Monday, May 2, 2022

Jeff "Skunk" Baxter: Traveling at the Speed of Heat

Jeff "Skunk" Baxter
Image by Joel Manduke

To the delight of his fans, musical icon Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is releasing his debut solo album, Speed of Heat, on June 17th, on BMG/Renew Records. The name, no doubt, is instantly familiar to fans of Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers. His presence in the music world, however, looms even larger. A renowned studio musician and producer, Baxter’s contributions are as ubiquitous as the famed Wrecking Crew or the Session. His extraordinary talent has graced hundreds of other artists’ work, among them Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Carl Wilson, Ringo Starr, Rod Stewart, and the Ventures.

With Speed of Heat, 72-year-old Baxter shows that his creative fires are stoked and that he is moving ever forward. Excited to share his new album with the world, Baxter is returning to the road with a tour that will bring him to Long Island on May 10th, at the Metropolitan in Glen Cove, as part of the Long Island Classic Series presented by Michael “Eppy” Epstein of legendary My Father’s Place fame.

Speed of Heat features contributions from several notable guests, including Michael McDonald, Clint Black, Jonny Lang, and Rick Livingstone. The album’s twelve tracks consist of a combination of originals and “inspired classics,” including a re-imagining of Steely Dan’s  “My Old School” and “Do It Again.” Along with songwriting collaborator and musician C.J. Vanston, the album’s originals highlight the depth and scope of Baxter’s musical genius in vivid relief. In a word: astonishing.

From the driving, hard-edged take of Steely Dan’s “My Old School” to the haunting, a cappella pedal steel featured on “The Rose,” breathtakingly jaw-dropping moments abound. It is unmistakably clear that Jeff “Skunk” Baxter has created a definitive personal statement with Speed of Heat, one which will endear him further to his legion of existing fans while introducing him to a generation of new ones.

During a recent Saturday afternoon, Baxter was eager to talk about the new album and happy to share memories of some of the people and places he’s encountered in his 50-plus year musical voyage. Similar to another guitar-playing peer’s second career as an astrophysicist (Queen’s Brian May), a little-known fact about Baxter is that he is a highly respected defense consultant and counter-terrorism expert for the United States Government. Addressing his alter ego directly during our conversation provided a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a man who is not only an acknowledged musical force, but also a keenly intelligent fount of fascinating scientific knowledge and experience. Read on and enjoy!

 

Image by Jimmy Steinfelt

RA: Congratulations on this new record! I’ve been listening to it pretty much constantly for the past 48 hours. As a musician, I’m kind of at a loss for words.

JB: I really appreciate the compliment, thank you! I had a lot of help from good friends.

 

RA: So I see! You’re going to be coming to our neck of the woods on May 10th, coming to Long Island for a performance at The Metropolitan in Glen Cove, which is part of Long Island Classic Music Series organized by Michael “Eppy” Epstein of My Father’s Place fame. I’m wondering if you have any history with him or that illustrious venue?

JB: I believe I played there a long time ago. I know I played out on Long Island when I was a kid, at the Action House and places like that. But it’s been quite awhile since I’ve been out there, and I’m really looking forward to it!


RA: As far as Speed of Heat goes, the fifty-year span between Steely Dan’s debut album and the release of your debut solo album begs the question: What was behind the wait to put out your own record?

JB: I always thought it was kind of typical for any artist who leaves a very successful band to immediately do a solo album. I thought, nah, I’ll percolate a bit, and it was pretty busy between studio work and producing records and playing with other folks. There wasn’t a whole lot of time! So, I got together with my buddy C.J. Vanston over the course of about the past twelve years. Every once in a while, we’d get together and do a little recording. It sort of blossomed. It was going to be instrumental and then I mentioned it to Mike McDonald and he said he’d like to play on it. (Also) Clint Black and Jonny Lang. I even asked Steve Tyler to sing on it and I sent him a copy of “My Old School” with me doing a scratch vocal. He said, “Who’s that singing?” I said, uh, Steve, that’s me, I just (did) a scratch vocal, and he said, “What the hell’s the matter with you? Why don’t you sing it? It sounds good to me!” I said, well, you know more about this stuff than I do, so okay! (It went) on and on until it became almost half instrumental, half vocal. For the writing process, my buddy C.J. and I had been playing together for many years doing jingles (commercials) together, and we found that we write literally without talking. We could just start playing and things would happen. I (told) him that if someday I ever did a solo record, I would really like to do it with him. That’s kind of how it all worked out.

 

RA: That’s fantastic. You mentioned that you two could write without talking. My ears picked up an almost telepathic communication between the two of you, so thank you for corroborating that! Another thing my ears picked up is how you were able to bring out performances in your musical guests that transcended what they usually did on their own recordings. Clint Black’s vocal on “Bad Move” is markedly different from what his fans are familiar with.

JB: Well, that was actually part of the deal: If you want to play on the record – I had told Mike McDonald and Clint and Jonny that first of all, we want you to write with myself and C.J., and we also want you to do something that you’ve never done before. In other words, I didn’t want it to be typical. (I said to them), if you’re okay with that, welcome to our world! But you’re right—the track that we cut with Clint was very different from anything he’s ever done. It also underscores what an incredible musician he is! We thought it would be fun to explore that with all our friends.



RA: It’s interesting how the greatest musicians—and I respectfully include you—have the ability, when working with other people, to inspire them to reach deep inside themselves and find a level of “best” in others that they didn’t even know they had. Jerry Garcia said as much about his experiences working with David Crosby on the latter’s first solo album. What was Clint’s reaction when he heard the playback?

JB: He was really surprised, but he’s a big Steely Dan fan and the lyrics and the sort of feel of the first 16 bars has that kind of Steely Dan feel to it, and he was right at home. Also, you asked me about how I get the performances out of people. I’ve been producing records as well, for people like Billy Vera & The Beaters, the Stray Cats, and a number of other artists—even the Ventures! That was the whole idea: Let’s see what you got! Because I know that you’ve probably never been really challenged. Not that you’re not a great musician, but I’m here to sort of push the envelope. As you say, it is such a treat to hear someone dig deep.

 

RA: Here’s a technical question about recording. You’ve mentioned a preference for plugging directly into the console, as you did with Steely Dan. Is that solely for guitar, or did you do that for the bass and pedal steel as well?

JB: Pretty much direct. I use a Roland guitar interface that I helped design. I’ve been with Roland for 47 years, so I’ve been designing and being involved in a lot of projects, but yeah, no amplifiers, just plug in, because there’s something about the closeness, the connection.

 

RA: I’ve been a huge pedal steel fan since I was a kid, listening to Pete Drake’s work on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. The sound just captivates my ear. What you did on “The Rose,” the immediacy, as you said, reaches out and grabs the listener in an intimate way. Speaking of that track, your bio says that the song was recorded to honor your father. You referred to his life advice to not dwell on your success, to move forward and strive for self-improvement and knowledge. Can you share some thoughts on your relationship with your Dad? It sounds like something that was very, very special to you.

JB: The actual story was that on the 25th anniversary the existence of Guitar Player magazine (I was on their advisory board at that time), they had a wonderful celebration up in San Francisco. They said, we’d like you to do something special for the folks that have passed on who are part of our community. I said sure and I thought about it. I had heard “The Rose” on the radio and said, what a beautiful song! What I’m gonna do is go out and do an a cappella pedal steel version of “The Rose,” and that’s what I did as they were going past the different photographs of different folks. Just as I got to the end of the first verse, Adrian Belew came out, plugged in, and started to play with me. I just love Adrian’s playing, and he's a good friend. By the time we got to the end of the second verse, we had a whole band (onstage). I thought back and said, what a great way to approach this piece of music! So that’s what I did, and basically used that as a template. When I was playing it, I was thinking about my Dad. He was very important in my life, we were good friends as well, and I had a tremendous amount of respect for him. When I was doing the performance for Guitar Player magazine, I tried to make that connection as best and as deeply as I could.

