BEYOND TECHNOLOGY BEGINS WIZARDRY - Interview with Ted Greenwald.
November 1987 - Keyboard magazine.
Just how much do musicians need their instruments? For most players, an instrument is more than just a way of getting ideas out. By its physical layout, it shapes the chords, lines, and rhythms of composition and improvisation. It's tone completes the crucial feedback loop that circulates between inspiration and technical ability. On the other hand, music springs as much from the imagination as from taut strings and wooden resonators. There are musicians to whom the muse seems to sing so clearly and strongly that, it appears, they would find a way to create music if there were no instruments on Earth - even if there were no air to carry the sound. That's the impression you get listening to Todd Rundgren.
In face, Rundgren eschewed conventional instrumentation altogether for his last solo release, 1986's A Capella. Instead he chose to let the must speak only through the vibrations of his vocal cords. In "Blue Orpheus", dense chords of close harmony and resonant basso notes careen beneath an impassioned voice that tells of the catharsis that singing can bring about. And yet, from time to time, the album's aural landscape is slashed by the sound of buzzsaw guitars and pummeled by the beating of savage drums. Naturally, they're all permutations of Rundgrens voice. It's not that Rundgren is a marvelous vocalist - although he is. In a nutshell, he plays a mean emulator.
"Blue Orpheus" poses the problem in its most naked form: expression yearns to free itself from the fetters of the material world, even as it relies on technology for it's very existence. The same dialectic has stalked Rundgren from the first, when, as a 24-year-old recording artist he ditched his backup band in favor of playing all of the instruments himself into a multi-track tape machine. The resulting double album, Something/Anything? (1972) stands as one of the definitive pop records of our time (Rolling Stone declared it one of the 100 best albums of the last 20 years). In addition to classic songwriting, power-house guitar playing, and solid drumming, the album showcased Rundgren's abilities on a variety of keyboards, including piano, Hammond organ, and his trusty EMS Putney Synthesizer.
Later projects saw the one-man concept overshadowed by Rundgren's band, Utopia, in which he played the image of guitar hero and pursued a strident progressive rock style. The early Utopia, which featured Mark Moogy Klingman, Ralph Shuckett, and M. Frog Labat on a profusion of synthesizers and other keyboards, evolved into streamlined rock and roll unit that featured the keyboard prowess of Roger Powell until it's dissolution last year (1985).
At the same time, Rundgren maintained an active career as a producer, Making records for an extraordinary variety of acts, including meatloaf, Grand Funk, Cheap Trick, Hall and Oates, New York Dolls, the Tubes, Patti Smith, Psychedelic Furs, and even Shaun cassidy. His latest project is XTC's Skylarking; the single from that album, "Dear God", has recently crossed over from college radio into mainstream.
Throughout, Rundgren continued to release solo records bursting at the seams with transcendent pop tunes and sometimes difficult sense of humor, and, always, inventive and infectious keyboard arrangements. Although you'll never hear Rundgren play a flashy solo, keyboard instruments ring out from the core of all of his solo efforts. From the block piano triads of such ballads as "Hello, it's Me" to the techno-pop tinge of more recent up-tempo rockers like "Time Heals" to the pumping rock of "Bang On the Drum All Day" to such throwaways as the Gilbert and Sullivan spoof "Emperor of the Highway" Rundgren's keyboard parts provide both the framework and the filigree. The synthesizer timbres are often memorable - the shimmering chordal patch in 1978's "Can we still be friends" comes to mind - and sometimes seem to form the basis for entire compositions, as in much of the 1981 album Healing.
Still, in many ways Todd Rundgren is a musician without an instrument. He's quick to deny any ability at the keyboard:"I guess if I really wanted to, I could learn to play riffs and stuff like that," he explains,"but I can barely manage a flourish at this point." (In a characteristically sardonic gesture, he adorned the cover of his 1971 album, The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, with a portrait of himself seated at a grand piano, a hangman's noose draped around his neck.) He's best known, and certainly most accomplished, as a guitarist, yet he once told Guitar Player magazine, "Deep down, I don't want to play the guitar." His drumming is functional but never showy, and his bass playing is often as not performed on a synthesizer. In his current stage show, Rundgren spends as much time at his Roland RD300 sampled piano as he does at the guitar. In fact, since disbanding Utopia, he has played alone in front of a synthesized and sequenced backdrop. ("Instead of a bunch of demanding and egotistical musicians," he jokes on-stage, " I bring along Roger's data.")
The cliche is that Rundgren plays the recording studio, but that description is too facile. When Rundgren Plays, he plays the entire apparatus of record production. He plays the instruments and the tape machines, of course, as well as the signal processors and the mixing board, but he also creates the persona, invents the album concept, drafts the cover image, and directs the video.
His attitude toward combining music and technology is even more ambiguous. Rundgren downplays his interest in the possibilities of synthesis, sampling, and sequencing, insisting that those things are "a bit passe." In the July 1987 issue of MicroTimes magazine, he is quoted to the effect that sequencing a show's worth of material was "pretty much an ordeal." Roger Powell confirms: "He was enormously reluctant to use even something as simple as Texture [sequencing software created by Powell]. It took me about two years to get him anywhere near it. I think he's wary of letting the computer get in the way of the creative process." This, about a man who was using synthesizers and sequencers in a pop context as early as 1973, maintains a state-of-the-art recording studio, made pioneering forays into music video in the late OE70s, and today writes his own software. But he's more than wary. He's downright evasive. Rundgren describes pencil-and-paper tedium during our discussion of the string arrangements for XTC's Skylarking, which he scored - yet the bands keyboard player explains that Rundgren did all the arrangements in a single night using a Macintosh-based notation system.
For all his denials, technology is clearly important to Rundgren's music. And he does get excited by it. This becomes abundantly clear during his stage show when he revs up a Macintosh program called Jam Session, using an on-stage video camera to magnify the Mac's screen for the benefit of the audience. The display depicts a stylized cartoon band. Suddenly the band members jerk to life as the program grinds out a stiff rendition of a Chuck Berryesque rock and roll progression, while Rundgren adds sampled guitar licks from the QWERTY keyboard. For an instant, Todd Rundgren is no longer a rock and roll legend. He's a child showing off a new toy.
The Crux of Rundgren's relationship with his tools is his ability to relegate them to the service of artistic vision."I don't need a synthesizer to make music," he said in the MicroTimes interview. " I try to keep the idea as much in the forefront of my brain as possible when I'm trying to create." And in listening, it's not the technology that shows; rather it's that Rundgren calls "the sense of poetry." What informs that sense is not only a remarkable musical mind, but the experience of making a dozen albums under his own name, nearly as many with Utopia, and over four times that number as producer. Todd Rundgren may not have an instrument, but he has chops to burn.
Let,s start with your keyboard background. Did you take lessons when you were young?
No, I just picked it up. Initially, most of what I learnt on the piano I learned hanging around after school. They had an upright piano in the auditorium in high school, and I played that. That was more or less where I picked it up.
Was that before or after you started playing guitar?
That was afterward.
Do you find your songs come out differently if you compose on the piano rather than the guitar?
I do most of my composition on the piano. But I only accompany myself on piano; I can't actually play any solo-type stuff. Just changes.
Why is that?
Well, I've had no inclination, I suppose, to learn how to play the piano. it's a tool for composition, essentially, and I don't go beyond that. If I have to play piano, it's merely an accompaniment. Which is odd, because sometimes I wind up getting nominated in the Playboy poll in the keyboard player category. it's not guitar playing, it's not production, not vocal or songwriting. it's always keyboard playing, which is the thing that I do probably least well of all of those. it's really strange.
Do you identify yourself, particularly, with any of those other roles? Do you think of yourself primarily as a producer, a guitarist, or a songwriter?
I don't think of it that way, but if somebody had to figure out a classification for me, why they would come up with keyboard player is beyond me, you know? That,s the one thing i'm incapable of making a living off of. I could hold down a job as those other things, but not as a piano player.
And a lot of the technology you rely on on-stage is more or less keyboard based.
Well, that,s the way MIDI is. Nobody has found a totally adequate and comfortable method of reading the guitar and translating it into MIDI data that doesn,t have to be severely edited afterwards.
Have you been playing around with that?
No. I don't have really any interest in hooking my guitar up to MIDI. A guitar is a guitar to me. That,s what you play it for, to get that guitar sound out of it. And the techniques you use are peculiar and particular to it. I think the only reason why they even want to try and get a MIDI interface in there is because there are so many guitars.
Why did you decide to give up playing with a band?
Well, I haven,t given it up. it's just that i'm not doing it now, and that,s not unusual. it's something I've done, on and off, for most of my musical career. When Utopia was first on the road, I used to open for the band by playing tapes and piano, just me on the stage. Utopia isn,t active for the time being, but that has more to do with the fact that everybody,s got other things to do, and that we haven,t had any real impetus to make a record.
When it comes to performing live, is playing with a sequencer just as positive an experience as playing with a band?
Well, it's a different experience, and I enjoy it. Mostly because I can pace myself easier than I can if other musicians are playing. And it doesn,t look right, particularly from the audiences standpoint, to have only one guy doing all the talking and establishing the pace, with everybody else standing around waiting for him, you know? It doesn,t seem so unusual if i'm by myself.
If we have the story right, when you started doing this show, you were using Texture and an IBM. Now you,re using a Roland MC-500. What happened to Texture along the way?
It wasn,t Texture. It was carrying the computer. It made no sense. I was carrying the computer just to use as a sequencer. It was an extravagance.
Did you end up simply dumping the data directly from one to the other?
Yeah, the computer taught the MC-500. Hook OEem up with a MIDI line and it just learns everything.
The world hasn,t heard a lot from you since this whole MIDI sequencing thing broke wide open.
it's only been the last two or three years, I guess, that it broke wide open, but sequencers were used before that. Sequencers have been around since before MIDI. it's just that you didn,t use the MIDI system to trigger other instruments. Sequencers were usually built into the instrument you were playing. That was the kind of thing that Giorgio Moroder built his career on.
But the technology hadn,t developed to the degree that sequencing could take over the role of tape in a live show, as it has in yours.
I still could have used tapes in the show. The advantage of this is that it give you a little more control over the sounds. Also, since i'm using a finite number of instruments, it's almost like having a band there. The other problem with tapes is that I don't have interactive control. I can stop a song in the middle with this, or change the key is I discover my voice has gone completely out.
Do you do any real-time control of the tempo?
No. The reason why I have MIDI playing stuff is so I can concentrate on the singing. I don't want to have to dick around with it or do any exotic manipulations. i'm too involved in trying to hit the notes.
From your answers so far, it's not clear to what extent the new technology is exciting to you.
it's not very. For me it's passe; at this particular point. When i'm in the studio I don't use sequencers at all anymore.
How long has that been the case?
Well, I didn,t make that much use of them, but probably the heaviest degree of sequencing I ever did was back in the Initiation days, using Moog equipment. The only thing that really pertains to sequencing in the work I do nowadays might be a drum machine. There were some other records - I guess the apotheosis of that was probably the Tubes OELove Bomb, record, where we laid down a sync track that went the entire length of the side, and synced up the pieces. The music is non-stop from beginning to end, and it's got about eight or nine different songs, so we had the whole side arranged with the Fairlight sequencer first, and used that as a reference. But then we went back and replaced most everything with real instruments.
Didn,t A Capella involve sequencing of the vocal samples?
The only sequencer that I had at the time was the one built into the Emulator I. I used that to do the equivalent of building rhythm patterns, doing all my percussive vocal samples on the keyboard and then turning on the sequencer and playing the rhythm pattern, and that would play through the whole song. Then I would mix sounds in and out to compensate. A lot of what appears to be sequencing was me playing by hand. I would put down a rhythm box as a reference, and then playalong with it by hand, because I couldn,t lock the sequencer. There was no sync-to-tape for the sequencer in the E-I.
Was the original idea for that record to do an all-vocal album, or to use a sampler to manipulate your voice.
The former. The idea was years and years old, and it wasn,t until sampling technology came along that I felt that I should attempt it. Sampling allowed me to get a greater variety of sounds out of the voice. Previously, I probably could have done it with other techniques, but it would have been too tedious. For instance, I could have done the rhythm things by doing my noises onto tape and then cutting them together, but there was no point at which I wanted to undergo that kind of ordeal to get the record together. It was a concept that I had had a while ago, and then eventually, when sampling became a reality, the album became more of a practical consideration.
Did you have any reference tracks played on instruments?
Often, yeah. Usually, it would just be the piano. I would just rough it out, because I didn,t have to get it correct. It was mostly rhythmic, and to have something to tune to. I didn,t play all the parts. I arranged the vocal parts.
Spontaneously to tape?
More or less. Once I had the lead vocal down, then I would start arranging backgrounds, the same way that I do when I make a record that has instruments in it. Essentially, the first thing I worry about it getting the melody right. When that,s right, then I work on the background vocals, or any accompanying vocals or harmonies or anything like that.
How did you go about processing the sounds themselves?
Most of the voices on the record are just singing straight through. Sometimes the way the harmonies are clustered and things like that make it sound like here,s some processing, but more often than not, there was nothing beyond the normal thing you would do to voice - a delay, reverb, a repeat, echo, more or less conventional things. On rare occasions, I did something a little bit more extreme, perhaps speed a tape up or slow it down. In one case I think I ran the voice through a ring modulator.
Two that come to mind are the chanting in "Miracle in the Bazaar" and the heavy-metal guitar sound in "Lockjaw."
Putting together "Miracle in the Bazaar" was an interesting exercise. I actually did tape loops. I would sing a note on the tape and mix it with a lot of reverb, and then loop it. I would just get this one vocal tone continuously. Because of all the reverb, you wouldn,t be able to hear the edit point. I took up about 16 or 18 tracks with various notes running continuously through the length of the song. Then, when I mixed the song, I just pushed up the faders to form the chords that were appropriate to any part of the song. At one point, I had them all up, which is that giant cluster that,s in front of it, and then just started pulling them down until they formed chords, and then eventually they formed a monotone, the drone that went underneath the whole thing. And then the sort of muezzin [chanter of the Moslem call to prayer] thing, the so-called lead instrument, was a chord made with that vocal cluster thing sent through a vocoder, with me singing at the other end of it. it's actually voices being vocoded. Kind of a convoluted thing. On "Lockjaw," I believe I actually put the voice through an amplifier, cranked it up until it distorted - a guitar amp on 11. I think they were looped and sampled voices on the E-II, and I would use the pitch-wheel to get that kind of rrrraaangh effect.
What about the compositional values of pieces like "Miracle In The Bazaar"? Where is that piece coming from, in terms of your imagination?
it's a kind of tone poem, I suppose. The idea was to create a visual picture through an unstructured use of sound, rather than putting it all into regular song form. It kind of bordered on electronic music. From time to time, it's just a thing that I do; I decide that I don't really want to write a song. I want to do something that,s expressive with sound, but doesn,t really partake of a song structure.
How does an album take shape? Do you just wait until you have enough songs, or do you, at a certain time, sit down to write an album,s worth of material?
Usually, I feel it's time to make an album. I may have one or two songs, but thinking about doing the album and actually doing it, getting into the process of it, causes more songs to happen. I spend most of the time before I make a record conceptualizing, overall, what I want the record to be like. Then it's just a process of filling in the blanks. I,ll think that I want a song of a certain kind, but I,ll have no idea what it sounds lie. I just know that I want it to have a certain flavor. Then I get into the studio and start hacking it out, trying to make it conform to that original concept.
it's been reported that you,re working on computer interfaces for musicians. What kind of work have you been doing?
That,s an erroneous report. i'm working on computer interfaces sort of in general. it's conceivable that the interface i'm working on could be used for a music program, but i'm mostly concerned with graphics at this point. I want to stress that I don't often use computers when i'm working with music. At least at this particular point, they,re too much hassle to set up and teach.
What are your concerns regarding interfaces in general?
That they don't support the knowledge that people have already. They require you to learn new things in order to operate the computer. I don't think that,s necessary.
Yet, in a sense, musical instruments are the same way. A piano it's user-friendly. The guitar, especially, doesn,t have a user-friendly interface.
I would have to disagree, particularly in the instance of the guitar or the piano. Having been around as long as they have if any improvements could have been made on them, they would have been. Given the concept and the physical constraints, there,s not much more that can be done with them. Given the fact that you have to have strings, and the strings have to be a certain distance apart so they don't bang against each other, and given the fact that you have to have an instrument of a certain size in order to get the acoustic resonance at a volume that people can hear, there,s not much more that people can be done about it. And there are certain givens - a guitar,s frets are a certain distance apart because that,s the physical law of the universe. You won't get the notes if you put the frets in different places.
But electronics permit you, say, to set up the black notes to play one tonality, and the white ones so they,ll only play an Ab7#11 chord. The keyboard can be set up so that the player can't hit a wrong note.
As much as that,s an advantage to the uneducated, it's a disadvantage to the person who has a full command of the piano. I mean, it's of no use whatsoever to chick Corea, who wants at a moment,s notice to be able to shift into another key without having to be concerned about pressing a button to do it. All he,s got to do it just make the adjustment mentally, and he,s in the other key.
So computer interfaces can be designed in such a way that they,re both accessible and not limiting?
Yeah. well, there are things you can improve on and things you can't. And some of the things that can be improved probably should be, but you don't want to cause people to throw out skills they may already have. for at least the foreseeable future, you,re going to be more likely to find a piano when you go into a bar or to somebody,s house than you are to find a synthesizer and amplifiers.
Do your ideas regarding graphic interfaces carry over into music notation interfaces?
What i'm doing is a shell, and it deals with trying to make all of that computerese stuff, like loading, saving, and copying files and getting around inside a database, to be a little bit more transparent. But how any particular application is implemented under it is up to the person who writes the application. And, as I said, so far I have not gotten seriously into any kind of musical application.
To what extent are you a computer programmer?
I could get a job as a programmer, put it that way. I could make a living as a programmer. I could even quit music, write programs of my own, have them published, and probably make a living at it. I find it's too hard to compare programmers. what they do is very personal and arcane. it's not as obvious as, like, playing an instrument. Sometimes programmers do things that are integrated with work that other people do, and the part of it that they,ve worked on becomes obscured.
Are you self taught?
Yes, I am.
On XTC,s Skylarking, you,re credited as a computer programmer.
Yeah, well, that was just programming the Fairlight.
do you spend a lot of time making up sounds?
No, I don't spend much time doing sampling. I find that kind of tedious. I usually do post-processing on the sounds to make them more unique-sounding, or splice sounds together that other people have recorded. Things like that.
In terms of making up sounds - not sampling, but conventional synthesis - do you feel that there are good and bad sounds, or perhaps appropriate and inappropriate sounds?
I think there are appropriate and inappropriate sounds. I don't think there are necessarily good and bad sounds.
How do you get appropriate sounds? What,s you approach to creating them?
I tend mostly towards the organic. Even if i'm pushing the machinery to do things that people can't necessarily do, i'm still trying to create a realism, rather than an overt electronic quality. If you listen to the average disco record, they,re exploiting the electronic possibilities. They,re not really concerned with any organic realism, and i'm more concerned with organic realism - a sound that, when you hear it, you can picture the instrument, almost. I could probably elaborate even further, but it's basically subjective. When I first started working with synthesizers, a lot of people thought it was just noise. Nowadays, a lot of those sounds have become ingrained in peoples, cultural consciousness, and consequently they don't sound so weird anymore.
Do any particular instruments, or methods of synthesis, tend to give you organic types of sounds?
Well, I think the DX7 does a pretty remarkable job of creating some of those realistic elements. A lot of it, I think, concerns an element of randomness or unpredictability, and that,s what makes it sound more organic to me. Whereas, you know, straight sine, sawtooth, or square waves with the usual kinds or envelopes don't have that element of unpredictability. I like to do a little modulation with some pink noise to make it a little wobbly.
Are you familiar enough with FM synthesis to start from scratch and make up your own sounds?
Absolutely not! it's possible that I could, but I really have no interest in that now. When I do my next solo album, there may or may not be synthesizers in it, but it's going to be principally real musicians playing acoustic instruments - horns and strings and basses and guitars and drums. And maybe the occasional synthesizer.
What instruments do you have in your studio that are favorite workhorses?
Well, I still use the Fairlight, but - let me see now - it's been a while since I made a record with instruments. Of course, I produce other peoples records, and they all use the standard equipment: PPGs, DX7s, things like that.
you don't have one that you sort of consider your baby, one that you go home to?
No. I usually use the Ensoniq, and I use the Fairlight and the DX7. Those are pretty much the instruments.
Do you think that the proliferation of low-cost recording and computer music equipment has resulted in a democratization of music production? Is this a marvelous cultural opportunity of some sort, or is the end of an era in which artists dedicate a lifetime to music?
They,re just tools. They just make sounds. None of them write music. Someone always has to take the responsibility of putting them in a certain context, so I don't think it changes anything. I think the fact that producers have become so powerful in the industry has caused general degradation of the music, but that wouldn,t have happened without the collusion of artists and record companies, and even record buyers.
You don't think that anything is necessarily lost when technology replaces technique?
No. you,re going on the presumption that technology has replaced technique, but all of these things require some kind of technique to be used effectively. If, because a thing is new, some people don't recognize good and bad technique - that happens with everything. it's just like when the first person got into the first automobile - the fact that it could move without a horse in front of it seemed remarkable, regardless of the fact that the driver was running over everybody.
As one of the people who pioneered the one-man production concepts, have you come across any special methods or techniques that you,d consider passing one?
I have to reiterate that I don't concentrate on techniques. I don't even think about them. i'm mostly concerned with content, and the technique is secondary. I will learn and unlearn a technique just to support come conceptual thing that I want to have happen. I may spend all day hooking together some big piece of equipment to get the right effect for a song, but then I,ll completely forget it afterwards.
There haven,t developed any little things that you,ve reminded yourself to do over the years to the point that they,re automatic?
I try to keep my equipment simple; maybe that,s a technique, or a philosophy. I will always follow the path of least resistance, if possible. For instance, the board that I have at my studio is a real simple board. I have graphic equalizers on every channel. That makes it possible for me to get the EQ settings that I like and I don't have to dick around with a lot of other things. And I've been using mostly dbx noise reduction because it's simpler than Dolby. It doesn,t require any kind of calibration. you just turn it on and it works. I prefer to use things that are not distracting, that don't require a lot of technical support. I find the technical part of it to be a distraction. Some people get into it, some people get some kind of pleasure out of learning how to work these new things. As I get older, I find I really like these boxes with 50 presets, find one that I like, and then make a few minor adjustments. That way I don't have to build things from scratch all the time.
Do you ever find yourself in creative ruts, and do you have any ways of getting out of them?
Well, since I often work with other people, in terms of production and making records, I have an opportunity to not create for periods of time, so i'm not constantly draining myself of ideas. A little bit of rest gives me the opportunity to think of more things that I want to do, and be exposed to other peoples ideas that give me ideas.
You give the impression of a person who has no interruption in his flow of creative output.
I would say that I know how to partition my time so that I can be creative. I keep getting back to this thing about content - that,s why I don't have creative blocks and things like that, because it's not something without focus or without some kind of driving force behind it. The driving force behind it is a personal philosophy. And all i'm trying to do is find different ways to express that.
Do your non-musical activities - video, computer graphics, programming - take up the energy that you would otherwise put into music?
No, I don't think so. These are things that I've always been interested in, and I've just gotten the opportunity to get more involved in them. I mean, a lot of people who make music are interested in cars, so they go out and drive on a race track on weekends off. For me, some o f these things are a little bit more serious than hobbies. Some of them are actually alternative avocations that involve a lot of my time. But I don't see them as compromising, necessarily, the music. I don't see that, just because people consider you a musician, you have to pledge allegiance to the record company or something like that. it's just an avenue of expression. I would feel like I was flushing my entire creative output down some black hole. Most of my records are ignored by the record company that contracts them and the radio people what they give them to. it's almost something that,s just between me and my fans. If I wanted to be any more successful - which I don't - I,d be forced to deal more intimately with the basically corrupt attitude that lies behind the music business.
How do you define corruption?
I think record companies are basically duplicitous. No - I think artists are naive, as well as record companies being duplicition. But if you want a hard example, everybody knows that the independent promotion scheme is essentially payola. And the record industry, the RIAA, caved in to the Washington Wives, Tipper Gore and all that other stuff, in order to avoid federal investigations of the record business. It sacrificed a few people, but business goes on as usual. If you want to get a record played on the radio, it costs money. The company pays an independent promotion man, who in turns pays the program director at the radio stations to add the record.
It appears that your career operates outside the system. It has for quite a few years.
Well, it does. it's partly because I say stupid things like that. Nobody wants to invest money in me if I have no allegiance to the record business. I have a really good deal with Warner Bros., and hopefully it will benefit both of us in the long run. it's basically a three album deal, but they have to put out every album I give them, and they can decide whether they consider it a deal album or an album outside of the deal. They know that if I have one album that,s a big hit, the greatest likelihood is that i'm going to do the polar opposite on the next album. Because I want to be able to listen to my own records, you know? I want to be able to find some enjoyment in them, and if I listen to the previous record I get bored with it, then I,ll do something different on the next one. That will always be the criterion under which I make records, so in a certain way, if I had a hit record, it would almost be a fluke. And for me to follow it up on the next album would be highly unlikely.
So that,s why we have this arrangement. If I deliver an album that they think is commercial, then it goes on the contract and it's one less album I have to deliver. But If I deliver an album and they say, "this is another one of your wacky experiments," Then they have to put it out anyway, and the 100,000 people who buy all my records will buy it anyway. Since Warner Bros. doesn,t count it as part of the contract, they don't count it as having been advanced on, so I get paid from the first record sold. i'm in a position to do that, also, because I have my own studio. The exorbitant expense of making a record doesn,t impact me the same way it does an artist who has to rent time in a studio. it's kind of a no-lose situation for me. I might wind up making 20 records for Warner Bros. before we actually get the three that they actually want, but they,ll all come out, Warner Bros. will make money, and I,ll make money. I've discovered that, in the long run, i'm happier, and people who listen to my records are happier, if I just try to please myself. The only people who are unhappy are the people at the record company - but at least we,ve got some happy people involved.
The other problem is that if you try and please the record company, and the record doesn,t do anything, then they,re not pleased anymore, and you,re not pleased, and nobody,s pleased. I never listen to people who aren,t going to have their names on the record, who aren,t going to have that black mark following them around for the rest of their musical careers. Certain record companies have valid input, and can help the process - there are people in the industry who sincerely like music and would like the be involved in making good records - but there,s also a great number of people who are just full of crap, you know? They got involved in the music industry because, at a certain time, there was so much money in it that it was irresistible. That causes people to want to be involved. Worse than that, it causes megacorporations to want to be involved, and they start buying up all the labels and running them from the accountants office.
As an artists, do you have any feeling of responsibility to society at large?
There was a certain point where I thought that that was something that I should be extra-conscious of, but I've given up on that. First of all, i'm not paranoid about tit. I don't have to question myself about whether what i'm doing is right or wrong. And secondly, people who tend to take on that responsibility get this really full-of-themselves quality. Suddenly, it's something that you can't get out from under - unless you get out from under it the hard way, by some precipitous fall from grace. One day you,re this week,s Jesus, and a year later nobody knows who you are. I've never particularly enjoyed anything where proselytizing was involved. And the cases where I have lapsed into it myself, I think I've regretted it. I've felt like I lost that sense of poetry. I think what you have to do is arrange the table of musical treats in a pleasant way, like the salad bar at Howard Johnson,s. You have to let people pick what they want out of it. You can't be shoving the salad down their throats.
Does that also go for your attitude towards production work, such as the XTC record and projects like that?
Well, I don't write material for the bands. I try to pick bands that have good material to start with. And then when it comes to production, it's a job. The priorities from album to album vary. Somebody may just be incompetent in the studio and need some help. In the case of XTC, they,ve come to a plateau, a crux in their career, that may mean longevity or death, and they have to take some extraordinary measures to legitimize themselves in order to remain in the business at all.
The Skylarking album is an "extraordinary measure"?
In that sense, yeah. The guys in the band weren,t used to making records with a real producer. They were used to having producers just be engineers or order-takers. I've always been a fan of the band, but I also recognize that they have this tendency to be incoherent, and to want to tweak peoples noses in a musical sense. To be wise guys, you know? Like, you,re listening and enjoying a record and then they,ll poke you in the ear, just for the hell of it. I tried to weed all of that out of the record. I said, "For once, why don't you seduce people, instead of trying to make them pay attention by dropping your trousers?" The whole idea was to eliminate all of these gratuitously jarring things and make a record that people would, at some point, realize, "i'm really enjoying this!" instead of thinking, "Hey, i'm really smart because i'm listening to their record," which is the attitude that Andy Partridge has. He wants it to be some kind of intellectual elite thing, and I didn,t see the point in that, particularly considering that their record label was prepared to drop them if they didn,t come up with some commercial success.
You wrote all but one of the orchestral arrangements for Skylarking. Was that your first experience with orchestral arrangements?
No, not at all. I did stuff like that on the very first Nazz album. it's just that it's time-consuming, since I don't write music - usually. You know, I can't read or write music.
So how did you do the arrangements?
Well, I would just do it in a tedious way. I would sit down at a piano with some sheet music and figure out notes and where they were supposed to go. But as soon as i'm done, then I don't read music anymore.
Did you conduct the ensemble?
Sometimes. I think the very first time it happened, I didn,t conduct. I was too scared to conduct.
You,ve also been doing some dramatic writing for TV. Between PeeWee,s playhouse and Crime Story, the musical styles and moods are drastically different. When you,re writing for them, do you find that you have to take different inspirational approaches?
The advantages with PeeWee is that is you look at it, you hear something, and you do it, it's usually right. The disadvantaged with Crime Story was that if you looked at it, you heard something, and you did it, it was usually wrong - at least in my particular case. I think that,s because the kind of music the producer wanted was not the kind of music that I wrote. I had the feeling that he wanted something along the lines of what designer jeans people use. Kind of like a 501 Blues fake rock and roll thing.
Do you go about writing to picture differently than writing album material?
Well, you never write lyrics, so in that sense the structures are entirely different.
What about tin terms of fitting the timing of the film?
That,s different as well. When you,re writing a song, you find a tempo that feels right and you just do it that way. With a film, you have a certain size space to fill. You,re also, sometimes, trying to get things to fall in certain places, so that they add greater emphasis to the action.
Some people work slavishly to a beat map, and others say, "Hey, if it feels right, we,ll just let it play over the scene."
I think it's a little bit of both. I haven,t done too many of these projects, and I don't plan on doing too many more. I find that it's not really enjoyable work.
What takes the pleasure out of it?
The lack of control, mostly. You know, you may do something that you think is perfect, but if the director or the producer has a different vision in mind, then it goes in the garbage can.
What, in the field of music right now, really excites you?
The thing that excites me most if this Broadway show that i'm doing. That has a degree of freedom that is absent in pop music. You don't have to conform to certain song structures and subject matter, and it's also the kind of music that I've always enjoyed listening to.
Yeah, Broadway-musical-type music. Everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to West Side Story. Unfortunately, nothing recently; ever since lerner and Lowe and Bernstien stopped writing, there,s the occasional Stephen Sondheim musical that has a populist element to it. it's a different thing from making records. Making records can be very insular - because of recording technology, you can make the music and then listen to it back, and not actually be making it while it's happening. Broadway is a performance medium, and the audience is there responding to it the whole time, and they haven,t heard it before. You have to have a song that not only accommodates the staging and the story line, but also connects the first time, because they only get to hear it once. it's a challenge, but it's a lot of fun. As far as pop music goes, that doesn,t excite me at all. it's generally accepted by people involved in the business that music is generally of poor quality today, regardless of the fact that there are a lot of high production values and gimmicks and digital sounds and stuff like that. The music itself is generally of poorer quality than it was, let,s say 20 years ago. You can't really consider the medium as vital and exciting if it's a constant downhill slide in terms of quality.
You agree with that assessment?
Yeah. Mostly because it's been all mooshed together with that personality cult thing. Madonna is a perfect example. You know, Marilyn Monroe never considered herself a singer. She could sing and she had her own style, but she never called herself a singer. Madonna only considered singing a stepping-stone to patent fame, you know, fame of any kind. The songs are so totally vapid and stupid that there,s obviously no real inspiration behind them. They,re just an accoutrement to the entire cult worship thing. That,s why, if you look at music, music is not good. Music is generally not good because it's just a vehicle to fame, and not really an art form in and of itself.
You moved recently from the East to the West coast. Was that a business decision, or a music business decision?
No, it had nothing to do with either. It just had to do with getting my kids into a decent school.