Mike Ragogna: Matt, let's first chat about the Sacramento conference on keeping arts in school. What was the gist of what you delivered that day?
Matt Sorum: Well, basically, what happened was everyone got together at the state capital about the arts economy in California, and the creative economy, meaning what was going on percentage-wise. The Otis Group had basically done an economy calendar of how much money is brought into the state through creative aspects--arts, entertainment, film, TV, music, publishing and all kinds of things. What we discovered was that eight percent of the income of California is brought through the creative aspects, meaning everything from web design to any other kind of art form. That's about three to four times the amount of any other state in the US. But the state of California is ranked number forty-eight in the country for art education.
So my whole pitch was, how can this be sustainable? Why would we take art out of the public school system when we're trying to sustain our music, entertainment, film, all of these different forms in the state of California? The gist is how can we keep people here to create more revenue? Continue reading →
Mike Ragogna: Matt, let’s first chat about the Sacramento conference on keeping arts in school. What was the gist of what you delivered that day?
Matt Sorum: Well, basically, what happened was everyone got together at the state capital about the arts economy in California, and the creative economy, meaning what was going on percentage-wise. The Otis Group had basically done an economy calendar of how much money is brought into the state through creative aspects–arts, entertainment, film, TV, music, publishing and all kinds of things. What we discovered was that eight percent of the income of California is brought through the creative aspects, meaning everything from web design to any other kind of art form. That’s about three to four times the amount of any other state in the US. But the state of California is ranked number forty-eight in the country for art education.
So my whole pitch was, how can this be sustainable? Why would we take art out of the public school system when we’re trying to sustain our music, entertainment, film, all of these different forms in the state of California? The gist is how can we keep people here to create more revenue? Why are people leaving and going to Canada, filming in New Orleans, filming in other states, talking about researching laying the funds back into that idea. I basically spoke on my focus, which is music and art.
I have a charity called Adopt the Arts. But part of my speech was that both of my big companies bring millions of dollars to the state of California. We’re a California company, meaning all of our publishing revenue, all of our record sales revenue–I don’t know the exact millions, but it was in the millions–came through California and was taxed by California, especially Guns N’ Roses, another California company. All of the record revenue, which is over a hundred millions records, has come through the state of California. I’m telling you right now, we give them back millions of tax dollars. So why does the state of California not want to reinvest in the arts? That was the pitch.
MR: In Sacramento, was the there any push back, like “Well, we just don’t have the budget for this”? Were there any arguments made countering?
MS: Well, no, there was no real argument, it was basically a board headed by Senator Ted Lieu, who’s an advocate for the arts. The arts council is a big group that’s all over the state of California and basically handles grants for different art societies. For instance, in NoHo [North Hollywood], they’re doing a cool thing, they’re fixing up the community by bringing more entertainment things in. There are a lot of tech guys out there, they’ve got rehearsal studios, they’ve got music, they give people grants to fix up their buildings, they have art galleries, and what they’re finding is all of this stuff…art festivals in certain cities, they bring a lot of commerce because people come from all over the state. Palm Springs doesn’t really need money, but as an example, Palm Springs does a three-day art festival, right? So people come from all over the state to go to this art festival and they spend all kinds of money and lots of taxes are brought in, a lot of revenue. There are all kinds of different things. How can we fix up communities based around art and creativity to create income? There were guys talking about Pixar, there was a guy from Intel because they’re getting into 3D printing and all kinds of crazy s**t. So it was a pretty vast conversation, very widespread. But mine, I felt, was at the core. Why are you going to forget about the kids? Why aren’t we building these kids from the ground up in the interest of the future?
MR: Do you see any movement towards getting arts back into schools?
MS: I think this is a good step. That particular day, twenty-five million in funding went to the art council, although that’s not the school district. But I think there is movement, and the thing about it is if you don’t fight them or show up they’ll just treat it like it’ll go away. John Deasy, Superintendent of the LAUSD, went down to the rally on February fourteenth two years ago. They were going to cut eighteen million in the arts and just sweep it under the rug, but I showed up and gave a good fight and I spoke. You get it out in the news and all of a sudden, it’s a story that they can’t really walk away from. I really look at our charity like, “Yeah, maybe we can’t get to all five hundred schools, but we’re here and we’re going to make a stand for it. We’re going to stand up for the arts and you can’t really deny the fact that we’re visible and we’re fighting for it and we’re fighting for the kids.” It’s hard for them to really deny that. I would say it maybe puts things on a little bit of a hold, but the real issue is where’s the money going to come from? I think that’s such a massive issue, when you go and look at all of this administration and all this wasted money, and the unions, and the prison systems that are being built daily and the private sector prisons that are a business… Is there a conspiracy for our kids, to set them up for the fall? Is this is a racist thing? What is it? All the kids that no one seems to give a s**t about, underprivileged, mostly, of ethnic persuasion–meaning latinos and African-American kids–what is this? Every day, you hear, “Oh, three more prisons were built in the state of California and sixty-thousand dollars per person of your tax money will go to pay for that.” All I’m asking is for seventh thousand dollars for a kid to have a chance. You do the math. It’s like, “Do you want the domino effect, or do you want to take care of business now?” That’s what I say to everybody.
MR: What can people who feel as strongly as you do?
MS: I think they can get more involved in their schools. Everyone’s running to charter schools, and if they can afford it, they can run to private schools, right? But people have to really look at the community of where they live. I’m really looking at Adopt The Arts as an idea to get local businesses involved and doing a lot of that in the community. This is our community, so once these kids come out of school, they’re going to be good citizens or bad, so everyone just pitch in for the community as a whole. It’s not every man for himself, it’s not, “I’m going to take my kid to a charter school so he has a better education,” this is more of a community effort. People have got to get together. The beauty of Adopt the Arts and the things I’ve done in my schools is what I see happening, once we’re over there and we’re doing the work people go, “Oh, somebody really cares about us!” Most of the time parents just drop their kids off at school, nobody seems to give a s**t. They’re going to go to work, they’re going to work their ass off, and then they’re going to come home and give their kids McDonald’s. The idea is that everybody can get involved in school. The parents are like, “Why is Matt Sorum from Guns N’ Roses over at your school?” All of a sudden, we have parents who want to be involved and people who want to pitch in. It’s easy. It doesn’t have to happen every day. We put on events; everybody can raise some money. It’s really doable stuff, it’s just a matter of getting people together instead of separate. Everyone seems to be more and more transfixed with being in their own little bubble, on their iPhone, and in their bulls**t. Once you see people open up and experience the separation of music and art again, that’s the beautiful stuff in the world. That’s the stuff that brings us together. That’s a proven fact. Everybody loves music; no one’s going to argue about that. People are going to argue about all kinds of other stuff, but they’re not going to argue about music or art. “Do you love art?” “Okay, yeah, I love art.” They’re definitely going to argue about sports. “I like this team, I like that team.” You might like one band more than another band but you’re not really going to argue about it.
MR: Matt, your latest album titled Stratosphere deals with topics that you’re endorsing in a strong, personal way. How did Matt Soum’s Fierce Joy come together?
