A Conversation with Mannheim Steamroller's Chip Davis
Mike Ragogna: Chip! So much to cover, so little virtual space! Let's start with Mannheim Steamroller's 30/40 , a CD and vinyl release with a TV broadcast. What's the story behind all this 30/40.. stuff? Why now? Does it have absolutely anything to do with that whole "30/40" thing?
Chip Davis: Well, the thing that really smacked me over the head at the company was, "Oh my gosh, I've suddenly crossed this line of thirty years of Christmas music." It's like, "Where did the time go?" then all of a sudden, it's like, "Wait a minute, how old is Fresh Aire? Oh my gosh it's forty!" 31/41 just doesn't quite seem to cut it, but 30/40 seemed like a neat title. By the way, its vinyl is a blue, see-through Teldec vinyl double album. Anyway, putting the 30/40 on it, if somebody's walking through the record department they're like, "Is that motor oil wait or what is it?" It's like trying to catch their attention with an unusual title and then they come to find out, "Oh gosh, it's an expression of the length of time that these guys have been around." So the title came from thirty years of Christmas and forty years of Fresh Aire.
MR: For the five people who don't know, what was the inspiration for Mannheim Steamroller?
CD: Fresh Aire--"aire" is the Italian word for "song." I based the original tune on the Bach "Aire on a G String," so it goes to classical roots. I was trained as a classical musician at the University Of Michigan. When I got out of school I wanted to stray from that and do some different things, but my classical roots are still in tact. A lot of pieces that I wrote on my first album, which Aire On A G String stimulated, were all names of song forms that I had learned in college. So the forty part comes from Fresh Aire--By the way there are eight Fresh Aire albums all together, and that started in 1974. 1984 was when I came up with the idea of doing a Christmas album.
I'm sure you've heard this story before or seen it or whatever, but when I took the idea of a Christmas album around, many of the distributors and retailers back in the day said, "Oh, Chip, don't put out a Christmas album, everyone will think you're out of ideas." So I'm like, "Well I actually just happen to like Christmas music." They said, "Well don't expect it to do real well," so I said to them, "Let me guess, you want Fresh Aire V?" and they said, "Yes!" and I said, "Good, you'll take Christmas first." Then it went on to sell nine million copies and everybody was like, "Oh, we don't care about Fresh Aire anymore, we just want Christmas." Wait a minute guys, you can't just do a bait and switch like that. When the 30/40 album opportunity came along I just thought, "This is a wonderful way to rejuvenate part of the Fresh Aire catalog." You know my label has been known for being a real audiophile-type label; this gave me a chance to go back and remaster a lot of the earlier Fresh Aire cuts with a lot of our new technology. It gave me an opportunity to freshen up the Fresh Aire, if you will. There's a bunch of real good things happening all at once in order to do that, so it just seemed the logical thing to do.
MR: What about that ultimate, ultimate box set?
CD: Actually, we have multiple box sets! The first one goes clear back to the vinyl days, and that was my first experience doing long play records with 180 gram Teldec vinyl. It came in a leatherette box with an album on the cover--actually CD-sized--that was embossed pewter. That was the very first one. The vinyl was the heavy duty vinyl, it was in rice paper sleeves and it was unwarpable. It was a really high-end product. That went for four or five hundred dollars. Then as we got into CDs, we've made Christmas collection box sets, there's a Fresh Aire I-VIII box set, and on CD, we've got a combination of some Fresh Aire and other titles. We have done a number of box sets, and packaging-wise, when I did a Christmas box set of course I wouldn't just put it in cardboard. I had to do it in red foil with a gold foil stamp with the name on it.
MR: Chip, because you've recorded so much Christmas music, I'm sure you've been asked this question before, but aren't you running out of material?
CD: You know, I pretty much have run the gamut of all of the famous carols. Once I got to about the third Christmas album or so I started writing my own original carols. That was for two reasons. One reason was I needed to spread out the well-known carols in order to keep the brand going. But also, I wanted an opportunity to put some of my own material alongside some of the time-tested material. I've tried to do a number of different things to keep the catalog in flow but also fresh, and that's why I've added in some stuff. I wrote "The Christmas Lullaby" for my oldest daughter Kelly. I've written pieces for all my kids. I wrote a piece for my son called "Catching Snowflakes On Your Tongue." When he was little he would run around in the snow and his mother taught him to catch snowflakes on his tongue. It was the cutest darn thing so I had to write a piece about that. I've done a number of pieces for my youngest daughter Elyse as well.
MR: Your "Deck The Halls" is in my favorite top five Christmas recordings of all time.
CD: Oh nice! That's what got the attention of the American public. Nobody had heard a Christmas carol done in anything other than the traditional way. When I came up with that sequenced version of Deck The Halls and it was rocked out nobody expected that. But like they say in Monty Python, nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition either.
MR: [laughs] And Elyse is on "Greensleeves." Do your family members frequent your recordings?
CD: Oh yeah, they've been around it since they were born. Elyse when she was two or three years old used to wear a little pink onesie and be down in my studio in the morning when I was working on "Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairies" and she would just stand there and spin in circles dancing to it and all that. They've always been very musical. I have to say all three of them can just sit down and start improvising at the piano. Elyse is like scary good now at sixteen. The recording you heard of "Greensleeves" she was just fourteen when I did that.
MR: You also recorded the old C. W. McCall song "Convoy," the 1976 #1 hit, that led to the Sam Peckinpah movie with Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw.
CD: Yeah, and I scored that movie, which was the first and only "A" movie I've ever done. I have to say, I had a really great time doing that. The whole C. W. McCall thing was just a crazy phenomenon that took the country by storm. "Convoy" was a crossover record, it was multi-platinum in eight or nine countries and it didn't seem to matter. We just had a tremendous cover record in Germany. They did a German version that was really cool, and then two DJs in London did a version where, instead of "Pig Pen" being in it, there was "Big Ben." There have been some pretty funny parodies, in fact I think I just saw a parody last week for the show Fargo. They're doing a parody on "Convoy" in an upcoming episode. That thing is still alive from 1976!
MR: It was such a cultural phenomenon. Did you scratch your head when it became so successful?
CD: The thing that was funny about it was that it was intended to be a middle cut on that album. When we played it for MGM, they were like, "Oh, don't show that to anybody, that's not going to go anywhere." That became my sign later on in life. As soon as somebody says, "Don't show that to anybody," I know, "Oh, this is a smash hit!" The same thing happened with the whole Christmas idea in 1984. They were like, "You don't really want to do that, do you?" and "Oh, must be a hit." So yeah, it was an enormous phenomenon and we had a blast recording that stuff. Bill Fries, who wrote the lyrics and was the voice of C.W. McCall, lived near me. We both lived in North Omaha, out in the country. I'd write the music first and then we'd give him a track to write the lyrics to and he wouldn't show any of us what they were until he got in the studio. We'd punch the red button and he'd start going on them and my god we'd be on our butts laughing in the back of the control room. It completely took us by surprise, and it showed us how a normal person would react when they heard it for the first time.
MR: Is the concept of the "Mannheim Steamroller" based on the eighteenth century technique, the Mannheim crescendo?
CD: "Mannheim Walze" in German, it means "Mannheim Roller," and yes, it's a crescendo.
MR: What drew you to that name?
CD: A couple things, actually. Remember back in '74, I had the album Fresh Aire, and when I showed it to label guys they'd say, "Yeah, okay, Fresh Aire is an album, but who's it by?" "It's by me." "Well no, you've got to have a group, like Iron Butterfly or Jefferson Airplane or something like that." "Well okay, I'll go make up a name." I went back in my thoughts, and in music history I learned that Mannheim roller meant crescendo, and I thought, "It's perfect, it sounds like a heavy metal band but actually in fact it's a classical term for crescendo."
MR: At the same time you were putting contemporary elements into classical music, progressive rockers were taking classical elements and putting them in their rock music. What led you in the opposite direction from them? Was it the old, "That'll never work" spurring you on?
CD: That would stand to reason, but to be honest with you it's a little simpler than that. I really wasn't listening to any rock music back then. I was listening to mostly classical, so when I started adding drums, I thought I was coming up with this really crazy new invention. I think one of the groups that crossed my ear, and I would've been in my early twenties then, was Emerson Lake and Palmer. They did some classical pieces, but did them in a rocked out style. I decided I didn't want to take Switched-On Bach and add drums; Bach did it the way Bach wanted to do it, leave him alone, I'll write something in that style but an original piece and then I'll add my drums and all that into it.
