A Conversation with Gerry Beckley
Mike Ragogna: Gerry, your new album is titled Unfortunate Casino and let's hear the story behind that in a moment. But first, how and where did this project begin?
Gerry Beckley: Well, I have a studio at the house, so I record throughout the year. Having said that, I travel about 200 days a year with my partner, Dewey (Bunnell). Obviously, that takes up a huge chunk of time, so my available time is kind of limited. Having said that, I do start to build up a group of tunes every few years, so I try to lump them all together and put out an album.
MR: And that's what happened this time?
GB: Yeah. I had recently produced an album for Jeff Larson. He is a solo indie guy and he did a whole album of my stuff. So, that kind of took up the gap where I might of done a record last time. It all has to fit in...time isn't the enemy, it's the challenge.
MR: Did you write all new material for Unfortunate Casino?
GB: My songs sit around in half completed states for years, although this album is the mostly new stuff. Most of this stuff, I wrote in the last few years, but there is still a batch of stuff from over the years, and I keep adding to it. Sometimes, it's just a verse, or the opposite--it might be a chorus that needs verses. It just takes a little focus to bring all of those home. Sometimes, I will have something that I started twenty years ago.
MR: You wrote a couple of songs with a mutual friend, Bill Mumy--"Hello" and "Simpson Sky."
GB: Yes I did, Bill is a dear friend. He is one of the first people we all met when we moved to LA. He has remained very close and a super musician himself. Sometimes, I bring him in on some lyrical things if they need touching up.
MR: He is terrific, yeah. So, I admire your song "Unfortunate Casino," and it's my favorite song on the record. Is this sentiment something you felt while playing in Vegas at some point?
GB: No. I mean, we do a lot of casinos and they are popping up just when you think you've played them all. For example, last year, we ended up doing a run of three or four in Oklahoma, none of which we had played. I have to say--because the title can be a bit misleading--most of these are just really great experiences. We are treated fantastic, and they have done a great deal to make our years successful from year to year. Some of them are our favorite destinations, but on occasion, there are some very remote places you get out to and you think, "How did I get here?" You go in and it's nothing but a few trailers of nickel slots or something, that's quite a different experience.
MR: Which has to be as surprising as it is sketchy, I bet. But that title is pretty magnificent, it's a great image and phrase.
GB: The whole thing about the theme is that regardless, for better or worse, we are going to roll out of there in the morning. Whatever this reality is--be it something over the top in Vegas or something far more remote--our life is really a day here, a day there, and we are really resigned to that. This is our 41st year, it does make you ponder.
MR: What was it like creating the album?
GB: For anybody who writes, very often, when you finish an album, you are so done with it. You've been listening in minutia, in super-focus. In this case, however, this album is very new material to me, and I could kind of hang with it longer. It's also the first time, over an entire project, that I've brought in my son, Matthew Beckley. He's doing quite well as a producer in his own right, and frankly, it was a little hard to find the time. It was well worth it though because I could turn over a lot of the stuff for what I would call "the completion stage" to him. He's got great ears and I really trust him. I think you can hear the result, I think it really sounds good. The thing about doing a record with your own name on it is that it's no longer a democracy, like being in a band, which I've been very successful with my partner and I. You do sometimes defer some of the decisions, but when you're doing a solo record, it's really all up to you, and your name's going to go on it, so you have to think it all the way through.
MR: Are there any songs on Unfortunate Casino that you are particularly close to or have a special connection with?
GB: Well, I try, in general, no matter what the song is, to come up with something that might on the surface sound light, but f you dig into it a little bit more, there is a little bit more to it. Songs like "Hello" are, basically on first listen, a Beatles-type thing. In fact, I was going to use it as the title cut...it's an ancient title we hovered around a bit with America projects. For some reason, it didn't become the title track, but there's a deeper message in the tune. It really means, wake up, kind of "helloooo" with a question mark.
MR: One of the more fun songs on this record is "Remembering." It switches back and forth between an '80s new wave track and a '50s-influenced song.
GB: Again, I think bringing my son in on this production makes it sound more modern. I've cut it a million times at home and it just never seemed quite right. I knew the idea and the hook was really clear, but it wasn't really until we started laying it down with a somewhat more technical background that it started to jell. The outro has a lot of layers, which I like to do. I like to have repeated listenings give you more information about the song. So, this is one of those that the more you listen, the more you pick up.
MR: Got any more stories behind the songs?
GB: There is one that comes to mind now because I was saying these songs sit around for ages. There is a song called "Feeling Slow," which, truth be told, I completely forgot about. One day, we were on a plane flying to do some dates with Three Dog Night, some good friends of ours. Danny Hutton is one of my oldest friends from the '70s, and I give him a "thank you" on the album. The reason I give him a thank you is because he had his laptop open and he handed it to me and said, "Have a listen to this." He had been transferring what was played in his house--we used to gather there all the time and he had a piano. There was a song of mine called "Feelings Flow" that I had completely forgotten about. He said, "Look what I found," and it all came rushing back to me. I said, "That's so great, can you email that to me?" So, a song that had completely disappeared from the memory banks just came back to life. I love how it came out, and we did kind of a Bacharach thing with the horn, and that's why there is a thank you to Danny. This song is from the early '70s and we thought it was lost.
MR: It's also one of my favorites because it has that acoustic guitar, swing beat, and it sounds so reverent to "Raindrops Fallin' On My Head" that I'm tempted to ask if that's an uncredited Herb Alpert on the trumpet.
GB: No but it was really an homage to that. Also I kind of approached this like a Harry Nilsson song, but I will let the listener decide.
MR: You were pals with Harry Nilsson?
