A Conversation with Yo-Yo Ma
Mike Ragogna: Hey Yo-Yo, how are you?
Yo-Yo Ma: I'm okay, how are you?
MR: I'm fine, and thank you again for allowing me to interrogate you about your latest.
YYM: Thank you. Is the light shining in my eyes? Is the interrogations going to be painful? Is there any waterboarding involved?
MR: [laughs] No, not this time. And that bright light shining in your eyes? That's just your own consciousness flowing.
YYM: Oh my goodness, that's the worst kind of interrogation. That's really tough.
MR: [laughs] Let's talk about The Silk Road Ensemble with Mr. Yo-Yo Ma. The gang has a new album A Playlist Without Borders, and I think the concept is awesome. And you have been entangled--we'll get to your Tanglewood DVD in a moment--with this group for a long time now.
YYM: Well, I'm guilty.
MR: Another successful interrogation.
YYM: I just want to spare myself the pain, so I'm declaring myself totally guilty as charged and I hope that which will be forthcoming will not be so devastating that it will prevent me from pursuing my nefarious activities for the next number of years.
MR: Nah, your nefarious activities ain't so nefarious, Yo.
YYM: [laughs] I'm guilty as charged because I think I probably became obsessed with thinking about it to the point that friends finally got together and said, "Okay...we're going to gather a whole bunch of people together to talk about it for a couple of days and at the end of the fever, either you will drop it or we will join you and go on." So that was what happened in 1998 and in the two years after that, we gathered people. We were scouting for talent over all of the various regions who knew the areas and presenters who signed on to present what we gathered--musicians and composers--and got together in a gorgeous spot in Tanglewood, Massachusetts, home of The Boston Symphony Festival and home of a lot of new music. That's how the group was born, and the idea fifteen years later is that in getting together so many different people from different traditions, how do you work together, how do you eat together when you have so many people who eat different types of food and have different languages and habits. I think, as in joining the army fifty years ago, you just make things happen. The baseline is, "We're going to make things happen." What was interesting is that it's not just the smartest person, the most virtuosic person, the most talented person; it's more like that mixed with great generosity and compassion and sharing, so a system of values kind of emerged. Those values are what actually makes this group kind of stick together. So chief amongst the values is generosity, but within that world, you have words like collaboration, flexible thinking, imagination, leading all to innovation.
MR: A real nurturing process.
YYM: We kind of nurture that not only in ourselves, but as soon as we discover something, we like to share it, and sharing it means performing it or recording it; sharing it means teaching it but not teaching it as in "You do what I say," but as in getting other people excited about something. "Look at what I've learned!" will translate into a passion for learning. Whether we are working with public school teachers, which we do with the Harvard institute, or with fifth graders, which is one of those transition years where if you make it to sixth grade, your chances of getting to high school is that much greater, whereas if you don't, it's almost guaranteed that you're not going to make it to high school. That's one of those adolescent years where a lot of things happen, so we try and work a lot to get to know that age in inner-city schools, in our urban areas, as well as out in the country. The other place we practice those values is we actively search for ways to think about where there are needs that are not met. We try and think about that in a very proactive way, talking to people who might become cultural entrepreneurs. Instead of saying, "Here are five jobs in your area," we say, "Wait a minute, you're really interested in that. Looks like there are some places that might need people like you, but there's no such job or structure available. Are you willing to think about how you might serve those areas?" Through that, there's developing the idea and even a field of cultural entrepreneurship not unlike the new field of social entrepreneurship, which didn't exist ten years ago but now people go to school to study it. This is kind of a third area that we are thinking of studying and learning about and then trying to share that knowledge.
MR: This is beautiful, how you're integrating the music, using it as a tool to be able to further socially important causes.
YYM: I think not only are the two agendas, to me, not mutually exclusive. I think that, for example, with the term "Art for art's sake," that's actually what art always has been and I think we like to emphasize that it's not art for art's sake, it's art for life's sake. All of art deals with the human brain space between life and death. In society and in politics and economics and in every field, we're always dealing with that brain space between life and death. In the United States and other industrialized countries, we struggle so much to avoid ever thinking about death. We have insurance policies, we pretend we're not going to die, we extend life but actually no matter how much we extend life, we're going to die. One thing that helps us deal with that inevitable fact is recognizing our humanity. Recognizing that is not recognizing our frailty, it's recognizing our strength.
MR: Beautiful, Yo-Yo. Have you always had that feeling or mission about your own music?
YYM: Ah, absolutely. I think that's something that I've always sort of looked for. The answer, which I think every sentient being is always asking, is really, "What's it all about? What's it for?" Obviously, I don't play concerts for the sake of saying, "Okay, we filled the hall, how great, boom, that's the end." No, it's like whoever is sitting in some place, what are they getting out of it and what did they take away from it and what do they remember the next day and is that useful to them because otherwise, what I do would be totally the most disposable thing in the universe. "Done, okay, next." We're in this business to create connections and hence memories.
MR: Amazing. Okay, let's get to the album. First of all, A Playlist Without Borders, what a great title. And what a great way to present a project, especially since we're in the age of the playlist as opposed to albums. It's so funny that you use that term, shifting the concept of a playlist back into the concept of an album, which I thought was pretty clever.
