery of the rock idiom with any kind of caution. If anything, it is something of a miracle that you are still with us, not as much a miracle as say Keith Richards, which is a Lourdes level of divine agency, but we both know this foray into the form was something of a gamble for all of you and it is on this occasion that I think we can comfortably state that you have come up aces.

Mostly, though, I wanted to thank you.

And I do so not just for myself, but my generation – the one at the butt end of the Boomer one or the premature birthing of X. I was born in late 1962 and was way too young for “My Generation” or Monterey or Woodstock or Viet Nam, etc. But I was also a little too cynical to be influenced by MTV or Nirvana and the spate of psychographics defined by sociologists for people selling zit cream and video games. I first heard Tommy at age nine in the attic of my friend’s grandparents’ house in the Bronx, NY. It was his older brother’s copy. I did not yet know about acid or transcendental meditation or sensory trauma or messianic delusions. I only knew I was moved. Really moved.

So I want to thank you for Tommy. Much later in life the film, a really horrible thing, but one that shook the world at my feet and changed the way I would ever view or listen to music again, ended up becoming something of a life-altering experience for a twelve year-old. I remember my parents being puzzled at my week-long trance over it. And I remember feeling good about that, even 40 years hence. It still makes my nads tingle and brings me to a place filled with youthful exuberance that is beyond mere nostalgia. No one can take that feeling away. I’ll take that one to my grave.

And I want to thank you for “Young Man Blues”. I thought I liked heavy music and distorted defiance and rebellion and neighborhood-shattering noise, but then I heard the live version of “Young Man Blues” as it was released in my junior year of high school on The Kids Are Alright soundtrack for the film that would impress me but only hold deeper meaning three years later when my beloved grandmother died; the first concussive sense of loss I endured. I spent ten straight hours playing the VHS version over and over and over until I was tired of crying. But that has nothing to do with the first time I experienced The Who’s cover of “Young Man Blues”. It rendered all other rock music to flimsy argle. Shit, man, I don’t know how one can be an adolescent and explain oneself properly without it: manic, chaotic, relentless power and volume, as if this monstrosity you unleashed had become nuclear; a weapon of mass destruction – clean, brutal, unyielding. I am blasting it right now writing this. Ouch. Goddamn it, man. What revelation you wrought.

Thanks for “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, which some enterprising DJ played on the final minutes of the 1970s when it was hard for me to grasp that there could be another decade and what the 1980s would do to me as a young man, and what The Who and all of your songs and records would do to influence and calm and direct me. That song resonated at two crucial points when watching you perform it. The band’s first of several “final” tours in the late-summer of 1982 at Philly’s JFK Stadium, this stone monolith packed to the rafters with sun-drenched middle-class Caucasians of all ages, and me and the friends had managed to get ourselves in the press booth and watched as the throng of some 90,000 kids clapped in unison over your legendary pre-programmed synth piece that you pained over in this little box studio in west London over a decade before. It was what it must have felt like to be part of the Roman Legion right before the plunging of a city – this insatiable hedonistic lust for dominance. Oh, and the other was when you played solo at the Beacon Theater in 1993 and you did the song as an encore and was so completely loony you hit the ground – ba-tannnng! – guitar screaming with feedback, the crowd apoplectic to get at you, intercede with whatever jolt of electricity you were channeling.

Yeah, we all knew it was electricity. It had to be. The windmill, ahhhh…the windmill; how that right arm could rise up and come whipping around and around to smack those power chords and how you couldn’t say you lived until you were in the room when that arm went up and came striking across the strings and the crowd exploded as if it was in there somehow. And we knew that soon you might splinter that thing into hundreds of tiny pieces and how A-D-E chords never sounded better – teenage wasteland and all that; those ungodly beautiful sounds that careened through my skull at the end of “Cry If You Want”. What the hell did you do to get that sound? How did you know that was the resonance of our fury, our longing, our corruption?

And I thank you for Horse’s Neck, because that book is a mutha and it is way underrated and proved your worth as a man of letters, beyond Tommy and Lifehouse (and I sure do appreciate your releasing all those demos of it in the 2000s, because that is silly good), “Slit Skirts”, and of course Quadrophenia.

Goddamn it, man. What revelation you wrought.

Oh, yes, Quadrophenia. For this one I evoke my dear college friend, Jake Genovay, for whom we would offer one sentence to those who needed Quadrophenia (and you know who you are) – “Do you know?”

It is the guiding principle of rock music, isn’t it? I know you were exorcising demons with that one, and it shows, and so it was used to exorcise a few of mine and so many of ours. It is, for my money, your manifesto and the arc of our youth – the one that got me through high school and that I quoted on beaches to dozens of girls and the ones I sang with friends after too much revelry and the ones you dragged out of mothballs in 1996 and prompted this review of mine that began “Pete is God”, ‘cause that was what we used to blurt out during “Love Reign O’er Me” when you can’t quite say what you’re thinking and fear that you might end up amounting to the hill-of-beans they all promised because the power and volume might not be enough anymore. But, hell, you made that all seem palatable. Of course it wasn’t. It was anything but okay. It was life. And life is grand and life is shit and life is the alternative to…well…you know.

I hope I die before I get old.

And that, my dear man, is what all the art and music is for, right?

Right.

Sincerely,

The Rest of Us

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DAN BERN – TRANSITIONS

Aquarian Weekly
4/20/15

BUZZ Feature

James Campion


DAN BERN – TRANSITIONS
New Record Hoody and Tour Marks Uncharted Territory for Singer-Songwriter

It was winter and it was late and Dan Bern was on the phone, calling from somewhere south of El Paso, Texas in his van heading to another gig. This one would be about 400 miles away. He had a few boxes of his new CD, Hoody bounding around in the back and a new Bluetooth unit installed in the old girl, and I am sure there was some coffee involved. He was in the mood to talk.hoody

These late-night chats are nothing new for us. Sometimes they come earlier. Sometimes we’re actually in the same vicinity, the same city, and even amazingly in the same room, but it’s the late-night ones from the road where he gets contemplative and digs deep into his songwriting and his plans and shares tales from these never-ending tours, blessedly separated by occasional spurts at home with the family.

We talked about the new record and his upcoming shows this spring – one of which will take place in NYC on April 23 at the Highline Ballroom.

Here’s part of it…

jc: Hoody features a mature, established style of writing. The vocals are really polished and it seems like a new step for you. I know that you don’t necessarily write for a record, you pick the songs you like the best. But was there a specific idea of what kind of songs you felt worked best with this collection?

Dan Bern: Well they were just kind of the new batch and because of that it felt pretty much of a piece. The previous one took such a long time, Drifter, and I felt when I made it or when I released it, it almost felt, and this has happened before, like I’m already kind of past it. It’s the byproduct of time, like the stars where you see the light later, you know?  By the time it’s out I’m already on to something else. With this one, because we were all able to get in there and basically play at the same time, it still took a long time to finish it, with people going away and people disbursing, trying to get this guy or that guy to complete something, but it was the current crop and it felt like there was some excitement with these songs and with this group of people playing it.

jc: Did you record it live? . 

DB:  Yes, there’s this little studio here where we all live in Echo Park called Pehrspace.  It’s nothing special at all. They do punk shows there after hours; a very cement kind of building, sort of industrial, which I like. I’ve always liked places like that. It was big enough that we could all set up and play at the same time, so I think every vocal of mine was cut live with the band. I may have tried a couple again, but I was like, “I am not going too better ones than those.” I was singing while we were all playing, just kind of locked in.

jc:  Have you ever done it like that before?

DB:  Yeah, I’ve probably done that before. I remember when I was doing the Breathe record, it was the same thing. I was very confident that there was no way that I was going to beat those vocals that I had sung when the thing was being played and I never really could. Anyway, on this one it all pretty much tumbled out. I think Greg Prestopino did a great job, taking what we did and mixing it, putting a touch here and there. I have known Greg forever but we never really worked together and it was a very interesting collaboration. I think we got it as good we were going to get it.

jc: Who are the musicians on Hoody?

DB:  The core of it was Common Rotation, but it’s changed a lot since we did Drifter, for one thing Adam Busch was always like the utility man. He played a little of this, a little that kind of thing. For a lot of this stuff he moved over to the drums, which he had never done with us. I’ve been doing these shows with just me and him and that seemed to work with these songs. Jon Flaugher is a phenomenal bass player. We had two other drummers that were there on different days, Tripp Beam and George Sluppick, who are both top notch drummers.

jc: Do I hear lap steel and that kind of stuff going on in this record? I also hear banjo and I assumed that was Jordan Katz.

Dan:  Yeah, and that’s Eric Kufs that you hear on steel guitar. The real great electric guitar playing is Eben Grace, who has been playing with me since way back in the IJBC days. He’s always been my favorite guitar player.

This stuff is now not the stuff I’m working on to try to complete, it’s like for better or worse, whatever anybody might think about it, it sort of has a string around it right now. Now I’m trying to synthesize some of these songs into a bigger batch of songs that can rub against other things.

jc:  Let’s get back to the actual structure and the writing of the record. When you completed Drifter you said that you felt as though you were putting a lid on the early Dan Bern character, so would you say that this is the first record where, if there’s such a thing as the Dan Bern character from the first eight, nine albums, he’s absent? And if so, did you approach the writing to put that part of your career to bed?

DB:  It kind of feels like a further progression from where we were at Drifter, the logical next step. We’re better as a band. I am trying to become better as a performer and more aware of the audience and connecting better. I mean, just musically my thing has always been tied to old folk and blues, tied to country and British invasion rock n’ roll. Those are my things. I always had a foot in some of that, but after this record it feels like it’s really pretty synthesized, it’s all kind of come together.

jc:  Can you expound on your feelings about your professional and personal transitions that you have gone through and how they’ve informed your work over the years? For instance, can you specifically listen to a record like New American Language or the first record or Drifter and say, “I know where my head space was at then” and how each have been signposts for your career?

DB:  For sure, it’s going to be different for somebody else than how it is for me. It’s my diary, really. For anybody else it’s what they make of it. For me, yeah, they’re little sign posts. It’s funny, I’ve been playing these songs for some time now and now that the record’s out it’s already shifted for me a little bit. This stuff is now not the stuff I’m working on to try to complete, it’s like for better or worse, whatever anybody might think about it, it sort of has a string around it right now. Now I’m trying to synthesize some of these songs into a bigger batch of songs that can rub against other things.

jc: The songs on Hoody are almost all less than three minutes. There are no sweeping ten-verse epics on here, or anything deeply political. A lot of the songs are so meticulously structured you can almost say they are pop-style songs. Was that something that you specifically paid attention to, were you like, “Okay, I am going to try to write songs in quick two verses and get to the point?”   

DB:  It wasn’t intentional, but it was intentional in a way when I wrote them, I suppose. I was working a lot with a bunch of people and we were always trying to trim the fat – you don’t need a second verse, jump straight to the bridge – that kind of thing; just stream line. So that probably also spilled into the stuff I was writing.

jc: What is the main difference between singular and collaborative songwriting for you?