MR: Were you surprised by the Wendy Carlos--then Walter Carlos--project when it came out?
CD: Yeah. Actually I really loved it. It was so clever.
MR: You, with Fresh Aire, and Paul Winter are credited as the roots of New Age music. What do you think of that? Were you surprised to see what grew out of your music?
CD: Paul Winter is a great friend of mine. On the topic of the whole "New Age" issue, while Paul and I were doing slightly different things, we were both definitely off the beaten path. I really admired the way he did things, he's such a wonderful sax player. As far as the title, retailers didn't know what to do with the albums that guys like Paul and I were creating, so they were like, "Why don't we call it 'New Age'?" I said, "Why don't you call it 'eclectic' music, because it involves a bunch of different styles and things?" I think they thought I said "electric," because they shot it down and it got dubbed "New Age." I said, "You know what? I don't care what you call me as long as you call me."
MR: [laughs] What do you think about where it's ended up? It may not be what you consider yourself but you know you started it.
CD: And I'm still one of the largest-selling artists in it. Of course, when you add Christmas it really skews the numbers. All the Fresh Aire albums have gone gold or platinum, but the Christmas albums are just over the top.
MR: Why is that? Is it because people aren't being given original or creative Christmas albums?
CD: As I said before, when I came out with "Deck The Halls," the world had never heard a Christmas song done like that before. I got the credit for changing the face of Christmas music. Because of that it has held our product line in high esteem. Here's where I have to say we could not possibly do this without our retail partners, without the Targets and the Walmarts and the various record stores. Our reputation has preceded us enough that they will carry enough inventory to really make a different. If you're an unknown artist it's difficult to make a big dent in retail today. I would not want to be a starting artists right now. Shelf space in a lot of the big box stores is getting limited by other types of products, be it clothing or multimedia or whatever. The stores are so fragmented, and some of the smaller departments are where you can buy CDs. It's difficult to sell millions when you can't get millions into the store.
MR: You do kind of own the Christmas brand. Do you have a favorite Christmas story to share with us?
CD: Oh yeah. I grew up in a little farm town of five hundred people in Ohio. My grandmother played the organ at the little Methodist church across the street from my grandparents' house and my dad was the choir director with the choir there. I remember very clearly being so taken with candle light services because they were so magical. They'd have the church all lit with candles. Being a little kid and growing up in that and then I'm there, safe with my mom and dad and my grandma and grandpa, singing the music and the Christmas carols, it was all so magical. I can remember walking out on the back steps when I was a little older, maybe around seven or eight, and smelling the wood smoke from all the chimneys in town. It was such a visceral experience that it completely stuck with me. My grandma's cookies, the dinners around Christmas time, the treats, the presents, going to candlelight Christmas Eve service, it was all intertwined, and that's showed up in a lot of my music. In fact, some of my Christmas songs I've written lyrics to. Olivia Newton-John sang one of them and on that version, I expressed all those different things. The lyrics were basically a list of all of those things I loved as a child.
MR: How long do you see this Steamroller rolling into the future?
CD: Well, here's the thing. It's amazing how this has continued its course. I don't know, it could be limitless, but here's the deal that's going on right now: I started this all these years ago, and then we have two touring bands that are out, being the flagships of the brand, if you wanted to call it that. Now the older Steamroller members, like my age, some of them are still going out on tour. But we have new kids coming in that are tremendous musicians that have graduated from high-end music schools and many of them are second-generation Mannheimers. Their parents were in the band. The drummer who took my place, his dad has been the Mannheim conductor for many, many years, for one of the touring companies. He took my place when I couldn't go out on tour anymore after a surgery I had. My oldest daughter and a lot of these kids were the rugrats running around behind the stage and now they've found their way to the front of it. It can continue. We're in a second-generation Mannheim now.
MR: Congratulations. So even when the guru leaves, the flock will continue the tradition.