GB: Yeah, I was very close with Harry. If you haven't seen it, there is a wonderful documentary called Who Is Harry Nilsson And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?? It was in theaters for a few years, but it's now on Netflix. I'm one of the people that's interviewed in that documentary, but he was a good friend. I met him all the way back in 1971. He was a dear friend of Derek Taylor who was at Warner Brothers in the UK. Harry was going to record my song "I Need You" as the follow up to "Without You," but it never came about. We put it out as a single, which was our follow up to "A Horse With No Name." That was how we first got introduced, and he was a dear friend through all those years. Harry was prolific by himself, but it's ironic that his two biggest hits were songs that he didn't write. But he was really an incredible songwriter. That actually connects to Danny Hutton because their first hit the song "One," which was a number one record with Three Dog Night was written by Harry.
MR: What was it like working with Matthew Beckley in the studio?
GB: Quite a few years ago, I kind of turned that page where he technically knows more then I do. I definitely make a point of staying up to date because we continue to work and I work with other acts and stuff. I don't like for that gap to get to any size between what most people are doing in the studio and how I do it. I converted my room to Pro Tools and everything years ago, but there are always advances and Matthew is very technically savvy. He has been starting to build a big legacy, and every time I read up on him, he always seems to be known as the guy that works with Katy Perry and Britney and stuff, which is true, but he has a very indie side to him. He's just produced an album by one of our favorite groups, Low from Duluth, and he is also doing some great work with labels like Sub Pop so he is a pretty well-rounded guy.
MR: What's the father/son relationship like working together?
GB: Well, surprisingly good. I'm not sure I would be great with anybody over a long period of time, it can kind of strain. But nowadays, with everybody having their own studios, you can kind of do it for a few hours then take it home and work on it on your own time. That's the same with my son. He has his own room at his place. In fact, I was reading an interview with Nels Cline who was playing on the Low album and he was talking about going over to Matthew's house and recording there. It worked independently, but it also worked pretty well together.
MR: And, of course, you worked with George Martin as your producer. How did that union happen?
GB: The simple answer is we just called him up. We had finished our third America album and it took months and months, and we thought it's becoming a harder job to do all of this and tour. So, we just looked at the top of our list and we said wow and thought it would be great if he could consider it; we called him up and he said yes. We were not an unknown band, we had a bunch of hit songs and number one albums. He was looking for something to do, so it just worked out, and it was good timing.
MR: What were the dynamics like in the studio with him?
GB: I loved it. We did seven consecutive albums with George and it was a real learning experience. He is a fantastic guy and we stay in touch to this day. He taught us a lot about focus and keeping your eye on the prize.
MR: I imagine you're going on the road at some point to promote this record?
GB: I don't do solo dates. I have in the past only because a certain set of circumstances gave me a few months. In general, the work with the band takes up my time. We do about a hundred shows a year as America. That's 200 days of travel. As far as promoting this, I'm trying to just do interviews and talk about it if and when I can. I don't think I'm going to do dates though.
MR: It's what, 41 years later and so many records, awards, and hits.
GB: Well we've done very well. I still love to do this which is how come the solo albums show up every few years. It's just that time of year again. It's kind of neat.
MR: And as America, you still tour with Dewey Bunnell.
GB: Yeah, but not only with him. We've had a great band--Willie Lee Cox on drums, who has been with us for 38 years, Mike Woods on lead guitar for 33, the newest guy, Rich Campbell, has been with us for ten years so. It's a real family thing.
MR: When you first were having hits you also had Crosby, Stills & Nash out. You guys had a very different vocal blend though, how much work did you put in the beginning putting that sound together or was it just natural?
GB: I think the initial part is natural, you either have a blend or you don't. In our case, there was three singers. Dan Peek was with us till '77, and you just kind of found where you fit in the mix--Dan was usually the high voice. It turned into a blend. It's the difference between the doo-wop bands that led to The Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills & Nash, which was a very strong three-part on almost every song. I think in our case, just the sound of our voices made it that much different, and it has done very well for us.
MR: Gerry, you have so many memorable hits--"A Horse With No Name," "I Need You," "Sister Golden Hair," "Tin Man," "Daisy Jane," "Ventura Highway," "Lonely People"... And "You Can Do Magic" is technically your last big single, right?
GB: Yeah, well, it was one of our comebacks, that was in the '80s. We've had a few, we did an album for Sony a few years back which did very well and got us back on the Billboard charts too.
MR: That was the double CD, it was pretty popular.
GB: The record Here And Now was produced by Adam Schlesinger from Fountains Of Wayne and James Iha from Smashing Pumpkins. We included a second CD which included the live recordings.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
GB: There is a course at Loyola that a dear friend of mine, John Hartmann who is a professor there, and I speak at every semester. I try and come up with something that doesn't sound cliche. First of all, I tell people to be themselves because what they bring to the table is unique. They are their own self, and never fear about writing your heart or writing your feelings. That's an honest, real direction. Also, I like to say when people start to get derivative and say, "I like so and so as an act," I don't think people should shy away from that. I think what you end up being as a creative person is that you end up being in your own world a super group of all of the people you have listened to over the years. Hopefully, you've combined elements that nobody else combines, and what you end up with is unique and nobody has your sound. The same for myself. The things I write are combinations of all of the people that have been influences to me. Also, I think our group sound was something that combined not just the harmonies of Crosby, Stills & Nash, but also the British Beatles elements. You end up, hopefully, with a pretty good cross-section.
2. Unfortunate Casino
3. Feelings Flow
5. Dark River
8. Cup of Rain
9. Simpson Sky
10. Fortune Fells
(transcribed by Theo Shier)