Well, it’s like the difference between doubles and singles in tennis; it sort of opens things up. There’s times when I’m paired with a real melodic guy…or girl, and they know chords I’ve never even heard. In that case, I might be the lyrics guy. And other times there’s somebody who’s a wordsmith and I become the music guy. And then sometimes you’re working line by line together, going chord for chord. It’s really fluid and different every time. You learn to be patient, wait for someone to come up with something that would be better than what I could have thought of. You’re using different muscles than you would by writing by yourself. It’s difficult to write by yourself all the time; nobody to run things by; but if there’s more than one other person involved, things could get derailed sometimes too.danbern-380

jc:  Does almost anything inspire you to write a song?

DB:  Last night I played this brand new theater in Cortez and I was supposed to go on at eight and it was seven-thirty and it suddenly dawned on me this is a nice occasion to have a new song and I should write one about the experience. So, instead of lamenting that I should have had a song prepared, I thought, well I have some time, so I wrote a song about it. I opened the set with it and it killed, it just set the tone. Then I recorded it for the local radio station. It’s nice when it works like that.

jc: Okay, so take me through the process; you’re sitting there you have a half hour to go before you’re going to do a show and then you decide you want to write this song. Do you start with a title or do you write about the theater, do you write about the experience, where do you go?

DB:  It’s all those things. They’re sort of bouncing around. The theater was called the Sunflower and I was the first one to play there and I just made a little joke, a reference to the sunflower being like a girl. And I started singing this thing, “I’m not yours, there will be others, that’s true, but sunflower, I was your first, that’s true too.”  So I was like, “Okay, I like that, let’s start with that.” I wrote a quick verse about just what the sky looked like coming into town, which worked with me being her first. Basically I’m popping her cherry. (laughs) But, it’s all sweet, you know?

jc: I really dug how you just whipped off a verse or two about my novel when I saw you at Mexicali Blues a few months back. I know you’re always reading something or commenting on pop culture, making references to TV and news and sports figures. In that case, are you always formulating songs?

DB: I guess I am; it could be a lot of different things, like you can reference the book or the work or you can reference a character or a place or a thing that’s in the book that sparks something. You can use a character for a model in your own verse. You can take one word and trip off that word and like twenty minutes later you have this whole other thing and then go back to the book again. I suppose people write haiku, short little poems or any sort of musical, literary forms, and you can make a quick sketch too, and you can also really work on a song or a piece of music, but at the same time this stuff is really mercurial. It’s like catching lightening in a bottle; the electrical impulses in our brain, you know? There’s electricity, they move at the speed of light, they move really fast and you can’t always know where these things come from. It’s like when you meet a lot of people in a short amount of time and you’re moving around too and then you’re trying to remember who said something. Maybe you’re at a convention or something and you just met a hundred people and then you try and remember a conversation you had, who it was with and what was said or what the context was. Who knows? But at that point, you’re going to use it for something.

You can use a character for a model in your own verse. You can take one word and trip off that word and like twenty minutes later you have this whole other thing and then go back to the book again. I suppose people write haiku, short little poems or any sort of musical, literary forms, and you can make a quick sketch too, and you can also really work on a song or a piece of music, but at the same time this stuff is really mercurial.

jc: So it ends up in your subconscious and you rummage through that when writing a song?

DB: Yeah, yeah, and you have the most control, more than anybody else, about what your feeding yourself; what your reading, what you’re watching, who you’re hanging out with, how much you stare at your phone versus looking at a tree.

jc: And of course over the past few years since having your daughter, Lulu, you have written and released a ton of children’s songs and you recently wrote the theme song for an animated series, Stinky & Dirty. So I assume having something that profound happen to you has influenced your writing greatly.

DB: It’s true. Recently I’ve begun to realize how insufficient this road thing, driving five, six hundred miles a day to a gig. And I feel like I have all these things – the baseball record and the Everett Ruess album, the kid’s stuff, Theme Park (monthly online show on stageit.com in which Bern plays themed song cycles) and my song workshops – so to drive all this way to play “Black Tornado”, “Hoody” and “Marilyn Monroe” and that’s it I feel like I’m leaving a lot on the table. So I was thinking maybe I could work something out with a local promoter or a theater and come and stay in a town for a long weekend and bring some band mates and Fridays stop at the school and play for the kids and Friday nights for the first half do the Everett Ruess show, then intermission, then do the baseball songs. Then on Saturday do another kid’s show and that evening do the big blowout, rock and roll show. On Sundays I could do a live Theme Park at a small venue and then a workshop. I can hit people on a lot of different levels.

jc: Like “Weekends with Bernstein”!    

DB: Yeah, you know, you could bring the kids like a carnival or a circus stop. I kind of feel like I’m short-changing my audience by being one-dimensional when I have all these other things to offer, you know? Anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of driving around and that’s what I’ve been thinking about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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NICK HOWARD & THE STRANGE BUT REWARDING JOURNEY OF SONG

4/8/15

Aquarian Weekly 

Buzz Piece

 

NICK HOWARD & THE STRANGE BUT REWARDING  JOURNEY OF SONG

 

By James Campion

For the past hour I have listened to Nick Howard tell his story, and it is whiz bang of a tale; coming to New York City as a cheeky 22 year-old musician from Brighton, England with literally nothing but a song and a dream. Settled in a back booth at Pete’s Tavern, the 32 year-old  /songwriter relives a decade filled with playing clubs and pick-up gigs here and there around town, waiting tables after long days in some dead-end office dirge, recalling his trips back across the pond to swing around Europe making a name for himself. Releasing EP’s and eventually three albums of original material ranging from folk to soft rock to stabs at pop, getting some of his songs on TV shows like Beverly Hills 90210, before an uber-weird turn of events in 2010 landed him on a German version of The Voice (to which he had six weeks to sort of kind of learn the language). And, don’t you know, he goes and wins the damn thing. It earns him a record deal and a car (which he sells to make another record), he blows up with a #1 single that he wrote about Hurricane Sandy called “Unbreakable”, and things start moving for him in Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Then…well, he comes back here and goes back to opening for other acts.

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“After winning The Voice, I felt a bit ridiculous,” quips Howard, fully embracing the bizarre details of his recent past. “You’re playing little clubs in downtown New York for like six years and then you’re suddenly making appearances in shopping malls and headlining a tour with all the other contestants. But I’ll tell you, I was playing to a couple hundred people a show before The Voice, and then over a thousand afterwards.”

He laughs at the memory, sipping tea in that disarmingly cordial, British kind of Paul McCartney way. But then he suddenly grows quiet. After a moment of contemplation, he says with some measure of seriousness, “I wouldn’t say this year is my last chance to make a mark in the U.S., but it’s definitely my best chance.” It is almost as if everything Howard has told me leads up to what he describes as the next crucial step to his incredible story; an upcoming American tour.

And maybe “almost” is understating it a little.

“Most people that have seen me play in the last year would have seen me play solo, so the biggest difference is I am going to have my band. I only have 25 to 30 minutes as an opener to showcase Nick Howard, and now I’ll have an hour. Hopefully those people that are coming have listened to my music and can connect with the songs. It’s definitely going to be another side of me in a more dynamic, musical experience. Now people are finally going to get to hear and see what I’m about.”

This is Nick Howard on the precipice of something big. All that stuff about sleeping on sofas and busing tables and winning German cars, all of it leads to this tour. It is the culmination of our blithely tossing around ten years of his life, learning to work as a composer and plying his trade with and without bands. It all comes down to April 9 when he will, of course, kick the whole thing off at the Rockwood Music Hall in his adopted town.

“The Rockwood is a critical songwriter spot,” Howard effuses, beginning to percolate with excitement over the prospect of kicking off the tour of his life in this little Lower East Side room of maybe 150 people; all eyes upon him, all of them knowing this is an audition of sorts, a precursor for what is to come; an auspicious milieu for someone clutching at the next rung of success.

“I look at the states like I looked at Europe in 2010, 2011,” says Howard. “For me, it’s a blank canvas and I want to build something the way I built it in Europe, pre-Voice, and that is this tour. It’s building blocks; maybe do some radio campaigning and all the rest of it, but for me its touring and live performing, that’s the biggest thing, because without the fans you really have nothing going on, you know? I don’t care who you are, if you don’t have fans you go away very, very quickly. Having toured with Eric (Hutchinson) and Tyrone (Wells) last year, tickets are selling pretty well. So we are off to a good start and it’s going to be about padding that.”

“I’m all about just going for it with love songs. Just tell it how it is.”

I decided to meet up with Howard after seeing his solo performance opening for the aforementioned pop songsmith, Eric Hutchinson last October at the Highline Ballroom. It was easy to hear right away how these infectious songs could be bound for bigger productions, as a more than distracting sign pronouncing NICK in lights hung above him. It was an interesting dichotomy of humble opening act trying to win hearts and minds playing his songs in the most direct way possible while unabashedly being heralded by this bombastic exclamation.

One particular number stood out, a shamelessly transparent love song with a rousing refrain called “Super Love” from his latest album, Living In Stereo. The room seemed to come alive when he hit the chorus and belted to the rafters as open an expression of raw emotion as one could hope to hear in those environs. But the crowd ate it up, proving that Howard is indeed beginning to reach his core audience; those who ignore the shackles of cool irony for the naked joy of song for song’s sake.

“The love song is the one thing that everyone in the world understands and you don’t even need to understand the language,” says Howard, proudly. “I was singing in European countries where people have broken English and they still know what I am singing about because love is beyond words. ‘Super Love’ is just that. It wrote itself. I wrote it with a friend of mine in L.A. (Justin Gray, whose resume includes working with Mariah Carey, John Legend, David Bisbal, Luis Fonsi, Joss Stone, and Amy Winehouse), and it didn’t take us very long. You just go for it, you write a love song. I am not one who is fazed by lyrics being cheesy. I don’t care about that.”

When pressed about toeing the invisible musical line of being openly expressive and professionally manipulative, Howard is defiant. “I mean the song is called ‘Super Love’,” he laughs. “I remember when we made it obvious that this song is not going to be like Megadeth, and I loved that and I embraced it. I think people want to hear that stuff. I’ve had people who have emailed me having heard that song and they have played it as their first dance at their wedding or walking down the aisle and that justifies it, ya know? If someone can’t express how they feel about someone, at least through a song they might be able to. I’m all about just going for it with love songs. Just tell it how it is.”

And telling it ‘how it is’ translates to how Howard prefers to connect to this growing audience.

“I like presenting my songs both ways,” he says, ordering up another tea. “I really like the intimacy of the solo show where you can talk about what you are singing about in the lyrics and you really have people’s attention, but I also love rocking out with a full band. You can do so many more things with a full band that you can’t do solo and vice versa, so I think a nice healthy balance of the two is the best and that’s kind of what I try to do.”

“I really like the intimacy of the solo show where you can talk about what you are singing about in the lyrics and you really have people’s attention, but I also love rocking out with a full band.

Howard gets fidgety when he talks about performing. It is painfully obvious this has been his sanctuary through good times and bad; the stage – his comfort zone, where he can do what he loves, what he has always loved, sharing his talents with people.

