Sunday, April 4, 2021

Just Before the Dawn - a Conversation with David Crosby

David Crosby - image by Anna Webber


The March 16 email from Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center was brief, to the point, and not entirely unexpected: “David Crosby has made the decision not to tour in the foreseeable future and has cancelled his rescheduled date of June 20, 2021.” The original concert, booked for June 21, 2020, was among the thousands of live gigs scrapped during the initial months of the pandemic, and while fans were of course disappointed, everyone understood. Here we are, more than a year later, and while live music may be slowly returning to smaller indoor and outdoor dining venues, the prospect of larger-venue musical performances is not quite yet on the immediate horizon.

David Crosby, a man for whom live performance has always been an essential part of his being, found himself at home, to ponder an uncertain future. The pandemic may have put his live performance plans on indefinite hold, but the music has never stopped. Fortified by his family, and by the reassuringly constant presence of the Muse, Crosby has forged ahead, recording his fifth album apart from CSN/CSNY since 2014, and is already getting ready to begin work on the next album. His  “Ask Croz” feature with Rolling Stone continues, much to his fans’ delight, and he has once again recently been in the news, joining the ranks of many notable artists who are selling off their songwriting catalogs to achieve both financial security and legacy management of their life’s work. Crosby sold his publishing and recorded music rights, including his solo work, as well as his work with the Byrds; Crosby & Nash; Crosby, Stills & Nash; and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, to Irving Azoff’s Iconic Artists Group. He calls the deal “a blessing for me and my family” and refers to Azoff’s company as “the best people to do it with.”

Regular readers of Island Zone Update know that conversations with David Crosby appear on a regular basis and have done so for years. (2017 and 2018 saw two interviews per year!). 2020 would normally have included an interview prior to his Westhampton Beach concert, and the break in continuity was, on this end, deeply missed. So, it was with great anticipation that I sat in my home office on Tuesday, March 23, waiting for Crosby’s call. Then, at 2:00 pm EDT, right on schedule, the phone rang. Picking it up, I read the now-familiar phone number that appeared on the screen. Answering it, I heard the unmistakable voice, signaling the resumption of a conversation that began nearly thirty years ago … it has, indeed, been a long time gone.

Roy Abrams: David!! It’s so good to hear your voice! How are you?

David Crosby: Ah! I am … [chuckles] My normal answer is “elderly and confused,” but I’m actually pretty good today!

RA: Congratulations on finishing yet another new record! I understand it’s called For Free, inspired by a Joni Mitchell song that you’ve performed live in the past. Let’s talk about the songs, the personnel, any songwriting collaborations that took place, where and when it was recorded, and when it’s due for release.

DC: The release date was supposed to be May but I’m being told it’s July because they have a bottleneck on producing vinyl. Apparently, making the vinyl was slowed up by COVID, I don’t know how, so now they’re saying July. Like all of my records in the last ten years, it’s a very cooperative effort. It’s me and James (Raymond); it’s the Sky Trails band, but it’s really just me and James. We used people from all over. We used all kinds of jazz musicians and rock musicians to make the record. Number one, the touring band, the Sky Trails band, that’s pretty fixed. The people who made the record, well, this one was pretty astounding, man. I’ve been friends with Donald Fagen for a while and I finally convinced him to give me a set of words, so we took that set of words and James and I “Steely-Dan’ed” it into the middle distance, that’s one of the songs. We wrote another one with Michael McDonald called “River Rise”──mostly James wrote it. I’ve been bugging James to write us a single forever, (telling him) “C’mon, man, we need to pay the rent here!” And he did it, it’s a single! Michael McDonald sang on it with us and helped write it, actually. It’s always a cooperative effort with me and James. James is maturing as a writer to where he’s as good as I am if not better. He wrote what I think is the best song on the record, called “I Won’t Stay For Long,” that’s one of the best songs I’ve ever sung. I absolutely freakin’ loved it and I killed it. I sang the shit out of it. There’s a lot of my favorite thing, which is cooperative effort, all over the place. We are doing it, and it’s good! I love it that we can do it, but I’m frustrated as hell that they don’t pay us for it. I can’t stop saying that because it’s just not right that they’re making billions of dollars and not paying the artists who are making the music. I don’t like streaming and I don’t think it’s right; I think it’s theft. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make up music, so we are still doing that. [Laughs] We got this one mastered, and we started writing for another one. We don’t know what else to do!

RA: How has the past year impacted your creativity? How does one go about keeping the muse fresh in these strange times?

DC: It’s very tough. We can’t play live. At all. And that was my most fun thing, you know. You can write music, and you can record music, but you can’t get paid for it, which is weird, so it’s been very, very odd. You know, I definitely can’t play live, and that was the last source of income that I had. I had to sell my publishing, and so it affected me very strongly, this COVID thing. Shutting us down from being able to play live completely changed everything that I was able to do. I had to reshape my plans for my life.

RA: I’ve been reading a lot about the song catalog acquisition business and it’s amazing how it has exploded.

DC: I can explain it to you if you want to know.

RA: Absolutely!

DC: Okay, it’s pretty simple. I had a financial wizard friend of mine explain it. If you’re going into the world with $100 million to invest in the stock market, you take $50 million of it and put it in T-bills, because you know exactly what they’re gonna pay, and they’re safe. Then you take the other $50 million and go adventuring to try and make money. Well, then you think about publishing, you have 20 years of records. You know exactly what it’s gonna pay. It has that same security. The only thing is it pays a lot better than T-bills. A lot better. They used to buy publishing by a multiple. For most of my life, ten years of your publishing’s yearly earnings was what your publishing was worth. When it got to  19, faced with the situation I was faced with, it was definitely the right thing to do, to sell it.

RA: That seems to be what drove so many others’ decision to sell their publishing: The Beach Boys, Linda Ronstadt, Dylan … I actually read that Neil ended up selling about half of his work at the beginning of the year.

DC: It’s that and also that the tax situation is more advantageous now in the leftover situation from Trump than it will be when it readjusts to a more reasonable and less permissive kind of way of doing things. So, if you were gonna take a bunch of million dollars for making one of these deals, you’d want to it under this (tax situation) and not the next one.

RA: As far as the songwriting copyrights are concerned, do you still own them?

DC: Yeah, I still own them, but they get to collect the revenue.

RA: As far as future touring is concerned, a mutual acquaintance of ours, Jacob Collier, is launching a 67-date world tour in 2022! In many of our prior conversations in recent years, you mentioned that while touring was something that you loved, it was also a financial necessity for you.

DC: Because it’s the only thing that’s paying us, man! If we can’t make money off records, that’s it!

RA: Has the song catalog deal provided you with the kind of relief that transforms any future touring plans into an artistic goal rather than an economic necessity?

DC: The deal wasn’t related to touring, it was related to being able to pay the rent.

RA: Many people, including Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis, have been doing virtual concerts during the pandemic …

DC: Michelle has been doing the Monday night Piano Bar online for a long time──:

RA: Yes, and there is also a newer project involving virtual private house concerts.

DC: They’re trying to find some way to make a living. This is not gaming around, this is trying to put food on the table.

RA: Has your world view changed during the past year, not solely looking outward, but inward as well, to yourself as an artist?

DC: Yes. My world has changed over the last couple of years drastically, because of all the reasons that I’ve said. I used to be able to make a living and right now, I can’t, and that’s true of all the musicians I know. Now, if you think it’s bad for me, it’s nothing for me compared to the young people who are trying to come up: Becca and Michelle, Michael League, the young, really brilliant musicians that I know. If you think it’s bad for me, imagine what it’s like for them. They can’t get a leg up at all. They can’t play live or record or make a living. They sleep on their mother’s couch.

RA: So much of what I have been reading discusses what is being viewed as a coming “Roaring ‘20s” situation, with a resurgence of live music based on long-term pent-up demand.

DC: Well, everybody would like to, but until you can get a fully vaccinated audience, it’s bullshit.

RA: Have you found any silver lining in the midst of the past year’s challenges?

DC: For me, the silver lining was spending time with my family. I love my family a whole lot, and being there when I normally would be gone, trudging around playing, has been good for my family; it’s been good for me with them. The more time you put into it, the better it gets. Frankly, it’s been very good that way, and I’m grateful for it.

RA: Gaining more time to have uninterrupted music listening sessions proved to be among the few silver linings that appeared. Lighthouse and Here If You Listen have been in frequent rotation for the past year. (I’ve mentioned to you in the past that Lighthouse got near-daily listens for the first year after its release and has lost none of its original impact.)

DC: That’s mostly me and Michael but that’s where we started the chemistry with Becca and Michelle. I’m really happy about that record. Lighthouse was a really fun record. I like Sky Trails too, I think it was an excellent record, I thought Croz was an excellent record. I think Here If You Listen is one of the best ones I’ve made.

RA: When you released Croz in 2014, CSN still had a full year and a half to go. During the tour to promote Croz did you foresee an end of the road for CSN?

DC: Yeah. It gets a little mechanical for a while. You do it for forty years and it turns into “turn on the smoke machine and play your hits” and that’s really not good enough for me.

[Author’s note: CSN did manage to blow audiences away on what turned out to be their final tour in 2015. Their May 16, 2015 appearance at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn stands as one of the strongest performances I witnessed from the band since first seeing them live in 1977.]

RA: It sounds like you were really chomping at the bit for a while to break out …

DC: I was, yeah.

RA: What an example you set! It used to be the jazz musicians who, as they grew older, showed the rest of us that no, the muse doesn’t necessarily limit its visits, nor does the fire to create and perform music diminish. I think that you, perhaps more than anyone else of the generation of artists who came of age in the 1960s, retain what Becca described as a sense of childlike wonder, the magical pull that drew you to music in the first place. This has been a common description of you from people with whom you’ve worked in the past several years. My question is: Do you still feel like a child when you hear music that just nails you?

DC: Yeah, I do. I can’t help it; that’s actually true.

RA: Becca described your vision of the Lighthouse band as “like CSNY, but nothing like them.” Can you elaborate on that?

DC: It’s a chemistry. I love and specialize in chemistries. It is like CSN of CSNY in that it is a chemistry of several people contributing music to it, with each other, to a whole. That’s what it is. The tendency is, if you have a successful chemistry, is to ride it into the freakin’ dirt. I think we stayed with it longer than we should have. I think we should have branched out more but it is what it is. I’m here, making records that I’m really proud of, I mean, I think I’m making really good music. That’s really all I’m responsible for: making the best music I possibly can. I don’t see that happening with the other guys. They seem to be kind of stuck in place. I can’t really vouch for that.

RA: What I’ve seen since 2014 is an artist who just keeps pushing the envelope. I remember saying to you a couple of years ago that while you are undeniably a musical icon of sorts, you also come off as an exciting, refreshingly new artist──

DC: [Giggles]

RA: ──Because of what you bring to the table. I look at the way that Becca, Michelle, and Michael respond to you, and you can see from the look on their faces that they get it, too.

DC: Well, they’re fun, you know? They’re really brilliant musicians, at least as good as I am. The chemistry with them is really good. We are probably gonna try to make another record together. It’s difficult because Michael lives in Spain now, but I think we might just try going over there to make another one. The three of us love Michael, and he is utterly, completely necessary to that chemistry.

RA: One of the tracks on Here If You Listen, “Your Own Ride,” a song written for your song Django, contains lyrics that are at once profoundly personal to you but from a parental standpoint, universal in nature. What was Django’s reaction when he first heard it?

DC: It moved him. He’s very bright, so he understood it completely, and it moved him a great deal. It’s a very honest song from a father to a son. And Bill Laurence (of Snarky Puppy) did a beautiful job with the music.

RA: What are your biggest concerns as a parent these days?

DC: The biggest one is that an awful lot of young people do not think that we are successfully the situation that the world is in, and don’t think we’re gonna make it. They look at our task, which is to get the entire human race off coal and oil, which is what we have to do, and they think we probably can’t pull it off. The result will be that we’ll go down in flames for it.

RA: What does your gut tell you?

DC: Hey, you know, I’m always holding on to some kind of hope. I hold hope in exemplary human beings, the Elon Musks of this world; I hold hope in technology because of people like him who are unafraid to use it, I hold hope in the pure (tenacity) of human beings in wanting to survive. But I frankly think it’s very hard to argue that──if they won’t address it, and they certainly are not──there’s half of this country who doesn’t even believe that global warming’s real, man! They think that COVID’s a hoax! They think the government’s trying to steal their kidneys! They are brutally ignorant people. There are an unbelievable number of completely ignorant people in the United States now, because we used to be really good at educating ourselves, and now we’re not. We’re 25th or 28th in the world at educating our kids; every other developed country is doing a better job than we are. So, that gives us ignorant people──ignorant people who are wearing those little red hats running around saying, [adopts exaggerated Southern accent] “Got to make America great again!” Education is the key log in the jam, and we’ve failed it. I understand how a lot of young people that I talk to are not starting families, not starting careers, not trying to accomplish much, because frankly they don’t think we’re gonna make it.

RA: Are there any reforms to the educational system that you would like to see instituted?

DC: Here’s the deal: Education itself is the key to making it better. We are not funding it. Teachers don’t get paid enough, therefore we don’t get good enough teachers. Double the pay to teachers and all of a sudden it becomes a job that people can jump for out of college and if both of you can get a job teaching, you can actually raise children and have a house. That’s what we need to do; that will change the dynamic totally. Teachers have to get paid at least twice as much as they’re getting now, and that’s all across the board, everywhere. And then you’ve gotta stop with the tenure bullshit. “Oh, I don’t have to be competent, because I’ve been here a long time.” It’s absolutely a total joke. They stop working. They just sit there and collect the check. We need to pay better so we get better people. They need to rigorously revamp the schools into being modern and effective because, believe me, the Japanese and the Chinese and the French and the English and the Italians and everybody fuckin’ else is competing with us worldwide, and if we don’t educate our kids they will fail in that competition. That is not a good thing.

RA: I stepped away from the public school system ten years ago to focus solely on one-to-one, individualized instruction …

DC: You’re lucky you do it because that way, you can actually teach somebody! Overall, I’m glad that that is what you do, and I’m grateful you do. But the situation in the rest of the country sucks. We’re doing a lousy job of educating our kids. I think every educator I talk to is on the same page. It’s not like it’s a mystery. Every teacher I know feels the same way, they feel like we’re not doing it the way we know perfectly well we need to do it.

RA: One wonders why the teachers themselves don’t stand up and make a change …

DC: Because the teachers are never the ones in charge! It’s the goddamn politicians!

RA: That brings up the whole issue of the Common Core curriculum. Recent studies are showing that it has failed, despite all the money and other resources that have been thrown at it.

DC: Can I tell you, how predictable was that?

RA: Steering back toward music, do you foresee a possible return to live performance in 2022 or it still too early to tell?

DC: The answer to that is gonna depend on vaccination. When you say, look, to buy a ticket, you’ve got to show us a vaccination sticker. If you can show us that you’ve been vaccinated, you can buy a ticket. Okay, when they do that, if they do that, then they will have audiences that are safe and then we will have audiences … not until.

RA: In a recent article centered around the upcoming release of a special Déjà Vu repackaging that features a wealth of previously unreleased material, Stephen said of CSNY, “We were glued together with Silly Putty.” Is that a valid assessment, in your opinion?

DC: I think it’s great phrase; I don’t know exactly what he meant.

RA: In the same article, you stated that it didn’t really mean much, one way or the other, as far as the archival mindset is concerned, yet it was that archival mindset that produced your beautiful Voyage boxed set.

DC: You know, it might be mindset. Voyage was a more intelligently constructed thing, I think. I was pretty happy about Voyage.

RA: Are there any other works in the archives, whether studio-based or live, that might eventually see the light of day?

DC: There’s tons! There are rooms full of live tapes. Crosby tapes, Crosby/Nash tapes, Crosby, Stills and Nash tapes, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tapes. There’s enough CSNY tapes to fill a truck!

RA: David, on a personal note, it has been wonderful speaking with you again! It’s been many years since we began the dialogue, and I am thrilled that we got the opportunity to resume it today. Please give my best to Jan and Django, and I hope our paths cross in person again one day in the future!

DC: Thanks, man!

© Roy Abrams 2021

Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Archive Series: Emily Saliers - July 1992

 



Indigo Girls – Celebrating the Rites of Passage

Interview with Emily Saliers

 

For the first time, Emily Saliers and Amy Ray──better known as Indigo Girls──have stepped outside the bounds of the sound they’ve come to be known and loved for. On Rites of Passage, the duo’s third major label release, there’s a new rhythmic undercurrent provided by a variety of Latin and African percussion instruments. The stellar supporting cast, including B-52s’ bassist Sara Lee, drummers Jerry Marotta and Kenny Aronoff, and various members of Siouxsie and the Banshees, provides an exquisite musical palette on which Emily and Amy paint their most vivid pictures yet. Their harmonies, perhaps the most powerful and striking among the ranks of newer artists, send a nonstop barrage of chills down the spine. The songs truly mark the duo’s passage to a new level of maturity and depth of outlook.

During rehearsals for their current U.S. headlining tour, Emily Saliers took a break to talk about the duo’s past, present, and future. More like a conversation with a long-lost college friend, our talk covered a lot of ground, and left no doubt that the combined talents (and refreshing intelligence) of the Indigo Girls that has brought them this far will carry them further still.

Roy Abrams: Your earlier LPs consisted largely of material that had a solid performance life behind it. This album marks a radical departure from that. The recording process must have been markedly different from the past. What were the sessions like?

Emily Saliers: Well, from my point of view, it felt like a wide-open world for what we could do with the songs. When we first out, I think Amy and I were a little afraid of losing our essence by adding things on the record. It was our first “real” studio experience; in a way, on the first record and even on Nomads, Indians, and Saints, we sort of hampered (original producer) Scott Litt’s wanting to expand a little more, musically, I think. Then, we switched producers, and Peter Collins did this one. Amy and I started talking about all the ethnic musical influences we wanted, with the Irish musicians and Talvinde from Siouxsie and the Banshees playing the tabla and percussion. We started picking out players and influences that we wanted on the songs, and it was just such a creative and fun process. I think the fact that the songs were new and hadn’t been weathered by tons of performance left them open, which was very healthy.

RA: The guest singers on this album are a “who’s who” of some of the best harmony singers on the  planet: The Roches, Jackson Browne, David Crosby──how did they get involved?

ES: We sort of kept running into these people. We met Jackson a couple of years ago. We were doing a show in L.A. and he sang a song with us that night, and we stayed in touch. We did a benefit (later) for the Verde Valley School in Arizona, which is a really cool private school that Jackson’s been involved with for years and David (Crosby) was at that concert. He and Graham (Nash) sang some songs; he told me he liked our music. I knew we were about ready to record, so I asked him if he would sing on the record. He said yes, and I almost died right there in front of him! The Roches we’ve known for years. I grew up listening to their music. It’s a dream come true to work with these people.

RA: I would imagine. How did you put the vocals together on those tracks?

ES: On “Airplane,” The Roches did that arrangement themselves. Amy and I didn’t touch it. We sent them a demo of the song with just the two of us singing, and they wrote their arrangement, came to the studio, we sat around five microphones, Amy and I strummed the guitars, and that’s how we did it!

RA: I hope flying’s getting easier for you, by the way …

ES: [Laughing] It’s not! I’ve had a setback, but it’s just something I have to deal with. It just makes me very uncomfortable. I can’t understand how a big old piece of metal can get off the ground.

RA: How did you put “Let It Be Me” together?

ES: Jackson and David sang on that. We just sat down together at a piano and picked out a few notes ... it happened just like that.

RA: It must have been something else to have been in that room at that time.

ES: You know, you try not to act like it’s blowing you away! God, this year’s been chock full of so many wonderful experiences like that.

RA: Your own sense of harmony is what draws a lot of people to your music. Is it an intuitive thing with both of you, or do you sit down and work them out?

ES: It’s intuitive to the extent that I feel how the harmonies are going to work. When I finish a song, I start to hear lines come into my head. We actually pound it out after the intuition. Sometimes, we have to step back and look at how the song will build dynamically. Amy’s got a real good sense of that──when to add, when not to add. I have a very innate sense of harmony, so that works that way.

RA: The combination is very intriguing. Distinct personalities, very different voices, and songwriting styles yet the blend touches on the magical, often crossing that border. Any thoughts on your influences on each other?

ES: Well, it’s definitely a yin/yang chemistry, completely. Our personalities are really different. We listen to different kinds of music. Amy’s much more rock and roll, alternative music influenced. I’m more influenced by singer/songwriter narrative music. Amy comes from a lot of anger, writing of the earth and sensual images. I intellectualize things a little more; I write my songs like an English paper!

RA: I get the feeling from your lyrics that you read quite a lot. What’s inspired you, both musically and in literature?

ES: Actually, our literary influences are more aligned than our musical influences. We both love Southern literature──Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor; that sort of bizarre, steeped-in-Southern-thickness style of writing. I rediscovered Virginia Wolff this past year. Amy found this poet named Frank Stanford. He really moved her to write. We’ve both been reading a lot of non-fiction too; a lot of history. Musically, my greatest influence has been Joni Mitchell. She’s still new to me; I never get tired of her stuff. Bob Dylan’s the other big one. Amy’s also into Dylan and, at an earlier stage, Neil Young. We both liked James Taylor at a very early stage. Later on, Amy got into bands like Husker Du, the Replacements, and the Jam.

RA: When did you and Amy first start working together?

ES: We met at elementary school. I moved to Atlanta from Connecticut when I was nine. We lived in the same neighborhood.

RA: That’s pretty convenient …

ES: Yeah, really! We got to be good friends toward the end of high school. That’s when we started playing professionally, around 1980. I went off to Tulane University  for two years Amy went to Vandy (Vanderbilt University) for a year, and then we both ended up transferring to Emory in Atlanta. That’s when we became the Indigo Girls and our fan base became solid, at least locally. That was the catalyst.

RA: Who came up with the name?

ES: Amy found the name in the dictionary. She was thumbing through it for some ideas, you know, and that word popped out. Pretty plain and simple!

RA: What were the early days like?

ES: The sentiment felt exactly the same. We still feel the same way playing together as we did back them. The only difference is that we had so much to learn. We had to run our own sound system, book our own gigs, call up the radio stations ourselves after we’d sent out the records from the post office. It was sort of a nine-to-five job! We were, I guess, paying our dues back then, although it didn’t really feel like it.

RA: When did you first realize that you were on the way to “making it”?

ES: Well, “making it” is such a relative term. Each step along the way seemed like “making it.” The first time we got a gig playing at an open mic night, we thought that was heaven. Then we got a gig playing at a regular bar where we got paid; after that, we got to open for someone like John Sebastian. At that point, we felt like that was everything. So, each step of the way felt like success. We were never stagnant. It was a very natural and healthy progression.

RA: I know it’s kind of tough to put the creative process into words, but can you describe how your creativity gets sparked?

ES: I sort of feel it all the time. I get pricked by different thoughts or experiences. If I’m out at a bar listening to music and I notice something going on at the next table, or if I’m getting cynical about relationships, or read something in the paper … I mean, the inspiration is all around, in life. You feel it growing inside you, this thought that has to be put down. I know Amy keeps a little book and she jots down her thoughts, which is a good thing to do so you don’t forget. So, it sort of broods inside you, then you pick your time, when you sit down with your guitar. I like to be in a real quiet space where I can gather my thoughts.

RA: What was the inspiration behind “Ghost”?

ES: I’m typically a bleeding-heart type of person. You know, the feelings between two people, feelings of love and attraction that get sparked … that’s one of my favorite things to experience and to write about. That was the seed to be planted for that song, and I found those chords early on. I started playing them during soundchecks and they had a good, somber, but rolling feel to them. Then I just started thinking about the way it can happen that either you fall in love with someone, or there’s a relationship for a time, and then it ends, and it just gets built to be this powerful, mysterious force in your life and you’re never going to get over it. It’s alive and well, even though the ties aren’t there anymore. I think that’s a basic human experience.

RA: How did Michael Kamen turn up on that track?

ES: [Giggles] That was Peter Collins’ doing. Michael Kamen did the strings on “Silent Lucidity” (Queensryche), which Peter produced. Peter was really bucking for strings on that song. When I first wrote it, it was a very intimate song, and I was very afraid that the strings would turn it into a sweeping ballad, and I didn’t want that. So, we fought over it, in a friendly way. Finally, we grew to respect Peter’s opinion so much that, in the end, I said, “Okay, Peter, if Michael can do this … “ Michael loved the song; he gathered his orchestra and put all this stuff down, and then we weeded it out a little bit and ended up with a compromise.

RA: “Galileo” is another really interesting track.

ES: Reincarnation is something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past year and a half. Actually, I don’t think about it all the time, but it seemed to get brought up, and it’s a very popular subject among certain friends. This one friend and I were discussing it into the wee hours of the night. When I started writing the song, I wanted to approach it from a lighthearted point of view. I just figured, since Galileo had discovered such great truths, he must be an advanced soul in some way. And his name had kind of a ring to it.

RA: What are some of your favorite Indigo Girls songs from all phases of your career?