CD: Absolutely. I don't go out and tour anymore, I just make surprise stops and welcome the audience and they're usually stunned to see me. I kind of go out and do it just to go like, "Hey, see, I really am still alive." But I do have a video piece that I shot where I welcome the crowd and say thing to them about how much I appreciate them and all of that. So I have a video piece that goes everywhere, but when I can I do try to show up. Last year, we had ninety-four cities between two companies in just six weeks. One company couldn't be showing up at all of them, let alone one person. That's why I had to start creating these film pieces.
MR: Chip, what advice do you have for new artists?
CD: Go into electronics. [laughs] I had an attorney many, many years ago when I was first starting out. I was scared to death and I didn't know how this was going to turn out--This was during the C.W. McCall days, many of the guys knew I had this Mannheim Steamroller thing in my hip pocket. His advice to me was this... "Follow your own star."
MR: And in your mind, you followed your own star, right?
CD: Yup. If you keep doing something long enough, you start figuring out ways to make it work better and make it grow. Be tenacious and follow your own star.
MR: What would you have told the young Chip Davis?
CD: In about the ninth or tenth grade, I really wanted to be an electrical engineer, until I discovered that I couldn't do math well enough. I was doing music so long, since I was a little kid, that it became the only obvious thing to do. I was really good at it. I guess that same saying would apply to me, because I followed my nose as to what I could do and I just kept building on it.
MR: Was there another thing other than Fresh Aire, Mannheim Steamroller or C.W. McCall that you would've liked to explore in your musical career?
CD: I don't know that I would've thought of it then, because my nose was to the grindstone trying to get stuff done. I have two or three albums right now that I've never revealed to anyone. When Fresh Aire came out there was nothing like it. I have this album called Exotic Spaces that there is nothing like, but I haven't released it yet. I'll release it when it's time. Exotic Spaces is an album about the Taj Mahal, the pyramids, Angkor Watt...it's an album about time-tested places like that, and then I use the instruments of each country to compose it. I think there's like twelve or thirteen cuts. I don't mean to sound self-aggrandizing here but one of the most clever ones is called "Playa Bailena," which is about whales.
My recording team has gone out and recorded everything, from rain storms to dust storms to big waves on the coast of Oregon. One of the things I had done at one point was bought Navy-grade hydrophones that are flat from one hertz to one hundred thousand. I bought a pair of these and I recorded whales. I had them in the can--not literally--for quite some time, and at one point when I was working on Exotic Spaces, I thought, "Man, I'm gonna dig out that whale recording." They do a definite song, so I used the whale as the lead instrument and wrote the background accompaniment with piano and other instruments and the sound of waves and all that and created the whole backdrop for that whale being the lead instrument. It starts off with piano and all of that to set the premise of the tune and then I gave the whale the ride solo. The whale completely takes the melody and then after we go through the center section I bring the piano back and oh, guess what, it fits with the whale! So the whale sings with the steamroller.
MR: The way you described it, you can see your passion for the music and concepts you take on. I bet that's been behind your creative drive all these years.
CD: I guess so. It's just something I really love to do.
MR: As you mature further...
CD: ...as I go from composing to decomposing.
MR: [laughs] It seems you're gaining more authority and, well, value, with your continued success. I believe you'll always be able to create and distribute any project you dream up.
CD: Thank you!
MR: Chip, what did I forgot to ask?
CD: Well, you mentioned my daughter Elyse, I'm working on her first solo album right now. It's Elyse with Mannheim Steamroller. We have eight cuts in the can now and that little twerp is just sixteen and you can treat her in the studio like a seasoned Chicago jingle singer. I ask her to do something and she can do it. The stuff I've got her doing on "Black Magic Woman" is outrageous. When she sings harmonies with herself and things like that, I am having such a blast producing my youngest daughter and seeing her grow the way she is. I don't know what the name of the album is, it's probably just going to be Elyse, my art director took her name and made a logo out of it. Maybe I'll send you a demo. There's still at least four more cuts to do, but I think you'd get a kick out of the diversity of everything that she can do, from "Scarborough Fair" and "Greensleeves" to "Black Magic Woman," she's all over the map and she can do it.
MR: What is it like recording with family members as opposed to the other musicians you've worked with? Is there a difference?