 

RA: It’s a beautiful track.

JB: Thank you! The voice of the pedal steel is incomparable. I don’t think anybody’s ever done anything a cappella on pedal steel, and I thought, it’s time to showcase the voice.

 

RA: Regarding guitar playing, you once said “Style has a lot to do with phrasing, and phrasing has a lot to do with how you speak.” Can you offer any additional thoughts on that concept?

JB: To me, phrasing is almost everything because it creates a rhythmic pattern that people can relate to, which is extremely important, obviously, when you’re trying to play something and have people understand it and become interested. I always refer to the knowledge that one acquires from playing the guitar as developing vocabulary for the guitar. You know, you could play three chords and it’s like, you know, “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.” That certainly has a descriptive to it but Jack was brought up in a family that was broken and very poor. And Jill, who came from a much higher economic situation … they were in the mountains alone, and they decided to go up the hill, etc., etc., etc. In other words, I think vocabulary (adds) sophistication and subtlety to the story. If you read “Christ Climbed Down” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the actual construction of the words has as much to do with the phrasing and meaning as anything else. So, they’re certainly intertwined and tangential at the least, concentric at the best.

 

RA: I wanted to jump, if we could, to 1978 when you left The Doobie Brothers after Minute by Minute. You’ve been quoted as saying that you have to recognize when it’s time to move on. When you made the decision to leave, what were the thought processes that led up to it?

JB: It was a combination of so many different things. The band was changing. If you’re a change agent, you have to understand change and when it’s time. When I brought Mike McDonald into the band, it really, really changed the whole psychological, philosophical construct of the band. For many people, that was a very difficult change. When the band matured and, I would posit, had fully developed and embraced the change, sometimes you don’t really need to be there anymore … and you need to know that, and you need to read the tea leaves, so that’s kind of what happened.

 

RA: Returning to the new album, what were some of the standout writing sessions that you had, and what were some of the more magical moments in the studio?

JB: Certainly, writing “My Place in the Sun” with Michael and C.J. We put a lot of effort into that (not that we didn’t put effort into anything else). Michael’s a fairly deep lyricist in his own right and making sure that the vehicle that we created would showcase him in his best possible light was a task that we took seriously, and took a little more time, I think. (In the studio), C.J. and I have this wonderful ability to play together with non-verbal communication. There are two songs on the album—one is “Giselle” and the other is “Juliet”—that basically were composed on the fly.

 

RA: I loved reading how your daughter came up with a beautiful simile to describe “Juliet” … “like a sunrise.” I actually read that before listening to the track and realized that your daughter is correct!

JB: That’s very kind. I always play my music for my kids, because I want to get their input and sort of gauge how we’re doing here. When she told me that, it really touched me deeply.

 

RA: In researching for today’s interview, one of the things that struck me was the almost ubiquitous nature of your presence in the field. It’s far broader than most people would suspect. Have you lost count at this point of how many artists you’ve worked with as a session guitarist and/or producer?

JB: Oh, gosh! [chuckles] I’m not trying to be disingenuous, I don’t know---500, 600, 800 sessions, movie soundtracks, jingles, scoring … it’s hard to say. I apologize, but I don’t have an exact number.

Image by Jimmy Steinfelt

 

RA: I watched a fascinating video that you did for the D’Angelico Showroom sessions, and a couple of statements you made during that video made me sit on the edge of my seat. One of the things you said  was: “Frequency and oscillation – that’s the glue that holds the universe together. Every time a guitar player plays a guitar, he is in tune with the physics of the universe.” To my ears, it suggested a very unique blend of a scientific mindset combined with a deeper spiritual understanding. Any thoughts on that?

JB: Well, it’s something that I’ve always kind of believed in and thought that I understood, being a kind of a scientist and a physics guy as well as a musician. I was positively reinforced on that by my late friend Charlie Townes, who won the Nobel Prize for inventing the laser. Charlie and I worked together for years up at Lawrence Livermore, at the National Laboratory there on the Laser Advisory Board. I’m still at the lab, actually, after 25 years. Our job was to review every program at the laboratory. It was three-day process (consisting of) myself, Charlie Townes, Dr. Edward Teller, Mike Campbell; a number of different people at the lab were members of the Laser Advisory Board. By around the third day of reviewing programs like “Femto Laser Peening in a Pure Nitrogen Atmosphere” … I mean, everybody’s eyes were watering, and people were passing out. So, Charlie stood up and said, you know what? I’m going to do an hour on theoretical physics and God. Even “Fast Eddie” (Teller) woke up. Everybody was enthralled while Charlie went ahead and explained the glue that holds the universe together, which is frequency, because he knew a lot about that. He understood frequencies and coherent frequencies, because a laser is a coherent set of single frequency. Not only did he understand, but he actually did something with it. Frequency is what holds all of the matter in the universe together. Every time you play a note or strike a chord, a chord is a set of coherent oscillations. A string is a single oscillation. When Charlie talked about the human spirit being a function of the electromagnetic transducer, which is your brain—it’s an electromagnetic engine which runs on electricity, broadcasts and receives, creates frequency, creates radiation which may actually echo forever! Someone won the Nobel Prize for discovering the echoes and the reverberations of the Big Bang, so this is not out of the realm of reality. And when Charlie began to use that to describe the human spirit as a set of coherent oscillations, I said, “Charlie, that’s what music is!” and he said, “You got it!” Dr. Edward Teller was a concert pianist.

 

RA: I did not know that!

JB: Yeah. He loved Mozart. All the wonderful physicists who I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to work with, I’d say 95% of them were musicians.

 

RA: That is somewhat of a mind-blowing fact. In school, were you a science kid?

JB: Absolutely! I was a big fan of the International Geophysical Year and I subscribed to every science magazine there was. No doubt about it!

 

RA: As long as we’re on the topics of science and physics, there was another quote from the D’Angelico video that stood out: “Once you understand the basic tenets of the science and the physics, it really doesn’t make any difference where you go; it’s just a different manifestation of what you can do with electrons.”

JB: That’s right! The way an electric guitar works, in my day job, I describe to a number of my colleagues that a radar as just an electric guitar on steroids. Basically, the way an electric guitar is that you vibrate a piece of metal over a set of magnets that are surrounded by a coil of wire, and when you do that, you create electric current. You create electrons. Once you create those electrons, you can do basically anything you want.

 

RA: I was fascinated to learn about your career as a defense consultant and counter-terrorism expert, and I want to thank you for your service to our country. This question is coming out of left field, but I can’t help asking it anyway. Speaking to your experience the field, and given the U.S. Navy’s apparent ongoing encounters with what seems to be superior science and technology, can you offer any thoughts on what they may be dealing with, and is that a national security threat?

JB: Well, are you referring to what some people call Unidentified Flying Objects?

 

RA: Yes, I’m referring to the story that the New York Times broke back in 2017 about the U.S. Navy’s encounters with these unidentified objects that have been occurring for several years.

