Archive for the ‘interview’ Category

Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 2

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: In the new documentary film Don’t Ask Me Questions, you come off very authentically as a sensitive, soft-spoken individual. But back in the 80s, like many people, I think, I was convinced of your reputation as an angry, sort of perhaps even confrontational artist. How and why do you think that reputation developed?

Graham Parker: Well [laughs], there’s some brilliant stuff from Bruce Springsteen on that, about my material. He said that there was always this “caustic sound.” And that’s true. Because when I started, I’d had pretty much zero experience. I’d written these songs, and was totally green to the whole process. And I found myself instantly with a record deal. I had found the right people, like David Robinson, who managed me and then got all those great musicians behind me. And once that had happened, there was a record deal. Out of the blue, really.

So my style was already very aggressive. That just seemed to be the way I was writing and singing at that point in my life, in my early twenties leading up to 1975 when we started. I developed that style of singing, and I didn’t really know anything else.

It’s still there in my vocals, but it’s softened a lot. Because I enjoy actually singing now. I think it’s much more suitable for the kind of songs I write, and probably would have been more suitable in the first place. But there again, hindsight et cetera.

You can’t help but hear it: “This guy is really pissed off!” And [laughs] I did it on love songs as well. It was a style; I just wanted to be harder and louder and nastier. Remember, in that part of the 70s, there wasn’t any punk rock or any of that, and I wanted to sort of change what was going on. And somehow I found this extremely aggressive vocal style, and stuck to it.

So it’s understandable that people have that impression. And that’s okay.

BK: You’re know for your heartfelt lyrics; A Graham Parker song is never a simple moon-june love ditty. But many of those deeply heartfelt songs – especially from the period during which you worked with The Rumour – were written by a man in his 20s. When you sing those now, do the lyrics still resonate with you, or do you feel that since you’re singing the words of a man less than half your age that they sentiments are somehow alien or even naïve?

GP: Ah, that’s an interesting point. It doesn’t strike me that they’re out-of-date. It doesn’t strike me that way at all. Because obviously – with or without The Rumour – I do play those songs from my early-early career. There’s a few periods where I might be doing shows where I’m really concentrating on a newer period, but there’s always old ones. Especially from Howling Wind; they seem fairly universal to me.

There are some songs where I think, “Nah, I don’t really want to do that.” They’re not quite right; they don’t quite sit right for me, now. But for the most part, I don’t listen to them and think, “I don’t understand this.” I know what I was thinking. They all make sense. Some of them I wouldn’t write now, but there’s nothing alien to me there.

BK: There’s a belief among some that conflict, turmoil and distress are somehow essential ingredients for artists to create enduring works. And while I’d say that that “Mercury Poisoning” is one of my favorite of your tracks, I’m not sure I buy the argument that – if you’ll pardon the horrible metaphor – you have to have sand in the oyster to get the pearl. What do you think?

GP: “Mercury Poisoning,” for instance, is a joke. When an artist starts complaining about his record company in his songs, you should start worrying. It’s not a good sign; it’s a sign of running out of ideas.

My manager was much angrier than me, and he told me to write an entire album of hate-songs. That’s literally how it came about! I wrote one, and said, “I’ve said it all in this song, Dave. That’s enough. Okay?” So I stopped there, thankfully, and wrote [the songs for] Squeezing Out Sparks. A much better idea, really; let’s face it.

People never, ever seem to get it. But the first album had songs like “Between You and Me” on it. And “Gypsy Blood,” though that’s a song I don’t like now; it’s a sort of maudlin, romantic song. But they don’t remember that, and so they think that “Mercury Poisoning” sums it all up. “New York Shuffle” is another one. And that’s really a very, very small part of what I do. But again, I would even do a love song back in the 70s as if I were trying to hurt somebody. And it took a long time for me to temper that with some actual singing.

To be continued…

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Ask Me Some Questions: The Graham Parker Interview, Part 1

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Once pegged as one of rock’s angry young men, these days Graham Parker is neither angry nor young. And while his profile these last few decades has been lower than in his commercial heyday (1976 to the mid 80s, and even then only a modest commercial success), Parker has continued to release a remarkably consistent string of albums that are true to the virtues he’s long championed. As he sang on his (best) album, 1979′s Squeezing Out Sparks, “Passion is No Ordinary Word.” But it’s a word that aptly sums up Parker and his music. As he told an NME interviewer in 1979, “All I want to do is send a shiver up people’s spines.”

Bursting on the scene in the late 70s, Parker thrilled critics but confounded the marketplace; was he a punk? Was he part of the then-nascent UK pub-rock scene? Was he part of rock’s heartfelt old guard (Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Phil Lynott)? Or was he – as the odd passerby still sometimes asks him – Gram Parsons?