CD: There isn't any, otherwise I wouldn't be recording with them. One time, a couple of years ago, some of Elyse's younger friends were playing in a band with her and they said, "You just get to do this because of your dad." She felt really bad and she didn't want to do it anymore because she thought she was just getting special treatment and I finally had to get it through to her, "I wouldn't put my reputation on the line if you weren't good." That's how it is doing it with family members.
MR: Nice. Sir, it has been an honor meeting you.
CD: Thank you so much. I have fun doing this sort of thing, especially when I get to talk about my kids.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
AUDIO SNEAK PEEK!
According to the Chip Davis gang...
"The album includes a version of 'Greensleeves,' which features Chip Davis' youngest daughter Elyse--the first vocalist to appear live on stage with the group. 'There have been many musical additions along the way, like having one of my idols, Johnny Mathis, sing on Christmas Extraordinaire and Olivia Newton-John sing on the Christmas Angel album," Davis delightedly states, adding, 'but nothing could make me prouder than to have my youngest daughter, Elyse, sing the solo on my arrangement of "Greensleeves."'"
A Conversation with Johnny Mathis
Mike Ragogna: Johnny, there are eighty-seven tracks on your latest anthology, The Singles. What do you think this assembly of recordings says about the artist, Johnny Mathis?
Johnny Mathis: I think most about my pop. My dad is the reason I started singing. He was a good singer but he had seven kids so he wasn't able to take advantage of any of his talents except that he was my best pal and I wanted to please him. He decided that if I wanted to sing maybe I should take some lessons if I wanted to. That's how it all started. He got me a wonderful teacher, we were very fortunate, who taught me free of charge. Dad was over the moon because he knew that I was taking advantage of something that I really loved to do. That started the whole process. I never dreamed that I would be as prolific as far as recordings were concerned other than the fact that I was with a major record company and they had a plethora of people like myself who sang popular songs. There was Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett and even before then, Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford and so many others. I just sort of fell into the right record company at the right time. They had a line of dates that they wanted me to go in and record this and record that. The recordings that I really loved doing were the ones from the Broadway productions that Columbia records funded at the time, like My Fair Lady and West Side Story. Those were some of my favorite songs to sing, but Mitch Miller had his ideas about what songs I should sing and it included a lot of things that were kind of tough for me to get a hold of, but I did record so very, very much.
MR: Yeah, you did. With Mitch overseeing that, what was the relationship like in terms of your trust in Mitch and his belief in you as an artist?
JM: At the time, there was no such thing as an "A&R man." In other words, the people who would take you over and give you the material and follow it through to fruition, but Mitch was there in his capacity as the head of popular music. He was the one who said, "You're going to sing this song." Of course when he gave me the music I was basically jazz-oriented. George Avakian, who was the executive at Columbia in charge of jazz, is the man who signed me to my contract. We were all excited about the fact that I was going to become the next jazz vocalist or something, which never happened, fortunately for me, because I really wasn't a jazz singer. But I was infatuated with jazz. I grew up around it in San Francisco, but Mitch was there to supervise all of the singers who were going to record popular music and he was right there, he was in the booth with me patting me on my shoulder every time I'd stop singing on the beat. I guess I was eighteen or nineteen years old at the time and I took at as, "I guess that's the way things are done," but some of the other performers didn't take to it very much.
MR: [laughs] So Mitch had a very heavy hand in the early years?
JM: Yes, Mitch was a concert oboe player and he got a deal with Columbia records. I have no idea how he became head of popular music because he knew nothing about it, but the big thing that happened was that he got a television show with a big chorus of singers singing songs in a very simplistic way and he became very popular. He was the guy in c charge of all of us. Of course I was young and I wanted some help, but Mitch had his own ideas about what he wanted a lot of us to record. A lot of it was terrible, a lot of it was corny, it wasn't very good and it didn't take advantage of our vocal abilities, so a lot of the singers revolted, but I was too grateful to revolt, so I listened to him. We had a few successes, but I was happy when I graduated away from Mitch and got involved with people like Percy Faith and Glenn Osser, et cetera.
MR: And Mitch notoriously disliked rock 'n' roll. He's associated with that corny aspect you mentioned because he had a certain sound that he tried to bring out in all of the artists.
JM: Well, it worked for a couple of years, but we got him out of there as fast as we could. [laughs]
MR: You had major success at an early age. That's got to affect how you view yourself as an artist, a singer, and a person. What kind of major changes happened to you as you started having success with these singles?
JM: Most of the success that I had was shared with the arranger and the songwriters, so I was a big fan of these people who wrote these extraordinary songs for me to sing. Of course, they didn't write them for me. A lot of them told me, "Oh yeah, I wrote this exactly for you," but of course you find out it was written twenty years before. But I didn't care, I was putty in their hands. Of course they were very, very wonderful people who enjoyed the fact that we had a process going with a singer who wanted to sing their music. Fortunately I fell in with a lot of very good songwriters. I can't recall the ones with the most success, but I do remember that Bob Allen wrote "Chances Are." Well, first he wrote "It's Not For Me To Say," and we had some success with that, not much, but a little bit, and then he came back and said he wanted to write another song for me. I said, "Oh gosh, it's not going to be nearly as good as 'It's Not For Me To Say,'" but, of course, he wrote "Chances Are" and that was my biggest hit record of all time. Then people started to listen to the rest of the songs that he wrote, so I had two big monster hits in "Chances Are" and "It's Not For Me To Say" written by Bob Allen.
MR: Yes. Did that turn you on to the idea of the caliber of the songwriters and the songs themselves? Did that guide choices for you after that point?
JM: I had my own ideas about what I thought was really good music, I was kind of a jazzer, I loved jazz singers. I grew up with Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole, he was the first jazz piano player that I listened to who sang popular music better than anybody in the world ever did. I was mentored from the time I was a kid by these singers, so I was looking for something like that to sing. Of course the thing that came along that really enhanced my career was the fact that Columbia records was supporting and putting all the money behind these wonderful Broadway productions. Those were the songs that were really the essence of the albums that I was doing and occasionally I would have a song that would pop out on a single record, like "Small World" from Gypsy, "Maria" from West Side Story and several more later on from other Broadway productions. I was right in the thick of all of this wonderful music. I was the young kid on the block. Everybody wanted me to sing their song and before I knew it I had the world's biggest library of recorded music. When I start looking at how much music I've recorded, it's amazing that I ever got out of the studio.
MR: [laughs] Do you have any favorites?
JM: I was wondering where Nat King Cole got all of his beautiful songs, and I found out that it was just a matter of his recording in Hollywood, he got a lot of motion picture songs, and he was brilliant at everything that he did. He sang a lot of jazz-oriented ballads and made them popular. Let's face it. At the time, in the fifties and sixties, jazz music infiltrated all of pop music. Those songs were written by really wonderful composers. Nat was always my big mentor. I thought, and rightly so, that he couldn't do any wrong, and he really didn't throughout his career. He was a guy that I wanted to emulate. That's why I leaned toward all those wonderful songs that were happening on Broadway.
MR: Did you ever flirt with having a career on Broadway?
JM: Yeah. Larry Kert, who played the lead in West Side Story was a good pal of mine and I lived only three or four blocks from the biggest Broadway theaters in New York. Of course West Side Story ran for how many years and I used to go down there and have lunch with him and then he'd go back and do the matinee. Then I met a guy by the name of Bart Howard, and Bart was an extraordinarily gifted songwriter who never had a hit record until Mabel Mercer introduced me to a song called "Fly Me To The Moon." Actually, it was called "In Other Words" by Bart. Peggy Lee had a big hit record of it, she sang it on the Ed Sullivan show and it became a very big, popular song and Bart had to change the title to "Fly Me To The Moon" because those are the words that most people remember. But to answer your question, I did flirt with the idea of going to Broadway. [laughs] You had to know this lady who was my mentor, her name was Helen Noga, she saw me and heard me sing at a very early age, I was about thirteen years old and she became my business manager. She ran a jazz club in San Francisco called The Blackhawk and she knew how much money jazz singers made and she wanted me to have no part of it because I wouldn't make any money. She was the one who steered me to popular music and also wanted me to be in the movies. I had no inclination to want to be in the movies, but I sang in a couple of films where I had to be photographed and it was the most tedious, long experience in my life and I hated it. It was something that I was not happy to do, but I did it. A couple of the songs were pretty good, but I didn't like the process. It was too slow. She actually wanted me to do a film and act in it and I wanted to sing, I didn't want to act, I didn't even know whether I could act or not. But I found out that I wasn't a very good actor anyway.
MR: When you look at the kind of careers pop artists have these days compared to when you first started out, is there anything you wish had done as you were becoming a pop star? Or anything from back then that you think should've continued?
JM: Well, the thing is that nowadays if you have a hit record or are handsome or pretty and you get an opportunity to show your talents on television or what have you, it's quite a big step-up very fast. I kind of liked the idea that I had an opportunity to sing and learn my craft and make a few mistakes that nobody heard. If you get too much success too soon you have to do everything and everybody hears everything that you do. I've done some awful singing with some awful songs and I hoped they would never see the light of day but of course they have. There are two or three of them on this new project that they're releasing. In fact there's one song on the album where I didn't finish it, I just stopped singing because I couldn't figure out the melody, but they put that on, too. Whoever buys these recordings that I've done are going to get an awful good education about what it's like to be a pop singer, because it's the good, the bad, and the ugly.
MR: [laughs] What advice do you have for new artists?
JM: Learn your craft as much as you can learn it. You never quite know what niche you're going to figure in. A lot of people have a lot of talents that haven't been discovered and they're busy honing one craft that they have and who knows, the world is full of people who started out wanting to become an actor and they became a great director of films or a wonderful tapdancer. You never quite know what you're going to do, so the best thing to do is to learn your craft. Whatever you're dreaming about, learn as much as you can and get as much of an education as you can in that regard, because you're going to need every ounce of whatever is involved with your craft. You're gonna need all of it. There are many instances where people come to me and say, "oh I enjoyed your performance, you seemed so relaxed up there." My goodness, when I was a kid, I never got a decent review for my public performances because they said I looked frightened to death. I stood on stage with my eyes closed and I sang and I was miserable doing it because I was scared most of the time. All of that has matured to a point where I'm quite comfortable on stage and people have complimented me on my stage presence. You never know what you're going to be called to do.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Moon Taxi's Trevor Terndrup
Mike Ragogna: Trevor, Moon Taxi's album Daybreaker is coming. How does the title represent the album?
Trevor Terndrup: When we record, we never set out with a stated theme. Rather, we start to notice themes as the songs materialize and we begin to piece the album together. We noticed on Daybreaker, a common thread of rejuvenation. The idea of starting anew kept coming up. Also the idea of needing others. The visual image in my mind when I think about Daybreaker is a young couple watching the sun rise on the first day of the rest of their lives.
MR: Could you take us on a tour of Daybreaker and how it came together creatively?
TT: The songs were written during some time off and on from the road. This gave the songs a lightness and very personal touch. It is the most introspective set of songs lyrically that we have ever written. Spencer and Wes collaborated on many of the songs before we made any working demos. The first step is usually the musical bed, then the melody and typically the lyrics last. That is not how every song goes.. but it does seem to trend that way.
MR: What were the studio adventures like? Any session stand out as a particularly awesome one?
TT: Working with Jaquire King was a big step for the band. We have been self-produced hitherto and we felt like it was time to enter into that world. He really uses the studio as his instrument. Blackbird is an elite space. I can't say anything about that place that hasn't already been said more eloquently. We bonded and banded together there; eating meals, laughing, working really long hours. I'll never forget that experience.
MR: Are there any songs on the project that were iffy and you removed at the end? Are there any recordings that went way beyond what you pictured?
TT: "Savannah" was a surprise to all of us. It turned out great and none of us really expected it to be so engaging. We had the barebones melody and chord structure going in to the recording session. But that song definitely came together while we were recording. My favorite part is Tom's bass line.
MR: When you play live, do you expand on your recordings' arrangements or are you mainly faithful to them?
TT: Depends on how the crowd reacts. We might try to recreate the studio version for live and then end up changing it. We always aim to please and elevate the audience members experience.
MR: How would you describe a Moon Taxi fan? Do you have an stories of interacting with any of them?
TT: They are awesome! Super loyal and encouraging. There are fans and friends that have been with us since day one...since "Year Zero."