JB: My caveat to everything, and this is very important: I am speaking as a private citizen. I am in no way at all representing anything or anyone or any entity that is connected with the United States Government. I need to have that disclaimer. That said, in my opinion, although from a theoretical physics point of view, in an infinite universe that is so vast and so varied, the possibility of alternate life forms and cogent life forms—thinking, sentient life forms—is so real that it would be difficult to argue the opposite. As far as what they call Unidentified Flying Objects, Unidentified Flying Systems, etc., to me, it’s difficult for people to separate technology from alien technology or otherworld technology. After World War II, (there was) the discovery and the uncovering of some very sophisticated technologies that were created in Germany during World War II—swept wing aircraft, jet aircraft, and the “foo fighters” (the phenomena that were following the bombers of the 8th Air Force into Germany that were zipping around the bombers, like globes of light. Thanks to German technology, they invented magnetic tape! We really wouldn’t have a record business if it wasn’t for that. But they also were experimenting in the areas of anti-gravity, and this gets into an area (in which) there’s certainly some controversy about a possible invention called Die Glocke, which utilized some very advanced physics to possibly create a force field that would repel gravity. To me, after the war, both Russia and the United States gained access to those technologies. One could posit that some of what we see is the application of those technologies. I’ll just leave it at that. Could they be sentient beings from another part of the universe? Quite possibly, and there are also explanations that are tangential to that.

 

RA: After this current series of shows, what are your future plans for the coming year or so? Any plans to do another record?

JB: I haven’t really thought about it. Again, I think that’s something I certainly would aspire to. It’s like having children—maybe you need to wait a little bit. Get familiar with the child you have and enjoy; take advantage of, and just live with and develop what you’ve already done. But certainly, I would like to consider it. This whole solo project was the last thing on my musical bucket list. That doesn’t mean it will be the last thing on the bucket list as a singularity.

 

RA: Jeff, thank you so very much for taking the time to speak with me this afternoon. Worlds of respect to you, and congratulations on this wonderful new record.

JB: Well, listen, Roy. I really appreciate you taking the time. Flattered is not the right word—I’m honored that you would take the time to spend with me. 

© Roy Abrams 2022 


Tuesday, March 8, 2022

A Matter of Honor: The Welcome Return of Steve Hackett

Image by Lee Millward

Sitting at my laptop preparing this interview, I am thinking back to two years ago today, March 8, 2020, when Steve Hackett and his band were appearing at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury. The concert marked the last live event I would attend for quite some time, as well as one of the final performances Hackett gave prior to the pandemic tightening its grip on the globe. Fast forward through the Twilight Zone era to now … after writing, recording, and releasing two terrific albums during 2020-2021, Hackett is back on the road, bringing his Genesis Revisited: Seconds Out + More tour across the world, arriving at the illustrious Beacon Theatre in New York City on April 3.

Image by Christopher Simmons

Having established a dialogue that began in 2014, continued in 2015 and again in 2020, I have been unfailingly impressed by this soft-spoken, erudite artist whose love for music, his wife Jo, and his legion of fans is evidenced by the degree of honor he devotes to all. Hackett’s fans have become an extended family to whom he affords the greatest respect an artist can offer; by staying in tune with their musical hopes and dreams, he delivers the goods with a steadfast consistency that acknowledges the fervent admiration bestowed on him and the vast body of music he has been responsible for creating for more than 50 years.

And so it was, my phone rang promptly at noon several days ago, and I answered to the now-familiar sound of Steve Hackett’s voice. Read on for the rest of the conversation … and enjoy!

Image by Lee Millward

Roy Abrams: Hello!

Steve Hackett: Hello! Is that Roy?

 

RA: Yes, it is! This must be Steve—how are you?

SH: Yeah, very well, Roy, how you doing?

 

RA: I’m okay, and I’m hoping all is well with Jo as well?

SH: Yeah, all is good, all is very good, nice to talk to you, mate.

 

RA: Thanks, same here! It’s been a while! You were the last artist (my family and I) got to see in concert before everything hit the fan.

SH: My God, it was all going so well, or so we thought and then suddenly the carpet got pulled, everything got closed down, and we got the last flight back home from Philadelphia. We filled in the time without gigs with loads of recording, but I’m back in the saddle now!

 

RA: Can’t wait to see you at the Beacon! On another note, I want to congratulate you on the two magnificent albums you released last year.