MS: A lot of it was really stuff that’s been on my mind–on the forefront of my mind these days–has been more outward than inward. I’ve got to say, being in a band, being that guy on stage, it’s very easy to be a musician and be all about what you’re doing up there. But there was a cosmic shift for me a few years ago, which was the song, “The Sea,” that really opened my eyes to what was really important and what was really meaningful because I’ve been in and out of the music business with different projects and I see how people treat you differently if you’re successful, if you’re not, or whatever. About the last six years, I’ve been in a serious relationship, I just got married, I got clean off drugs and I started thinking more outwardly about my environment, what’s going on around me. I’m getting a little older so I started thinking about kids, what’s the situation going to be for the future…real s**t, not fairytale stuff, not rock ‘n’ roll fantasy type stuff. Rock ‘n’ roll is an escape, rock ‘n’ roll is like, “Let’s give people an environment where they can really let go and not be too serious.
This is the polar opposite of that. This is me really speaking my mind and being introspective about personal stories, like “Gone,” which is about loss, “Josephine,” which is about my hundred year-old grandmother; there are love stories like “Ode To Nick Drake,” but then there are songs about spiritual awakening, like “The Sea” or “Goodbye To You, which is really about my old self, my dark, self cleaning up the pile of s**t of years and years of shame or guilt about certain things in the past. “Lady Of The Stone” is really an environmental thing. I’ve been watching the news and I’ve seen all of this horrific stuff going on with the weather and that kind of stuff and it’s just so severe and more extreme than ever. I just wonder what it all means when people won’t talk about global warming. Is this some sort of conspiracy again? I get into that kind of trip. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of a thing called HAARP, but it’s a government facility that was built to actually control the weather. So I start thinking, “F**k, man, is this some government bulls**t to instill more fear in our people? What is this?”
I wrote that song, “Lady Of The Stone” about all that kind of stuff. “Land Of The Pure” was probably one of the heaviest songs, which actually stemmed from Malala [Yousafzai] who got shot by the Taliban. Look, here we are talking about the education system and how simple it would be to fix it; girls in Pakistan can’t even walk to school without getting shot. They’re not even allowed to get educated there. In a lot of countries, women aren’t allowed to be educated, period. We think we’ve got problems? We really don’t have any problems. We can fix this stuff with a couple of dollars. That’s a pretty serious song, I guess. But I’ve got fun ones, too, like “What Ziggy Says,” which is a cool life song about my family. It jumps around a little bit. The basic human process is sort of like, “What do I want to talk about? What do I feel?” It’s a little bit of a roller coaster ride journey on the album.
MR: I love that you gave a very big nod to the artist in “Ode To Nick Drake.”
MS: Yeah, well, people go, “God, I didn’t know you would even listen to a guy like Nick Drake.” If anyone knows any history of Nick Drake, he was a guy who really didn’t have any success in his early career and ended up committing suicide after he only sold ten thousand records. He was discovered long after he had passed away. Artists like Beck and Michael Stipe and people like that started to bring his music to light. Beck did an album called Sea Change, which was really sort of based on a lot of Nick Drake’s feel, his sensibility. When I wrote this love story to my wife, I thought that this amazing poet, Nick Drake, would be sort of a metaphor for love. He was a very sensitive guy, so that’s where that came from. I wrote all of his lyrics down from some of his songs and then I worked them into my lyrics to pay homage to him while telling this love story. When I grew up as a kid, I used to go stay on this lake with my grandmother. It was sort of like that safe place that I always liked; it was that one place where I felt the most comfortable, and I always enjoyed going there. Not that my home life was horrible. It wasn’t perfect. My parents were divorced and I think maybe I was an unhappy kid. But when I would go with my grandmother on this lake, I loved it. So I kind of used the lake as a metaphor for peace.
MR: Your last project Hollywood Zen was released in 2004, so it’s about ten years between albums, right?
MS: Yeah. When I made that record, it was kind of a thing that I did with a partner, songwriter friend of mine, so a lot of music on that record I can’t really say is mine. I’m actually calling Stratosphere my first real solo album because this was me making a real point of sitting down and doing a record and going, “I need to speak from my voice the whole time, can I do that? What do I want to say?” It was a really cathartic thing for me to process all of this stuff, especially on songs like “Gone,” which was really heavy for me, or thinking about “Josephine,” my grandmother, and different things that I went through to channel the music. I always heard people say, “You’ve really got to sing the lyrics, you’ve got to feel the lyrics,” there wasn’t one lyric that I didn’t feel. On Hollywood Zen, I would sing lyrics that weren’t mine, you know what I mean? They were nonsensical. I wasn’t attached to them.
MR: Matt Sorum’s “Fierce Joy”…those two words are pretty strong sitting next to each other.
MS: Yeah, I think you really have to strive for that joy, especially living in Hollywood. You have to make a real attempt. You have to get up in the morning and put your joy suit on. You’ve got to be grateful. You’ve got to be like, “I’m going to get up today and I’m going to navigate. I’m going to be as joyful as possible.” I’m trying to do that. It’s very, very difficult for human beings to stay in the positive. It’s really easy to go negative. But the beauty of it is I’m seeing a lot more positive stuff online than I used to see. I used to go online and see everybody being negative. I’m living in the eco-friendly world with people trying to make positive change, and that’s pretty fierce stuff. So I look at it like that. “I’m going to get up today and I’m going to be fierce about my joy. I’m going to try to focus on being in the now, being positive, being pro-active.”
MR: Matt, what advice do you have for new artists?
MS: Well, take Matt Sorum’s Fierce Joy. Why did I have to call it that? The obvious is I have to be able to find my fan base, I have to be able to talk to gentlemen like yourself, and I think about young artists too. I think, “What a crazy time to be in the music business.” But at the same time, it’s a really cool time because what other place can you have millions and millions of people with the opportunity to see you? In the old days, you had to walk the street with flyers and there was no way for anybody to ever see you unless they walked into a club. Now you’re able to do content online. As long as a band starts to create their story with content, discoverable stuff, and do it in a way that is your personality. You don’t have to be like, “Hi, here’s my band; we’re called such-and-such.” Be creative. Be just as creative with the visual platform of your music as your music, like bands like OK Go. I really think they’re genius at presenting themselves, and they had their own career and were able to make their own moves. Bands like Mumford & Sons broke on social media and created a whole new generation of commercial bluegrass music. I think that’s possible. The possibility is there for you if you’re creative enough. That’s what I would say.
MR: Beautiful. I have to ask you the obvious. Is there any news on either the Velvet Revolver or Guns N’ Roses front?
MS: Nothing, really. I’m focusing on my new project Kings of Chaos, which is my rock “tribute”–I would say, it’s basically my new supergroup. I’m not really focusing on thinking about when I’m going to get a phone call from any of those guys. I’m just moving forward and being the survivor that I am and doing the best I can to sit out there and enjoy being in the music business, I guess you could call it, and playing music for a living. If that happens I’m available and I’m willing to be part of a team, but I haven’t heard much lately.
MR: All in all, I imagine you’ve experienced a fierce joy in virtually all the projects you’ve participated in over the years.
MS: Oh, my life is very blessed, I’ve had a very great run of playing music. A lot of guys don’t last five years, so the fact that I’m here, still doing it, talking to you, it’s great. I can’t complain. It’s not an easy career for anybody wanting into the music business. It’s from one place to the next; you’ve got to keep moving. It’s definitely a challenge, but I’m up for challenges. I love challenges. I love seeing things come to fruition. But if you’re going to be in this business, I would say to any young artist, you’ve got to be ready for a lot of heartache along the way and you’ve got to be able to just bounce off of it, you know? When you have that music that you believe in, you’ve got to believe in it enough to not listen to the naysayers. You’ve got to keep moving. That’s what I do.
