A Conversation with Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard
Mike Ragogna: Ben, what was your approach in creating the songs and recording your new album Codes And Keys?
Ben Gibbard: Well, our kind of "m.o." as we're making records seems to be pretty similar from record to record. I kind of seclude myself from the band for a month, or we're off--not touring or doing band activities--and I try to write as much as I possibly can. Chris (Walla) has also contributed some music as well. But I just kind of write as many songs as I can, really, and then we all meet up in the studio and go down the list of songs and try to tie things together. We see which songs maybe flow into each other, and also, primarily, which songs everybody likes, what songs people are inspired by. As we start recording, we start with the songs we all agree on and slowly, the record kind of shows itself to us. We never go into an album with a manifesto of, "This is what this record's going to be about and here's how we're going to present it." It tends to just be a very organic process.
MR: I imagine you feel a close connection with the songs on this album.
BG: Absolutely. I tend to think, whenever we finish a record, that the reason we've all agreed on recording all these songs and sequenced them in the fashion that we have is because they all mean a lot to us.
MR: Any track that you're closest to?
BG: I think probably the title track, "Codes And Keys," is one of the songs that is very close to me. I'm very proud of how it turned out. It's one of the lyrics on the record that I'm the most proud of, and I think that over the course of its three or so minutes, it kind of takes a nice little lyrical journey, so to speak. It starts out a little nervous and ends in this very anthemic, uplifting out-chorus of sorts. It's a song I feel very close to.
MR: I know what you mean about it feeling resolved by the end.
BG: Yeah, and it's nice to have a song that opens up kind of nervous and you're not sure where it's going, and by the end of it, it's solved its own question.
MR: What's the story behind that one?
BG: There's not a particular story. I think in the past, when I've been writing songs, I've had a very specific event in mind to such an extent that the event is referenced in the song or that a particular song on one of the older records exists in a very specific time and place, either in my life or in the fictitious, kind of pastiche of life that I surround myself with. One thing that I'm kind of fond of in a number of these songs is that I feel the details are very specific--the emotional details and touchstones are very specific, but the song doesn't exist within a particular event. I feel that somebody can listen to the song and place it in their life and kind of interpret it in a way that fits them more specifically, because the song isn't placing itself in a particular location by referencing that location.
MR: Do you find that ends up being the case, in general, for Death Cab For Cutie's material?
BG: Well, I think that as I've continued to write songs, I think that I've always been at the whim of my own--I don't know what the right term is--but I've always been within my own specific world as far as like, "These are the things I want to accomplish in this particular time and place." Going back to the first couple records, there was a very specific agenda that I had and what I wanted to write about and how I wanted to present it. That was a reflection of the person I was at 21 and the kind of writers that I was really admiring at that time--and still do--and really wanted to emulate at that time. As I've gotten older and you hear more music, you read more writers, and what you want from yourself kind of morphs and changes. My writing has also changed and morphed along the way. So, it's really just a function of being a living, breathing human being who is at the mercy of an ever-changing sphere of influence.
MR: You can hear it in the songs. I just wanted to tell you that I think the title for the album is perfect because of its metaphors and what's going on in the lyrics. You have to be paying a little attention for those codes and keys.
BG: Thank you, I appreciate you saying that. To take it even a step further, I think that the title of the album and the song is very much open to an interpretation that can be anything--from something as intellectual as what you just said down to the codes of language we use with people who we've known for a long time, like our loved ones, our spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends, whatever. We all have those secret languages that we speak with the people who are closest to us, so that if a stranger comes into the room and all they hear is a series of non-sequiturs, the two people are talking or relating to each other. They're speaking in their own secret code. There are also "keys"--the metaphorical keys and the physical keys--that unlock the doors, the physical doors and also the doors for ourselves that facilitate communication amongst people. It can be interpreted any number of ways, which is something that I really like.
MR: Do you feel that you took anything into this new project from your work with Jay Farrar on the film about Jack Kerouac, One Fast Move Or I'm Gone?
