An Interview With Lewis Taylor

Lewis Taylor has never troubled the BRIT, MOBO or Grammy awards and never had a top 40 single or album but may be the most musically talented British solo artist of the last 30 years.

Over six studio albums – including last year’s unexpected NUMB, his first record for 18 years – Taylor’s work has embraced neo-soul, old-school R’n’B, prog, psych and yacht rock, influenced legions of blue-eyed-soul wannabes and been publicly lauded by David Bowie, Aaliyah, Paul Weller, Amy Winehouse, Leon Ware, Elton John, D’Angelo and Daryl Hall.

His classic self-titled debut album dropped on Island Records in 1996 and stunned the musical cognescenti. Who was this guy from Barnet who sung a bit like Marvin, played guitar like Ernie Isley, bass like James Jamerson and keyboards like Billy Preston, and created his extraordinary angst-ridden compositions in a North London flat on two digital reel-to-reel tape machines?

His second album – 2000’s Lewis II – was possibly even better, but sadly there were various reasons for its lack of commercial success. Lewis parted company with Island and recorded two further studio albums in the 2000s, Stoned Parts 1 and Part 2, and also issued The Lost Album and Limited Edition 2004. But what most fans didn’t know was that Lewis had a ‘secret’ 1980s history as purveyor of weird psychedelic pop/rock under the name Sheriff Jack and also as a touring guitarist in The Edgar Broughton Band.

It all adds up to a truly singular career, and Lewis is one of the most gifted artists working in music today. movingtheriver caught up with him as his new album NUMB was being released to rave reviews.

MTR: I gather you grew up in North London and were somewhat of a piano and guitar prodigy – can you tell me about your early experiences of seeing live music in the capital? Who would have been some artists you saw live/listened to?

LT: Ooh no, I wouldn’t say I was anything near a prodigy. My Dad was a wannabe musician who’d played percussion in a couple of jazz bands – Bongo Bernie they used to call him – so the real interest in music sort of came from being around him and I became obsessed with records. As a result live music has never interested me and it still doesn’t really, it’s all about the records. My dad liked a lot of big-band jazz – Stan Kenton was a fave of his, and he liked Latin stuff like Tito Puente. I also remember an album of Maya Angelou songs he liked as well cos it was sort of dark calypso. That was his thing – he liked anything that had that sort of exotic, syncopated rhythmic thing going on, but he liked some pop of the day too. He loved Mungo Jerry’s ‘In The Summertime’, it used to make him laugh, and I can remember him in the car singing along to the end choruses of TRex’s ‘Hot Love’. He was quite a strange man.

On the keyboards side, would you say you were ‘classically’ trained? I only ask because I hear little bits of ‘classical’ harmony on some of your stuff, like ‘Satisfied’ and ‘The Final Hour’.

I would say I had a bit of classical training. But because the guitar had taken over I’d stopped paying attention to my piano lessons, but some of it must have still seeped through so I do have a good grasp of music theory, but I still can’t read music. I used to cheat in my lessons. I would learn whatever piece I was given to learn by ear and pretend I was reading it. Because I had a precocious taste in rock music as a pre-teen, the fact that the lessons were all based around classical piano music only served to distance me from it even more. So it very quickly started to feel like an extension of school. I did eventually manage to splutter out: ‘Mum, I hate this – I’m only doing it cos you told me to’, and that was the end of it.

Which guitarists/bassists/keys players do you/did you idolise? Re. the former, I hear Ernie Isley, Eddie Hazel, maybe Richie Blackmore, and I detect a John McLaughlin influence too?

One of my biggest bass influences is Chris Squire. I first heard Yessongs in 1975 and all I could hear was this clicky-clang of his bass but he would also be going places melodically where someone like James Jamerson went and the combination was so unusual and inspiring. On guitar, Pete Townshend, just for his rhythmic thing he has going on, I definitely got my strong right-hand attack from listening to him. For soloing, yeah a bit of Blackmore, but when I really started trying to play lead Van Halen had just come out so apart from the finger-tapping aspect which I’m not really into, the way he interpreted the blues scale influenced me a hell of a lot. Michael Schenker was another one. And of course Jimi. I do like players like John McLaughlin and John Scofield, Allan Holdsworth as well, but I’m not lofty enough to go there!

Tell me about joining/touring with the Edgar Broughton Band.

It was a weird coincidental thing, one of the albums I’d borrowed from my cousin was an Edgar Broughton Band album so I’d first heard of them when I was 9 or 10. Ten years later my brother had got a job working at Steve Broughton’s studio. When Steve told him they were going to reform and were looking for a guitarist, he said: ‘Get my brother in, he already knows all your stuff’ so it went from there. I loved it. The dysfunctionality of their music and of the band itself sat very well with my own dysfunction! We toured round Germany, Switzerland and particularly Norway a lot, we played a huge stadium in East Berlin three years before the wall came down. Every tour was an experience of some kind, not always good, but even that was good! The one which really shone for me was an outdoor festival on a Norwegian island called Karlsoy. We played at midnight but it was daylight, really strange daylight. I’ll always remember the walk down to the stage and turning round to see this wonderfully eerie vision of Edgar waking behind me, his Lennon shades on, his long white mane of hair and this really odd, cold light from the midnight sun shining behind him. We played a blazing set that night. Love Edgar, love those guys!

Sheriff Jack – what are you memories of that period?

Steve Burgess was a bit of a character who had a shop in Crouch End called ‘English Weather’. He saw himself as a sort of record shop guru and I suppose he was, to me at least, the imploding 19-year-old I was back then. It coincided with the Paisley Underground thing that was starting at the time so his shop specialised in that along with 60’s garage and psychedelia, and so I quickly became a regular customer there and we became friends. He’d also been involved somehow with The Soft Boys and Robyn Hitchcock and I went through a period of listening to them quite a bit. I probably misread a lot of what Hitchcock was doing as just silly nonsense and tried to do the same thing with the Sheriff Jack stuff. The name came from a track on a Red Krayola album called God Bless The Red Krayola And All Who Sail With It. Again, a very bizarre album to some that seemed to make perfect sense to me. On this song I think they’d deliberately recorded the drums without being able to hear the song so they would go out in and out of time with the rest of the music. I used to play that track over and over on so I thought it was fitting to name myself after that song. I wasn’t serious or ambitious about it and I’m still not quite sure why I did it to be honest, but I did.

 

When signing with Island, did you have any direct dealings with Chris Blackwell?

No I never met him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t even know I was signed to his label, let alone who I was!

Is it true that you worked quite a lot on that first Island album at their studios in St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith, with more of a ‘band’ vibe, before recording the album essentially by yourself?

Not really, no. I was still trying to find a direction and hadn’t found it at that point. So there was a lot of early material that was fairly dodgy. I’d gone in there with the multi-tracks to overdub a drummer to get a live feel. But even then everything else had been done at home. I used to have some bad habits – I would sometimes record the effects onto tape as opposed to sending the tracks to effects during the mixing stage, so I would just use a reverb unit, then compress the reverb so it really sort of sucked in, then record it with the dry signal. The album was actually mixed at that studio though, so I’m sure the notorious echo chamber is on there somewhere.

What was it like appearing on ‘The National Lottery’ show? And ‘Later…With Jools’? Did you enjoy that aspect of promotion?

Some of it I did, yeah. I actually was on ‘Later’ three times you know – oh yes. Once as Lewis, once on keys with Finley Quaye, and once as keyboardist with some rappers called Spooks.

Do you ever wonder how different your life would have been if ‘Lucky’ had been a big hit? (and btw, I’m stunned that ‘Whoever’ didn’t even chart – that sounds like a hit to me, even today…).

Oh thanks. I actually have a pretty good idea how I would have turned out had I been more successful – I’ve always had a few loose screws at the best of times but a successful career in music, and particularly the fame aspect of it, would’ve turned me into a complete basket case!

Is it true that it was completely your decision to scrap the second album for Island, before starting over and recording Lewis II? I do recall a comment at the Hanover Grand gig where you alluded to Island being responsible…

Not exactly, I pushed in such an extreme direction the other way with what eventually became The Lost Album, it was a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived ‘trapped in R&B’ feeling I was going through at the time and some people around me were in favour of it and others weren’t. In the end I think I lost confidence in it and did Lewis II instead.

It is mystifying to me why no singles were released from Lewis II. Do you regret that ‘You Make Me Wanna’ wasn’t released as a single? I might have gone for ‘My Aching Heart’ too…

I don’t know. I think things were fairly fragmented by then and really my heart wasn’t in it anymore, but I wasn’t aware of that so I was sort of on autopilot. Also a lot of the people who were at Island when I signed with them had left so a few things definitely sort of contributed to the way things went there.

That Hanover Grand gig around that time felt so positive and it was a thrill seeing an English artist making such patently world-class music, and starting with ‘Track’… Do you feel that that momentum wasn’t maintained? And how much do you lay at Island’s door?

Hmm, not much really, but I did at the time. In hindsight I don’t think I would have been an easy artist to work with, I was a guy who sounded like that but looked like this and I wouldn’t play ‘the game’. I’m surprised that they were as supportive as they were! I do remember it being a pretty good gig though.

Amy Winehouse was quoted as saying she wanted to work with Paul Staveley O’Duffy only because he’d worked with you – did you know Amy? Did she seek you out? She was obviously a big fan. I thought ‘Take The Box’ had more than a bit of your influence.

No, I didn’t know Amy and I wasn’t aware that she was a fan. She was a great singer though. Very sad what happened.

Did you record a whole Trout Mask Replica covers album? I remember hearing ‘Ella Guru’ and being knocked out by it.

Oh cool, I’m glad you liked that! No I didn’t do the whole album, it was a bit of an anal job. You can’t learn those songs that easily cos there isn’t a straight line going through them, well there is but it’s very, very bent. So the only way was to get the instrumental version of each song, record it onto a stereo track cos Beefheart always had two guitars panned hard left and right, then I would just drop in and overdub it phrase by phrase, erase the original then try and sing on it. I gave up after 13 tracks, couldn’t be bothered! LOL…

How do you feel Universal have treated your Island catalogue since you left the company? Do such things bother you?

No, not really. It’s a shame that they didn’t contact me when they did the expanded reissue thing but other than that it’s all cool.

Did you know beforehand that the 2006 Bowery Ballroom gig in NYC was going to be your last for a long while?

No I didn’t as such, but I had started looking at myself from a personal point of view by then and I was trying to figure out where I ended and where the musician began. Unfortunately that process coincided with the involvement of the US guys so I was on a different page to them and it was the wrong page to be doing what I was doing. I didn’t have a clue about that at the time though so my behaviour may have been a bit baffling to them!

Famously you withdrew much of your online presence in 2006 – what has driven you to ‘switch it on’ again? And how do you feel about being a solo artist now with all the social media marketing etc. that goes along with it?

I dunno really, up until about two years ago I still wasn’t bothered, if somebody told me I’d be putting an album out in 2022 I’d have laughed at them. It feels a bit like it came out of nowhere but at the same time it doesn’t feel like one of those ‘I just have to create again and now is the time’ scenarios either. There was always a part of me that was pretty cynical about that way of thinking, and coming back to it now I still think like that, but in less of a cynical way if that makes any sense. The whole social media thing is just another thing – ‘new skin for the old ceremony’ – it has its pros and cons just like everything else that came before it.

You used to make music using a digital reel-to-reel tape machine in your home – is that still the case?

No, it’s all on a Mac now.

What do you think of the streaming revolution and its effect on album listening? Do you miss the physical product (and is NUMB going to appear on vinyl?)

I don’t really miss the physical format, I actually like mp3s, I like the convenience of them. Yes NUMB is definitely getting a vinyl release some time next year. Be With Records are doing it, the guys who did the vinyl of the first album. I’ve heard the test pressing and it sounds great.

B-sides – you created some brilliant music. Personal favourites: ‘Lewis III’, ‘Pie In Electric Sky/If I Lay Down’, ‘Asleep When You Come’. Is there anything more in the vaults? What’s the favourite of your B-sides?

Oh cool, thanks! No I don’t think there is anything left over, each set of B-sides was written and recorded specifically for each ‘single’ release. My favourite has always been’ I Dream The Better Dream’. In my fantasy it’s what early Soft Machine would’ve sounded like if Marvin Gaye was their lead singer.

I enjoyed your collaborations with Deborah Bond and The Vicar’s ‘The Girl With Sunshine’ (please tell me more about that). Did you consider any other duets/collaborations in a similar vein just before your ‘retirement’? Or is there anything in the pipeline for the future?

Both of those things were done at a time when I was starting to back away and shut up shop so it was all done via email. The Deborah Bond thing was a nice little job, cute little song. The Vicar thing was a guy called David Singleton who was somehow attached to Robert Fripp, I’m not sure exactly how. I think he’d heard a tune from The Lost Album which was featured on a compilation that came free with one the mags and so he sent an email asking if I’d like to sing on this funny album he was doing. Why did I do it? Good question. Looking back I think I was probably just flattered that someone was still interested at that stage.

You were involved as a ‘sideman’ capacity with Gnarls Barkley and Finley Quaye – was there ever any possibility of you just becoming an ‘anonymous’ sideman post-2006? Could you have carried on as a session player?

No I don’t think so. I definitely needed a total break from everything. I was approached with a couple more MD jobs after the Gnarls thing but as soon as I started thinking about the possibility of doing them it just felt wrong. I did reconnect with The Edgar Broughton Band though and we did a few more tours over the course of about four years, but that doesn’t count cos they were mates and it was away from Lewis Taylor and the mainstream industry. We toured the same places as they had always done, Norway, Germany and Switzerland. I think a few gigs were recorded but not for a record, although we did do a German Rockpalast show which had a DVD and CD release, and there are a few fan-made clips of some Norway shows on YouTube.

Listening to NUMB, it’s striking how much lower your vocals are in the mix as opposed to say on Lewis II. There’s a ‘horn-like’ feel to your vocals now too. I gather you particularly love Johnny Hodges’ playing?

That’s interesting, it didn’t occur to me that I sounded like that! I do remember saying I liked Johnny Hodges but I love all the classic alto and tenor players. The Hodges reference was probably from when I was listening to a Charlie Parker Jam Session album and Johnny Hodges was one of the many players on it, and compared to everyone else’s blazing solos his playing was so small and sly in a wink-wink kind of way and I remember being very entertained by it at the time. But then I discovered Albert Ayler and everything changed.

Who’s that on backing vocals on ‘Apathy’? And are there are any other guest appearances on the album?

Well that’s Sabina (Smyth) of course! And she is by no means a guest, any female vocals you hear are her! She’s on all the albums. We write, produce and mix all the albums together – it’s all us.

Is that a Syd Barrett interview reference on ‘Feel So Good’? (‘I even think I ought to be’…)

Of course! God bless Syd. I love him.

‘Nearer’ is extremely complex. Any memories of how that tune came about?

It’s strange cos while it does sound complex it was actually one of those tracks the just seemed to write itself.

NUMB is generally downbeat but also uplifting, kind of modern blues. A key theme seems to be having the courage to be yourself, faults and all, and the problems that go along with that. ‘Braveheart’ says it all.

That is a key theme, yes. Self-awareness and trying to be more authentic than you may have been in the past. All that shite. Yeah, I love ‘Braveheart’.

It’s a beautiful mixing and mastering job on NUMB. It’s really easy on the ear. Do you enjoy that aspect of music-making?

Thanks man. I think I enjoy that and the programming more than anything. Using a program like Logic is so much fun. You’re only limited by yourself. Logic will do anything you want it to and having those tools accessible is a great thing.

I think NUMB is really original (and, for what it’s worth, your best album since Lewis II…), but what music do you listen to for enjoyment now?

Thank you so much and I’m so glad you like it. I listen to a lot of opera these days. Totally away from anything I do as a musician.

How do you feel about people covering your stuff? Anything you particularly like? I’ve heard a few – Taylor Dayne, Peter Cox, Beverley Knight. Jarrod Lawson plays a great live version of ‘Right’. And of course Robbie. Presumably the latter has been absolutely vital for your income stream.