SH: I’m glad you liked them! Yeah, I enjoyed doing both—I really enjoyed doing the acoustic one just to sort of (recover) after all the recent mishaps. I thought, hell, if I can’t do what I’m supposed to do, I may as well do something that I enjoy doing. So, I did that kind of escapist album; the main thrust of it was to do a virtual journey around the Mediterranean—Under a Mediterranean Sky. The other one, Surrender of Silence, has some aspects of travelogue about it, maybe not so much, it was more of a kind of heavy metal album, or melodic metal.

 

RA: Surrender of Silence could serve as a primer for the initiate to your music, as it contains the quintessential blend of atmospheres and textures that has always been a distinct hallmark of your creativity as a guitarist, as a songwriter, and as an arranger/producer.

SH: Yeah, it’s hard, you know, to know. There have been times where I’ve approached albums as a songwriter, other times I’ve approached albums as a guitarist. I guess Surrender of Silence was a mixture of the two. The first track we did was “Natalia.” I was very proud of it, with all of the arrangements, and the orchestral stuff, and the kind of nod to Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, and the whole cinematic thing, but I realized that it was a few minutes before you’ve got a single note of guitar, so I redressed that by doing an intro that was all about tapping, so in a way, they were twins, I think they were brother and sister, really. (There were) certain things that had become cinematic throughout the album. I had a blast doing it! I think it’s a very intense album. (When) people say they like hearing it, I say, well, how did you manage to sit through it from beginning to end, because you’re getting bludgeoned over the head all the time. With the gentle stuff, I can understand, but I quite like being more aggressive, I must admit.

 

RA: As you said, it’s a melodic metal-progressive touch that is present. “The Devil’s Cathedral” is a personal standout. The combination of instruments, the heavy atmospheres, the kind of twist of dark humor that winds through the lyrics, along with the scene shifts in the music all serve to evoke your earlier musical journey.

SH: I know what you mean. “The Devil’s Cathedral” is really Son of Genesis, isn’t it? It’s got that aspect. But it goes to places that Genesis wouldn’t have gone. You wouldn’t have had pipe organ with soprano sax playing off each other. But it works really well live, believe me. That one is a standout for me, live. I think it works better live, to be honest, than it does on record—and it works well on record! But there’s something that happens—letting the dogs out—let loose the hounds. That song, live, it just seems to get sharper teeth, really.

 

RA: Perhaps more than any other artist who celebrates the music from their earlier career, your approach is meticulously crafted, exquisitely arranged, and presented to your fans in a way that demonstrates how you honor their appreciation of your music. You’ve said in the past that you view your fans as the “drivers’ of your music in terms of what you do in a live setting, and I’m wondering what motivates you to take that path. What is your view of artists who claim that the only way for them to continue to perform their earlier material is to change it up so they don’t get bored. In your opinion, is that a cop out, or is it a valid perspective?

SH: Well, you’ve raised a number of issues there. I think, to do authentic versions, recognizable versions … to me, that’s important. Now, you can be flexible with the instrumentation. I like to have brass and woodwinds for an extended range, sonically, and at times when I’ve rerecorded any of this stuff, I’ve gone all out occasionally. Put an orchestra or two on it! The same sense applies when we’re doing it live. I don’t want to change it so much that it’s unrecognizable but I do want to be able to be as free with it as I think we were when we (Genesis) were doing it as a band originally. There might be a solo or two that may change, but not necessarily. Some solos, like the one at the end of “Supper’s Ready,” I feel once I’ve done the established phrases, I can go off the map and do something else, improvise and improve on it; take it to the mountains. With certain tracks, if I change the solos, the song would not work anymore. Do you know what I mean? The guitar solo at the end of “Musical Box,” I couldn’t really change a note on that. It’s basically part of the song. When I was hired to play with Genesis all those years ago, the idea was (that) to do a solo, you write it, like classical music. That’s how I approached it. I tried to honor it, but I don’t want to honor it to the point where, for instance, if a solo that Rob might do on soprano sax on “Firth of Fifth,” I don’t want to feel like I’ve got to say to him, okay, the original was done on flute, so you’ve got to do it on flute. I don’t see it that way. We’re not a tribute band; we’re playing music that is allowed to evolve. Sometimes when I do re-recordings, I take (liberties) with it; certainly, the first Genesis Revisited, I changed the arrangements greatly on some of (the tracks). On other things, I stick with (the original arrangement) more, provided it’s a recognizable riff; I want to please the audience—the audience that owns it; the audience that were the midwives to its birth, if you know what I mean.

