A Conversation with Gary Numan
Mike Ragogna: Gary, when you look at what's going on in dance and industrial music, it seems like you're having the last laugh here.
Gary Numan: [laughs] There is a lot of electronic music around and it seems to be having some kind of -- I'm not sure if "renaissance" is quite the right word, but it does seem to be everywhere at the moment, which is a very good thing. But in a strange way, I don't feel that electronic music is "my thing." I know it's what I've done all my life, but I still feel slightly removed from it somehow. But I think it's good for music in general. The one thing that I have noticed, which I wouldn't say I'm "disappointed" by, but I am surprised by, one of the reasons I got into electronic music and why I've stayed a part of it for so long is that I've always seen it as the most forward-looking of all the genres. Its reason for being is to come up with new sounds and use technology to keep pushing forward. That's what makes it exciting. That's the thing that's kept me in it for such a long time and why I love it so much. I think what's happened is it's been around for so long, I've been doing it for thirty-five years, it's got its own nostalgia now and there are people coming into it who are kind of looking backwards to get their inspiration rather than looking forward. I find that a peculiar thing, something that I've always thought of in my head, there are people looking back to create new music. To me, that's not what it's here for, electronic music is not here to look backwards. It was invented to look forward. Its whole reason to exist is to look forward, and then you've got people saying, "Oh, I'm going back to Minimoogs, I'm going to use all that old gear that I used to use," and I'm thinking "What the f**k? What are you doing that for?" So I'm struggling a little bit with that element of electronic music at the moment, but that is only a part of it. As I said, there's plenty of other things as well. I'm not even saying it's wrong, I really don't mean it that way, I just find a surprising element, one that, in my ignorance, I never saw coming.
MR: But let me pose this to you. You have to come into music from some sort of reference point. Is it possible that young electronic artists are going back to these sounds in order to springboard from them? Is this them learning their scales, so to speak, before they move on to something larger?
GN: It guess it might be. It certainly could be for the people doing it, but what I'd refer back to is when I first came across synthesized and electronic music, there were no points of reference whatsoever. You'd come across a machine, you'd not heard anybody really do anything with it before, certainly not the sort of stuff that you want to be doing. Krautrock had done their thing. I kind of liked what they did but I didn't want to do it, Eno and so on would do it, and David Bowie, they'd done almost "classical" electronic music on Moog. Again, it wasn't my style, I didn't want to do it. So you've got this piece of equipment in front of you and it makes all these weird noises; you've got no idea how to set them up or what these dials and switches do. They say things like "Filter" and "Console," I had no idea what that meant. I just knew if I turned it, something happened--you couldn't predict. So you were just trying. You were in there trying to come up with these new sounds and these new machines and make it do something musical and wrap it around the guitar, bass and drum that you've got set in the corner. It was all very exciting and very different and there was no point of reference. Do you need a point of reference? Do you have to have a point of reference with all kinds of music? I don't think you do. As I like to say, it's not criticism at all, but it shows a different way of thinking about electronic music, and it has to be, because it's been around. People talk about Minimoogs and Polymoogs and Odysseys almost with some kind of romantic reverence, "Oh, you've got a Minimoog?" Yeah, but I stopped using it because something better came along! They're like people with classic cars. They go get a 1960 Corvette and I'm sure it's very lovely and it's a really, really cool thing, but I bet it doesn't brake as well, I bet it doesn't accelerate as well, I bet it doesn't have a huge stereo in it. It's good, but it's romantic, it's a different age and it's peculiar to see that in electronic music, which I've always thought was cutting edge. It's interesting to see what people have come up with just the same.
MR: Gary what are some technologies that you've been experimenting with lately? For instance, what went into creating your new album Splinter?
GN: Yeah, pretty much everything. I wrote a couple of the songs on the album on only an iPad. That was an interesting experience, sitting on airplanes, bored. I've got a fantastic little app called iSequence on the iPad. There's a song on the album called "Everything Comes Down To This," which is a big, massive groove song. It actually started on an iPad. I'm really quite a fan of it. Then there are various software packages. Native Instruments in Germany puts out some phenomenal stuff, and there's another company from Germany called Best Direct, it's the worst name in the world for a software company, "Best Direct," disgusting name, but they've got some fantastic stuff. Really, really cool stuff. There's an American company called Spectrasonics; they put out a thing a while back actually called Omnisphere, unbelievable piece of equipment. Hardware-wise, there's another German company called Access who's got a hardware synth called Virus. It's a beautiful piece of kit. Not as reliable as it should be, but very, very good. Really, really good in studio, really, really good live, amazing bit of kit but they do need to work on the reliability a little bit.
MR: You talked about creating one of the songs on the iPad. Can you take us on a little tour of how some of the other ones were created? I would love to hear what you've done with the technologically.
