Here's the latest on everyone's favorite group, The Decemberists:
"The Decemberists have announced the November 1 release of the b-sides EP Long Live The King, a companion piece to their #1 debuting breakout LP The King Is Dead. The 6-song EP features outtakes from The King Is Dead recording sessions at Pendarvis Farm including 'E. Watson' (with backing vocals from Laura Veirs and Annalisa Tornfelt), the horn-drenched 'Sonnet,' and a cover of The Grateful Dead's 'Row Jimmy,' as well as the home demo 'I 4 U & U 4 Me.' The CD and 10" vinyl versions of Long Live The King are available for pre-order now at The Decemberists' website and Amazon.com. The EP will also be released digitally through all digital retailers.
"NBC's Last Call With Carson Daly recently kicked off their Greek Week concert series with a performance by The Decemberists that was filmed live in concert at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. 'Calamity Song' is currently being featured on their website."
A Conversation with John Wesley Harding
Mike Ragogna: John, how are you?
John Wesley Harding: I'm doing good, how are you doing?
MR: Good, good. Now, as an author, you look at a work holistically, I imagine, the collection of its chapters. Did you take that approach to your new album, The Sound Of His Own Voice?
JWH: That's an interesting question. The easiest answer to that is no, it's not a kind of a concept album. But when I found out I was going to be making the album with all of these guys who play in The Decemberists, when I met them and thought that they would be a great set of players to make the record, I thought, "Well, I will get Scott to produce it, and Peter Buck from R.E.M lives in Portland, so that can be the core band." When they said yes they would do it, I definitely went through my 20 or 30 songs that I had around and picked the ones that I thought would suit their playing.
MR: There are two reasons that I'm grateful I'm interviewing you, one is I get to interview John Wesley Harding, and the other is I've been trying to get an interview with The Decemberists, so I guess this is the next best thing.
JWH: Well I'm pleased to be a slight disappointment. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Kidding, of course. John, let's talk about some of the other artists that are on here, like Rosanne Cash and also Peter Buck of R.E.M, which I guess have broken up as of a few of days ago.
JWH: I heard that myself.
MR: So how did you get some of these guests?
JWH: Well, you know, I've been making music for twenty something years now, and over the years, you meet many people in and out of your lives. They may or may not be your best friends, and you may or may not be close with their families, but there is a mutual respect and in some cases, that blossoms into very long friendships. For example, when I first came into America in 1990, I think my first ever solo show here was in Athens, Georgia. There, I was invited to stay at Peter Buck's house, and staying there was Nikki Sudden who has since sadly demised, and Billy Bragg; it was quite a wild scenario. It was my first time in town really, and my first solo show in America, so I've known Peter 21 years now. Scott, the producer of the record, came up to me at a show in Seattle in 1992 and said, "I'm a fan, I'm in the Young Fresh Fellows," and I said, "Fantastic." Now, bizarrely, he's not only in the Young Fresh Fellows, he's also in The Minus Five who was the backing band of my last album, and R.E.M who are now no more. Rosanne Cash, I met totally by chance in a New York lunch place. We were introduced, and I'm an artist-in-residence at this university, and I asked her to do a talk for the students with me because she's also a writer and musician. We've become very good friends, she's a great user of the social networking device Twitter, and we kind of keep in touch through that. So, I've known her a few years now, and her voice is so very recognizable to me, and I've loved it for so long that she is a very easy person to summon how good she would be in your mind of how good she would be in a song; then there's John Roderick of The Lone Winters who is quite a recent friend; also Laura Veirs--I needed a woman to sing the parts of the ghost of my ex-girlfriend in one of the songs; and Steve Berlin of Los Lobos does the horns on everything, and he produced an album for me in 1992 called Why We Fight. He also found me a place to live. I was his neighbor for a couple of years. So, as you can see, it's a lovely web of friendship and mutual history.
MR: Since we're throwing in all of these acts, you were the first act in 20 years in 1995 to be the opening act for Bruce Springsteen.
JWH: That's right.
MR: Nice. By the way, the title The Sound Of His Own Voice surely must have been inspired by the sound of your own voice.
JWH: Yeah, the working title of it was Songs About Songs because many of the songs seemed to have the word "song" in the title, but I never wanted to call the album that. And really, album titles with me, it's like we are hanging out with the musicians and having a great time and we recorded all 15 backing tracks in three days and did the vocal overdubs in two days, having rehearsed for two days. So, basically, the whole album took a week before the mixing. I'm just chucking titles out during that time, "What do you think of this one, or this one," and I rather like the idea of the tagline of the album being John Wesley Harding Loves The Sound Of His Own Voice and hopes you do to--or something like that. Then, I thought critics can write, "Dave Marsh loves The Sound Of His Own Voice." (laughs) I'm sure Dave will forgive me for that. I figured it would work both ways, and I'm kind of famous for talking, so I thought it was a good title. It kind of reminded me of "his master's voice" kind of thing, which is a very old record label kind of vibe. It's all floating around in there. I'm never usually keen on albums having a title track, like if I call the album Sing Your Own Song, it's out there, I've done it. But it immediately catapults that particular song to a level of importance that you never intended on the record. I've always followed the Dylan approach, where you think of an overall title that sums it up to you in every way. So, that's how it came about. I'm happy with it. Normally, at this stage, I'm kind of bored with the album but this one I like.