BG: I have many criticisms of myself, but if there is one that I continue to come back to, it's that I feel there are times that I can get too precious about things. I can get too precious about how a guitar sounds or how people are going to feel about a particular song or this and that, and one thing that was so impressive to me about how Jay worked was that he's just a journeyman's songwriter. When he's writing, he's writing from a very real place. He's kind of trying to focus his emotions to accomplish a particular goal. But at the same time, when it's over, it's over, and he moves on to the next one. That was really eye-opening to me. It was really inspiring to see him be writing and recording and seeing that he certainly, obviously, cares very much about what he's doing. But at the same time, he wasn't precious about it. I feel that it's an important distinction that I've had a hard time making over the years--that you can have intent and you can take what you do seriously, but you can also be too precious about that. It's important to remove the preciousness from the process without losing how important it is to you. I think sometimes people equate preciousness and importance.
MR: Nicely said. So, what advice would you have for new artists at this point?
BG: Well, we were just on tour with a band, and they're kind of a new band. I was talking with the songwriter, and they're struggling with that whole thing that artists tend to struggle with when they first get recognition in the sense that they're concerned that any level of success--or not even success, but just not starving--is going to adversely affect their work, as if their creativity was completely tied into the fact that they have to wash dishes at an Applebee's or whatever for a job. And one point that I always want to stress to people who are certainly younger musicians or artists. Whatever it is, your creativity comes from within who you are, your creativity is not going to go away because your life changes. It's going to morph and reflect who you are and who you are continuing to be. As I was talking to this gentleman, I was like, "Listen. You're a great songwriter. You're going to be a great songwriter if you can make your rent playing music. It's not going to go away because you no longer have to work minimum wage jobs so that you buy guitar strings. It's not going to go away." I think that we've bought into this myth about the "starving artist" to such an extent that people question their own creativity at times. That's just kind of unfortunate.
MR: Ben, there is so much more I'd love to talk with you about. But for now, best of luck on Codes And Keys. It's always nice talking with you, sir.
BG: It's nice talking to you as well and thank you for having me.
1. Home Is A Fire
2. Codes And Keys
3. Some Boys
4. Doors Unlocked And Open
5. You Are A Tourist
6. Unobstructed Views
7. Monday Morning
8. Portable Television
9. Underneath The Sycamore
10. St. Peter's Cathedral
11. Stay Young, Go Dancing
Transcribed by Claire Wellin
A Conversation with Mac Gayden
Mike Ragogna: Mac, you co-wrote the classic song "Everlasting Love," but you also are known for playing on Dylan's Blonde On Blonde sessions, so let's go there first. How did you get associated with that Bob Dylan classic?
Mac Gayden: There was a group of us in Nashville who played in a weekend band called Charlie McCoy and the Escorts. Charlie McCoy was one of the most famous harmonica players that ever lived. He played on "Candy Man" with Roy Orbison. It was his first big hit to play on when he came to Nashville, he played like 26 instruments. He had this band on the weekend that he asked me to join. One of the things that happened with that was he would hire a lot of musicians for sessions, so we played on a lot of really famous albums. Much like Standing In The Shadows of Motown and The Funk Brothers, we were doing things in Nashville not equally as popular. So, Charlie hired all the band members for that band to play behind Dylan on Blonde On Blonde with the exception of Al Cooper and Robbie Robertson who came down with Dylan when he came down.
MR: Were parts overdubbed or did everyone play as a band?
MG: There were some overdubs, like on "Rainy Day Woman...," they did some overdubs. They added the crowd sound in there. That was one of songs that had to be done that way because of the way the song was set up.
MR: How were the basic tracks approached
MG: All the basic tracks were done live.
MR: Okay, what was the story of your hit "Everlasting Love"?
