Archive for the ‘interview’ Category

Bluegrass “Character Actor” Bryan Sutton Takes a Starring Role

Friday, February 27th, 2015

The Asheville music scene has its share of local-boy-makes-good stories. And with his 1997 debut onto the national scene, guitarist and Asheville native Bryan Sutton quickly made a major impression in bluegrass and the wider music community. Named IBMA’s Guitar Player of the Year eight out of the last fifteen years, Sutton has also won a 2007 Grammy. And his latest album, Into My Own, was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Bluegrass Album category.

Though he’s now based in Nashville, Sutton’s local roots run deep, and inform his music. “My initial exposure to music was in Western North Carolina mountain towns,” he says, “with my grandfather playing fiddle and my Dad playing banjo.” Though he’s played – and still plays – rock and jazz guitar, his first love remains the mountain music of his heritage. “A lot of what I experienced as a kid growing up in Asheville – Shindig on the Green, for example – is still there.” He credits Asheville’s approach to music as part of his own musical development. “Anybody can fit into Asheville’s music scene; it’s really open and lovely. If I still lived there, I would be as active as I could be. When I come to Asheville, it really does feel like coming home.”

On Into My Own, Sutton adds something new: his vocals. But while his singing voice might be new to listeners, it’s not new to him. “I sang in a band we had when I was a kid; it was my Dad, my sister and a couple of our friends. I was never a lead singer, but I sang a lot of parts.”

“But in the last ten years, I’ve been leaning into wanting to do more lead vocal work. For me, it’s a good combination of a natural step and a necessary challenge. I never want to get too comfortable with what I’m doing.”

And even though he thrives on challenges, on exploring new dimensions in his music, Sutton is comfortable within the bluegrass idiom. “My goal is always to honor the traditions in bluegrass, but also to include what’s original to me, what might be considered more progressive.”

Sutton’s arrangements on Into My Own showcase the musical contributions of his fellow players; he immerses himself into the songs. He says that approach is a hallmark of two American musical forms that he loves: bluegrass and jazz. “The energy is about getting like-minded people together,” he observes. “I really enjoy that energy in the music of Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan and a host of other people in bluegrass. It’s a precedent that was set early on: one musician doing something, making a statement, and then another one coming along and answering that or adding to it.” It’s just part of what Sutton calls “the DNA of bluegrass.”

And Sutton brings that same sensibility to his work as an in-demand Nashville session player. “In the end, the session player is kind of like a character actor. The role of a session guy is to get your own self out of the way, to be the vehicle for somebody else’s ideas.” And while he showcases his own music on Into My Own, when it comes to session work, Bryan Sutton is as skilled a musical “character actor” as you’ll find in Nashville: “Any given day,” he says with justifiable pride, “I can be a rock’n'roll acoustic guitar strummer, or I can play a fanciful, classical-sounding solo. And hopefully I’m able to nail whatever I’m doing.”

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Third Time’s The Charm: Pugwash Aims for America, Part Three

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Continued from Part Two

Unlike their earlier deals with other labels, Pugwash‘s recent A Rose in a Garden of Weeds is not a one-off licensing deal. “Omnivore is our label,” Thomas Walsh says. “At this stage in our lives, we try to hold onto our records, but when it comes to Omnivore, they’re definitely our label. And we’re so proud and honored to be with them.” He goes on to reveal that the label has plans for Pugwash’s older material as well. “They’re doing full catalog remastering of all our albums. They have great people running the label from top to bottom. To say they’re seasoned campaigners would be an insult, really. They’re incredible successful music people.” He name-checks Cheryl Pawelski and several others at the label. “And it’s been Lee Lodyga, of course, who’s been our staunchest supporter. He’s a huge fan. And he’s taken on a lot more [with us] than he planned, I’m sure.”

Walsh reflects on the traditional relationships between artist and label. “There can be a lot of miscommunication between America and us in Ireland. Because we can be lazy fuckers, and Americans are so full of of energy. Noting that he’s long since put hard drugs and drink behind him, he chuckles and wryly characterizes Americans’ high energy level: “It’s consistently like they’re on drugs! And you know that they’re not on drugs. We equate it with a drug thing, but it’s really a lifestyle thing! These people are incredibly energetic and passionate. When you meet them you ask yourself, ‘Are these people freaks?’ They’re beautiful; they put us to shame. After a gig, we go back to our hotel room, and I think, ‘We’re a fuckin’ disgrace.’ But the energy that Lee has put into Pugwash is incredible. It would take us ten weeks to do [in Ireland] when they do in ten minutes in America.”