ES: Well … of Amy’s songs, I always like “Kid Fears.” It’s really very powerful, especially live, when people are singing along with it. I think it’s a great song. I love singing “Secure Yourself,” too. I find it very uplifting … I also really like singing “Pushing the Needle Too Far.” It’s a powerful, raw rock and roll song. All of Amy’s songs on the new record I really like. I think “Cedar Tree” is a powerful song in its simplicity. Of my songs, I think the best one I ever wrote was “History Of Us.” It just poured out of me. I was in Europe with my family; it’s all true, the images, nothing was made up. I put everything into it and it flowed out. I think “You And Me And The 10,000 Wars” is a good song. It’s hard to talk about your own songs, but I think my favorite of mine on the new record is “Ghost.” It seems like the songs that really just pour out of me are the ones that turn out to be my best.

RA: Where do you think contemporary music is headed?

ES: That’s a hard question, ‘cause there are so many different kinds of contemporary music. The only trend I see that bothers me is that music is becoming more and more mindless on the radio. The lyrics don’t mean anything; the songs aren’t musically interesting (not to my ears, anyway!). I think we get lazy with what we accept as music … and what MTV promotes. I hardly ever find something new that blows me away. Well, Wynona Judd; I love country music. All the new artists that keep coming out of country (music) are great. But then, I also go back and listen to Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, CSN, Jackson Browne. We both are influenced by a lot of people from Atlanta, local artists like Kristen Hall, Gerard McHugh, and the Ellen James Society. You know, the stuff that counts will last and stand the test of time.

RA: I think your music will have a place of its own in that category.

ES: We’ll see. I hope so, ‘cause we’re having an awesome time!

RA: What are your plans for the rest of 1992?

ES: I think we’re gonna be touring behind this album for quite some time. Afterward, Amy’s got her record label (Dameon Records) that keeps her very busy. I’m interesting in writing a bunch of songs and maybe doing some collaborative writing, and maybe trying to get my songs to some other people and see if anyone wants to record them. And I want to become a better golf player, too!

RA: Golf? Okay.

ES: And I wanna have fun.

© Roy Abrams 2021

Originally published in The Island-Ear, July 14-27, 1992 issue

Friday, February 26, 2021

The Archive Series: Tony Banks - October 1992

 


Tony Banks: More Tales From The Book Of Genesis

Genesis has joined the ranks of those groups that can count more than one generation among their fans. With a career spanning nearly a quarter of a century, Genesis has undergone remarkable transformations and upheavals, both personally and musically, emerging as one of the biggest acts in the music business. Of course, the astonishing success of vocalist/drummer Phil Collins’ solo career has eclipsed that of the group several times during the past decade, causing several pinhead radio deejays to refer to “Phil Collins and Genesis” when playing a Genesis track … no big deal in itself, but highlighting how perceptions can change when one member of a band achieves great individual success.

Though Phil Collins’ solo efforts may be the most financially rewarding, his bandmates have also forged separate musical identities. Bassist/guitarist Mike Rutherford has released several albums, both as a solo artist and with the Mechanics, and has made his own mark upon contemporary music. The solo career of keyboardist Tony Banks, while never quite catching fire (yet) has included four unusual, highly musical efforts: A Curious Feeling (1979), The Fugitive (1983), Bankstatement (1989) and Still (1992). Any fan of Genesis , whether they’re more into the early or later periods, will find a treasure trove of singularly creative moments in these works, which could only have come from the mind of Tony Banks, one of rock’s most underrated songwriters.

I spoke with Banks during the early part of the current Genesis tour …

Roy Abrams: Is it difficult to go about selecting the songs you include in your set, given the catalog of material Genesis has accumulated?

Tony Banks: It’s not as difficult as you might think, really. Obviously, we as a group are more interested in playing more recent stuff, though we like to reach back a bit as well. We look at the new album and we do as much of that as we can. Then we go back and do the songs from the previous set that we still feel pretty close to … and then we look back into our early days. On this tour, we decided to do a different “old” medley, if you like. We did a twenty-minute medley last time, we’re doing a different one this time, (consisting of material) from the ‘70s.

RA: What made you decide to go the open-air route for this tour?

TB: Well, the main reason was to try and keep the length of the tour down a bit, with quite a few different things going on for everybody. Also, having children at the age where you don’t want to leave them for too long. We felt that the best way of covering the ground and not be touring for two years would be to do the open-air shows. Having done a bit of it on the last tour and quite enjoying it, we thought we’d try it this one time.

RA: Are you as comfortable performing live as you are in the studio?

TB: I’m in this business as a writer, really. Making records I see as an extension of the writing process. Playing live … I enjoy it, but I’m not a natural. I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t my music; I really wouldn’t do it for any other reason.

RA: Since the Genesis LP (1983), the band has taken two extended leaves of absence, the second larger than the first. What’s it like getting together after those types of layovers?

TB: We’ve been doing that since ’79, really, although the periods off were shorter in those days. Once you set the patterns, it’s easier once you expect it to happen. When you come back, it’s very easy to get back together again. We slip back into it after about a week or so. It’s like you’d never done it any other way, almost. It hasn’t been a problem.

RA: Your solo LP, Still, was released rather quickly after We Can’t Dance. Chronologically speaking, which project were you involved with first, and how long did the recording of both albums take?

TB: I did my solo album before the Genesis record. The recording process of my album took about three months. (On the Genesis record) we took a couple of months to write it and another two or three months to record it. I was in the studio pretty much continuously from one project to the next, which is not really how I like to do it, but it just worked out that way!

RA: Three of the tracks on Still are collaborations. What was the extent of the collaboration as compared with how you work with Genesis?

TB: The collaborations (on Still) were somewhat different because it’s a fairly straight division between music and lyrics. I’d written the songs pretty much completely, melody and everything. The lyrics are from the people I worked with──both Nik Kershaw and Fish are people whose lyrics I like a lot. Also, I think there’s no doubt that singers have a tendency to sing their own lyrics a bit better, ‘cause they know what they can get their teeth around.

RA: How did you go about choosing the four other singers for the album? I know that Jayney Kilmek appeared on your last LP.

TB: Well, she was an easy decision because I’d worked with her, and I like working with a girl singer as well, because it’s so different from what I do with Genesis. Fish is someone I’d worked with in the past, quite a long time ago. We got on really well, and we always talked about doing some more stuff. When I decided that I was going to use a number of singers (on this record), I thought Fish was an obvious choice.

RA: Has anyone mentioned that “Another Murder Of A Day” (a Fish/Banks composition on Still) has a distinct early Genesis feel?

TB: Well, to be honest, it was a slightly conscious thing. I mean, I can write those kinds of things all the time, you know, but it’s more difficult now within Genesis; we don’t do quite as many things of that nature. Fish has his roots in a band called Marillion, which at one point was considered to be a sort of Genesis copy. He’s about as long-winded as I am, so that two of us did one long track where we let ourselves go a bit. I wasn’t going to do an “old” song or a “new” song; I just let myself do what came naturally.

RA: On the new record and the Bankstatement LP, you sing one track each, but on The Fugitive, you did all the vocals on the entire record. I’m curious as to why you moved away from that.

TB: Well, there’s somewhat of a divided opinion on the state of my vocals! I thought that on The Fugitive, I did a reasonable job, but the point is, there’s more to it than that. If you’re going to be the singer of an album, you’ve got to be able to front it in some kind of way. It means if you ever do a video or a TV show, you’ve got to be the singer. I really don’t feel comfortable doing that at all, and my voice──although I can get away with it in the studio──really isn’t good enough for a live situation, certainly not without quite a lot more experience. I don’t have any particular desire to promote myself as a singer, but on the other hand I’ve done one song on each of the last two albums to keep my hand in. I think it’s quite fun to do that, to remind yourself of what you’re putting these other people through all the time!

RA: Is there anybody that you have not worked with that you might eventually like to put something together with?

TB: Not specifically. There’s a lot of people I like, but it’s really a matter of when the time comes up, I start thinking about it. It’s not necessarily “I want to work with the people I admire the most,” because I don’t think they need me, for a start I chose Nik Kershaw this time, who’s someone I’ve admired for years, because he seemed to have a fairly blank period recently, and I thought he might be interested in doing something.

RA: Do you foresee a time when you and Peter Gabriel might work together again?

TB: I certainly don’t think it’s impossible. Peter and I are good friends, and we like each other musically as well, you know. [Laughing] It’s a difficult question, because it gets around to the fact that Peter doesn’t really need me; do you know what I mean? We’d only get back together, I think, because it would be a fun thing to do. We both have careers of our own, but we definitely worked together well back in the early ‘70s. Some of the songs that became classic Genesis songs were the results of the two of us working together. So, it’s certainly not something that I would rule out. We never really talked about it because we’ve been going our own musical way.

RA: I understand you’ve got a great deal of unreleased material. Will it ever come out?

TB: The trouble is, I’m one of those people who, if I haven’t done anything with a song for a while, it tends to get forgotten and discarded. I’ve got some instrumental things that I’ve accumulated over the years. I’ve always been hoping to do a film soundtrack, to get some of those pieces in. At some point I may decide to do an instrumental album to get it all out of my system! You see, when it comes to my songs, I tend not to write a lyric until I know that the song is going to come out. I tend to work with music first. So, there’s a lot of material; I have no lack of stuff. But when you’re doing a new record, you like it have more recently written songs, I think.

RA: Have you ever considered doing any kind of solo tour to stretch out on your own? Assuming, of course, that you could find the right people to work with.

TB: It’s something I’ve thought about, but decided against, for a few reasons. The problem is this: in the early days with Genesis, we were onstage, playing songs nobody had ever heard, and tried to convince the audience from the stage. I don’t think I could do the same thing with my music because I haven’t got the necessary projection myself unless I was with some other “right” people. But I can’t start right at the beginning again like that. I’ve always said that if I had some success as a solo artist, I would be more inclined to tour. When Mike (Rutherford) went on the road with the Mechanics, he had three or four songs he could go to in a set, like “Silent Running,” that people at least had some sort of idea about, and the rest of the stuff could build to these moments. I don’t really have that yet. I know a lot of people like the solo albums. Obviously, I like ‘em all. It’s difficult to know──you never know; the reason they didn’t do better than they did is that they didn’t have any singles on them, or anything that wound up capturing enough people’s imagination. Unfortunately, rock music is totally controlled by singles, and I would say that singles have always been my weakest area.

RA: What are some of your keyboard and overall songwriting influences?

TB: Back in the early days, I was most influenced by the writers from the ‘60s: The Beatles, the Kinks, the Tamla Motown stuff. Those songs excited me the most at that time. As for players from that period, there’s Alan Price, who was one of the first keyboard players I ever noticed as a keyboard player. From the late ‘60s, there was Keith Emerson when he was with the Nice … and the keyboardist in Procol Harum.

RA: How would you rate yourself as a keyboard player?

TB: It always sounds like false modesty, but I know that I’m pretty limited. There are a lot of people with a hell of a lot better technique than me. The only way I can judge myself is as a writer. I think that as a writer, and as a player of my own songs, that I have an originality. That’s the strength, if you like. Certainly not in the technique, because it’s no better than in dozens of keyboard players you could find anywhere. I consider that, in my career, I’ve been very lucky with a lot of the people I’ve been with, you know, which has got me into the position where I can actually be a professional player.

RA: What keyboards are you currently using?

TB: My current favorites, well, I’ve got the Roland JD800, which is sort of like the D50 but you’ve got all the faders, so you can alter tones as you go through. Also, the basic sounds are better than the D50. The Korg Wavestation is my other favorite instrument I’m using. On this tour, I’m not using anything that I used on the last tour, in fact! Some of the old sounds that I like I’ve got sampled and stored on the E3.

RA: Your lyrics, over time, have gone from a storytelling approach (e.g., “One For the Vine”) to more personal songs like “Still It Takes Me By Surprise.” Which approach do you find more challenging?

TB: The reason why it’s taken me longer to get to more personal things is that I find it more difficult. Sometimes I’m writing about real things in a fantasy, but “One For The Vine” was really sort of an allegory. I still read a lot of fantasy, but I’m slightly more aware that, at the moment, fantasy in rock music is something that makes it appear very dated. With songs like “Undertow” on And Then There Were Three I first started writing with a more “real” kind of sense, although there’s been the odd fantasy lyric thrown in, like “Cul-de-Sac.”

RA: Have the technological advancements altered your basic approach to songwriting?

TB: Definitely, I think. The technology can lead you in a direction that you wouldn’t have otherwise thought about. Particularly, I like the sampling machines. If you sample little riffs of music or just random sounds that occur in the studio when you’re playing, you can get something that sets you off on an idea that you wouldn’t have thought of.

RA: Can you pick out a few songs that are really special to you?

TB: “Supper’s Ready,” from the early period, was a combination of bits and pieces, and stood out, if for no other reason because of its length, but I always liked the way it went from mood to mood. From the slightly later period, one of my favorites has always been “Duchess.” It’s a very simple song, and the first time we ever used a drum machine on anything to do with Genesis. It set us off in a slightly different direction. In terms of my solo stuff, A Curious Feeling has always been very close to me──the whole album, particularly the instrumentals. “The Waters of Lethe” is one of my favorite instrumental things that I’ve ever written. The Fugitive LP was fun for me because it involved singing and taught me a lot. I think the atmosphere on that album works as a whole. On Bankstatement, my favorite track is “I’ll Be Waiting” and on the new record my favorite is “Water Out Of Wine.” It’s a personal thing, it captured the mood, and I love Jayney’s voice on it.

RA: How about anything from We Can’t Dance?

TB: Well, I love ‘em all really. “Dreaming While You Sleep” is probably my favorite track──it’s got drama and an atmosphere about it which I think is one of the keys to Genesis. “No Son Of Mine” and “I Can’t Dance” also really work. “I Can’t Dance” has no excess baggage; it’s a very straightforward thing, but it’s got a real atmosphere.

RA: Phil Collins has referred to you as the most important songwriter in Genesis, in terms of being the nucleus of what makes the band unique. Do you have any comment on that?

TB: Phil always tries to redress the balance a little bit when given the chance, because there’s always the tendency for the media to view Genesis as Phil’s vehicle. He likes to stress what everybody else does. Over the years, I suppose I’ve been responsible for more Genesis music than anybody else, and I certainly don’t mind that being emphasized. From any other point of view, as a performer, I don’t care that much, really. I don’t particularly care what people think of me as a keyboard player; it’s as a writer that I want to be judged.

RA: You’ve been a part of one of the most evolving, creative bands for more than twenty years. Does it feel like that long of a time?

TB: I never think of it in time scale; it’s a funny thing. It was ’68 when we released our first single … [pause] It’s just part of my life, it’s what I am it’s my identity. [Laughs] I’ve never looked ahead or looked back. I would never have anticipated in the 1970s that the band would still be going in the 1990s. I would have been somewhat horrified in a way, I think! What we’ve managed to do is adapt the band to our own needs. It doesn’t take up all of our time, we do things outside of the music business, and yet still keep Genesis going, still producing music we find satisfying. It’s an incredible luxury, really, but I’m not questioning the luck.

© Roy Abrams 2021

Originally published in The Island-Ear, October 5, 1992