“I was really, really young when I got a video of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker and I just watched it until the VHS ran out,” recalls Howard, as if it was happening for the first time. “It was the entertainment thing that really struck me, the effect you can have on other people just from singing and dancing. Then I started playing guitar at seven when I heard The Beatles and then when I was a teenager I was lucky enough to be in the UK when Brit Pop came about, Oasis and Blur, these great bands. That’s when I started writing and never stopped.”

NHPortrait_25

Howard embraces songwriting as much as the showmanship bug he encountered at age seven. He composes on guitar and what he derisively calls “songwriter piano”, and his methods vary from working off clever titles that pop into his head or the gathering of random melodies that he snatches from the either and blathers into a mobile recorder. He’s recently picked up the discipline of co-writing, which he admits allows him to get out of his head and share experiences that bring to light more universal themes.

“I find it easier if someone says, ‘Write a song about this today.’  Okay, so now I have something I have to focus on; it has to be about this subject,” explains Howard. “So I try and do that to myself sometimes. I’ll say, ‘Nick, write a song about this today.’ If I just sit there and try to see what the song is than that can work…but it can take a long time. You might spend two years writing a song to see what it’s about. I heard Chris Martin say he has no idea what ‘Yellow’ is about and it’s Coldplay’s biggest hit! Yet he has no idea what the meaning of it is. Sometimes songs are just a reflection of your subconscious or whatever it is.”

Howard’s anxious enthusiasm to bust out in the U.S. is amplified by the fact that he is an independent artist, as are so many of the new and quite frankly established ones nowadays; the record label route becoming less and less an imperative and more and more hampering. “I went through a year on a big label and I played maybe 150 concerts and they didn’t come to one of them,” he sighs. “How can you sell a product that you have never seen?”

And there is the always-enticing creative control allowed by technology and democratized distribution channels. “I think if you can create something by yourself you are in such a better space than just signing to a major label, then it’s always yours,” Howard says with vigor. “With a major label, you’re giving away a lot for a small chance at success. At that point it doesn’t really belong to you anyway. If I want to go play a show tomorrow in Germany, then I can book that in a second. If I want to record a song on ITunes, I can do that in a day. The goal for me for so long was to get on a label, on Sony or Warner. I got there and I was like; ‘Are you listening to me?’ They didn’t even know me.”

Howard has since incorporated (Satellite Music) and runs his own label, which he describes as fully functional, from hiring studio musicians, choosing touring bands, public relations, you name it. And it all culminates – performance, business and music – on his first U.S. headlining tour.

For all intents and purposes these career-defining concerts will feature music from 2014’s Living In Stereo, by his own admission his first collection of pure pop songs that range from hummable ditties, go-for-it ballads, and genre-shifting dancables, all of it acting as a playground for his impeccably emotive vocals. Although deep down Howard considers himself a singer/songwriter in the traditional sense, and his previous work reflects this, the new material is a concerted effort to combine his love of performance with the music. “I was actually thinking about the live show when I wrote and recorded these songs,” he says. “I was trying to make an album that can be a show.”

This makes sense, since Living In Stereo unfurls as if a Nick Howard concert libretto, moving listeners around his many affections for different genres, from his obvious comfortable zone in the romantic ballad “No Ordinary Angel”, the new single, to the upbeat showstopper “Dancing As One” or the playful, “Life Is Great (& I Love Everyone)”and the oddly funk-laden “Laser Beam”, and the aforementioned crowd-boosting “Super Love”.  It also effectively reveals Howard’s penchant to take somber themes with stinging lyrics and place them in a toe-tapping whistler like “You Can’t Break A Broken Heart”.

“I like writing like that because I always think that songwriting is often trying to make something good out of something bad; trying to turn a bad situation into something good,” says Howard. “I think by doing that you can actually deal with something easier by putting a positive spin or flair. So yeah, ‘Can’t Be Friends’ is about having to un-friend your ex on Facebook and stop them from stalking, but it’s got this fun little cowboy, Nashville thing going on behind it. It’s so silly that you kind of have to address that with music. So it’s got this sort of whistling melody in it, which again is a sad idea that your heart’s broken, but by putting a little whistle in there and just making it kind of funny it makes the whole idea of it easier to deal with. I think that is what song writing is, therapy.  So you can achieve the role of therapy with music, even if the lyrics are really dark.”

Howard gives you the whole package, musically and lyrically. Watching him play his unapologetically effusive songs, it’s obvious he cannot hold back, and his appreciation for what the audience expects from him, his relentless pursuit of song as a connecting lifeline between artist and listener, is palpable in the performance. The release of Live in Stereo, a strong representation of his recent European swing, is a fine example of what you can expect when you see him play. Less live album than celebration of fan and performer, it underlines a man and his music perfectly.

But trust me, if you catch Nick Howard on this tour, and you surely should, leave the ironic cool at home and bring the whistling, sing-song, silly part of yourself and just let it go.

After all, this is how he’s completed the journey from that 22 year-old wide-eyed dreamer to the cusp of international stardom; one song at a time.

 

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SURPRISE, IT’S GINA ROYALE!

SURPRISE, IT’S GINA ROYALE!
Teenage Singer/Songwriter Sneaks Up on 2015

Gina Royale is recording her first EP of original material. All of 17, the petite, soft-spoken budding singer-songwriter moves about the studio as if it is her bedroom; petting a lazy dog, giggling at the occasional quip, and half-listening as the producer adjusts the levels on what will soon be a drum track for “Tightrope”, a highly stylized mid-tempo slice of pop/rock. You would never guess this is the composer of a track everyone, including her dad, is working hard to realize. And that’s the way Royale likes it.

“I want to surprise people,” she whispers to me later, a wry grin creasing her alabaster, be-freckled face.

gina_bwSurprise people” is exactly what she did a few weeks before I stopped in to see her record at Boonton, New Jersey’s Audio Pilot Studio. She surprised me, for sure. I was asked to emcee an event for a close friend, who had survived cancer – a party/benefit in West Milford boasting a line-up of local bands, food and fun. It was a lazy late-summer day, and the music thus far had been entertaining if not mostly forgettable. Royale’s dad, Andy Rajeckas, a pianist, was set to play instrumentals as the guests partook of the catering.

“My daughter’s going to sing a couple of her songs,” Rajeckas leaned over to inform me seconds before I was supposed to announce him. “Her name is Gina Royale.”

And so I did, condescendingly prompting the audience to give it up for the young, adorably quiet girl for which her daddy ceded his modest stage time. She sat at the keyboard, mumbled something into the microphone, and began to softly play. I probably made it four to five feet off the stage when the voice hit me; bluesy, honest, arrestingly emotive. I turned; half expecting to see if someone else had wrested the mic from this kid. Nope. Royale was kicking ass.

Her set was maybe five songs, all of her own material, save for a very moving rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine”, which in her hands appeared far more meaningful than I’d heard since the ex-Beatle was gunned down in NYC 34 years ago. Throughout, I could not take my eyes from her, not for dynamic or seductive reasons; it was the voice, and the flow of the songs that seemed achingly mature for someone you might cast in High School Musical.

She received applause, but nothing like what I experienced while working my way through the crowd, such as it was. People were stunned that what they had heard wasn’t a CD or wondered how we suckered an obvious recording artist to play at this thing.

My effusive praise made it to Royale’s dad, who for all intents and purposes is her acting manager. And why not? Wouldn’t a manager make sure his client got on a bill wherein she would debut free of expectation and…well…surprise people? And, of course, her manager/dad told me all about her upcoming recording date and here we are.

I am sitting in a typically ragged studio-type couch watching intently as Royale runs down another number that will appear on the EP, “T-Shirt”, a song she describes as an experiment in taking an innocuous item and placing undo import, as in the t-shirt of a boy possessed by a smitten girl; a charming metaphor for an adolescent heart. “I usually start with the title of the song,” Royale explains, as if describing the building an engine. “I find a unique title and then work out the chorus and find a rhythm to go along with that, work out some lyrics, build a chorus, build whatever comes right before the chorus, and then the rest of the song…in that order.”

Royale’s drummer, Josh Grigsby, on loan from a local band called the Karma Killers, the dad, who added keyboards to the tracks, and producer/studio proprietor, Rob Freeman, who also plays guitars and bass on the project, surround her. I can just about make out that innocently proportioned face, those piercing green eyes, and the obligatory wisp of blonde locks, as she begins to unveil the song – half heartbreak, part defiance, all playfulness. It is already, even without accompaniment, a stellar pop vehicle. Doubtless, anyone would be happy having this as a potential hit. It’s quick to the hook, turns around with panache, and is fueled by the voice that turned a few benefit-goers heads only weeks before.

“I want to hear my songs on the radio,” Royale says later. And although it is an obvious statement millions of dreamers might utter in their spare time, this is a young lady who truly means it. “I want people to enjoy my music. It’s not that I am straying away from my own style just so more people will like it, I love pop music.”

“I want people to enjoy my music. It’s not that I am straying away from my own style just so more people will like it, I love pop music.”

Royale began absorbing music at an early age, beginning on flute and saxophone, then enduring the inevitable piano lessons any daughter of a musician would be expected to, but it was hearing Taylor Swift’s Red at age 14 that made her think in terms of composing. “When that record first came out, I thought the lyrics were so amazing and beautiful and deep and I wanted to write songs like that,” she says. Studying vocals from a classically trained perspective provided her a foundation, but it was one that she fought, as more and more classic pop music began to enter her transom; The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, John Mayer would all work as undercurrents to her craft.

And it is indeed a craft for Royale, whose approach to songwriting echoes the Brill Building era of hit song assembly lines, ala Carol King, Irving Mills, Neil Sadaka, et al. To better underscore this workman like demeanor, she attended a songwriting camp last year at William Paterson University and literally worked at developing her technique of playing with chord progressions, honing melodies, and finding the elusive bridge. “It’s a strategy,” she smiles.

And that strategy will lead her this coming autumn or perhaps even January of 2016 to a college with a heavy emphasis on music. “I want to study contemporary vocals in college, but it’s hard to find a major like that,” says Royale. “Thirty schools in the country have it. The majority of them are in California, but I’m looking at Berklee College of Music in Boston. They are specifically a contemporary music school in general, so their vocal program is only contemporary. I’m also looking at the New School for Jazz Contemporary Music in New York City, The University of the Arts in Philly, and William Paterson University here in New Jersey, which also happens to have that major.”

Even in the quest for high education, Royale remains pragmatic to the core: “My reach school is Berklee, but being more realistic, it would be William Paterson, which is affordable. It’s easier to get into and it’s a university, so I can still have something to back me up if music falls through.”

