A Conversation with George Duke
Mike Ragogna: Hiya George, how are you doing?
George Duke: I'm doing great, Mike.
MR: Now, rumor has it you're in your studio right now. What's going on?
GD: Right now? Not much. But in a couple of hours we will be in the throes of a mix.
MR: In the throes of a mix for a project for someone else or yourself?
GD: Well, it's sort of for me and some other friends of mine from the past. Actually, I did a recording with Billy Cobham who's an amazing drummer many years ago. We toured for about one year in 1976 and put out one album that seemed to have changed the way a lot of musicians looked at music. I never thought it was a great record, but a lot of my contemporaries and younger musicians have told me that album changed their lives. It was called The Billy Cobham - George Duke Band Live On Tour In Europe. At the time, we recorded more music than we actually used on that album. So I just decided to hold onto it, had it transferred a couple of times onto new media as things changed over the years, and now we've finally got it in Pro Tools and we are mixing it and it is fantastic.
MR: Is it going to come out on its original label, Atlantic?
GD: No, it will come out on BPM, which is my label, probably distributed through Heads Up International or Concord or something. I don't know yet, that has yet to be determined. Right now I'm just finishing the mix, I'm going to get it out to the guys and let them hear it. I've got about two albums worth of stuff, so it'll be another two volumes. It's pretty amazing what we were doing as young kids.
MR: What do you think about it coming out as a complete set?
GD: Yeah, it remains to be seen. The main thing is I want to finish it, keep the integrity of what's there, and have all the guys sign off on it. I've spoken to Billy about it and John Scofield. Everybody's on board.
MR: George, you've had an amazing career, not only as a player but also as a producer and a songwriter, and you're still doing it. How do you find time in the day?
GD: Well, you know, I'm the same guy, I just wear different clothes. Sometimes I'll wear a suit, sometimes I'll wear some jeans and a t-shirt. But I'm the same guy underneath whether I'm producing or writing or composing. Whatever I'm doing, it's still all music and it's still all me. I feel the same way with regards to styles of music.
MR: Did you ever have that dream project where you were able to get as many of your friends and people you admire on your album as possible?
GD: [laughs] No, I never did that. I kind of do that all the time anyway. This album is pretty cool for that, almost, but I don't want to get lost in the middle of a whole bunch of people, so I think it's wise to choose wisely.
MR: What motivates your recording new projects? Is it because you've collected a lot of material and you just feel like "it's time"?
GD: It changes from time to time. I had an agreement from my distributors, so that was motivation enough. "Okay, it's time for another George Duke record." "Okay, let's go." The hardest thing about this particular one--I don't want to make this a morbid scene, but just to lay the foundation for what's going on--was my wife died in July and it was kind of tough. I was supposed to go to the studio at the time, but it was impossible. It was just impossible for me to do it. I'd pass by the studio and I'd look in there and say, "Not today." So it took me to actually get out of the studio, get out of Los Angeles, get on a boat where I was performing, but I had a few days off, and by the third day, something happened. I was going to bed after listening to some shows. It was four or five in the morning, and I laid there getting ready to go to sleep when I thought, "You know what, I'm going to go out on the deck." I had this little deck and we were out on open water and I went out there to hang out and it was nice and warm and the there was the sound of ocean, and as the sun began to come up, ideas began to flow. So that was the beginning of this album, and I actually wrote about three songs for this album in that morning. I just wrote some things, and things began to flow, and from there, it was an easy thing. There are a few tunes on here that weren't actually written for this album but seemed to fit my eclectic nature of music so I put it on here.
MR: Let's namecheck the album. Who's on it?
GD: Stanley Clarke is playing on a track, Christian McBride is another great bass player, Larry Kimball is another great bass player, those are the basic bass players on the record, Michael Manson is also my great bass player who plays with me in the band. I have a lot of great singers on the record including Lalah Hathaway, Jeffrey Osborne, Rachelle Ferrell, Lori Perry, Bebe Winans, Freddie Jackson, and I have a special track with Teena Marie, so there's a lot of folks on this record.
MR: I think you're right on. So this is the record I was referring to earlier.
GD: [laughs] A lot of people, but I use them judiciously.
MR: When you go into motion musically or as maybe just as a producer, I imagine it all comes down to where your creativity is coming from. It's all about the artist coming fist, but is there a point where it's like you can't wait to get into that studio because you're already feeling the creative juices flow?