MR: "Sing Your Own Song," of course it's the premise of sing your own song and don't be turned off by everybody else's opinions.
JWH: That song is an unusually positive message for me.
MR: Would you say that your eye on life is more humorous or more cynical?
JWH: Exactly those two things.
JWH: Those two things, I think, go hand in hand, particularly in my work. The nicest thing somebody ever said to me--and I quote it a lot because it meant a lot to me and I can't remember who said it--somebody wrote me a postcard, this was before email, and said, "I love your songs because they have more depressing messages but you never sound like you're down about life." I thought that was an amazing thing to say, because that's kind of what I'm like. I kind of do have a cynical eye, but my taste is for pop music. That's what I like, and I would rather listen to ABBA than the latest depressed singer-songwriter. That's just the way I like my music to be. There's always a little bit of power pop in there, there's always a little bit of The Kinks, and the center of it all are the lyrics I like. They aren't inspired by but certainly in the same school of the people that I think are great lyricists, Randy Newman and John Prine and Leonard Cohen.
MR: Lyrically, I sometimes put you in the same category as a Paul Simon.
JWH: Well that's very interesting and I know that it's a compliment, but I very rarely understand Paul Simon lyrics to be honest. He has great lines popping out at me every now and then, but he's never a writer that I've totally gone, "I absolutely understand that song." I think with Paul Simon, it's a coming at you left, right, and center kind of thing, it's great writing, there's no doubt about it, but I think my songs are more probably self-explanatory. Nothing is really hidden in my songs. I've gotten better at it over the years, I had kind of a scattershot approach on my first few records. There were just so many, I thought, good ideas throwing around that it would just end up being satisfying. Now, I'm much more demanding about communicating the exact thing I thought to the listener. For example, the song that people ask me to play a lot is called "Hitler's Tears" on Why We Fight, and it's kind of my many thoughts on fascism and David Duke and what it represents. But if you pinned me down, I couldn't really tell you what that song's about, because it's a million thoughts all thrown together. Nowadays, I would never write that song in that way.
MR: Let's apply that to your novel writing. Would you have written Misfortune in the same way, reading it these days?
JWH: I would have written probably better, and there's nothing I don't like in that book. I'm very proud I have written it--it took me 7 years. What I learnt from that book is when you give readings, you find many things wrong with what you're reading. You make many cuts, you change words around, and that made me decide that my two novels since then...that the last thing I did before handing it in was do a dramatic reading of the novel. I hadn't figured that out for Misfortune, and if anybody asks me for advice, that's totally a piece of advice I would give any writer. Read it aloud, you will then know what is boring, what is unnecessary, and you will also know what is not beautiful, so then you can make some cuts.
MR: Did you do dramatic readings of Charles Jessold?
JWH: Oh yeah, I've done many of them, and sometimes, you cut the time and you want an 8-minute reading and you have to cut it down or something. With Jessold, I had done much of it already myself, because I had learned from Misfortune. In fact, I just gave this advice--well not advice--to Tony Visconti, the legendary rock 'n' roll producer who was on my Cabinet of Wonders show last Friday in New York. He said, "Man, I read from my memoir. I cut so many bits out, it was the first reading I have ever done of it." I said, "There you go, now you know what to do with your next book--read it aloud."
MR: I guess that's with any writer, you have to read it out loud, and it's going to be loaded with typos, so stay alert.
JWH: Yeah, well I would say even if you're writing a review, it's a good thing to do.
MR: The song "I Might Be Dead." Why?
JWH: Well it's about the breakup of a relationship, that's what that song is about. It's about, "I might be dead, you might be dead, we might be dead," that's the movement of the song. Then in the first bridge he says I can remember how good it felt to be with you, maybe you remember it too. In the second bridge he says can you remember how good it felt to be with me, maybe it wasn't, remind me. It's about the various stages of a relationship; it's grinding to a sad halt, and "I Might Be Dead" seemed to sum it up for me.
MR: "I Should Have Stopped." Lost opportunity, kind of, but not in a good way?
JWH: Well, that song is not true. Some people say that song must be true, but it isn't. It's one of those things where you see somebody after twenty years and you're like, "F**k me! Oh, that's that girl I used to fancy, that's that girl I used to fancy at school. Oh my god, what is she doing now, what's happening with her?" It's just that fancy situation where you maybe kissed this girl once at school and she's remained in your mind all of this time, and suddenly, there she is in your hometown after twenty years folding laundry, and you're like, "What laundry is she folding? Is that baby clothes?" and then you're like, "Should I go in and should I say hi?" And then you're like, "Yeah! I will go back to my wife." It's a guy who isn't quite me, but it's a guy who's regretting the inability of being able to be spontaneous like he would want to be, and I hope that's something people could identify with.
MR: Speaking of identify with, there's "The Way We Weren't," your fine reworking of that classic title.
JWH: (laughs) That's a very weird song actually. That is about a relationship that never happened to the narrator of the song. I really got to thank a friend of mine called Ed Masley. He sent me this thing called "Lennon Tune," an mp3, and he said, "Can you write the lyrics for this for my next album?" I said, "Sure, I will give it a bash," and that was just what came out. There are many Beatles references in that one because "I would love to turn on you" is really "I want to turn you on." It was me providing somebody else with lyrics that would suit his song, and because he called it Lennon Tune, I kind of had The Beatles in mind. He put it on his album, and I liked it so much that I said I was going to put that on my album.