MG: One night we were playing at the Phi Delta house. We were on a break and we went out on the break with the band. We were sitting around talking and I heard this voice in the distance down the street at the Kappa Sig house. I said, "I love this guy's voice, I'm going to go down and meet him I think I could write a hit song for him." We had ten or fifteen minutes to get on and they told me to get back because we didn't have long. They all kind of laughed at me. I go down and give Robert Knight my card. I said a few things to him and he basically looked at me like get out of my face. I told him I thought I could write a really good song for him. I didn't say "hit," I said we could do something in the studio. Anyway he wouldn't return my call, so I had to go through his aunt to get through to him. We went in and cut an entire album. "Everlasting Love" was actually a throwaway song, it wasn't going to be cut, but we had thirty minutes left on the session so we cut it. We did it very last minute.
MR: It's always nice when someone's biggest hit was an afterthought.
MG: I've seen that happen quite a few times. In the project that I'm doing now with the girls I'm producing, Sweetwater Rose, they had finished the album and after that, we all wrote the best song on the album. So, that happens every now and then. You sometimes feel there's something missing in the project and I've seen a lot of other artists do that. They are under pressure and they write their best tune. Jimmy Buffet had that kind of story with "Margaritaville."
MR: And, of course, "Everlasting Love" has had some great covers, especially by U2. Wasn't it also supposed to be featured in the film America's Sweetheart?
MG: Let me tell you the story behind that. It was actually in the trailer. They didn't put it in the movie because U2 was charging so much money for its use, they could only use it in the trailer. The checks that the two writers and the publishers got for that, EMI said, were the biggest checks they've ever seen for trailer usage. It wasn't in the movie, and I took my friends to the movie thinking we were going to hear it in the movie and it wasn't in there.
MR: However, it was in Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason, right?
MG: Yeah, it was in there twice. Jamie Cullum, an artist from Europe who's a piano player, had a version of it that was a big hit. Also, there was a version back in '65 or '66 by The Love Affair, which was kind of like The Association. The London Symphony played on part of the record, so some of the scenes in Bridget Jones used some of the parts where the London Symphony is playing instrumentally.
MR: After the Dylan sessions, you began an association with Bob Johnson that resulted in your first solo album, and it came out on EMI around the world
MG: It came out on EMI only in Europe because there was a big fight while I was in the Barefoot Jerry group because I started it. The agreement when I started it was that I would do my own solo projects, while Barefoot Jerry started taking off as a group. I asked the label, "When am I going to be able to do my solo album?" and they discouraged me from doing it. So, at that same time The Beatles were having a battle with Capitol in America over the Apple label, they fired everybody on the label. When I asked to do that project, nobody had ever heard of that agreement. We didn't have it in writing, so they said, "What are you talking about?" EMI in Europe was aware of the agreement and Bob Johnson heard about it and one day said let's go in and cut your album. That's how it came about.
MR: Speaking of Barefoot Jerry, how did it form and what was your roll in all of that?
MG: In the song "The South's Going To Do It Again" by Charlie Daniels, he mentions Barefoot Jerry. That group formed out of the band Area Code 615, which was an instrumental country group from Nashville, it was a bunch of session players. They didn't want to tour even though they were receiving huge popularity in Europe, and they were one of The Beatles' most favorite groups of all time. So, three of us out of that group--and Dr. John Harris out of Nashville--formed the group Barefoot Jerry. I came up with the name, the concept, and started it. It was one of the first southern rock groups, and it had a special influence on Nashville music.
MR: You also have major associations with J.J. Cale? You were on Crazy Mama right?
MG: During the days when I was with Barefoot Jerry, I was playing on demos with this guy named John Cale--they called him that back then. He was writing for a company in Nashville and I would occasionally go over and do demos with him. One day, he was in the demo studio and he had this drum machine. He put down this track with a Jimmy Reed feel--that drum machine is actually on the record. He called me and was finishing the tracks, so I go out but I'm running a hundred and four degree temperature or something like that and I'm not feeling good. I go in and tell him I'm not feeling well so lets get this thing done. I set up and I put the earphones on and I run through the song and 5 minutes later, I tried to sit down and they said go home. That was a first take.
MR: Nice, Mac. Okay, time to tell the story of when you played with Elvis.
