A Conversation with Joe Scarborough
Mike Ragogna: Joe, your new album is called “Welcome To The Monkey House.” What an appropriate Vonnegut nod considering the state of the country.
Joe Scarborough: I think it’s one of the only times in all my years in the public, being in positions where people come up to me and ask questions about how things are in Washington or how things are going on in the world, where there’s just a sense of despair and disorientation. I’ve spent the better part of my life telling Democrats that everything was going to be okay when Republicans were in the White House and telling Republicans that everything was going to be okay when Democrats were in the White House. Usually, that was me telling my parents, “Get off the ledge, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama weren’t going to bring an end to Western Civilization,” and that everything was going to be just fine. In this case, there are a lot of times when people ask me, “Are we going to be okay?” and I just have to say, “We’ll see.” There is a madness that’s been going on in Washington for the past seven months that respects no boundaries. Without getting too political, when you have somebody calling the press “Enemies of The People” that’s straight out of Stalin and Mao’s playbook. You have somebody that’s undermining judicial authority that’s out of Putin’s playbook. So there was this madness and as we approached this EP, instead of just going back and recording songs we’d already written, on July 4th weekend, we went in to record four songs and I decided to write two new ones. One was “Welcome To The Monkey House,” and the other was, “When Will You Go?” I guess I may have gotten a little bit of inspiration from a certain tweet the president tweeted out just a few days before about the media. It was fun and timely but that’s one of the cool things about recording today. You can write a song on a Friday, record it on a Saturday, send it to your record company on Monday, and get it released in many places.
MR: On the surface, "When Will You Go?" could just be an angry love song. But this one has so much anger, you’re clearly taking aim at something larger.
JS: I think there's a lot of anger, there's a lot of reaction, and there also is a lot of observation about certain relationships and things that you see on TV and things that you hear behind the scenes. A lot of that went into writing the lyrics. But it was a really fun song to do because originally when I wrote it, I said, "I'd love to get a really big drum sound, a really big synth sound, throw a reverb on everything and make it sound like M83's 'Graveyard Girl.'" I got a hold of an old amp called a Mitchell Pro 100, which is what Rivers Cuomo used on the Blue album and I said, "Wait a second, let's kind of do a Cars/Weezer sound." The second I started doing it, I said, "Yeah, this is good. I think this is much better." It was a lot of fun writing the lyrics but the music was really where we had a blast. Everybody in the band's a huge Weezer fan. When I brought it to them, I said, "You guys know who Weezer is?" and they're like, "Yeah!" So we had a sort of Pinkerton versus Blue and Green debate for the next three days.
MR: [laughs] Which is your favorite?
JS: Well, I am not as heavy into Weezer as a lot of the other guys in the band. If you're heavy into Weezer, you usually fall in the Pinkerton side of things. I'm more of a Blue and Green Weezer fan. What about you?
MR: Blue. I’ve listened to it so many times, it's in my DNA.
JS: Blue's my favorite. Green was a nice comeback even though it was only like twenty-eight minutes long. But I thought Blue was a special album.
MR: Joe, what's going on in the studio with you and your musicians?
JS: We're finishing up the third EP now. That's twelve songs in three months so at this point, we’ve figured out a system. It's a timely question because it's one that I can actually answer now. The first EP was me doing the basics—all the guitars, bass, and acoustic, then bringing other guys in and having them play on top of that, putting their own parts in. It's moved on to a point where I go in first with Mikhail Pivovarov, who is our bassist and engineer, and Nick [Nicholas Wells], who plays the keys and is the music director. I'll go in with an idea, tell them where I want to go with it and the sound I want, and it usually starts with the drummer, Kenny Shaw. He’ll come in, I'll teach him the drum track and play sort of a rough scratch guitar with him. After Kenny, I'll put on all my guitars, which will give everybody else guidance for where we want to go. Then we'll bring in guitarist Paul Maddison and he’ll put on his guitar parts, which are just great. He's a great guitarist. Then we'll add Mikhail's bass.
On the first EP [Mystified], we brought the horns in but the horn guys are also really good guitarists. Also, the synth guy, Ben Kibby, is a great guitarist. I had no idea until like three weeks ago. He's a total synth freak! He's got all these Moogs and old Korgs. I was knocking around trying to find a sound and he heard me say, "Oh man, I really need the synth sound from 'Best Friend's Girl' by the Cars." I wanted that for "When Will You Go?" He said, "Let me bring some of my old synths over." That's the next thing we did for this EP was build out drum loops and synths with Ben, then we finished up with the horns and background vocals. I recorded the vocal tracks at the very end. Then Mikhail, Nick, and I went into a deep, dark cave and mixed-down, then poor Mikhail had to master it all.
The crazy thing is we’re recording, mixing, producing, arranging, and mastering four songs a month, and after three months, we're looking at each other saying, "This isn't a breeze. This is kind of tough!" But we're having a good time and learning how to get the sound we want really quickly. I do my show [Morning Joe] and then, basically, I'm doing music. I do my show for three hours a day and work related to that for three or four hours more. Then the rest of my life is spent either in our studio or mixing with Mikhail and Nick.
MR: And you've only got another 194 songs to go.
JS: The problem is we're not getting through the backlog because we keep writing new songs. For September’s album, I've written two more new songs. We've already recorded fifty-one or fifty-two that are done. Any time we have the discipline to say, "Okay, this one's good to go as is," it's like we're getting away with something. On the August EP, Welcome To The Monkey House, "Catch Me If You Can" only required a few adjustments in mixing. On the next one, we've got a song called "Priscilla Jones" that is in the same situation. We like it as is. Again, we feel like we're getting away with something when we think we can just find an old track, remix it, and put it up there instead of writing, producing, and building something from scratch. We're not getting through our two hundred songs very well.
MR: Well, who would complain if you released EPs with six or seven songs each?
JS: It's funny you say that. Sony Red [distributor] said, "Hey, doing this every month sort of puts a stress on the system, could you do it every other month?" My answer to date has been, "No," because I just have too many songs and not enough time to get through them even if I put them out every month. I think what you just said may be a solution. I may start putting out six or seven every month. That may be a better way to get through the songs in two years.
MR: And there are different concepts you could experiment with as you go along. Maybe you could explore different ways to market the music as you’re making it.
JS: Yeah! And we're going to have four or five EPs and twenty-five songs or so out in 2017. We went on Colbert, played "Welcome To The Monkey House," and sort of released it as a single. We're going on The View and we'll probably do something off the first EP that will fit The View better. We're not going on the 1995 model where you record an album a year, you get it ready, you put it out, and then you promote that one release for a year. We're keeping the songs coming out and if I want to go back in three months or four months to record an EP, I'll do that. If people like it, they can go on Spotify or Apple, stream it or buy it. I don’t think they really care whether it was an EP released in August or an EP released in November.
MR: That’s like the She & Him or Belle & Sebastian model. They released EPs pretty often. I guess that's now the 2017 norm for creativity meeting distribution.
MR: Is that Mika singing the female solo on "...Monkey House?"
JS: No, our two background singers are Roz Brown and Tanesha Gary.
MR: And is that you singing all the parts of that big block vocal on "Party Line"?
JS: You mean at the top? That’s Nick Wells and me. We wanted that big sound. Originally, the song was three and a half minutes of what you hear when everything else comes in. It was very produced from the beginning to the end. I decided I wanted to get two or three parts and make it a little more interesting for listeners. So Nick and I went in and did all the parts, overdubbed about twenty times, then we did an old Beatles trick where we ran the recording into a huge room, turned the speakers all the way up, and put microphones around the room. Digital plug-ins will get you a lot, but I've never found a digital plug-in that does as good a job with reverb as an old spring reverb unit I had back in the eighties. It's always driven me crazy because reverb plug-ins that you use through ProTools or other systems have a ping to them. There's a harshness and a shrillness to them. I said, "Hey guys, let's put the speakers out and crank it up loud! I've got wood all over the place and these right angles so it's not a square room. We'll get a nice, warm sound." We heard it back and everybody was like, "Wow!" It sounds weird but you can hear the wood in that part. So we did that and then for the next part, I wanted to strip it down. I thought I was doing sort of a Beach Boys thing with stripped-down guitars and a sparse organ, but it ended up sounding more like I was trying to rip off Vampire Weekend than The Beach Boys.
MR: Ha! So you've accumulated a lot of knowledge of old and new recording technologies. Do you now find yourself leaning toward one approach or another? As you’ve gotten more comfortable and expert with digital production, are you now possibly trying to include more analog elements?
JS: Yeah, definitely, and I think you'll hear that in the coming months. We're really in that transition now. When I first went in and recorded the fifty, fifty-one, fifty-two songs, I was so taken by what digital technology could do—how easy it was to gate drums and how easy it was to just dial up a digital version of a Fairchild 660 that The Beatles and everybody else used in the sixties and seventies. As we're putting the EPs out, I've gotten pickier. A huge project of Mikhail's for about six months was to build a Fairchild 660 from the ground up, which was sort of The Beatles' secret sauce—George Martin's secret sauce in producing them in the early years especially. After I heard what that did to vocals, it was such a stark difference between what you got out of a plug-in on ProTools and what you actually got from the real thing. I immediately started looking for other units, whether they were compressors, limiters, everything. That's when we made the decision last month that we weren't going to use any plug-ins for reverb anymore.
We're going to do what all the old acts did in the fifties and sixties. For example, they had an echo room down below Capitol Studios. It was this massive room. I was talking to Harry Connick, Jr. about it. He said it was so cool that he got to go out and use it. He said not only did they record everything through there, they also mastered everything through there! Nobody would do that today because it would supposedly muddy everything up but that's what we're doing now. We're using our own version of the echo room that has a lot of wood, a lot of angles. There is no comparison between what sound that gives you and what a reverb plug-in will give you. I'm sure a lot of people will say, "Hey, you should try this...," and I'm always open to experiment with anything. But I still don't think you can ever top a natural echo room for reverb, as people used to do in the fifties and sixties especially.