 

RA: Yes, I do. That’s a wonderful way to put it: the audience who owns it.

SH: It’s not the writer’s, it’s not the performer’s, it’s the audience that owns it because they know what it’s all about much more so than those who once performed it, perhaps dismissed it, or in my case, went back to an abandoned place and repopulated it.

Image by Howard Rankin
 

RA: Roger King seems to have become your closest musical collaborator of those you’ve worked with to date. Is that an accurate assessment? If so, what’s made the journey with this particular person so fulfilling and this long-lasting?

SH: I’ll tell you what it is. I write with (my wife) Jo, I write by myself, and I write with Roger. There are three possibilities, and sometimes we do all that together. The thing about Roger is that he’s very hard to impress. He’s nobody’s “yes man.” In a way, although I employ him, he will be sufficiently critical and be able to say, “That doesn’t really work, we should do this.” I don’t think he’s ever said to me, “You could do better than that,” but I could tell with just a look. Nobody has the answers all the time, even the greatest musical geniuses. Nobody really can do this on their own, is what I’m saying. You need the input of others … all music ends up being collaborative, it seems to me. He’s a great collaborator but there are times when it’s frustrating; I know that he’s never actually impressed with anything. The most he’ll say is, “I don’t mind that.’ He’s the master of understatement and very British! He doesn’t jump for joy, but I can tell when he feels that things are not too bad, and that’s the most you can expect from Roger. He’s not a “Wowee!” kind of guy …

 

RA: I also wanted to touch on your collaboration with Jo, which I’ve watched blossom over the last several years. How would you characterize the evolution of that creative partnership?

SH: I wrote tons of lyrics before I worked with her. Originally, we met when she wanted me for a film she was making. The thing (about) her approach to songwriting is that she needs to know what the song is about. It needs to have a theme; that might be just one word. For instance, “Natalia,” on the album. She was the birth of that; she came up with the lyrics, first of all, and then my input was to say, I think we can find a good name for this person. We both liked the name Natalia, we felt that that worked, and then I would work with her rough (draft) and try and be flexible with the meter. I didn’t really know what to do with it, first of all. I thought, well, here’s a challenge; I don’t know how the hell I could make this work. Once I got the idea of Russian orchestration via the influence and inspiration from Prokofiev, suddenly it all started to make sense; the idea of darkness and light, like a scene from Romeo and Juliet, so that’s really what made that work. If ever I do anything that would almost be casual, she’ll say to me, “You know, you could do it with just a bit more importance here.” She says to me that she would prefer heavy metal that is at least passionate, compared with all the harmonic changes in the world if they’re just the equivalent of—I don’t know—"vacant casual.”