MG: Elvis was there when I overdubbed. Felton Jarvis, his producer, called me up. I had been playing on a lot of RCA Victor albums at the time. So, they called me up and had me come in and put a slide guitar on one of Elvis's songs. I don't even know the name of the song. It was a hit, but it wasn't one of Elvis's best songs.
MR: Was it bloated Elvis?
MG: Yeah, it was the period where he lost the eye of the tiger, so to speak.
MR: (laughs) What about Ray Charles?
MG: Yeah, I played with him on Hee Haw, of all shows. Ray had never heard a white slide guitar player, and he heard me in the corner playing and said, "Oh, I like that." He kept commenting on it, but they would never let me put slide on any of the live cuts on Hee Haw because they thought it was to rock 'n' roll, which it wasn't, but they thought it was back then. Ray liked it, so everybody went to lunch--there were about forty people on the sound stage that day. I brought a sandwich because I was a vegetarian. I was sitting down and eating and Ray stayed. The guy that took care of him and watched out for him brought in a giant bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and we sat down for a whole hour and talked. I knew a lot about Ray and knew a lot about his discography--about who played on what--and I asked him a lot of questions about that stuff. Ray was extremely friendly and kind, and an amazing musician to be around. When he sits down at the piano, it's just shocking the way everybody in the studio felt as soon as he walked in.
MR: That's what I heard...once he entered a studio, all heads turned.
MG: Yeah, it's like the king has arrived.
MR: I'm just going to throw out some names because I know you have great stories behind them. Linda Ronstadt.
MG: Yeah, I cut the Silk Purse album with her. She came to Nashville and wanted to cut some stuff with the 615 people. So, we've done that, and she was shooting some TV shows in town. She was really not a household name at that particular time. We had a great time in the studio together, and at the time, I turned her on to Smokey Robinson because in between takes, we would play these different Smokey Robinson tunes. She kept asking who that was, and we would say it was Smokey. We played her "Ooh Baby Baby" and "Tracks Of My Tears." We also turned her on to "Heat Wave," and I think she had a version of that. The thing about Linda is she is a genius when it comes to picking up on subtlety when you're talking in a room. She knows who played on what record, that kind of thing. That was the certain genius she had, she paid attention to all of the peripheral stuff.
MR: You all knew who played on each others records because it was such an admiration club, right?
MG: That was our language. The interest in other players and angles to express what was going on at the time and that's how we spoke. We didn't waste a lot of time on meaningless conversations back then.
MR: Cool. Okay, Loudon Wainwright.
MG: I play on the "Dead Skunk In The Middle Of The Road" album (aka Album III). I played on the album, but not on that song. I remember Charlie Daniels played on those sessions with me. I was playing on the wah slide stuff, and Charlie turned to me and said, "You've got the J.J. Cale style down really good." He didn't know that I played on Crazy Mama. He called me six months later and said "Hey Mac, I'm sorry."
MR: Ian And Sylvia?
MG: Yeah, Ian And Sylvia. We cut at Woodland Studio, along with Jerry Jeff Walker stuff. I'm thinking of the fiddle player from New York, David Mansfield. I remember him being with Jerry Jeff at the time.
MR: Did you play with his Lost Gonzo Band?
MG: No, I didn't. But Ian & Sylvia were incredibly creative from Canada. They were really sweet in the studio.
MR: Speaking of Ian & Sylvia, I remember Cashman & West produced Ian & Sylvia's song "Four Strong Winds" with Jim Dawson in the mid-'70s and it was really breathtaking, just incredible. I know people who are kicking themselves to this day because that song wasn't a hit, and it had one of the most beautiful uses of a Fender Rhodes ever recorded. But as always, it has to have the right timing and promotion or it just won't work, especially true in those days.
MG: That's right. One time, I was griping about the music business with J.J. Cale when he was in town--we were just sitting around talking and having some tea together. I was in a period where I was down on the music business and he said, "It's in the song don't you remember?" If you write the right song or pick the right song to record, it blows all of the doors down.