YYM: That's very nice, thank you.
MR: On "Playlist For An Extreme Occasion," what was the band's impression of an extreme occasion?
YYM: I think our digital world is about essentially two numbers--zero and one--and it's about patterns. The patterns are what is normal and what is abnormal. "Yes" or "no." It goes back to the memory thing. If you do something that is "super-normal" as in "not normal," then there's a greater chance that it stays. The moment of creating life to something is when something extraordinary happens. We assume that life is something extraordinary, and something that's living. I think Vijay [Iyer], who's actually a phenomenal musician--didn't he just win something? He put together all of these various instruments in a work that is so much a playlist in that they're all of a certain length but an extreme occasion in the sense that these are unlikely bandfellows, these instruments. Cello and tabla. Galician bagpipe with the Chinese sheng. When was the last time you heard those two instruments together? But when you have that meeting and you make something kind of extraordinary with it, that sends a message, into the hall or into the ethos, the virtual universe that says, "Wow, not only can people meet randomly, but if you make that random connection meaningful, then something extreme happens."
MR: That's amazing. It almost seems like something like the Silk Road project is an example of how human behavior ideally should be as opposed to what's being exhibited in, let's say, Congress and what's being taught to kids in a larger sense. It's not about pettiness and selfishness; it's about considering ramifications and effects on others. And by the way, how do you keep that energy and positivity going?
YYM: I think in some ways, it's very simple: The things that we do, we feel that we're responding to an unmet need in society. We're creating space for that, so people realize, "Hey, this is a good thing, we might need to think that way." What we're doing is creating a space of thinking and the thinking is practiced by the values we use to do the things that we do. So it's the collaboration part, the flexible thinking part, the imagination part leading to the innovation part. Those are the four values that I think people need to practice in any field at any time and especially now, whether it's in politics or whether it's in business or economics or whether it's in the field of culture, which I think includes the arts and sciences. Arts, culture, humanity, arts and sciences. Culture is that which gives us meaning, that which gives us meaning that we get from close investigation into the nature of things. And specifically, we're examining in our work our motivations. We're examining our existence and what gives our existence meaning. We're trying to understand truth as framed by code or visual material or narratives. What is the truth in the myths that we need to believe in, in order to have a society? Creation myths. All societies have them. All societies have music; all societies have a certain narrative. In the United States, we have the American dream and then we ask, do we still have the American dream? When we start to feel we no longer have the American dream, we feel all kinds of uncomfortable, but who created the American dream? What is the American dream? So we examine those things so that when we do something--let's say we play "America The Beatiful" but with a lot of different kinds of instruments--it's another statement in recognizing that change is not always bad for the traditionalists because the change sometimes allows traditions to survive and evolve, because if you don't evolve, you die. I don't care how traditionalist you are, my claim in culture is that any tradition we have is the result of change because it is the result of successful invention.
MR: Wow, beautiful, nicely said. By the way, when I saw the tracklist for this album, I also saw "Drag The Goat" and I'm like, "You mean, drag The Goat Rodeo."
YYM: [laughs] That was an unintended connective tissue there that crossed its own border. But you know what? How great, because it's totally an unintended connection, but it makes total sense.
MR: So what is Yo-Yo Ma's future like? What are you doing beyond your Silk Road adventures? What's your future looking like?
YYM: Well, I just turned fifty-eight.
MR: Excellent, congratulations.
YYM: So the future is a year older and I think I plan to play which, of course, is like brushing your teeth, you know? You never stop brushing your teeth. You don't get to be such a world expert at brushing your teeth that don't need to do that anymore. You always have to floss. That's part of it. So as long as I'm going to play the cello, I have practicing in my future. But I think it's in the realm of ideas, experiments, trying to understand things and really working in the areas of culture and education and trying to connect things that can be connected that will give the people who make the connections the greatest individuality and strength.
MR: Ridiculous question: Do you ever see yourself moving on from The Silk Road Ensemble?
YYM: No, I'm always going to be with the Silk Road project and I think it needs different kinds of leadership. I think as a fifty-eight year old, it would be kind of arrogant if I could claim, "Oh, I know what eighteen-year-olds are thinking about." No, I need people to work with to try and understand what eighteen-year-olds are thinking. That's like working across cultures. We inhabit the same space, but boy do they think differently.
MR: [laughs] The Silk Road Ensemble seems to be a great example for integration and cooperation to young people.
YYM: It's wanting to make sure that a lot of young people that are without hope all across the world. I think we cannot live without hope. It's a very grey world if there's no hope, but hope can only exist if people can see a ladder towards hope. It's not like, "Oh, hope is just there and it's floating around." There's got to be some reality attached to hope. Right now, I don't see too many places where societies feel very comfortable with everything that they are and that they're doing. I think we need to look for possible ways of saying, "There's a way for seven million people to be able to hope together," that's acknowledging all of the differences, and also acknowledging all of our individual strengths and how they can be incredibly defined for an even greater unity. That's a struggle because there's the social justice aspect of things. There are people talking about disparity of wealth, but I could talk about disparity of culture. Sometimes, the wealthiest people are people with the least culture. Sometimes, the strongest strongman is the person with the least humanity. So you get the reverse of everything. Sometimes, the person who is the most "human" could be the least clued in person in other affairs. So in fact, a really good world is one where the politics and the economics and the cultural spheres are actually mixing together and there's a lot of common space and respect for the frame of each way of thinking. If you imagine three circles and the intersection like a Venn diagram, that's the space that we want much more of so that we can avoid any one sphere failing and then dragging the other two down. We have to support one another and each one of those people, too. We tend to favor any one sphere domination of the other two and calling the shots but then not making the decisions that are good for the other two spheres and therefore, we all get dragged down by it. We have to combine together in order to be stronger.
MR: Too beautiful. Yo-Yo, what advice do you have for new artists?
YYM: Look for where the real needs are. Respond to need. No matter how great a society is, people fall through the cracks. Where are the cracks? Where are the edges? Artists are incredibly sensitive people, that means sometimes, we have a harder time because sometimes, their antenna are out and receiving all kinds of information that they need to do something about. When they do something about it, obviously, they need to find ways of self-expression. Dig deep into yourself in order to come up with your voice but then make sure you come out of yourself so that you actually attach yourself to the wide world and you can look at what the world is missing and use your sensitivity to not only identify it but then start to express and show a way forward, meeting those needs that are not being met. I think artists have always done that. I think that's another way of putting that in a way that is not self-referential, as in, "That's me, I need to be heard," but rather it's art for life's sake. It's really art for looking around at the living and seeing what the living need.
MR: And there we are back at "Art for life's sake."
YYM: That's my advice for myself, anybody that wants advice, a younger person, or whoever because that's always changing and you're never competing for top dog, "I am bigger than you." It's not about the baubles, it's really about how deeply you meet those needs. That is always individual. I think we can practice that and we'll be happier. We're miserable when we compare ourselves to others and yet we are totally a measuring and comparative society.
MR: Yeah, or more crudely put, a locker room society.
YYM: Exactly! And you do that when you have nothing better to do. You become a bully because you can. It does nothing to contribute to something constructive.
MR: Hey, let's talk about Live From Tanglewood. What was it like during the performance, especially knowing you were being recorded for a DVD?
YYM: It was so satisfying to do it back at Tanglewood, which is where we started. A community opened themselves up to us fifteen years ago when all of us--not that we have money now, but--were volunteers driving musicians to people in the community who opened their homes to the musicians because we didn't have money for hotels. We bought all the food and made the food. My family and other board members' families were all essentially drafted into making it happen, so we're very grateful to the grassroots community support as well as The Boston Symphony and the Tanglewood campus giving us the space and the facilities to rehearse and then to perform. So the obvious choice was to say, "Let's do it back at Tanglewood," which, of course, is so wonderful because it is open air; it's a picture, it's right smack in the middle of the mountains. It's beautiful and what we're doing is really an activity that revolves around understanding what nature is all about, whether it's human nature or nature as in the imagination of nature. And as Richard Feynman, the physicist, used to say, "Nature is the one that has the greatest imagination, but she guards her secrets jealously." Doing it there for the people that have supported us and in the place that supports the creation of new things, we felt really, really comfortable that this was the place to acknowledge that chapter in our life.
MR: Yo-Yo, I don't even know where you go from there. It's beautiful.
YYM: Like death. [laughs]
MR: [laughs] You are an amazing person and I can't wait for our next interview.
YYM: It's great to talk with you again. You take good care, keep writing, keep doing your good stuff, okay?
MR: All right, you too, sir.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Steve Nieve
Mike Ragogna: Hi Steve, how are you doing today?
Steve Nieve: I'm fine, it's good to hear your voice.
MR: Yours, too, thank you sir. The title "ToGetHer," let's do some wordplay. You like did a groovy, "together" project; you recorded "together" with a cast of thousands; and it's like a romantic mission, you know, "to get her." So when you picked the material for this album did it start out with the concept of being a duet album or did you decide to make it a "together" project later?
SN: Well, I've always been writing songs and interested in creating songs. But when I started working on content for the album, I realized I'm not a singer, so I wanted to suggest it to a few of my friends to see who would be interested in collaborating with me. In the end, that was the thing that gave me the most pleasure, working with such great people. I just started to enjoy it so much that while some of the songs were written--not considering duets--I tried to deconstruct them a bit and try to think about them like that.
MR: So not so much, "I'm going to create a duets album."
SN: Yes, they were created really on their own and the idea was sort of an exercise of style in a way because I wanted to present a song to someone that would be good for them to sing. I think that the ones that worked the best were the ones that were not exactly written for someone precisely.
MR: You include a track with Elvis Costello, your musical buddy for years and years. After all of these years recording with Elvis, obviously things have changed since the early days. What is it like recording with him now versus the old days?
SN: I think in the old days, we were all young and fearless. Now I think we're even more fearless. I would say that would be the main difference. I can only speak for myself; the past is a bit of a blur to be honest. Things have changed and I feel more aware of what I'm doing now. That's the big difference.
MR: Before we leave the Elvis territory, I just want to say, do you understand how important your early recordings with Elvis Costello & The Attractions were to a certain demo of pop culture?