"When I look back on the road from where I have come, the people I've met, the places and experiences which have informed the music, or even where we created or recorded the music, I marvel at how rich my journey has been," says McKennitt. "I recognize that many people will be hoping for a new recording and I am delighted to say that the process of researching a new recording has begun. At the same time we've learned that for one reason or another, certain parts of the world have only had limited access to my catalog and this 30th anniversary is an opportunity for us to introduce them to some of the musical highlights over these 30 years."
A Conversation with Mike Gordon
Mike Ragogna: Rumor has it you have a new album, Overstep, and a new single called "Yarmouth Road." Is all that correct, sir?
Mike Gordon: That sounds correct, yes.
MR: How did you decide it was time to do a solo album?
MG: Well I guess I've said this once before, but I remember this moment I was in Saint Albans, Vermont, and I was walking around the town square, there was no one else around -- it was like being in a ghost town -- and I remember having that little feeling of elation when you take some time out for yourself and you're all relaxed and you have a little epiphany. That's what I had. I was just really enjoying my time with Scott Murawski playing music and being friends with him and I thought it would be cool to find some spots that are remote where we would not be interrupted and just work on songwriting because we just like similar stuff in music and songs and what if we could just experiment? Continue reading →
Mike Ragogna: Why “Salvation Town”? For that matter, why “Jonny Two Bags”? And why now, for Pete’s sake?
Jonny Two Bags: Initially, I was thinking of starting a band in which I could sing and play my own songs. I was trying to come up with a name for the project and soon found that all the names i thought of had already been taken. It was a little bit frustrating. I now understand why a lot of younger bands have very long names…sometimes a sentence or even a paragraph! I was listening to a record by my old friends’ band Joyride and they have a song called “Salvation Town.” I thought it would be a great band name so I asked Greg Antista, who wrote the song, if I could use it. As the recording was progressing and I was starting to do some solo shows, it soon became apparent that this was a solo project rather than a band, but the record had already begun to develop its personality and I thought Salvation Town worked perfectly as the title. When I play with the band live, I sometimes bill it as Jonny Two Bags and Salvation Town.
As for the nickname, it’s kind of a three-fold thing I guess. At first, it was a play on the old reggae song ‘Johnny Too Bad’ by The Slickers and also a drug reference. Then, when the drug use turned me into sort of a homeless street urchin for awhile, it seemed even more perfect for my friends to keep calling me that. I’ve never been ale to shake it so now I just roll with it.
Making my own record is something I’ve always wanted to do and haven’t until now mainly because I lacked the confidence to really go after it. I’ve made a few weak attempts over the years to get something going, but nothing ever panned out. The musicians I tried to rally up weren’t into it and I wasn’t very strong in my conviction so nothing happened. I’ve always worked on writing songs but I’ve also always been in bands, or been a sideman for other musicians / songwriters. Some of the people i have played with have been extremely prolific so needless to say, there was a competitive element in place and I just couldn’t step to it as I was still trying to figure it all out. So I had to be content with sneaking a couple songs in here and there on Cadillac Tramps and Youth Brigade records and dealing with a lot of compromise.
I’m very lucky to have had a few great friends who have backed me and my songs at different points along the way. My friend Amery Smith–aka AWOL–who played on the first Suicidal Tendencies record and toured for years with the Beastie Boys and F- and a bunch of other great bands was the first person ever to say “Hey I like your songs, we should get something going.” So, we recorded a few songs which we pressed into a 7″ EP called .001 Loser’s Club, named after the title of one of my favorite DOA songs. I’m very grateful to him and I’ll never forget it because I feel that working with him literally kept me in the music game, as I wasn’t playing in a band at that time and wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue with music. Shortly after that I joined the US Bombs and for the first time ever, had the experience of writing and recording as an equal. “The World” was such a fun record to make. I’m very proud to have been a part of it. Then, when Mike Ness asked me to join Social Distortion and expressed interest in me contributing as a writer that was an enormous honor and confidence booster. Social Distortion’s bass player Brent Harding was really the person that helped me feel like I could venture down the road of making my own record. He kind of forced me to join his band The Steeplejacks, a really cool sort of country folk outfit, and play some of my songs with them. I really began to believe I might be able to pull off performing my own songs. The next thing was working as producer on a now defunct band called The Strangers. We made a really cool record that unfortunately never saw the light of day. During that time I worked with the singer and main songwriter David Stucken on some writing, which further boosted my confidence. Soon after, my good friend David Kalish convinced me through bribery–he told me that he could get Pete Thomas to play on a track–to go into his Redstar Studio and cut some tracks. So it really has been through the support of a few good people that I very slowly came to the point of making this record.
MR: David Lindley’s music is awesome, just listened to his Love Is Strange album with Jackson Browne. I’m totally jealous that you got to record with him!
JTB: I’ve been told the same thing by several of my friends! I’m very aware of just how special it is to have David on this record. I consider it to be nothing short of miraculous…seriously. In fact, I feel the same way about all the incredible players that contributed their talent. This would’ve been a very different record without these people. Kalish really made all that possible. First Jackson’s long time keyboardist Jeff Young played on the song, then one night Kalish told me he was going to a show that Jackson would be at so I said “Why don’t you ask him to sing on that song, it’s perfect for him, in fact it almost sounds like he could’ve written it.” Of course never really believing that it was a possibility. The next day, I get a call from Kalish. “Jackson’s down to do it”…I absolutely could not believe it. The crazy thing is my father was getting very sick at that time and I had been listening to For Everyman nonstop as that record is such a huge part of the soundtrack of my childhood. It really was very heavy.
So I guess the fact that Jackson was on the song probably helped a lot in getting Lindley to come down. I still can’t get over just how amazing it is to have a song on my record with both of those guys on it. The sound of Jackson’s voice and Lindley’s slide playing together is such an institution!
MR: But wait there’s more. You had musical backing from The Hidalgo Family, guitarist Greg Leisz, uber-singer Arnold McCuller, accordion whiz Joel Guzman, Elvis Costello & The Attractions/Imposters member Pete Thomas…wow. Do you understand what you’ve done here?
JTB: I absolutely understand what has happened here. I will never figure out why I have had the good fortune to have these people play on my songs, but I am so beyond grateful. None of it escapes me.
MR: Okay, there’s this group, Social Distortion…out of Cleveland, right?
JTB: Yes, great band…featuring members of The Dead Boys and The James Gang I believe…
MR: [laughs] Okay, let’s get back to your Salvation. Which of these tracks saved you the most and which of them damned you to hell?
JTB: I’d say that I found my salvation in the first track “One Foot In The Gutter” then lost it when I killed my girlfriend in the last track on the record “The Way It Goes.”
MR: Salvation Town was produced by David Kalish who also produced Rickie Lee Jones. How many tracks is she featured on and why isn’t she on your album at all, not even a little?
JTB: You know, we really should have asked her to sing on a track…
MR: Would you call Salvation Town confessional or autobiographical?
JTB: Well, not to get all heavy tortured singer-songwriter guy on you, but I’d call it more of a confessional. I’ve never thrown it all out there like this and it’s a little bit scary.
MR: How do you want to evolve further as an artist?
JTB: I would hope to use the momentum from this and continue making records. I also spend lot of time trying to improve as a player, learning new instruments, styles etc. I’m one of those people that has to work extra hard at music. Lots and lots of woodshedding! I really don’t feel that I possess the kind of inherent skill that I see in a lot of other musicians.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
JTB: Just try and keep your motivation pure. Never lose sight of why you started making music in the first place…for fun and for free. If it becomes solely about success and that doesn’t work out you might just abandon it. I almost did once and I realized that my motivation had become so skewed that I really didn’t even deserve the gift of music at all. I’m very lucky to have learned that lesson.