MR: Nice. What have your fans discovered about Moon Taxi that the rest of the world needs to know?
TT: That we grow with each studio effort and get better with each live show.
MR: Are there any musical approaches from your early Apex days with Tommy Putnam that survived through the years and are part of Moon Taxi?
TT: Not really. We weren't very focused in those early years. But our brotherhood has stayed strong. We have been playing music together for 17 years!
MR: Who are a couple of your musical influences?
TT: Bob Dylan and Bob Marley.
MR: When you appeared on the late night talk show circuit, did that add or change anything in how you perceive success? Has Moon Taxi's success affected you personally?
TT: I think my parents finally took my music career seriously when I told them we were playing ...Letterman.
MR: What are you looking forward to after Daybreaker's release? What are the plans?
TT: We have already been road testing these songs and they kill live. We plan on bringing it to a town near you.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
TT: Write lots of songs. Many will be bad. Some may be decent. The most important part is to write. Secondly, play out and find your way into the conversation.
MR: When will the next Apex reunion concert occur?
TT: Haha, maybe in 25 years.
And for you listening pleasure...
THE WINERY DOGS' "CAPTAIN LOVE" EXCLUSIVE
photo credit: Jamel Toppin
According to The Winery Dogs' singer/guitarist Richie Kotzen...
"Captain Love" is a departure for the band. A lot of our tunes our super high energy with intense unison lines. "Captain Love" is all about space and groove. It's gonna be a fun track for us to play live and the lyrics, as purposely silly as they may be really fit with the spirit of the song. We are looking forward to rocking this one on the upcoming tour!"
And Mike Portnoy adds...
"'Captain Love' may be one of the most straight-ahead drum tracks I've ever recorded. But man, this song is SOOO BADASS!!! Love the riffs and groove to this one, and I finally have a song in my catalog that can be played in a Strip Club! Haha!"
HOLY FOREST'S "NYOKONOLE--WE ARE TOGETHER" EXCLUSIVE
According to Holy Forrest's Jon Fine...
"This record's inspired by my travels in The Gambia, Ethiopia and Brazil where I've travelled and made films. My wife is from The Gambia and this album began on a trip to visit her family with our two young kids. I brought along my laptop and some mics with hopes of connecting with the great Gambian Kora master, Tata Din Din Jobarteh. As luck would have it, on a ride home from the Makasutu Forest, our taxi driver, who coincidentally knew Tata, pulled us up to his gate. Serendipitously, Tata was home, invited us in for tea and welcomed us like family. The first session with Tata planted the seed for the record and became the song 'Africa Calling.' The next song we recorded together was 'Nyokonole--We Are Together,' a song about friendship. The song came from a collaboration with a young artist from Gambia named ST Da Gambian Dream who sang over instrumentals I'd brought with me. Tata heard the work in progress and added his voice to the song. Back in NY, I reached out to my old friend Jamal VanSluytman--aka No Surrender--and he added a verse. To me, music is a passport and a roadmap to find connection across real and imagined borders. This record is a collection of love songs, about distance and memory and about reconnecting with people and places despite years and miles of separation."
"Nyokonole--We Are Together"
Written by Jon Fine, S.T. Da Gambian Dream, Tata Din Din and Darius VanSluytman
Vocals: S.T, Tata Din Din Jobarteh, No Surrender
Guitar, Bass, Drum Programming: Jon Fine
Drums: Pierre Davis
Recorded in Sukuta, Birkama and NYC
JEREMIAH TALL'S "TIME" EXCLUSIVE
According to Jeremiah Tall...
"'Time' is a foot stomping love song about Pennsylvania and her four seasons. Growing up in PA you get a great look at how nature can be so diverse. I think any Pennsylvania native understands how bitter cold winter can be, although beautiful, you will find yourself praying for sunnier days. Spring time seems to be so full of life, from that first tulip you see to the pink blossom of the cherry trees. Summer rolls in with heavy rain and thunderstorms. But with every hot and humid summer day your find yourself dreaming about cool autumn nights. There's nothing like Autumn in Pennsylvania's rolling valleys and with each verse that drives on in 'Time,' you get a look at just that."