Pugwash did a brief US tour in late 2014 to support A Rose in a Garden of Weeds. “That tour was such an eye-opener,” Walsh says. “It was incredibly quick. And Omnivore have done exactly what they said they would, right from the very beginning. It’s not like some other labels where they try to do everything; they do what they do. Our drummer Joey [Fitzgerald] gets the gigs. We know what we have to do, and so does Omnivore. It’s a great relationship. I’ll be honest with you: I’m forty-five now. And most of us are in our forties. And even if in five or ten years if we say our goodbyes, I’ll still love these people. Straightaway, they’re friends.” I remark how unusual such comments are. “Well,” Thomas retorts, “They’ve been nominated for a Grammy. And I’m just trying to get an invite to the awards ceremony.”


Pugwash’s compilation A Rose in a Garden of Weeds is available from Omnivore Recordings, and the group’s as-yet-untitled album will be released on Omnivore sometime in 2015. Also keep an eye out for Omnivore reissues of Pugwash’s back catalog (five albums originally released between 1999 and 2011), and for Pugwash’s limited number of stateside concerts in March 2015 (mostly in the Northeast).

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Third Time’s The Charm: Pugwash Aims for America, Part Two

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Some listeners might peg the music of Pugwash as “retro,” though in reality it’s classic pop in the best sense of the word. Many reviewers have pointed out sonic similarities between Thomas Walsh‘s voice and Jeff Lynne‘s. But the hallmark of Pugwash’s music is the song construction. At its best, it’s on a par with the finest efforts from writers such as Difford and Tilbrook (Squeeze), Neil Finn (Split Enz and Crowded House), and Paddy McAloon (Prefab Sprout). Walsh is modest when mentioned in the same breath as those names. “If I knew the hallmarks of a successful song,” he says, “I’d have written a hit by now! The thing is, I do know – and I’ve known for a long time – if you have any talent for writing a song, there are certain tricks you use.” He goes on to explain his craft in a bit more detail. “There’s a lot of chords in my songs. But they won’t do much else than repeat themselves.” Exaggerating slightly to make his point, he says, “If there are twenty-four chords in one of my songs, they won’t jump all over the place. They’ll stay in a nice little cage and wait to be fed. And I don’t do a lot of ‘bridges.’ At least I don’t think I do; I never check!”

“Funnily enough, Neil Hannon [of fellow Irish band The Divine Comedy] was over the other day, helping with stuff for the new record. There’s a song called ‘Oh Happy Days.’ The demo of it was up on the pledge site [for crowd funding of the next Pugwash album, due out in 2015]. So Neal says to me, ‘Did you ever even think of bothering your ass to write a second verse?’ I said, ‘No, nope…No.’ And he just laughed. The great thing is that Neil and I work so great together. He probably would have written an eight-verse life story of how happy the old days were, and how sad it could be now. That’s Neil, and I love him. But with me, it’s, ‘Oh happy days,’ then “ba ba ba,’ and then…goodbye. In two minutes.”

Walsh is an avowed fan of the leave-them-wanting-more style of songwriting. “There’s so many songs that I love, where you think, ‘Ohhh…this is going to be great for three and a half minutes.’ And then boom, it’s gone. That’s especially true of ’60s bands like The Kinks. And The Lemon Pipers. I’m such a fan of their ‘The Shoemaker of Leatherwear Square.’ It’s so short, like a minute-forty or something [actually 2:01 – ed.] I have to play it six times to get the feeling of having heard it once. There’s all that arrangement – harps, and flutes – and they did all that for such a short song!”

I point out the contrast between that approach and the one used on such tracks as Bob Dylan‘s seven-minute, nine-verse opus, “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.” Walsh replies, “I was an anti- ‘leave them wanting more’ person when I was younger. But I remember when I first heard Michael Penn‘s Free for All. I had to import it from Canada because you couldn’t get it in Ireland. ‘Free Time’ is the fourth track. And on the fade, you hear this great trumpet thing, and you think, ‘Why the fuck is he fading it? It’s so wonderful!’ It’s a mark of genius, really. Michael might have made me start thinking that way about songs. It’s something you’d think every writer would know, eventually.”

The aforementioned crowdfunding effort – a very successful PledgeMusic campaign – has helped raised funds allowing Pugwash to record their upcoming album. The crowdfunding concept is “great for bands like us,” Walsh says. He makes an analogy, then observes, “No, that was a shitty analogy. But you can make it sound brilliant in text, okay?” In essence, the point he endeavors to make is that free downloads do hurt the band’s ability to stay afloat financially. “We couldn’t sustain making records with people investing in us any more,” he says. “So we thought long and hard about how to do it. We could play a bunch of gigs and get the money up ourselves. But it would have been ridiculous. What this pledge approach does is reaffirm our love of people. Because all of these fans, some of them might have money and some might not. But they all put their hand in their pocket and gave us something. It’s an incredible thing to see. We got a hundred-odd percent [of our goal] in ten days.”

