BAHAMAS’ “BITTER MEMORIES”
photo courtesy of Bahamas
According to Bahamas’ Afie Jurvanen, “I wanted the song to have something vaguely Celtic about it. Not really bagpipes and whistles, but more in mood. Something elemental and ancient. I think the drums and especially the guitar playing was very much done with those things in mind.”
Alfie adds, “As an interesting companion to this stripped down acoustic performance of “Bitter Memories” for North Shore sessions, you may have heard Jurvanen’s music as part of the new James Franco Verizon Droid commercial.”
On Tour Now:
November 7 /// Sherbrooke, Canada /// Theatre Grande*
November 8 /// Quebec City, Canada /// Imperial*
November 15-29 /// European Tour /// EU
December 4 /// Burlington, VT /// Higher Ground†
December 5 /// Albany, NY /// The Hollow†
December 6 /// New York, NY /// Terminal 5†
January 8 /// St. Catharines, ON /// Sean O’Sullivan Theatre
January 9 /// Peterborough, ON /// Market Hall Performing Arts Centre
January 10 /// Ottawa, ON /// Bronson Centre
January 12 /// Kingston, ON /// The Grand Theatre
January 13 /// Barrie, ON /// Georgian TheatreJanuary 14 Pittsburgh, PA Club Café
January 16 /// Louisville, KY /// Zanzabar
January 17 /// Nashville, TN /// Mercy Lounge
January 20 /// Houston, TX /// Fitzgerald’s Downstairs
January 21 /// Austin, TX /// Stubb’s Jr
January 22 /// Dallas, TX T /// he Kessler
January 24 /// Omaha, NE /// Reverb
January 25 /// Rock Island, IL /// TBD
January 27 /// Iowa City, IA /// The Mill
January 28 /// Milwaukee, WI /// Shank Hall
January 29 /// Chicago, IL /// Lincoln Hall
January 30 /// Ann Arbor, ME /// Ann Arbor Folk Fest
January 31 /// London, ON /// Aeolian Hall
A Conversation with Tears For Fears’ Roland Orzabal
Mike Ragogna: Songs From The Big Chair celebrated across six discs. How did all this material come together?
Roland Orzabal: Well, it came together right at the end. We had made the whole thing, we had a lot of those songs for many years and we also had a philosophy behind Tears For Fears that very much came out. Then we were very much stuck with this success in England and the record companies saying, “Okay, we now need to follow it up.” It just went into this frame of, “Write whatever songs you have and we’re going to record.” We had a false start with a track called “The Way You Are” which was way too clever. We spent a long time on it and didn’t do that well for us. We then went on to a song called “Mothers Talk” and tried to do it in a similar way. That’s the point at which the record company was going, “No, this is not going to work.” They pulled us back and I think there was a secret mandate to beef up our sound, to put guitars on it and make it a bit more global. That influence and that pressure came from outside, it wasn’t something that came from Curt and I. Big Chair was a relatively quick album to make, I had no idea what we were doing, it didn’t sound cohesive to me, hence the title Songs. It just seemed like a random number of songs that were thrown together because we had them available at the time. It was only when right at the end of the album and I was running off cassettes…do you remember what they are? That I was forced to listen to the whole thing right from beginning to end and I thought, “This isn’t bad! There’s something there!”
MR: What was your impression when you listened to the work from top to bottom?
RO: I was surprised, because the thing is some of those tracks are quite complicated and quite layered. Some of them aren’t. I just remember how long we spent on the whole mixing process, going across to Germany in the midst of winter, God knows why, I’ve never been so cold. You just never feel particularly wonderful about what you’ve done because it’s all been a debate and discussion long into the early hours of the morning. It’s only really when you’re relaxed and step back that you can see what you’ve done. It’s only really in hindsight. Everything was done quickly with no many decisions on a certain level. For instance, the album cover. We didn’t have an album cover. It was like, “Come on, let’s get an album cover,” so we had a photo shoot and we were looking at the proofs and I leaned over to Curt and said, “Right, that’s the album cover.” Likewise with the title of the album, there was a dispute over that. It was not as if it had always been the title and everyone was happy about it. It was decided very quickly.
MR: Do you think that it came together so well because the vision was hidden there all these years?
RO: I think that’s a good point. With that question, Curt and I combined and interfaced with something that was kind of necessary at the time. To use a strong word it was sort of destined. We got very lucky.
MR: How do you feel about how your first album resonated with the culture?
RO: As I keep saying, we got lucky. I think that there were two things, really. The team that came together, the politics of the team, myself and Curt probably being on the bottom of it in a hierarchy, Chris Hughes, Dave Bates from the record company, Ian Stanley, the relationships were all changing. What was great is that because we were slightly in a rush, when I wrote “Shout” the chorus, that all I thought it was going to be, a chorus like “Give Peace A Chance,” a song about protest. Then when I played it to Ian and Chris they said, “No, that’s a single.” I said, “What?!” “That’s a single that needs a verse.” Luckily, Curt and I had to do the video for “Mothers Talk,” so we walked away, left Ian and Chris to muck about for a day and when we came back the backing track for “Shout” was born and it was like, “Whoa, okay.” That really did change how things were stacking up. Then the other thing, the track “Listen” which was really Ian Stanley’s baby, he’d been mucking about with that when we were recording The Hurting and we’d come back from London and I’d pop up and see Ian and he’d play me this track and I’m thinking, “This is just beautiful.” So we had these pieces lying around but we didn’t realize it was going to work so well to put them all together.
MR: The temptation of many artists after doing a successful album is to recycle the formula, but you guys took a complete left turn.
RO: Big Chair was so successful that we ended up touring for eight months. We used to use a Revox tape machine beside the stage to play all the electronics and backing tracks. Because it was edited in that way we played the same set for eight months pretty much. It was in hindsight the worst thing we possibly could have done. We should have toured for a while and then started recording again while everyone was in love with each other. Those eight months of just two albums’ worth of material killed us. I’ve told this story many times, when we were playing in Kansas and the audience was going mad and we were playing the same songs that we’d been playing for God knows how long. We walked into a bar in the hotel in Kansas and there was a woman in a ball gown singing with two guys in dinner jackets. Her name was Oleta Adams and I just remember sitting at the bar with our album at number one and thinking, “There’s something wrong here.” That affected me in a big way. For me it wasn’t about the success anymore, it was about the music. So it was not a good career move but I went away and explored myself spiritually and never ever lost that memory of Oleta and her powerful soul. So yes, it did change and it changed radically.
MR: And what was released after that was a giant leap from the last project.
RO: It’s a difficult one because again it’s all down to hindsight, but yes, it’s one of the best periods of my life, Seeds Of Love. Living in London, I was finally doing primal therapy which was the thing we were banging on about. I was opening up. I don’t think I could’ve written something like “Woman In Chains” if I hadn’t gone through such therapy.
MR: My feeling is that in the States, The Hurting was digested once they understood your Songs From The Big Chair. I think America really needed to shout, and “Shout” was what was needed at the time.
RO: There’s no doubt about it. When I was younger and the muse was visiting me constantly as opposed to nowadays when it’s in the odd occasion, you sit down or stand up to write and once you get into that semi-hypnotic state ideas start pouting in. Then you look at the songs that were written at the time, there was a song not particularly well known in America, by Paul Weller called “Shout To The Top” and I’m thinking that must have been written pretty much at the same time. There was obviously something floating around in the ether waiting for an open mind as they say. That’s the role of the artist, isn’t it?
MR: Roland, this expanded version of Big Chair with all its bells and whistles…for you as the artist, how entrenched in the process did you get? Did you have any other revelations as you were re-examining the album?
RO: I had to help Steve Wilson who did the 5.1 not just find the tapes but recreate the original mixes. Some of these songs I haven’t listened to in twenty years. Steve was putting it all together and sending it to me and I listened to it on headphones and going, “Wow, that sounds pretty good,” but the one that shocked me was “The Working Hour.” It’s not something that I’d listened to. I just thought, “My God, that’s a really good song.” It’s not just the hits on Big Chair, it’s also the gems, like “Working Hour” and “Listen.” Just listening to the luxuriating in the sounds and the fact that in those days we used so much reverb, it was just great. Steve did an amazing job.
MR: Being the person who has to keep the machine going, so to speak, I don’t understand how any artist in the middle of creation can fully understand what they’re doing at the time. It seems you have to wait for years to pass to truly understand it.
RO: It’s true.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
RO: I think it’s the same advice that I get from people on social media, really big fans. Dig deep. That’s fundamentally the most important thing. If you don’t really, really search and explore you’re not going to come up with the best stuff.
MR: When you were digging deeply, were there any moments where it got scary, where you had to say, “I need to deal with this another day?”
RO: No. I love it.
MR: [laughs] Beautiful! Is this still your creative approach?
RO: When you’re younger, your brain is growing, and as you get older, your classical brain takes over because you’ve learned how to cope with virtually everything that life has thrown at you. Therefore, that sort of element of chaos is contained far more. I think it’s the element of chaos within your brain that allows great ideas to come in.
MR: And if you create something that resonates well enough with the culture, it keeps coming back. Tears For Fears keeps getting rediscovered in every generation.
RO: I’m happy about it.
MR: It must be very satisfying as an artist.
RO: It’s extremely flattering.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Tears For Fears’ Curt Smith
Mike Ragogna: Songs From The Big Chair has been treated with such reverence, expanded into a six-disc super deluxe edition. Even to the artist that must be a little shocking.
Curt Smith: What, the extent to which the company has gone to make something good?
MR: [laughs] No, the huge amount of material on there.
CS: Not really. It’s a big anniversary obviously and this is really the first time when we’ve actually been involved in the process. They’ve released various limited things before and obviously they have the masters so it was beyond our control. This is the first time we’ve sat down with management and said, “Let’s do something we can all be involved in and proud of.”
MR: Listening back to all of this content was there anything that jumped out at you like, “Oh, I forgot about that, that was pretty cool?”
CS: Probably a lot of the remixes. You have to understand that when we finished the album it took off really quickly and we were on this big world tour so sometimes we only heard the remixes once or twice and said, “Okay, that’s great,” and then we’d forget about them because we were busy on tour for about a year. I guess a lot of the remixes I’d forgotten about.
MR: Were there any revelations? This must be the biggest microscope you could apply to the actual album. Were there any conclusions you came to that were different from when you originally recorded it?
CS: I think for us, it’s actually nice to look back and start to appreciate how well that record did and the amount of work we put into it and everyone put into it because I mentioned before that at the time we were so busy we didn’t really have time to appreciate it. Being able to look back and see the things that were happening that we missed at the time because we were too busy was illuminating.
MR: What happened in the birthing that made it come together as a significant work? Or were you not aware at the time that it would be as appreciated as this?
CS: When we record, I don’t think we go in with any set idea of what we’re attempting to achieve. Basically, we’re just trying to go in and make the best record we can. “The Way You Are” was not the best experiment and certainly not the best way to start it. I think after that we realized that we are more of an album band, we want to put a project together as opposed to just one-off singles. There’s no real direction in one song, it’s when you get to play with a whole bunch of songs together that you get a sense of an album and a sense of a project as a whole. For us that was the big revelation I guess. “You know what? We’re an album band. We may have hit singles, but we’re an album band.” Obviously, we had some disagreements; the record company back then wanted things done very quickly because The Hurting was successful. It wasn’t as big in America as everywhere else but it was successful. They wanted us to follow up quickly and we kind of didn’t. There were some battles to be had there.
MR: Roland mentioned a couple of tracks that changed when he got a chance to listen and dig into them with this package. For instance, he felt that “Listen” was a stronger track than he remembered it being. Did you have any similar experiences?
CS: I think I would agree with Roland about “Listen.” But I always kind of liked that track. What I remember most about it really is when we were on tour in ’85 that was our opening track, the music we played before we came on stage. In a big arena, it sounded fantastic. We just started playing for a couple of shows “The Working Hour” again live and you forget how good that song is. We just haven’t played it for a long time.
MR: Yeah, there are b-sides that are more loved than one would expect for a b-side. Given the fact that tracks like those became fan favorites, does it seem like they originally should have gone on the package?
CS: A lot of questions have been asked in recent interviews about, “Why only eight tracks?” We felt that the project was complete at that point in time. Plus you had to remember that CDs had just come in and the primary sales at that point were actually on vinyl so you were limited to twenty-two and a half minutes a side. I don’t think we could’ve fit much more on vinyl at that point in time. Going back to the b-sides, yeah, I love them. They become fan favorites and some of them we like a lot as well. For us, that was the chance to experiment outside of us making an album, and that was always fun to do.
MR: I wonder if a seventh disc might have been a re-imagining of the entire album including the b-sides.
CS: [laughs] I mean I guess it could’ve been. I don’t know where some of them fit in. I think “Listen” is really a bigger version of a b-side we would do.
MR:I grilled Roland about this, so I want your opinion as well. I feel like “Shout” and “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” became huge hits resonated with everything that was going on in the world when they were released. How do you feel about their relation to that?
CS: Yeah, it was a cold war era, there was a lot of posturing on all sides from America and from Russia and also the UK to be honest. Basically, we’re writing about what we’re experiencing, so that was our viewpoint at the time and it expanded to echo your view on society at the time. In a weird way it comes full circle because the reason you write a song is because society is affecting you and then maybe your song affects society.
MR: Obviously, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” is a reference to America and Russia as you mentioned, but I feel like “Shout” additionally describes your generation’s reaction to Cold War stress.
CS: Yeah, I think so. The fact was that it came about quite a way before it ended. I think it’s us reflecting what we’re seeing in the world. There were a lot of protests, the cold war was coming to a head and it wasn’t going to be much longer until the fall of the Soviet Union happened. Again, I think we’re reflecting what we’re seeing and I’m not sure how much we influenced the way other people think about it.
MR: Yeah. But that’s why I think it also resonated so strongly. You supplied an outlet for people’s thoughts and reactions to what was going on at the time.
CS: I think that in general, the people who are kind of into it are the people who agree with oyu. “Yeah, you’re right.” I don’t necessarily think it’s a new concept for them, I guess we’re just verbalizing it.
MR: There are 5.1 remixes in this collection, did you discover anything from the multis that you forgot about over the years?
CS: Not that jumped ahead of me. To be honest, I think the most interesting part of the package to me is the 5.1 mixes and being able to hear things separated more than they would be in stereo. When that happens there are things that jump out at you that make you say, “Oh, I forgot we put that on there,” because you can hear it clearly now.
MR: Are there parts that your mind is putting together now that you would’ve liked to have put on there originally?
CS: No, not really. I find the fact that I don’t really want to change any of it gratifying. I think that it still stands up. I think if I was recording today I don’t think anyone would say it was a bad recording. Even with all the technology and advancements that have happened since we did that album I still think it’s a great record.
MR: It seems each generation discovers Tears For Fears at some point, especially when “Mad World” was popular in Donnie Darko and now Lorde has covered “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” What do you think of that?
CS: Obviously, it’s very nice for us. I believe again it comes down to content. I think that as generations change each generation relates to an album that you made at that age. The amount of young bands we meet who cite The Hurting as a big influence on them purely because of the lyrical content on that record and subsequently on Songs From The Big Chair they can relate to. We were that age when we did them. I find it gratifying that other artists have embraced our music as the years have gone on and more so that they stretch across a bunch of genres. You mentioned Lorde, obviously we had the Gary Jules version of “Mad World,” which Adam Lambert also covered, and now you have Kanye West using “Memories Fade.” It crosses a bunch of genres which is interesting.
MR: Nice. There is something about the material that keeps bringing people back. There’s a timelessness to a good song.
CS: And to a good recording. I thin somewhere between the songs the production is what makes it last, I believe.
MR: Speaking of new generations, what advice do you have for new artists?
CS: It’s a very different landscape now. There are so many more ways to get noticed that it’s kind of hard to stand out. There’s so much out there because of the internet. One, do the best you can, and two, be creative. The things that stand out are those people that are being more creative. I mean that in recording and I mean that in video. It’s a multi-layered medium now. It’s not just recording, you’ve got to be doing other things as well.
MR: Can you picture starting as an artist during this era? How would you approach it if you did?
CS: I think it still starts with the song, I honestly do. My kids will find great songs online before I’ve ever heard them on the radio or anywhere else. It’s like younger kids going out and finding them for themselves. My youngest was a huge fan of Justin Bieber because of YouTube. But again, I think that a great song is always going to stand up. I think the most important part is making decent music but then you’ve got to be creative with everything else you do as well.
MR: Nice. Thank you. What are you going to be working on? Any plans for more Tears For Fears music?
CS: Yep, we’re in the middle of doing an album now. Well, we’re taking a break right now as you can tell, Roland’s in England and I’m in LA, but we’re back in the studio in November starting again. We’re now signed to Warner Brothers records. People ask when the record will be ready and my answer will always be, “When it’s ready,” but hopefully at some point next year there will be a new album.
MR: Are you conscious of gathering all of the stages of the mixes so you can have a six-disc reissue in a few years?
CS: [laughs] With the technological advancements in place now, we have everything on a hard drive somewhere.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Lloyd Cole
Mike Ragogna: Hey Lloyd, what is all this about being too old to rock?
Lloyd Cole: I think sometimes, we think a little bit too much about what is age-appropriate. I’d got to thinking that I was done with making rock music, and I was kind of okay with that. Then I wrote a bunch of songs and I was like, “Well I can’t really see any other way to do these other than with a rock ‘n’ roll band, so let’s see what happens.”
MR: How did this tracklist come together as far as direction?
LC: I just write songs. One would hope that my songwriting has evolved over the years but I still feel like I’m pretty much the same songwriter that I was when I was maybe thirty years old. I’m just older. I still get turned on by the same kind of music. I still think Prince was the biggest genius that’s ever been. I’m not sure how much is different in myself, I just think that for a certain amount of time in my forties and maybe early fifties, I was over-interested in restraint and understatement. I think I’m naturally a fairly flamboyant lyricist and maybe I’ve just been reigning it back too much. I thought on this record, “What would happen if I just don’t worry about that type of thing?” What happened is I became more colorful again.
MR: Is this album a return to what you like?
LC: Not really. In the first four or five years after The Commotions, the first year was quite frightening because I had no idea if I could make music on my own. Then when I found out that I could make music on my own it was very much just like starting with The Commotions again, “Oh, my God, I’m going to try and do this, I’m going to try and do that,” and I was excited to try and do lots of things that would not have been possible with The Commotions. I think in my later years, after I had a fairly depressing end to my major label relationships in the late nineties I think I retreated somewhat. I found myself in a niche and I wasn’t particularly happy about it. I wasn’t willing to play the game to get out of the niche and I think I turned myself into a niche artist, which is not something I’m happy about.
MR: With Standards, you’re reunited with Fred Maher and Matthew Sweet. What was getting back together like?
LC: It was weirdly exactly the same. There’s no mirrors in the recording studio so we weren’t looking at what we looked these days–I guess we were looking at each other, but we weren’t looking at ourselves going, “I’m this older, grayer, heavier guy than I was when we were working together.” As soon as the three of us started playing together with the drums, the bass and the rhythm guitar it just felt exactly as it did before. Obviously, I wouldn’t have gone back to that recipe if I didn’t think it was the best rhythm section I’ve ever worked with.
MR: When you listened to the end result, did you have any revelations or discoveries? Any moments of, “Okay, this is what I need to do going forward.”
LC: You know, it wasn’t just with this record. Part of the steps going forward were with the one before, Broken Record. I worked with Fred again for the first time on that and that was the first album that I actually went back into the studio and recorded the basics live with a band. I’d always done that in the nineties and with the commotions. It was only in the two thousands when I was consciously trying to get away from rock music and I basically went into a room and made music on my own with acoustic instruments and computers. I’m very happy with that music, but it’s a lonely experience and it’s very difficult. After we made Broken Record I just thought, “I don’t want to make any of those records in a room on my own again.” This is more the way I want to work, and I’ve made those records, I don’t need to make them again. The way forward is definitely working with musicians as opposed to computers. Having said that I’m setting up my attic right now to find a way to try and get the best of both worlds from the next record, because I’m interested in things that I can do with the modular synthesizer. It’s integrated in Standards very, very slightly but I think that there’s a way that I can take the sound of Standards and augment it with some different textures which will make for a different next record. The computer is still unfortunately part of my life.
MR: But it was fun to re-explore the rhythm section as the element of a backbone perhaps.
LC: I just think there’s certain combinations of people where the end result is greater than the sum of the parts. I just think that Fred and Matthew and I have got something that’s pretty great in that way. We don’t have to think about it. What I was very conscious about on Standards was knowing that I had to be the producer of the record. Very rarely do I start recording a record when I’ve finished writing every single lyric for ever song. When the band is having pizza between takes I’m usually going off to the office to try and write verse three. It’s not a lot of fun. But usually what I’ve done is I’ve demoed the songs up to a certain stage so I can play the songs to the band and I’ve got a pretty good idea of what I want to do with them. What I decided to do on this record is I’ve decided to not make any demoes at all but to finish every single lyric before I start it so that I didn’t have to be worried about finishing the songs. I knew I was happy with the songs and I basically wanted to say, “Okay Fred and Matthew, here’s the song now, I’m going to play it on guitar,” and a few hours later we’d have the basic track recorded.
MR: I imagine that in the studio, things evolved and changed from how you wrote them?
LC: There was nothing to evolve from. A song is a blank canvas. You can do anything with a song. All I had were the words and the chords and the melodies. I had a few basic ideas, I forced them to listen to Neu! every morning before recording because I wanted to get that kind of insistent, repetitive feel to the drums. Fred didn’t need much help in that direction.
MR: And did you also play them Tempest?
LC: No, I wasn’t trying to make a record that sounded like Tempest, I was only inspired by them inasmuch as, listening to that record it was immediately obvious, I don’t think Bob Dylan knows how old he is. If you asked him old he is he’d probably say, “I’m sixty something.” It was that aspect of things, the fact that that Bob is still pretty much just doing what he’s always done and he’s never worried about whether his music’s age appropriate or not, that was the spark for me. That was what got me back to thinking, “What would happen if I made a record not worrying about whether it was age appropriate or not.
MR: Joan Wasser also joined you. Was it your idea to have her come on board? What elements did she bring to the creative process?
LC: Joan was a friend of a friend and now she’s sort of an old friend. She used to be in a band called the Dambuilders and Dave Derby from the Dambuilders was in my band The Negatives for a while so I used to see Joan around. When she released that record Real LIfe I must say I was completely taken aback because I think it’s one of the best records anybody’s ever made. She’s my favorite. Karen Dalton’s probably my favorite singer but she’s dead. Of the female singers living now, Joan is probably my favorite singer. I was making Broken Record and I said, “Would you sing on it?” and she said, “Yes, of course,” so she sang on Broken Record and as long as she keeps saying yes, she’ll be singing on all my records. She brings a harmony and something in the sound of her voice, a texture that she adds that just brings the song to life in a way that nobody else could.
MR: And you also have your son Will on the project plating guitar.
LC: Absolutely. Quine is dead. It used to be Fred, Matthew, me and Quine. Quine’s no more, but William grew up listening to Quine and Keith Richard and the Strokes and he’s got his own thing. He’s not playing on the record because he’s my son, he’s playing on my record because I was watching his development as a musician and he got to the point where I thought, “I like what you’re doing, how about trying to play some guitar on my record?” That’s him playing the guitar solo on “Blue Like Mars” and that’s the closest to a Quine feeling that anybody’s had on my records since Quine.
MR: Nice. When you look at the people who played on Standards it seems like an amalgam of many periods of your life. You’ve got people from the Commotions, you’ve got your son, you’ve got Joan and you’ve got Fred and Matthew. Did you find that this group of people was creatively inspiring or satisfying to you?
LC: All the projects are satisfying in that way. The ones that aren’t I don’t release. It’s hard for me to say because the process of making the record, especially the two weeks in LA doing basic tracks was great fun. It wasn’t even two weeks, it was ten days. That was invigorating and that made making the rest of the record a lot easier, especially with Fred and Matthew’s enthusiasm for the material. They reminded me a lot of when we were working in the early nineties because if I wasn’t sure about a song they were always very honest about stuff. Matthew just kept going on and on, “These songs are amazing! This record’s going to be great!” Frankly that’s nice. I needed a little bit of enthusiasm. There’s no need for another record unless it’s got a chance of being great.
MR: You created a nice circle of moments in your life. That must have had some sort of happy influence.
LC: I guess so. I guess that’s just the type of thing that makes sense as you get older. You can’t have your son playing on your record when you’re thirty.
MR: What’s out there right now that you like? New things that have got your ear.
LC: I don’t listen to a great deal of popular music. The last band that I was particularly excited about was probably The Walkmen, and they don’t exist anymore. It’s nice to see somebody like the black keys become popular. That’s exciting, I think. It goes to show that the market is not as constricted as people thought. I really like Santigold. There’s music I hear every now and again where I go, “Oh, what’s that? I want to hear more of that,” but I spend more of my time listening to experimental and classical music these days. I probably spend more time listening to music made with modular synthesizers more than anything else. There’s a guy who runs a record shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also makes music with synthesizers, I listen to a bunch of his stuff. The last couple years, I’ve been more of a student than a listener because I’ve been learning how to make music without computers but with synthesizers. That’s my side project.
MR: Do you use a sequencer at least?
LC: Yeah, but it’s not in the computer.
MR: Like the old days.
LC: Yeah, like Tangerine Dream or Kraftwerk.
MR: You have Somerville, Boston and Cambridge near you. Those music scenes may not be national but do you get out to the bars and check out that music once in a while?
LC: Not much. I’m not saying I don’t, every now and again I do, but I’m about an hour and a half west of Boston, in the North Hampton valley. It’s got a similar scene to it, there’s a lot of music going on. I keep a room in a local studio that I can go to when I need to do recording that I can’t do here in the attic, so I see music coming through. I used to go out more to see music, but I have to say I go out less because I’ve been working a lot recently, and I do like silence. I probably prefer reading to listening to music.
MR: That’s a lost art, too. What advice do you have for new artists?
LC: I have to think about this all the time these days because my son’s band is in Brooklyn, they’re getting started and it looks like they have a chance. I think that you need to find your voice. If you find a voice which is your own and you feel like you have something that is not a rehash of something that’s already been done then you can run with it. But if you’ve been playing music for four or five years and you haven’t found your voice yet then you’re going to be in a cover band. That’s fine, playing music for fun is also fine, but you have to find your voice and that’s it. The music that I made before 1983 sounds like a cover band. It wasn’t until writing “Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken” that I suddenly went, “Oh gosh, this is what I’ve been wanting to do. How can I do this now when I couldn’t do this last week?” I don’t know, but I think you have to have that moment and you have to believe in it. I play golf also and you have to accept that there’s a great deal of luck involved. I got lucky in 1984, the whole band got lucky. There’s plenty of great bands that don’t get lucky but I think over all luck will even out and if you are a great band there’s a very good chance you will be found. I think if you don’t think you’ve got a chance to be great, we don’t need more music from people who don’t think they can be great.
MR: Can you see the evolution you’ve gone through over the years?
LC: There’s certainly not a linear evolution, that’s for sure. There are some terrible mistakes made along the way and certainly some dead end streets that were taken. My relationship with individual records changes. For many, many years I was very frustrated with the album Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe and kind of perplexed by why it was a lot of people’s favorite record of mine, but it’s now one of my favorite records of mine. For many years the album Love Story was the album I thought was my best solo record, I now think it’s probably my worst solo record. My relationship with things absolutely changes. I can’t sing certain songs because I don’t know where to start with them, I can’t remember what I could’ve been thinking to write them and yet other songs, maybe even older songs still seem perfectly simple, I don’t even have to think about why I wrote them and I still feel I can sing the songs. I’m not sure if evolution is the right term. I think maybe quest is better. I think I’m still trying to write beautiful songs and I think over thirty years there might be three or four songs that have absolutely nothing I would change about them. There’s maybe a dozen or twenty others that–I don’t like the term “proud of” because I don’t like pride, but I’m very happy with them. And there are a few things every now and again that I find myself looking at or hearing when I’m singing and going, “Well gosh, I think only I could’ve written that.” So maybe I am a valid addition to the canon.
MR: What advice would you have given yourself as a kid?
LC: I wasn’t really a musician, I was just kind of an ideas person. I did the right thing, I surrounded myself with musicians who were able somehow or other to invest some trust in my vision for what the band could be. I literally could barely play guitar or sing. When we were recording Rattlesnakes the only production that went into the recording of the vocals was, “Is it in tune or not?” When it was in tune it was regarded as being finished. As soon as producers started to try and direct me with how my vocals were presented, Jesus, things went terribly wrong for a while. I had no idea what I was doing, I was just some kind of savant. I got lucky. I guess I knew I needed musicians but I got lucky to find the right ones.
MR: So your advice would be stay the course.
LC: [laughs] No, I certainly wouldn’t say stay the course! If it’s not going well and you’re not sure that what you’re doing has got a chance of being great then do something else. I’ve always been pretty sure. I was sure when I was getting started and then I was unsure for about six months after the Commotions because I wasn’t sure I could do it on my own and then as soon as I started making demos on my own I was like, “Oh, I can do this.”
MR: What does the future look like? You’re going to be supporting Standards?
LC: Standards came out in Europe about a year and a bit ago. I’ve been all around the world promoting it already. We’re just sort of starting again over here. I’ve got a New York show and then some European shows in November and then probably some touring early next year over here. I’m actually getting ready to make the next record, that’s what I’m doing up here in the attic. I’m trying to reorganize it so that it’s a work space for the next record. I don’t think there’ll be a lot of work when we’re snowed in here so I’m going to try and get some recording done.
MR: Are you going to have your cast of characters back?
LC: I’m not going to record it exactly the same way as I did last time, I’m going to try and make some sketches and some recordings that can be overdubbed, or certainly sonic ideas. With Standards, the idea of the recording was more a philosophical, conceptual idea of how I wanted the bass and drums to be in terms of wanting it to be very driving and straight ahead and not even slightly jazzy. For the record, I’m thinking about I actually want to create a textural soundscape idea before I write the songs because I want to have a sound that I can then write for.
MR: I wish you very good luck and a wonderfully creative snowed-in winter.
LC: [laughs] I hope so. You’ve got to try and get something out of it when you’re snowed-in here, it’s just grim. I’m not having too many more winters, I’m going to be somewhere else when I’m sixty, that’s for sure. Snow’s cool when you’re in your teens and you can go sledding, and it’s beautiful for the first week, but when it’s been there for three months, boy. I’ve seen enough of it. But my youngest son is in high school and everything’s going well in that respect so I’m not going to move to preferable climes until he’s finished with that. That is apparently why we’re supposed to look forward to my retirement, if my body can actually stay healthy long enough.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Lang Lang
Mike Ragogna: Let’s talk about The Mozart Album that you recorded with the Weiner Philharmonkier. In the past, you’ve taken on other composers, why Mozart this time out?
Lang Lang: First of all, I must say recording with Nikolaus Harnoncourt was always a big dream in my career. For me, he is the most unique and special interpreter of Mozart. We worked for two years on those concertos. He showed me the authentic way of doing the styling on those pieces. In a way I never experienced Mozart like this before.
MR: Were there other things you learned from him?
LL: Yes, absolutely. He’s the one normally who always plays on the period instrument. He plays the instrument from many, many centuries ago. He also uses the old bowing and articulation to play. In a way, it sounds very original but at the same time he is not a very conservative style person. He’s very liberal in music making. He’s very romantic. He has this wonderful inspiration which combines both very, very authentic bowing on top of a very liberal interpretation. That really gave me the idea to play a mozart concerto in this direction. He showed me the Mozart bird from Salzberg, Vienna. The country music, the church music, the folk dance, everything he explained to me is in the roots of it. You can feel that it’s kind of local music.
MR: From this collaboration and from recording a project based around this particular composer, did you discover anything new about Mozart?
LL: Yes. Mozart is someone who you think that you know about him and then he changes. He transforms his character all the time. He never stays in the same place more than two bars. So therefore his music is like a live drama. It’s an opera, it’s a movie. You’re watching a movie of one hundred different characters walking in and out. It’s beautiful. That’s Mozart.
MR: That must be very demanding for you. Is it challenging to keep up with all the drama?
LL: You need a lot of practice. There’s a lot of spontaneous, right-on-the-beat interpretations. There are a lot of turnovers. You can even see that he makes a lot of turns in his music. As much as you need to be very precise when you practice you need to be very slow and soft. With Mozart music you really need to practice slow and soft. You cannot practice in a loud way because then your ear doesn’t feel those precise interpretations anymore.
MR: Early on, you were taught the actual history of Mozart. But is there anything you feel you now know more about him from exploring his music as deeply as you have?
LL: Certainly. One thing that’s very important about Mozart is a letter he wrote to his father about his music and his personality. He said that his music is like a tree. You have the roots, which is the left hand, you also have the leaves, which is the right hand. He said he wanted the leaves to be really free and floating, but he wanted the roots to be very solid and give a good base and support. He is basically saying life should be like that. I really love that because you can be really free but you still have the gut to tell you what to do.
MR: Are there any pieces that musically illustrate what you’ve just explained?
LL: Yeah, I would say the slow movement of the G Major Sonata is like that and then the third movement, which you’d call the bird concerto, which is also a G Major Concerto, the third movement is like a bird. One other magical thing is when you see a chromatic scale going down it means Mozart has little tears in his eyes. Just a little bit of tears. That’s what Harnoncourt told me.
MR: You’ve recorded the Mozart album, you’ve recorded various themed albums, what are the different approaches you need to take with some of these other composers? For instance, what did you discover with Chopin? Obviously, Chopin is a lot gentler, but he’s also very precise.
LL: Yes. Chopin is already almost more than one hundred years later, so the piano as an instrument had become a much bigger instrument. You can play much louder than before. Mozart’s double forte still had a limit. Chopin’s time was already what you call the romantic time. Everything’s kind of like poetry and novels. Chopin added a lot of new technique already. The harmony is totally different because the romantic harmonies are quite different than the classical ones. There’s a lot of much longer phrases because the instrument can do that. Lizst, for example, basically stretched the piano a lot because he destroys pianos all the time and needed a new piano to be as powerful as himself. Then Rachmaninoff comes later and you need a very solid grand piano to play those pieces. If you play Rachmaninoff on Mozart that’s like today’s pianists playing on the keyboard. The descriptions are still the same, “Happiness,” “Deepness,” “Sadness,” but it’s like in a movie. You have 4k or 3D and there’s a different kind of dimension.
MR: As a thirty-two year old pianist, the amount of experience and exposure you’ve had and the amount of composers’ works you’ve recorded, do you feel like you’ve become a musicologist?
LL: I think that since I’m now doing a lot of teaching work and my foundation work I need to be more precise on the things that I’m telling to the kids; how to do interpretation and how to analyze the possible ways to play on the keyboard. We need to be very critical of ourselves to get more knowledge and to get more precise and accurate to what we are looking into. I need to be better at Chopin, better at Beethoven, better at Bach. I need to find solid points to convince myself and to convince our professional world of those interpretations. I think this is a great thing. I think kids need to go through that. But at the same time it’s also very important for a kid to realize by the end of the concert they need their entire soul to come out with their playing. They cannot just follow everything they have learned from the teacher. They need to find their own way and their own signature to prove they actually received the knowledge but at the same time live through the creative parts. That’s very, very important.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
LL: In our career we’re facing a lot of challenges, whether they’re professional challenges or personal challenges. There are a lot of things that you may have wanted to do in certain ways but in the end it may not be what you thought at first impression. The important thing for us is to always follow our dream and try to achieve what is best for yourself and what is best for our musical environment.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
Entertainment – The Huffington Post
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