And one wonders with all this strategy, schooling and purpose, if perhaps something of spontaneous combustion might be missing from all this songwriting equation. Yet, Royale is not totally unaware of this. “If I didn’t have that influence, I would probably do a long emotional rant on the piano,” she answers matter-of-factly. “I am not a depressing person, but I like to write depressing songs or like songs about heartbreak. I can always draw more emotion from that, and although not that many sad things have happened to me, I feel like I can describe more emotions that way. Every time I try to write a happy song it ends up being dumb and cheesy. My goal is I want to have a radio-appeal song, but I don’t want it to be cheesy. I still want it to be unique on its own.”gina_color

Lyrically, Royale combines universal pop tropes of love and loss and yearning with honest experiences from her own teenage life, as in the betrayal of a friend and the infinite coming-of-age battle between integrity and popularity. This is evident in “I Don’t Need You”, the third song on the EP Royale is calling Heir, a clever play on the double-meaning between her moniker and being the offspring of a musician: “I don’t wanna take your calls/I don’t wanna hear your voice/And I don’t wanna kiss your lips/I don’t need you boy” is something of a feminine call to arms for all young girls caught in a bad-boy grip.

This sense of renewed independence, whether autobiographical or melodramatic, is a theme Royale feels comfortable with, as in another original composition she brings up during our conversation that is not included on Heir, “Courage”, fueled with the kind of righteous indignation that could only be roused by growing up.

“Last year I was supposed to sing ‘Respect’ by Aretha Franklin as part of this Memorial Day Veterans tribute,” recalls Royale about the origin of the song. “I was so excited; I knew my part and everything, and the day before the show I was kicked out by this girl who was in charge of it, all because her best friend wanted my part. The next day the girl wouldn’t even talk to me, because she felt so terrible. One of my favorite lyrics from that song, and I always hope she’ll hear them, is when I mention her going to James Madison University in Virginia; ‘Your sly tongue won’t take you very far/Take it out to Virginia and see where you are.’”

Perhaps Heir’s most infectious song is “Hello Heartbreak”, wherein Royale defiantly sings a torrid verse of impenetrable fury: “You had all the traits of a crook/Wanted more than what you could have/You have no idea what you took/And I don’t know, I don’t know if I’ll steal it back,” the final line is repeated three times to drive the rancor deeper. It attacks from the opening verse and refuses to let up. It may also be Royale’s most effective Taylor Swift homage, using a bouncy melody to express torment, which is only part of its allure, which hits home when you could swear you’ve been singing the thing your whole life.

Not to say that Royale is overtly derivative, but the arrangement of the songs on Heir reflect a modernity that you would expect from youth, and, quite frankly, what you need to hear from youth, as if heralding a new order or at least reminding you that being young is still as much a weirdly explosive amalgam of exhilaration, confusion and angst as you remember it to be.

But to hear Royale say it, and as she performs it, she is happy sneaking up on everyone.

“I want to be that kid, who, you know, most people don’t expect that I can even sing,” she says smiling, as if it is all transpired in her head already. “In school, I am a hermit. I don’t talk to anyone. I have like three friends. It’s not that I’m shy. I just don’t like anyone in my school. People never assume I sing, and then when I do, I’m this short, tiny girl and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, you can actually really sing! You can really hit high notes!’ I want to surprise people.”

 

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TRUTH IN CHARACTER

8/6/14
Aquarian Weekly
Cover Piece

 

TRUTH IN CHARACTER
Sinead O’Connor’s Musical Catharsis: I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss

By James Campion

august-6-2014-sinead-o-connor
While visiting Dublin in early June, the wife and I came upon a mural painted on
the side of the city’s Hard Rock Café tucked within a phalanx of ancient pubs in the Temple Bar district. It was a beautiful rendering of a doe-eyed Sinead O’Connor peering from beneath a shawl, appearing as if a stricken Madonna. Above the image, damaged slightly by what looked like a heavy object having been hurled into the cement by her neck, was written; “Sinead you were right all along, we were wrong. So sorry.”

What Sinead O’Connor may have represented or said that at first came off as “wrong” but was later seen by the artist or her fellow Irish citizens as “right” is left to the imagination. But it matters little. For Sinead O’Connor has never been timid about speaking her mind, in song or in person, embodying the deviant contrarian that many of us at first may bristle – How dare she!, but later wonder how we missed being stricken by the same passionate outrage.

Sinead O’Connor. The mere name conjures controversy. For 30 years her career as punk provocateur, spiritual radical, unflinching feminist and social marauder has set her apart; for good or ill. The siren vocalist of poignant songs that pierce through the treacle of most rock sentiments never sought refuge in art; instead she draped her music about her personal and public life as a second skin. Perhaps it was always the presentation that preceded her – defiant glare of those enormous green eyes that leap from beneath the shimmering bald scalp extenuated by a menacing scowl that occasionally gives pause for a child-like giggle, as if half the bravado is act and the other id.

This is why Sinead O’Connor is a hero of mine, for her life collides with her art; her persona a canvas. Whether emotionally charged performances or combative interviews, hers is the complete package. There is no gimmick. If it were then her enormously zealous heart-over-mind sense of expression would not have needed a painted apology nor would it have at times rendered her a pariah despite an otherwise impressive run of success on the charts and inside pop culture.

But it all pales in the wake of her incredible work, the most striking, 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (Yeah, the one with “Nothing Compares To U”, which is Prince’s finest song, but only a glimpse of what explodes from that record). There is not one time in a hundred spins of the gut-wrenching, “Three Babies” that chills don’t shoot through my nervous system as she clutches the high notes for “The face on you/The smell of you/ Will always be with me”. It may be the most haunting eight seconds ever recorded and only begins to lift the veil on a complicated soul.

Over the years, O’Connor has openly discussed and written extensively about the abuse she suffered as a child leading to her expression of disgust with the Catholic Church’s refusal to root out pedophiles – specifically in Ireland, which might explain the mural – which led to her infamous ripping up a photograph of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in October of 1992, the first of many very sudden and very public heart-over-mind moments that has overshadowed her music.

The title of O’Connor’s new album, I Am Not Bossy, I’m The Boss says it all, well, almost. The record echoes like a clenched fist opening into a blooming flower; a return to fierce introspection; the insolent woman looking for tenderness. The first verse from the album’s opening song, “How About I Be Me” reveals a vulnerability behind being “the boss”: “Always gotta be the lioness/Taking care of everybody else/A woman like me needs love/A woman like me needs a man to be/Stronger than herself”. She sings time and again on several tracks about transcendent kisses and “making love”, as if hidden salvation.

I Am Not Bossy strips bare the public persona of the angered rebel, but not entirely. It strategically traverses the tightrope of irreverent brashness and tender yearning on twelve compelling numbers ranging from seductive ballads to confessional angst.

The great bowery poet, Charles Bukowski once wrote, “My days, my years, my life has seen up and downs, lights and darknesses. If I wrote only and continually of the “light” and never mentioned the other, then as an artist I would be a liar.” And it is in this search for the duality of truth in art that I sat down for a chat with O’Connor, some ten years in the making.

 

This is something of a Holy Grail for me, speaking with you. For some reason our planned interviews always seemed to get derailed. You’re my hero because you never dismiss the human condition in your work or philosophy, even when considering politics, religion or social issues. That is an enviable trait.

Well, thanks.

Let’s start with the record. It appears after several listens to be a combination of catharsis and introspection, much like most of your work, but this time it has an exhaling quality to it; a sense of relief – for instance many of the songs are short and sweet, barely running three minutes. They get right to the point, as if shoved out of your psyche. What was your frame of mind when you wrote and then recorded this material?

There are three songs that are personal/autobiographical; “How About I Be Me”, “Dense Water Deeper Down” and “8 Good Reasons”. The others are not my frame of mind, but the characters’. In the same way the Aretha Franklin album, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You is the story of a relationship, when you listen to it in sequence, I wanted to echo that. And so there are perhaps three or four female characters on the record, but there is one that appears more often than the others. She’s the cathartic one. She’s on a journey to learn the difference between illusion and reality when it comes to discovering love, and her catharsis comes when she discovers it was herself she was longing for the whole time. The earlier songs where she is longing for this particular man are conversations between her and this guy, but she comes to the conclusion at the end of it all that it is not him she is longing for but her. (laughs) That’s a bit of a longwinded explanation, but you hit the nail on the head in terms of it being a catharsis. It’s just not mine. It’s a character that I’ve created.

She’s on a journey to learn the difference between illusion and reality when it comes to discovering love, and her catharsis comes when she discovers it was herself she was longing for the whole time.
 

You play around quite a bit with Hindu references on this record, “The Vishnu Room” being an obvious one, but I am interested in your use of Maya in “Harbour”. You sing;“And they said call it Maya/Go ahead call it Maya/But it’s not all Maya” – Maya being a Hindu word or symbol for illusion or delusion, to overcome the foolishness of posing or hiding and find the “true self”, which appears to be another central theme to these songs.

Yeah, it is the central theme. These characters…if you like, you can say represent every woman or every man, indeed, but there are a set of characters which represent the psyche of the main character, who  is the female character that turns up on “Your Green Jacket”, then “The Vishnu Room”, ‘The Voice of My Doctor”, “Harbour” and ends up with “Streetcars”. And through this song sequence there is this journey of longing for this guy whom she has projected all this stuff on and I suppose he is Maya, as he is always present, the same way the man in the Aretha Franklin record is always present throughout the album. And she has an experience with him, which leads her to understand he is not the man she thought he was, which doesn’t mean he’s a bad person, but she got a fright because he wasn’t what she had deluded herself into thinking he was. But instead of taking this as some dreadful thing, it leads her to discover that in fact it was herself she was longing for. So that description there of Maya…yeah, that’s it. That’s what the central character is going through.

The song also evokes something I know you have used your career to shed
light upon and that is child abuse, mostly institutional child abuse, and I couldn’t help thinking of that theme when listening to the lines; “Fumbling to get back what’s stolen/Thinking pain could be plastered over”.

Yeah, those conversations between characters set off something in my mind,

sineadbecause I’m what you might call a Stanislavski “method actor” singer/songwriter. What happened with the last album, some of the songs were written when people had given me movie scripts and I started then to write songs from the point of view of these characters. I enjoyed that, but I didn’t give the movie people the songs. So I created a scenario in my mind and based the character on someone I met in Holland, a young girl, and invented this story where the man on the record asks her about the marks she has on her and the song is an explanation of how she has these marks on her. It’s supposed to be left to the imagination. It’s part of her explaining to him that she is beginning to understand that she has been projecting this longing for things that she didn’t get growing up and she had perhaps projected onto men or the idea of a man who will come and rescue her and make everything wonderful. She realizes that’s not how things go, which ties up with the whole Maya thing.

Speaking of this Stanislavski “method acting” style of getting into character to sing; your voice sounds as strong and emotive as ever; it still gives me chills. There is always a moment or two or three in every record where you go to a place deep inside to get to that intense vocal expression. Where does that come from?    

It’s very hard to explain, because if you could describe music you wouldn’t need music. It’s kind of second nature, so it’s hard to describe to someone else. It’s like taking a breath. You do what you do. I’m sure every singer would tell you how much they wish they could put words on that, because there’s nothing more interesting to talk about than singing. For me, I just go into a world of my own and if you go into the Stanislavski method, as I call it, you get into the character – the who, what, where, when and why – and you forget you’re on a stage and forget there are people there and you get to who you are in the song, where you are, what is it you’re trying to say, who is it you’re trying to say it to and how you’re trying to say it. (laughs) But the big difference between this and actual method acting is you only stay in that character for three minutes, because you’ve got to sing another character in three minutes. (laughs)

 Speaking of characters, the record’s cover photo of you in the shiny black dress and the black wig evokes a visual way to depict a character or maybe it reflects your foolish side or perhaps your true self.