A new documentary film, Don’t Ask Me Questions attempts to answer these and other burning questions. And it does so with the full and enthusiastic cooperation of Parker, who – surprisingly to those taken in by his angry persona – happily fields queries, reggaefied song titles be damned. Luckier still for me, he is happy to answer my questions as well.

Bill Kopp: When you were first approached about the film Don’t Ask Me Questions, what was you reaction? Were you skeptical? Suspicious? Enthusiastic?

Graham Parker: It was in the late 90s that I met them. I was doing a gig; I remember it specifically. It was something for the Long Island Brewing Company. I don’t know why I remember that, because there’s a lot of gaps in my memory! But that’s when (director/producer) Michael Gramaglia and his brother approached me. They had done the Ramones film, End of the Century. And I said, “Well, that’s a story: The Ramones.” It’s sort of Shakespearean, y’know. I said, “You won’t get much material from me. It’s boring, really.” But they didn’t really believe that.

It took a couple of years. I’d just put them off, really. I told them, “I just don’t think there’s the material there. I don’t think it’s worth it.” It would be a lot of trouble for something that would just be…a flop. I didn’t have any confidence in it.

In 2001, I had this short story book, Cod Fishing on Valium published. And I thought that was quite an exciting thing, that I’d got St. Martin’s Press behind it, and a literary agent who loved it. It was going very well, and then I did a little tour promoting the book, reading bits of it. And playing songs specifically written for the stories, which is a very gutsy, unusual sort of thing to do. I did about eight to ten gigs like that, mostly in the Northeast.

I called them up and said, “Why don’t you do a film about this?” And of course then I had opened the door. Once you open the door, all bets are off. So from then it just kept going. So every year, a few times, Michael might film a bit of me, come to a studio, do an interview. So now he’s got tons of footage of stuff that didn’t make it [into the finished film].

It just went on like that. That’s why it took so long. Filmmaking can take many, many years. And it was really finished…until I went and dropped the bomb. I’d done it: I’d re-formed The Rumour. And I was going to be in this Jud Apatow film [This is 40]. The documentary was finished; we’d already had a screening in New York. Three of The Rumour came, and we had all these [Kickstarter] donors. And suddenly I dumped this [reunion project which culminated in the release of 2011's Three Chords Good] on them, and so it wasn’t finished at all.

But then [Gramaglia] had the finish he wanted; he had always wanted something dramatic. And I had been telling him, “It’s not gonna happen.” I don’t work on plans; I work more on whims, really. But we got a more satisfying finish for the film.

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Zombies Among Us: A Conversation with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (Part Three)

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

One thing that has changed – somewhat – is Rod Argent‘s keyboard arsenal. “I would only ever use my real [Hammond] C3, a Leslie [rotating speaker], and a beautiful Steinway concert grand piano in the studio. When we are recording an album, that goes without saying.”

“But,” Argent admits, “on stage, it’s so convenient and so reliable to use the new modules. I think that onstage the Hammond XK3 holds up really well. It’s obviously about a tenth of the weight of a real Hammond organ. I have memories of those days of when I would help huff that ’round myself! I couldn’t play for two hours because my forearms would hurt so much. I mean, it’s a bloody nightmare. And it would go wrong about once every two nights because they are not made to be thrown around the world.” He adds an amusing vignette: “The first time I came to the States with Argent, we brought our English one over, it came up on the [baggage] carousel. The whole thing came up on the carousel, like a huge theater organ!”

When seeing the band live today, a common reaction among audience members is, “Oh, gosh! I forgot they did that one!” Another is the look of sheer joy on many faces in the audience. I ask Colin Blunstone and Argent if they get a sense of that feedback when they’re up on stage.

“I always get a sense of that,” says Argent. “I always ask that instructions be given to the lighting people not to put the audience in total blackness. I don’t want them to be brightly lit, but I like to be able to just catch people’s reactions and movements so there is a real feeling of interaction between us and them. In the middle of this tour I am going to be 69, and I can’t believe it. But when we are on stage, it feels 100% the same as when I was 18 years old. That is such a privilege and it does not happen in many professions. And I love it.”

“You definitely do get a sense of it,” concurs Blunstone. “If you have an enthusiastic and supportive audience, that’s why performers want to perform. That’s what we do it for, really. It really lifts you, and it’s a completely different experience to that of playing somewhere where you’re not very well known, with a very quiet audience. You have to sort of work a lot harder to get a good performance in a situation like that. It’s incredibly important that you have that enthusiastic audience. It’s very easy when you go out onstage to a wonderful audience; they do it for you.”

The group are already at work on a studio followup to 2011′s Breathe Out, Breathe In. “We’ve already started recording. We’re rehearsing three or four songs, and we’ve recorded two tracks; we just did one the other day. And we’ve got one more day of recording next week. But after that, of course, we’ll be away for six weeks. Later in the summer – I think the end of June – we’ll start recording again. And we’ve deliberately kept the second half of the year quite free. So it will be a time of writing and recording.”