The crowdfunding model reminds Walsh of how things used to be when he was very young. “It’s almost like a revival of the old fan club idea,” he observes. “Instead of sending ten dollars and getting a membership card, you send ten dollars and get the album and get your name on it. I’d have been all for that when I was a kid. Not all of the new ideas are killing the old ethics of music.”

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Third Time’s The Charm: Pugwash Aims for America, Part One

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

Irish band Pugwash has been around for fifteen years, and during that time, leader and songwriter Thomas Walsh has worked with a long list of people whose names will be familiar to fans of what one might call guitar pop: Andy Partridge, Dave Gregory, Ben Folds, Jason Falkner, Nelson Bragg, Michael Penn, Eric Matthews and many others. But for whatever reason, in all the years they’ve been together, Pugwash has escaped the notice of most American listeners. Walsh believes he knows why this is the case. “We never had a label on the mainland of the U.S.” Thanks to fans who happened to own record labels, Pugwash has had their best music compiled on no less than three separate best-of collections: Australian label Karmic Hit released Earworm in 2003. Ape House, the label run by ex-XTC guitarist/vocalist Andy Partridge, put together the Giddy compilation in 2009. And now, Grammy Award-winning USA-based label Omnivore Recordings has released A Rose in a Garden of Weeds, a seventeen-track survey of Pugwash’s most timeless melodies.

Walsh says that early on, he and his Pugwash bandmates thought, “We could release an album in Ireland or Europe, and then people [all across the globe] would say, ‘Oh, that’s pretty good.’ But no.” That’s not how it worked in the real world.

“We should never have gone into any business together” with Partridge, says Walsh. “Because we’re friends first. And you should never mix [business and friendship] with certain people. We all have our foibles. Andy’s such a lover of what he does; he’s such a passionate person about his music and all aspects of it – his label as well – that he has strong views about everything. He has strong views about milk! So it made itself into a bit of a clash that should have never happened, really.”

But Partridge’s love of Pugwash’s music didn’t pave the way for a proper stateside release of Giddy. “When it came to America,” Walsh recalls, “his deal with the people who were going to bring records to America wasn’t as strong as he thought it was. And it certainly wasn’t as strong as I thought it was. So it didn’t really come out there.” Walsh paints a description – kidding only slightly, one can assume – of boxes upon boxes of Giddy being unloaded on a New York loading dock, waiting for fans to come around and pick them up. And nobody ever did. “It just flopped,” Walsh says.

“It made a tiny bit of a ripple,” he allows. Certainly promotional copies found their way into the hands of some reviewers (this writer included), so some small level of buzz was set alight in the States. “But we knew that we’d only have a chance in the States if we got a label there. And then of course the whole Omnivore thing happened,” Walsh says, positively beaming. “They’ve done it so quickly, and so beautifully. In the last six months, it’s been like, ‘Where has America been all our lives!?’” He notes that he fully understands what it takes to have any chance of breaking into the market in the USA. “You have to embrace the wonderful people in the USA. You have to go over there and play. And we always wanted to do that, but we couldn’t before. It’s incredible how you won’t get any gigs, or any help, when you’re not promoting something. When you’re not on a label.”

Just like The Beatles discovered in early 1964, America is still where it’s happening when it comes to rock and pop. Part of that has to do with the potential that lies within such a massive market. “We’re not interested in playing in Ireland,” Walsh says. “We love our Irish fans, of course. But they can go to someone else’s gig for free for awhile,” he laughs. “It costs us a lot of money to play a gig in Ireland, and everyone [there] goes, ‘Ah, can you get us in for free? Stick my name on the door. And I’ve got nine people comin’ with me!’ I’ll tell you something: You can’t see the fuckin’ door for all the names stuck on ‘em. So we’re happy to get away from that for awhile. We can’t wait to get back to America in February and March.”

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Musical Parody Gets Into a “Grey” Area: 50 Shades! The Musical Parody

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Ever since its 2011 printing, E.L. James‘ erotic romance novel 50 Shades of Grey has been an inescapable presence in pop culture. Though as literature – five hundred pages of dominance, submission, bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism stitched together with little character development – James’ “mommy porn” leaves much to be desired, there’s no doubting the novel’s success. A film adaptation hits theaters just in time for Valentine’s Day 2015, and the two followup novels have enjoyed similar success in the marketplace (along with inevitable widespread critical drubbing). An endless stream of tie-in (ouch) marketing has resulted in a variety of adult-oriented products bearing the 50 Shades brand.