MR: After this many years of recording, don’t you think you deserve an upgrade to “Jonny Three Bags” or at least “Jonny Two Bags 2.0″?
Mike Ragogna: Jimbo! Dark Night of The Soul is your new album, what makes it a step up from your last one, White Buffalo?
Jimbo Mathus: I’d like to think it’s a step up from White Buffalo because of the lyrical content as well as the simple fact that the band, The Tri-State Coalition, is another year older and better equipped to handle the material.
MR: How did you approach the Dark Night–see what I did there–creatively, with songwriting, arrangements and recording?
JM: I approached the writing of Dark Night as I always do, simply waiting on inspiration to strike. Some of my muses are in literature and nature. The recording and arranging are all really done by the band, live on the fly. We record only one or two takes and that’s what you hear. I recorded over forty titles at Bruce Watson’s Dial Back Studio, and Bruce acted as editor and even sequenced the record.
MR: Why did you need to rock this hard at this time of your life? Don’t you know you should be making Adult Contemporary/Jazz Crossover albums at this point?
JM: I guess as I get older, my outrage at national and world events grows. Besides, I think there’s too much cute ukulele music going on in America today. Dark Night of the Soul is a harsh dose of realism.
MR: What was your wife Jennifer’s reaction to the song you wrote for her, “Shine Like A Diamond”?
JM: We wrote wedding vows for each other, and “Shine” was my contribution. She had no idea I planned to sing my vows, with my dad and her brother backing me up. So, she was completely shocked and surprised, a whole row of her girlfriends and the Man of Honor crying right along with her. She really loves the song. She’s definitely my #1 supporter.
MR: You took on the legend of Casey Jone in “Casey Caught The Cannonball.” You love your Americana, don’t you.
JM: I love history and especially regional history. My philosophy of writing is alchemical, “express the macrocosm thru the microcosm.” Also, I had an epiphany much like Faulkner, “…that my own little postage stamp of native soil is worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.”
MR: You’ve worked with artists like Elvis Costello and performed for presidents. How much does all that affect Jimbo Mathus?
JM: I suppose that working with such a long and diverse list of projects has made me more well-prepared as an artist. The varied experiences of my career have led me to one conclusion: I treat all performances equally, be they for presidents or patrons in a catfish house. I put 100% into every job I do and am prepared for anything, really.
MR: Just three words: “Squirrel,” “Nut” and “Zipper.” Plural if you must. Go.
JM: SNZ was the culmination of much research into early American entertainment and musical forms. Sort of a pre-Melting Pot amalgamation of forms. I called it a vaudeville act. I used to buy these little candies in Morrisville, North Carolina, where I was employed as a backhoe operator. When I was pressed to name this new group I had created, someone mentioned using the name of a candy, and I immediately said, “Squirrel Nut Zippers.” The rest is history.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
JM: The advice I would give any artist, be they visual, musical or otherwise, would be this: Know in your soul that the artist’s life is your true calling, and never deviate from the path that the calling provides. Be fearless, work hard, and most importantly, love everybody.
MR: What does Jimbo Mathus’ future look like?
JM: The next 24 hours is gonna look like this: I’m on set through the night, playing the role of a drummer in a blues band with Leo “Bud” Welch, for the film “Mississippi Grind” being shot in New Orleans. Then I drive ten hours, swinging through Oxford to pick up my band to play in Little Rock, Arkansas, before returning home. Then Sunday, nap, homemade eggplant parmigiana and my beautiful, sweet, loving wife.
MR: Sweet. Now, you’re sure you don’t want to do that Adult Contemporary/Jazz Crossover project?
JM: As tempting as that sounds and would undoubtedly be a big seller, I’ll have to demur. How about instead a series of “uneasy listening” instrumental records, with titles such as “Twerking to Beefheart,” “Music to Hoodoo By,” “Sounds of the State Pen” or “Meth Party!”?
Mike Ragogna: Rumor has it you have a new album, Overstep, and a new single called “Yarmouth Road.” Is all that correct, sir?
Mike Gordon: That sounds correct, yes.
MR: How did you decide it was time to do a solo album?
MG: Well I guess I’ve said this once before, but I remember this moment I was in Saint Albans, Vermont, and I was walking around the town square, there was no one else around–it was like being in a ghost town-and I remember having that little feeling of elation when you take some time out for yourself and you’re all relaxed and you have a little epiphany. That’s what I had. I was just really enjoying my time with Scott Murawski playing music and being friends with him and I thought it would be cool to find some spots that are remote where we would not be interrupted and just work on songwriting because we just like similar stuff in music and songs and what if we could just experiment? Just enjoy each others’ company and creativity. That, for me, was the defining moment. Sometimes I have these little epiphanies and I get all fired up. I was driving, thinking about it, thinking “Where could we do this?” I imagined it being a New England thing because we’re both New England people and there are such nice little hamlets in between the hills where one could go and take a couple of guitars and tape recorders and notebooks. Also, the original vision was really just to sit there with just our sensibilities and see what grows from that. So we started doing those. I just realized last night that when we started doing that it was actually before my last album came out. But that’s how it worked, you get something in the oven and then something else starting. But we started putting stuff together, I remember that we were on tour and we were at this tea house in Charlottesville, Virginia and I was listening with headphones to all of the little snippets that we had put together from a handful of these sessions and really getting into it and just thinking, “Oh, there’s a lot of potential here, I really love this!” There’s probably so many different kinds of albums we could have made, because they were all just little snippets, just moments, some of them maybe implied a song and some were just a lick. But I got all excited and I thought, “We’ve got to keep doing this” so I said, “Let’s actually get together and instead of writing anything new let’s take those snippets and finish them. But it was always in the context of wanting to have fun. Some people go to an amusement park, we go sit in a room with guitars.
MR: Is music your amusement park?
MG: Yeah! As a Gemini I’ve already had a lot of interests. My other biggest one is probably film making, which has been a little bit on hiatus except for with a couple little video vignettes. Ultimately there was a certain point where all of my interests sort of stepped aside except for music. I started having some real peak experiences with music in my formative yeras and I thought, “Well, these other things will probably be part of my life, too, but music is where I feel like I’m at the amusement park, so I think I want a lot of this, please, thank you.”
MR: Let’s look at some of the tracks on this project. The first single is “Yarmouth Road.” What is the back story on that?
MG: Actually, I’m in a better place to answer that question today than I was days ago, because yesterday I was poking through some old files and this is what I found. Scott and I were writing some songs from paintings-not songs, even, we were writing poems. We were in a building that was a quarter mile long with four floors of painters and everybody had some of their work on the outside of their studios. Each of us wrote a poem for one painting or sculpture from each artist. There was one that had a record to Yarmouth Road, and 145 Yarmouth Road was where my grandmother’s house was. It was very significant for me because she was the hub for that family, and it was built by a very famous architect, it was a colonial house on a very interesting street near Boston. I have so many memories there and then dreams, decades of dreams after she passed away. The song is not at all about that house, but there was a moment that I remembered, something about that painting inspired me, I spilled ink on my grandma’s oriental rug. If you wanted to pick something that wouldn’t come out and you wanted to pick the worst thing in the world, India ink is that thing. It was the only time that she almost was mad at me, trying to scrub it up. The poem had a reference to that, and then the lyrics and the recordings, it wasn’t even reggae exactly, and it wasn’t called “Yarmouth Road,” but it went through permutations based on these fun experiments that Scott and I were doing. I’ve realized I’m not answering in a clear way as much as I’m painting a picture of how it’s interesting for me, these paths that we go down to discover something, like this song. Toward the end of the songwriting process we walked from Boston to South Boston and we were going to do some more writing on the roof of a building that my uncle owns, the building is filled with artists, and the one who’s been in the building the longest is on the top floor. It’s an old rum distillery, actually. The one who’s been in there the longest has roof access and we were going to just go through her place and go to the roof and do some writing. We didn’t even end up doing that. We were actually just scouting it out for the following day and while we were walking, we were talking about the song, which was really turning into something very different while we were walking to this spot.
But the woman had all these sculptures that were made out of skirt-making paper, they looked like honeycombs, sort of a yellow-ish hex pattern and they were hanging from the ceiling. I’m really inspired by that, so I kept thinking and thinking about the honeycombs. It wasn’t even thinking, something about it was just getting into my system. So we’re kind of working on it and talking about it and migrating the theme of the song in a different direction. In a way, the sentiment is always there, but it’s really the sense that has to evolve. So then again later that night after dark we were walking from our hotel to this Indian restaurant down the street and the chorus kind of came together while we were walking. A lot of songwriters talk about that, it’s when you sort of forget about the task at hand and go for a walk or a drive or a nap that the real idea kind of blossoms. By the time we walked back to the hotel from dinner the whole song just came up. Then I actually thought, “Okay, this has nothing to do with my grandmother’s house,” which of course was no problem, it didn’t need to have anything to do with that, but I thought, “Just for serendipity I’ll write a letter to my father and his brother my uncle Fred and I’ll ask them what Yarmouth Road meant to them, living in that house.” They each had interesting things to say, and there’s one thing that my dad said that ended up pretty much being a line in the song, so it kind of brought it full circle back to the house in question.
MR: And you road-tested that song and “Say Something,” right?
MG: Yeah, Phish played them. The songs were already written, they weren’t really finished yet, but when Phish went on tour last summer I thought, “Well it sure would be fun to try some of them out.”
MR: What’s funny is to watch your work with Phish and also what you’ve done with Leo Kottke and the Benevento Russo Duo, you are a Gemini, aren’t you?
MG: Yeah, I just have to reel myself in so that I don’t try to do too much at once.
MR: When one listens to this album top to bottom, does one get a clue of where your head is these days?
MG: I think so! I keep trying to mix this idea of having fun onstage, and what’s fun for me is when the music plays itself and it feels sort of heavier than it should and light at the same time. When there’s a feeling. Then, while all of that feeling is going on to just explore what more things I can do, or in this case what Scott and I can do with chord progressions and lyrics being approached from a different way and trying all the permutations within that context. I think it really represents that. I’m surprised that often people will make something and hope that it comes out a certain way and it comes out having a different flavor than they realized. I’m really glad that this one just feels light. At the same time there’s another thing that’s probably hard to analyze but there’s always a clue to how the next one might be, but I feel like we did everything we wanted to do, we wanted to have music that really rocks but has layers of subtlety and sophistication woven in there. I feel like in a way the song “Peel,” which Scott sang–there were some demos where I sang it but I love the way that Scott sings it–we wrote all the songs together, but that was an interesting one to see who was going to see what because it was really a collaborative thing and I really like his singing so I didn’t want to sing everything. Anyway, the point that I was going to make is that when play that song it has that clue in it for me, of what’s coming up in the next era where a song starts out not right into a verse but with a feeling and a texture and a groove, where it’s almost kind of like painting on a canvas with sound, and the lyric comes in in a way that kind of floats in and floats out as opposed to, “Here’s a verse that’s going to be four lines, it’s going to lead into a chorus,” where it’s a formula. For me it’s a bit of a personal journey, escaping the formula. It’s a reggae groove, but at the same time it’s so far from that and what would be done in reggae. With just a guitar and a bass and no drums it sounds like reggae but it’s not going to be handled like reggae.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
MG: That’s an interesting one. You know, I do this thing where I watch DVDs on the treadmill. I have a bunch of music-related ones. Usually the ones that people have given me, one promoter gave me thirty DVDs to promote his acts. Yesterday I watched Chick Corea Unaccompanied and the country duo Big & Rich on the show that may be part of World Cafe. Anyway, someone asked one of the guys from Big & Rich that same question, advice for new artists, and he sort of stumbled on the answer a little bit, but then he said, “Well are you playing your stuff?” He said he remembers talking to some people and the person he was talking to said, “No, I don’t play it in front of people” and his advice was, “You should play it in front of people, because even if it’s just a family get together or a coffeehouse or whatever, it’s going to be doing it in that way that makes the material develop. Music is communication.” I thought that was a good thing to say. I didn’t expect them to start philosophizing but they ended up being some thoughtful people and I thought that’s a nice thing to say. I had this mentor early on, Jim Stinnett, I used to go to these lessons and they were like life lessons about discipline and being focused and music and studying. He had such a positive attitude. He used to say, that when you practice, you should practice three things. Practice your technique, how your hands move; Concepts, which are new things to play so you’re not always playing the same stuff; and then just playing. If you skip the last part you’ll be in trouble because you’ll get on stage and you’ll sound like you’re just practicing. In a way that’s the same thing that Big & Rich said. So maybe instead of coming up with my own fresh answer I’ll borrow their answer and say to put what they’re doing to the test. Get it out there somehow. Maybe even just as a video blog or playing at the family picnic or a big jam session or something, but take all of your ideas and follow through with them all of the way. Do I really know how I got here anyway.
MR: What do you think the state of jam music is these days?
MG: Hmm… Everything is in danger of becoming a cliche. The term “Jam band” is such a horrible sounding term. It rhymes too much or something. And it implies noodling, where people just get together and play without really listening to each other just a whole bunch of notes. My stomach churns when I think about the idea of going to a club and hearing that. Of course jam bands are only one sector of improvisation, there are great jazz players out there. But I guess I would say that from my limited knowledge despite all the cliches it’s still vital. People are still showing up. Actually on my own tour that’s about to start we’re actually starting to sell out shows, the point being that people seem to have an interest in it. I certainly do because when something’s improvised and you’re in the room knowing that people are throwing caution to the wind, then it feels like you’re at the cutting edge of your humanity. For me, at least. I feel at home more on that stage than being at my house. I feel more of a human being than ever when I’m in that room and there’s the spontaneity going on and there’s this, “We’re going to go somewhere and we don’t know if we’ll make it or what it will feel like but we’re going to just set flight to where our jet pack takes us. That’s such an incredible feeling. I mentioned that DVD I watched… I watched another one today from Marco Benevento. I don’t know when this one came out, it’s from a couple of years ago, but it’s this residency that he did with a whole bunch of other musicians. I’m great friends with Marco and I love his playing but I didn’t know if I would love the DVD or not. Lo and behold, I really liked the DVD. There are these moments, I actually marked some moments to check again because they were so deep and they were just pure jamming. But they’re not jamming in that noodle-y sense, they’re jamming in that sense that everyone gets into a pattern on a certain lick and they’re playing it together and it kind of sounds like songwriting on the spot. So I think as long as we all avoid the cliches that we’ll turn into when we’re not careful and strive for the real essence of doing that and throwing caution to the wind then we’ve got a rich future ahead of us in the world of jam.