SN: Well, I look into certain books about music occasionally. There's a very good one out there by my good friend who's made a dictionary of rock. It's just a personal view and it's full of his anecdotes. I do realize the group, and the group I'm still in because now, The Imposters, have been together for a huge chunk of time. We're working with one of the masters of music, one of the great songwriters, so obviously, that's a great feel for me to be continually involved in that.
MR: Steve, how do you approach the creative process? Does it hit you and you have to run to an instrument?
SN: Mostly, I think that I've been working with Elvis for so long, I'm definitely influenced by the lyric writing. Working with someone who writes such amazing lyrics all the time has definitely pushed me to be a bit more aware of lyrics. When I listen to music, I always listen to the lyrics and I tend to really love songwriters who are making interesting lyrics. I write lyrics all the time and it's easy to do now. We've got our iPads and iPhones, we can write things down any time, anywhere.
MR: So you gravitate towards the lyrics.
SN: I think they made me aware of the fact that this aspect is so wonderful. I've been living in France for quite a number of years and it's a whole new world of lyric writing over here. I've had the chance to meet different artists there. I started working with Alain Chamfort who's singing on ToGetHer; I'm really happy that he came on board with me. He is a French composer who writes amazing melodies and a lot of Serge Gainsbourg songs have Alain Chamfort's music. So these kinds of encounters lead you into new worlds of music.
MR: Steve, you include big names like Sting, Ron Sexsmith and Joe Sumner, but you also feature Harper Simon. How did you come across Harper?
SN: I'll tell you, but the first three people you mentioned were involved in the opera that I wrote with Muriel Teodori that I called Welcome To The Voice, and in fact, most of the male cast, apart from Harper Simon, were involved in that opera in some way or another because we performed it once in New York and Ron Sexsmith was one of the characters. I'd met Ron many times but that's how I really got to know him. After that, we did Welcome To The Voice at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. Muriel Teodori directed it on stage and that's how I met Joe Sumner, because he played the part of the friend and it was really incredible how he sang each night. It was a really stunning performance they did. But I bumped into Harper a lot of times at the Chateau Marmont, which is a place in America that I really adore, so I got to know him a little bit like. He was constantly hanging out at the hotel, and eventually, he asked me to play on his record. So then I worked on a song of his and then at some point, he was in Paris and I said, "Please, Harper, come and sing on one of my songs." I love what he did. It was kind of strange, but he brought a voice to that song, "Pandemonium" that I really didn't expect. It really added something great. I love the way he sang on that.
MR: I was trying to mimic your sound and the Farfisa came the closest I could find. This album has got to be a more personal album than not for you because it's apparent that you have a close relationship with a lot of the people on here. Do you see all these contributions to your project as having made something much bigger than the sum of the parts?
SN: I think that part of the initial impulse to make the record for me was really because I wanted to seduce Muriel Teodori.
SN: After that, I think I stand a much better chance of seducing her because I've got someone like Sting or Elvis singing on it, because I can't sing like that.
MR: And you really did do your best, uh, ToGetHer. Ahem.
SN: Yes, that's why it's like that. I really love the graphics. My friend Dominic found the idea of ToGetHer, which is beautiful because he's a Frenchman and quite often, you see in foreign languages something that the foreigner wouldn't, I've noticed.
MR: And it's great to see one of the experimental artists, Laurie Anderson, on the album.
SN: I remember when "O Superman" came out and it was fantastic. She's always been a hero of mine. I met her because I got invited to The Century Of Song Festival, which she was performing at, and I guess it was she who invited me to be the opening part of her show. It was incredible. It's was in this little town in Germany; she had all the little electronic gizmos and pedals and things she uses. But above all, a friendship started and each time I come to New York now, it's great, I come and hang out with Laurie for a little while and I'm really happy that she's on my record. I love what she's done on that verse. She's totally transformed it into something new. And her violin playing is just superb.
MR: I also want to throw out there other milestones for you, like Welcome To The Voice, Windows and Mumu. What do you think looking back at those works? And what are your thoughts as far as where you've gone musically from there to here?
SN: I think that there's a sort of an environment of trying not to be a sort of hermit in a cave and trying to find ways of making music with other people. That's the heart of the project. I think that's the way that's going. I really enjoyed when we made Welcome To The Voice, the kind of gigantic nature of collaboration with that. By the time we got to the Théâtre du Châtelet, we had an orchestra of twenty-eight pieces. We had all of these soloists, amazing singers, opera singers, and in addition to that, the whole team of people required to put that together. It was just great, you know? I like making albums like that, and I also like the solitary piano solo album. It's going from one extreme to another.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
SN: Well one of things I think is great about the last two projects is the involvement of new artists. On this record, there's Tall Ulyss, a new French singer, and some other young people, because they come to things from a different viewpoint than someone like me who's been through it, making music for thirty years. Sometimes, they'll show you something you won't believe and it's very exciting, you know? They bring a sort of fearless energy to things. So I love that aspect of this project, I think Tall Ulyss, for example on the first track, pushed the sound into a completely new and exciting world that I'd never have the idea to go in. The same working with Joe; I love his band, Fiction Plane, but I'd never go anywhere near that world. Just working with people from different worlds is really enlightening and exquisite.
MR: Nice. What's on the horizon? What do you want to do next?