Anything that achieves that level of success is a rich target for parody. And where E.L. James’ book is concerned, the most spot-on skewering of 50 Shades the book – and 50 Shades the marketing juggernaut – is the stage show, 50 Shades! The Musical Parody. A team of writers and choreographers with backgrounds in The Second City and Baby Wants Candy comedy troupes devised the musical as equal parts send-up and tribute. “There was a news story about the book every night, it seemed,” says Emily Dorezas, one of the parody musical’s producer/director/writers. “And then once we realized just how dirty it was, we thought that the juxtaposition of making it a musical felt like the right thing to do.”

Many reviewers have pointed out that while author James vividly describes BDSM and other activities, she betrays a paucity of imagination concerning such matters as word choice. There’s even a drinking game in which participants read aloud from 50 Shades of Grey, pausing to knock back a shot every time Christian Grey “cocks his head” or “steeples his fingers.” Dorezas is diplomatic on the book’s literary merits, and chooses her words with care. “It’s…not really plot-driven,” she allows. With that in mind, the parody’s writers devised a plot of their own. “The book club ladies are a kind of framing device,” Dorezas says. “And one of them goes through a change after reading the book. We wanted to show some growth in the characters, because if we were just making sex jokes, that would get old in about five minutes.”

Fans of sex jokes need not fear, however: 50 Shades! The Musical Parody is stuffed with innumerable laugh lines. An offstage announcer welcomes ladies, and then – after a pregnant pause – adds, almost as an afterthought, “…and gentlemen.” “I think we do a good job of getting across that this is a super-dirty show. Nobody ever brings kids,” Dorezas observes. “Now, husbands and boyfriends…that’s a different story. They’ve heard about the book, but sometimes they don’t quite know what it’s about. But a lot of men take the time to contact us after the show. I always quote the guy who wrote, ‘The party hasn’t stopped since we got home. And that was four days ago!’ We hear more from husbands than from wives.”

For those who haven’t read the book but are curious about the parody musical, Dorezas likens its sensibility to the approach South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker employed with their smash stage hit The Book of Mormon. But Dorezas notes that the book upon which that show is based “has been around a long time, and it’s not as silly” as 50 Shades.

Emily Dorezas’ take on E.L. James’ first book differs from the critical consensus in a fascinating, perhaps unexpected, way. James “did self-publish the book,” Dorezas points out. “Sometimes people challenge it from a feminist point of view, because it’s about a woman in a submissive position. But one of the best depictions of feminism I can think of is E.L. James’ approach: ‘Oh, you don’t like it? I don’t care; I’ll publish it myself! I don’t care if you think it’s trash; I believe in it.’ And obviously she’s gotten the last laugh.”

Whether or not James has gotten laughs from this unauthorized parody is unknown. “I know she knows about it, but she hasn’t seen it,” Dorezas says. “But from everything I’ve heard, she has a great sense of humor. I think she’d have a great time at our show.”

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Hoo-Ever Land: A Chat with Jamie Hoover, Part 2

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Continued from Part One

What I didn’t realize at the time is that the setback of rotator cuff surgery and recovery wouldn’t keep Jamie Hoover from creating new music and new recordings. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m not gonna be able able to play guitar for while,’” Hoover recalls. “So I got interested in the idea of trying to sing the parts.” Thus began the process of a vocals-only project. Initially, Hoover had in mind another Jamie and Steve EP. “I talked with Steve [Stoeckel] about it, and he wasn’t really into doing a whole record like that. And you’ve got to really be into something like this to be able to do it.” So Hoover began work on what would become Jamie Two Ever. (In the end, only a portion of the disc is vocal-only tracks.)

“I wanted to make a point of not using drum machines on it,” he says. “I played buckets and pots and pans instead. So it has that sound to it.” Despite the inclusion of a track titled “Honest Work,” Jamie Two Ever is very much unlike Todd Rundgren‘s A Cappella, a 1985 album that – on paper, at least – seems like pretty much the same sort of musical excursion as the original idea for Jamie Two Ever. “I’m a big Todd fan,” Hoover says. “I make no bones about that. And I’m very familiar with that record. But I didn’t want to do what he did, which was basically sampling [vocals] on an Emulator.” Rather than treating his vocals through a sampler, on Jamie Two Ever‘s vocal tracks, it’s mostly Hoover’s natural voice.