I think it’s cool and I think Robbie did a great job on ‘Lovelight’. I was watching some footage of him the other day and he’s such a powerhouse as a performer.

Do you miss playing live at all? Personally I found the last few years of your live stuff in the mid noughties a little ‘perfect’ with great players but maybe a little too slick… Do you agree? And any chance you might play live behind NUMB?

I actually thought that last band, myself, Ash Soan, Lee Pomeroy and Gary Sanctuary was the best band I ever had. I heard some tapes of us when we were over in NYC and we were so fierce.

Finally, how would you sum up your career in music thus far?

Hmm, probably with a small ‘c’…

Thank you, Lewis…

Ben Sidran: Talking Jazz (An Oral History)

They say that if you want to understand why an instrumentalist plays the way he or she plays, listen to them speak.

That makes total sense when hearing Wayne Shorter or Ornette Coleman being interviewed. And now, courtesy of Ben Sidran, there’s never been a better chance to hear other examples of this.

Sidran is a renowned pianist/composer and author of three excellent music books: ‘Black Talk’, ‘The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma’ and ‘Talking Jazz’. The latter was based on a series of interviews broadcast on USA’s National Public Radio between 1984 and 1990. And now we can hear them in their entirety.

What a fascinating collection it is. Many interviewees go against type: those with a reputation for being somewhat ‘taciturn’ (Paul Motian, Donald Fagen, Tony Williams, Miles) are open, light-hearted and often giggly.

Some have their axes with them – we hear modern masters Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, John Scofield, John Patitucci, David Sanborn and Steve Khan demonstrate their harmonic hallmarks. I asked the latter for his recollections of the ‘Talking Jazz’ interview:

It was done on 23 October 1984 at Roxy Recording, located at 648 Broadway, NYC – which was downtown, near Soho. It was conducted from 1-3pm! How about THAT?!

Elsewhere, Art Blakey talks touchingly about his appeal to a young, eager London crowd, Carla Bley is amusingly honest and Kevin Eubanks sounds 30 years ahead of his time, discussing global warming and environmental disasters.

It’s also fascinating to hear lost masters’ voices on tape, speaking with such candour: Gil Evans, Johnny Griffin, Chick Corea, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, and many more. Sidran is a great host/interviewer, friendly and hip to the artists’ work but not scared to ask the tough questions.

Don’t miss. Listen to the interviews on Bandcamp.

Danny Wilson’s Gary Clark on the 30th Anniversary of Bebop Moptop

The genre ‘sophisti-pop’ is bandied about quite a lot these days – mainly ’80s music of an ‘aspirational’, elegantly-appointed variety, jazzy in hue with slinky grooves and dense harmony.

Dundee band Danny Wilson were one of its key practitioners and their second and final album Bebop Moptop, released 30 years ago this week, is a key exhibit.

And yet, despite featuring hit single ‘The Second Summer Of Love’ and a host of other superb compositions, Bebop has somehow fallen off the ’80s pop radar – it has never received the deluxe re-release treatment. (Nor, for that matter, has Danny’s superb debut Meet Danny Wilson...)

But it’s definitely due a critical reappraisal. So we caught up with singer/principal songwriter Gary Clark to discuss the ‘lost’ Danny Wilson album and loads of other stuff.

MP: Preparing for album number two, were there record company expectations? Presumably ‘Mary’s Prayer’ opened the door and Virgin wanted ‘the big hit’? You give (Virgin MD) Simon Draper credit in the liner notes for staying out of the way…

GC: That pressure is there in some form but doesn’t necessarily come from the record label.  It comes from your own desire to be competitive, from management, from peers. The trick is trying to stay true to your artistic vision, and I think we always managed to fall on the artistic side of that seesaw.

There were rumours that a few big American producers almost came onboard for Bebop – is there any truth in that?

Our plan was always to record every song in Dundee with our friend Allan McGlone who had a studio in town, and at some point to bring in an outside influence to tie up the loose ends and add some perspective. We did that and throughout the process were keeping an open mind about that third party. We did meet Don Was. He came to the studio in Dundee. We played him a few tunes and went out on the town. A lovely, talented and very cool gentleman.  Schedules didn’t pan out though and no more came of it. Ged suggested Fred DeFaye as he’d been listening to Eurythmics’ Savage album. We met and hit it off and pretty quickly decided to work together.

Were there any more contemporary influences going into Bebop? I hear some Prince and Pogues here and there and you play a lot more lead guitar on this than you did on Meet Danny. A conscious decision or just doing what’s right for the songs?

On the guitar, definitely the latter. I probably play just as much guitar on Meet Danny but it’s maybe more upfront on Bebop. On our influences, I guess what people are listening to has a constantly fluctuating and evolving influence, and you had three individuals all with very eclectic taste contributing. We were very open in the creative process so nothing was off limits.

‘The Second Summer Of Love’ was incredibly prescient and the hit single from the album – where did it come from? Was it a late addition?

It was definitely written in the fourth quarter of songs for that record. It was a day where we were all huddled round a phone at my girlfriend’s flat doing phone interview after phone interview. I needed to take a break so walked to the local store to buy snacks for everyone and it came to me in one piece. I had to grab a guitar when I got back, to work out and lay down on a Dictaphone what was in my head. It was originally a-minute-and-a-half long and the US label bosses heard it and asked us to extend it because they believed it was a potential radio hit. We went back into the studio and added a bridge and a harmonica solo. Ironically, it was never released as US single…

Talking of singles, I count ‘I Was Wrong’ as a missed opportunity…

After hearing a demo, the label thought so too and they encouraged us to record an early version with producer Phil Thornally. As often happens with early versions, it was never released and by the time it came to pick singles, everyone had lived with that song for around a year and it fell by the wayside when being held against newer songs that were fresher in peoples’ psyches.

The fantastic ‘Loneliness’ seems to be beamed in from a totally different world. Can you remember the genesis of that song?

Another song that I wrote mainly in my head, and indeed, in my bed.  I remember sitting up with a note pad writing out the lyric like a poem at 2 or 3 in the morning. I had a melody in mind, and hashed out the musical elements on the piano over the following days and weeks.

The ‘Imaginary Girl/Shirley MacLaine’ prologue/epilogue is such a neat touch – did you ever think of Bebop as a ‘concept’ album?

Not the album as a whole, but I was aware in the writing of pockets of songs that were designed, almost like musical theatre, to live together.

Bebop got some great reviews including a rave in Q magazine, but I also remember a snarky interview in the Melody Maker… Did you care about reviews?

The music press was very powerful at that period of time and, of course, bad reviews sting. And very occasionally, when they have the ring of truth, they actually influence your thought process. But generally I would say that by the time of the second album, we had become more hardened to reviews good and bad.

You toured Bebop (I was there at London’s Town & Country Club). Did you enjoy playing this stuff live? There was a rumour that the drummer (whose name escapes me) cost more than the rest of the band put together…

Drummer Bobby Clarke and percussionist Karlos Edwards were cousins, and came as a team. They auditioned for us in London and we knew immediately that we needed them in the band, and they were such wonderful guys and wonderful musicians who brought so much to the DW party.  All of the band were paid equally, but by album two we were playing bigger venues and so that would have meant higher wages than on the first album, just by the nature of economics of playing to more people.

Did you know during its recording that Bebop would be the band’s final album? Were there ever plans for record number three?

We started the songwriting process for number three and even recorded demos for a few songs that became part of my later solo album Ten Short Songs About Love but it became clear that everyone involved wanted a larger part of the writing and that would’ve meant me diminishing my input, which wasn’t going to happen, so I would say that – certainly for me – it was the underlying source of unhappiness that ultimately came to a head and ended the band.

What do you think of the Danny legacy now? Any regrets? Any temptation to do the ’80s nostalgia thing and reform, even just as a one-off?

I’m proud of what we achieved in a short period of time and I miss the creative process of working with Ged and Kit, who were and are exceptionally talented and creative people. Nostalgia is not something that any of us feed off but I would never say no to doing something if it was forward-thinking and creative. On regrets, I don’t really think about it, but if we had been able to take a break from living in each other’s pockets and faces, and stepped back a bit, we might’ve been able to keep the band going in some capacity. We are still great friends – Ged and Kit still occasionally play on music I’m involved in. They also both have amazing and separate careers in music, with a billion things going on (Ged is currently the bass player with Simple Minds – Ed.) so getting us all available at the same time would require a miracle of logistical organisation.

When we last spoke, you had just finished co-writing a lot of excellent songs for the movie ‘Sing Street’. What are you up to at the moment?

I’m executive music producer on John Carney’s new Amazon TV series ‘Modern Love’ and have played a large role in curating, producing, co-writing songs and and doing the score for that series. I even sing a little! ‘Sing Street’ is in production as a stage musical too, and is scheduled to open at the New York Theatre Workshop in their 2019/2020 season. The whole team and cast are incredible and I’m very excited about that. I’ve also been writing the musical ‘Nanny McPhee’ with Emma Thompson, which has been a thrill, and between Emma and John Carney I get to work with the most creative, talented, smart and funny collaborators that anyone could wish for. I feel very blessed and am, quite possibly, having the time of my life.

Mike Leigh’s Meantime (1983): An Interview With Producer Graham Benson

There definitely seems to be something in the London air this summer.

The Grenfell Tower tragedy and various other events have brought some deeply unpleasant issues to light (again).

Revisiting Mike Leigh’s 1983 TV film ‘Meantime’ recently, it seemed eerily relevant.

A withering portrait of Thatcher’s Britain featuring a brilliant cast, it’s still a striking piece of work, at times difficult to watch but finally offering cause for hope.

Its essential Englishness also echoes through the work of Suede and Blur; an alternative soundtrack might include ‘My Insatiable One‘ or ‘Bank Holiday‘.

Mainly set and shot in Haggerston, East London, ‘Meantime’ focuses on two generations of the Pollock family: parents Frank (Jeffrey Robert) and Mavis (Pam Ferris); their sons Colin (Tim Roth) and Mark (Phil Daniels); Mavis’s sister Barbara (Marion Bailey) and her husband John (Alfred Molina).

Frank, Mavis, Colin and Mark live in a rundown council high-rise (Bryant Court in Whitston Road, where a two-bedroom flat now goes for £330,000) while Barbara and John have escaped to middle-class respectability in Chigwell, Essex.

From Uncle John’s condescending opening line – ‘Barbara, the boys can take their shoes off and leave them in the kitchen, all right?’ (note that he doesn’t tell Colin and Mark himself) – we know we’re deep in Leighland. The performances are uniformly superb, with Roth, Daniels and Bailey possibly never better.

Oldman delivers a remarkable turn as the skinhead Coxy, smashed on the Special Brew, looking for trouble but also deeply vulnerable, while Peter Wight is excellent as the insouciant, blithely idealistic estate manager.

Gary Oldman as Coxy

Mark, Colin, Coxy and Frank are stuck in a grim, sometimes demeaning cycle of unemployment, but there seems to be glimmer of hope when Auntie Barbara offers Colin a painting job in her home. Mark has other ideas. Anyone growing up in London during the early 1980s knew kids like Colin, Mark and Coxy. The latter two are quick-witted and sharp but totally wasted, with no structure in place for them to thrive.

Andrew Dickson’s soundtrack – a duet for tack piano and soprano sax – is unforgettable. And, for a director known more for his characters and situations than a visual sense, Leigh comes up with many striking images: Mark and Coxy dodging the falling detritus from a freshly-bulldozed block of flats; Colin wandering uncertainly in front of the Winston Churchill statue at Woodford Green; Coxy rolling around a giant, hollow metal canister, attacking its insides impotently with a stick.

I asked legendary TV producer Graham Benson about his memories of working on ‘Meantime’ (which you can watch in HD below, at least until it’s taken down…).

MP: How did you come to the project and what was its genesis? I gather it was your first (and only) experience working with Mike Leigh.

GB: Yes, it was my one and only time working with Mike and a very enjoyable, rewarding time. The producer’s job is very much one of support, encouragement and of being there when needed in various aspects of the films progress. We initially wanted to make a feature film when I was running Robert Stigwood’s European film and TV company. We nearly got a deal with Warner Bros but the lack of script (Leigh famously develops his scripts through intensive improvisations in collaboration with the actors – Ed) scared the moguls. Eventually a combination of Channel 4 and David Rose together with Central Productions and Margaret Matheson delivered the commitment and budget. I am pleased and proud to have been a part of Mike’s journey and have to say that producing a Mike Leigh film was an example in my career of working with a supremely professional, responsible, collegiate and multi-talented film-maker, and a good-humoured, decent bloke to boot!

‘Meantime’ was made for Channel 4. It’s hard to imagine such a hard-hitting feature-length film getting shown on a terrestrial station today. Do you see that period as a golden age for British TV?

Well, Channel 4 were Mike Leigh enthusiasts as they remain now. He’s always had them and the BBC. I don’t see why it couldn’t be made now really. These days he has other places in Europe to go and get additional monies – for now, anyway…

The film showcases an incredible array of Brit acting talent: Marion Bailey, Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Peter Wight, Pam Ferris, Alfred Molina, etc etc. Did you have any casting input?

We discussed the casting as we went along. It was a stunning cast but they were all much less well-known then. Like so many others, they were cutting their teeth on hard-hitting UK dramas.

Though often a difficult watch, the ending arguably shows chinks of light – Barbara finally stands up to John and the two brothers seem to come to a new understanding. Is that how you see it?

Yes. Though it’s a bleak and critical view of Thatcher’s Britain, it is a hopeful film. The human spririt will win through. But we must be watchful, as we see today.

What do you think is the legacy of the film, if there is one?  

Oh, it proved Mike could handle a wider canvas and could deal with a slightly bigger budget. It solidified his method of working as a successful one and a genre all of its own. Soon afterwards he’d get his opportunity on the bigger screen.

Steve Khan’s Backlog: Interview & Album Review

backlog_esccov_hires600Steve Khan, one of jazz’s most underrated and distinctive guitarists, made two fine fusion albums during the 1980s: Eyewitness and Casa Loco.

His unique chord voicings, intriguing melodic sense and subtle use of effects have also illuminated work by The Brecker Brothers, Steely Dan, Billy Cobham and Joe Zawinul.

Khan’s other solo albums across a 40-year career showcase his enormous versatility, from overdubbed guitar tributes to Thelonious Monk (Evidence) and jazz trios (Headline, Let’s Call This) to large fusion ensembles featuring the likes of Steve Gadd, Don Grolnick, Michael Brecker and David Sanborn (The Blue Man, Arrows).

Khan has also become well known as a master-interpreter and reharmoniser of non-guitar jazz compositions by the likes of Andrew Hill, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, Lee Morgan and Randy Brecker. His new collection Backlogthe third in a Latin Jazz triptych following Parting Shot (2011) and Subtext (2014), continues to plunder the songbooks of his favourite composers.

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The album kicks off with the killer one-two of Monk’s ‘Criss Cross’ and Greg Osby’s ‘Concepticus In C’. The former is inspired by the late great pianist Kenny Kirkland’s Latin version which first appeared on his fine 1991 debut album.

Says Khan, ‘It’s a wonderful arrangement and so good that it’s hard to escape its influence. It took me years to find a way to do the tune in a way where I could put my own stamp on it. As everyone already knows, I love Monk’s compositions and have recorded many of them. I happen to feel that Monk’s tunes have a way of fitting into a Latin context, as if they were made to be interpreted in that style.’

The Osby tune was played by Khan during their tenure together in the New Sound Collective band; the guitarist clearly relishes arranging his version of ‘Concepticus’ on Backlog, adding a funky Joe Zawinul flavour to the tasty harmonies and quirky rhythmic concept.

‘Latin Genetics’, composed by Ornette Coleman and first appearing on his In All Languages album, features a fine guest spot from Randy Brecker on trumpet.

On first listening, it seems a light, almost joyous piece of music, but Khan has a different take on it: ‘It’s funny to me that people see this tune as being so happy – I actually see it as a rather dark piece of music, one with many sinister and even humorous qualities.’

Backlog‘s other Coleman cover version is ‘Invisible’, featuring Bob Mintzer on sax, originally recorded in 1958: ‘It comes from one of his earliest albums, Something Else!!!!, featuring an acoustic piano,’ says Khan. ‘Every time I hear this tune, I feel that Ornette’s playing and improvisational concepts are a bit constricted by having the chord changes applied so literally. There seems to be an absence of space. So, in my interpretation, though there are chord changes, both Bob and I play pretty much unaccompanied, and that’s really how I like it.’

Elsewhere on Backlog, Khan reimagines the music of Stevie Wonder, his father Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mandel, Bobby Hutcherson and Andrew Hill.

Clearly a labour of love, Khan wonders whether it will be his final album: ‘When I recorded Parting Shot, for reasons of the health and condition of my left hand, I thought that was going to be the final album. Then when I decided that I felt well enough to record Subtext, I was even more certain that that would be the final album. But, as 2015 unfolded, I came to the simple conclusion that I just do not feel alive unless I am creatively involved in the formation of new music. So, while I can still do it, I had to do everything possible to record. Can I foresee ever being able to self-finance another recording of my own again? I don’t want to utter the word “never” in conjunction with such a thought, but honestly, I really don’t know. With the release of any new piece of work, there is always hope for better days and better times, but this remains to be seen…’

Backlog is out now on ESC/Tone Center.

Read the full interview with Steve at his website.

Strike A Pose (2016): An Interview With Co-Director Ester Gould

71e6e7c242045b1aefaf0a5aa90969f0In the late summer of 1989, Madonna held a series of dance auditions for her Blond Ambition world tour, eventually choosing seven virtually unknown male artists: Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes III, Salim Gauwloos, José Gutierez, Kevin Stea, Carlton Wilborn and Gabriel Trupin. 

Camacho and Gutierez were possibly the best known of the group, members of the Harlem House Ball that became famous for ‘voguing’ (as seen in the ‘Paris Is Burning’ documentary and Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ video).

The heightened environment of the Blond Ambition tour forged a bond between Madonna and the dancers but also conjured up some demons. ‘In Bed With Madonna‘ (AKA ‘Madonna: Truth Or Dare’), Alex Keshishian’s hugely successful 1991 film of the tour, had ramifications for the dancers too – three filed a lawsuit against Madonna, claiming she had invaded their privacy.

A fine new documentary ‘Strike A Pose’ catches up with six of the dancers nearly 30 years on (Trupin sadly died of an AIDS-related illness in 1995), investigating the impact that instant fame had on their lives and unveiling the deep, personal traumas that haunted many of them before, during and after the tour.

Co-directed by Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan, it’s a powerful, sometimes moving meditation on ageing, artistic integrity, celebrity and identity. I caught up with Gould to chat about the film.

MP: Where did the original idea for ‘Strike A Pose’ come from and was it easy getting the funding?

EG: The original idea was co-director Reijer Zwaan’s: he was 11 when he first saw ‘In Bed With Madonna’ and was immediately blown away by these seven dancers and the film’s bold, liberating message. For the first time in mainstream media, there was this wild, loud, fun-loving troupe of dancers who were being themselves – gay and happy. Over the years, Reijer wondered what had happened to those men. When he told me about the idea for the film, I immediately loved it. We did some online research and found out that there was an entire generation out there thanking these guys for helping them dare to be themselves. At the same time, it wasn’t till we met each of them separately in summer 2013 that we knew we had a film. Our premise was that these paragons of pride and self-expression had each, in their own way, struggled with shame and self-doubt. We always wanted ‘Strike A Pose’ to be more than a ‘where are they now?’ story. We were looking for a larger narrative. It took us about 18 months to finance the film mostly with Dutch government funds. There were questions about whether Madonna would be on board and how she’d be depicted; it’s strange that when there’s a celebrity in the picture there are always forces who want to attack or uncover some dirt. For us, it was never about that.

Was it difficult tracking down Luis, Oliver, Salim, Jose, Kevin and Carlton? And were they easily sold on the idea?

Thanks to social media it wasn’t that hard to find them, but it took some time to get some of them on board, specifically José and Luis. They were tired of people asking them to gossip about Madonna – how could they know we were any different? There was also some fear going back down memory lane perhaps because it had been so hard to move on with their lives after such an impactful experience. What persuaded them was our genuine interest in telling their stories.

The film is a powerful statement about the devastating physical and mental issues around HIV and AIDS, and also the social stigmas surrounding them. In that respect, ‘Strike A Pose’ feels just as relevant today as ‘In Bed With Madonna’ felt in 1991. Was it your intention to make a ‘statement’ or just tell an interesting story about these attractive, fascinating people?

We did want to make a statement, but for us that statement isn’t solely about HIV and AIDS. It was about the emotional consequences of hiding a part of yourself, of feeling unworthy of being loved. It’s really hard to dare to be yourself, to fully accept yourself, if you feel different for whatever reason. Because we all want to belong – it’s deeply engrained in human nature. Of course, gay rights and AIDS awareness have improved since the early ’90s. On another level, it’s one thing to be loud and provocative when you’re young, it’s another to accept yourself on a deeper level when you get older and reality kicks in.

Reijer Zwaan and Ester Gould at the 'Strike A Pose' premiere, Tribeca Film Festival, New York City, April 2016

Reijer Zwaan and Ester Gould at the ‘Strike A Pose’ premiere, Tribeca Film Festival, New York City, April 2016

At any point did you seek a contribution from Madonna for the film, and has she made any public or private comment?

We did successfully reach out to her management and lawyers to secure the rights to use fragments of the original film. We also thought a lot about asking her to be part of ‘Strike A Pose’ but always felt like her presence could overshadow the whole film. In a strange way, she was the elephant in the room, because even if she had turned up at the reunion dinner, wouldn’t that somehow ruin the point that these young dancers have moved on, matured and become grown men? We did have one specific scene in mind, almost a title sequence at the end, which was to see these men and Madonna performing ‘Vogue’ once more on stage. We wrote to her about the scene but never got a reply. We do know that she has seen the film and liked it.

What’s your favourite scene in the movie and why?

My favourite scene is the one with José, his mother and her disappointment that he never managed to buy her a house. It’s really hard-hitting and there’s something painfully beautiful about the fact that José is translating what his mum is saying in Spanish, and at the same time he’s moved by what she’s saying, by her sadness that he’s messed up his professional career. We see two broken people and it’s such an honest scene about shattered dreams.

I agree. Your film reminded me a little of ‘Anvil! The Story Of Anvil’ in its depiction of fast fame and then the return to ‘normal life’, but you don’t go into much detail about the dancers’ professional lives after the Blond Ambition tour – was that a conscious decision or one forced by time constraints?

I would say it was mostly forced by time constraints but also for us it was more about this larger narrative that the individual facts. We wanted the film to be cathartic but it was quite hard to interweave all these individual life stories into one film. Also, the reunion of the dancers kind of got in the way of shedding more light on their current lives. Hopefully you do understand that they all still dance or teach dance and have overcome their darker moments. We end with the power of dance rather than talk about their lives today.

‘Strike A Pose’ has enjoyed a limited but successful run at the Dochouse in London but what’s next for the film? Will there be a DVD release?

The film will very soon be released on digital platforms in the UK. And then later this year it’ll be on Netflix, so there are lots of chances to see it.

This is a golden era for documentaries and ‘Strike A Pose’ is a fitting addition. Have you got another project in the pipeline?

I’ve just finished a six-part documentary series for Dutch public television, co-directed by Sarah Sylbing, which was a great success. It’s about the debt problem. We set out to make it as exciting and compelling as fiction, looking at ‘The Wire’ for inspiration. I’m still busy with the impact of that series. I’m also cooking up new ideas but it’s too early to say anything concrete. What I can say is that I love documentary filmmaking and have a lot of faith in its narrative power to reach audiences, especially since there is much more freedom now with genre and form.

The Comic Strip to Castle Donington: An Interview With Nigel Planer

Den Bad News

Nigel Planer as Den Dennis, Castle Donington, 16th August 1986

If you were a British teenager in the mid-’80s, ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘The Comic Strip Presents’ were pretty much required viewing.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine that period without them. They fused comedy and music with anarchic zeal and have endured as bona fide TV classics.

Nigel Planer was an integral part of both groundbreaking shows, working alongside Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, Peter Richardson and many more.

He brought the world such classic characters as the perennially-prickly hippy Neil and Den Dennis, heavy metal’s unluckiest guitarist.

neil-young-ones

Since then, Planer has appeared in countless quality TV productions, written several books and plays and starred in the hit musicals ‘We Will Rock You’, ‘Evita’, ‘Chicago’, ‘Wicked’, ‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Hairspray’.

He’s also worked on several BBC Four music documentaries and is currently revisiting an early interest in songwriting.

I began my chat with Nigel by asking him about his musical influences.

MP: There was a great punky energy about the early days of The Comic Strip troupe, but I’m guessing your own musical tastes weren’t rooted in punk. Did you play in bands before becoming a pro actor?

NP: I was more into psych-folk and new-age jazz stuff. I didn’t so much play in bands but I did make a bubblegum pop record with my brother Roger, and I had a publishing deal for my songs which were sort of sub-Nick Drake, soft, liberal, poetic things.

We all loved your portrayal of Neil in ‘The Young Ones’ (I think I still have ‘Neil’s Book Of The Dead’ somewhere…), but how much of that character was yours and how much of it Ben Elton and Lise Mayer’s?

Well, the original Neil comes from a show I wrote and performed with Peter Richardson and Pete Richens called ‘Rank’. Many of the characters later to appear in Comic Strip films stem from this show. We first did it at the Roundhouse and then on tour with various bands. We were trying to be like Alberto y Los Trios Paranoias or The Fabulous Poodles, if anyone remembers them. We ended up more like a Mike Leigh play with a rock band in it. When we made our double act, Neil came along with us and so he was my character in the ‘Young Ones’ setup. He was mostly my character but Ben and Lise made him more stereotypically hippyish.

Your cover of Traffic’s ‘Hole In My Shoe’ got to number 2 in the charts in July 1984! Any good memories from Neil’s ‘pop’ period? 

It was an incredible experience, to be a pop star all of a sudden without having to take the consequences of that decision because I was in character. I learned that I would hate to be a pop star.

Who or what was your inspiration for the brilliant Den, the hapless rhythm guitarist from The Comic Strip’s ‘Bad News Tour’ and ‘More Bad News’?

I’m afraid Den Dennis comes from deep inside my soul…

You famously played the 1986 Monsters Of Rock festival at Castle Donington with the News, how was that? The festival was probably at its peak during that time.

It was our first gig. We were terrified. It looks pretty good in the film – you see all the usual spoof documentary gags, we argue, get ready for the gig, go up the stairs onto the stage. And then in one panning shot you realise it’s real, there are actually 40,000 people there baying for our blood and throwing bottles of urine at us. The compere (Tommy Vance) had to wear a helmet and face guard, but we just walked out there like idiots.

‘Bad News Tour’ famously appeared on British TV long before ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ was released. Have you ever met any of the Tap guys? Are they aware of ‘Bad News Tour’?

I think both ideas were in germination at the same time. Funny how things happen like that. I never met any of them but have a huge admiration.

In Ade’s Comic Strip film ‘Private Enterprise’, you play this great character Derek, a bow-tied, extremely effete A&R man. It’s a brilliant portrayal of a lot of those public school types who got into the music biz in the late-’70s and early-’80s. Was Derek based on anyone you knew?

Not really. I didn’t think of him as a public school type, I just came up with this weird voice. A lot of the time things are just done on instinct and it’s best not to work it out too much. I did feel I knew the kind of person he should be, ie it wasn’t exactly a stretch.

In later Comic Strips, there were cameos and musical contributions from the likes of Jeff Beck, Kate Bush and Lemmy. Any printable memories of working with them?

We used to do this gag where one of us, probably Ade, would turn down volume on his guitar and mime, and out would come the most amazing solo. Then out from behind a speaker would walk Brian May, Jeff Beck or whoever we’d managed to con into doing the solo. Then Ade would stop and shout at the guitar hero: ‘I paid you a fiver to stay behind that speaker, you bastard!’ At The Marquee, we did it not once but twice – after coming out, Brian then turned down volume on his guitar and out walked Jeff. Jimmy Page did the gag with us once too, but I can’t remember where we were playing. Ah, memories… I do remember an early morning filming call in a hotel in Devon on a Comic Strip film. There had been a lot of drinking the night before. I’d gone to bed early, being a professional ‘actor’ you know, but others had stayed up trying to keep up with Lemmy. The next day at 6am, I get down to the lobby for pick-up time – none of the cast are there, not even the runner nor the driver. In fact, the only other person turning up on time for work, with his lines learned, was Lemmy.

You’ve been in the original casts of several very popular West End musicals (‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’, ‘Hairspray’, ‘We Will Rock You’) in the last ten years or so – what are the challenges of singing live night after night?

It’s a slog doing eight shows a week on a raked stage. Lots of injuries and physio and the like. The singing is the nice bit. One is also fighting boredom on a grand scale. It’s hard to stay cheerful. But on ‘We Will Rock You’, I remember thinking to myself: ‘Shut the f*** up, you are about to go on in front of 3,000 people and sing a beautiful song with a band of incredible musicians handpicked by Queen and then do about 20 minutes of jokes and make everyone laugh and you’re complaining?’ I’m good at complaining. Ben used to call me Niggle Complainer.

In recent years, you’ve been the go-to voiceover guy for music documentaries on BBC4 – do you enjoy them and are there any more in the pipeline?

None in the pipeline at the moment unfortunately, but they are a really, really good gig. You get to sit for a day listening to all this brilliant music and hear some people talking who maybe meant a lot to you when younger. I particularly enjoyed ‘Blues Britannia’ which I thought was very interesting. The idea that the Brits re-imported the Blues back to America where it was dying.

What are you up to at the moment? A little bird told me you’re working on a music project alongside the acting…

I have a couple of musical projects at the moment. One is a stage musical I have written with Hannah-Jane Fox and Andrew Holdsworth who I met in the ‘We Will Rock You’ days. We’re trying to place it in a theatre now. It’s not usual musical theatre fare. It’s heavy-rock/pop based, a very dark gothic horror story called ‘She Devil’! The other is a psych-folk band called Rainsmoke I have formed with my musician brother Roger and a guy called Chris Wade who is behind the Dodson And Fogg albums. We have one song up on Bandcamp now, and are hoping to finish the album by the new year. Most of the songs are based on all those songs I wrote in the early 1970s when I was a young, green, poet-type guy.

Thanks Nigel.

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Nigel receiving his Honorary Doctor of Arts degree from Edinburgh Napier University in 2011

Steve Khan talks about recording Steely Dan’s ‘Gaucho’

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When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I was obsessed with my dad’s very old ABC Records cassette of Steely’s Greatest Hits.

It may have been the opening eight bars of ‘Do It Again’ that did it. I never looked back; they quickly became my favourite ‘band’, and remain so to this day.

I heard Gaucho – which turns 35 today – a few years later, maybe in 1986 or ’87, not even knowing of its existence until then. The album knocked me out. I practiced my drums to it every day.

By all accounts, it was a laborious and very expensive record to make, with various obstacles: whole songs were inadvertently erased (‘The Second Arrangement’) and other classics shelved.

Walter Becker endured a serious injury after being hit by a cab and there was even a lawsuit from Keith Jarrett regarding the similarity between the title track and his 1974 composition ‘Long As You Know You’re Living Yours’.

But it all paid off in the end; Gaucho was sumptuously mixed and mastered with songs that were built to last. Guitarist Steve Khan was a key contributor to Gaucho. Along with Larry Carlton, he would seem the perfect player for their later work, combining a jazz sensibility with a great feeling for the blues and also speedy sight-reading skills.

I was delighted to catch up with Steve from his New York base to talk about his role on the album and the ‘Glamour Profession’ session that led to one of the great guitar solos in the Steely canon.

On getting the call to play on Gaucho:

SK: I had played on almost all the tracks for Gaucho (even though I was erased from some, and some tracks didn’t survive), so I was a pretty healthy part of that recording. As to why they thought of me, who the hell really knows? Donald tends to like players who have a jazz sensibility but who also have a bluesiness or soulfulness about their playing. I guess, in his eyes, I fall into that category of possibilities.  I was the last thing to go on ‘Glamour Profession’, just as I was the last one to go on ‘Third World Man’ as well.

‘Glamour Profession’ lead sheet, prepared by Steve Khan. Click to enlarge

On playing the ‘Glamour Profession’ rhythm parts:

SK: The first thing we did was all the rhythm parts. In a sense that was very simple because they just wanted me to double what some kind of synth had already played – probably sequenced – and with perfect time. At about 3:30 in the track, there’s a little four-bar guitar chorale that Donald wanted me to play, so we wrote out the four voices and I played each voice individually, giving each one a touch of ‘soul’ with a little personal phrasing and vibrato here and there. Then, I think that we returned to doing the rest of the rhythm part. Honestly, I don’t recall if I did the rhythm part on my Telecaster Custom or not – when I listen now, there’s a crispness to the sound which leads me to believe that this was the Tele.

On recording the famous ‘Glamour Profession’ solo:

SK: I used my new Gibson ES-Artist (with active electronics) – which is really a 335 – and after that solo, I never used it again – I sold it back to Manny’s Music! In the end, all the fancy things that they can do to guitars are fine but everything comes down to one’s touch, and I’m mostly speaking about the fingertips on the left-hand. If one has a good touch, the music will translate through virtually any amp. Equipment is just a tool.

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In concept, the solo represents a lot of linear concepts that I had been working on for years. And only in hindsight, many years later, after the publication of my second theory book ‘PENTATONIC KHANCEPTS‘, I hear these kinds of linear ideas at work. Based upon the chord progressions, it all seemed to work perfectly because, in the end, it is a combination of the angular with a bluesy feeling to it – and that’s what Donald and Walter like – with a touch of harmonic sophistication.  I think that the things that I was working on, a long time ago, in terms of other approaches to changing up the normal jazz/bebop-oriented construction of lines, seemed to be very present on ‘Glamour Profession’. If you apply the Pentatonic Khancepts to those chords, you’ll see/hear exactly what I was doing then, mixed in with a healthy dose of blues too.

The horns and the synth lines were already there, so it becomes like playing through a bit of a minefield because you have to dance around those other linear elements. I did one complete take which I actually liked very much. Then, of course, they asked me to do another one. Because of track space, I couldn’t have done more than three of them. Then, thank goodness, I think that we all felt that the first one had the most ‘meat’ to it, and so we would work from that. Then we went back through it. They kept all the phrases that they loved and asked me to try something else in a number of spots. Whether I wanted to or not, it’s still a job and you do what you are asked to do!

For more on Steve’s contribution to Gaucho and the rest of his career, check out his website and this great interview with Leo Sidran.

For much more about Steely Dan, check out ‘Reeling In The Years’ by Brian Sweet and ‘Aja 33 and 1/3’ by Don Breithaupt. 

Steve Khan talks about his classic 1983 album ‘Casa Loco’

steve khanDrummers and bassists: this album’s for you. And it’s for guitarists, percussionists and fans of great music too.

Put simply, Steve Khan’s hard-to-track-down Casa Loco has enthralled me and a whole generation of jazz and jazz/rock aficionados for over 30 years.

The compositions and performances of guitarist/leader Khan, bassist Anthony Jackson, drummer Steve Jordan and ex-Weather Report percussionist/vocalist Manolo Badrena are unique and unforgettable.

The album is also totally unclassifiable – a ‘fusion’ band playing a blazing surf-rock cover tune (‘Penetration’)? An unhinged Puerto Rican percussionist singing in quasi-Spanish but sounding remarkably like Sting?

Casa Loco is full of such beautiful and unpredictable juxtapositions. And it’s also blessed with Jean-Michel Folon’s eye-catching cover art.

I had previously bought Steve’s 1981 album Eyewitness just on the strength of the Folon cover but was immediately blown away by the all-time-great Jordan/Jackson rhythm section, Khan’s enigmatic, inimitable voicings and Badrena’s inspired percussives. But Casa Loco, the 1983 follow-up, cranked everything up a notch.

Steve Khan, the son of Sinatra/Dean Martin/Doris Day lyricist Sammy Cahn, is one of the most respected guitarists of the ‘fusion’ era. He played on not one but four of the great Steely Dan tunes (‘Peg’, ‘Babylon Sisters’, ‘Gaucho’, ‘Glamour Profession’), contributing to the latter one of the finest guitar solos in the band’s oeuvre, though he has mixed views on the painstaking recording process that led to those landmark pieces.

Check out his great interview with Leo Sidran for more on this and also a good overview of his career in general. But Steve is also one of jazz and fusion’s most erudite and honest figures, revealing (almost) all on his excellent website. He knows where the bodies are buried…

Steve, who recently released a well-received solo album Subtext, spoke with great candour and humour to movingtheriver.com from his New York City base.

Doug Epstein

Doug Epstein

MP: Casa Loco still sounds fantastic over 30 years on – how important was engineer Doug Epstein in the recording process?

SK: On countless levels, Doug Epstein was huge in all of this. At that time, he was the only person, on the technical side of things, who had participated in every single recording of mine. I owe him so much. He was always full of enthusiasm and energy for whatever it might have been that I was doing, and he encouraged me to do more. Knowing the financial difficulties we were having, he was the first one to offer to try to get the executives at Mediasound Studios to give us a break on the recording costs, and everyone there was wonderful to us. Nothing, of course, was ever free, but they tried their best to help. At the recording end of things, Doug was absolutely fearless. I think that most of the problematic issues came from Steve Jordan’s constantly changing, per tune, hybrid kit of drums: a combination of natural drums and Simmons electronic drums. Then there was Manolo’s amazing percussion set-up which included all his natural and supernatural sounds, plus the electronics emanating from the Syn-cussion that he was using back then. To accommodate all of that on 24-tracks, with one track taken for SMPTE code and another one blank just because of the risk, there were really only 22 tracks available. In the end, Doug had to know where each tune was headed in terms of possible overdubs, vocals, etc. He did all of that. But, it has to be noted, that Steve Jordan – where our mixing process was concerned – was hovering over Doug’s shoulder the entire time, and in many ways Steve is totally responsible for being the protector of Anthony’s bass sound and playing, and for his own drums, of course. Steve’s contributions in this regard were indispensable to the overall sound that you have come to know. Steve was present for the mixes on all three of our recordings together. He had a vision and a sound in mind, and he pushed hard for that. In great part, that’s why he has become an excellent producer himself – he has a great ear for these things.

Steve Jordan Photo by Deborah Feingold

Steve Jordan
Photo by Deborah Feingold

There’s a big Police influence on Casa Loco. Who brought that into the band?

I would say that Steve Jordan brought that into the band. I don’t think Anthony had ever heard anything by The Police. The fact that Manolo sounds a bit like Sting at times is just a cosmic accident. It’s not intentional at all. And, of course, 90% of the time Manolo is either singing in Spanish or vocalese, or his own form of gibberish! Recently, the great French jazz journalist Frêdèric Goaty wrote a piece for MUZIQ Magazine about his perceptions of the influence of The Police in contemporary music, and he cited all three of our albums as examples.

Regarding Steve Jordan’s famous drum solo on the title track – how the hell did you and Anthony stay in time when he really starts going out?!

Speaking for myself, it wasn’t easy. Anthony and Steve had a way of stretching the rhythmic boundaries in ways that would often confuse me, and I would get turned around. It was always an exercise in feel and concentration. That day, in the studio, my concentration was at its highest level, because there was no way that I was going to screw something up and ruin Steve Jordan’s incredible drum solo! No f***ing way! It remains one of the great moments on any recording of mine. I think that the complexities of that solo section, which is really a simple Latin tumbao, are demonstrated by the fact that Modern Drummer magazine published a transcription of the drum solo, but with the tumbao completely turned around and written out incorrectly! So, even an educated musician can get screwed-up with that one. I remember once when we were playing at Seventh Avenue South here in New York City, Bob Mintzer, one of the greatest musicians that I’ve ever known, came up to me and said, ‘What the f*** are you guys doing? I can’t ever find one!’ If Bob Mintzer felt that way, I guess there isn’t a much higher compliment. But it was never our intention to play anything that was purposely confusing to anyone.

The structure of ‘Some Sharks’ is incredibly intricate with many repeat signs and tags – were all the guys reading charts while recording this?

At that time, I don’t believe there were any formal charts to any of the tunes. We rehearsed hard and long, and we were prepared. The first lead sheets were done afterwards, I believe. I did them for copyright purposes, nothing more. I remember, when doing that, how astonishing it was to see, on paper, the intricacy of the music that we had created by improvising, and just jamming together pieces of music. It’s possible that I had written out ‘Uncle Roy’ beforehand, but maybe not. It’s hard to remember now. My facualties are not what they once were! But, when I listen to what Steve Jordan contributed to that tune with his unique concepts of beat displacement, it’s remarkable, and when you add in Anthony’s perspective, it makes perfect sense as to why the recordings that we made together between 1981-1983 have influenced bassists and drummers all over the world. Anthony and Steve deserve all of that adoration and more.

‘The Suitcase’ hints at a Discipline-era King Crimson influence – is that accurate?

I have never paid any attention to King Crimson’s music at any time. However, thanks to MTV, I did get to hear ‘Elephant Talk’ and I absolutely loved that tune. I love Adrian Belew and only wish that I could create 5% of the sonic textures that he creates. He is totally unique and brilliant. I admire him a lot.

Why is (great British drummer) Steve Ferrone thanked in the album credits?

To tell you the truth, I have no idea! In those days, we thanked people who stopped by the studio while we were recording, just for their good vibes. It’s also possible that Steve Ferrone lent something, a piece of gear, to Steve Jordan. I just can’t remember. We thanked people who didn’t even exist. For example, at one of our sleep-deprived rehearsals, Steve Jordan was trying to say the name Gore Vidal, and somehow it came out as Gordie Voll, and once he said that, I was rolling on the floor laughing – it was just so silly and funny. So Gordie ended up in the ‘special thanks’ section. I thanked a CNN newswoman, Marcia Ladendorff, who I had a crush on. I thanked an actress that I had a crush on too, Roberta Leighton. I thanked Flippy Hussein, who is not a real person – just a goofy name that the great vibraphonist David Friedman made up one day years before. But most of the names mentioned were people who in some way, shape or form contributed something positive, even if only via their encouragement to the music and the effort to keep going forward.

Jaco

Jaco

Is there anything else printable you can tell us about Steve Jordan’s crazy house of music (the Casa Loco or ‘crazy house’ of the album title – Ed.) ?

In all honesty, no! Unless someone wants to burn all their bridges behind them, there is a sacred trust that exists between musicians, especially those who are bandmates, or even just work on a special project together. You don’t talk ‘out of school’ about things that you see and hear, sometimes not even after a person has passed away. Those kinds of stories can be hurtful, and even end-up hurting relatives or loved ones. In those days, each of us was going through something difficult in our personal lives, and our behaviour reflected that. Trying to just get together to rehearse for a few hours a couple of days per week was never easy, but we managed. And Steve Jordan’s loft, his home, was a huge part of that. I can only say that all kinds of hysterical shit used to happen there, including people trying to stop by to hang out with us while we were trying to work. Jaco Pastorius was one of them. He used to phone Jordan all the time and beg us to let him come by. We reached a point where we would never answer the phone and never allow anyone in except for the delivery guy who was bringing by Steve Jordan’s breakfast – at 2pm in the afternoon! Does that give you an idea?! No matter what transpired those days were some of the most fun and productive days of my creative life. I have rehearsal cassettes from those times – I used to listen to them every so often – and the constant laughter on those tapes about absolutely nothing is priceless. It was just so damn funny most of the time and exasperating too, at least for me!

Anthony Jackson photo by David Tan

Anthony Jackson
photo by David Tan

I was astonished to read that the whole album was recorded in just TWO days, quite amazing when you consider the time spent on other albums of the era (Hello Donald and Walter…). How do you explain that? Was it just a case of getting the goods in the shortest possible time with the meter running?

Well, though it is true that the serious content of Casa Loco was recorded during May 21st-22nd 1983 at Mediasound, I didn’t realize that we were going to need a third day just for Manolo Badrena! I actually thought that we could finish a performance of a piece and then he would simply, right then and there, overdub his vocals. I’m speaking about tunes like the title track, ‘Some Sharks’ and ‘The Suitcase’. But what happened really threw me for a loop, because I did not want to spend the money, other than for mixing, to return to the studio just for Manolo. Thinking this way demonstrated my lack of experience and understanding that recording vocals, by anyone, requires a different kind of care and patience. It is something that you have to plan for. I was too worried about spending money for an extra day in the studio! The great lesson in this is always the same: if you begin by being cheap, you will pay for it later! There is, of course, a most wonderful expression for this very thought in Spanish: ‘Lo barato sale caro!’ If you are unwilling to spend money, you will end-up with a lousy or sub-standard sounding recording, and this is something that I never want to be a part of, because you have to live with the results forever. So as the recording unfolded, during ‘Casa Loco’, ‘Penetration’ and ‘Some Sharks’, Manolo actually just sat there and didn’t play a damn thing while Anthony, Steve and I were performing those tunes. At the time, he just motioned wildly to me that he could not hear himself in the headphones. Mediasound had one of the early systems whereby each musician could make his own headphone mix. Each time this happened, we all tried to work harder with Doug to help Manolo get what he wanted and needed. It was so frustrating to have him there and not have him with us making that music. So, in the end, I had to spend the time and money overdubbing him on those tunes. I was furious about this! In sharp contrast to that, if you just listen to what Manolo contributes to ‘Uncle Roy’ – there is not a sound there that was not performed completely live. It is simply brilliant – no one else could have created textures like that. He’s one of the most unique musicians on this earth but not easy to work with. Years later, I learned that it really wasn’t the damn headphones at all; he had been upset that he wasn’t getting paid for the sessions, as if I was pulling a ‘fast one’ on him and secretly hoarding money somewhere. This is, of course, the furthest thing from the truth. We had a number of band meetings during our rehearsals and I clearly explained to everyone that I was paying for the album out of my own pocket, and that after I had recouped my investment in full, if that ever happened, whatever money there was to be had, we would all split it equally four ways. Period! In other words, we were all going to get rich together, or stay exactly as we were, but together. It was certainly my impression that Manolo understood that. Anthony and Steve were on board, as they always were, and I will never ever forget their selflessness when it came to this music. I love them both and I’m deeply indebted to them, forever, no matter what else has happened.

steve khan

According to your website, you paid for recording costs entirely out of your own pocket – have you managed to recoup some of this over the years? I hope so…

We’ve addressed a portion of this during my answers to some of the other questions. But, the answer is: No! Absolutely not! I believe that, back then, my total investment in making Casa Loco was $17,500. That might not sound like much in 2015, but it felt like a fortune to me, having to go into my personal savings to do this. But that’s how much it meant to me. It was the second time that I had done that, Evidence (1980) being the first. And, it would not be the last; I have done this seven more times since! In the end, I was given advances from Trio Records (Japan) and eventually from Antilles Records (USA) that totalled $11,000, and that’s all that I have ever seen come back to me from this recording. In short, as it has been with all of my self-financed recordings, I will never ever again see that money come back to me. Do I regret it? Of course not. I am, and will always be, exceptionally proud of those recordings because everyone who participated gave something of themselves to do it. I don’t forget those people, those players! Never!

Thank you, Steve.