MR: That concept also applies to vintage instruments like guitars. In some cases, it’s the age that makes them sound better, and in other cases, it’s the older design specs.
JS: You're right. The greatest bass that I've ever played in my life was while I was doing a demo a couple of years ago that I had to get to Mikhail and Nick. I was up in Boston, went in to a little studio and said, "I need a bass. You got a bass?" The guy goes, "Yeah," and hands me his. I played it and it's a 1971 Fender Jazz bass. It was the greatest-sounding bass I'd ever heard. I said to the guy, "I've been playing basses for forty years, I've never played anything remotely as good as this!” He said, "I picked it up in 1971, I brought it into the studio, and I haven't changed the strings since." It's perfect because we've got audiophiles who will sit and try to examine and perfect things, but sometimes, there's magic in forty year-old bass strings.
When we did "Party Line," we were up at Nick’s place. We usually record at mine but we were up there mixing things down. I asked, "You’ve got a guitar?" He said, "I've just got this old, crappy Epiphone guitar. I haven't changed the strings on it for ten years." I go, "That sounds perfect!" When you hear the chugging part on "Party Line" after the big vocal part, that's the old guitar with ten year-old strings that sounds perfect for the part. And you can get magic out of a small, little amp where the speaker's distorting in a way it's not supposed to but gives you the perfect sound.
MR: Considering your current creative trajectory, do you think you might make it out to Capitol Studios to record someday?
JS: I would love to! That would be a thrill. Everybody asks, "Hey, if we keep recording every month, do you think we'll get to Abbey Road?" Yeah, that would be great! But I'd love to go out to Capitol and see that first. Talk about legends...amazing.
MR: Joe, you’ve written a few books with political and autobiographical material. Are you ever tempted to write a book with a musical topic?
JS: I would love to because it's my first love! I actually talked to John Heilemann three years or so ago about approaching Paul McCartney's brother-in-law—who's also his attorney and gatekeeper—about writing the story of the Band On The Run album. It’s an extraordinary story about this huge superstar who was at a breaking point where critics were absolutely savaging him because he put out Wildlife and Red Rose Speedway, a couple of albums that even he and Linda were saying weren't up to snuff. So he just trucked it all [equipment, etc.] to Lagos, Nigeria. Poor Geoff Emerick had to avoid scorpions and snakes to build an EMI studio there! They thought McCartney had a heart attack and a stroke in the middle of recording. He got held up. Paul and Linda both thought they were going to get murdered. All of his tapes were stolen, all of his demos, and he had to start over. His band quit on the day before he flew into Lagos. So it was just he, Linda and Denny Laine, and they created, I think, one of the best albums of the 1970s and certainly his greatest work since The Beatles. Heilemann and I have been talking about writing that book for a couple of years, but unfortunately, I'm staying busy with what I'm doing and he has to keep writing these Game Change books. One of these days, we're going to do it.
MR: Is this period we’re all going through pushing you to be more creative?
JS: It is. I think part of the reason why I'm in this manic rush to write all of these new songs and release all these new songs may be because of the times we're living in. It's like Kurt Vonnegut wrote about in Welcome To The Monkey House. Post Charlottesville, I've started writing a song called "Stand." It's a really stripped-down acoustic song that may be on the next EP or the one following that. We've closed up September’s EP but we may put it on the October EP.
I haven't written a lot of political songs in my life. But I don't know how anybody who loves this country that sees what's going on and who writes songs, essays, or plays... I don't know how the chaos of the moment and the danger of the moment where you have a civilization that's really standing on the edge and you've got three hundred and twenty million people in the world watching and trying to figure out which way we're going to break as a country and as a civilization, I don't know how that doesn't affect your writing. You'd have to be locked in a basement and pretty isolated not to have it impact your life. I suspect Charlottesville will subtly play itself out in several songs in the next few months, far more subtle than the direct hammer effect that we had with "...Monkey House" and "When Will You Go?"
MR: [laughs] I appreciate those two songs especially because of their brutal directness. In my opinion, their bluntness was like vintage Elvis Costello.
JS: And "Party Line" was also chosen for a reason. "See it in your eyes, break the party line. I wanna know, does love mean nothing, nothing?" That may have been directed at some Republicans friends of mine.
MR: On the other hand, you could experiment with the intimate, singer-songwriter route. You don't have to use a seventies folk sound like early James Taylor records but an Elvis Costello approach might be the right balance.
JS: Yeah, and that's what I'm planning to do with "Stand." You're right, it doesn't have to be Gordon Lightfoot, even though I love Gordon Lightfoot songs. I suspect production-wise, it'll be a lot closer to Elvis Costello.
MR: One last question. You've been releasing digital EPs for efficiency but will you ever put your music out on vinyl or CDs?
JS: With Vinyl and CD, we've ordered them for the first three. I think we're going to have CDs by September. We're getting vinyl and CDs out and we're going to start having them at our shows.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
Scarborough’s two EPs, presented here for your listening pleasure. PLAY IT LOUD!