MR: I remember our mutual publisher, MTM's Meredith Stewart, thought you were the one of best songwriters we had signed.
MG: Yeah, I started getting cuts at MTM after I left, and actually, Sweetwater Rose cut one of the songs I wrote with them.
MR: What's the name of the song?
MG: "Silver Eagle Blue," it's now a BMG song?
MR: No, BMG's publishing division--that bought MTM--was bought out by Universal.
MG: So, they have that song now and it's on their album.
MR: Plus you've worked with John Hiatt.
MG: Yeah, I met John when he first came to Nashville. I introduced him to the Exit In folks and he started playing. That was his first forum that he played in Nashville, along with Jimmy Buffett. He started playing there and kind of got a following. John didn't really happen in Nashville though. Nashville was not supportive of him at all, he had to go to L.A. to get support.
MR: And, basically, he just said to hell with it and had Bug Music publishing his songs. I always admired him for that, and they were such a feisty little publishing company.
MG: A lot of folks have been overshadowed by Nashville. It's not a snob thing, they aren't turning their face away from anything that's non-country. They are so busy with their reputation as the country music capitol of the world, and sometimes, they are just short sighted.
MR: Everybody knew how good everyone was in town, but not everyone could have a signing.
MG: They couldn't accommodate the non-country stuff, so those people fell through the cracks. John was a lucky one that he could get out of there, but now it's just the opposite. We have probably the hottest group in the world now with Kings Of Leon...Kings Of Leon, Paramore, and Ke$ha are from here. It's amazing what's happening in Nashville now, it's starting to explode I think.
MR: So, let's talk about Sweetwater Rose...something about a dream?'
MG: My wife Diane woke up in the middle of the night one night and said, "I want to start an all female, West Coast sounding, Crosby, Stills & Nash-type group." So, of course, I looked at her like, "What are you talking about, go back to sleep." Two days later, we held an audition and we auditioned several girls. When the three girls that are in the group now got up to sing together, they all sounded different. We wanted something a little bit different from the cookie cutter type of thing that's happening out in Nashville. I hate to say Disney, but that kind of gives you a reference point.
MR: Is there a certain Gayden in this act?
MG: Sheena, my daughter? No she's not in it, she didn't want to be in it.
MR: You offered it to her and she said no?
MG: She said no to stay in the indie sound alternative side of things.
MR: How is she doing? What's going on with her?
MG: She's doing great, she has an album with twenty songs to choose from. They're really right down the middle indie-sounding, and I think they will be really successful. Not just because she's my daughter, because she has a voice that transcends the obstacles that most people have to face. I've been in the studio for the last year, and now I'm coming up to the surface to deliver whatever music and creativity. The song we cut with Sweetwater Rose that was the one we cut at the end of the record is probably going to be the single. It's called "Magnolia High." You know the magnolia trees, right?
MG: Some people don't because it grows in the southern part of the United States more then in other places. It's all about Spring and Summer. One time, I was cutting a Tammy Wynette album in the middle of July when it was about a hundred degrees outside.
MR: What's the Tammy Wynette story?
MG: Tammy wasn't there. I was around her some but she was on tour. She had gotten with Billy Sherrill and they had worked out all of the keys. So, we were working in the middle of July, a whole album. She came in and overdubbed her vocals on all of the Christmas songs. I think that was the only record I played on of hers. The memory gets cloudy from those days, I played on some people's records that I don't even remember playing on.
MR: Well, you're an in-demand session player.