Despite the grab-bag approach to songs on the album – some vocals-only, some with instruments, most solo, one with Steve Stoeckel guesting – Jamie Two Ever holds together as a cohesive whole, and provides a good sampler of the Jamie Hoover signature sound. The guiding principle when making the recordings was simple, Hoover laughs. “I just wanted to please myself. If I get it to where I’m happy with it, then the narcissism comes out, and I’m ready to say, ‘Hey! Look at this!’” And since the disc wasn’t made with the idea of creating an album, it has more of a collection-of-singles feel. “I always think in terms of, what sounds like a single? And then it’s a matter of sequencing those songs so they flow together.”

The digital and physical (CD) versions of Jamie Hoover’s new album differ significantly: the CD includes nearly twice as many tracks (fifteen total). “The difference is simply financial,” Hoover states. In days gone by, a record label would handle the distribution of composer royalties for songs “covered” on an artist’s album; today, the onus sits squarely on the recording artist himself. As far as the songwriters getting paid, Hoover has no qualms with that. “It’s the right thing to do, of course.” But the current arrangement exerts significant front-end financial pressures on the recording artists. “I did that for my [2004] Jamie Hoo-Ever album, and it cost me an additional $800. That – for an individual doing an independent release – is really expensive.” So the digital version includes only Hoover originals, leaving off his vocals-only reading of The Beatles‘ “Misery” and a truly weird all-minor-chords reinvention of Rubber Soul‘s “I’m Looking Through You.”

“I decided to make it a kind of marketing thing: only the 300 physical copies would include those other songs. If you want those, you have to buy the CD.” He laughs and adds, “Shameless promotion.”

Meanwhile, Hoover is still on the mend following his recent surgeries. Another Jamie and Steve EP is in the works. “We [The Spongetones] did some unannounced gigs not long ago. And I’m still producing, working on a lot of projects. And I can play. But my arms still hurt like hell. I can’t do push-ups or anything like that, but I can play. I’ll play until I’m tired.” He chuckles, “I think I could still do a four-hour gig, but at the end I’d feel like I’d been thrown off a truck.”

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Hoo-Ever Land: A Chat with Jamie Hoover, Part 1

Monday, January 19th, 2015

For the last thirty-plus years or so, Jamie Hoover has been known as a highly regarded producer, musical collaborator, and member of the Spongetones. I first noticed his production credit on 1983′s Emotional Geography, an excellent (if obscure) album from Charleston SC’s Killer Whales, a Police-like trio who frequented the Atlanta clubs I haunted in those days. He went on to produce albums for Robert Crenshaw (Marshall’s brother), Bob Lind and (quite recently) up-and-comers Porch 40. Hoover’s collaborative projects first caught my notice with his credits on mid-80s albums from Don Dixon and Marti Jones. And in the 1990s, Hoover released a pair of albums with Bryan Shumate; the duo dubbed themselves The Van DeLecki’s. And all along the way, Hoover released solo material, first as scattered tracks on compilations, and then via solo albums.

But despite those impressive lists of credits, it has been as a member (and a primary songwriter) in The Spongetones that Hoover gained the most recognition. Beginning with 1982′s Beat Music, Hoover crafted songs in the tradition of pre-Sgt. Pepper Beatles. As the group progressed, they widened their musical scope, keeping the Beatlesque characteristics that established them, while adding songs to their catalog that displayed the wealth of less-derivative riches they were quite capable of producing.

The Spongetones wound down as a recording entity around the time of the release of Scrambled Eggs; while that 2009 album ranks among the finest in the band’s catalog, diminishing commercial returns convinced the quartet that future albums weren’t practical (they continue as a performing group). “Spongetones albums have always been a labor of love for me,” says Hoover. “They also take an incredible amount of time. If I’m going to make an album that has my name on it anywhere, I’m going to take the time it needs.” But after 2008′s Too Clever by Half and then Scrambled Eggs, the time and effort required didn’t make sense. “I didn’t feel like anybody really wanted [another Spongetones album].” But to Hoover, working alone or as part of a smaller unit did make sense: “I can make stuff in an afternoon that sounds like a record,” Hoover points out.

With that in mind, Hoover and his bandmate Steve Stoeckel (the group’s other most prolific songwriter) launched a new career as Jamie and Steve. To date the duo have released an album (English Afterthoughts) and three EPs. The Jamie and Steve project is a logical extension of the musicians’ Spongetones work: it features their original-minded songs plus other compositions that cast a wider stylistic net for their influences. As impressive as The Spongetones were/are, it seems that casting off the yoke of that brand has allowed Stoeckel and Hoover to assert their individuality (and collaborative identity) more effectively. EPs are now the duo’s preferred format: “I think that’s about the attention span of listeners nowadays,” chuckles Hoover.

I was in touch with Stoeckel in mid 2014, discussing the possibility of hiring The Spongetones to play at my wedding reception in September. Discussions didn’t get very far at all before a piece of news scuttled the idea: Jamie Hoover was due for rotator cuff surgery on both shoulders – two separate surgeries, months apart – and as a result, he would be out of commission as a player/performer for several months.

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“Go Now” and Then: The Ray Thomas Interview, Part 2

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

Continued from Part One

Back in 1965, the original lineup of The Moody Blues did seem poised for bigger things: that year they played the prestigious and televised NME Poll Winners Concert, along with The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, and Kinks. Those – and sessions for Thank Your Lucky Stars and Ready Steady Go aren’t on this set, either, but the second disc does include more than a dozen tracks cut for Saturday Club and other BBC radio programs.

In the original lineup, Ray Thomas shared lead vocal duties with Denny Laine; he would continue that role – though sharing with more vocalists – in the later lineup. While his flute is a feature of some early Moodies tracks (notably “I’ve Got a Dream”), it became a centerpiece of the later lineup’s style. In the original lineup, Thomas’ role could have been described as “singer who also plays flute,” and in the later lineup, “musician who plays many instruments – flute, piccolo, oboe, French horn, harmonica, etc. – and also sings.” Surprisingly, Thomas is a wholly self-taught musician. “I’ve never had a music lesson in me life,” he says. “And I don’t read music; it’s all done by ear.”

Those flute parts were difficult to hear onstage in those days. “All the sound was literally coming from the stage,” Thomas recalls. “That’s what finished The Beatles playing live. Paul [McCartney] said to me, ‘It’s useless. All we hear is “Yester-” and then the rest is all screams.’” Thomas relates an anecdote from the tour when the Moody Blues opened for The Beatles, the latter’s final UK tour. “’Watch this,’ John [Lennon] told me. The band was introduced, went onstage and started playing. And John played a completely different song! And nobody could hear anything!”

Thomas continues, “I was actually one of the first people to use foldback [also known as monitor speakers] onstage. I couldn’t hear myself play, and with flute you’ve got to be pretty precise with your embouchure. So I asked [live sound engineer] Gene Clair if he could put a speaker in front of me. And he did, and it worked. And then everybody started doing it!”

The era of composing in the studio largely began with The Beatles. But even for The Moody Blues, a rare spare moment in the studio might be used to compose songs. “I used to write songs in the broom cupboard,” chuckles Thomas. “There was a glockenspiel in there. I used to take a scotch and Coke in there – and maybe a little substance, y’know – and play on this glockenspiel and write my songs.”

Some time 1967, after the string of hit singles faded, the group seemed at a dead end. “Clint [Warwick]‘s wife didn’t want him going on the road,” Thomas recalls, “so he went back to the family business in Birmingham. And Denny fancied his chances at going solo.” But since they were already moving (albeit subtly) in the musical direction that would flower on Days of Future Passed, they recruited new members, and kept the band name.

“I’ve known John [Lodge] since I was fourteen,” Thomas says. “I was fifteen. We worked in a band together in Birmingham.” Both had day jobs as apprentice toolmakers. “I wanted to go professional [playing music], and my dad said to me exactly what John’s dad said to him: ‘Finish your apprenticeship, because you might not score in this musical venture. And if you don’t, you’ve always got a trade to fall back on.’ Sound advice.” But since Lodge was younger than Thomas, he still had a year to go. So we got Clint in The Moody Blues instead. But from starting that band, things took off quickly. And a year later, we couldn’t very well say to Clint, ‘See ya, mate.’ Because he had put in a lot of hard work.” But when Warwick left of his own accord, Lodge was in the following day. Thomas’ friend Eric Burdon provided a list of guitarists who had answered a blind ad searching for a guitarist/vocalist for Burdon’s new Animals, and that led to them finding Justin Hayward.

Thomas retired from The Moody Blues and live performance in 2002. As far as the original band, Thomas says that a reunion is out of the question: “Clint [Warwick] died [in 2004] and Denny is over in the States. And Mike Pinder had decided much earlier on [the late 70s] that he didn’t want to go back on the road.” The Moodies’ other founding member Graeme Edge remains in the current touring Moody Blues lineup with Hayward and Lodge.

These days, Thomas lives in England with his wife. In October 2014, he announced via his website raythomas.me that he is being treated for prostate cancer, adding, “the cancer is being held in remission, but I”ll be receiving this treatment for the rest of my life…I urge all males to get tested NOW.”