MR: I wanted to ask you about "Calling Off The Experiment." In one of the verses, you say, "I'm throwing everybody out of the house, the experiment is over." Love it.
JWH: That really is how I feel about modern medical science, and the stories I read about it when I'm reading the BBC news website. There's a bit in Oh Lucky Man, a great movie by Lindsay Anderson, when the hero sees the guy's sweaty head in the bed and the guy goes, "Help me!" And he pulls back the sheep and the guy has the body of an animal and it's just a human head above the sheet. It's a mind-blowing bit of movie, and it stayed with me my whole life. I wanted to make reference to that and think about science and what it does. I'm not a great creationist, but science is about progress and isn't about progress. I wanted that song to be about just calling off the experiment, I'm ditching off the research, I'm calling off the experiment, it isn't going to work.
MR: Unless you do create a guy with the body of a sheep.
JWH: Well, watch the movie Oh Lucky Man by Lindsay Anderson, a great movie.
MR: John, you have eighteen albums.
JWH: Too many.
MR: You've been on every label.
JWH: Every label.
MR: Then what advice do you have for new artists?
JWH: Don't leave your wallet in the dressing room.
MR: Past experience?
JWH: Many times. (laughs) It's a lesson I'm still trying to learn.
MR: Do you have any other words of wisdom?
JWH: I actually thought of one of these the other day and I can't remember now what it was. I think it's similar to if you're in music or anything really for any other reason than the pleasure of doing it, you will be disappointed. If you really believe in what you're doing and your ulterior motive is not fame or money, then it will be its own reward and you will never be unhappy doing what you do.
MR: Thanks. One thing we should know about John Wesley Harding that we don't know yet?
JWH: I went to University with Prince Edward of The Royal Family.
MR: Get out of town.
JWH: That's off the top of my head, it could have been anything but that's true at least.
MR: Are you close to this day?
JWH: No, we were in the same drama society. We're probably about the same age, he was couple of years older than me. He was a very nice man.
JWH: "Are you coming through the States?" Yes, I am, I live in Philadelphia, and I will be touring with the band from the album, comprising of the four members of The Decemberists who are not Colin Meloy, Peter Buck and Scott McCoy. We will be hitting the road in November, going down the West Coast and doing a group of in-stores, going down the East Coast and up around the top, and that will take most of November.
MR: And in December, of course, you will be starting a new album.
JWH: In December, I will be going to stay with the grandparents of my children, my mum. Then, I very much hope to have finished or be finishing the novel I'm working on and have been working on for a few months.
MR: Any hints about it? Can we get you back here when the novel is out?
JWH: It's about a band and it's set in the present day, which is a first for me. The others have been set in the 1830s and the 1920s, but this is much more contemporary. As such, it has left me with less beautiful language to hide behind, which I think is good for me and less research to do, which is also good for me.
MR: Would you like to say hi to anybody right now?
JWH: Who might be listening?
MR: We get a million hits a month on solar-powered KRUU-FM.
JWH: Where on the FM dial you can find it on?
MR: 100.1 on your FM dial, whatever that is, broadcasting from Fairfield, Iowa, kruufm.com on the internet.
JWH: Fairfield, Iowa? Well if it's in Iowa, I would like to say hello to my friends at CSPS in Cedar Rapids who I know have just recently reopened from some flood damage a couple of years ago. They are very good people and it's a wonderful place. It's a place I always liked to go. It was very sad that it seemed to disappear for a little while, but now I've heard it's back and I'm a great fan of that place.
MR: Beautiful. This has been really great. Please, I want you to come back some time in the future.
JWH: It would be a pleasure, thank you very much.
1. Sing Your Own Song
2. I Should Have Stopped
3. Captain Courageous (On Disko Island)
4. I Might Be Dead
5. Uncle Dad
6. The Way We Weren't
7. There's A Starbucks (Where The Starbucks Used To Be)
8. The Colloquy Of Mole & Mr. Eye
9. Gentleman Caller
10. Calling Off The Experiment
11. The Examiners
12. Good News (& Bad News)
13. The World In Song
14. The Harding Defense - bonus track
Transcribed by Theo Shier
A Conversation with Thomas Dolby
Mike Ragogna: Good morning, Thomas.
Thomas Dolby: Good morning, Michael.
MR: How are you, sir?
TD: Very well, thanks. It's nice to be back.
MR: Let's talk about the new album A Map Of The Floating City, starting with "Nothing New Under The Sun." But everything's new under the sun, right?
TD: "Nothing New Under The Sun" is a little bit tongue-in-cheek because it's a song about writer's block. It's about sitting there trying to figure out what the lyric is going to be for my next line, and feeling a bit skeptical that there's nothing new I can sing...but then realizing at the end, as you say, that there's everything new under the sun and it just has to come streaming out.
MR: And your observations about humanity in each song...it seems that you have a fantastic grasp of world culture, especially American culture.
TD: Well, it's kind of you to say so. It takes an outsider to see clearly, but I was especially struck by the tradition of American folklore and folk writing. It really seems to be that those stories were told around a campfire from one traveler to the next, and I have as much right to have a seat around the campfire as anybody else, but I don't disguise my English accent. I'm very much an English guy singing American songs and telling American stories, hence the Amerikana section of my album.