MG: I'm not to this day because everything sounds cookie cutter coming out of Nashville. They have the same people playing on every record, everything is drawn up now to save money and cut corners, so they have their friends and people out of the groups they are cutting. There are so many good players around here now. There are probably more efficient players than there has ever been in any place ever. Even in East Nashville where most of them live, in the middle of the night, you can call and get some of the best players you've ever heard. These guys are just willing to come in at three o'clock in the morning. You just can't believe how many great players are here.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
MG: Persistence is the whole thing, don't give up. Even if nothing ever happens, don't give up. If somebody in the music business gives up, it opens a slot for you. It doesn't mean you have to make it in the music business. It's a lifelong dedication to music and it's the way you're put together. I don't think most young artists even look at that. The whole psychology of artists in America is skewed by things like American Idol. It's unfortunately in a bad way because people don't think they can make it unless they get a break on American Idol. I just had an artist that I worked with and she just got cut after the first two levels, and she is devastated. She has a tremendous amount of talent. She wasn't accepted by the panel, but it doesn't make her less of an artist.
MR: The thing about American Idol is that it's purely "entertainment," and I don't think there's anything as blatantly on that mission out there. The artistry is going to come from what you feel when you're performing and creating it.
MG: In the very beginning, people said, "Do you think Bob Dylan could make it if he was on American Idol." Look, what we are missing out on, all of those great artists that don't fit a certain mode. It's basically bogus. There are all kinds of deals going on behind the scenes and everybody in the music business knows that. Americans are watching it saying, "Oh, I love this person," or "I love this other person." A lot of times, these people are not nearly as good as these people that would try out for American Idol. Just get out of that kind of thinking. American Idol shouldn't be a part of your thing, it should be something legitimate.
Nirvana Blues Tracks:
1. Crazy Mama
2. Freedom Road
3. Shake Something Loose
4. Love Is a Poor Boy's Gold
5. Nirvana Blues
6. Morning Glory
7. Caney Fork River Daze
8. Black Like Me
9. Goin Down the Road
10. Reconsider Me
13. Preacher Row
14. Rebel Wings
Skyboat Tracks (CD1):
1. Morning Glory
4. Everlasting Love
5. Freedom Drum
6. Don't Look Back
7. It's All Right
8. Sweet Serenity
9. Appalachian Fever
11. Diamond Mandala
12. Sunfall - bonus track
Hymn To The Seeker Tracks (CD 2):
1. Rejoice The Dawn
2. Steppin' Stone
3. Someone Whispered
4. Standing In The Background
5. Life Is Just A Pantomime
6. Here We Meet Again
7. To Our Ancestors
8. Colours Of The Rainbow
9. The Minstrel Is Free At Last
10. Hymn To The Seeker
11. If I Could I'd Set You Free
Transcribed by Erika Richards
A Conversation with Mike Batt
Mike Ragogna: Hi Mike, let's chat about your The Hunting Of The Snark reissue.
Mike Batt: My pleasure, Mike. Well, I should point out, and I'm sure you already know this, but "The Hunting Of The Snark" was originally written as a poem by Lewis Carroll. I merely took the poem many years later and used it as the basic inspiration for my project. I quoted it with actors, Sir John Gielgud and John Hurt, alternately between each track so that my piece contained some of Lewis Carroll's work. All of the music and lyrics were newly-written by me, and I consider them to be illustrative lyrics which somehow get the original spirit of the poem without directly quoting it.
MR: That's great. Let's cut to the chase here--what is a "Snark"?
MB: That was a question that Lewis Carroll was asked quite frequently, and he said that he didn't know but that the best interpretation he had heard was from a lady who said that she thought a Snark represents the pursuit of happiness. That was the description he liked the best. Each character on the adventure--and there are originally 10--has a name that begins with the letter "B"...The Baker, The Butcher, and so on. They get aboard a ship in search of the Snark. The way I've treated it, my album consists of about half the material that is in the stage version, which we created in England, but you still get the same basic story from both. So, all of them embark on this journey in search of the Snark and, in my mind, each of them has a different idea of what they're searching for. The Banker is looking for money, and so on. The Bellman and The Baker are the two protagonists of the piece, The Bellman in particular because he is marching through life with no perception of danger existing and consequently don't come into contact with any. For instance, he was marching through a jungle and the snakes and other predators would get out of his way. The Baker, who is in my opinion the other protagonist, recounts the story that his uncle told him, that if the meets a Snark, that's fine, but if he meets a Boojum Snark (another kind of Snark), he would vanish away and never be heard of again. Everyone else on the journey is surprised to hear about a Boojum Snark, but The Baker is the most fearful and turns out to be the one that actually finds the Snark. Though, when he finds it, all he says is that "it's a Boo..." which of course we take to mean that he found the Boojum Snark. Which reminds me that I should mention that this is a nonsensical piece on a very interpretive level, but it is funny nonetheless. John Lennon was a great admirer of Lewis Carroll and his work and based a great deal of his work on Lewis Carroll's writing.