GD: Oh yeah. Once I got going, it was like water running down a sink. I was ready to go, I didn't have a lot of days to record, but I kind of have a form. With my records, I have an idea for some chords and an idea for a melody and I put it up in front of the guys and say, "Okay, guys, here's the basic thing, now you bring as much to this party as you've got." I don't try to dictate to them exactly what to play. I let the music decide where it will go as opposed to trying to force it into one particular genre or area. It's not that way with certain productions I do, because we have certain things in mind and that's what we do. But with my records, I kind of let the guard down and let the music flow where it will.
MR: So in a way, although these two words are exactly the opposite of each other, it's a kind of structured improv, right?
GD: Yes, exactly! It's improvisation within structure. It sounds like Zappa. All these guys do that, that's kind of what jazz is.
MR: If you were looking at George Duke's career, what would you say are some of the highlights? Are there a couple of projects that would make you go, "This is the most growth I had on a recording, this really got me to the next batch of things I did"? Are there a couple of landmarks like that?
GD: Sure. Without a doubt, there was the album that I did with Jean-Luc Ponty where we played the music of Frank Zappa. It was called King Kong and without a doubt, that made a difference for me in terms of my career. I won't say that I played absolutely incredibly, but for some reason, a lot of people seemed to like it and I got a lot of work out of it. From that particular album and that particular gig with Jean-Luc, I heard from Quincy Jones, Gerald Wilson, Cannonball Adderley, and Frank Zappa, and I joined the Mothers Of Invention right after that. So that was a big one. For others, I'd have to say the work with Cannonball Adderley was very strong. I can't even mention one particular record with Frank Zappa. It would have to be Roxy & Elsewhere probably; One Size Fits All, Apostrophe; all of those albums, were done at the same time, kind of, date-wise, probably the early mid-seventies. That was a pivotal moment because a lot of people who were not aware of me when I joined Frank became aware of me. Of course, I took a hit with the jazz community when I joined Frank, so that was kind of a controversial time for me.
MR: But the funny thing is that the definition of jazz, in my mind at least, was what Frank Zappa was doing at the time anyway.
GD: Yeah! Look, there was more improvisation in what Frank was doing than what a lot of jazz musicians I know were doing. Free expression. It wasn't confined to one particular style or one particular thing. Frank was totally open and he was single-handedly the one that got me to allow my comic relief to come out, to sing, to play synthesizer, to play other styles of music, to learn to enjoy the value of other forms of music. The guy was really amazing and it really opened me up to the canvas of what can be expressed, which is kind of back now. DreamWeaver is like you're just weaving sonic threads and you're making something from nothing and you can do anything you want on this canvas and it's a wonderful thing, and all of that came from working with Frank and working with Miles Davis and working with Cannonball Adderley.
MR: When you listen to the projects you worked on with artists like Dianne Reeves or Regina Belle or Denise Williams, you can hear the jazz, you can hear the pop, and you can hear the unique element maybe in the hook or whatever. I think that producers like you and the late Phil Ramone reminded people that pop music doesn't necessarily need to be so structured that it can't take in the more breezy jazz side.
GD: Oh yeah, and it can be deeper than a notion. Pop music doesn't just have to be bubblegum. I think that was the main thing. God rest Phil's soul, we've done several projects together. He was a tremendous producer. I've worked with him as a sideman with him producing, so I realize the value of his ideas and what he brought into the studio. You're absolutely right. We wanted to show that it was possible to make music that you could sell on the radio and have it be deeper than just a fly-by-night notion. You can actually use more than two or three chords, etc., etc., and it worked for that period of time. By the way, Dianne is my cousin.
MR: And by the way, "Sky Islands" is still one of my favorite recordings ever!
MR: [laughs] Now with DreamWeaver, what is the song that you'd want to direct someone to listen to first that says the most about George Duke the person?
GD: That's like trying to pick which kid you like the best!
GD: I've got fifteen kids on this record, and having me choose one, that's not fair. They all have different values and different reasons.
MR: All right, fine, how about collectively? How does this hit you when you listen to it top to bottom?
GD: It's too long.
GD: [laughs] That's what hit me. I was like, "Dang, this record is too damn long!" That's what hit me. That's a true story. But for different reasons, I like the instrumental tunes like "Stones Of Orion" where Stanley Clarke is playing upright bass because it allowed us a chance to stretch out a simple jazz format. We could play melodically; we weren't just playing a whole lot of notes but it's got a nice little vibe about it. I like "Trippin'" simply because it's autobiographical. It actually tells a true story about how I got into jazz and how it influenced me as a young kid. I like "Ashtray" because it's funky and I like funk, and "Missing You," which features Rachelle Ferrell, is very important to me because that song was written specifically for my wife. I actually tried several times to sing it with the original lyrics, but it was just too emotional at the time so I wound up changing the lyrics and making them more generic to any woman as opposed to specifically my wife. Then I could go in and sing it, but I know what it means to me. So there's different things. "Change The World," with all of these singers on it...obviously that's my pipe dream to the world, where I'm saying that I feel that if there were enough people of common values and had good will at heart and if we all joined hands together, we actually could change something in this world. But maybe there's not enough of us, there's not enough will, whatever it is, it doesn't mean that we as artists should not say it, not come in and just say, "If we did this, we could actually change something." But in the end, you know, maybe it's just a pipe dream. Probably is, but it doesn't mean I couldn't say it anyway. So that's kind of what it's all about.