 

RA: You’ve characterized your music as “film for the ear.” I’m sure your fans would agree that the spectrum of images contained in these two recent albums bears evidence to just that. On a personal note, having listened to your music since my teens, I can tell you that I am invariably transported by the experience,

SH: That’s the idea of it! It’s nice to pull that off; it’s great. As I say, I work with a songwriting team where at least I feel—yes, I know I could override everybody and use the power of veto, but I feel if it resonates with my key collaborators, I could also collaborate with others once we’ve got the heart of the song sorted, then we can take on the influence of others, their performances, so they can flesh out the details. I know that Rob Townsend can sail through practically anything the first time; he practically doesn’t need to hear anything! He can hear the most complicated changes and play the most fluidly exquisite solos over the top; he has extraordinary command of musical theory combined with chops to die for! That works very well and similarly, with other people I work with. There’s a lot of input from Christine Townsend as well on this album. She doesn’t tour with us; although she shares (Rob’s) surname, they’re not related. She plays great, wonderful viola and violin, and so I arrange everything around her. She’s been working with us for quite a few years. It’s the first time she ever wrote back and said, “I lived with the album for a bit and I absolutely love it,” which is marvelous. I seem to be doing something right. All I have to do is jump in headlong (or feet first) and then we’re in a world where anything can happen. That’s the idea; keep it fast and loose.

 

RA: I read a recent interview where you said, “There’s some tremendously talented people that I really wish I could just phone up and say, ‘You might like this one.’ Things can often come so close.” Was that an indirect reference to the time (2005) when you, Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, and Phil Collins were planning on doing something together but it fell apart, or was that a reference to some other artists?

SH: I don’t remember the exact quote, but I think my time with Genesis (is over). I try to honor the music. (Band politics aside), I did like the stuff we did together. Whether or not (a reunion) would be possible, I don’t know. I guess everyone has been allowed to rule their own patch so much that I don’t know whether that collaboration would be possible.

 

RA: Other than Genesis, who else is on your bucket list?

SH: Oh my God, it’s so very hard when I think about it. There are times when I think to myself, I really ought to ask John McLaughlin if he would like to play on something. I did enjoy his work so much, especially with Miles Davis and Mahavishnu Orchestra. I have no idea whether he would be interested in doing something or not. I had hoped to work more with Ian McDonald who sadly passed away the other day and also not just him but Gary Brooker. He and I had been talking recently and we were hoping to maybe do something. Unfortunately, the pandemic just got in the way. I know that Gary and Ian had worked together on Ian’s album Driver’s Eyes. To my mind, the outstanding track is “Let There Be Light”—the combination of the two, and also the magic writing team of McDonald and Pete Sinfield. I think that was a terrific combination. They started to get something of the Crimsonite magic there; the epic swell of that, the unlikely changes, and Gary’s soulful voice. That didn’t happen for one reason or another but we’re talking about people who are no longer with us yet somehow, in spirit, they seem to be stronger than ever!

 

RA: For the past few years, David Crosby has been saying that music is a lifting force to which he feels compelled to contribute as much as he can for as long as he can. Has music’s role taken on an expanded meaning for you personally during the past two years? Do you feel a similar sense of urgency, given the passage of time, and given the dark times in which we now find ourselves?

SH: Certainly, I would agree with all of that, the sense of urgency to make sure all those brainchildren are born as quickly as possible, still wanting to pay attention to detail, because the devil, of course, is in the details. David Crosby is a very interesting character; I know he’s had his demons himself, of course, nobody says he’s easy (to work with), but I think he’s a good talent with an extraordinary voice. I think he’s very, very important and helped to sculpt the music scene in not just the ‘60s but beyond that. It was very interesting to see both Crosby and Nash with David Gilmour. Very impressive that they happened to be on the title track of his album. Somehow, I think it’s wonderful when you get a sense of bands coming together. I had a sense of that when I was working with Chris Squire, where you take a pinch of Genesis and add a teaspoon full of Yes and see what you get. That’s what we did together. These collaborations are great when it’s people (with whom) you’ve spent time in their company, shall we say, even though they weren’t aware of that. Through the time (spent) listening to their music, they’ve become part of your DNA. When you get to work with one of those every now and again, it’s a real blast.

 

Backstage with Steve Hackett
March 8, 2020
NYCB Theatre at Westbury
Image by Roy Abrams

© Roy Abrams 2022

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 do 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 or 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 dealing with 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