SN: That's a good question because at the moment, I'm pondering. I'm just in a thinking mood. I've got several unfinished projects around me, like some music for orchestra and flute and things like that. With Muriel, I've been working on a follow-up piece for Welcome To The Voice, something that I'm committed to working on, and obviously, more piano music. I really want to spend more time now just at the piano.
And here is an exclusive Steve Nieve video...
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with The Mission's Wayne Hussey
Mike Ragogna: Good morning Wayne! Or good afternoon, whatever it is. How and where are you right now?
Wayne Hussey: I'm fine, thank you. I'm actually in Brazil, that's where I live, so it's actually early afternoon here. Where are you?
MR: I'm in Iowa.
WH: I've heard of Iowa. That's where Field Of Dreams was, wasn't it?
MR: Yup. "If you build it, they will come." The problem is they came and left. No, just kidding!
WH: Yeah, well at least you got their money first.
MR: [laughs ] That's so wrong. Okay, do you have a couple of seconds to talk about Silver? How did it all begin, as if I didn't know?
WH: In 2011, we were approached to do a twenty five-year anniversary show. The other members of the band were up for it and I thought, you know, it'll get me out of the house for a few weeks, so yeah, why not? So we went and did that and it was a lot of fun, and we filmed the London show for the DVD.
MR: The 2011 performances also included Cologne and Frankfurt, right? And it's a 2007 release but now it's seeing the light of day.
WH: I don't know if you know, but also in the US, we just had our new album released. That's our first official release in the US in twenty years.
MR: Why, I imagine you're talking about The Brightest Light!
WH: I am talking about The Brightest Light, yes.
MR: Let's talk about both projects, but let's finish up talking about Silver.
WH: Yes. What I was leading to was that we got back together in 2011, we did that tour, and we actually really enjoyed it, enjoyed ourselves and enjoyed each other, and thought we actually made quite a good noise. We decided to do more shows and then one thing led to another and we thought, "Ooh, maybe we could make a new album." So whilst the original intention was just to go out and do the nostalgia thing, it's kind of moved on from there.
MR: Wayne, The Mission is considered one of the pioneers of goth along with Sisters Of Mercy, et cetera. However, nowadays, it's kind of morphed into something else. There are all of these subgenres and it's gotten tricky to classify.
WH: That's a blessing in many ways, but it's also a curse, I find, because I know we certainly have problems at radio. The hard rock stations say we're not hard enough, the alternative stations that say we're not alternative enough, and the pop stations that say that we're not poppy enough. We kind of fall between a rock and a hard place, really, and whilst I'm proud of that fact, I do think that the media as a whole finds it quite difficult to get a handle on things that they can't put in a category.
MR: Lately, we're seeing groups like The Cult, Depeche Mode, and others almost more popular than ever. Now, The Mission has a very strong following. How do you explain the longevity of a genre that may have been, at one point, looked at as, "Okay, we're just going through this phase"?
WH: I don't really know. If I had an answer to that I'd bottle it and sell it and make my fortune that way. I like to think it's something to do with integrity, that our audience recognizes an integrity about what we do. I think we played the game in the early days with the interviews and the promos, the things young bands and new bands try and do to get their records on the radio and on TV; we did all that stuff. But I think you quickly come to realize that there's not a whole lot to that really. It's not the be-all, end-all of life. I'd like to think it comes down to integrity and our audience recognizes that, but I might be completely wrong. It might be the haircut.
MR: [laughs] Or perhaps it's the selections you play at the concerts and record as well? And after all of these years, how are performances of the band's more "classic" songs hitting you?
WH: It was great when we got back together and started playing them because in the interim years, we'd had many lineups of the band and different people had come and gone. With each member that came in, they would listen to the records and they would kind of assimilate what they would hear into a part of them. I don't sit there and listen to my records and stuff, so it was quite amazing when we got back together to hear the songs as they were originally and how different they had become and how they'd evolved over the years with the various members. So that was quite interesting. There's no right or wrong way to play a song, really. A song can be played in many different ways. But it was quite interesting after all twenty-five years of various lineups going back to, ostensibly, the original lineup and essentially hearing the songs how they were first written.
MR: And when you play things live, it feels like it really should be a different thing from the record since they already own it. You're not a jukebox.
WH: Absolutely! I think that's the answer to your question, actually. There are times when I get bored with playing certain songs and I'll drop it for a couple of years and then maybe revisit it and it'll have kind of a new life, you know? Basically, the way I look at it is that when we play a show, we have to give the audience at least a little of what they want. We have to give them a little of what we think they should have, and we have to give ourselves a little of what we want. You add all of these factors together and, basically, you'll get a set list that's a mixture of old and new and cover versions I suppose.
MR: When you came together for that Silver concert, were there any songs where the chemistry of the original members surprised you?
WH: Yeah, one song in particular was "Naked And Savage," because we'd played that over the years but it never really gelled, but when we got back together, it was like, "Wow, that's great." It's actually become one of my favorites to play live. And that was the B-side of the first single. But it is a lot of fun for us to play that one.
MR: By the way, what music are you guys listening to these days for enjoyment?