MR: (laughs) By the way, I think one of the best American "around the campfire" folklore of all the songs you've recorded is "I Love You Goodbye."
TD: Yes, it does quite totally have that vibe. I'm sure many people, like myself, have had one or two wonderful New Orleans experiences, and it's such a rich source of original American culture. It's really a precious place that's obviously been in the news in recent years. I think I maybe spoke for many people when I wrote my love song to New Orleans, having been there only as a casual visitor.
MR: So, A Map Of The Floating City basically is comprised of the three EPs you previously released, now tied together as quite a complexly themed album. Can you take us through the album's theme and complicated history?
TD: Sure. "The Floating City" is an imaginary place, it exists on different levels. It's the view from outside my window in my converted lifeboat on the East Anglian coast in England. It's a kind of esoteric, invisible layer in between reality and fantasy, and it's also a dystopian diesel punk future in which there's been a terrible climate catastrophe and the planet is basically boiling. The only place cool enough to exist for the few survivors is out in the northern ocean towards the North Pole. Around the North Pole are the three remaining land masses: Amerikana, Oceanea, and Urbanoia. Within the game, your way to survive is by requisitioning the abandoned hull of a container vessel ship and pushing it out into the ocean rafting up to your tribes-people until eventually, the nine tribes from the three continents converge at the North Pole and form The Floating City. So, that's the backdrop for the game, and it's still online at floatingcity.com. The principle game play was completed a couple of weeks ago, and the winners of the game--which was really an alliance between five tribes--won themselves the grand prize of a private concert at which I'll play The Floating City in full.
MR: I was one of the winners, wasn't I?
TD: I don't know whether you're one of the winners, but there's a special dispensation for journalists and DJs that I like.
MR: (laughter) It was really a brilliant marketing concept as well as a great education process. It would be wonderful for future artists to educate their fans on their new releases and catalog in a similar way. So, this has been developing since last September?
TD: That's right. I was originally going to do three EPs, one for each of the continents, and I got as far as two. Then people starting e-mailing me saying "Hey, if I buy all three EP's, you can't really expect me to buy the album." I thought I might be shooting myself in the foot to do three EPs--I can't really ask people to pay twice for the same music. Then I came up with the idea. I really wanted to give people a sneak preview of the music of the album, so how about using a different medium altogether? People aren't really buying many CDs these days, but they do seem to be spending a lot of time playing video games and on social networks. So, I thought I needed a new messenger for this discovery of the new music. Why not create a game in which people can browse around, explore, solve puzzles, meet friends, share their enjoyment of my back catalog and their expectations of my new songs--hence the genesis of the game.
MR: Basically, you're looking at your back catalog as an element of the game and as part of the "clues" people were getting through the game, right?
TD: Yeah, there's always been a strong thread of mythology through my lyrics, whether it's imaginary places, or characters, or even items that show up in more than one song, such as the "spam tins" for example. (laughter) The first thing I did was to put all of those items, places, and characters into a giant database, and then contacted a game developer, Andrea Phillips, who has a lot of experience in this area. She said it was a great basis for the trading card model, so what happens in the cargo hold of your abandoned ship, you have various random items and the way you move towards the North Pole is by bartering those items with other players. Each of those items belongs in a set of five, which make up a song, and a set of nine songs make up one of my five albums. The moment you complete a song or an album, you get a free download of that album. So, there are two incentives to trade--one is to get free music, and the other is to move towards the North Pole and be one of the survivors.
MR: How well do you feel the social networking part of this game succeeded in its mision?
TD: The social networking aspect worked extremely well, and actually became more important to some players than the trading aspect. It was just done on a text basis, within forums, and the interesting thing is that roughly half of the 5,000 people playing the game were concerned Dolby fans, and the other half had never heard of me or were game fans that were drawn in by the appeal of the game itself. So, they were all bedfellows, they were sorted into tribes according to their geographical location in the world. But they became friends, and in recent weeks, there've been spontaneous tribe meet-ups in bars and clubs and so on. They've come up with an actual deck of trading cards. They're bringing along random objects with them from the game, like people going to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show bringing lights and umbrellas. So, it's turning into this whole cult thing. Over the course of October and November, I'll be out on the road and I can't wait to meet up with some of these posses of game-players, many of whom, up until a few months ago, hadn't heard of me or my music.
MR: Although part of the task is promotion, it does seem like you'll have much fun on the road.
TD: I do think this is going to be lots of fun. Any way you can introduce a new or younger audience to your music is great because, while it's terrific that tens of thousands of people can make and release their own albums, it's increasingly more difficult to rise above the noise. Even having a record deal with a big corporation and marketing budget doesn't necessarily help you. What you can do is to be more effective and targeted with your work. For example, when promoting The Floating City game, we looked at some parallel games such as Echo Bazaar, Fallen London, and so on. We deliberately targeted fans of those games because we knew they would like The Floating City. I went on Facebook and found that there were 17,000 people who named me in their profile saying things like "Thomas Dolby is one of my favorite musicians," who were not actually subscribed to my Facebook group, so those were easy people to target. On Facebook, if you advertise to people, you only pay per click, that comes back. So, for a few hundred dollars, I was able to get some highly qualified potential new fans to check out my page and listen to my new music. The next most popular artist named after me was Peter Gabriel. Peter has 100 times the number of fans I have, but I can get to his fans via Facebook and say, "Hey, if you like Peter, it might be worth checking out Thomas's new album." I love the fact that that's what marketing is about these days. It's about word of mouth, adding some fuel to the fire, tracking and analyzing where there is some traction, heat, and interest in your music, and adding some free stuff to reel people in. Expanding your audience is a much healthier situation than the old days where you'd pay a fortune to get the back of a Billboard or a few second regional TV ads.
MR: Quite frankly, you're brilliant in this environment. And of course, you do the TED conferences all the time.
TD: I do indeed. I'm the musical director of the TED conference. I book the talent for the TED conference and also have input into the way music is represented and curated as a whole as part of the TED program.
MR: It seems this is the era you've been waiting for.
TD: It's a fantastic time. You hear a lot of news items and read a lot of articles about the woes of the record industry. Well, it's a bad time to be working for a record label, but for musicians and music fans... I think there's never been a better time; it's wide open. I was listening to Sean Parker, the founder of Napster and one of the founders of Spotify and Facebook, speak at an event. He was saying, "Look, we all lived through the worst downturn in the music industry's economic history, and if we can stick around, we're going to have seats at the biggest upturn," because sooner or later, with all the costs gone out the window, the new music industry will be reborn.
MR: And profits are going directly to the artist as opposed to seven people in the middle.
TD: Yeah, which fans appreciate as well; and I think consumers have never had it so good. People are spending less money and getting more music for their money than they ever have in history. But I think eventually it's going to have to stop being, "Well, I'm going to p,ay x for a single and y for an album." I think it's going to be, "Wherever I am in the world, if I want to hear My Chemical Brothers, I just flick through a few playlists and there they are." I don't think it's going to be having a collection of CDs or records anymore.
MR: Tell us a bit about your song "Spice Train."
TD: Well, "Spice Train" is an anthem for The Floating City game; it's more electronic than most of the stuff on the album, and has some very curious sounds and a new approach to vocals. It's like a sort of crazy multicultural bazaar of different musical spices and flavors.
MR: Using the concept of A Map Of The Floating City, how do your songs "Nothing New Under the Sun," "Spice Train," "Evil Twin Brother" with Regina Spektor, and "A Jealous Thing Called Love" connect?
TD: They all have an urban feel to them. I don't mean urban in terms of musical genre, but they have that intense, somewhat claustrophobic feel. Amerikana has a sense of wide open spaces; you picture a couple in a '50s convertible burning across the desert on their way to Reno or Vegas in a Hollywood B movie. Oceanea is wide open, picture big landscapes, seascapes, and skylines. So, Urbanoia has a definite darker, more cityscape type of feel to it.
MR: What about "A Jealous Thing Called Love"?
TD: It's about a triangular relationship...about losing my girlfriend to my best friend.
MR: An American pastime.
MR: Thomas, you have Eddi Reader on "Oceanea" right?
TD: Yeah, Eddi Reader is a wonderful Scottish folk-singer that I've worked with before. She was originally in Fairground Attraction, and she sang with me on a song called "Cruel" off Astronauts & Heretics, and I've also produced and mixed songs for her on her own albums. We stayed friendly and I needed somebody to be the voice of my mother; my mother was born in East Anglia, and if she were watching my family and I as we moved back to East Anglia, I think she would've been very proud. So, I needed somebody to be the comforting voice of my mother on the album.
MR: Since Regina Spektor appears on "Evil Twin Brother," are you pals? Is she your evil twin sister?
TD: Well, Regina played at the TED conference a few years back. I've loved her music for a while. I think she has fabulous talent. I love her voice, and she was delightful in person. When I wrote "Evil Twin Brother," it was a story about being jet-lagged in New York City, being wide-awake at 3 o'clock in the morning when it's too hot to sleep, going out to get something to eat, finding an open diner on 14th Street where the waitress on duty is a hot Russian woman, getting into conversation with her, and she mentions that she gets off at 4am and that there's a little club nearby that I should check out. So, I end up going kind of against my will to this club where there's this stomping Eurotrash Ibiza trance music coming out to the alley way, being pulled into it, and ending up being swirled around the dance floor by Ylaina.
MR: (laughs) Oh, the evil.
TD: So, I needed someone to play the Russian waitress in the song, and I immediately thought of Regina, who speaks great Russian of course. She left (Russia) when she was still quite small, so she didn't quite have the vocabulary that I needed, but with the help of some consultants, we were able to get the right kind of phrases for Regina to play the waitress.
MR: So, let me ask you about new artists. Is there any advice you would give to them?
TD: It's to follow your heart. Every artist when they're 17 believes that the public's going to hear their music and fall in love with them and they'll be a superstar. When I was 17, I was actually wrong. (laughs) That's not the way things work. First, the music industry had to approve my music before the public ever got to hear it. But these days, it's actually true. You could become an overnight star whether it's by X Factor or via putting a Facebook clip of yourself singing in your pajamas in your bedroom up on YouTube as Jessie J did, and waking up a month later to find yourself a global superstar. So, the barrier to entry is down and it's easier than it's ever been before. If the cream rises to the surface, and you've got talent, then you will indeed be a star.
MR: So, Thomas you're speaking to us from a solar-powered lifeboat where you do most of your recording, right?