MR: That's right. What do you feel the main message of this particular piece is?
MB: Well, I think there was a very general and open message that's not hidden at all in the poem, which I hope I've accurately translated into my piece and that is that everything is different based on the person observing it--meaning and perception are in the eyes of the beholder. Ten people can look at the very same thing and see ten very different things, and I think that's what the poem is all about.
MR: Nicely put. Let's talk about all the talented people you got to participate in this project. How did you assemble this batch?
MB: Well, I discovered as I was putting this cast together that my presumption about the project was correct--if I could get one or two big stars, that each consequent star would be easier to get. (laughs) The reason being that no star wants to be the one carrying the project. So if someone asks, say, Bruce Springsteen to sing on a project where he would be the only star, it's less likely that he would say yes. However, if he knew that Barack Obama was going to be singing a solo in it as well, he'd be more likely to say yes. (laughs) I was already working with Art Garfunkel. I had had a big hit with him with a song called "Bright Eyes," which was a hit big hit everywhere but America. But to have someone like him who was not only a massive star, but a fantastic singer, already in the studio working on "Bright Eyes," I figured that he was not only the biggest person that I could ask, he was also the nearest. So, one night I asked him if he would be willing to lend his voice for one of the songs and he said "Well, let me hear it." When he heard it, he liked it and agreed to do it. Then, I was able to call Sir John Gielgud's agent and say that we were doing this project with Art Garfunkel and the London Symphony Orchestra and ask if he would be interested in joining and he was. I mean, we are only talking about a day's work, so it wasn't that big of a time or financial commitment, which is great because I had to keep a close eye on the budget.
That was all back in '83 or '84. Those two artists served as my bits of bait to others, so that when I went to Roger Daltrey who is a big star in England and Deniece Williams and others, they realized that this would be a fun project because it was a fun project where everyone could shine. It wasn't just a one-person project. Simply, the fact that Lewis Carroll wrote 10 characters meant that there was something different for everyone. My percussionist, Ray Cooper, who is a well known percussionist having worked with Sir Elton John among others, knew George Harrison and ran the film company that made all of the Monty Python films. One day I asked Ray if he might play some of the tracks for George because I really wanted him to be a part of it and about two days later Ray rang me back and said that George would love for me to come up to his house so that we could lay the track down in his recording studio. So, it was sort of like magic--it all just kind of fell into place.
MR: Nice. On the other hand, because of your incredible career and all of the great work you've done--including all of your solo albums with the London Symphony Orchestra--it should have been no surprise to people that this was going to be a pretty ambitious project, no?
MB: Well, I don't want to put myself on the same level as Art Garfunkel, who has had massive success all over the world including the US. But success as an artist and a songwriter has generally eluded me in America, with some exceptions. I wouldn't expect my name to be a magnet for people in the States at the moment or at any time, really.
MR: And this was quite a landmark record overseas.
MB: Yes, indeed, and I'm releasing it on my own record label now. I started my own record company about seven years ago and it's one of the most successful independent labels in Europe and the world. We've got an office in New York, but we haven't really started properly in the United States yet. This record is one of our few releases--we don't have that many yet, but it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. I've got to say, this record was made way back in the '80s and being an orchestral arranger, conductor and composer, I made it my business to learn as much as I could about conducting and arranging. Although, if you put me down at a piano, I will play the blues more naturally than anything else. That's my genre, really. I was brought up on The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Lovin' Spoonful--I could go on forever. But my real life's passion is to make an orchestra sound good.
