A Conversation with Michael Penn
Mike Ragogna: Michael, what have you been up to recently?
Michael Penn: I've been busy scoring stuff, I've been working on the Showtime show Masters Of Sex and I've been working on Girls for HBO and that's what I've been doing.
MR: At the moment, you're kind of putting the singer-songwriter thing aside and concentrating on TV and film. Is that just a shifting focus as far as your career or creativity right now?
MP: It was a decision or a series of decisions that I made over the last few years as the music business has disintegrated before our eyes. I sort of feel like the music business--recorded music, not live--has been sort of the canary in the coalmine for all media in the digital age. I grew up primarily in the seventies, when you could have this romantic notion that you could have a career making records. I love playing live, but what I really, really enjoy doing is making records and making recorded music. To me, it's as different as writing a play or writing a movie. So for me, I saw that unless you wanted to tour there was really no middle class in record making anymore. You were either fronted by a multinational corporation because you were a super commercial act or you were slugging away in your bedroom. So for me, somebody who really likes to make new s**t and not necessarily just play a group of songs on a tour all the time I gravitated towards this, and I feel very blessed because I get to continue to create new recorded music and make a living off of it. I have a great job.
MR: It seems like a natural evolution for people who got into music to write songs for themselves, then many score films and TV and move on to other creative musical formats. It seems like a natural growth.
MP: There are other aspects that make it a very enjoyable thing for me. I think if the business had remained what it was I would've probably wound up doing it anyway, but I sort of felt like it was expedited just by nature of what happened with the music business and the fact that they don't make an object anymore. That's really what it comes down to: There's no longer any manufacturing. We used to take these wave forms that we've created and embed them in a piece of plastic, and then that piece of plastic got smaller and now we don't even embed them in anything, so now it's completely up for grabs. That's a depressing reality, and it sort of reminds you that the idea of music as an ojbect really only dates back to the nineteenth century with sheet music. Before that it was all live performance. So I guess we're going back to that in some way. I talk to people who I view as very smart on every other level who say with conviction that they believe that music should be free. It's because music is now viewed as data, and data's supposed to be free. To me, that's very sad. But I feel very grateful because I get to do this and make a living at this, and it does also contain something that I miss making records; to me, making a record is a very solitary thing, and to me, scoring is very collaborative. I haven't felt that sort of collaborative spirit since I was in a band.
MR: You're working with a team now.
MP: In the case of Girls, it's just Lena Dunham, and in the case of Masters Of Sex it's the showrunner Michelle Ashford. The collaborative nature of that is not like a committee, they're both really pleasurable in that way.
MR: Has your creativity changed a little bit because of the TV music focus? Does the muse come in a different way now?
MP: For me, the collaboration is sort of akin to working with a lyricist. There's no lyrics in the score, so you're basically working with the scenes as lyric and trying to find a way to emotionally support what's going on with that. It is very different from writing a song because writing a song you just start with a blank piece of paper and you go to town, but there's an ebb and flow to this.
MR: What's the next step for you?
MP: I don't really think about it that way. I don't have any game plan, I feel fortuante to have people interested in hiring me to make music for them and then I get to enjoy my life and make music. The extent of any kind of planning beyond that is to try to keep growing as a composer and try to explore the things that interest me in terms of sonics and in terms of melody and in terms of influences and those sorts of things, but that's about it.
MR: How often is it your job to add extra subtext into the scene if the shot doesn't quite capture it?
MP: There really haven't been any issues like that that are that overt. There have certainly been moments in both shows where they really want some aspect emphasized through score to help it along. But the balance to writing score is a lot of times you want to completely stay out of the way and be extremely subtle and essentially neutral and then other times you need to be a little less subtle, and then the third type to me is the piece of music where you're actually helping bring the audience along emotionally in a way, where you're actively taking a lead role in that. The unfortunate thing for film composers and television composers is those moments when they arrive these days are often taken up by a licensed song, so the composer doesn't actually get to do those moments as much, where suddenly, if a film or a TV show really wants to say something, they get it to actually, literally say something and put a song in. But I've been really fortunate because both Girls and Masters Of Sex have allowed me to have moments that really do that and those are, for me, really most enjoyable, because that's when I can really dive into melody.