GN: Well, everything was up. Most of the time, I will come up with various grooves and loops which make an interesting or an exciting kind of dynamic groove. So I'll get that running, and that's all done in software, and then I'll start to use piano, either a real piano, if I'm indoors, or more usually a software-based piano sound in the studio itself. Then I just start to work out the actual song itself. That is the fundamental basics of everything--the song itself is written on a piano, the melody, the structure, the arrangement. So that's the first major step, getting the software running. All of that's put into Pro Tools. I have a Pro Tools-based system. As soon as that's done, you start to think about what you're going to do next. What I would normally do is spend quite a few days making that demo as comprehensive as possible because when I give that to the producer I want him to have the clearest idea possible of what I want from the song, the direction I want it to go in, the vibe, the atmosphere, he needs to have a very clear direction of where to take that song next. Normally, that involves going back into various software packages essentially looking for sounds I've not used before and building up layer upon layer upon layer. Quite often before the album starts, I will spend a few weeks, sometimes longer, actually and I carry with me a little portable recorder, a digital one, very, very good quality. I have it with me all the time, and wherever I am--normally I'll start in the garden--I will walk around with a metal stick or whatever. Actually, one of the things that happened when I moved into this house, we had a tennis court, I don't play tennis and we needed some space for the kids to run around so I had it dug up and taken out. At one point, there was a metal pole with a lump of concrete at the end of it. I probably spent two days dragging that thing around across other bits of concrete. One of the really good sounds was I hit a metal drainhole cover with it. I dragged the piece of concrete against it with my eldest child Raven. I said, "Hold this recorder down by the drain and don't do anything until I tell you." And I would drag it across the metal at different speeds and it would make the most amazing sounds, brilliant sounds, and then it started fragmenting as it went across and you would get all the crumbling. It was an amazing sound.
I had all of these recordings. There would be hundreds of them and I'd go back to the computer, put them all in the computer and then I'd spend another week or two with all of these sounds doing various manipulations to them until I had this amazing library of sounds. I probably ended up with four hundred, five hundred or more individual sounds, all of which I know nobody's ever heard before because I made them. You've got this cool core catalog of sounds that are just yours. Nobody has them. A lot of them are done by whispering; you whisper phrases into things and then you reverse it and mess around. It's all about building up a library of stuff that nobody has gotten before. So even if you're using software packages and you're using sounds that from a starting point are available to everybody, you merge that with something you've done or you turn it into something else, you mix and match and you create these composite sounds which nobody would've heard before. To me, that's one of the most fun and exciting parts about it, to release music and have sounds on it that nobody on the planet has ever heard before is really cool. I know it's not a big deal, I'm not curing cancer or anything important, but it is fun and it does mean that my music has got things in it that, even if they think the songs are familiar, there are sounds on it that I know they've not heard before. There's just a little box in my head that gets ticked like, "Yep, something that I've not done before" on every single album. There's a lot of preparation that goes into it before you start writing songs and start recording. There's a great bit of preparation that goes into building up this library of sounds and you do that with every album you make. Before you really get sucked into it, you start to build up your library of sounds. Then after you continue through it at various times.
For me, it always starts with a big, big session of going out, driving around the streets, just hanging out. It can be anything. This was a long time ago, actually, but I was at some traffic lights in my car and a truck pulled up beside me, and there was something wrong with it and the engine kept nearly cutting out, but it made the most interesting little groove. It was like "b-b-b-b-choom-choom-bup-bah." It had this interesting little groove and I sat there for about a minute thinking, "F**k, that's interesting." You could almost sing along to it, so I recorded it and I managed to get about ten seconds of it before the traffic lights changed. I can't even remember what song it ended up in...it was maybe fifteen, twenty years ago. But that ended up in a song. It's just everywhere. You've just got have your eyes and your ears open all the time because there are things going on all around us that you can use. Sometimes, it's not using it, it triggers something else. If every little thing you hear could trigger another ten ideas in your own head, if they're just sparks that trigger something else, then it was all worthwhile. It's nice to hear that stuff, to listen back to your album and hear things on it like that.
MR: As you're discovering these sounds then using them, do you feel like that's kind of been one of your missions? It seems almost like your more of a pioneer than an album-maker. Would that be fair to say, or did I not say it right at all and I need to rephrase that?
GN: No, no, I know what you mean and it is a very, very important part of it for me. I think it has been for much of my career. Certainly near the beginning I was very much driven by this sort of thing. I can remember, long before samplers were invented we were doing similar things to what I'm talking about now with tapes. I remember one session very clearly. I wanted to record the sound of a car tire skidding, and this was before sampling, so it wasn't like we could tape these sounds and take them back to a studio with a computer and manipulate them. We had to do it in different ways, so we would record them onto a little reel-to-reel track recorder. I got this car--a Corvette, actually--and floored it. It made an amazing sound of a tire screeching. I recorded it onto a little tape recorder, we went back to the studio, transferred it to quarter-inch tape, and we worked out the tempo of the song I was trying to get this effect on and we worked out exactly how long that tape needed to be at thirty inches per second so that this sound would run through it in time with the song. It was a nightmare to try to get it in sync, but eventually, it did it. We got it run through, recorded that onto the tuner tapes, so it had now become a part of the song and then I was able to manipulate that by running it through the machine. When samplers came along, they did that with a click of the fingers what would take us a day to get together. Even though the technology was different and the way we had to go about it was different, we were still trying to do the same thing, still trying to look around our environment to look for sound to create sonic structures that you could then find a musical reason for. Really, it's not music, it's not an instrument. It's not like picking up guitar or playing a keyboard. These are just noises and I think right from the very beginning the thing that fascinated me about synthesizers and why I got into electronic music was that they made the most amazing noises. For the first two years of my career, the musicians' union tried to ban me because they said I was "putting proper musicians out of work." I would argue with them, I would say, "I'm not making sounds that musicians play, I'm making noises like [burps]. You show me a classical instrument that goes [burps] and I'll put my hands up and admit defeat. I'm not putting anybody out of work because there isn't an instrument that can create the sort of noises I'm trying to make. How am I putting anybody out of work? Why are you so upset with me that you're trying to ban me?" It was the most amazing ignorance towards electronic music and what it meant.