TD: I do, and it has a 360° view of the North Sea, the marshes behind, and migrating birds. It's in a tiny hamlet on the East Anglian Coast. There are 20 houses and about the same number of full time residents here, and there's no pub, which means nobody ever comes, which is terrific as far as I'm concerned. (laughs) I like the seclusion. Up on the roof, I've got solar panels and a wind-turbine up the mast, and where the diesel engine used to be under the floorboards, there's a bank of batteries. So, on a day when it's either sunny, windy, or both, I pair up the bank of batteries and that means I can work late into the night in my lifeboat using only renewable energy.
MR: There are certain areas of the world that could really take advantage of solar energy and wind power all the time, it's interesting they don't. Well, I guess here's a related thought. considering the dystopian world that's depicted in The Map of The Floating City, are you concerned that we're headed in that direction?
TD: Well I think there's a huge risk that we're headed in that direction. The society was in denial that we can change things. I can't remember who it was that said "If you're in Los Angeles and you're trying to drive to San Francisco and you find yourself in San Diego, it's no good just slowing down to 30mph." There's really little hope for reversing what we're doing to the planet unless it is with the scientists. Scientists have continually wowed and surprised us in the past with game-changing discoveries and inventions. We're not going to get any relief from governments or from large corporations, they only seem to mess things up. That's one of the reasons I go to TED, because I want to hear the scientists tell us what solutions there may be. Just the other day, I was listening to a guy tell me that he can grow a mushroom in the sea that can absorb all the oil spills. It's stuff like that through TED that gives you some hope.
MR: What were some other discussions or inventions that were enlightening?
TD: There's been some amazing discussions. The ideas that people come up with were extraordinary. One of the principals of Microsoft, Nathan Myhrvold, who I believe is retired now, decided to do something about Malaria. He said, "I'm going to get a great team together and a fund, and I don't care whether it's a biological, political, or physical thing, I want to beat malaria. He discovered some amazing things about the mosquito. For instance, that they don't fly more than 12 feet above the ground. So, he was able to build a laser perimeter around a hospital in a village in Africa where if a mosquito flew into the perimeter, the lasers could not only determine whether the mosquito was male or female--because it's only the female that carries malaria--but it could also shoot it's wings off, meaning that it would fall to the ground. So, this is how they kept malaria out of the hospitals. He demonstrated this live on stage. (laughs) He built this laser fence on stage at TED, and unleashed some mosquitoes. In slow motion on an HD camera, he replayed what had happened, which was that this laser had shot the wings off a mosquito. (laughs)
MR: When you see stuff like that, does it stimulate your own creativity?
TD: I love the atmosphere of invention and discovery. Some of these inventions are going to turn out as a hoax, some are going to be impractical in real terms, and I love the uncertainty...there's an excitement about it. If you look back through history, that's always been the case. Nikola Tesla for example, inventor of A.C. (alternating current), also arguably the inventor of radar, x-ray, radio, and all sorts of things, used to put on shows at Madison Square Garden. He would make sparks fly, and people ran for the exit. They didn't know whether this was magic, conjuring, sorcery, science, or what it was. Looking back at that, it's laughable, because now we understand it, but at the time it was terrifying and exciting. I love being in the middle of that looking to the future.
MR: Beautifully said. It's that type of thinking that contradicts the dystopian future, and makes us hopeful for things to come. As long as brilliant minds are working at creating things like this, there's always a march forward.
TD: Yeah, you've got to be hopeful, optimistic, and believe in it. It certainly isn't going to happen unless we do. I think John Lennon said it best.
TD: Indeed. He wasn't talking about science, he was talking about more on a spiritual level. It certainly isn't going to happen unless we believe in it.
MR: You have Mark Knopfler joining you on "17 Hills." Do you find that some of the people you work with are like-minded?
TD: Absolutely! No question. Mark Knopfler played on my album because when I wrote "17 Hills," someone pointed out to me that it reminded them of Mark--not so much his musical style, but more that he's an English dude in America as an observer, yet has a valid voice to put on a very American story. So, it made perfect sense to invite him to play on it, partly because of his beautiful lyrical guitar playing, and partly because we're a couple of fellow Brits--grumpy, middle-aged white guys, sitting here in a studio in England, singing songs about middle America.
MR: Grumpy? Really? I'm not detecting any of that.
MR: If you could name one song we would play from the album right now, oh, let's say if it were played on a solar-powered radio station in the Midwest, what would it be?
TD: It's a difficult thing, because I know that this song is not a natural for radio because it has no groove to it. It's a bit spacey, and it's probably what a program director would term a train wreck. You're all going to be changing channels. But in a way, my favorite song on the album is "Oceanea." It's the one song that was born organically out of my lifeboat, which 100% of it--the music, the lyrics, the vision--came from the sensation of sitting there, back in my homeland after my adventure in the USA, back with my kids enjoying the country the way I did when I was a kid. Staring out at the sea, in a dreamy hopeful way, I just put my hands to the keyboard, started mumbling, and "Oceanea" is the song that came out. So, in a way, it's the one that I'm most proud of. It has no groove to it, it's never going to be a radio staple in the USA. But nonetheless, it's the song on the album that seems to affect people on the deepest level emotionally.