MR: Do you feel like having been a lyricist and a singer-songwriter gives you a certain edge for storytelling in the scenes you're providing music for?
MP: Well, I would hope so. I don't know that you have to be a lyricist to actually have that sensitivity, but I think that whatever it is that allows me to be a lyricist also allows me to be sensitive to what's going on and be able to pick up on subtext. It's also nice to be working on well-written shows because you don't have things happen that are contradictory to actual human behavior.
MR: One of your more fascinating projects was Mr. Hollywood Jr. 1947, where the songs were set against post-World War II Los Angeles. That's a pretty intense concept. If you can come up with projects like that and you can come up with songs that fit in with film or TV, et cetera, you have a real voice. What is it about your projects that make them uniquely Michael Penn?
MP: I have no idea. This is getting very esoteric. I can't help but have whatever I do be that because I am that, so there you go. Apart from that I don't know. I have my set of interests and my set of interests get blended with other sets of interests when I'm collaborating on a score. As far as my last record, which was ages ago, that was just something that interested me as a jumping off point. I was actually thinking of my father who served in World War II and came back to Los Angeles, and I imagined myself in that place. It was a strange time. That record was written in 2004 and I had been seeing the country, post 9/11 going into a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder. I really do think that a country as a whole has a psychology to it and I think that the traumatized nation that we were just made me think of a traumatized guy coming back from a war and that just kind of lead me to write this record that in my head was kind of like a musical, where it's almost all dialog between people who are in this situation in that year.
MR: And you've also been a producer, working with Aimee Mann, The Wallflowers, Liz Phair... Are you still signing up for those kinds of gigs?
MP: I never actually sought those gigs out, but I really do love producing. When I was growing up, I was as obsessed with George Martin as I was with Lennon and McCartney. I was as obsessed with Brian Wilson as an arranger and record maker as I was with his melodies. To me, the record making process is really interesting and rewarding but to produce somebody else's music is pretty all-encompassing and I can't really do anything else while I'm doing that. It's really getting inside somebody's head for a while to bring what they want out. It wasn't really anything I really sought after but I got a call here and there and would do it. But it's fun, I'd do it again if the opportunity arose.
MR: Your "No Myth" was a pretty big hit. When did you know making records is what you wanted to do?
MP: I abandoned LA for years, and one thing lead to another and I finally got signed and was able to make a record. But I made a record in 1989, which was really kind of the beginning of the end. 1989 was probably the last year that most of the major labels actually put out vinyl. It had started to shift to digital and mine was a story that was similar to a lot of artists'. The guy who was running RCA at the time, Bob Buziak who quit because it was becoming this monolithic corporate model where labgels were merging with giant multi-national corporations, realized that just from that standpoint, things were getting f**ked-up. Anybody that knew anything about computers kind of realized that if the object of the vinyl record was going away, the CD was not going to be something that would keep the genie in its bottle.
It was a very tough period for me right away. After the success of the first album it became tough because we suddenly had a label where nobody who signed me was there and I got shuffled around and it was rough going. But I got to make records and that kept me happy. I'm not somebody who's that fond of the Kickstarter model mostly because I don't like the idea of somebody paying me money before I know what I'm doing. The problem is I would need a year to write a record, or at least six months to write a record, not doing anything. I'm not going to ask somebody to pay for me to live for six months while I write a record that I may or may not be happy with. So right now, I'm doing this and I'm having a ball and that's good by me.
MR: Well that's the model, though, isn't it. But even that seems to be fading out. I don't hear much about the Kickstarter campaigns backing new artists as much. To me, it seemed like the mommy and daddy paradigm to me.
MP: But that paternal aspect of it was always in play with record companies, too, but they were at least professionally doing that. They weren't people giving their hard-earned money to get something in advance of it being made. That, to me, makes it a little strange. But that's really where we are, recorded music is now this weird thing that's straddling between commerce and charity, and that's just too bad. That's just sad.
MR: Michael, what advice do you have for new artists?