Yeah, exactly. I think that’s a very important aspect of it. It’s a poetic aspect, and what I mean by that is it’s a subtext, and I’ve done about 150 interviews already and you were the only one who managed to pick that up, although one person asked me if I was trying to disguise myself and I said, “Well, maybe the other has been a disguise.” (laughs)

 I have to compliment you on your confronting suicide on “8 Good Reasons”, which is such an arresting song that within it you actually question the idea of broaching it. You sing; “Don’t know if I should quite sing this song/Don’t know if it maybe might be wrong/But then again it maybe might be right/To tell you ‘bout the bullet and the red light”. It’s a beautifully harsh sentiment.

 In the case where songs are very personal it becomes subconscious when you write them. You don’t really know why you wrote it, you just had to write it. I was working with a guitar player named Graham Kearns and he wrote the music for the song and sent it to me. I don’t know…I just felt I had to write it. (chuckles) My favorite way of writing is when someone gives me a piece of music. When I hear the music I see pictures or think of things, whether they’re personal or imaginary things, and once I heard what Graham had given me I was immediately inspired by it.

When I hear the music I see pictures or think of things, whether they’re personal or imaginary things.

 

Can you reveal the 8 good reasons that are worth sticking around for?

They were my children’s eyes.

 Ha! That’s fantastic.

(laughs) Yeah.

I recently saw a television interview with you where you discussed the dangerous vagaries of the Internet, the meanness of it, the random, anonymous vitriol of it all. I wonder if that kind of bullying is something that hits home with you.IMG_5880_300

Well, Jesus, look what’s going on in Israel. It goes on in people’s sitting rooms because it goes on outside and vice versa. It’s not only on the Internet, is it? People aren’t very nice to one another.

 I saw a mural of you on the street in Temple Bar when I was in Dublin last month. On it was written, I presume by the artist, “Sinead you were right all along, we were wrong. So sorry.” Can you shed some light on this?

I wonder who painted it! (laughs) I’ll tell you what, if John Paul II or Ratzinger (Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger aka Pope Benedict XVI) did it I’d be real happy. It’s lovely. I’ve seen it. It’s very special to me. I’d really love to know who did it.

I have framed and hanging in my office the cover of the NY Daily News the day after you tore a picture of Pope John Paul II and that was, for me, a touchtone moment of speaking truth to power. And later we learned it was your vehement protest against the Church’s cover-up of decades of child abuse. I wonder if you believe this is a battle that will ever be won or will it rage on long after we’re gone.

No, I don’t think it will be a battle long after we’re gone because I believe in the Christian scriptures and it’s all written down exactly what’s going to happen. So, to put it briefly and more in a metaphorical form: Rain falls from the sky, stuff comes up from under the ground. As Jesus said; “Nothing is hidden that won’t be revealed and nothing is kept secret that won’t be made known.” I think we can all sit back and relax, because I believe in the scriptures and all will eventually be revealed.

Will you be touring the record here in the states?

Yeah, we’re coming there in October and again in November. You know – one side of the states the first time and another side the second time. (laughs)

Well, it really is a wonderful record and seems to be a creative rebirth for you; new label (Nettwerk) and all. I wonder if you feel that.

I really do. Very much so. Brilliant record company. Brilliant record. John  Reynolds being the most fantastic producer ever and I think very strong songs and a great songwriting team we have together.  It’s another beginning for me as a songwriter.

 

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BOY: TAKING THE PROCESS ON TOUR

Aquarian Weekly
10/13

BUZZ

James Campion

BOY: TAKING THE PROCESS ON TOUR
From Music Workshop to New York Stage, A Pop Duo Comes Of Age

 

Even in a cramped and steamy backstage dressing room, less than two hours before the New York City debut of their full-band show at Webster Hall, Valeska Steiner and Sonja Glass still find time to be introspectively gracious and dig deeperBoy1_400x500 into this mysterious but palpable fusion of musicality that allows uniquely divided talents from disparate backgrounds to achieve Boy.

Boy is a vocal-rich, musically versatile songwriting and performing duo that formed in 2005 and released its first collection of songs, Mutual Friends in 2011. Disallowing for taste or category, Boy embodies the strength and depth of the memorable tune, the visceral progression, the tasty bridge and a considerable cross-generational adoration for pop music.

“We don’t sit in a room and jam,” Glass chuckles. The thirty-six year old German cellist/bass player is quite adamant when explaining the Boy process. “I write the songs in total, programming everything but lyrics and melody. Then I send those ideas to Valeska.”

The twenty-seven year old Swiss born vocalist, whose eerie evocation of Suzanne Vega’s reservedly sensual tones, thrives in the duo’s give-and-take. “We are real perfectionists,” Steiner beams. “Our goal is to work for as long as it takes for us to like it. And it takes awhile.”

Mutual Friends is a first record much like a first novel; it goes too far and chooses too many spaces to fill, yet manages quite nicely to make it sound as if the listener has found a comfortable place to land.

“Comforting” is how Glass describes the music, as Steiner is quite positive its themes, from love and loss to the joy of transition are “optimistic”.

“This is the beginning…of anything you want,” Steiner sings in the album’s opening number, and you believe it, just as you believe the alternative in the pensive “Drive Darling” when she admits, “I’m smiling on the surface,…I’m scared as hell below.” There is an enviable sincerity in these disparate emotions in which the music duly supports.

“I was glad we were able to make a record that many people come to us and say that it gives them hope somehow,’ says Steiner. “I had just moved from Zurich to Hamburg, so it was like a fresh start. And it was this very enthusiastic and hopeful feeling of looking to see what was going to come, but there are also melancholy songs of missing what you left behind.”

The delicate but brave balance of Boy is found in these young women and what they have found in each other, a similar comfort to meet the challenge of creating the kind of music which reflects their collective outlook while not trying too hard to please. It is as if the idea of a good, solid, positive song; whether treading folk or rock or soul, were inbred individually and realized jointly.

“I was looking for a band for many years and Valeska was the first one where I thought I really believed in us,” recounts Glass of their meeting in a six-week pop-music symposium at Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hamburg, Germany, her distinct accent forcing the words deliberately, so as to not miss the significance. “Something happened when we played together that had never happened before. I somehow knew that things would work out for us.”
Steiner recalls nearly 50 musicians and vocalists convened in the “workshop”, but it took merely an initial meeting for her and Glass to be sure that theirs would be a fruitful collaboration.

“We got into the rehearsal room the second day and we really liked each other’s qualities and somehow got the feeling that we had similar tastes and that we cared about similar things in music,” says Steiner, through a lilting Swiss accent, a sweet smile creasing her slender features.  “We clicked pretty quickly.”

“There were many, many singers, but she stood out,” Glass says of Steiner. “Her voice is special and very unique and you just recognize it. She’s just…shining.”
Mutual Friends provides insights into the essence of the Steiner/Glass pairing, which becomes transparent upon meeting them; an adoring humility with an undercurrent of worldly ambition. Both women are arrestingly beautiful and soft-spoken, belying a tenacious will to produce the most memorable aural-scapes.

This intriguing duality was fully on display a few hours later as the band (a percussionist, drummer, guitarist, keyboardist and Glass on bass) took the stage on the second floor of Webster Hall before a hearty audience. Dynamics, spatial nuances and visceral lifts power an understated fury, whether a ballad, as in the haunting “July” or a simple pop song, as in the spectacularly infectious, “Little Numbers”.

It is on stage that Steiner shines as a vocalist; culling tension against an impenetrable bedrock of defiance. Her voice demands attention with a feminine mystique as she moves about the spotlight like a sparrow sure of its space but comfortable in timidity. “We really didn’t make any compromises,” she declared back in the dressing room. “We really just wanted to make our record the way we wanted to make it and we feel so lucky that people seem to like it and we’ve gotten so far and traveled so much with these songs.”

The crowd on this night ate it up; singing along and cheering the many moments of demure honesty both women offered up about their utter giddiness at playing their songs as they were intended, with a full band, in a New York City milieu.
“We are extremely happy with the live band we have,” Steiner enthuses. “They are great musicians and great people, and we’re really happy to have this group that grew together from playing so many shows.”boy

Each member of the band, which has previously played with Boy in one capacity or another over the past two and a half years, all contributed to different songs on Mutual Friends, as Steiner and Glass preferred to pick and choose the right musicians for a particular song. However, this line-up was not part of the equation when the girls first hit America in March.

“We knew we wanted to go on tour and play, but we couldn’t afford a whole band to come with us,” says Steiner. “We just knew we would have to find a way for just the two of us to play these songs in a stripped down version. So that was a challenge.”

This was especially true of Glass, who had taken it upon herself to provide nearly the entire musical accompaniment, protecting the integrity of the original arrangements. “I have to say it took me some time to get used to playing acoustic guitar live,” says Glass. “I use it when I write, of course, but it was hard for me to play this instrument and feel comfortable.”

“We had to imitate the whole band and Sonja really had a tough job,” Steiner adds, her partner effusively nodding her head beside her. “She had to jump from the acoustic guitar to the cello and then to bass.”

“For two songs we had a loop on the laptop and I had to start it,” Glass laughs. “I was kind of the band machine.”

But now, on stage, with full accompaniment and an enthusiastic crowd of fans who have embraced Boy as it was meant to look and sound, Steiner and Glass appear in their element. The German girl plucks her bass and smirks at the groove as her Swiss pal leaps joyously, smacking a tambourine into an open hand as she bends her head back to reach another note.

The future is fast becoming the now for Boy; on tour in the States with a new acoustic EP out and looking forward to completing work on a second album. It is hard not to ask if this could ever have been dreamed up or if this is all stranger than fiction.

“I think both are true,” Steiner smiles, with Glass chiming in with a whispered yeah. “On the one hand it was always this dream of being a musician; to be able to tour and be on the road with your band and, honestly, going to the States and being on tour here was one of my biggest dreams; but it always seemed so far away. When we started writing that was never our main thought, it was just really believing in what happened between us when we write and liking what comes out of that in the first place – just doing it for ourselves or for our own pleasure, because it fulfilled us. And it still does, and it’s so nice to see which way the music goes…”

“….and how it develops,” Glass concludes.

The Boy process continues.

 

 

 

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John Densmore Fights To Save The Doors Legacy

Aquarian Weekly 4/17/13 Feature

THE DOORS: IDENTITY CRISIS IN THE LAND OF $$$
Drummer, John Densmore Revives the Ghost of Jim Morrison in a Fight to Define Art, Integrity & Legacy

There is being an idealist, and then there is John Densmore. There is defining integrity, and then there is John Densmore. There is putting money, reputation and professional legacy where the mouth and the heart reside, and then there is John Densmore.