MR: Before we wrap things up, will there be any expanded editions of Aliens Ate My Buick or Astronauts & Heretics any time soon?
TD: I'd love that to happen. I remastered the first two albums, Golden Age of Wireless and The Flat Earth, which were EMI albums. There are different ownership issues with the others, but it's definitely something I'd like to come back around to. Maybe I'll feature those albums a bit more on future tours, but my immediate plan is coming to the States in October, and doing seven live performances which are really sort of lectures about the game, with some storytelling and some live songs from the new album it's hatched. If you go to thomasdolby.com, you can check out the dates. I'm going to be back again in the new year with a full band, touring theaters around the country. We don't have dates for that yet, but I imagine that will be in the spring.
MR: Thank you. I hope to interview you again for that one.
TD: Well, that would be great. In the meantime, the album is out on October 25th, and I hope that you'll check out one of the live performances in October.
MR: Wait, I also wanted to ask you if will you be performing "Your Karma Hit My Dogma?"
TD: (laughs) That's something I do from time to time that's not on the album, it's kind of like a b-side from the album. It always gets a good laugh. So, who knows, maybe as an encore.
MR: Alright, I appreciate your calling in Thomas. It's always fun, and let's talk as often as you like.
TD: That would be great Michael, thank you very much.
MR: Thank you, Sir.
1. Nothing New Under The Sun
2. Spice Train
3. Evil Twin Brother - with Regina Spektor
4. A Jealous Thing Called Love
5. Road To Reno
6. The Toad Lickers - with Imogen Heap
7. 17 Hills - with Mark Knopfler & Natalie MacMaster
8. Love Is A Loaded Pistol
9. Oceanea - with Eddi Reader
11. To The Lifeboats
Transcribed by Lani Aulicino
A Conversation with Stephen Kellogg
Mike Ragogna: Are you there, Stephen?
Stephen Kellogg: Yeah, how you doing?
MR: I'm great. The album is titled Gift Horse, like the old saying "don't look a gift horse in the mouth," kind of saying don't take for granted what you've got.
MR: What inspired this collection of songs?
SK: This isn't our first time around the rodeo. I think we just have a real strong sense about the appreciation that we have a job, that we've been able to make rock 'n' roll we love for the last eight years together. I have a growing family, growing faster then I could ever imagine. I have three daughters and I feel immensely lucky that they're in my life. It's just a general sense of appreciation. Things don't turn out exactly how you think they will, but they've been pretty great.
MR: In "Gravity," your mother is saying, "Soon you will move up, you're a fighter, I know. You turn it around and you say, "I love it right here with my feet on the ground."
SK: I thought it would be fun to embrace gravity. I love the John Mayer song "Gravity," I think it's an amazing tune. When we started writing, I started thinking about it from the opposite point of view. Instead of feeling, Don't blunt my star and keep me down," I thought, "There's no place I would rather be than grounded with a foot firmly in reality." I love being down to earth.
MR: You have many songs on this song that are not only down to earth but very revealing. We learn a lot about you and your family on this album.
SK: I know, I hope it's not overkill. If I had one fear, I could not stop myself on this record from writing about family. It's a theme that's massive for me right now. I know I will go on to write other things, every aspect of family and extended family is just where my head's at right now.
MR: It's beautiful and you articulate it well on these tracks. For instance, "Roots And Wings" is probably my favorite song on the album. I love how you start it out where you get caught in a lie by your dad, and he shakes his head and the point of it all is that one day, you'll know what it's like to give your children roots and wings. Also, when you get your roots and wings, never fear the change that it brings.
SK: Yeah, all of that stuff. I happen to have these memories of my parents teaching me lessons that really stayed with me. I had never heard the term before, but I was having dinner with my manager one night, and his mom mentioned roots and wings. I said, "What's that?" And she explained it to me and I thought that was the greatest concept ever.
MR: In this song, I like how your father wants you to tell the truth and be a man and always do the best you can. I think truth is definitely on the laundry list of things that makes one a great person. How do you feel about that?
SK: I agree with you. The older I get, the more I realize you gotta try to sit down and have integrity and be a good person, and that's all that matters here. It's not a bank statement, it's not a list of achievements people are going to remember you by. They will remember you by the way that you were. It's a good, healthy thing to shift and to focus on. It's been a much more fulfilling last couple of years than the angst and panicked first years. My twenties were crazy and once I turned thirty, things did start to shift.
MR: That must be the way it works, because the teens and twenties? That's hard stuff. It's all exploration and everything you could possibly think of.
SK: I felt that way. I know some people in their twenties who seem to just be grabbing life and making so much of it. So, certainly, there are plenty of exceptions, but for me, that was the case, no doubt.
MR: Let's move on to "We Belong Here," another reference to your roots.
SK: Yeah, I always had this feeling in high school that people didn't like me. You go back and you look at the facts, and I was actually the president of my class. I had this feeling that nobody really liked me, if they were being honest or something. I just think that must be really telling, many people don't have the exciting fortune of being the president of the class, which should be some affirmation of being alright, so I thought if I didn't feel like I belonged, I figured it had to be to some degree that it's true for everybody, that they have this sense of wanting to belong, and do you belong? Do you fit in? And what do people really think? I wanted to make a positive song with that one, that would just tell people that you do belong, and we all do. We are all put where it counts, and we're all on the same team and a part of the human race. That really does give us more similarities than differences.