MR: I love that. This was great, thank you so very much and all the best.
Mike Ragogna: Billy, it looks like you’ve got a new project by your group Seventh Key. First off, how did Seventh Key come together?
Billy Greer: Well it started back in 2000. I’ve been playing and singing with Steve Walsh since 1980 when I first joined him in a band called Streets, when he had left Kansas. Before that in all my career, I had always been a lead singer, and I was kind of delegated for the most part to being a backing singer in Streets, and then Steve and I went on to join Kansas together, he went back and I went with him. So it was kind of just my way of getting out of the shadow of Steve and showing the world what I could do, so I was able to secure a record deal with Frontiers records in Italy and started recording with my old guitar player from the band Streets, Mike Slamer. We started this project together and this is our third album, actually, fourth if you count our live CD and DVD that we recorded back in 2006. It’s just my way of getting my musical stuff off–showing the world my talent as a singer and songwriter. Showing the world what I can do.
MR: How has the progress been in your mind?
BG: Well we’ve actually played a couple of gigs, and we did our live DVD. Again, Kansas is my bread and butter so I haven’t put a lot of the effort in to where we can actually tour. We did one other live show in Stuttgart for the record company, we put together a band and took it over to a record company function to showcase a bunch of the bands that are on Frontiers records. So we have done a couple of live gigs, it’s something I can look forward to if Kansas decides to stop touring at some point. I don’t know if that’s going to happen but I’m just looking out for down the road or if I can somehow work in a Seventh Key touring schedule around Kansas’ schedule somehow. So there’s a lot of logistics that will have to be worked out for this to be a touring situation with Seventh Key, but it’s a great studio project and I’m very proud of the record and the music and I’ve gotten a lot of good response, especially from the Europeans and Scandinavians who are into this melodic rock music that Seventh Key tends to move toward.
MR: In addition to Mike and Chet [Wynd], you also have other guests on this project, Terry Brock and David Manion.
BG: Yeah, Terry’s sang backing vocals on all three projects that I’ve done and was actually on the live DVD and was part of the live performances we did. Terry and I have been friends since the early eighties, so he and I have played together and sang together since I lived in Atlanta. He’s sang backing vocals on Kansas records, too. I’ve known him for a lot of years. I also have David Manion who’s been a consistent member of Seventh Key, he’s done all of the live stuff and played on all three records as well. I’ve got a lot of my good friends who are in the business, Bobby Capps from 38 Special, who’s the their keyboard player and backing vocalist to sing backing vocals, Billy Trudel who worked for Elton John for years and years as a backing vocalist, he’s on there as well. We have a really good blend of some great voices in the harmonies and stuff. I’m really proud of it.
MR: The album is titled I Will Survive and the title track, to my ears, sounds pretty close to Kansas material.
BG: Yeah, we’ve branched out a little bit, though. Mike came from a 1970s band called City Boy, they were an English band out of Birmingham and they had a Top 100 Billboard hit here in the states and came over and actually opened for Styx and they recorded several albums. Mike got his production experience working with City Boy’s producer Mutt Lange, a young Mutt Lange who came to England and did three albums with Mike. Of course Mutt’s one of the most famous producers and Mike learned a lot of his studio techniques from Mutt. We did these on a pretty cheap budget so we basically met at a small studio in California in Mike’s house. He turned his garage into a studio so that’s where the lion’s share of the work is done, and I have a small studio in my house here in Savannah, Georgia so we have the possibility of swapping files via the internet which is great these days instead of having to travel all the way to California to sing a line or two or play a bass part or something like that. That’s just the state of music these days; you don’t have to travel all over the world to work on a record with somebody.
MR: No. But touring, you do have to go around the world. What’s the dynamic like when you guys go out on stage?
BG: Oh, well, that’s the most fun time of every day that we have in Kansas. The work part is actually the travel. You know what it’s like traveling, dealing with airport security and sitting in airports and dealing with early lobby calls after very little sleep and renting cars and driving for miles and miles and when you finally get on the stage and your adrenaline gets up and you’re watching people have fun and then you have to get back off the stage and go try to grab some sleep before you have to get up again at seven thirty in the morning to get to the airport and catch another flight to another city. We don’t do the tour bus thing anymore. We found by flying commercial and renting cars and driving and just doing weekends, we get more downtime at home and more time with our families that way, which makes it more liveable for us.
MR: What is it that you’re able to do in Seventh Key that’s really fulfilling?
BG: Well, to be honest with you the writing situation in Kansas was kind of a closed shop after I got into the band. I’m not any original member so there was a hierarchy of writers, Kerry [Livgren] and Steve being the main writers. Anything that I presented had to go through Steve, so I found it very difficult for any of the songs or ideas that I had to be presented on a Kansas record. The last record that Kansas recorded in a studio was back in 1999, so there really isn’t an outlet anymore through Kansas for me to present ideas. I needed that creative path to present my ideas and get them recorded. Mike, of course, is my writing partner and he and I together make a great team. We both are in tune to the same type of music. City Boy was kind of a progressive band, so this album in particular became our progressive side goal. Being around Kerry and being around Steve and playing the progressive music of Kansas over the years obviously has had an effect on me and what comes out creatively in my songwriting.
MR: Let me ask you about that. When you look at Seventh Key’s future, what would your ultimate goal be? What’s the fantasy of what you’ll be doing five years from now?
BG: Well for the present it would be nice to go out and open up for Kansas and then take a fifteen minute break and come back out playing bass with Kansas. To be honest, the keyboard player David Manion is our lighting director from Kansas, the drummer that I used on the video for the song “I Will Survive”–which you can check out on my website http://www.billygreer.com–is Eric Holmquist, and Eric just happens to be our drum tech in Kansas. So three of the members of Seventh Key would be covered by Kansas’ nickel. That would be the ideal situation. Other than that I’d love to go over and do the festival tours in Europe and in Scandinavia. That seems to be where our largest fan base is for our music. They still really like the melodic rock type of music that was recorded by bands like Journey and Foreigner and even Kansas and REO Speedwagon and that kind of thing, they like that sound still. There’s still a market for that kind of sound over there.
MR: It gets labelled under the name “prog rock.” Where do you think that genre is at right now?
BG: Well strangely enough it seems to be thriving. If it’s not mainstream, at least there’s some kind of cult of prog rock followers out there that are still way into prog rock. We recently had this band, District 97, that opened for us on tour–just to give them an opportunity to break, because they’re young but they are awesome musicians. It’s unique music, it’s not simple at all. But prog is still thriving. Dream Theater is still out there doing it, there are all kinds of bands that are still thriving like that. I guess ours has a progressive edge to it, but it also has a melodic edge as well. Our choruses have big, thick harmonies and big choruses that pay off. It’s not so much that we play ten-minute songs or anything like that and go off instrumentally for minutes at a time.
MR: So what do you think is the future for prog rock?
BG: I think there will probably be a future. I don’t know what it is. With the internet as it is, anything is possible now except for an artist to make a good living my selling their music. I guess some artists can but the way that the system is set up now with all of the different websites where you can stream music for a certain monthly fee and the amount of money that’s being paid to the artist just doesn’t seem quite fair to me. I have issues with that. My songs have been played hundreds and hundreds of times and I get a statement that I made three or four bucks. Something ain’t quite right there.
MR: Yeah, internet rates haven’t really caught up yet, have they.
BG: They have not in my opinion, no.
MR: I think that’s one of the priorities. I can remember when CDs came out, record companies were trying to keep the same royalty rates for $19.98 CDs as $5.98 vinyl.
BG: Right. The thing is, it’s been about seven or eight years since my last studio record had come out. I didn’t realize that CDs are on the brink of being extinct, to be honest with you. They’re just not selling that many CDs, most people download their music through iTunes or Amazon or other download websites. Again, for the record company–and I had to fight really hard for them to get a decent royalty split on digital downloads, because it doesn’t cost them anything, all they’ve got to do is upload it to a site and the site takes a percentage and the record company takes a percentage. I fought as well as I could to get as large of a percentage as possible because there’s no cost in digital downloads. Of course they’ve got the advertising and stuff like that, but the record company I’ve been dealing with has been pretty fair with me and I think they’ve done a really good job helping me promote this record and helping me get interviews like this one and radio and stuff like that to let people know about it.
MR: Billy, let’s take a look at Kansas. How big of a mark do you think Kansas is leaving?
BG: Personally, I was a fan of the band before I joined the band. I’ve been with the band for almost twenty nine years now. We celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the band last year, so that was a pretty good mark for the band, four decades of Kansas. They’ve got some songs that have really stood the test of time, “Carry On My Wayward Son,” “Point Of No Return,” “Dust In The Wind,” some of those lyrics are just timeless. Everywhere we’ve gone in the world, if we start playing one of those, people of all ages light up. They just love that song and are aware of that song and know that song. Kerry was presented with an award, he solely wrote “Dust In The Wind” and “Carry On My Wayward Son,” EMI gave him an award for the amount of times those songs were played. If they were played end-to-end it would last a span of five years. Just those two songs. They also gave Steve an award for “Point Of No Return” because if all of its plays were lined up it would be over two years. That speaks volumes about how many times those songs have been played. You hear them every day still on classic rock radio and oldies radio and things like that. They still carry the message. I’m so happy that the lyrics that were written for the Kansas records carry a message that is basically timeless.
MR: And probably universal, too. The show Supernatural uses “Carry On My Wayward Son” like it’s theme song to the series.
BG: Yep, you’ve got it. It’s not embarrassing to be in your sixties and singing these lyrics because they’re about searching for something in your life, and to sing that when you’re sixty is not out of character, like singing about a seventeen year-old girl when you’re a sixty five year-old man.
MR: [laughs] And speaking of Kansas, you have violinist David Ragsdale on four tracks.
BG: Yeah, that kind of made it a lot more Kansas-y as well. I don’t think there will ever be another studio Kansas album, I may be wrong, but there doesn’t seem to be the desire there. The next thing coming up from the band at some point this year: We had a film crew from Sony shadowing us for part of the year this year, filming and doing interview with other people who have been involved with us and things like that. So there will be a documentary coming out about the band and how the band came to be. We were inducted into the Kansas Hall Of Fame and the Georgia Music Hall Of Fame because the band has lived in Atlanta for about the last thirty eight years. We’re starting to get some little nods for the band’s accomplishments.
MR: Right, and for having so much expertise this is a fair question to ask you: What advice do you have for new artists?
BG: All I can say is “Don’t give up on your dreams.” Have in your mind that you’re going to make it and if you don’t, be satisfied with how far you get in life. “Making It” is kind of your point of view. If you can make a living making music, then I consider that “Making it.” It doesn’t necessarily have to be on a huge stage playing to twenty thousand people, but if it’s your passion, it’s your passion. Keep up with it. Put yourself in the right situation. If you have to move to a larger city or a mecca where you might be discovered, then that might be the thing to do. That’s what happened to me, I was born and raised in East Tennessee. It was a small town, so there wasn’t much of a musical scene there at all, so I moved to Atlanta and that’s where I got discovered and met people and put myself in the position to meet Steve Walsh and finally on the pathway into Kansas. So be in the right place at the right time, practice your instrument, and have fun while you do it.
MR: Nice. Is there a song on the album that represents Seventh Key?
BG: “I Will Survive.” That just sums it up for me. Through all the adversity and things that have happened I just think you’ve got to hang on, hang tight and somehow things will work out and you’ll get to it. I just have to keep that positive attitude all the time. At least, I try to, best I can. So far today things have worked out for me. I’ve been able to have a wonderful career playing music and that’s all I’ve had to do. I haven’t had to get a day job to support my musical habit in several years. I’ve been very fortunate in that this is my life. Making music is my life.
MR: That’s a beautiful place to land. This has been really sweet and I appreciate your time.
JW: It was originally going to be Valkyrie. That was the working title for this album. It was the first title I had in my head that would go anywhere near this album. When we first had to deal with the next chapter of this band, we were in San Francisco when we started looking for a new guitar player. The last thing I wanted it to look like was Steve Howe Leaves Band, Asia's Over. I wanted to make it seem as seamless as possible. Continue reading →
JW: It was originally going to be Valkyrie. That was the working title for this album. It was the first title I had in my head that would go anywhere near this album. When we first had to deal with the next chapter of this band, we were in San Francisco when we started looking for a new guitar player. The last thing I wanted it to look like was Steve Howe Leaves Band, Asia's Over. I wanted to make it seem as seamless as possible. Continue reading →
Mike Ragogna: Do you have a second or two to talk about Gravitas?
Carl Palmer: I can definitely talk about it, yeah!
MR: Take us on a little tour of the album. What were some of your favorite experiences while recording?
CP: You know, it’s really difficult to talk about experiences because we don’t record together as a group, we record individually, so I’m never in the studio with all the other men there at one time. We never have done it that way. But when I’m in the studio, I listen to the raw demo tracks that have been put down and I listen to what’s happening and what I’ll do is I’ll create various drum parts for the various sections whether it be the middle eight, the verse, the chorus, the intro, the outro, whatever it might be and I do lots of various versions just so we’ve got lots of choice. The reason being that we do everything through a Protools base so that means that we can have a huge library of intros and outros and whatever we want and we can keep constructing the music bit by bit as we go. The minute you put the drums down, that’s the track, you can’t really change it. Today, that’s not the case. There are so many alternatives. Basically, I try to work on all of the tracks myself. I go in and I get the drum sound, get the sound that’s going to be set up and I think that works, tune the drums within the monitor system, get that going and I work just with the engineer. There’s no producers there, no one actually producing it, just me and the engineer and I go through whatever tracks have been put together at the time. That’s how each one is constructed, really. There’s no real connectional fusion between band members at that stage, it’s simply not like that. We’ve got the piece of music, we know what it is and I just create what I think is the appropriate drum part.
MR: Nice. How does the material of Gravitas hit you, compared to the other albums?
CP: Your last album is always the best. That goes without saying. This is basically Asia the way Asia is. This is Asia being Asia. All of the songs are written by Wetton and Downes and that’s probably a question you should put to them more than to me As far as I’m concerned it’s typically Asia; not soft rock, not super hard, not middle of the road even and it’s not metal, it’s kind of its own style, really. It’s in that Foreigner, Journey vein I would say. It might not be quite as heavy as that, but it’s in that area. That’s the only way that I can really describe it. A title’s a title and obviously we do try to have one word titles because they tend to catch people’s imagination and things. It was going to be called Valkyrie at one stage–I think you’ve seen that written in print many times–but there is a song called “Valkyrie” so that’s how things developed.
MR: So when Geoff and John sent you the material were there a couple of tracks that you couldn’t wait to get to when you heard them?
CP: At that particular stage there aren’t many top lines, I know the verse and the chorus and whatever but the stuff is not really that mature by the time I get it. They need a very strong rhythm track to actually develop it and take it further, so that’s why I do so many different permutations of verses, chorus, outros, intros and things, so they’ve got lots of possibilities of choice. That’s really what it’s all about, and really that’s my skill in what I do. But I don’t always hear a guide vocalist if that’s what you’re insinuating, because there’s not always one there. Sometimes the top line hasn’t been written yet. I actually come in at a very, very early stage which would be wrong, really, if you couldn’t change it like we can change it through Protools, but we can. I come in with all of the various variations of all the sections so we’ve always got something there that’s more than adequate for what we need. Of course, I’ve been doing it for so long I know exactly what is needed, and that’s how it’s put together. So basically I cover a library of parts for each of the various sections so whoever’s going to produce–it was these two [John and Geoff] in this particular case–have something to sort out and play from. That’s how it goes.
MR: Do you find Sam Coulson adds a different kind of energy to the band that’s different from Steve Howe’s?
CP: You’ll have people tell you that Asia isn’t a “hard” sort of band, we’re more middle of the road, but nevertheless great musicianship and good songs and good stage presentation. We figured that going in for a new guitar player we might as well see if he could pick up the hard edge. Whether we’ve achieved it on this album is not for me to say, and not for even you to say, it’s down to the man on the street. If he likes it and he thinks we’ve done the job and we are tougher sounding and the material is as well-written then we could say that Sam has played his part within the setup. But that’s all I can say at the moment. Music is for listening, it’s very hard to talk about it. We are so much older than him, it’s a case of, “Will he be accepted?” Yes, he’s been accepted, he’s already played some of the biggest concerts here in Europe like Sweden Rocks and some English dates and we’ll go on to tour America with him and possibly even play on a cruise in the future, who knows? It’s just a case of waiting to see if the transition works with the die-hard Asia fans who only ever saw it as the four original names. We’re just hoping that it crosses a boundary and gives it a new life and only time will tell, forgiving the pun.
MR: Absolutely. When you looked at this album after it was finally mastered, what was your first impression?
CP: I didn’t really have an impression, to tell you the truth. When you’ve been around it for that length of time it felt Asia. I didn’t suddenly think, “Oh, I’m missing Steve,” which is a good thing. As far as I was concerned it felt comfortable, it felt that it was right, it didn’t feel like we were doing something that wasn’t really or trying to put a Band-Aid over anything. It felt, “Yes, this is working, this is an album, and this is our calling card and we’ll be able to go on tour and prove to everybody that we’re still a band and produce this sound on stage as well as we possibly can.” There wasn’t any one track that popped out to me. “Valkyrie” gets talked about, but at the end of the day you just never know. I kind of sit back at this stage and wait and see. Not to be rude to yourself, but whatever people write about it or say about it, if they were to say it was the greatest album in the world, at the end of the day it’s the public that has the last call and if they buy it and they want to come and see us playing it then we’ve done our job. If that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter what people put in print, really.
MR: That’s true, that’s true. What advice do you have for new artists?
CP: Today the market has so much of everything. There are so many different genres of music that just didn’t exist when I started and there’s nothing wrong with that. If there’s art to be created, let’s create it. But it’s really, really difficult. Years ago we would build up a reputation through going out and playing and building up a solid base of real loyal fans, not just in the country that we’re from, but on a global level. That’s very important, but on the other hand you can cut to the chase here and suddenly be doing a broadcast from your bedroom every Saturday night on a webcam and have people sign up for it. You can do it a different way, and isn’t that fantastic? The only thing that is really important here is that it doesn’t matter how you do it, whether you do it the old way or whether you do it from your bedroom or whatever you’re doing, you need to know that you’re good at what you do and you can produce this music live. Producing it live is very, very important today, mainly because CD sales are what they are. New albums, unless you’re a mega, mega, mega star are merely a calling card. Downloads don’t make you money, you’ll be living at McDonald’s all your life unless you’ve got an album that is selling so, so, so many. So at the end of the day you need to know that you can go out and physically perform in front of people, because that’s what’s left. If you’ve got new material that people enjoy, who knows, you might start to chart, and if you chart you’ll play bigger places and wouldn’t that be great? But really, the deal is, you’ve got to be so good live these days because there are so many of us doing it in all genres of music. So really it’s a case of perfecting your craft as much as you possibly can because the live situation is the only thing they can’t take away from musicians right now. Playing a tour like we did years ago where you go out to promote the CD, you didn’t even consider making money on tour, you went out to promote your vinyl, your CD, cassette, whatever it was. Today it’s the other way around. You’re going out to make money from touring and your CD is the calling card.
MR: Hey, Carl, there have been a few amazing groups that you’ve been in over the years including of course Asia, but especially also Emerson, Lake & Palmer. What do you think of the legacy that these groups have left on pop culture?
CP: Well, I’ve actually got the Carl Palmer ELP legacy and I’m on tour in England at the moment, it’s my first tour in two and a half years. I actually don’t play any Asia music in my set, it’s basically classical adaptations and original ELP music because that’s kind of what I’m promoting and playing at the moment. But a lot of people are interested in the past. Whatever way you go, whether it be Asia or the legacy, we always have like three generations there. I’ve got guys my age, obviously, bringing their sons and before you know it those kids have got their boys with them. You’ve got this makeup of a family thing. People who like the music stay with the music because they grew up with it, their dad played it and that’s the way it goes. I’ve been very fortunate to have been in four bands that had number one singles. Atomic Rooster had a track called “Tomorrow Night” which hit number one. They had to rerecord this track because I had just left the group. I recorded a demo, which basically was going to be in the master and then I joined Keith [Emerson] and Greg [Lake] and played with them in the studio for about four months while Atomic Rooster when number one with “Tomorrow Night,” so I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. Of course Emerson, Lake & Palmer have had a number one with “Fanfare” and ” Son Of Eve” in Canada. And obviously, prior to all of that, I was with The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown and we had a number one album and single in America at the same time which was in 1968 which was unheard of at the time, and of course Asia had a very successful beginning–we’ve not repeated it since, but we were extremely popular when we very first came out.
MR: Well, on the other hand, the band Asia and its material keep popping up in culture through South Park, Forty Year-Old Virgin, et cetera.
CP: I’ve got my trace within that infrastructure, and that’s a nice thing, I’m very, very pleased about that, but at the end of the day I like all of that but I always consider myself as a musician, this is what I do, I don’t consider myself a rock star. I happen to have been in so many different bands that have been really famous, it’s not been luck, obviously, there was a certain amount of luck involved but you also have to know what music you should play, what environment you should put yourself in. I’ve been very lucky, the bands that I’ve been in have been very successful. I’m kind of happy that I’ll see something in South Park or you’ll hear some music in Matador or whatever. It’s really nice. I don’t have any problem with it at all. One of the biggest kicks I had with it was when British Airways put their new ad together and they were playing “Fanfare For The Common Man” as this huge jet would take off from Heathrow airport. We thought this was fantastic. They had to use it so much and they had to pay PRS on it, so they had to rerecord it because of how much money they had to pay us. It’s got some really nice things attached to it. Some of the things have been very successful, so I’m very grateful.
MR: This was wonderful, as always, Carl. Thank you so much for your time and all the best for the future.
CP: Thank you so much, and thank you for the interview.