Argent elaborates, saying, “the other day, just for fun, we started doing a song called, ‘I Want You Back Again,’ which was a very little known Zombies a-side in France and was a very small hit there in 1965. And we played this original song for a very short period of time. We heard Tom Petty do it, and we thought, “This is a great song! Why aren’t we doing this?” And so we started doing it on stage. And, just for fun, ’cause we love doing it on stage so much, and we think the band sounds so good now, we wanted to capture the 2014 version. And, strange enough, when you just called me, we just had it blasted and I was just playing it through. It sounds great. It sounds so much in common with the original, but I think it sounds better. I think it has all of that fresh feeling, absolutely no overdubs at all. We recorded it live, like we do on stage. The vocal was live, everything was live but in a studio environment.”

Both men still feel they have a lot to offer musically. “We are having a ball doing it,” Argent says. “And we have discovered that we are not trying to be what we were in the ’60s, but there are a lot of parallel elements going on. We are just trying to make things work for us in the same way that we were trying to make things work for us when we first started out.”

Asked if any of the new, as-yet-unreleased material will be previewed on their tour, Blunstone is circumspect. “We haven’t been talking about that, no. But we may well play some at sound check, and if they start to sound polished, maybe we’ll experiment. We’ll be playing lots of hits and lots of newer material; I like to think that there’s something there for everyone.”

The Zombies will perform at Asheville NC’s Orange Peel on Tuesday, April 15.

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Zombies Among Us: A Conversation with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (Part Two)

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Continued from Part One

“I can’t tell you why [Odessey and Oracle] wasn’t successful when it first came out,” offers Rod Argent, “unless it was the fact that everything was so much more based in the country where you lived in at that time. And we only ever had one hit in the UK. Fewer hits in the UK than anywhere else in the world! We later found out we almost always had a hit somewhere in the world at any point that we were together, except in the UK. And because our profile had got so low in the UK, Odessey and Oracle came out – and it actually got great critical reviews, let’s be honest – but it didn’t sell. There was no real viability to it.

Argent continues. “There are two reasons why it later became successful. One was that it was picked up by well-known people who became fans. Paul Weller became a huge fan, and then more and more young indie groups of the time. I mean, Paul was a young hotshot when he first came out in the UK and he picked this as his favorite album of all time. And that is something he still says now. And then just succeeding waves of young indie bands and established artists, people like Tom Petty and Dave Grohl have said absolutely lovely things about it all the way along. Now that has obviously helped.”

“The other reason that I think it hasn’t faded away, if you like,” Argent adds, “is that we never tried to just be commercial when we made that record. In the same way that we recorded everything all those years ago – and we still do now, – and we don’t think, ‘How can we make a hit record?’ We never thought that; we just thought, ‘I’ve got this musical idea. How can we make it work?’ And that was always the focus of what we did, and that is the focus of what we do now.”

Colin Blunstone agrees. He says that “radio programmers ask, ‘What is it? Is it rock? Is it jazz?’ People don’t know how to program it. I think that is really a problem that the Zombies suffered from all the way through their brief professional career from ’64 to ’67. We didn’t really fit. We never wrote to have hits. We wrote what we wanted to write.”

“When you are honest like that,” says Argent, “it might not be the most commercial thing in the short term, because what you are not doing is trying to tap in to what used to be in the old days ‘zooming up the charts.’ Instead, you are trying to please yourself. In the long term, I believe that that means things don’t date quite as much as some other things. It is important not to try and make it with that in mind, but just try and do it for the right reasons. When young artists come up to me and ask what advice can I give, I say, ‘Well, there is not much I can give except really to say be true to yourself. Just do what turns you on. Do things for the right reason. Don’t try to do things just to be famous.’ There is nothing wrong with trying to be famous. But first of all, try to be the best at what you can do. If you asked an 18 year old when we started, ‘What do you want to be?’ he would say, ‘I want to be in the best group in the world. I want to be the best guitar player in the world.’ Nowadays you ask and they say, ‘I want to be famous.’ And it is a very different thing.”

“We still cut records now that we like,” says Blunstone, “and just hope that just hope that if we like them, and if the performances mean something to us, it seems logical that there is at least a chance there are other people out there that will derive the same pleasure that we do from these performances.”

I remark that Blunstone’s voice seems largely intact, having changed little since the group’s debut some 45 years ago. “I do work at it. Rod and I both started with a singing coach probably ten or fifteen years ago. Not when we were young; we did it in this incarnation of the Zombies. He taught us some things about technique, and I think it helped us to keep our voices strong and fairly accurate.”

“And it is important that your voice is strong,” Blunstone adds, “because we have to play…we usually keep it to five nights on the trot, five nights and then we try and have a day off. Because a lot of these songs we play are, for our voices, in very high keys. We’re really straining. All the songs we play are in the original keys. We’re singing in the same keys, in our late sixties, that we were singing when we first recorded them. When we were eighteen. It really does pay to have a little bit of singing technique, and to know how to support your voice. And to sing from your diaphragm.”

Blunstone believes something valuable is lost when a song’s key is changed. “The song won’t sound the same. By the by, [laughs] I do feel that I’ve strained my voice this week! And here I am agreeing with you about how strong my voice is. I’ve been singing a lot, and we’ve got a lot of singing next week as well. I’m trying to keep my fingers crossed; I do everything I can to keep my voice sharp, to keep it in shape.”

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Zombies Among Us: A Conversation with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone (Part One)

Friday, April 11th, 2014

The Zombies are among the fondly-remembered cast of characters from the British Invasion (or, as they somewhat more succinctly call it in the UK, the Beat Era). While they certainly didn’t rock as hard as The Who, Yardbirds, or The Kinks, and enjoyed nowhere near the level of chart success that The Beatles and Rolling Stones achieved, their subtly jazz-inflected pop music has worn quite well. One of the more sophisticated (musically and lyrically) groups of the era, their hits – “Tell Her No,” “Time of the Season,” “She’s Not There” and more – remain staples of oldies radio, and sound much fresher in 2014 than anything by Herman’s Hermits or the Dave Clark 5.

The Zombies famously broke up – thinking they had gone as far as they could – -before their best album, Odessey and Oracle [sic] was released. And while that might have been the end of the story, the former band members remained quite busy. Keyboardist and vocalist Rod Argent started his own eponymous band, scoring the monster hit “Hold Your Head Up” and a smaller hit, “God Gave Rock and Roll to You.” Lead vocalist Colin Blunstone went on to a solo career and did notable work on a number of Alan Parsons Project tracks.

But it wasn’t until the tail-end of the 20th century that Argent and Blunstone reunited, and not for several more years before they reactivated the Zombies. After mounting a UK tour that culminated in a live run-through of Odessey and Oracle (with the four surviving original members), The Zombies (Argent, Blunstone and other slightly younger players including Jim Rodford from 80s era Kinks and Rodford’s son) became a going proposition once again. They now tour regularly, and released an album of original music (2011′s Breathe Out, Breathe In) to positive reviews.

The Zombies bring their show to Asheville NC on April 15 – the band’s first time here – and I spoke to Argent and Blunstone ahead of the tour. In many ways they’re more popular now than they were the first go-round, some 45 years ago. Colin Blunstone offers his take on that conundrum: “I think that if you understood why we are more popular in one era than another – or if you understood why one record sold more than another record – obviously you could put the situation right and everything would be fine. The thing is there are so many unpredictable and unknown quantities in the music business, no one really knows the answers to those questions.

“For me,” he continues, “the most exciting thing that has happened from my career is this renaissance of the Zombies. We have a really, really great live band to go out night after night and play around our country, your country; we play around the world. And we have managed, without a hit record, to recreate some of that interest that was there in the original incarnation of the band in the ’60s. I think that is really exciting, because it is just word of mouth that traveled as a result of the performances.”

“The thing is that we did not plan any of this,” Rod Argent says. “Colin and I just got back together by accident when we did. We didn’t plan it at all. We decided to put a band together and do a half a dozen gigs for fun, not any particular focus on the Zombies. It felt so lovely to be working together again.

“It just sort of spiraled,” he continues. “It took a long time for us to embrace the original feeling of the Zombies. The last thing we wanted to do was just to try and go out there and milk it, do it to make a buck. We really did not want to look back; that wasn’t the reason we were doing it. We were doing it because we suddenly found ourselves having a great time working together again. But, when we started to write a little bit of new material, and to expand our direction in that way, it suddenly felt relevant, and not like a cop out, to go back and rediscover a lot of the old material.

“And then,” he says, “we realized that a lot of that old material that we had never played. Not least, the Odessey and Oracle stuff. Because we had never had performed that live. When we did that in Shepherd’s Bush in 2008, we played from start to finish. That’s the first and only time we reproduced every note from that album. We got other forces in because we had to, because we had overdubbed stuff on the original album. And I said to Chris [White, original Zombies bassist], “If we are going to do this, then we’ve got to reproduce every single note that was on the original album.” We did that. I even went out and bought a 1890s Victorian pump organ so we could get the exact sound on “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).”

Speaking (again) of Odessey and Oracle, I wonder why the album was such a slow burner, seeing as it now stands as an exemplar of that late-60s baroque rock style. Blunstone offers his perspective: “The obvious thing to say is that the band decided to finish before the album was even released. It was a time when the single was still important and we had released, I think, a couple of singles, maybe even three singles from the album. They hadn’t had any commercial success and I think everyone felt that we had gone as far as we could. And so the band decided to finish so there was no band to promote the album. I think that piece was a huge part of it.”

“I think that everyone in the band felt it was the right time for us to finish,” Blunstone adds. “We felt we had completed a musical circle. We had given all we’d got to give on that particular project, and it was time to move on and get involved in other projects.” He pauses and then goes further. “With a tiny bit of hindsight, I am probably the only one who feels like this: I would have been intrigued to have seen what we might have done if the band had stayed together. In particular, I think, Rod Argent and Chris White’s writing skills were really magnificent at that time. Really fabulous. They still are, but it seemed they just really sort of exploded just at that time in the late ’60s. I would have loved to have seen what we would have gone on and done.”

“But,” he says, “I feel that is one of the main problems, as I was saying, there was no band to promote [Odessey and Oracle]. I think it is a unique album. The sound of that album is not really like anything else from that period.”

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Preview: The Graham Parker Interview

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

I first discovered the music of Graham Parker in the early-early 80s, in the finale year of my high school career. This was before MTV; if I recall correctly – this was a looong time ago – I learned of him via his association with other British acts I enjoyed. People like Nick Lowe (who produced Parker’s Stick to Me album) and so forth. At the time, I didn’t know enough about pop music history to understand how Parker fit into the musical mosaic; later I’d appreciate this his music draws upon American soul and r&b as much as rock, and was part of the proud tradition of deeply personal and powerful singer/songwriters (see also: Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and Thin Lizzy‘s Phil Lynott) but even then I had the feeling that he was well apart from the punk/new wave scene.

I grabbed up his albums whenever I found them; I even snagged a copy of The Pink Parker, the 1977 EP that contained Graham Parker and The Rumour‘s thrilling cover of The Trammps‘ “Hold Back the Night.” But once the vinyl era ended, I began to lose contact with Parker’s music. Live! Alone in America was the last Parker album (cassette, actually) I heard for many years.

Recently I discovered that he’s remained active, and that I well should have continued to pay attention. He reunited with his old band The Rumour in 2012 for a well-received album called Three Chords Good. And the fire still burns brightly for Parker and his mates.

The other big bit of news is the release – this week, in fact – of the long-gestating documentary film Don’t Ask Me Questions. It’s an incisive look at Parker and his music, from the beginning ’til now. Available on DVD and download, it’s a highly enjoyable and well-paced look at Parker, and of course the music is stellar.

I was even more thrilled to have scored an interview with Graham. I spoke to him last weekend, and am rush-releasing the resulting feature for release next week. In the meantime, I highly recommend Don’t Ask Me Questions. Keep an eye out for my Parker interview, right here, middle of next week (around April 16).

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Coming Attractions: Stay Tuned

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Both in the professional and personal sides of my life, there’s a lot going on at the moment. It’s all good, but it does put some serious constraints upon my time management skills. Nonetheless, I plan to continue my unbroken string of blog entries (one per business day, every week since June 2009.

This week alone will see a lot of blog-related activity for me, though the fruits of those activities won’t show up until the coming weeks. I recently interviewed jazz/fusion guitar legend Larry Coryell; we discussed his latest album, The Lift, but we also spent a good deal of time on his career overall, stretching back into the 1960s. Look for that feature soon.

Keith Allison initially made his name as a co-star (alongside Paul Revere and the Raiders) on the weekly TV show Where the Action Is. He had previously been in The Crickets, and eventually joined The Raiders, with whom he remained until the mid 70s. He’s remained quite musically active since that time. A new compilation of his Columbia Records releases (plus some even-more-rare small label sides) have been collected on a new release from Real Gone Music. We discussed that and much, much more. He’s always a fun interview, and I’m really excited about sharing that feature with my readers.

The early 1970s was a fertile period for the style of music we now call fusion. Keyboardist Todd Cochran (aka Bayeté) released an album that’s an exemplar of the genre; Worlds Around the Sun has been out of print for decades, and used copies command steep prices. Omnivore has reissued the album, and last week I enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation with Todd. Look for that feature soon.

Speaking (again) of jazz, I’ve just completed work on the liner notes and package design for another long-unavailable album due for reissue on Real Gone Music. Cannonball Adderley‘s double LP The Black Messiah will be out in May. My liner notes include excepts from an interview I did last week with Adderley biographer Cary Ginell. The Black Messiah is one of the most varied albums you’ll ever hear, and I’m honored to be involved with its long-overdue reissue.

German art/space/prog rockers RPWL haven’t made inroads into the American market, but they certainly deserve to. Their upcoming album Wanted might be the one that breaks them through. I reviewed their live album not long ago, and I’ll be interviewing the band later this week. Keep an eye out for that feature.

The Zombies are legends. They enjoyed a number of hits in the 1960s (“Tell Her No,” “She’s Not There,” “Time of the Season,” and more). When they split at the decade’s end, lead singer Colin Blunstone went on to a solo career (including sessions for The Alan Parsons Project), while keyboardist Rod Argent formed a group called…well, you know. “Hold Your Head Up” was their biggest hit. These days Rod and Colin tour again as The Zombies, and I’ll be speaking with both of them in the next few days. Look for a feature soon (they’re coming to Asheville NC’s Orange Peel on April 15, by the way). I saw them a few years back in Chapel Hill’s Cat’s Cradle, and I’m here to tell you: they’ve still got it.

Organist Dr. Lonnie Smith is a star of the jazz, soul-jazz, funk and jam idioms. Though the “doctor” honorific and the ever-present turban are stylistic affectations, his music is the real deal. He’s playing at Asheville’s Isis Music Hall this Friday, and I’ll be conducting a pre-show interview with him. That feature will be online soon.

And on top of all that, I have a huge pile of CDs – new music and reissues – that I’ll be reviewing in the coming weeks. The music never stops at Musoscribe World HQ, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Thanks for reading.

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The Moody Blues’ Mike Pinder: Promise Renewed (Part Two)

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

Continued from Part One

BK: Eighteen years passed between release of The Promise and Among the Stars. Certainly you were busy with other things in the intervening years, but why so long a gap? And again – did you build up a backlog of songs over that period, or did you approach the album as a new project, and set about writing for it anew?

MP: I was very happy and busy with family life! During the years I was active with my band I did not have much of a private life. We were always recording or touring. First the release of Magnificent Moodies and Go Now in 1965. Then the formation of Moodies II. We were busy then from 1967 to 1978 recording eight albums. It was a rewarding but grueling work schedule.

I wanted to spend as much time enjoying and nurturing my family as I had done nurturing a band. When my sons were almost grown I thought it would be fun to get back into the studio recording. I have always had a small recording studio at home so even though I did not formally release any songs during those years, I was always tinkering around with the music and listening to the muse.

BK: Among the Stars seems to feature a sound that is closer in some ways to what you had done with the Moody Blues, specifically in its greater use of keyboards. Was the fact that so much time had passed a factor in your thinking, “it’s okay to sound like this now and then” or was that not part of your thinking at all?

MP: Keyboard is my main instrument so it is always an easy choice for me in an arrangement. I don’t think it was a conscious decision to use more Mellotron or keyboards. Having the sounds of the Mellotron available to me helped me to arrange and paint the backdrop for the song. I think you will always hear Moody Blues in my songs and arrangements because the music of the Moodies always reflected a certain part of who I am, my message and my creative vision.

BK: Part of the stated reason for your leaving your old band had to do with not wishing to tour. Did you do any live dates to promote either The Promise or Among the Stars, and to what degree have you engaged in public performance since that time?

MP: I did a tour in the US when I released The Promise. But I did not do any live shows when I finished Among the Stars. Instead I did a tour in the USA of Borders Books & Music stores. That was really fun. I got to meet and greet the fans. It was a beautiful experience to hear first hand the impact the music has had on listeners of our music. I have always said that that is my Hall of Fame. Who needs a bogus political entity telling me that I am worthy of recognition in Rock’s Hall of Fame. When you have changed or touched a life in some magical and wonderful way with music or art then the artist has hit the jackpot.

BK: The Mellotron was long notorious for its – many said – unsuitability as a live performance instrument. You, of course, used it extensively. Today, very few musicians do that; beyond Damon Fox of Bigelf, I don’t know of any other touring musicians who use a Mellotron. And when albums note the use of a ‘Tron, often it’s (ironically) a sample of a Mellotron! Of course there’s something called the Memotron, an attempt at a modern digital answer to this decidedly analog instrument. Are you familiar with the Memotron, and if so, how do you think it compares to my favorite musical instrument, the Mellotron?

MP: I think it was fate that brought me together with the Mellotron. Besides being a player, I have always had an interest in mechanics and engineering. The Mellotron was manufactured by Streetly Electronics in Birmingham and I applied for a job working in the factory. A perfect match. I loaded the tapes and made sure they were timed correctly. The fact that I could assemble a Mellotron from top to bottom enabled me to troubleshoot the instrument. I knew it inside and out.

The Mellotron was delicate. Improper handling would cause the tapes to get tangled. Also it was a heavy instrument at 350 pounds. All the weight was in the housing.

I have only seen the Memotron online but it is a concept that I did for myself years ago when I digitized my favorite Mellotron sounds to use on a Roland sampler. In the early 90’s I digitized and looped my favorite Mellotron sounds, and I now play them on a Roland S-760 Sampler (weighing 3 pounds) I also digitized the best sounds of the Chamberlain. So now I can play both in stereo. I still love the Mellotron but it is nice to have it available to me in a more compact version.

The sound and tone of the Mellotron is uniquely recognizable and I think I achieve my signature sound by the interface of how I use the pitch control and volume pedal.

BK: Two of the three bonus tracks included with Among the Stars feature involvement by Ray Thomas and Tony Clarke. When were those recorded?

MP: A few years before we lost Tony, he came over to the States and worked with my sons, Michael Lee and Matt Pinder (also known as The Pinder Brothers) on their CD Ordinary Man. “Waves Crash” and “Empty Streets” were songs Tony produced. We sent the tracks to Ray in the UK for his flute parts. It was a real treat to have them working with my sons.

BK: The new package is very nicely put together, with the box, booklet and DVD. How did this project come to be?

MP: I met the people at Esoteric on a visit to the UK. They had released a box set for my dear buddy Ray Thomas, and Ray introduced me. They are passionate about music, and this is rare in the record business of today.

Mike Pinder’s The Promise / Among the Stars box set is available from Cherry Red as well as the usual online places. Mike’s website is www.mikepinder.com

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The Moody Blues’ Mike Pinder: Promise Renewed (Part One)

Monday, March 10th, 2014

Keyboardist Mike Pinder was a founding member of the Moody Blues. He was with them back in the really early days, when their lead singer was Denny Laine (later of Wings) and they scored a hit with “Go Now.” He was one of three members(along with flautist Ray Thomas and bassist John Lodge) who remained with the group as they became the quintet that most remember, the one with lead vocalist Justin Hayward and drummer Graeme Edge. That group released what are known among fans as the “Core Seven,” a series of albums that prominently featured Pinder’s arrangements and keyboard work, most notably on the Mellotron.

Pinder left the Moodies after their 1978 LP Octave, but had already began a solo career with 1976′s The Promise. A second solo release, Among the Stars followed, but not until 1994. Both albums have long been out of print. But now in 2014, the pair of albums – plus a DVD with interviews, and a few bonus tracks – have been released in a handsome box set. I spoke with Mike Pinder about the new reissue and some topics that have long been on my mind. Here’s our conversation. – bk


Bill Kopp: I bought The Promise on vinyl many years ago. When I first heard it, it came as a bit of a surprise to me, as it wasn’t what I had expected: a Mellotron album. Only the title track sounds much like what we’d heard from you before. Was it a conscious decision for you to create an album that overtly moved away from keyboard-focused songs, and from the heavily orchestrated sound of the Moody Blues?

Mike Pinder: I don’t think it was a conscious decision. I just gave choose the arrangement that I think fit the song. Recording on my own for the first time in many years just gave me the flexibility and freedom to use other musicians and friends and experiment a little more.

BK: A few years ago, I interviewed Graeme Edge, and asked him about the possibility of the Moody Blues doing what a number of groups have done: performing complete albums live onstage, start to finish. He said no, and his reason had to do with your songs: “We have considered it, but there’s a problem: we wouldn’t have somebody else sing a Mike Pinder song. It wouldn’t be right; there’s a phoniness to that.” What are your feelings on the subject?

MP: I don’t know about that. I considered them all my songs in some way as I am sure the entire band did. I would hear a song of Ray [Thomas]’s or John [Lodge]’s and I would add any creativity I could to making the song stronger. We all did that for each other. When you hear any Moody Blues song you hear my input or influence. For instance the counter melodies of “Nights in White Satin” are my creation. I think I am known for creating many of the memorable counter melodies, unexpected chord changes and most of the arrangements that you hear in any Moody Blues songs from the eight albums we did. Certainly from what fans call the “Core” or “Classic 7.”

BK: Moody Blues albums from 1967 to 1972 always featured one, two or more of your songs, since the band had several songwriters. I’m reminded of George Harrison once he left the Beatles and released All Things Must Pass. Was yours a similar situation, in that you had a huge backlog of songs you hadn’t had the opportunity to record and release, or did you write most of the tunes for The Promise specifically for the album?

MP: It was about 50/50. But it is interesting you make that analogy. Yes, like George I had songs in the wings. Musical ideas, like other art forms, are unique only in their expression. I don’t think ideas are individual by any means. But the transformation of the idea by the individual into art gives it uniqueness.

Here is a little fishing metaphor for the creative muse. I like to visualize creative ideas as being poured out of an urn, almost like Aquarius pouring out water. And then the wind would blow them, ideas, musical notes, lyrics, color etc and they would flow like a river. Alongside the river would be people sitting, with pencil in hand, an empty notebook or a guitar on their knee (which is metaphorically like fishing tackle) As these ideas come by, you try and grab one for you. Quite often that is what happens and you would hook something, and you would struggle with it, but you could never quite get it in the boat. So you have to cut your line.