MR: Well, building on the theme of "My Favorite Place," home is wherever you are.
SK: I appreciate that you delved into the lyrics. When you travel as much as you do, you learn to fall in love just about anywhere. The condition of your heart really has more to do with your home than anything, than any physical place.
MR: Nicely said. So, Stephen Kellogg & The Sixers has been around for a while, and you've have had quite a few albums released. What is life like with your entourage, because that's your other family.
SK: They really are. I have had years where I've probably logged as many or more hours with these guys than anybody else. The team has never been better, we've all really found a way of appreciating each other. If there was some semblance of some way you could talk to your whole family and say, "Here's the rules, we're going to be a family," that's kind of what it's like being in a band, because we do have some structure in it. In that way, it's magical. I've lucked out, I'm with some great people, we have a great crew, we have a great band. We all feel a great deep appreciation for what we've done and putting my cards on the table, there was maybe a time where we felt disappointed that we weren't able to move along further or achieve certain dreams we had. You're focused on growing and being bigger, and having more people hear your music. This record wasn't in that place. This record said, "Wherever this road takes us, it's been magical and let's just enjoy every minute we get together, playing music, every fan that we have, every ticket that sells." That just means the world to us.
MR: Let's get into a couple of the breaks you've had so far, like your single, "Shady Esperanto And The Young Hearts," cracking Billboard's Top 20 in Triple A.
SK: It rolls right off the tongue. I was told by several people who know more than I do that it was a bad name for a single, and they may absolutely be right about that in hindsight. That was cool.
MR: That was from your first Vanguard record, and in 2009, you were named Entertainers of The Year by the Armed Forces.
SK: That was a nice honor.
MR: Also, in 2010, you celebrated your 1000 show together in New York City.
SK: Yeah, a lot of shows. I've played a lot of concerts with these guys.
MR: Regarding your career, what would you suggest others to take a peak at it?
SK: I couldn't advise others, because so many people have done their thing in such a different way than we've done ours with great success. I know one fact, that we couldn't do anything differently than we have. Even the mistakes that we've made and the blown opportunities that we've had along the way, they were just a part of what ultimately lead to what we sing about and what we represent. For us, part of that has been the moniker of being a hardworking band and being a working class operation. It's worked for us, this way of being. It is a little bit of a mission now, because part of what we're out here preaching is to not give up when things don't go exactly as you planned they would. In our tougher moments, that's medicine I have to take too.
MR: But you've also had some rewards, such as having songs on shows like One Tree Hill and the like.
SK: Yeah, and don't get me wrong, we've had enough reason to go on. It's been awesome. We've gotten to play to amazing crowds. Just last night, we were in Minneapolis and I thought, "If this isn't the best night of my life, I don't know what is." So, we've had plenty of wins along the way.
MR: Also you had a Top Ten record with "Maria," when Doc Walker recorded it.
SK: That's right! That was awesome, man. We were touring in Canada and we got to see them one night and hear it. I'll tell you, the songwriter in me? There is no greater rush than hearing somebody else play your song and seeing the crowd react to it.
MR: I want to ask you, what advice do you have for new artists?
SK: This isn't original advice here, but I read something recently that said, "Focus on the music, writing great songs, and putting on a great show." Don't get to sucked into the internet and feel like it's all marketing or your success will live and die on how you market it. You will get a shot if you really take care of the art. I will offer that piece of advice because I wasn't always great at that. I was very involved in the business for quite a while, but really, when you start writing good stuff, that's when the doors open.
MR: Do you still work with St. Jude's?
SK: We do, every chance we get. We've been down there and played a couple of times, and we sell handwritten lyrics every holiday season. It's just a great organization, you can't lose with those guys.
MR: Speaking of that, I wanted to talk about your song "Noelle," which is a beautiful closer to the record and is a song for your youngest daughter...am I right?
SK: That would be it.
MR: You gave her a beautiful song and I love the concept of your being asked how many songs are you going to write for your family, your answering as many as it takes.
SK: Yeah, I told you, I was really self-conscious about how many tunes I wrote about family. It's not like we put them all on the record by any stretch, but they were all in the batch. Many of the ones that felt the most inspired and rose to the top were the ones about family. Someone actually asked me that, so that line sort of wrote itself. In a way, I think that it just felt right to address it in there, and Noelle, as children are, is an incredibly inspiring little miss. It's nice to have a tribute to her exist in print.
MR: Thank you for spending time with us, Stephen. I wish you much luck on the road and with your family.
SK: Thank you so much man, and thank you so much for diving into those lyrics. It's been good talking to you.
2. Who We Are, Who We'll Become
3. Long Days, Fast Years
5. Charlie And Annie
6. Song For Lovers
7. We Belong Here
8. Watch You Grow
9. My Favorite Place
10. Roots And Wings
11. Noelle, Noelle
Transcribed by Theo Shier
Seven From Stevie - #2
This is the second in a series of articles featuring 7 top dance tracks spun by StevieMix. You can hear some of my mixes on Soundcloud at http://soundcloud.com/steviemix and see more at my web site: http://www.steviemix.com .
To give you a flavor of these bangin' tracks, see the Seven From Stevie list below. Check your favorite music site for buying and downloading these tracks. You can listen every Friday from 9-10 PM, US Central Time, at KRUU Live!