John DensmoreThe legendary drummer’s new book, The Doors Unhinged – Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial is a compelling look at defining the cost of art, integrity and legacy. Where is the line drawn between creativity and commerce? When does a band turn from a vehicle for artistic expression to a commodity, or is it always both? If so, which is more pertinent? And most importantly, what’s in a name? Is it identity? Is it purity? Or does it have many definitions? And exactly who defines it?

The Doors Unhinged is a story about longtime friends, brothers-in-arms, fighting tooth-and-nail to define their creation; The Doors – its image and rightful place as an American icon, as either a product to be re-packaged for profit or a collective with the living DNA of four unique members that ceased to be, in reality, after 1971.

Densmore’s The Doors Unhinged is less about his struggles for personal principle as it is about definitions; not only definitions put on trial between long-time colleagues, but in a court of law, where the story transforms from a passion play among members of a powerful and lucrative creative entity to a battle for survival, both professional and personal.

For 45 years, The Doors have stood as an exemplar of the late 1960s’ pioneer rock era; breaking molds, bending styles, and staking claim to an exploding culture of youth, fashion and political and social dissent. During the band’s heyday, Densmore was its quietest member. He chose, and quite enjoyed, staying in the background to drive the sound behind the flowing keyboards of Ray Manzarek and guitarist, Robby Krieger’s accenting resonance. But it was putting an exclamation to the manic poetry of the enigmatic detonation that was the late Jim Morrison that really jazzed Densmore.

To Densmore, Morrison represented the ideals of rebellion. His search for escapism and pure freedom fueled songs that topped the charts; “Light My Fire”, “Break On Through (To The Other Side)”, “Hello, I Love You”, “Touch Me”, and others that darkened the edges of the counter-culture, “When The Music’s Over”, “People Are Strange”, and “The End”. Consequently, it was Morrison’s wish that none of the fame and fortune would sever the bond of the four young men, as they explored new musical and lyrical territories without constraint. This wish was confirmed in the band’s rare commitment, never considered before in the entertainment industry, that all four members would have an equal voice to defy the rest of the outfit, as Morrison put it back in 1967, ‘if things got weird”.

In 2003, things got weird.

Densmore, who never stopped believing Morrison’s edict, was forced to stand for the principles of a man long dead and a band long gone when Manzarek and Krieger decided to promote and tour a 21st Century Doors. Despite assurances that the “tribute” would not be labeled as The Doors reunited, Densmore was forced into legal recourse to halt what he felt was misleading to the band’s fan base and an insult to both he and Morrison’s place in the original band. Desperate to keep the gravy train moving, Manzarek and Krieger counter-sued Densmore for $40 million, claiming his continued filibuster of advertising opportunities to use Doors songs to sell just about anything was ruining them financially and sequestering “the brand”.

And so The Doors Unhinged, in essence, bears witness to the purported 60s philosophies and the lingering notion that they still exist or at least it wasn’t all merely a fraudulent attempt to cash in.

The author, one of the most inventive percussionists of the rock era, took time out in early April to reflect on this painful and illuminating diary of the events that ensued.

You write so poignantly about this ugly battle between brothers-in-arms. I wonder if it was even more difficult to share your inner most fears and beliefs with the world.

It wasn’t as difficult to write it down as going through it. (laughs) The old phrase, time heals? Well, time does heal. Technically, it was hard, but I took years to do it. I worked real hard at trying to not to make it a legalese, blah-blah, boring, technical lawyer thing. So, I interspersed my emotions. I let the writing drift off when I was in the courtroom – I mean, I didn’t do that when I was actually in the court room – but I wanted the reader to get inside my mind, so I could better tell the stories of sitting in with Carlos Santana or seeing Elvin Jones. I’m real pleased it’s available for those that are interested.

It was pretty difficult as a fan of The Doors to read about how the lawyers for your friends and colleagues stooped to accusing you of being a communist or worse still, a terrorist. I’ve been covering politics for decades, and even I was appalled.

“You know, now that this book is coming out a cloud is lifted from me. It feels healing, even though it’s a tough pill to swallow for Ray and Robbie.”

I know. It’s funny, because in the beginning the fans, the really hardcore ones, thought I was destroying their favorite band. But now that they can finally read the whole journey, they will hopefully get the idea that I was trying to preserve the integrity of the original group. Now that this book is coming out a cloud is lifted from me. It’s healing, even though it’s a tough pill to swallow for Ray and Robbie. In the last chapter I say, “Hey, how can I not love you guys, we created this incredible thing together.” Musically, they’re my brothers forever. They just didn’t see that The Doors got knocked off its hinges by their idea that they could play without Jim. And that’s been proven wrong.

Your signature point in the book is Morrison’s well-documented outburst against the selling-out of “Light My Fire” to Buick back in 1968. And an intriguing element of the unfolding story is in defining how a 27 year-old man, who stands for so much of the 60s’ imagery, would come across today had he lived. Yet, Morrison’s ideals are frozen in time. There was no maturing or being corrupted or compromising for Morrison. Yet, despite Krieger and Manzarek arguing in court that over time, as he aged, Jim would have evolved in his thinking about selling out The Doors’ integrity for profit, you stood by the ghost of your friend, as if he were here today to speak for himself.

I’m very proud the first line of the book is “Fuck you!” Jim saying “Fuck you!” (laughs) If he were alive today would he okay using Doors songs to sell Cadillac? I’m not unaware of the fact that times have changed and the music business, like all the creative businesses, is really difficult, and as I write in the book; if a new band wants to use their stuff to hawk some product to pay the rent, I get that. It’s just that in our situation we’ve already done well and if a new band begins to do well maybe then they should revisit whether they should do commercials anymore, because, as Tom Waits wrote, “You’ve changed your lyrics to a jingle.”

Two of my great heroes, lyrically and musically, Tom Waits and Pete Townshend are quoted in your book arguing both sides of the point. Waits is vehemently against having his music used purely for commerce while Townshend states emphatically that he can do what he wants with his songs and shouldn’t feel guilty about it. And I can see both sides of it.

Yeah, yeah, it’s true. Townshend’s quote is funny; “I don’t give a fuck if you fell in love with Shirley to my song, I’ll do what I want with it.” (laughs)

But Townshend gets to speak for himself, while Morrison could not. I liken it to arguing that if Martin Luther King had been alive today he might say, “I’d like to reconsider this whole civil rights thing.” You have to go by what a person did and said during their time. That’s all you’ve got.

That’s it exactly, James. All you’ve got is what they did when they were alive. What else could you base your thoughts on?

You see, where Manzarek and Krieger lost me was when they, or their lawyers, used the 1969 Miami incident where Morrison was arrested for lewd behavior and public disturbance or whatever, to besmirch him. In all the books I’ve read on The Doors and interviews I’d heard or seen, all of you guys clearly denounced the charges against Morrison, especially for allegedly exposing himself on stage, which ostensibly finished The Doors as a touring act. Until this case, all the surviving Doors are on record as stating none of these things happened.

That’s what’s hysterical, really, because at the trial in Miami Robbie was asked, “Did Mr. Morrison simulate performing oral sex on you?” To which he said “No! Are you kidding? He gets down on his knees to look at my fingers! He’s enamored with musicians since he can’t play an instrument.” So here are his lawyers implying that it was true, as if Ray and Robbie were never there!

This is where I was on board with your rather lofty goal of “honoring your ancestor”. In essence, you stood by a lost member of the band, who could no longer defend his fourth voice in the collective, his equal vote to stop the band from selling out. It really is an honorable gesture to uphold the legacy and wishes of Morrison and saying, “Jim still gets a vote here.” That is The Doors.

I agree. And since the trial, Jim’s dad has passed, and his mom too, so now they’re ancestors as well. We’re standing on all their shoulders. It was so touching to me; you know, I had never met Jim’s dad. I had met his mom, but I hadn’t met his dad until this trial. And here I initiate this horrible struggle and this great gift of hanging with his dad comes along; how he turned the past around and supported his son’s legacy even while we had written songs against the Viet Nam War as he was over there fighting it! So, what a great healing of the 60s’ in a way.

The Door UnhingedWhat hit home for me as I was reading your account is vividly recalling when I was younger and wanting to be a writer and dabbling in poetry and all that stuff you do when you’re trying to find your identity or your voice, how much An American Prayer was so influential and inspiring to me. I have many literary heroes and influences, and consider Jim Morrison as one. And I’ve had my arguments over the years with those who dismiss Morrison as a poser or a hack because of his affiliation as a pop star. There’s a legitimacy factor that I’ve always embraced with Morrison and The Doors, so to read how you stood by that hit home for me. I found myself rooting you on as I read it.

Well, thanks. Yeah, we really enjoyed doing American Prayer. You know, Jim was really over the top in some of his lyrics and behavior, so people wrote him off. In fact, you gave me an idea, I usually read a little excerpt from American Prayer while playing a hand drum. I think I’ll do that at the Vintage Vinyl signing. I’ll dedicate it to you.

Cool. I’ve got to be there then. Getting back to your trial and this battle to maintain the integrity of The Doors – now that this is all settled, and we’ll let people decide by reading your book how it all comes out and what they believe was the right angle; what are your thoughts on the line drawn between art and commodity? Does it move from when you’re struggling to put food on the plate to when you’re a rock star? Is it tangible?

You know, I quote Lewis Hyde, who wrote a book called The Gift, which really nails it for me. He says there is a gift exchanged between the artist and the receiver and it doesn’t matter if you’re paying for an opera ticket or a concert ticket or whatever, it’s still this gift. But if you change the work of art entirely into a commodity, you’re going to lose the gift. I like that very much. It’s kind of what I’m saying, whether it’s a painting or music or whatever the hell it is, it’s an expression of the artist in trying to share what it’s like being human. There’s a sacred something exchanged there. And, you know, if you make it be about a new deodorant I think you’ve lost the gift.

But I can also see the other point about creativity being your trade. I’m not sure how you feel about what Pink Floyd went through with Roger Waters or what KISS goes through when they tour with two new guys in the make-up of the original guys and selling it as KISS, and I’ve had Alice Cooper tell me in interviews that he created this character and if someone wanted to carry on as Alice Cooper after he was gone that would be all right with him. This is really about definitions; how The Doors are ultimately defined, and in this book you define it as a singular entity, almost sacred. There are some things that are not for sale.

Well, I’m so grateful for something Tom Waits said, and I put it on the back of the book; “John Densmore is not for sale and that’s his gift to us.” But, you know, Alice Cooper, that’s his name, where this is The Doors, and that’s not Jim’s name. It reminds me of this moment when we were on stage and were introduced as “Jim Morrison and The Doors” and Jim dragged the promoter back out and made him re-introduce us as The Doors. So, behind closed doors – sorry about that – we were four equal parts. Even L.A. Woman was a good, strong album, and Jim was clearly an alcoholic by then. When we were alone, the four of us, the muse still blessed us. And so I feel okay. I feel the beginning of a healing with Ray and Robbie, because something bigger than us helped us make our music.

Ultimately, did you see those guys touring as the 21st Century Doors, and more or less promoting it as The Doors, as identity theft?