WH: I listen to all kinds of stuff, but I've tended to go backwards, actually, rather than forwards. I've kind of listened a lot to delta blues and old Hank Williams and older stuff. And sixties and seventies music. There is modern day stuff I like; I like The XX, I like Laura Marling. There's a band from California called Tamarind, which I quite like. Smoke Fairies is one, too.
MR: I imagine you get requests all the time to guest on others' albums since people idolized you when they were forming their own groups.
WH: I've done a little bit of that over the years. People have asked me to sing or contribute guitar. I always say, "Before I commit to do anything, let me hear it first," because it has to be something that I feel like I can get the teeth into.
MR: Onto The Brightest Light. So the three of you are like hanging out, having a good time and then someone goes, "Okay, let's do this, let's do a studio album."
WH: Well, one of the conditions we kind of set ourselves when we got back together in 2011 is we'd only play songs from albums we recorded together, which was basically the first three or four albums. There were whole periods of the nineties and the two thousands where we ignored albums that we didn't record together. We thought about extending the set list, but it was just a natural course of events, really. It wasn't something where we sat down and said, "We really need to make a new album." It was somebody said, "How 'bout we make a new album?" "That's a good idea! Okay, how do we do this, then?" "Oh, write some songs." That's how it came about.
MR: So it was a natural process.
WH: Yeah, it wasn't forced. When I was writing songs for the record, I wasn't writing songs for a mission. I was just writing songs. I think certainly if you're a fan of our first album, the odds are you probably won't like the new one, The Brightest Light. It's twenty-seven years later, so we're different people. But it's a good album. It's a rock album. It's probably not "goth," as some people might suspect.
MR: Right, but then again the field itself has changed. It's evolved, as we discussed earlier. It isn't exactly what it was years ago anyway.
WH: No, absolutely.
MR: Children was your breakthrough album, obviously, but you have your other albums, and as you said, there've been progressions with the band lineup and the sound. So how did creating the new album work? Was it a different process than you originally used to make earlier albums?
WH: Yes, actually. One of the things we talked about before I even started writing the songs was that I usually demo with a full band so I have drums and guitar lines and bass lines. It's kind of fleshed out a bit, and this time, the band said, "Just write songs. Put them down with an acoustic guitar or a piano and a voice and we'll fill in the blanks." It gives us a broader color palette, which is great, absolutely. That takes a heap of pressure off of my shoulders and it affords me the luxury of using the time just to write as opposed to demo, which it did. I ended up writing twenty-five, thirty songs in the space of thirteen months. I hit a rich vein. It was one of those things where for a couple of months there, I'd have a new song every day, which was great. As I said, it was a great luxury not having to worry about doing the demos. I just sent the band the songs on piano and voice and when we got to rehearsals, they all had ideas for the songs which we kind of worked on. They all brought something to the songs. That's something that was a little different from the past when I'd basically say, "This is the bass line, these are the guitar parts and I want the rhythm to do this." This time, it was a bit more collaborative.
MR: Do you think all of these songs will see light of day? Do you perhaps slip them into concerts once in a while?
WH: We recorded sixteen as a band, so there are twelve on the US version and there are a couple of extra tracks on the deluxe version along with five or six of my demos, the better ones, and then the other tracks we're releasing as part of an EP in the new year. All of the other songs will get used. I'm planning to do a solo album in the next year, so the songs that are left over I will use for that. They'll get used. If it's a good song, you're not just going to leave it there in the bottom drawer, are you?
MR: I've heard from many of my recent interviewees that they've been working out songs on the road.
WH: We don't actually do a lot of touring, so it's not like we have that luxury to go out and work things out on the road. Before we went into the studio to record, we went and did three very small shows on a boat in Bristol in the UK and we basically did a set in front of an audience with all the new stuff. We would stop songs halfway through if we were making mistakes and we had lyrics sheets and crib sheets; we all sat down with music stands. It was an awful lot of fun and I think the audience really felt that they were privvy to something special, because you don't normally see a band at that part of the process. Then we did a second set, later, of old songs. But it was a great thing to be able to go out and play these new songs in front of an audience and see how they evolved in front of an audience in a way that they wouldn't have evolved in a rehearsal room.
MR: Nice. And of course, you guys are also touring as The Metal Gurus.
WH: [laughs] We might actually resurrect a song or two for the December tour. I don't know. Depends. We've got a lot of new songs to learn from the album, so it depends on time.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
WH: Try and be true to yourself. Try and be as honest with yourself as you can be. It's not always easy but try and be true to yourself.
MR: What would you have said to you as you were starting out?
WH: Get a bloody haircut, will you?
WH: I probably would have said the same thing. Whatever you do in life, not just making music, try and be as honest with yourself and what you do and you hope that somebody somewhere is going to like what you're doing. But to try and do stuff to be successful, I don't know if there is any proven way of doing that, and I don't necessarily think that's the way to go.
MR: For both your groups--Sisters Of Mercy and The Mission--what kind of a mark do you feel that those bands have left?
WH: That's a good question. I don't really know. I think the fact that both bands are still going fairly strong is a testament to our past and what we've achieved and the music we've made. It's impossible for me; I'm probably too slow to really recognize. People say, "Oh, they sound like The Mission" or "They sound like Sisters" and I very rarely can hear it, to be honest. [laughs]
MR: Do you have side projects going on right now?