MR: Yeah, but look at the progress. You were right on the front of what ended up being the electronic sounds that happened in the late seventies and early eighties and used for decades. When you recorded as The Tubeway Army, did you have any idea that you'd have that big of an influence?
GN: I was convinced. When I went to the studio to record a punk album, there was a synthesizer there. I'd never seen a real one before, I had a go of it, and I was absolutely blown away by the noises coming out of it. At that moment, I realized that electronic music was my future, that's what I wanted to do, and that's the machine that I wanted to work with. I went back to the record company with an album that was an electronic punk album, not guitar-based, and they were very unhappy. We had this big argument and I honestly thought that I was the first person in the world to stumble across it. I knew about Krautrock, but I'd never heard it mixed with guitar, bass, and drums before, which is what I did with it. I guess because of the way I found it, I had these punk songs and I just converted them in the studio, while I was there, to electronic songs. It was very amateurish and very clumsy and very roughly done. I think I came into it from that angle, I saw electronics being added to guitar, bass, and drums, not replacing them. I thought that was the way forward. But I was convinced that I was the first person and I was absolutely paranoid that this album had to come out quickly, which is why I was frustrated when they were arguing against it. I said it had to come out quickly because soon, everyone was going to stumble across this, it's just waiting there for someone to stumble across it and I can't be the only person. There's going to be hundreds of people finding out about this technology and they're going to be using it. Of course, what I didn't know was I was actually one of the last people to find out about it. People like Ultravox were on their third album. Orchestral Manoeuvres, Human League, these people had already been doing it for quite some time and I hadn't heard of them. The electronic thing in Britain in the late seventies was a peculiar phenomenon in that you had lots and lots of different people in different cities all working on electronic music and nobody knew about the other. It wasn't a movement, it was lots of isolated people. It only became a movement or genre almost when my "Are 'Friends' Electric?" single went to number one. I feel lucky. I had the first number one single. Electronic music became this known thing and all of these other bands went, "I've been doing it for ages! I've been doing this much longer than you," which was true, absolutely true. I actually put my hands up and admited that I was not the first person. I was lucky enough to have the first single, but I honestly did think that electronic music had a future. In that first moment that I sat down and played it, I recognized it, but I didn't foresee how rapidly the technology would change and just how massive it would become. I didn't think it had a future.
MR: That's wonderful. What's interesting is that your massive hit "Cars" along with "Bette Davis Eyes," "Tainted Love," and "Don't You Want Me Baby," I believe, were the initial big pop "electronic" singles that happened here in the States, but your recordings supplied an education of the process as opposed to just hits. By the way, I feel that it's very interesting to see that you've influenced Nine Inch Nails, who has talked candidly about it in interviews.
GN: Yes, yes, which is very lovely, actually.
MR: Was "Cars" written as a song or did it come out of the sounds and technology that you were playing with?
GN: "Cars," for me, is an absolute sideways thrust. I wanted to learn to play bass guitar better, so I went to London and I bought a bass guitar--I think it was a Shergold Modulator. I've still got it, actually. I came home to my parents' house, opened the case, picked the bass guitar up and the very, very, very first thing I played went [hums tune of "Cars"] and I thought, "Oh, that's quite good. That's a nice little riff." [continues riff] From picking up the guitar to having the whole thing of "Cars" written and structured took no longer than ten minutes. It was the quickest song I ever wrote and one of only two songs I've ever written on a bass guitar. The thing that's funny to me is it's become this electronic classic and I wrote it on a bass guitar. I didn't even add the electronics until I got to the studio a month later. I used a Minimoog for the bass part, that made it a little bit bigger, but I still had the bass guitar underneath it.
A few days before, we went to the studio I went out with somebody from the record company, Martin Mills, actually, who owned the record company, because I really wanted to buy a synthesizer. We found a thing called a Polymoog keyboard, it was two polymoogs--the synth and the keyboard. There was a preset on the keyboard called "Vox Humana," the number one preset and I played that. It had this big string sound and I thought, "Hey, that's cool, we can make good use of that." I had that delivered to the studio when we went to record "Cars," the demo, not the real one. So the groove started and I just hit a note using that Vox Humana sound and it was that note and I couldn't think where to take it so I just held it, I just stayed there for about four bars and then I took a little run down and the best thing I played was that line in "Cars." I hadn't worked it out before, I hadn't thought to use that sound before, so everything about "Cars" is the epitome of luck. Playing that riff when I picked up the bass guitar, the second part that I played was the second line of "Cars," going to the studio just having that setting and that sound, hitting that note, it was as if I'd been guided. I don't believe in any of that, actually, but it was the most unique process, for "Cars," and all of it was just luck. Everything just came first try, first attempt without thinking about it. Really lucky.
MR: Your music is an amalgam of all sorts of things. What do you attribute that to? Is it because you're more interested in the creation of the peace than a certain genre, or is it just how you get hit with the creativity?
GN: I think it's a mixture of all those things, actually. Obviously, there's a desire to experiment and try different sorts of music and mix different instrumentation with things. Some of it was simply a chance meeting, I would bump into someone, Pino Palladino, a fantastic bass player who now works with Nine Inch Nails, strangely enough. He was on an album of mine. I said to somebody my bass player was ill--he ended up committing suicide on heroin--but when he was ill, I needed a bass player and a friend of mine said, "I know someone," and Pino came along. He had a fantastic style and that completely drove me to go in a completely different direction. When Pino came along, he was so fluid in his playing that I decided I was going to push the bass right to the front, I was going to make it a melody instrument. I'd never heard it used that way but it just seemed an obvious step to me. I think I sprinkled seasoning. I've never been convinced that I've done any radical change of direction, but I kind of sprinkle things on top, a bit of this and a bit of that. There aren't any drastically new directions but they meander from side to side, swishing backwards and forwards. I'm not a big fan of my voice but it does have a particular sort of sound to it. I think no matter what the music, once I start singing it sounds like Gary Numan. It's one of those things you can't get away from, really. You're kind of stuck with it, so you might as well accept it.
MR: Fascinating stuff, Gary. So what advice do you have for new artists?
GN: I think the most important thing is if you really love what you're doing, don't let anybody change you. I think one of the big problems that happens to young bands is that they get signed and they get interest from a record label and they try to reshape and adjust what they do, maneuver what they do. I think if you do that then you've lost already. If you write music to become famous and that's all you want out of it, then allow yourself to be manipulated as much as you like because it isn't going to matter. But if you genuinely love what you do, you must stick with it. You must become successful on your terms. Don't allow yourself to be watered down or reshaped in any way. Have confidence in what you do. Genuinely love what you do and stick with it. There are a thousand and one people just waiting to give you advice who have no better idea of how to do it than you do. Arguably, there are people who would try to make you conform to what they think is the right way to do it, and often, the people who don't conform are the people who have the most interesting ideas. They don't know the right way to do it, so they do it the wrong way. Often, the best music comes from where the innovation comes from. But it's risky. Quite often, if you don't do what these people want, then you will be dropped. As they said to me many times, they will say you're "uncooperative." You're not uncooperative at all, but you have your own vision and your own idea about what you're going to do and where you're going to go. I know, again, from my own experience, it's something that will come up throughout the career. No matter how successful you are or how successful you've been, there are still people that will try to change you and shape what you're doing and I think to resist that is an admirable thing and I think it's the right thing to do actually.
MR: Gary, do you still have a love of flying?
GN: I do have a love of it but I haven't done it now for quite some time. I was an air display pilot, I was an aerobatic formation pilot actually and I used to teach people how to do it and for a while I became an examiner for the British Civil Aviation Authority. There were so many accidents and so many people getting killed that they developed an authorization scheme to try to make sure that only the right people were flying the right airplanes to keep people alive, really. I was one of the people that was charged with making that happen. So I was an expert in a particular kind of airplane, so I would fly with people that were in a similar category of airplane and I would show them how to do it and I would only give them their authorization once they'd satisfied me that they could do it at an acceptable level of competence and professionalism. I did that for a long time, so for me, it was a really big thing. But then one by one, pretty much everybody that I knew that did it was still killed in accidents; there were still people dying no matter how much safer we made it. It's a very, very dangerous area of aviation. You're very close to the ground, you're quite often upside down, and you're performing in a very tight area in which you have to make the airplanes visible to the audience. It's a very dangerous area to be in, and so people die. There came a point where for me, it went from something that I was really proud to be a part of. It's an amazing group of people, but it became depressing. One particular day, I remember clearly that I didn't know hardly anybody there and you realized that everyone you knew and all these people that were friends of yours, one by one, they'd all died over the years. Five people died in one year. It's not as if a large group of people do it. Then when I was married, a particular person was killed in a crash, and this was the first person that my wife had been close to as well, so that really shook her. I think that was the first time she realized just how dangerous it was.
There was a very good chance that one day I wasn't going to come home, so the support from her evaporated immediately. We had started our family; the first baby had come along and I began to think, "This is crazy." It felt as if it was more a matter of "when" it happened to me rather than "if." I had the babies--we were planning more babies--my wife didn't want me to do it. I was missing people and it began to have a different vibe to me. It wasn't as exciting as it was, it was actually slightly sad. So I made a decision to back out of it. I backed out of it and I was going to just carry on flying normal little airplanes around, nothing dangerous or exotic, and I found that it was just boring, really. Having done all of that exciting stuff and flown in hundreds of air displays all over Europe, just flying from A to B on a sunny day didn't have the same excitement or charm. I just got out of the whole thing. I really miss it; I really miss it. I wish I was still doing it. All the reasons for not doing it are very valid and they're still as valid now as they ever were, but I do miss it. There's a chunk of my life that was important and it's not there anymore, and I haven't really found anything to replace it. But you know, I am a father, I've got three children, it's the right decision. In the back of my mind, I secretly hanker to do it again. Who knows. When they're older, maybe I'll get back into it again. Sorry, the short answer to your question is, "No, I'm not doing it anymore."
MR: [laughs] That's fine. By the way, was it nice to have Robin Finck on this record?
GN: Oh, man, Robin is amazing. Absolutely amazing. He's my closest friend. Robin and his wife Bianca are our closest friends, we see more of them than anybody. He was part of the process of the album coming together, just as a friend talking about it, and then he also played on it. Robin's probably one of the greatest guitar players in the world. I absolutely love what he does. His contribution to Nine Inch Nails live is absolutely phenomenal. Not only is he a great player but he's also one of the best performers to watch. He's the best. I can't think of any guitar player that I would rather watch. He's a fascinating man to watch play live. He's an amazing, interesting, charismatic, enigmatic, character on stage and he's such a cool man offstage as well. But his contribution to the album was just fantastic. I gave him four or five songs, he took them away, and then just worked on them at home. I wasn't involved, I didn't contribute any guidance at all. I just said, "There they are, do what you think." and he came back and it was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I'm really proud to have him on it. He's a big name, he's a fantastic player. I'm glad that my friend is on it but his contribution from a music point of view was just amazing. Everybody wins with that one.
MR: You also have a very comfortable relationship with Ade [Fenton.] I imagine making music with Ade after all these years is another great thing.
GN: He is my closest friend in general and he's been around for a few years now. The way we work together, I have such a huge respect for what he does. He's very creative, very talented, a phenomenal producer, so I've got a huge amount of respect for what he does and I'm quite prepared to let him take songs in directions that I hadn't intended. I do give him demos that are very comprehensive, they give him very, very clear guidance, but sometimes he'll just go off on one on a completely tangent, but I have enough faith in him that he can do that and I don't think that he's just wasting my time. Sometimes we argue; often we argue. But it's always very constructive and I've learned now that even when he goes on these strange tangents I need to give it a week. I mustn't give an instant knee-jerk reaction to it. I need to live with it because sometimes, it's quite a radical departure. Sometimes it doesn't work and sometimes a week later, I'm still saying, "I'm sorry, man, but for me, that's just a step too far. It's not working, let's come back to the demo and start again." But sometimes it does work. So it's always interesting and it's always good sense to let him get his ideas and go off because sometimes it just goes somewhere fantastic. Not always, but sometimes. We work really well together, although we don't work together. It's all done remotely. I send him songs, he works on them in his own studio and then he'll send me the stuff back and then the discussions will start and we'll go backwards and forwards and backwards and forwards. There's a song on the album called "Here In The Black." I think the version that we ended up committing to was version thirty-one. So we do work hard on these things, and we really do progress to make sure that we're getting the best out of any particular songs. There's another song on there called "Lost," which is essentially a piano and a vocal. That song, almost from day one he was saying, "I just don't think I can do anything with this, as a piano and vocal it's already working. It just doesn't need a massive production, just some minor tweaking here and there." Some songs, he'll get and he'll say it doesn't really need anything, it doesn't really need a big production. So I trust his honesty. It's a very easy relationship. It's not without its arguments. I'm not saying it's angelic, but it's a very good, constructive relationship. We've made three albums together and I'm very proud of all of them. I think Splinter is the pick of the crop at the moment.
MR: What does the future look like for Gary Numan?
GN: The obvious answers are there's lots of touring, there's a film that we're working on in December and January, I'm trying to get a new album ready by the end of next year, and there's a lot of touring planned for next year. I do it in small chunks because I miss my children and I don't like to be away from them for too long. I do lots of little bits of touring with gaps in between where I can be back at home. When I have those gaps, the children are at school from eight 'til four, so I'm going to be writing the new album eight 'til four. It's like a job. It's been seven years since the last one and that's just ridiculous. There's a big reason for that one, depression, but that's all gone away now. I feel a momentum with Splinter and I feel a sort of interest, which is very, very encouraging and gives me a lot of optimism about the future. I think it's very important for me to have another good album ready within a year and a half. That's my aim.
MR: That's beautiful, and I wish you all the best with everything and with you and your family. I appreciate your time, Gary. Let's do this again.
GN: Oh, you're welcome, any time. I'm always happy to chat.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Katey Sagal
Mike Ragogna: Can we take a couple of seconds and talk about Covered? The track list covers songs by Jackson Browne, Laura Nyro, Tom Petty and also amazingly, Tonio K. How did you pick the material and what was the album's mission?
Katey Sagal: It was a long process. The last couple of records I've made, I wrote most everything on the record, so that was an easier process. I just wasn't writing anything I really liked that much, to tell you the truth, and I thought, "I really want to make a record," so Bob and I just listened through tons of music. Laura Nyro was somebody that I listened to as a kid and was incredibly inspirational to me, that's why I taught myself to play the piano; I wanted to be Laura Nyro and I would write these very bad songs that mimic Laura Nyro. Then I was very influenced by soulful folk music, so I really wanted to have a roots feeling to the record. It's difficult to say what the big picture was. I think it's just that we wanted to find songs that had an emotional pull for me. All that music does. I'm a big Steve Earle fan, I would've done three or four Steve Earle songs.
MR: He's amazing, isn't he? And a Joni Mitchell song is on Covered, though you do a different kind of version of her "For Free."
KS: The whole goal was to do different kind of versions. Bob [Thiele, Jr.] is an amazing arrange; it's kind of what he's done on Sons Of Anarchy. We take a lot of music and redo it. So with that in mind, I too wanted to find a different approach to things. That's kind of why we put a clarinet on "For Free," we tried things like that.
MR: Let's get to your Jackson Browne duet on "Goodbye," the Steve Earle song. It seems like you've got a connection to Jackson Browne.
KS: It's funny, I know him socially because I'm from Los Angeles and I've been around and I was really around in the music scene long before I was an actor. I don't even remember where I know him from, I just know him. I kept running into him right around the time I was making the record. When we cut that song, we didn't think of it as a duet, and then we just did. I went down to see Jackson sit in at McCabe's--he sits in with this band called Jack S**t--I don't know if you've ever heard of them, they're really awesome, they're great. Jackson was sitting in and he was using the guitar player and the violin player that I have on my track, so I was talking to him and said, "Will you just come in and sing?" He said, "Yes." It just sounded beautiful, it was great. And his "For A Dancer" was the last song we recorded for the record. That's just one of the better songs ever written.
MR: To me, it especially works because it closes the thought on what comes before, following the song "Orphan Girl." And you cover Gillian Welch.
KS: Well, I'm familiar with that song from Emmylou Harris' version. I just love the song, and then we listened to a bunch of different versions and kind of landed at it there, because there's a couple of different ways to do the song. It's funny, my mother was a singer, she was a yodeler, and she sang a lot of that Appalachian music. She's the one who taught me how to play the guitar as a kid and taught me folk music. I think I'm just drawn to that type of music, so I really wanted to have a song like that on the record.
MR: Are you drawn to it to the point where someday you might do a project that's more traditional, maybe even with T-Bone Burnett?
KS: I would love to do that. I love country music, too. I love all of that, so yeah, yeah.
MR: How different was the process of recording Covered from your other two albums, Well and Room?
KS: Well was when I was on Virgin Records, so it was a big professional record in terms of a big studio and big budget and all of that. I was working with Bob Thiele back then and I felt like the demos we made--because I wrote a lot for that record--I felt that a lot of the demos were better than what we ended up with on the big professional recording for the big labels. So that was a different process, even though I like Rupert Hine who was my producer on that. I thought he was great. But Bob and I started working together then, and my second one, Bob and I produced, and we did it at his house and he was just learning how to use the studio. [laughs] I think he self-professed about it, so we kind of bumbled our way through that, but I like that record. This record, I feel like I've matured in terms of being more committed to what I like and what I don't like. I feel like I know what I like and what I don't like and I'm not afraid to talk about it or say it so the process was really great, it was a really wonderful, not scary process, because it can be scary.
MR: Having a project and committing to the project.
MR: You've had a very busy career as an actor with successful series after successful series. It's almost like acting got in the way of your music career.
KS: I got to a point in my life where I was making a living as a musician, but I was definitely living paycheck to paycheck. I remember thinking to myself in my late twenties, "I don't know how to do anything else." It's like this or I don't know what. I was really up against a wall, but I had acted over the years. I had tried to put my foot in that and thought about it. I thought, "Well, if I ever want to be an actor, I'll do it later in my life" and "later" just got right then. So it didn't really get in the way. The first five years that I was actually being a professional actor, I would still play music all the time because I didn't really have faith in it yet. I didn't know if that was something that I would really learn on the job how to do; I just had no idea. So it wasn't so much that it got in the way as that it kind of scooped me up and showed me, "Oh yeah, you know how to do something else, too."
MR: One of your musical stops was as one of Bette Midler's harlots. That had to have been somewhat of a party.
KS: Well, I wouldn't call it a party. I mean, it was a fantastic gig, but it was really hard. She taught me well. She has an amazing work ethic, so we traveled all over the world, but we rehearsed that show constantly. I remember rehearsing in the lobby of the hotel before we'd go to do a gig. Because that was involved with so much singing and dancing, you had to be sort of multi-purpose, so I was mostly just the singer. I had to kind of get another skillset with that job. But I wouldn't really call it a party. The Etta James gig was probably more of a party. [laughs]
MR: Say more!
KS: Because I sang onstage with Etta, I traveled with her, too, but it was different. I traveled with her in a bus across the country, but that was awesome because she used to let me open the show for her. We played in all kinds of different places...we opened for The Rolling Stones. That was a really cool gig.
MR: And you're on "Soul Kiss." That's my favorite Olivia Newton-John recording, love that recording.
KS: Yeah, I do to. I recorded that song myself. I think she found that song from a demo I had done; I think I was trying to get a record deal with it. My friend Mark Goldenberg wrote that song and when she found it, she brought me in to sing that background on it. That's a good song. Another one, I sang "Treat Me Right" before Pat Benatar recorded it.
KS: I have a couple of those songs, where I just felt like everybody's next thing and then something would happen and somebody else would take it.
MR: You also sang with Molly Hatchet and Gene Simmons.
KS: Yeah. When you're a background singer, you sort of have to be a jack of all trades, you have to sing in different styles. That was the day when you'd do publishing demos, so publishers would bring you in to sing songwriters' songs and they would have a particular artist in mind of who you're trying to sell that song to, so you'd try to fit into that mold. I don't know if that still goes on. It seems like now, every songwriter is also a singer. It used to be there were singers and then there were songwriters. Nashville still does that.
MR: You were there during the last days of the Brill Building mentality, before it switched.
KS: Yeah, I think so. I was sort of there right before it switched.
MR: Other than "Treat Me Right," was there another major song that happened with?
KS: I did a version of "I Can't Stand The Rain." I cut a demo and the next thing I knew, Tina Turner's producer... You'd shop your demos and then all of a sudden, I heard this arrangement. Tina Turner had come to see my gig with her producer and they went on to have a big hit with it. I didn't write the song, they didn't take it from me, but I was so trying to get to a certain place and I knew I had good taste in music. I was picking good songs and then other people would go on to have big success with them.
MR: Katey, you were Peg Bundy, you were in Futurama, and now you're in the hugely popular Sons Of Anarchy. What's that story?
KS: Well my husband writes the show, he created the show, and he said to me, "I think I have a part for you." My husband's a great writer, so I was excited that he would have anything for me. I think the character was actually formulated to not quite be as big a character as she ended up being. It just evolved into this thing. Even Married With Children was a real longshot; nobody really had faith in it. Sons Of Anarchy was like that, too. There was a lot of resistance putting it on the air because it was different. But it just kind of worked out that people responded to it. It's been amazing.
MR: When you look at virtually every other acting role that you've had, including Peg Bundy, each is a fairly hard role to play. It all runs a little different than how Katey Sagal is, right?
KS: Oh yeah, it definitely does. But that period where I was not sure I was an actor, not sure that I was going to have to go back to my real job. I think I sort of consciously wanted to play a character that really had a different look than mine so that I could go back into my real job. I wasn't sure what was going on exactly when I started that job. It was very different for me and I think a lot of that was intentional.
MR: Hey, what advice do you have for new artists?
KS: Well, I could speak about my children. They're all in the arts and my son is an incredible musician, so I tell him all the time, just write, don't censor yourself, enjoy it, and practice. The thing about show business that it does so well, I find, is that it makes it look very fun and easy. That is the job of it, to entertain and to not feel laborious. The truth is that there is a lot of hard work behind that relaxed front. You have to work hard; it doesn't come easy to the artist. You want to put your best foot forward. If you're a writer, you have to write all the time and if you're a player, you have to play and you have to play all the time. I don't care if that's in your room or wherever. I come from a background of this sort of business. I just watched my dad and he worked very, very hard, so I think that's important. My advice would be practice.
MR: I really appreciate the time and wish you all the best with the album, Katey.
KS: Thank you so much.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
SHELBY LYNNE'S "CALL ME UP"
According to the artist....
"I had the song in my head and I was ready to go as soon as I walked into the studio door. Maxine Waters was with me, the guys had already made their way over, not knowing what to expect. I didn't either really because I had never met Ed Maxwell on bass, and Michael Jerome was set to play the drums, had never met him either. Ben Peeler was my lead man. I told him I wanted to record some gospel tunes in the desert, when could he hand-pick some players and get them over there, I'd be ready with songs in hand. He was the man responsible for pulling together the heads for this recording.
Maxine and I walked in the door to these handsome, smiling faces, introductions were made. I had Stella on my back because I had carried her in that way from the Jeep. She is my 1920's acoustic guitar I bought in Tucson not too long ago. She would be the fitting rhythm for this tune. It needed to jump! Jump! So while we were all standing around about to get too comfortable I reached around and pulled Stella to my front, and said "Fellas, lets hit a little of this." Jason Harter and I have worked together for years enough to know how I roll. I don't want to see a camera, I never do do-overs and LIVE is my WAY. Whatever happens is suppose to happen and there you have it.
So he was rolling video, tape, digital, whatever they call it now, when we walked in the door. By the middle of the second pass, I stopped and told engineer Grady Price 'Let's get RED...let's cut it now before we lose it.' So what you see here is our little video that Jason put together with what he gathered during the actual recording of the song 'Call Me Up.' That day, that minute, those very seconds, I told Jason that if this video had cost a million dollars, I wouldn't have liked it as much. Cheers and peace!"
FYI, "Call Me Up" is from Shelby Lynne's new Thanks EP out on November 19th.
A Conversation with Los Lobos' Steve Berlin
Mike Ragogna: Steve, Disconnected In New York City was recorded at The City Winery in New York. Why that venue? What was it like that night?
Steve Berlin: Well, to answer the first question first, we don't really get to do many multiple-night stays, where you get the chance to stay in place and play and see a venue across more than one night, that's very rare. So the fact that we had three nights in New York City and in a place that we knew and liked a lot, it's a great venue, that's why we chose it. It was a no-brainer at that point as we were discussing what we were going to do for this fortieth anniversary thing. That's what we came up, so that's why we chose it. I remember the nights; they were a blast. It's always fun to be in New York City full stop, and it was Christmas time in New York City, so it was really kind of magical. Most of us had our families with us, so it was just really relaxed, more so than most New York shows. It was a warm environment. Fun for everybody, I think.
MR: Did it feel like a celebration of your forty years together?
SB: Honestly, Michael, we don't ever do that. We never stop and smell the roses or celebrate that stuff. It's literally zero. We just play on and don't really think about any of that stuff. Even when we have to, it's sort of like, "Eh." We had to acknowledge the fortieth some way or another, whether it be making another record...we kind of did the celebratory thing for our thirtieth anniversary with The Ride. But that's really the hardest part of being together this long. You've sort of done, in one way or another, every variation you can do. So it's really hard to come up with something you haven't tried in the past and this is the one thing we hadn't done, something semi-acoustic, finding older material that fans hadn't asked us to play. We tried to bring some of that stuff into the set list for the record, and also "La Bamba." We'd never actually done "La Bamba" live, which was kind of nice. That was another good reason to do a live record.
MR: Los Lobos is still a pretty powerful musical force to this day. What are your thoughts about the cool career that you guys have had to this point?