Yes. That’s pretty good. I know I did say, “The Doors died in a bathtub in Paris in ’71”, but you know, Jim’s such an icon that he lives on in everyone’s mind. Of course, I was just trying to make it clear that The Doors were Jim, Ray, Robbie and John – John, Paul, George, Ringo – it’s not Ray, Robbie, Ian (Astbury – The Cult, new singer), Stuart (Copeland – former Police drummer), Fred and Tom. The Stones without Mick? The Police without Sting? No, come on. The Doors were knocked off their hinges for a few years due to this idea, but they’re back on their hinges now. Thank God.

I always say I’d trade all the shows I saw in my lifetime for one evening watching you guys ply your trade, because as I understand it, a Doors show was literally an organic experience, no matter how bad it got or how brilliant it got, no one could predict what the hell would happen. So, I ask you; someone who played that music and performed those shows; how did you feel when you came on stage with The Doors? As the lights went down and the crowd was cheering and you guys were about to crash into the first song; did you have that same feeling of, here we go, let’s see what goes down now?

“Unpredictability was a main ingredient. You know, Jim could be completely wild or quiet and it created a ritual or something like a séance. What’s gonna happen tonight? “

(laughs) It’s funny. Unpredictability was a main ingredient. You know, Jim could be completely wild or quiet and it created a ritual or something like a séance. What’s gonna happen tonight? It was sort of crazy, but also magical. A lot of the time it was magic, until his self destruction increased and then I was lobbying for us to stop playing live. And it took me a year to convince Ray and Robbie of this, because I missed the magic. It was so good in the beginning. It was, you know, goose bumps…pin-drop time. Usually we’d play “Light My Fire” and everybody would be on their feet dancing and then we’d play “The End” as an encore and people would file out…quietly. (chuckles) Like they were gonna take it home and chew on it.

Maybe my favorite piece of video of you guys, and it might have been in Europe, is The Doors playing live on a television show and doing “The End”, which in and of itself is gutsy – here you are probably expected to do the hit, to play “Light My Fire” on a pop television show, and you’re playing this eleven-minute opus with bizarre poetic references and Oedipal overtones and this is not a theater or a rock club. The studio lights are up and you can see the audience and these people are between awe and shock. That’s pretty profound, man. And I think unique to The Doors.

(laughs) It reminds me of a gig in Mexico City. We were promised to play in the bull ring for the people who had just a few pesos in exchange for playing a ritzy supper club. And we went down there and there was some riot in the bull ring a few weeks before and they ended up cancelling us playing there. We were so depressed. So here we were playing for these people eating supper in a real ritzy club and we were playing “The End” and they were trying to cut their steaks… (laughs) …with mouthfuls of food. (laughs)

That kind of story reminds me of how you really just loved the whole thing; not just being in The Doors, but, like I said before, the whole sacred thing about those four guys. In fact, you were the last person in the inner sanctum to speak with Morrison before he died. Could you take a minute and recount that conversation. Did you get an eerie feeling that maybe it might be the last time you spoke to Morrison?

Oh, boy. (sighs) Well, I could tell he was still drinking, so that was disturbing, but no…I didn’t think it would be the last time I’d talk to him. But I appreciated his enthusiasm for hearing how well L.A. Woman was doing, because we produced it ourselves with Bruce Botnick, our longtime engineer in our rehearsal room, and we had more control. So, it was fun to do. And Jim said, “Oh, man, I’ll come back. We’ll make another one!”

Which is a cool story, because in most books I’ve read on The Doors or on Morrison, it always depicts him as wanting to shed The Doors and become a legitimate poet and leave all that rock god stuff behind. But when you tell it, it sounds like he still held his place in The Doors in high regard.

Yes.

Greil Marcus’ new book on The Doors, The Doors – Five Mean Years, argues for the relevance of The Doors today. I loved the story about when he was visiting his dad, who was in a hospital at the time a few years back, driving across the Bay Bridge from Oakland or Berkley to San Francisco and listening to several rock/pop radio stations for weeks on end – every day – and in that hour or so drive there and back almost inevitably with all the new stuff like Lady Gaga or Justin Timberlake or whatever, there would be a Doors song and how more than any band from the past, The Doors still seemed to have a resonance among this generation, how the band transcended its time so well. It’s not like you guys are stuck in that time. The Doors are still relevant. And this speaks to your battle to protect that, not just for nostalgic purposes, but for now, for today and for all time.

Well, I don’t know why it’s lasted so long. It must be the drumming. (laughs)

That segues into a final question I have for you: What do you hope people who didn’t experience all this turmoil between you and Robbie and Ray and the court case and everything you describe take away from your book?

Well, at the risk of being on a soapbox and sounding like Mister PC, there’s an underlying theme in this book…money. And as I quote Michael Mead, a mythologist friend of mine; “Currency comes from the word ‘current’, and it’s supposed to flow like a river. So if the corporate leaders horde everything – the billionaires damn it all up – money becomes like fertilizer; when horded it stinks and when spread around things grow, I’m kind of arrogantly implying that my personal struggles with my band might be metaphoric for bigger issues. That make sense?

It does.

I guess I’m talking about integrity or whatever the hell.

Reality Check | Pop Culture | Politics | Sports | Music

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John Densmore Interview (2013)

TRANSCRIPT 4/9/13

JOHN DENSMORE INTERVIEW
Unedited Transcript

James?

Yes.

John Densmore.

John , how are you, sir?

John DensmoreI’m good, thanks. How are you?

I’m well. Big fan here, so this is a big deal for me. So thank you very much for the time.

Oh, you bet.

Not only a big fan of your work as a musician over the years, but I really enjoyed your two books, this latest one we’ll talk about and your first one, Riders on the Storm.

Well, I appreciate that, James.

I cranked through this book in about two days nearly a month ago, so before we spoke I wanted to revisit some key parts, and was even more impressed by how poignantly you write about how difficult it was to be in this ugly battle against your brothers-in-arms. And it got me wondering how hard was it to get it down in print, to physically express it, and know that your inner most fears and anxieties and beliefs would be on record in this account?

(laughs) Wow. It wasn’t as difficult to write it down as going through it. (laughs) The old phrase, time heals; time does heal. And I worked real hard at trying to not to make it a legalese, blah-blah, boring, technical lawyer thing. So, I interspersed my emotions. I drift off when I was in the court room, I mean, when writing this, I didn’t necessarily do that when I was actually in the court room, but I wanted the reader to get inside my mind, so I could better tell some stories about whatever – sitting in with Carlos Santana or seeing Elvin Jones. So, technically, it was hard, but I took years to do it. Writing takes forever. Well, you know how it is. I’m real pleased it’s available for those that are interested.

It was pretty difficult as a fan of The Doors to read about how the lawyers for your friends and colleagues stooped to accusing you of being a communist or worse still, unbelievably, a terrorist. I’m 50, and have been covering politics for decades, but even I was appalled.

I know. It’s funny, because in the beginning the fans, the really hardcore ones, thought I was destroying their favorite band. But now that they can finally read the whole journey they will hopefully get the idea that I was trying to preserve the integrity of the original group. You know, (sighs) now that this book is coming out a cloud is lifted from me. It feels healing, even though it’s a tough pill to swallow for Ray and Robbie. In the last chapter I say, “Hey, how can I not love you guys, we created this incredible thing together.” And, you know, musically, they’re my brothers forever. They just didn’t see… The Doors…they got knocked off their hinges by their idea that they could play without Jim. And that’s been (chuckles) proven wrong.

Sure, in many ways. I was immediately taken by your signature point in the book being Morrison’s well-documented derision against the selling-out of “Light My Fire” to Buick in 1968 as the basis for your protecting the brand. And an intriguing element of your story is this defining of what a 27 year-old man, who stands for so much of the 60s’ imagery, would come across today had he lived. Yet, Morrison is frozen in time with his ideals. There was no maturing or being corrupted or compromising for Morrison. Despite Krieger and Manzarick arguing in court that Jim would have evolved in his thinking about selling out The Doors integrity for profit, you stood by the ghost of your friend as if he were here today to speak out for himself.

“You know, now that this book is coming out a cloud is lifted from me. It feels healing, even though it’s a tough pill to swallow for Ray and Robbie.”

I’m very proud the first line of the book is “Fuck you!” (laughs) Jim saying “Fuck you!” (laughs) You know, if he were alive today would he okay using Doors songs to sell Cadillac? I’m not unaware of the fact that times have changed and the music business, like all the creative businesses, is really difficult, and as I write in the book; if a new band wants to use their stuff to hawk some product to pay the rent, I get that. It’s just that in our situation we’ve already done well and if a new band begins to do well maybe then they should revisit whether they should do commercials anymore, because, as Tom Waits wrote, “You’ve changed your lyrics to a jingle.”

I love the fact that two of my great heroes, lyrically and musically, Tom Waits and Pete Townshend are quoted in your book arguing both sides of the point. Waits is vehemently against having his music used purely for commerce while Townshend states emphatically that he can do what he wants with his songs and shouldn’t feel guilty about it. And I can see both sides of it.

Yeah, yeah, it’s true. Townshend’s quote is funny; “I don’t give a fuck if you fell in love with Shirley to my song, I’ll do what I want with it.” (laughs)

(laughs) But Townshend gets to speak for himself, while Morrison could not. I liken it to arguing that if Martin Luther King had been alive today he might say, “I’d like to reconsider this whole civil rights thing.” You have to go by what a person did and said during their time. That’s all you’ve got.

That’s it exactly, James. All you’ve got is what they did when they were alive. What else could you base your thoughts on?

You see, where Manzerick and Krieger lost me was when they, or their lawyers, used the 1969 Miami incident where Morrison was arrested for lewd behavior and public disturbance or whatever, to besmirch him. In all the books I’ve read on The Doors and interviews I’d heard or seen, all of you guys clearly denounced the charges against Morrison, especially for allegedly exposing himself on stage, which ostensibly finished The Doors as a touring act. Until this case, all the surviving Doors are on record as stating none of these things happened.

That’s what’s hysterical, really, because at the trial in Miami Robbie was asked, “Did Mr. Morrison perform, or simulate performing, oral sex on you?” To which he said “No! Are you kidding? (laughs) He gets down on his knees to look at my fingers! He’s enamored with musicians since he can’t play an instrument.” So here are his lawyers implying that it was true, as if Ray and Robbie were never there!

This is where I was on board with your rather lofty goal of “honoring your ancestor”. In essence, you stood by a lost member of the band, who could no longer defend his fourth voice in the collective, his equal vote to stop the band from selling out. It’s really is an honorable gesture to uphold the legacy and wishes of Morrison and saying, “Jim still gets a vote here.” That is The Doors.

Wow, James you’re smart. I hope you write this stuff down.

Well, thank you. (laughs)

I agree. And since the trial, Jim’s dad has passed, and his mom too, so now they are ancestors as well. We’re standing on all their shoulders. It was so touching to me, you know, I had never met Jim’s dad. I had met his mom, but I hadn’t met his dad until this trial. And here I initiate this horrible struggle and this great gift of hanging with his dad comes along. How he turned the past around and supported his son’s legacy even while we had written songs against the Viet Nam War as he was over there fighting it! So, what a great healing of the 60s’ in a way.