MR: You did the orchestrations for the movie Watership Down, didn't you?
MB: I actually scored the "Bright Eyes" song for it. I did do some scoring for it, but it wasn't the main score. I was a bit disappointed when I wasn't asked to do that score, because as a young composer, that would have been a great feather in my cap. But, yes, I have scored quite a number of films and I'd love to do more. So, if there are any directors out there who are wondering who to use to score their next epic movie, they can call you and get my info. (laughs)
MR: Nice, 15% for me. (laughs)
MB: I am, however, very busy and very expensive. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) That's great. Now, let's talk a little about the DVD component of this new release. It's the Royal Albert Hall performance, right?
MB: Yeah. The DVD is a subsequent performance at the Royal Albert Hall, where Justin Hayward, who is a friend of mine, fills in for Art Garfunkel, and Billy Connelly stood in for Cliff Richard. So, with one or two substitutions, we put on a costumed concert with the London Symphony Orchestra all dressed up as sailors. It was a royal benefit in aid of a charity, which is the only way you can really get a big cast like that out for a live show. Unless, of course, you've got the money to throw away. (laughs)
MR: You also produced one of Justin Hayward's albums.
MB: I did. He and I also made an album together called Classic Blue. It is just an orchestra and voice, no rhythm section. That is such a great way to present a singer. I mean the voice, then, has so much space and the orchestra can be heard as well. I love working with rhythm sections in my everyday music, but I like to set myself a discipline in arrangements where the rhythm has to come from within the internal movement of the parts and the voice just sits within it. We made an album with Justin that was quite successful. We did songs we both loved like "Blackbird" by Paul McCartney, "MacArthur Park" by Jimmy Webb--things like that where we could let the orchestra riff for a while and show a bit of muscle. We also did more lyrical songs like "God Only Knows" by The Beach Boys, so it was great. It was an album of covers, which we felt we could do in a way that would make them Justin's own as a singer and I could have some fun with the orchestra.
MR: You've also, as you already mentioned, worked with some really great artists like Cliff Richard, right?
MB: Oh, yeah. Cliff is just a wonderful technician when it comes to singing. If you say to him, "On the syllable of that word, do you think you could put a tiny bit more vibrato?" he'll just do it. It's also something that Sir John Gielgud had--not so much that ability, but more of a willingness to take direction. I think that comes from an artist who is very aware of his own ability and wasn't affected by some young record producer telling him how to sing.
MR: Mike, with all of your experience and history in the music business, do you have any advice for new artists?
MB: Well, the old adage about it being only part inspiration and a great deal of perspiration really has a lot to do with it. You can't really ever tell how good you are or are not going to get, but the main tools you need are ambition and resilience. Without making yourself a complete pain in the butt, you have to have faith and keep going. That, to me, is the most important thing. You also have to be sincere rather than cynical. If you just want to get into this business to make a lot of money, you're unlikely to succeed. And if they do succeed, they won't have had nearly as good a time as those people who have a sincere passion about music and art.
MR: Very, very nice. I really do appreciate your time. I hope we can do this again sometime.
MB: Yeah, that would be great. And one day, I hope to bring a performance of The Hunting Of The Snark and see what Americans make of it in the flesh. (laughs)
2. Children Of The Sky - Mike Batt
3. The Bellman's Speech - Cliff Richard
4. The Escapade - Cliff Richard & Deniece Williams
5. Midnight Smoke - Julian Lennon
6. The Snooker Song - Captain Sensible
7. The Pig Must Die - Roger Daltrey
8. The Beaver's Lesson - Art Garfunkel & Deniece Williams
9. A Delicate Combination - Art Garfunkel & Deniece Williams
10. As Long As The Moon Can Shine Art Garfunkel
11. Dancing Towards Disaster - Deniece Williams
12 The Vanishing - Julian Lennon, Maggie Reilly & Mike Batt
Transcribed by: Evan Tyrone Martin