MP: Do what means something to you. That's all I can say. If you had asked me that question twenty years ago, which someone did, my answer would have been, "Learn HTML." At this point, I'm not sure that matters. But I have no answer for what's going on with the way the business side of things exist now. It just seems completely in flux to me. I don't think anybody's got a real clear view of what it can be. It's ultimately going to be up to the large, multi-national corporations to figure out what kind of model they're going to create to reimburse people for work. If live music is your thing, that's great because you'll always be able to play live. But if recofrded music is your thing, that's going to get tougher and tougher, I think.
MR: Are you still playing live to satisfy that aspect of your art?
MP: I don't really have time. I have to sort of be in that mode in a fairly regular way to be able to do that, even if it's a one-off thing. When I did this song for Girls, I really had to get back in voice and all of that stuff. I wish I had time to do that; hopefully at some point, I will again. I used to do a monthly thing at Largo in Los Angeles. I would love to do something like that again, but right now, I'm too busy, which is a great problem to have.
MR: What's the next thing you feel like doing?
MP: I just love doing good projects. If something is good and they want me to do music for it, I enjoy that. That's the extent to which I think about it. I've been extraordinarily lucky working with people who are extremely talented. I never thought I would get into this and then Paul Thomas Anderson called me and said he thought I could score stuff. So that sort of set me off on doing it. I've been extremely fortunate to work with really creative, really smart people.
MR: Do you still have the acting bug?
MP: Oh, I've never had the acting bug. I was in Boogie Nights kicking and screaming. I've never had that bug.
Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Foghat's Roger Earl
Mike Ragogna: Hello...Roger, can you hear me?
Roger Earl: I can hear you fine, actually, and that's pretty good because I played drums in a rock 'n' roll band for fifty years, so my hearing is somewhat challenged. [laughs]
MR: Roger, I'm very happy to talk to you and let's get right into it. Foghat had an interesting contest, can you tell me how this came together?
RE: Well this is a long story. On our last studio album, we did an instrumental called "495 Boogie" that my brother Colin played piano on and basically brought to the table. It's the only instrumental that Foghat ever did. There was a DJ down in Mississippi somewhere, I believe, who wrote some lyrics to it called "Big American Blonde" that were a little risqué. But that planted the seed of making a competition to write lyrics for it. We had a competition for lyric writing for the song and there were two people--actually the standard was pretty amazing--but a guy called Phil Dessinger came first and we released it and then because we liked Tom Mix's version of it, who was a warrant officer and a pilot, we liked his version as well so we couldn't really make up our minds, so we did both of them. Tom Mix's version is coming out, we've actually met him. He's a really cool guy. He's back here Stateside now. We met him down in Florida, he came to one of the shows down there. All the proceeds from this song will go towards Fishing For Freedom. I fish, therefore I am. It's something that's close to my heart. Tom Mix is also an avid fisherman. I don't know what we're going to raise, whether we can buy a lure or we could buy fishing tackle or someone a plane ticket, we'll just have to wait and see, but you have to try and do something, no matter what your feelings are about he wars that are going on.
The men and women that are over there are as far as I'm concerned the best of the best, especially the wounded warriors that come back, it's just very sad and if you can do something to brighten up their day I'll do that. In fact, a number of years back we went to the hospital down in D.C. and met a number of the warriors down there and they had some horrendous wounds, arms and legs gone and all they could do was go back to their units in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's veyr humbling when you meet them. On my end, I just think it's so sad, any drop of American or English blood that's spilled over there. It's just sad. I feel bad that at this time and in this age we're sending out the best of the best over there to die in some sand pit. Maybe I shouldn't go there. Don't get me started! But I have friends that are over there like sons, I have a nephew in England who is a captain in the English army that was over there, he's out of it now. When you meet these people, especially the ones who have been wounded, it's very humbling. So anything I can do.
MR: That's beautiful. You know, we train them rough, we get them tough, but they're still our kids.
RE: And it's largely a volunteer force! Army, Marines, Navy, and that's impressive as well. I think we've obviously come a long way to be able to do that, but I also think that when they come back... I don't know all the details, but I get the feeling that they're not treated as well as they should be. These people, as far as I'm concerned, are special. These men and women have been on the front line for us and for the government. We should be there when they come back with anything and everything they need. This is the richest country in the world and if we can't take care of our men and women who come back to the Nth degree, there's a problem.