The Doors - 1967It’s true. And it comes across in the book. It really does. What hit home for me is as I was reading your account I vividly recalled when I was younger and wanting to be a writer and dabbling in poetry and all that stuff you do when you’re trying to find your identity or your voice, how much An American Prayer was so influential and inspiring to me. And although I have many literary heroes and influences, I consider Jim Morrison as one very special one. And I’ve had my arguments over the years with fellow scribes and even fellow students who dismissed Morrison as a poser or even a hack because of his affiliation as a pop star. There’s a legitimacy factor that I’ve always embraced with Morrison and The Doors, so to read how you stood by that hit home for me. I found myself rooting you on as I read it.

Well, thanks. Yeah, we really enjoyed doing American Prayer. You know, Jim was really over the top in some of his lyrics and behavior, so people wrote him off. In fact, you gave me an idea, I read a little excerpt from American Prayer while playing a hand drum. I think I’ll do that at the Vintage Vinyl signing. I’ll dedicate it to you.

(laughs) Thank you, man. Where is that? L.A.

No, wait, You’re writing this for The Aquarian, right? Isn’t that out of New Jersey?

Yup, right here in Jersey. Pop culture weekly; longest running independently-owned rock weekly in the country – our archives were recently inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Excellent! Well, I’m doing this reading/signing thing at Vintage Vinyl in New Jersey.

Cool. I’ve got to be there then. I’m sure the paper is plugging it. Not sure if this piece will be in by then. Getting back to your trial and this battle to maintain the integrity of The Doors – now that this is all settled, and we’ll let people decide by reading your book how it all comes out and what they believe was the right angle; what are your thoughts on the line drawn between art and commodity? Does it move from when you’re struggling to put food on the plate to when you’re a rock star? Is it tangible?

You know, I quote this writer, Lewis Hyde who wrote a book called The Gift, which really nails it for me. He says there is a gift exchanged between the artist and the receiver and it doesn’t matter if you’re paying for an opera ticket or a concert ticket or whatever, it’s still this gift. But if you change the work of art entirely into a commodity, you’re going to lose the gift. So, I like that very much. It’s kind of what I’m saying, whether its a painting or music or whatever the hell it is, it’s an expression of the artist in trying to share what it’s like being human. There’s a sacred something exchanged there. And, you know, if you make it be about a new deodorant you…gee…I think you’ve lost the gift.

But I can see the other point about this creativity being your task and trade. I’m not sure how you feel about what Pink Floyd went through with Roger Waters or what KISS goes through when they tour with two new guys in the make-up of the original guys and selling it as KISS, and I’ve had Alice Cooper tell me in interviews that he created this character and if someone, say, wanted to carry on as Alice Cooper after he was gone that would be all right with him. This is really about definitions; how The Doors are ultimately defined, and in this book you define it as a singular entity, almost sacred. There are some things that are not for sale.

Well, I’m so grateful for something Tom Waits said, and I put it on the back of the book; “John Densmore is not for sale and that’s his gift to us.” But, you know, Alice Cooper, that’s his name, where this is The Doors, and that’s not Jim’s name. It reminds me of this moment when we were on stage and were introduced as “Jim Morrison and The Doors” and Jim dragged the promoter back out and made him re-introduce us as The Doors. So, (sighs) behind closed doors – sorry about that – we were four equal parts. Even L.A. Woman was a good, strong album, and Jim was clearly an alcoholic by then. It was still…when we were alone, the four of us…the muse still blessed us. And so I feel okay. I feel the beginning of a healing with Ray and Robbie, because something bigger than us helped us make our music.

Ultimately, did you see those guys touring as the 21st Century Doors, and more or less promoting it as The Doors, as identity theft?

Yes. That’s pretty good. I know I did say The Doors died in a bathtub in Paris in ’71, but you know, he’s such an icon he lives on in everyone’s mind. Of course, I was just trying to make it clear that The Doors were Jim, Ray, Robbie and John – John, Paul, George, Ringo – it’s not Ray, Robbie, Ian (Astbury – The Cult, new singer), Stuart (Copeland – former Police drummer), Fred and Tom. The Doors were knocked off their hinges for a few years due to this idea (sighs)… The Stones without Mick? The Police without Sting? No, come on. But The Doors are back on their hinges. Thank God.

“Unpredictability was a main ingredient. You know, Jim could be completely wild or quiet and it created a ritual or something like a séance. What’s gonna happen tonight? “

I always say I’d trade all the shows I saw in my lifetime for one evening watching you guys ply your trade, because as I understand it, a Doors show was literally an organic experience, no matter how bad it got or how brilliant it got, no one could predict what the hell would happen.

(chuckles)

So, I ask you, someone who played that music and performed those shows; how did you feel when you came on stage with The Doors? As the lights went down and the crowd was cheering and you guys were about to crash into the first song; did you have that same feeling of, here we go, let’s see what goes down now?

(laughs) It’s funny. Unpredictability was a main ingredient. You know, Jim could be completely wild or quiet and it created a ritual or something like a séance. What’s gonna happen tonight? It was sort of crazy, but also magical. A lot of the time it was magic, until his self destruction increased and then I was lobbying for us to stop playing live. And it took me a year to convince Ray and Robbie of this, because I missed the magic. It was so good in the beginning. It was, you know, goose bumps…pin-drop time. Usually we’d play “Light My Fire” and everybody would be on their feet dancing and then we’d play “The End” as an encore and people would file out…quietly. (chuckles) Like they were gonna take it home and chew on it. It was so…deep…or something.

One of my favorite piece of video of you guys, and it might have been in Europe, is The Doors playing live on a television show and doing “The End”, which in and of itself is gutsy – here you are probably expected to do the hit, to play “Light My Fire” on a pop television show and you’re playing this eleven-minute opus with bizarre poetic references and Oedipal overtones and this is not a theater or a rock club. The studio lights are up and you can see the audience and these people are between awe and shock. That’s pretty profound, man. And I think unique to The Doors.

(laughs) That’s funny. It reminds me of a gig in Mexico City. We were promised to play in the bull ring for the people who had just a few pesos in exchange for playing a ritzy supper club. And we went down there and there was some riot in the bull ring a few weeks before and they ended up cancelling us playing there. We were so depressed. So here we were playing for these people eating supper in a real ritzy club and we were playing “The End” and they were trying to cut their steaks…(laughs)

(laughs)

…with mouthfuls of food having stopped being chewed. (laughs)

That kind of story reminds me of how you really just loved the whole thing; not just being in The Doors, but, like I said before, the whole sacred thing about it. And, this is something I didn’t know that is revealed in your book – first of all, I didn’t know that before he went to Paris, Jim had gotten lawyers to draw up an agreement stating officially that one dissenting voice from any member would halt any proceedings- and that final phone call that you received from Jim when he was in Paris shortly before he died. I know the account is in your first book, but I was reminded of it, and how that resonated because you were the last person in the inner sanctum to speak with him before he died. Could you take a minute and recount how that conversation affected you? Did you get this eerie feeling that maybe that it might be the last time you spoke to Morrison?

(sighs) Oh, boy. Well, I could tell he was still drinking, so that was disturbing, but no…I didn’t think it would be the last time I’d talk to him. But I appreciated his enthusiasm for hearing of how well L.A. Woman was doing, because we produced it ourselves with Bruce Botnick, our longtime engineer, and we had more control. So, it was fun to do. It was in our rehearsal room. And he said, “Oh, man, I’ll come back. We’ll make another one!”

The Door UnhingedWhich is a cool story, because in most books I’ve read on The Doors or on Morrison, it always depicts him as wanting to shed The Doors and become a legitimate poet and leave all that pop stardom and rock god stuff behind. But when you tell it, it sounds like he still held his place in The Doors and what you guys accomplished together in high regard.

Yeah. Yeah.

Have you read Greil Marcus’ new book on The Doors? (The Doors – Five Mean Years)

I did.

I loved the story about when he was visiting his dad, who was in a hospital at the time a few years back, driving across the Bay Bridge from Oakland or Berkley to San Francisco and listening to several rock/pop radio stations for weeks on end – every day – and in that hour or so drive there and back almost inevitably with all the new stuff like Lady Gaga or Justin Timberlake or whatever, there would be a Doors song and how more than any band from the past, The Doors still seemed to have a resonance among this generation, how the band transcended its time so well. It’s not like you guys are stuck in that time, Herman’s Hermits or The Raspberries, The Doors are still a relevant brand, still something that means something currently. And this speaks to your battle to protect that, not just for nostalgic purposes, but for now, for today and for all time.

Well, I don’t know why it’s lasted so long. It must be the drumming. (laughs) Yes! Of course. I’ll tell you, speaking of that book; Greil describes in just a couple of passages what I was doing on the drums and it just astounded me! I can’t literally tell you what he was saying, but I’m reading it and I’m going, “Oh, my God, that’s what I was doing!” And I hadn’t realized it until I read Greil’s translation. It was some section on how I would kind of drive the soloist, either Ray or Robbie, and for some reason, I would kind of lead them in and out of the solos. It just evolved. It was not talked about at all. And so, when I would sense that they were done, I would do a rat-tat-tat-tat-tat and then everybody knew we were taking it down or whatever, we were taking it to the verse. Until Greil described it, it was really like, “Oh, wow! He got in my head and I didn’t even know I was thinking that!” But it’s true.

That’s the beauty of writing, if you do it right. Marcus is one of the greats. It’s an art form to describe something like music or people playing music, a visceral experience, something so hard describe in words, and hit it straight on. What you’re saying is the greatest compliment for those of us who do this thing, this trying to express the un-expressible, to share in words the feelings derived from the experience and harder still, to, as you say, get into the head of the artist. It’s a great service for another generation, who may have missed the experience. And I guess, that segues into a final question I have for you: What do you hope future generations or people who didn’t experience all this turmoil between you and Robbie and Ray and the court case and everything you describe in the book take away from your book?

Well, at the risk of being on a soapbox and sounding like Mister PC, there’s an underlying theme in this book…money. And as I quote Michael Mead, a mythologist friend of mine; “Currency comes from the word “current”, and it’s supposed to flow like a river.” So if the corporate leaders horde everything – the billionaires damn it all up -money is like fertilizer, when horded it stinks and when spread around things grow, I’m kind of arrogantly implying that my personal struggles with my band might be metaphoric for bigger issues. We live in hierarchal world, there will always be doctors and nurses, but if the doctors are little kinder and a little more generous then it will be a nicer place.

Mmmm.

That make sense?

It absolutely does. Somebody has to think it and express it, because in most cases it’s not always true. It doesn’t always play out in the literal world, but it’s still nice that there are some people who believe that and some who actually enact it.

I guess I’m talking about integrity or whatever the hell.

It’s funny, because I’m thinking of titling the piece something in the ballpark of Identity Theft in the Land of $$$ and using the dollar sign in it.

Oh, that’s a good title. (laughs) Great! Well, thank you again for the time. This really was a huge deal for me to get to speak with you. Good luck with the book. Thanks. A real pleasure, James. Thank, you John. Bye-bye Bye.

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