MR: That's beautifully said, George. I've got to ask you my traditional question, what advice do you have for new artists?
GD: Stay true to yourself, because there are too many artists who, if they've done their homework, and they've found out who they are as an artist sometimes back off of that and do what other people tell them to do or the way they see them as opposed to the way the artist sees him or herself. In other words, for me, as a creative artist, I look at it like this: The whole business is a wheel, and there are a lot of spokes on that wheel. Stravinsky has a spoke on that wheel, Miles Davis has a spoke on that wheel, Sly & The Family Stone...all the great artists that are innovators have spokes that are holding up this wheel. As a new artist, you've got to find out what you're going to be on that wheel. Find out who you are and put your spoke in that wheel. The only way you can do that is to be true to yourself and not be another Anita Baker. There's one Anita Baker, you can't have five or six more. There's only one spoke for that.
GD: And that's a difficult thing! It's easier said than done to find out who you are and bring that out and be vulnerable enough to allow that to happen. I know I'm talking a lot, but that's the way I look at it.
MR: No, it's so true. And is that the approach you take when you're in the studio with an artist?
GD: Oh yeah. I try to find out what makes that artist tick. I can't treat each artist the same. If I'm in there with Miles Davis, obviously, it's not going to be the same as if you're with Jeffrey Osborne or Barry Manilow. They're totally different artists with different needs and you try to find that. That will bring out something special in these artists. It's fun. It's actually an adventure.
MR: Yeah. What advice did you get that you think is very important?
GD: Exactly what I said, and not to put all of my eggs in one basket. That's what Frank told me. He sat me down one day and said, "George, you're too single-minded. You need to open yourself up to other forms of music and use what you like. Just because you play some 1950 kinds of doo-wop with triads doesn't mean the music doesn't have some kind of value." I was a pretty straight-laced jazz player at the time, so it took me a while to figure out the value of simpler forms of music other than straight edge jazz. That's why I'm in the shape I'm in now. I guess to answer that question, that's probably the best advice I've ever received and why I'm so eclectic now.
MR: You've done so much creatively, but what is it that you still want to do?
GD: Well there are a few things. I haven't actually done a real big band record. That's something that I hope to do before I check out. I'd like to go back to Brazil and do another Brazilian love fair album, which I think would be great with some of my friends down there, and... I've got a lot of things, so I'd better live to be an old guy! I want to be able to do some things that are more ethnic. Go to Africa and work with some musicians who don't know an A from a B flat and they just play music because that's what they have to do and see what would happen if I combine my ideas of music with what they do. I think that could be very interesting as a concept album.
MR: Beautiful. I hope you have a lot of years to get everything you need to get done, done, sir.
GD: All right, Michael, I appreciate that.
MR: All right, thank you for everything, you've been great.
GD: Thank you. Take care.
2. Stones Of Orion
5. Missing You
6. Transition 1
7. Change The World
9. Round the way girl
10. Transition 2
11. Brown Sneakers
12. You Never Know
13. Ball & Chain
14. Burnt Sausage Jam
15. Happy Trails
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Daron Hollowell
Mike Ragonga: Hi. How are you doing Daron?
Daron Hollowell: Good. How are you Mike?
MR: I'm good. You're working on the Maron soundtrack now, right?
DH: That's correct .
MR: The show is nicely boundary pushing. First of all, how did you score the gig?
DH: Well our company sort of has two arms to it. There is Black Iris Music, which is our company that does original compositions for advertising and TV, and we've been doing that for almost eight years. We also have a record label called White Iris Records--you can sort of see the connection there--and we release mostly seven inch singles by up and coming bands, which we've been doing for a couple of years now. We have a music supervisor that works with us named Anthony Roman. He got the job as the music supervisor on the show and then brought Black Iris in to compose original music for the show, which we did with Anthony Rizzo, the additional composer on the show. Through that, a few White Iris bands ended up being placed on the soundtrack throughout the course of the season, and we pitched the idea of releasing a soundtrack album for the first season of the show on White Iris, so that's kind of how that all came to pass.
MR: Did you find it easy to pair up some of your artists with the Maron soundtrack?
DH: Yeah, it was actually pretty easy. A lot of our artists are sort of up and coming indie rock bands, and I think it's the kind of music that Marc is drawn to naturally. It seemed like that music really fit the vibe of the show really well. Yeah, it just sort of came together pretty seamlessly, without too much pushing.
MR: Give us a little history about how and why Black Iris/White Iris started.
DH: The core members of Black Iris, the main owners, we were all playing in a band together some years ago, and just sort of figuring out, as people in bands do, how we were going to try to sustain our lives as musicians and how we could do what we really wanted to for a living. We just sort of happened upon some people that we knew in advertising that let us know that people wrote original music for advertising. We kind of tried our hand at that, won a few jobs and decided that we had something there. We built it from there around the other musicians that we knew and kind of brought other people in. I think our main thing was really about trying to keep our artistic dreams alive and keep real music alive. That's sort of what we started doing for ourselves, and then we extended that out to other people we knew from playing in bands.
MR: What are some of the most successful projects that you've been associated with?
DH: We've done quite a bit of stuff for advertising. We actually did this Toyota music video for one of their mini-vans called Swagger Wagon, which ended up being a huge viral hit on YouTube. That was one of our higher profile projects. We also have worked on soundtracks for everything from the McGruber movie to working in conjunction with The Lonely Island on some of the SNL digital shorts. On the record label side, we've done early singles for bands like Best Coast and FIDLAR, who have gone on to do well in the larger indie rock world.
MR: What are some of the bands on White Iris that we should be looking at?
DH: This year, we actually have a lot of exciting up and coming stuff. We kind of pride ourselves on being really early with some of these bands. We like to say that the bands that we're putting out now are the bands you'll hear about in about six months. We just recently worked with an artists called Ludwig Persik from New York, who is a real up and coming artist and he's on the Maron soundtrack. We worked with a band called Strange Names from Minneapolis, who has a single that just came out--their really fantastic. There's this band from LA that we're really excited about called Quitapenas, who play essentially Cumbia music, but it's sort of an updated version of that and it's really fun party music. Those are some of the things this year that we've been concentrating on. There are a lot of good White Iris bands on the Maron soundtrack as well.
MR: Beyond Maron, what's going on with your collective over the next few months?
DH: We're kind of continuing to do what we do on the original music side, and most of the artists that we work with on the label side are involved in that in one way or another. Again, it's about helping people sustain and keep their lives going, so they get involved either singing on tracks or composing for us in the projects we do on the original music side. Advertising has been the big bulk of it, but it looks like there are a couple of TV shows that I can't quite mention yet because they're not yet solidified... But yeah, we've been working on more and more TV work, and we're excited to see what comes out in the next few months. Currently, we're working on an array of different advertising projects--everything from Norwegian Cruise Lines to Lincoln car commercials to the Delta in-flight safety video that you see when you're getting ready to take off. It's just a whole range of different projects that we put our music on.
MR: Do you also supply music for industrials or any infomercials?
DH: We've done a little bit of that historically, throughout the course of the company, but less of that now. It seems to be more TV spots and more TV shows now. We're also starting to work our way into film as well.
MR: What is your advice for new artists?
DH: Really just to keep going, and if you really believe in what you're doing and actually keep working at it, then there are ways to sustain that and make it successful. So being consistent and not giving up are the biggest things when it comes to being an artist.
MR: Anything else we need to know on the Black Iris/White Iris front?
DH: The big thing is to look for this Maron soundtrack. We're really excited about it.
MR: Would you ever have been able to predict how popular a show this became?
DH: You know, I think Marc is really having a moment right now. His podcast has been extremely successful. We had a really good time working with him on the show. We felt like it was really funny and we hoped it would catch on. It's doing really well, and I think everything is just kind of lining up for him right now. It's just exciting to be a part of something that is, like you said, boundary pushing. It's quality work and it's really funny.
MR: Thank you so much for your time, Daron, and all the best with Maron and beyond.
DH: Great. Thank you Mike, I appreciate it.
1. Messin' Up My Mind - Fletcher C. Johnson
2. Poisoned Well - Maron Theme
3. Roman Ruins - Line & Circle
4. The Night's So Cold - El Sportivo & The Blooz
5. Come On Home - Tyrone Ashley's Funky Music Machine
6. Bosco's Blues - The Sugarman Three & Co.
7. Heel Toe - Dawn Landes
8. What's Your Name - NO
9. Breaks My Heart - El Sportivo & The Blooz
10. Friends of Friends - Hospitality
11. Widow of My Dreams - Obits
12. No Go - Ludwig Persik
13. Give Me a Chance - Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney
THE spot for your favorite fan theories and the best Netflix recs. Learn more