But Thomas isn’t finished with music. “I have recently worked with John,” he reveals. Lodge has been working on a solo album, his first since 1977. “He’d written a song for his grandson, John Henry. He came over to my pad and asked me, would I go in the studio and put flute on it. And I said, “Sure!”

“This story goes on,” Thomas tells me. “Mike [Pinder] hadn’t spoken to John in years. But the night John got home from the session with me, his phone rang. It was Mike! ‘I hear you’ve been in the studio,’ Mike said. John said, ‘Right…?’ ‘Can I put the strings on the track?’” Lodge gladly accepted the offer. Pinder went into his home studio with his son (and fellow recording musician) Michael Lee Pinder, and cut his Mellotron parts in a single day. So for the first time since 1978, Lodge, Pinder and Ray Thomas will be together on a newly recorded track.

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“Go Now” and Then: The Ray Thomas Interview, Part 1

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

The Moody Blues made their most indelible mark on pop music with the landmark LP Days of Future Passed. That concept album was one of the earliest successful combinations of light-classical music and rock. Though it was released in 1967 – the fertile period that also gave the world Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the album-proper didn’t make its mark on American charts until 1972. (They did hit the US singles chart a number of times, however.) And by that time, the band’s pre-Days music had largely been forgotten (if was ever known at all). The earliest music made by The Moody Blues features a significantly different lineup of musicians, and – at least initially – a sound almost completely removed from the approach used on Days of Future Passed and subsequent albums.

The original Moody Blues featured Denny Laine – later of Wings with Paul McCartney – on lead vocals and guitar, as well as bassist Clint Warwick. The other three members – drummer Graeme Edge, keyboardist Mike Pinder (with Laine, the band’s chief songwriter at this stage), and vocalist/flautist Ray Thomas – would stay on to become the foundation of the more well-known lineup featuring Justin Hayward and John Lodge. The early Moodies sound was built around readings of American rhythm and blues and Merseybeat-flavored tracks; they were for the most part a cover band. As the group progressed, they began writing original material that established a more focused identity, but it was songs such as a cover of Bessie Banks‘ “Go Now” that established the group. They were rewarded for such tunes with spots on the British music charts: “Go Now” reached number one in Britain.

The original group’s sole album The Magnificent Moodies has been reissued and repackaged countless times in the the ensuing nearly-fifty years. In the US the album was reordered and released as Go Now: The Moodies #1, though – like The Magnificent Moodies – it did not chart. Subsequent reissues added various non-album tracks from the era – the group was essentially a singles band – but none of the releases could truly be called comprehensive.

That has changed now, with the new release of The Magnificent Moodies that includes everything the group cut in those pre-Days of Future Passed years, plus a collection of radio broadcast material. Fifty-odd tracks document the period in full. Showing a band in transition from beat group to tunes that tip the group’s hand, the music gives subtle hints of the direction they’d follow soon after Laine’s departure.

Of course 1965 was a long time ago, so perhaps it should come as little surprise that when I ask Ray Thomas the story behind there being two versions of “Go Now” on the new box set – the well-known version plus a slower take with softer piano part – he responds, “I haven’t got a clue.”

“I can imagine,” he continues, “we were just trying things out in the studio. Some of these tracks that have been dug up, I can’t remember ever recording! Denny might remember.”

Taken together, the bonus tracks on the first disc alone of  The Magnificent Moodies box set add up to enough material for a whole additional album. The material is strong, and is weighted more toward originals than the album-proper. “We were really busy – either playing or recording – in those days,” says Thomas. “We were doing a lot of cover versions: James Brown, Tim Hardin stuff.” Thomas doesn’t remember cutting some of the material that ended up on the box set, most notably the songs cut in 1966 with producer Denny Cordell. “I was just doing an interview with another guy in the States, and he was going on about [our cover of] ‘Hang Onto a Dream’ by Tim Hardin. I was absolutely knocked out! The vocal backing on that particular track, I thought, were great. I’m blowing me own trumpet here, but I thought, ‘That’s mighty good.’” Thomas also doesn’t remember cutting “The 23rd Psalm” another bonus track (from 1964) included on the box set.

“When we got an eight-track machine in the studio, we were gobsmacked: ‘Look at all this!’” Thomas laughs. “But these were all four tracks. If you had to do any four-to-two to make room for overdubs, it was all razorblades and sellotape. Derek Varnals [producer] was amazing. We’d all sit around and watch while he took one note out. Now, you just press a button.”

“In those days,” Thomas recalls, “We’d do three tracks in two hours. Decca had so many A&R [artists and repertoire] people in those days, for classical, Mantovani-type stuff right through. They had three studios in West Hampstead, London, and they were always booked full. To get studio time was bloody impossible.” So the groups had best be prepared when they got their time in the studio. When the Moody Blues got their turn at the mic, “We used to play live, near enough,” says Thomas. “You had to have ‘em all rehearsed up.”

Thomas hopes that this latest – and greatly expanded – version of The Magnificent Moodies will be considered the definitive release of that period of Moody Blues music. “The only thing that I’m a bit pissed off about,” Thomas says, “is that we did a hell of a lot of work on television in France. We were very popular earlier on in France. We did shows with Johnny Hallyday, Josephine Baker. When Cherry Red were putting together this box set, we got in touch with the French version of the BBC; they have reams and reams of these old rock shows. We said, ‘Can we have some of this to put on our box set?’ And they said, “Yes, you can, but this is how much we want.’ It just wasn’t worth it; they wanted so much money.”

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Those We Lost in 2014

Friday, January 2nd, 2015

The older we baby boomers get, the more that our pop culture heroes pass away before us. As my good friend (and highly regarded behind-the-scenes music biz guy) Cary Baker recently wrote, “The only takeaway is to closely monitor your own health (and that of those you love), get out and enjoy life, and make every living moment count.” I don’t have anything worthwhile to add to that succinct statement other than to second it.

Some of the people responsible (at least in part) for some of my most treasured music left us this year: Jack Bruce, Scott Asheton (The Stooges), Gerry Goffin, and Tommy Erdelyi (the last surviving member of The Ramones), just to name a few.

And – as has happened most years since I began this music journo gig – several of the people I have interviewed have passed away this year. Here are the most notable:

Johnny Winter
Though I had the privilege of interviewing the blues-rock legend twice, it’s safe to say that I spoke with him less than any other music figure I’ve ever interviewed. The man just didn’t say much. His manager/second guitarist warned me in advance of my first interview with him back in the noughties, advising me, “Hit him hard.” It didn’t work. Each of my many questions was met with little more than a “Yup” or a “Nope.” So when another opportunity came around, I was ready. Or so I thought. I realize it’s more than a bit of a cliché to say that Winter let the music do the talking, but that about sums it up. Winter left begind an extensive catalog of music, and his career was fairly well documented in the form of live recordings, bootlegs and video. I’m glad I got to see him onstage; even though his health was clearly failing for his final several years, his guitar playing never lost its fire. John Dawson Winter III passed away on July 15.

Dick Wagner
Had he done nothing more than lay down the transcendent extended guitar duel with Steve Hunter titled “Intro” on Lou Reed‘s Rock’n'Roll Animal, Dick Wagner would be worthy of honor. But he did much more: his early band Ursa Major cranked out some guitar heroics. And he was responsible for much of what made Alice Cooper worth listening to in the 70s and 80s. Though I could muster only lukewarm praise for his autobiography Not Only Women Bleed (though interesting, it’s about as imaginative as its title), his music was always worthwhile. Richard Allen Wagner left us July 30.

Ian McLagan
It’s a mark of the appeal and success of The Rolling Stones that they never shied away from enlisting the musical help of top-notch musicians. And though – somewhat inexplicably – Keith Richards continues to roam the Earth, both Bobby Keys (sax) and Ian McLagan (keys) have followed Billy Preston (keys) into the hereafter (Preston passed away in 2006). McLagan, of course, achieved fame long before playing with the Stones, as a member of The Small Faces and then later The Faces (with whom Rod Stewart closed the worthwhile chapter of his own musical career). 2014 saw two major Small Faces releases, a sprawling compilation and a reissue of one of their best albums. Mac – as he was affectionately known – stayed busy with his own band (his final album was a corker), but he took time to grant me an extensive interview about the old days. Ian Patrick McLagan died on December 3.

Paul Revere
I’ve written more about Paul Revere & the Raiders than about any other musical act. I only got to meet Revere once, and though I pestered him (mostly by proxy) to cooperate on a book-length history of him and his band, that didn’t happen in his lifetime (note: stay tuned). Revere was equal parts musician and entertainer, with a healthy dose of businessman thrown in. But unlike, say, Gene Simmons of KISS, Revere was never smug and cynical in his approach to music. Long after the hits (and TV shows, and record deals) ended, and the key members of his group left to do their own things, “Uncle Paul” soldiered on, always with the goal of entertaining. And he always succeeded. Paul Revere Dick passed away at his home in Idaho on October 4.

And with that, I’ve wrapped up my look back at 2014. Onward into the future: normal blog posting – reviews, interviews, features, essays and more – resumes Monday.