WH: Yeah, I've always got side projects. Not right now, but earlier this year, I released an album with a Swedish poet. I went to Sweden and spent the week there and we just basically went into the studio and made music behind his narration. That was really another very creative time for me. We did the whole album in a week and it was great fun to do. There are always things on the go; I've always got ideas. But at the moment, I'm kind of wrapped up in The Mission because a new album's been released and I'm wrapped up in doing extra stuff and b-sides and all that at the moment.
MR: I always find it interesting when a group releases a tour album or a live CD or DVD that obviously took place a year before the project was released because and groups sometimes then have to go back out on tour to basically replay things you did the year before.
WH: Well, I don't know. We just toured the US, we did ten shows and finished a couple of weeks ago and that wasn't really a consideration. When I worked with John Paul Jones, a piece of advice he gave me was, "When you go on stage, give the audience two or three songs that they know and you'll have them eating out of your hand. Don't go on and play a new song." That's kind of a piece of advice that I've adhered to all of these years apart from the recent tour when we actually did start with a new song. But it worked very well.
MR: Okay, Wayne Hussey a year from now. What do you think you'll be doing?
WH: A year from now? I'm not really sure. As I said, I want to do a solo album, I've got a bunch of songs left over. The Brightest Light is a rock record and the record before that was with a Swedish poet and the record before that was a collaboration with Julianne [Regan] from All About Eve who's kind of techno-pop, so I think the next record's going to be a mellow acoustic record. I kind of switch and go opposites with each record.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with 3OH!3's Nathaniel Motte
Mike Ragogna: Nat, it looks like you've got a national headline tour going on.
Nathaniel Motte: Yeah, we're excited to go out. It's been a while and we've done a full headlining tour. We're excited to get back out.
MR: And you've already kicked off the tour in Clifton Park.
NM: Yep, correct.
MR: How has your live act evolved since you first started and now?
NM: You know, it's funny. I guess our live show has really been hand in hand with the way we've made music in the studio, just because we started playing shows right when we started writing music in Colorado, whether they were house parties or opening local venues for our buddie and we actually started to quickly headline shows. At first, we were recording in a hip-hop format, we'd just sort of play a track and have two microphones over it and kind of go crazy on stage. It was when we actually went on Vans Warped Tour in 2008 and we shared a stage with Katy Perry and we became good friends with her and her crew. Her musicians would set up their stuff on our stage during our set--her musicians would set up their drum kit and guitar rig, and their bass--and it kind of morphed from there. Now we kind of run with the fairly fluid amalgam of electronic and rock elements during our live show. We always try to keep the energy very high and more of a rockin' party rather than a performance.
MR: How crazy is it getting as the energy amps-up with this tour?
NM: It gets nuts man, it's funny. It's more than performers, we're kind of like party animals. That's what we want to do for the people coming out to the shows. There are only a few nights they get to come out and let loose, have fun, and not worry about so much about their stuff. For us, it's a lot of fun too, that's the kind of the thing that motivates us. It does get crazy; it takes different shapes and forms at different shows over the years, but it's definitely a lot of fun.
MR: Does a lot of it have to do with the acts that are supporting you? Do you influence each other when you play together?
NM: Yeah. We learned a lot from those bands, the hustle and just putting forth so much energy in their sets, and if they're ever on tour. We've been fortunate enough to take out a lot of bands that are great and become friends with a lot of bands. We're actually already known and have a great relationship with the bands on our next tour. Actually, in honor of the tour, we did a collaboration song, which is cool to kind of be a part of. So we're releasing the song with a video that we're all filming from all over the world, putting it together, and we'll be performing that song every night. I think it goes with the mantra that we have that every show is a big party and a big event more than just a concert or a performance.
MR: So you're performing most of the songs from Omens, right?
NM: No, we perform songs from all of our CDs actually; it's not necessarily an Omens Tour. I think we're doing maybe five or six, maybe seven songs off that record and then really songs from all of our records. We realize that there are fans from back in the day and that like that old stuff that come to our shows so instead of only the new stuff, we try to just mesh it all together into one mix.
MR: The spotlight seems to be on that album's tracks "Back To Life" and "You're Gonna Love This."
NM: It was nice to have those songs lead the way for this album. We were fortunate enough to have some really cool syncs and placements and commercials to get the word out for them. Those are the songs we're going to play every night.
MR: I imagine you play songs like "Don't Trust Me" and even "Starstruck."
NM: Oh yeah, we play those for sure, every night. Those are fun ones because we play them so much. But with songs like that, I actually go in and remix them and mix the outros and make the ends of them a bit interesting, and its fun for us to play. I think it's interesting to hear the song take a different shape.
MR: And I bet your songs are evolving as you're rediscovering them in this setting.
NM: Yeah. A lot of the older songs, I'm going in and reproducing them, trying to stay faithful to the aesthetic and not necessarily making them a new sounding song but also arranging them for a live show. At this point, we have four records out so we're not going to be able to play every song we've put out. But we do a lot of medleys of older stuff going in and out of each other, deciding if it all makes sense and figuring out if it goes well with the crowd. So far its been really good.
MR: Do you regret not having Miley Cyrus on one of your records?
NM: You know, we called but she wouldn't answer our call. I think she has some kind of restraining order against us, which is kind of weird. [laughs] It was kind of conscious and subconscious to not have collaborations. We kind of just wanted to bring it home and we were holed up in Colorado in my studio. It was nice to pull everything back and make a complete project that was unadulterated view of what we wanted to do. I also think it kind of opens up the gauntlet for collaborations on forthcoming records.
MR: Music relationships and collaborations must be interesting at this point.
NM: I think a lot of our music relationships are based on friendships, which is fortunate for us. I mean, Ke$ha, that was a friendship first, which opened the working relationship, and even with Katy Perry and when we did a song with Lil Jon for his record. I think those are the most organic ways of working on music collaboratively, if people are homies first, and they know the deal with our music.
MR: With all the reinvention and having a new album, how do you look at your older songs at this point?
NM: Absolutely, I think that music is changing so fast these days, especially electronic music. In terms of production values, there are a lot of things that you would do differently and then some of the format... Yeah, I think based on our earlier stuff, we didn't really know what the format was. It's nice to go back to some of our albums and do a weird format that we wouldn't necessarily use these days. To me, it's cool to have those songs because it's like a portfolio; it's a time and place. It's like a journal or diary and there are some lyrical things that we probably would not have said if we knew the song would have a lot of success. But at a certain point, we're just like "F**k it, we're just a couple kids having fun" and that spirit has carried us through a lot of cool stuff. When we're performing it, it's fine, it's a lot of muscle memory; you're not necessarily hyper-analyzing the lyrics you wrote five, six, seven, eight years ago. You're just singing it and not thinking about it too much. For some songs, that's a good thing.
MR: How important is reinvention when you're updating the sound?
NM: It's important for us that we fluff up the sound and make it sound new, and like I said, it's important to keep the aesthetic of the old stuff alive and not get too far away from that. Also, we have the rock element of our shows. It's not just an electronic show, it's not just a DJ up there trying to mix the sonics of their sound being as broad as they can. Those things fluidly feed into each other and create a big sound that's also a live sound.
MR: I look at your tour schedule, and it looks like you're playing almost every day.
NM: Every day, you're on the road. We've been fortunate enough to keep pretty healthy. My band mate Sean was having fairly severe vocal issues. I guess it's like any job that you get into the rhythm of. And we know what we can and can't do as we've gotten a little older. We're not out every-night partying until 4am. We might have been on our first tours. You adapt to it and it has the likeness of being a professional athlete playing a basketball game five days a week. It's tough and you travel a lot, but it's also very tonic and very energizing. It's exciting and it gives you a hit and grab of energy.
MR: What's you advice for new artists?
NM: We didn't set out to make it big and make these records. We were just a couple of kids having fun making music and it developed into something incredible. We were always interested in creating something that was new sounding and different sounding and within that, trying to incorporate the genre and do something that was progressive and different. So I usually tell people to try to have fun with their music and be satisfied with what they're making and also do something new and different that's not purely regurgitated and imitated. I think it's important to advance stuff, make it new and interesting. We actually did a lot of external work writing and producing for other artists as well and I think we brought that mantra into the sessions with those artists too and make something new and different.
MR: What's the future looking like for 3OH!3?
NM: We're always working, which is fun. We'll be writing the music and every now and then Sean and I'll get together, and whether that means, an album in 2014 or not. We're not sure. I'll also be writing for other artists. This year, I was fortunate enough to do a song on the Maroon 5 record and also for this band called Carmen and other more underground projects, so it was fun. Whether we're on the road or not we're always creating music in the studio. So this should be a good year.
MR: And the fun continues making music with Sean Foreman.
NM: Yeah, definitely. I don't know if many people can say that they run a fun and productive business with their best friend. It's been a lovely friendship.
Transcribed by Amy Laudicano
Oct 24 2013 Silver Spring, MD Fillmore
Oct 28 2013 Cleveland, OH House of Blues
Oct 29 2013 Detroit, MI St. Andrews Hall
Oct 31 2013 Minneapolis, MN Varsity Theater
Nov 01 2013 Des Moines, IA Wooly's
Nov 02 2013 Milwaukee, WI The Rave
Nov 03 2013 Chicago, IL House of Blues
Nov 05 2013 Nashville, TN Cannery Ballroom
Nov 07 2013 Orlando, FL House of Blues
Nov 08 2013 Ft Lauderdale, FL Revolution
Nov 10 2013 Atlanta, GA Buckhead Theater
Nov 11 2013 New Orleans, LA House of Blues
Nov 12 2013 Houston, TX House of Blues
Nov 13 2013 Dallas, TX House of Blues
Nov 15 2013 Albuquerque, NM Sunshine Theater
Nov 16 2013 Denver, CO Summit Music Hall
Nov 18 2013 Boise, ID Knitting Factory
Nov 19 2013 Spokane, WA Knitting Factory
Nov 20 2013 Seattle, WA Showbox at the Market
Nov 21 2013 Portland, OR Wonder Ballroom
Nov 23 2013 Reno, NV Knitting Factory
Nov 24 2013 San Francisco, CA The Fillmore
Nov 25 2013 San Diego, CA House of Blues
Nov 26 2013 Los Angeles, CA House of Blues