I remember buying a George Harrison album, and hearing a song, and thinking “that’s the one that got away.” I didn’t get it, but further downstream (and George used to live about three miles away) George was up that night and hooked the bugger. Late at night when everyone is asleep has always been my favorite time to fish. I think when the world is quite it is easier to listen to the muse.

BK: I have read that “One Step Into the Light” was one of yours from the time of The Promise. It’s such a strong song; assuming that account is accurate, what led you to not including a version of it on your own album to begin with?

MP: “One Step Into the Light” was originally on Octave, which was the last album I recorded with the Moodies. We were not getting along very well in the recording studio, and I did not think any of the songs on that album got the attention they deserved. It was lovely to reflect on the song over time and re-record it with my sons.

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Bonus Weekend Feature: The Black Angels’ Alex Maas Talks About Roky Erickson

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

Austin-based band Black Angels have a finely tuned sense of history. While their music – often described by the band members themselves as “tribal psychedelic” – doesn’t aim to slavishly re-create the sounds of some long-lost musical era, the group readily acknowledges a clear debt to their psychedelic forebears.

And chief among those influences for the Black Angels (and many other acts who fall loosely into the modern-psych bag) is The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, one of the earliest psychedelic bands. Led by Roky Erickson, The Elevators – also Austin-based – released a legendary 1966 album (The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators), followed up with another fine effort (Easter Everywhere) a year later, and then petered out quickly with an ersatz-live album and a final effort on which its main musician was all but absent.

But The Elevators’ stature among succeeding generations of rock musicians grew, helped in no small part by Erickson’s bizarre life path. It’s difficult to summarize the story in a few words, but here’s an attempt: to avoid jail time for a drug bust (a single joint, by the way), Erickson entered an insanity plea and was confined to the (Rusk) Texas State Mental Hospital. There he received electroshock treatments, which many believe exacerbated the not-quite-qualifying-as-insane psychological problems Erickson was having.

He eventually got out, but went on to live an existence characterized by untreated schizophrenia. And during that period, he went on to make a series of albums that chronicled his obsession with the strange and macabre. The song titles tell part of the story: “The Evil One,” “Two Headed Dog,” “Bloody Hammer,” “I Walked With a Zombie.” He eventually got the help he needed, and his journey back toward something approaching normalcy is chronicled in the 2005 documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me, named after the Elevators’ most famous song.

Growing up in Austin and eventually forming a psychedelic band all but guarantees that you’d know about Roky. And the Black Angels’ multi-instrumentalist Alex Maas cites him as an early, high-school-years influence. “People had told me about [the 13th Floor Elevators], and I’d say, ‘Yeah, I’ll need to check that out sometime.’ I think I was in a record store, and I heard ‘Roller Coaster’ or ‘Reverberation.’ I asked the guy there, ‘Who is this?’ He told me, and it rang a bell.” He wondered why he didn’t already know about this locally-based band. “I mean, I knew about Buddy Holly,” he laughs.

When the Black Angels formed ten years ago, they drew upon Roky’s work – both from the Elevators years and beyond – for some of their inspiration. And then years later (2007) The Black Angels played at an event called the Roky Erickson Ice Cream Social at the SXSW Festival. That show brought the band to the attention of Roky’s management.

So it’s fitting that on the Black Angels’ current tour – which brought them to Asheville’s Grey Eagle on Thursday, February 20 – they finally share the stage with their hero. “If you told me years ago that this would happen,” Maas chuckles,” I would have said, ‘bullshit!’” Though they did a few dates backing Roky in 2008, this will have been the first time that they performed a double-bill with Roky and his band. “There might be a little tango onstage” with Roky and the Black Angels, Maas teases. Clearly everyone concerned is pleased at the pairing: in the time his band has spent close to Erickson, Maas says that they’ve learned “just how therapeutic playing music is for someone like Roky.”

Back in 2008, there had been plans afoot for a recorded collaboration between Roky and the Black Angels, but – despite an investment of time and resources by the band – that abortive project never fully materialized. Instead, Erickson released an album backed by Okkervil River, 2010′s True Love Cast Out All Evil. Luckily, reworked tapes from the Black Angels sessions have yielded a new single featuring the band covering a pair of Roky’s tunes. The seven-inch vinyl “(Thank God for) Civilization” b/w “Bo Diddley is a Headhunter” will be available at shows. Describing the songs as “not quite 13th Floor Elevators, and not quite Black Angels,” Maas explains that part of the band’s motivation for pushing to get the single out was “to put some money in Roky’s pocket.” Beyond that, Maas hopes that interested generated by the single will eventually lead to the release of more tracks from those 2008 sessions.

Maas urges anyone interested in Roky Erickson to attend the shows on this tour. “Roky doesn’t need to tour,” he says. “And he might not tour much after this.”