MR: It seems veterans are always caught in the middle of politics.
RE: Right. Exactly. I was fortunate enough that I never had to go to war. They stopped conscription in England about three or four years before I came of age, so I'm grateful for that. I get the feeling that I might not have made it out of there if I'd been in the war. But I have a number of friends and I've met many, many men and women that have been in the military and over the years I have a great respect for them, I really do, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. These men and women are real special and they should be treated as such.
MR: Yeah. Let's also move to Foghat. What's some news with Foghat these days?
RE: We just released a live DVD, which you probably know about. We released that earlier this year, we've been down in our studio in Florida working on a new album, we've probably got between six and twelve songs already done, we're probably going to have a number of guests on our next album. I think maybe we need a helping hand, we're getting old, you know. [laughs]
MR: But it's a party and you're just inviting all your friends!
RE: Yeah. Even from our very first album back in 1971, we probably had at least half a dozen other musicians helping us out, whether it was recording or getting tea and biscuits or actually playing on the record. We've often done that over the years, not that they always got credit for it. I think it's important, like on our last album we had a number of guests and it worked, because the nucleus of our band, the four of us is fine, but when you get an injection of somebody else's ideas is fun. Making music has to be enjoyable. We're working, as far as your craft goes, learning your gig and playing is kind of subjective. But I love making music, I love playing, so be careful what you wish for, right?
MR: Exactly! Hey, I remember there being a Foghat song in the classic flick, Dazed And Confused.
RE: [laughs] They hade a couple of our songs in that movie, they had "I Just Wanna Make Love To You" and I believe--this was back when the CDs went gold--my manager and my wife, I said to her, "I think it's time I had a hot rod, I haven't had a hot rod in a while," and she said, "Next gold album." I said, "We just had one!" and she said, "That doesn't count."
MR: [laughs] Good for her!
RE: That's probably why we're still in the black.
MR: But what do you think about how Foghat sits in the culture?
RE: It's difficult for me to actually view it like that. Maybe if I was in The Rolling Stones I'd view it a little differently, but really I just look at it like I'm just real fortunate that I play with some great musicians, good friends, and just the fact that I'm still here and able to do it. It's all I ever wanted to do when I was a little kid and I first started listening to music and riding my bike to school and singing Jerry Lee Lewis songs and Johnny Cash songs. Be careful what you wish for.
MR: Speaking of Johnny Cash, I interviewed Carlene Carter yesterday. What a history.
RE: Oh really? I'm a huge Johnny Cash fan, in fact, we just recorded a Johnny Cash song. I can't tell you what it is, though. I was sitting there saying, "I've always wanted to do a Johnny Cash song" and this other guitar player I was writing with at the time actually did a version of "Folsom Prison Blues," which is great. So I don't know if we could do that, but there's this one Johnny Cash song which I've always wanted to record. We did it and hopefully it will be on the next album.
MR: Sweet. Congratulations, man! Hey, what advice do you have for new artists?
RE: Get a real job. No, I think with music you do it because you want to play, because you feel like you've got something to say and it's the most important thing in your life. You don't do it because you want to becom e a rich rock 'n' roll star, it's because of the music, because you have a love and a passion. There's going to be a lot of hard work and a lot of heartbreak, but the thing is I think if you want to do it you're going to do it one way or another. I've been penniless a couple of times, sort of laying in the gutter, pissing in my pants--well, not quite that bad--wondering where the next sandwich and a bottle of wine is going to come from. You do it because you have a love and a passion for music. That's why we still make records, usually in the winter time we go down to Florida, we have a studio down there and a house and we just hang out and play and record and have fun doing it. It's not for any other reason. I think when you're involved with music you do it because, like I said before, you have a passion for it. My passion hasn't diminished. I've played with some great musicians and we have fun, what can I tell you?
MR: Nice, thanks. You know, "Slow Ride" has never gone away.
RE: They did slow ride on a Firestone commercial, one of the fans told me about it. It's pretty amazing.
MR: What's the reason, you think?