SB: I consider myself the luckiest man on Earth, basically. It's kind of ridiculous that you get to do this at all much less for this many years, so that would be the first thing that I would say. I don't know...there's not really a lot of paradigms for what we've done or what we're doing. The Allman Brothers have changed many members over the years, and The Dead--well, without Jerry it's really not The Dead--so it's the same lineup for this many years, same everything, same guys. I can only tell you that it's something that we literally never think about, not ever, not once. No one's ever internally brought up anything about acknowledging or commemorating or, "Gee, isn't this wild, we've done this for so long." I don't think any of us consider ourselves anything more than very talented craftsmen. We just kind of plow through it. It's a job that we do and we do well, and we're amply rewarded for doing it but as far as our place in history and all that stuff it never crops up. We just don't think about it.
MR: How about internally, Los Lobos now versus Los Lobos early years? And how are the dynamics within the band forty years later?
SB: On many levels, really nothing has changed. We're still the exact same guys doing the exact same thing in the exact same way, so there's not been a wholesale change in that respect. There's not anything that we're doing that much differently than we did in the past. I think if anything, one of the things people ask me is, "What keeps you guys together for so long?" and there are a lot of answers to that question. One of the answers is the fact that the guys had families before we started. In other words, we were already kind of grownups, much more so than the other people that I was playing with and the other people in "The LA Scene," they had kids and mortgages and that stuff before anybody knew what they were up to, before the first record, before anything we were sort of already well into adult-like life and making adult decisions and concerning themselves about taking care of families and all that stuff. So I think to a certain extent, that ethos affected the fact that we don't really change that much. I work with a lot of young bands, I've been lucky enough to work with people across a number of records and you sort of see them grow up as people and stop f**king around and stop partying non-stop and all of that stuff. To a certain extent, the fact that these guys had families at twenty and were all past that point when the process began I think to specifically answer your question, that's why we haven't changed that much. There wasn't really much of a growing up process as we received adulation and a little more money and press and stuff, they were well into adulthood. It took me a little longer to grow up than it did for them, but I think that's one thing. Again to answer your question specifically, the only thing that's really changed is that we have to make more time for families. We really don't tour for very long. The longest stretch for any tour these days might be ten or fifteen days tops because the guys are grandfathers. The family thing and taking care of stuff at home actually becomes more intense than usual, plus the guys don't really like to be out that long anyway. So that would be the one thing I would say, twenty years ago it wasn't unusual to stay out for three weeks or so. That's really the only palpable difference I can see.
MR: One of my favorite songs by Los Lobos is "Just A Matter Of Time," which almost seems like the storyline could've been a metaphor for the band.
SB: Yeah, that's very true.
MR: I guess you've already answered the next question, "Will The Wolf Survive?" You certainly did.
SB: Yeah, right? I'd say it's hard to argue the evidence!
MR: [laughs] Steve, what advice do you have for new artists?
SB: Don't. Don't bother. [laughs] That's a joke. In many ways, this current landscape is, on some levels, much fairer than the one that existed previously although we were huge beneficiaries of that system. I don't know if Los Lobos in 2013 would make it forty years just because it's so much harder. We were able to build a fan base and grow with a little more nurturing because we had a record label. The stuff that went along with being a touring band was a little easier for us to do as opposed to these days when every band is basically an entrepreneurial unit where they're having to pay for and do all of the stuff that we didn't really have to deal with. But on the other hand, the fact that these bands today are entrepreneurial units and learning about not just making music but building a business and how that actually works and how the real world actually works, in some respects, that's very healthy, I think. If the 2013 Los Lobos, whoever they might be, can figure all of that stuff out and do all of that stuff, I think it's going to be a good deal in the long run for them, but I just think it's so much harder to get to that. We were able to make a living and feed our families, really, from the very first song. We were able to get a booking agent early on, we were able to tour and make enough money. It was not a lot of money, but it was enough to cover living with a wife and kids. These days, I really don't think that first rung of that ladder--getting from zero to the place where you're feeding your family and taking care of all of your stuff--I think that ladder got a lot higher. I think in the long run, getting from zero to that place, I have nothing but the deepest sympathy for the people that are doing it. I'm working with a lot of them myself and I see the struggle involved and it just seems like the stage of starving is a much, much longer stage than in times past. I would say if you want to do this for a living, just be prepared to go without for a very long time and be prepared to learn about a hell of a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with music, per se, but a lot to do with not working for anybody. Basically, you are your own record label, you are your own public liaison, you are your own booking agent, you are your own travel agent, all of the stuff that we had people doing for us for a very long time, and I have to say doing an amazing job doing it, especially in the early days. I don't especially see bands at the early stages getting any of that. Basically they have to learn to do all of that stuff themselves, which, to get longer-winded here, the internet, which really didn't exist when we started, makes a lot of stuff relatively easy, but I don't think when it comes time to pay the rent I'm not sure if it makes it all that much easier.
MR: What's down the pike for Los Lobos?
SB: That's a good question. We'll be touring for the rest of this year, certainly, and then if I'm not mistaken, next year, there'll be a tour late winter. Early spring, we'll actually be touring in disconnected format. There'll be a bunch of stuff this year and then next year, the fortieth anniversary year we'll be doing a lot more of these disconnected shows and doing a lot of stuff around the anniversary.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne