A Conversation with ZZ Top's Billy F. Gibbons
Mike Ragogna: Billy, in addition to ZZ Top's tour, there's a new double disc retrospective CD at Warners being released as well as your Live At Montreux concert at Eagle Rock. Considering your over forty years together are being presented yet contrasted with these two releases, what have you observed to be the biggest changes between the ZZ Top of 1969 and now?
Billy F. Gibbons: We have a much better way of getting to the gigs. Back then it was a van with all the gear stuffed inside and now we go by motor coach and our gear is transported in a semi. The crowds now are a bit bigger... We once played a gig attended by exactly one paying customer but we gave him the full show; bought him a Coke at the end to show our appreciation. Did we mention the food? We've come a long way from hash and Big Red Soda but always reserve the right to go back.
MR: Your Live At Montreux 2013 DVD and Blu-ray presents ZZ Top features material from the very early days. Do those songs still have the same impact on you and the guys as they did when you first began performing?
BFG: Absolutely, yes. The prism of time has a way of turning coal into diamonds. We loved those early songs then and still do now. You know... We're the same three guys--wait for it--playing the same three chords.
MR: Do you have a couple of favorite moments from the Live At Montreux 2013 performances? You've played Montreux before, but other than its having been recorded for a release, in your opinion, was there something particularly magical or different about this concert that separates it from prior Montreux performances?
BFG: It was definitely special. We wanted to do something to honor the memory of Claude Nobs who founded the festival and had been our friend for many years. He died quite unexpectedly earlier in that year so we knew we had to do something very special. Since he was a jazz aficionado, we thought we'd jazz things up a big and, to that end, flew in two jazz cats from Austin--Mike Flanigin on B-3 and Van Wilkes on second guitar. Yes, in Claude's honor, ZZ Top was a five piece groove unit for part of the set.
MR: Does the band have any favorites from the catalog that you still can't wait to get to in the set list?
BFG: We have an inclusionary policy. If we recorded it or sort of know it we're game to play it. We perform songs from "ZZ Top's First Album" quite regularly and do some stuff we've never recorded like Willie Brown's "Future Blues." That song dates from 1930 and, as you know, Willie Brown is named checked by none other than Robert Johnson in "Crossroads." He recorded it for Paramount Records, the label that Jack White has been highlighting of late. And we also do some new stuff.. quite a few off our most recent album, La Futura, the title of which may very well have been inspired by that selfsame Willie Brown, don'tcha know?
MR: At the time, how surprising was the huge success of "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Legs" and "Sharp Dressed Man" as both audio and videos hits to the band?
BFG: We approached the video revolution very gingerly. The band figured to just kind of stay in the background and keep the focus on the pretty girls and that little red car. Seems like everybody didn't mind we were bystanders in our own videos and the rest, as they say, is history.
MR: In the eighties--the age of videos breaking or significantly supporting recording artists--ZZ Top created some of the most fun and outrageous clips in rotation. Your videos maintained a video theme for the group, as if each video were an episode of a series. How did the scripts come together and was there a point when ZZ Top was writing songs with the videos in mind?
BFG: We worked with our renegade director, Tim Newman, Randy's cousin, as it happened. Tim is very inventive and intuitive. Although we didn't write songs with video actually in mind, yet we do tend to think and, perhaps, create, with a subliminal cinematic sense.
MR: What are your thoughts about some of your other trademark songs like "Tush" and "La Grange"?
BFG: They're great. "La Grange" put us on the map in terms of Top 40 radio and we just love to do that "haw, haw, haw" part. "Tush" was written in about as long as it takes to perform. It just jumped up during a searingly sweltering soundcheck and it's been part of the set ever since. The subject matter in both songs seems to retain a certain universal appeal.
MR: "Degüello", with "I'm Bad I'm Nationwide," "I Thank You," "Cheap Sunglasses," and more is considered one of the band's best albums and personally, I don't think there's a weak moment. Might this have been the album that changed everything up as far as ZZ Top's approach to creating projects?
BFG: The entirety of the "Degüello" recordings, and certainly the mixing, unfolded in Memphis and that soulful setting kind of changed the way we thought about recording and the mystery of the process. Great records made in Memphis goes back for decades and when ZZ hit town, the skill set was in place when we jumped in. "I Thank You," being a Sam and Dave song that was a Stax Records hit is just that--a thank you to Memphis and the vibe it imbues.
MR: Beautiful. So the band is coming up on 45 years of working together with its original lineup. What's the musical and personal partnership like with you, Dusty and Frank after all these years?
BFG: It's intact and ready to go for another 45. We three have a really fine time getting out there playing. We maintain a constant reunion of that early era if you like, so one can think of the last 3 decades as keeping one foot in them blues! On occasion, arriving at a venue early, the game is racing radio controlled cars over the parking lot. Yes, remaining eighteen is our mental immaturity and there ain't nothin' wrong with that... Rock on...!
MR: What do you think the state of bluesrock is in these days? Do you think there are any acts out there that might represent some of the best of the field?
BFG: There' a host of great acts out and about. Like what Black Joe Louis & the Honeybears are doing in Austin and how the Black Keys are putting it down from their current Nashville base. There are lots more... What about Serbian blues chanteuse Ana Popovic? The girl can play. As far as pure singers are concerned, we're big Shemekia Copeland fans.
MR: Traditional question...what advice do you have for new artists?
BFG: Get out there and play! We don't know of any other way, especially, if you don't have pin-up looks.
MR: Any plans or projects in the works for the band or individually in the immediate future?
BFG: We're thinking about our next album...already have some songs rattling around. The big news for us is a string of dates coming up in a few months with Jeff Beck. That is going to be a tour when we wish we could be in the audience.
A Conversation with Rich Robinson
Mike Ragogna: Rich, The Ceaseless Sight, what's the vision of the album and what was the creative process?
Rich Robinson: I knew I wanted to make a record and it worked out perfectly, time-wise. I knew we weren't going to be touring after 2013. Instead of going in with full songs, I had more skeletons. I had a chorus or a verse or whatever and then when we got into the studio, we used that energy of, "We've got to get this done." We had a short time, we only had a month to make the record. A lot of times, that happens in Woodstock, or in the studio in general. You have a couple of ideas, but when you get in the context--especially with me, because I like to write with drums in the room--you get in that context and it kind of clears the path and allows for that energy to come through and create those songs. I didn't necessarily have a context going into this record. For twenty-five years, I've always tried to approach making records as a collection of songs that create something slightly greater than one song as a whole piece. The sequence of a record, the songs of a record, how does the verse fit into a song, how does the chorus fit into a song, how do they songs fit into a record, how does the record fit into my body of work? How does that fit into twenty-five years of doing this? To answer the question of the uniqueness of this record, a lot of times, I would have songs done before I went into the studio. For twenty-five years, I would have ten or fifteen almost done going into the studio, but this time, like I said, I'm just using skeletons.
Some songs took a while to write. "Down The Road" was a song where I had this verse part for a long time and every time I would sit down with it it wasn't ready to be finished and then I finished it and that was it. Then "I Know You" and "Giving Key" I wrote right there on the spot. It took about five minutes to write those songs. In a sense everything just flowed for those two songs. It doesn't make eitehr song more or less valid, it just makes them different. Over the years with Crowes there have been songs that took me a long time to write. I wrote the verse to "Nonfiction" early on Southern Harmony but I dind't finish it until Amorica. It took a year and a half to find the right parts to make that. There've been songs like that over the years. I just kind of look at it as this one giant experience as opposed to this singular experrience. But I like how they all fit into a greater piece of work.
MR: "Ceaseless Sight" has larger a concept, "Giving Key" has a larger concept. It looks like lyrically and conceptually, you took a bigger swing with this album.
RR: Yeah, I think so. I think creatively and lyrically, yeah. I focus on the music first and throughout writing the songs, I'll come up with a melody idea or maybe a concept for the actual song, just a general, "This is about this" or "This might be about that." Then I just sit and listen to the song over and over again in the studio and just start writing, finishing lyrics to it. But absolutely, the whole point of this record is to look forward and not look backwards and to let go of a lot of s**t. I think at least for me and I think a lot of people on Earth tend to look backwards or try to choose what's easy or what you know. They don't want to know what's around the corner, and I think it's comforting in that sense. I think we're designed to be comforted by knowing what we can expect, so in that sense, this world is becoming more and more that way. Our politics are tailored to what we want and there are outlets now for that. "I only watch MSNBC" or "I only watch Fox News" or "I only read The Drudge Report," you know what I mean? There doesn't seem to be a general acceptance of what "is." It seems like there used to be at least a general accepted idea that the world is round and gravity exists. Now it's like, "is it really round?"
MR: You forgot how we've only been around for five thousand years and the dinosaurs came over on Noah's Ark.
RR: Yeah, but the dinosaurs were vegetarians, so they didn't eat humans and that's why we lived. But that's the thing! If we can't all agree on some common, basic facts, we're kind of f**ked. In that same sense, the way that we now consume everything--clothes and hard goods. But we also now consume politics. We consume news stories, we consume drama, we consume music, we consume books. It's more of an approach from a service industry, so we expect our art now to service us instead of the art to challenge us...any sort of creative endeavor, since we've been in existence. If you were in 1600, you would go see a piece of art and you were privileged to go see it. But if you think about what you saw, the visuals were given, and it was always something greater than yourself, always something you could strive to be. It's what Joseph Campbell talked about, it's what the amazing people throughout the millennia talked about, something greater than oneself. Art always did that.
MR: But isn't it the Selfie Era?
RR: Yeah, absolutely. I open an Instagram account and the majority of them are girls taking pictures of themselves, and then you see these dudes taking selfies everywhere, but it's really interesting where that has gone. It's an absorption of the self. If you used to be self-absorbed in the past, how many outlets could you deal with that on? Now we're on a newer level with technology and the amount of absorption that you can have is f**king crazy. Not only can you absorb yourself in yourself, you can absorb all of the influences in life around you to yourself. You can choose the media that you can absorb, you can choose the movies, you can choose your fashion and your friends and it's this f**king Bizarro World to me.
MR: It's fun to glamourize and worship yourself!
RR: Absolutely! But on the flip side, and the great thing about life and the world is that everything's a paradox. As you have that ability, there are people who are rejecting it and actually pulling out and saying, "You know what? I don't want that." You think about the resurgence of vinyl, you think about the resurgence of independent film and indie bands releasing records or these kinds of things and there is a movement that is growing and bubbling and it is real and they are great. There are really great bands out there. There are great bands that are out there playing and they don't really play that game. And there are people who listen to those bands and have more respect. The harder you have to work for something, the more respect you should get. If you can walk into any store in America, hit a Shazam button and the Shazam will tell you exactly what the song is playing and then you can hit another button and all of a sudden, you own that song within three seconds. How can you have respect for that? How is that not disposable?
But if you go to a store and you buy a vinyl and you throw down physical money or a credit card, just the act of that in a living, breathing place where there's smells, where there's physical things that you can touch tactilely, your finger prints are on this thing and you see this album with artwork that someone took the time to make and there's titles of songs and a gatefold. When you go home and you pull the vinyl out and put it on the turntable, something chemically happens in your brain that says, "You are experiencing something," and you have more respect for it because it took a lot more work to do that. Listening to the record takes more work. You go to put a vinyl on and you listen to it, you've got to sit by it because it's short. One side of a record is fucking short and if you get up and leave and watch TV or whatever by the time you get back your needle's f**ked because it's been digging into the end of the side. You have to be vigilant about it. If you're vigilant about something, you have more respect for you're going to pay more attention to it. It's something that I think gives us all a deeper experience. That's what it's about. That's what this record's about. Something authentic and deep.
MR: And from a lyrical standpoint, you were clearly looking for something bigger to talk about.
RR: Oh yeah, absolutely. Universal themes that have run through humanity since the dawn of time, since people started thinking. We've gotten away from those things. And also spirituality, what spirituality means and where I am as a person and where we are as humans, what the f**k are we doing here? Are we literally here to just buy more s**t? It's because, like I said, it's so easy to just surround yourself with what's familiar. That's the easy way out. It's easy to become pessimistic. It's easy to just think, "Oh, everything sucks, everything sucks." But the world is your perception and if you just turn your perception around and think, "Everything's cool," not everything does suck... There are some problems, but it's not the problem that's the problem, it's how you perceive the problem, you know what I mean? In that sense, a little optimism always goes a long way.
MR: Rich, it could have been easier to just create within The Black Crowes, but you went for the solo career. It was because you wanted to say different things than what was going on with the band, right?
RR: Absolutely. Also, my brother is the mouthpiece of The Crowes and what his beliefs aren't what my beliefs are necessarily. A lot of times when he would do press he would say a lot of things that I didn't necessarily agree with or weren't my position. So it's kind of cool to get away and express myself this way. In The Crowes my expression was music, I wrote the music and Chris wrote the lyrics. Music is a more esoteric expression. There's nothing that's concrete in the expression of music. It's very subconscious and ethereal and different people will get different things out of it. That's what I love about it, but there's also another element to that which is lyrical, and there's also another element to expressing yourself which is being able to come out from this thing that is what it is and has been around for so long that the band is kind of stuck in it. I wanted to pull away from that and start a more free form of expression just for myself. That's what I hoped to accomplish on the record, and all my records, but as time goes on and as I do more and get more comfortable with it I get to open up and see the light and see positivity.
MR: And it's a ceaseless sight.
RR: Yeah, exactly.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
RR: I've worked with some younger bands producing and writing and the only thing that I try to tell them is whatever you do, do it for the right reason. If you write music that moves you, if you write music that's authentic and sincere eventually someone will come around and like it, but if you only want to be a celebrity the world's better off if you just fuck off and go do something else. Figure out another way to be a celebrity. Be on a reality TV show or whatever the f**k it is. The creation and your intention behind the creation is too important to the world. I think that people who create should feel a responsibility in their creating. You can argue whether it's good, bad... Everyone's going to have their opinion. Some people are going to like it, some people are going to hate it, but if your intention is true and you're true to yourself and you write something that's authentic and means something to you, that intention will move forth in the universe. That's all that is lacking. If you can do that, then f**k it. Whether you're playing in front of five people for the rest of your night or five hundred thousand people it's still righteous because it's coming from a more righteous place.
MR: Is this what you would have told the fifteen year-old who wrote "She Talks To Angels?"
RR: S**t, I kind of did. That was something that moved me, I wrote it and I was proud of it and it was genuine. That's how I've always done it. I think there are people out there who do that, but I just think if you say, "I'm gonna go start a band," what everyone seems to do now is focus on social media. "If I do this I'll get fifty hits," and then you go back to this whole selfie thing and it's all about shameless self-promotion. "If I like this guy on Twitter then my band gets out there and the four thousand people this guy has will look at my band." It's almost like this weird corporate branding gone wild. It's cross branding. "Well I like that guy and he likes me and that guy..." what it becomes is, "You do for me and I'll do for you," and that's all it is. You have that and then some bands are great at videos, they have their video faces down, and then the next thing will be the social media faces and their image and the music is last. The music should come first. None of that other s**t matters. If you're coming from a sincere place and writing music that means something to you that vibration goes out into the universe and that's what's righteous. If it's meant to be the laws of attraction will attract fans to you and the fans that like you will like you because what you're doing is not full of s**t. It's not duping anyone, it's not bulls**t, it's real. That's just how I see it.
MR: So you left because of what you had to say, what you had to get out from inside.
MR: What does the future look like for Rich Robinson?
RR: We're touring, obviously we have a bunch of dates coming up, it's going to be cool, these shows are going great, the band's really gelling well together. Joe [Magistro] and I have been playing together for ten years now, and Matt and Ted and Dan who are all in the band. We just started playing together about a month ago but it's going really well. We're going to focus on that, we have that going on and then we're planning on doing another art show in the fall with my brother-in-law. We paint and do that, we're also working on a sculpture.
MR: Do you take the paint set on the road with you?
RR: No, I work on bigger canvasses and I use oil so they wouldn't dry. I have to sit still to do that kind of stuff.
MR: Were you always the kid who was creating things?
RR: Yeah, kind of. I would say so. It brings joy. If you follow your joy, you're good to go.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with The English Beat's Dave Wakeling
Mike Ragogna: Dave, you're doing a pledge campaign tied into your new album?
Dave Wakeling: We are, indeed. This pledge campaign is to attract Medicci-like benefactors who pledge to buy the album in advance for any of the exciting premiums we put in, like you can shred guitars with Dave for an afternoon or you can go for dinner with me or you can travel on the tour bus for a couple of days or travel in the van in California. We've always been quite close to the people who come to our concerts, we're pretty easy to get hold of, but this takes it a step further, now. It's quite been fun. People can come to the studio and sing on the chorus of a song, for example, and depending on how good their voice is that's how loud it will be in the mix.
MR: What is it that you're expecting ultimately from this?
DW: We've got demos of about twenty songs and we're feeling thoroughly confident, I must say, that we'll use those demos and play them and put the lyrics up on the pledge page. It's a way of trying to attract people to pledging for the project by giving them access to the behind the scenes, warts and all. Well, hopefully no warts. I think it's really quite interesting because the record company largesse is taken out in a way, isn't it? Everybody pledges to buy an album for ten bucks and that actually pays for the studio to make the record. I like it. It's another different thing that's happening with the twenty-first century, isn't it. The record industry has turned on its head somewhat. It's still the same thing, it's not completely different, it's just a hundred eighty degrees different.
MR: What do you think about that? What do you think about being a band in this environment versus when you had a different recording and marketing paradigm?
DW: I prefer it. Don't get me wrong, the record company business was terrific, but then you realized you were paying for everything a couple of years later. So that part of it wasn't that much fun. But there was something charming about a young executive being willing to lend four alcoholics half-a-million dollars to see if they could remember any of their tunes when they get to the studio. That was very decent of them. So they did have their role, but there's something clean about this that's nice. It's not all bribery and money under the table; it's pretty straightforward. I think it's a little bit like working live on the road, I'm now doing the traditional ceremony of playing, going home to the tour bus and I'm now at Wal-Mart buying myself flour, soup and a pair of dumb bells. I'm thinking of getting some of these kettle bells. They're new, aren't they? Have you ever used them?
DW: What do you think? Do you like them?
MR: You have to be very careful to do it right, otherwise you can hit yourself in a very bad spot.
DW: [laughs] I was just trying it as you said that, it's not good. I'm sticking with the regular blue ten-pounders and such. You can't do that in the back of the bus. You can't swing a cat in the back of the bus. In fact, there's a sign, "No logs in the bog and no swinging cats," or something like that.
MR: Are there rituals that you don't want to violate after all these years?
DW: There are rituals, yes, but they're all mainly to do with violation. That's why we all end up in groups. Let's cut to the chase here: Anybody in a group, anybody who works with groups, deals with groups, writes about groups or even goes to watch groups and listens to music are basically a sociopath. Something happened at a very young age that made us run to music from the awful pressures to whatever it was that was going on outside. Take all that with a pinch of salt. That's all we risk now, is a pinch of salt. We can't risk anything stronger than that now.
MR: The English Beat is considered one of the great ska bands, though your music has other influences like punk and reggae.
DW: We wanted to mix it up, you know? We wanted a punky reggae party and it came out very similar to a ska beat, sort of up-four peppy beat with an equal off beat hitting with the on beat. On this new album I'm to try to see if I can get what I originally wanted: I wanted the Velvet Underground jamming with Toots & The Maytals. That's what I wanted. I wanted the urban angst that I felt from Birmingham, but I wanted the uplifting sense of life and joy and survival from Toots & The Maytals' rhythm section. I wanted those two bands jamming together and then I would sing over the top of course like Bryan Ferry or Van Morrisson or one of those.
MR: In the United States, your music was featured in High Fidelity, Ferris Bueller's Day Off...
DW: ...and Clueless, that's the big one. "Tenderness" was in Clueless, and then you've got Gross Pointe Blank and then the Scooby Doo episode entitled "Dance Of The Undead," which is probably my greatest artistic creation to date, frankly. There are two songs in this battle of the bands and the songs are so well-matched against each other it takes Scooby Doo to come in on all fours--or the two back ones, anyway--shredding guitar to win it for the Hex Girls versus the power of the song we wrote. That was really one of my proudest moments.
MR: There's something about The English Beat meeting Scooby Doo that just seems right.
DW: I met one of the original writers who drew me a very nice picture and he told me a lot of stories about those original sessions at Hanna-Barbara in the valley, and I'm right on the same page. I knew it even as a kid, but when I checked, yep, I knew it.
MR: When you look at The English Beat now versus when you started it, what are the differences?
DW: I never guessed that I would write a song that anybody would hear other than the other people who were stupid enough to join a pop group with me. So for them to come out and for people to like the songs and it goes on for a few years and then really famous people cover your songs and it's still on the radio when it's twenty or thirty years later, it really is the greatest gift that a troubadour could ever hope for. You hope to wander round the world singing your odes or whatever they are and you hope that you touch hearts along the way. I'm honored and sort of humbled, which is weird for me. I don't get humbled that often. Only by women. They're very good at humbling me.
MR: Are any of the songs in particular that you love to play live?
DW: Yeah! Especially these last couple of weeks, because I just started talking to a producer called Dubmatix, out of Toronto. We started working up some versions from the demos and I'm just on fire with it. He's a great musician and he's got a ton of really good samples. I heard stuff while I was writing the songs and I wanted to include it to set the mood and the atmosphere. There's a song called "Said We Would Never Die," and in my head as I was singing it, I could hear a breathing machine in an ICU and I heard an old-fashioned sixties black and white English movie ambulance siren and the beep-beep of the machines, and it made an orchestra of medical emergency sounds. We've been working on that this last couple of days and he's done a fantastic job. I told him, "Black and white English movie rainy day ambulance siren" and it was just the absolute perfect one. You could almost see the film. [siren noises] "I say, sir, are you having some trouble? Tally-ho! White Hall double two, double two!"
MR: Do you feel like modern technology has actually enhanced The Beats' sound or creativity?
DW: I think it's enhanced everything. It's allowed the classic songs to get more life and breath and radio stations with wider and deeper playlists have ended up championing some of the songs. They weren't always top forty monsters at the time, IRS records hadn't really joined that game. We were college darlings and we made top two hundred on the billboard chart quite often, so we felt jealous at the time, I'll be honest, because a lot of songs that were getting that top forty push weren't as good. The massive hits rode more on the strength of their haircuts than their lyrics I thought. But anyway, you soaked it up, and the shows did well and our albums did well, but we never made any singles business. Now I feel happier with each year because I get to hear more and more of our songs on classic rock radio and I hear less and less of the ones that seemed like they were just trying it on at the time. "Wear this shirt, it should sound like this shirt." "Okay, I've got it." It just seemed a little slavish. Certainly I was jealous and now I don't feel so bad about it because our songs have prevailed and of course I got a couple of really nice mentions. I always thought I was going to have to pay somebody to say it, but they brought out a best-of box set, a very nicely done job by Shout! Factory. Rolling Stone gave it a smashing review and said, "Wittily savage as Costello." It was like, "Hello, there we go, me and Declan on the same page. Exactly. We just did a tour in England and a fellow from The Quietus magazine enjoyed the show, thank heavens, and said I was to be spoken of in the same breath as the greats of the genre; Weller, Strummer, Wakeling, which sounds like a company of accountants, doesn't it? But it had a ring to me. Weller, Strummer, Costello, Wakeling. Yeah, there you go, that's what I always thought. [laughs]
So here we are, I'm really glad that I still have both knees operating, I can still skank, I'm singing better than ever, which is remarkable, and enjoying myself on stage more than ever. The band is tighter than it's ever been, there's a really nice vibe. I just got on the bus today and everybody's thrilled because they got a big wide bunk bed instead of a narrow one, so they're all thrilled. I'm nearly at the end of my Wal-Mart ritual, I didn't really buy much, some soup, some fruit, some almonds and walnuts, a kettle, an ab-roller. I have some remedial work to do, to be honest. I stopped drinking rather abruptly last September--again. I lost an enormous amount of weight, but sadly the weight didn't send a message to my skin that it wasn't needed so I've got to work on my tummy next. it's a shame, it was just the right size when I was overweight from the beer, When I had a pot belly, the skin was just perfectly formed around it and quite soft. Now, oh dear, no. So I've given myself a challenge, frankly, there's a lot of stuff going on between now and the record coming out in February and one of the things is I'm going to get this stomach looking great or else I'm going to get it made to look great. The challenge is on, I'm going to see what I can do.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
DW: Well, you have to work on a song all night until the hairs go up on your neck. If the hairs don't go up on your neck, don't put any more time into that one. If you're going to try and write something that moves other people, you have to write something that has quite a dramatic effect on yourself. It has to give you quite a jolt when you write it, "Whoa, blimey! That's a little edgy, Dave!" Or it makes you cry or you might be crying when you write it. So it has to be loaded with emotion. You don't want to waste a word in a song, really. One bad line's enough to take away the power of the two around it. You have to weigh every word. It takes me about ten minutes to write a song and then about nine months to finish it. That can include a week, really, of wondering if something should be sung as a semi colon or a comma, and I just drive myself nuts over it. You can't sleep, you're wandering around chain-smoking, "What's the matter?" "Oh, nothing!" You don't dare tell them it's because you don't know whether to use the word "yet" or "but." [laughs] But it seems important at the time. I just think the nicest things are complicated things that come across as simple. What I really dislike is really simple things that are all tarted-up to look really complicated. That's something I think you need to do. You need to put an enormous amount of work into it to make it feel effortless. That's probably true for everything, but it's definitely true for writing a song.
MR: What does the future look like for David Wakeling and for The English Beat?
DW: I'm doing everything that I want, I can't imagine doing anything else. At the moment, I think I'm just intrigued by, "How do we make this record?" How do you make a statement that resonates with people who liked your records thirty years ago and still might but are different? And at the same time, how do you make a record that sounds like it's this year? In the same way as in 1979, I didn't want to sound like it was 1963 from Kingston, Jamaica. Now I don't want to sound like Birmingham in 1979 because I want to be from California in 2014, so that's the challenge--how to finesse that. That's keeping me excited at the moment. One of the funniest bits of songwriting is the presentation. You've got somebody who's got every sound in the world as a sample at their fingertips and they say, "Right, 1963 ambulance with a Boeing jet and two eggs frying," and he can just do that and sing over the top of it. With the more options you've got the more diligence you've got to have. With each new idea for a song, on goes the headphoens and you've got to try and feel what that part does to me whilst I'm singing it and carefully think about instrumentation. I think with this record I wanted to try and make it so the vocals and the melodies are what come straight at you and everything else is around it dramatically to support and project. I think there are some really great pop records being made at the moment that manage to do that quite well and not necessarily having a whole band going, "One, two, three, four," and everybody just starts at the beginning and stops at the end. They're going to be constructive songs that have the minimum amount of support to make it appear effortless. It's going to take an enormous amount of hard work to get to that point but we'll get it. "Let the songs lead the way," is what we normally say. "Does that make the hair go up on your neck more, or less?" If it makes the hair go up more you're probably on the right track.
MR: Nice. We talked about a lot of things, is there something we didn't cover?
DW: No, I've been busily going down the cleaning aisle and there's not much controversy there. You'll be pleased to know that Wal-Marts are starting to get a number of more organic and planetary options. I managed to get some surface wipes that are just made of lemongrass and thyme. Even at Wal-Mart they're starting to be different.
MR: Guess everything evolves.
DW: You know, apart from me, sometimes. I get stuck. But yeah, just like Huffington Post, I remember when that started I was like, "Oh, that's quite a good idea!" Now, it's like the biggest news thing in the world. It's kind of nice with all those correspondents and people being able to get involved and connect. It's a bit like this pledge thing. They're early days yet but I think it's a sign of new society. To be honest, I don't know whether we'll have a chance to see it through. Some of the naysayers would rather stand in the jolly-good circle and execute each other. Shoot some sense into each other, that's the only language some people understand. We might have to deal with that bunch, but there are some very interesting evolutionary changes going on. But my kids in California, for example, I find them very interesting because they don't refer to any of their friends by what color they are. They don't notice. It's not a point of reference now. For my parents, it was a point of reference on who you didn't speak to. "Oh, is that your black friend, then?" But now they don't notice. They're in the California sunshine so they're all kind of the same color anyway, but they don't notice. I just think that's amazing. You sit in and listen sometimes, and the contents of their character is more important than the color of their skin. That's how teenagers are now in America, that's evolution.
MR: It's a great thing. It seems like the people who will just go down swinging on stuff like that are people who were born in a certain era and they've seemed to all gravitated to these paranoid, fringe associations.
DW: I think you're right. But things are moving generally in the right direction, though like you say, some people are afraid of social change. Most often, they're people who have been brainwashed by their parents in one way or the other. I think they're fascinating times and thank heavens we've got stuff like Pledge Music and stuff like Huffington Post and all sorts of different ways now to share and create information, which I think is all for the good. I'm pleasantly excited. And I'm pleased that I've done a very specific Wal-Mart run. I haven't bought any junk food. I used to have somebody come to Wal-Mart with me and we always used to end up with four hundred bucks worth of junk food, but I haven't got any junk food at all tonight, I've got fruit and nuts and healthy organic soups, I even bought a box of green tea but we'll see about that. Only if all the rest of the tea and the coffee's run out. But no, we're going to try it, come on.
MR: I wish you luck with everything. The album's coming in February?
DW: Yes, but if you go onto the pledge site we're going to start putting up demos of the songs and lyrics of the songs and we'll be showing little bits from the studio. From now, anybody who wants to pledge to buy the album or any of the other fancy prizes get to watch an inside scoop as it were on the making of the record and the demos and even interviews.
MR: This has been wonderful. I really appreciate your time, and let's chat again in February when the album comes out!
DW: That would be great, man! It's going to come out ostensibly the seventeenth, which is equidistant between my birthday on the nineteenth and Valentine's on the fourteenth. I thought that was an auspicious week, so that's what we're aiming for. Who knows when it really comes out? When it's done. That's the plan, some time around then.
MR: Thank you so much for your time, Dave!
DW: Absolutely perfect timing, all the stuff's being put into the Wal-Mart bag. That was good, I managed to do all my shopping and I spoke to a very nice fellow who contributes to one of the most powerful news media organizations in the world. You get to do some good things when you're a singer.
MR: Oh, you...
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Leela James
Mike Ragogna: Leela, how did your stint as a star on TV One's RnBDivas LA come about?
Leela James: My experience doing the RnBDivas L.A. show was great, challenging, unexpected. I figured I knew what to expect, and I didn't. Without giving up too much, let's just say I look forward to it airing.
MR: Just how cool are Chante Moore, Lil' Mo, Michel'le and Claudette Ortiz to work with?
LJ: For the most part it was cool working with everyone on the show.
MR: You received the 2008 Soul Train Music Award for Best R&B/Soul or Rap Artist of 2008. In 2014, what do you think "R&B" and "Soul" mean these days?
LJ: Soul music, however cliché this might sound, is really just music that comes from the soul, and is meant for the soul. To me, soul music is the same today as it was yesterday; soul music doesn't change, the people that sing it changes.
MR: Does the "reality" element of the show stay pretty real or does it rely pretty equally on scripted dramas, etc., you know, the way virtually every other reality show exists?
LJ: Every reality show is different, and I can only speak to my experience doing RnBDivas. I can tell you it's real.
MR: Your latest video for your hit "Say That" features Anthony Hamilton. How did this come together?
LJ: Anthony Hamilton and I always talked about working together over the years, and this time things just fell into place and we were able to make it happen. So much in the music world--and I guess in the world in general--is timing.
MR: Your last album was a tribute to Etta James, and you were called "Baby Etta" as a child. How were you originally introduced to her music and just how inspirational was she to your creative growth and who are some of your other influences?
LJ: Fortunately, I was exposed to all kinds of music growing up, and Etta James stood out as one of my favorite artists. I was inspired by the sound of her strong voice, I remember it hitting me like a wave.
MR: What was the tipping point where you made the decision you had to be a musical artist full time?
LJ: I decided I wanted to be an artist full time the day I got a standing ovation as child after singing at talent show. The look in the eyes of the people applauding for me made we want to continue singing for as long as I could.
MR: Does the "acting" portion of the TV show put any kind of surprising demands on you?
LJ: Trying to balance the TV world with my music world was the only challenge for me. In TV, the schedules are strict and the hours are long, and you're not always allowed to be the creative one. Sometimes, you just follow directions. What's interesting is that on television there is no real sense of impending reward; In music, the hours are crazy as well but there is instant gratification when you perform at the end of the day.
MR: Leela, what advice do you have for new artists?
LJ: I would advise new artists to simply try and perfect their craft. Keep working, keep writing, keep training. Also, when they are ready for it, acquire a strong team.
MR: Is there anything creatively that you're thinking of experimenting with in the near future and when is your new album coming?
LJ: You'll just have to wait and see! My new album Fall For You will be available July 8!
SIN COS TAN'S "LOVE SEES NO COLOUR"
Sin Cos Tan is the musical partnership of producer-DJ Jori Hulkkonen--Pet Shop Boys´Chris Lowe, Jose Gonzalez and Tiga--and Juho Paalosmaa, songwriter and vocalist from the group Villa Nah. They make upbeat pop music that features spiraling synths and catchy lyrics. The band's forthcoming album Blown Away - an album about a middle-aged American whose life takes a 180 after joining a Mexican drug cartel - is out in August.
Jori Hulkkonen from Sin Cos Tan says, "When we were writing the songs for the album, I tried to turn all my 'safeties off,' so to speak; there's no such thing as 'too uplifting' or 'too big' when it comes to a chorus. With 'Love Sees No Colour,' we wanted to write a feel-good song that would work as a stand alone single for the summer, but when in the context of the album, the slightly darker twist would be more obvious."
Follow Mike Ragogna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ragz2008