RE: Well, the arrangement was a lot of fun, but it basically is a John Lee Hooker riff, instead of doing it as a shuffle you do it as a straightforward beat. It came from a jam, we were jamming and Rod [Price] the original guitar player and I had a house out here in Long Island--that was the original odd couple--anyway, Nick Jameson had just joined us and it came from a jam in the basement, the whole arrangement came from the jam and then Dave [Peverett] said, "Uh, I've got some words." In fact, a lot of the ideas come from that, we'd have a riff and just ist there and jam. When we were down in Florida for the last two or three weeks we'd sit outside until two or three in the morning just playing and then forget to turn ont he recorder, oh dear. We were probably drinking wine by that time.
MR: What are a couple of your proudest moments in Foghat?
RE: Oh, probably 1977. We did Foghat's Tribute To The Blues at the Palladium in New York City, basically, Foghat was the house band and we backed John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Johnny Winter, Eddie "Blues Man" Kirkland, Pinetop Perkins played piano, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith on drums. That was probably a highlight of my life. We raised money for the new Public Library. They didn't have a decent collection of blues records; in fact, I believe Dave actually picked out three or four thousand albums that they needed and raised money for it. Back then, we had more money than sense. As my mom used to say, "If you have a penny, you have more money than sense."
MR: I heard the Palladium show, it's pretty legendary.
RE: Yeah, that was a highlight. I also got to meet Willie Dixon and have dinner at his house outside of Chicago, that was a bit of a highlight. It's really cool when you meet your musical heroes and not only do they not let you down, but you realize how special they were and how brilliant they were. Willie Dixon wrote and produced countless great songs. Without him there would be a great hole in the musical repertoire.
MR: What do you think is happening in the blues world these days? What state do you think it's in?
RE: Well, if you play in a blues band you're doing it because you love to play and not because of the money. Blues players are notorious for not getting their fair share. But actually, the blues community at the moment is very healthy, there's some fantastic bands and performers out there and it's getting very well-organized. I usually try to get down to the Memphis Blues Awards, I don't know if I'm going to get there this year, but I've been there a couple of times. It's healthy--blues. America has given music to the world with blues, jazz, gospel, rock 'n' roll... What does the rest of the world have? What did England have? "Hey Nonny Nonny" and "Greensleeves." But to be fair, Jeff Beck did do a great version of "Greensleeves." Jeff Beck does a great version of just about anything he touches.
MR: He's scary good. I listen to Jeff Beck and I have no idea who influenced him with that level of playing.
RE: He is a genius. An absolutely brilliant guitar player. I saw him last year at the Iridium Jazz Club in Manhattan. They did a DVD of it, Jeff Beck's Rock 'N' Roll Party. He was absolutely incredible. The smile didn't leave his place. He was playing for at least two hours with his band and all his guests. I got to say hello to him afterwards. He's having a good time with his music.
MR: What's the future look like for Foghat? Maybe touring to support your latest projects?
RE: Yeah, in those immortal words, "We're going to roll 'til we roll and rock 'til we drop!" We're booking dates as we speak, we usually do between sixty and seventy shows a year, we have one date booked in Sweden in June I believe, June 7th. We're trying to do a few other dates over there as well because we haven't played England since 1973. I think we did one show there. We're booking Germany, but because we didn't play there it's difficult to finally get shows. But we're playing in the Sweden rock festival, which I'm looking forward to. It's very well-organized. Yeah, we're going to be on the road. We're going to be out there somewhere.
MR: Got any words of wisdom?
RE: Let's see, words of wisdom... I think we talked about that when I said if you want to play music, do it because you love the music and you have a passion for it, not because you want to get rich or anything else. Having said that, I think it's a good idea to have an understanding of the music industry. It really changes almost daily, but most artists aren't interested in that, they're only interested in making music. I think that might be a reason why artists have notoriously been either mismanaged or don't have any money to show for it, even though they've been very successful. I'm a big fan of The Band and Levon Helm, of course, and it's such a sad story that he was basically in debt the day he died, same as a few other members of The Band. It seems a little incongruous that a band that was that successful has nothing in the end, but musicians are notoriously wasteful. We can't help ourselves, we're having fun, right?
Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne