Wang Chung was one of the most successful groups of the 1980s, and they recently released Tazer Up!, their first new full-length recording in over twenty years. What follows is an interview with Wang Chung's Jack Hues (guitarist, composer and lead singer). It's a candid view into one of the most successful groups of that era and their re-emergence with a new recording. The discussion includes being "abducted by the '80s," teaching composition at a University, writing the music for a 1980s crime drama, leading a jazz quartet and, of course, the new album, Tazer Up!
Nick Feldman and Jack Hues, live at Mohegan Sun Casino, Connecticut, 2010.
Photo by Melanie Ryder.
JH: Nick and I got to a place where we wanted to work together again -- that's the most important thing. Then there were opportunities around our publishing and our back-catalogue that sort of threw us together again. I write all the time so there was a back-log of songs to draw on and Nick did some writing too, having worked more in the A&R world for many years.
KE: How did you and Nick work together to write the songs? What do you each "bring to the table" in a project like this? Has that changed from your work together in the '80s?
JH: Back in the '80s we would get together every month or so and play each other ideas and would usually spend a bit of time bouncing ideas around. I usually wrote things on my own, but Nick is much better at collaborating than I am so we would usually work on his songs together -- I would often write the lyrics. As I'm the singer it was useful for me to have input on that level. On Tazer Up! the songs are more "solo" but we would work on each other's stuff in the studio as we were producing the album ourselves. And "Overwhelming Feeling" was a deliberate attempt to replicate our old style of writing where Nick came up with the opening phrases and the title and I contributed the lyrics and the other sections of music.
KE: What are the biggest differences between working on this album in 2012 and the last album 20 years ago?
JH: We produced this album ourselves together with Adam Wren, who engineered most of it. Adam has a studio in Camden Town where we recorded some tunes, but most of the songs were started at my home studio -- I would get them to a certain level and then give them to Adam and he would make them sound good! We did everything on Apple's Logic software with a few extra plug-ins and we used our own drum samples. Adam is a great synth programmer and has all sorts of strange old machines that we used. I complain about Logic and how it makes everything sound shiny and bland, but if you use your own sound sources it is a phenomenal tool with which to create recordings. It is a very "digital" album -- we made no attempt to try and get a nice, warm analog sound. We tried to make a virtue of it sounding home-made and gritty.
I guess the big differences are that in the '80s we worked with a record company and a powerful producer who would direct us and quality control everything and we would work continuously on an album, in a big expensive studio, for as long as it took. With Tazer Up! we worked off and on (mainly off) for three or four years, mostly at home, at our own pace and with only the three of us to decide what was "right" and the record is a lot more personal as a result.
KE: "Abducted by the '80s" is an interesting collaborative effort-can you tell us about the genesis of this song?
JH: When my daughter was at University she went to see a poet named Rob Gee doing his act. He performed a poem called "Abducted by the '80s" and she bought a copy of a recording of it for me, as she thought I'd be amused. I started to mess around with the recording and I played it to Nick who loved it and said (with his A&R instincts) "There is a great song in there...somewhere!" We worked on it some more and there are 2 versions of it -- one is the original 6 minute setting of the complete poem (which is on one of the Abducted by the '80s EP's that we released in 2010) and the other is the "song" version which is featured on Tazer Up!. The EP version is my original version which takes the whole poem, written and read by Rob Gee, and sets it over my version/imitation/homage to Steve Reich's "Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ." At the time I was working on a piece using the same ingredients as Reich's piece -- a contrapuntal layer of short interlocking melodies played on sine wave generators (his uses mallet instruments) and 2 chords whose durations get longer and longer eventually swamping the whole piece -- I then run the whole process backwards. I placed the poetry reading over the top of all this and, with a few edits to make space for the music, the 2 elements, music and poetry, just fitted together perfectly. Nick loved this version, but, as I said, he thought there was a song in there somewhere so I took it away and wrote the lyrics commenting on the poem and on the '80s in general.
KE: The version of "Abducted by the '80s" on Tazer Up! is an interesting reflection on the '80s. That didn't come across as strongly on the EP, which was more sardonic and humorous. But the lyrics on the "song version" really make it more poignant, as if you're both acknowledging and distancing yourselves from the era at the same time. Did you feel like the era swept you into its embraces somehow?
JH: I did indeed feel that we were swept along in the embrace of that era, as you put it so well, that we found ourselves at the end of the '80s rather marooned -- like waking up after a heavy party in someone else's clothes in a railway siding in the middle of nowhere, while everybody else "was moooooving on"! It partly felt like that.
KE: I downloaded the album from iTunes and I find it disconcerting that I don't know the names of the various players on most recordings today. Does this bother you? Is this healthy for the music? Is there something lost in our downloading/streaming world?
JH: It does bother me. The details of when, where, how, who recorded what all add context to a record and, as with so much in the arts, context is very important. Just hearing a tune out of the blue is not the best way to experience music. Having said that, all the drums are programmed, apart from "City of Light," which is played by Bid Beresford, and all the instruments are played by me and Nick -- all the vocals are us. There are a few obvious samples that we've interpolated, but really, everything you hear is Wang or Chung.
KE: It seems like very few groups are making much money from recordings anymore, as product placement, soundtracks, live shows and merchandising have become much more prominent in pop music. How does this all of this figure into your marketing plans for a new album in this new digital world we live in? Does this affect the writing in any appreciable manner?
JH: All the new digital outlets for music, plus usage in movies and TV have been very good for us over the last few years so we hope the new tracks will find uses as well. We are under no illusions, however, that the old songs are used for their ability to locate a time and place, for nostalgia, and that is cool with us. The fact that "Space Junk" was used in "The Walking Dead" gives me hope that some of our newer material has a dramatic, evocative quality that will grace cool movies and shows in the future. All this has no effect on the writing, other than confirming my long held belief that if you do things that you love, that you feel committed to, then other people will feel that too and they will get into it.
KE: The soundtrack for "To Live and Die in L.A." (which is still a popular '80s crime drama) is really outstanding -- it's hard to imagine the movie without the music you wrote for it. The title track is, in my opinion, a masterpiece of songwriting, and the acoustic version on your EP last year provides another dimension to it, coming a quarter of a century after it was originally recorded. What is remarkable to me is the marriage of music, lyrics and mood that mirror the movie's tragic theme (and the ennui of L.A. in general). It's such a great version of the song-why wasn't it included on Tazer Up!?
JH: Thank you for the high compliment! We didn't include the acoustic version of "To Live and Die in L.A." on Tazer Up! because we wanted the new album to be entirely new material. But what about "Dance Hall Days" I hear you say? Well, we were persuaded that including a familiar track from the past would help people, who were vaguely aware of us, remember more clearly...and we like Psychemagik, who did the remix. And it's important to contradict yourself at least once a day...
KE: Since you mention "Dance Hall Days," is it true that it was considered by Michael Jackson for the "Thriller" album?
JH: Yes, it was actually considered as a possible track for "Thriller." We had a meeting with Quincy Jones about it and he wanted us to make the lyric less weird. I couldn't see how to do that and the idea faded out anyway. I think Geffen wanted to keep it for Wang Chung -- interesting twist of fate had it happened.
KE: You mention that the lyrics for "Dance Hall Days" were a bit too "weird" for Michael Jackson and his producer, which I understand completely. I find that there is often a delicious irony or perhaps even a slightly menacing contradiction in your music between the surface level message and the lyrics. (For example, in one of your biggest hits "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" the lyrics in the bridge suddenly take a positively existentialist turn, while at the same time the melody begins a downward spiral from the heights of the male vocal range in the middle of one of the era's most famous "party tunes.") I could cite many other examples of this, including some of the cryptic lyrics on the new album. Is this something that you do consciously?
JH: It is often a conscious element in the lyrics. That particular section in "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" felt like a necessary balancing ingredient to the party-time mood of the rest of the track and I always loved the idea that some people would get the "message." As you say, the vocal melody covers 1 1/2 octaves and there are more chord changes over the pedal bass note in that section than in most complete songs! With "City of Light," on the new album, I was consciously drawing on lots of different sources for the lyrics -- Rosicrucianism, Edward Burne --Jones' painting, "The Sleep of Arthur," Whistler's "Nocturne in Blue and Silver," the novels of Haruki Murakami -- although the track is a rocker, albeit slightly skewed, I think most people hear it as that -- but if you start listening "in" to the track you start to hear all these references. When I was growing up listening to music in the '60s and '70s this sort of dual level, or multi-level approach was normal. The Beatles increasingly slipped all kinds of cultural references into their work from the cover of Sgt. Pepper to "Tomorrow Never Knows" to "Paper-Back Writer." It wasn't all just drug references, but sexual innuendo too -- an obvious example would be "Day Tripper" -- the BBC played all those tracks about prostitutes and a certain sex act! It was all very amusing!
KE: Since my first post about Wang Chung, I've heard from professional musicians all across the US and Canada who are (as I discovered) also Wang Chung fans. One jazz pianist told me that when he drives to gigs with other players, Wang Chung is always on the CD player. Does that surprise you?
JH: I am flattered! When we signed to Geffen and we were looking for a producer for our first album with them, Gary Katz, Steely Dan's producer, was suggested and we met him in NYC. There was a sense at that time that we had an affinity with Steely Dan which I found interesting. I guess the first Wang Chung album had quite a distinct sound which, looking back at it, came from blending classic English '60s/'70s pop and punk with Stravinsky and neo-Classical 20th Century music. This wasn't a conscious thing, but I was always into creating hybrids, as was Nick, and I guess you could hear this as "jazzy" even though I was not interested in jazz per se at that time.
KE: What do you think has made the group so appealing to average listeners and professional musicians at the same time? That's an unusual combination that very few popular music groups achieve, especially those with era-defining mega-hits like you've had.
JH: I think that Nick and I cover quite a lot of ground musically speaking and I think we've always tried to play it down the line between art-rock and pop-rock. "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" being a good example of out-and-out commercial opportunism in many ways, but hopefully the people who who had any regard for our previous work would smile at the piles of chords and ridiculously elongated melody of the bridge that you referenced earlier -- I always hoped that was a nod and a wink that we hadn't given up on slipping the "other" stuff through!
KE: We always hear about groups getting shafted by the record company and not reaping the profits from their first big hits. How did the group navigate the treacherous waters of the music industry during that time? (If it's not too personal, did those tunes set you up financially enough to remain independent?)
JH: We were very fortunate to have an excellent manager -- David Massey, who now runs Mercury Records in NYC -- who was scrupulously honest and set things up so that the money came to us over the long term. I think, in the early '80s, it was the ideal combination of publishers and labels being generous and decent about the deals, after the excesses of the '60s and '70s, (and of course there was plenty of money sloshing around) and managers seeing the Music Business as a proper business venture over the long term, not just an opportunity to grab some cash and run. So yes, those tunes still pay (most of) the bills.
KE: I wasn't aware until recently that you teach composition at Christ Church University in Canterbury. That's also quite unique for someone with your background as an international pop star. Would you talk about your experiences as a composition teacher?
JH: I started teaching about eight years ago to get myself out of the house! Being a writer can be a very isolated condition. I met a guy who was starting up the commercial music course here in Canterbury and began doing just a couple of hours a week. He asked if I would teach guitar, but I don't like teaching guitar so I said, how about Songwriting? That seemed like a more philosophical subject to me that would encourage a creative approach to music rather than the inevitable grade-exam structure that would come with instrumental teaching. Also, guitarists like such awful music! Now I teach 10 hours per week covering all 3 years of the degree course -- so its not like I'm full time, but I wrote my part of the course and I feel like I contribute a good amount to the students' experience here. And I learn a huge amount from them.
KE: Can composition be "taught?"
JH: It can be encouraged and, if you have someone who is talented, you can expand their horizons. I preface my course with the proviso that I can't teach you how to write a great song, but I can give you a methodology so that, if there is a song inside you, it will come out, and I believe everybody has a song inside them somewhere. I believe music should be taught as a creative, arts subject, not just jumping through hoops by getting grades and being proficient on an instrument. That's good for some people, but the majority will never be concert-level players so they should be free to explore creative possibilities in music. At that point, song writing is at least therapeutic and a way of developing your appreciation of music and at best it becomes a way of life!
KE: What artists and styles do you listen to today?
JH: The teaching helps me to be aware of more recent artists and bands through the students bringing me stuff to listen to. I'm a big Radiohead fan, I like Jon Hopkins -- his album Insides is very beautiful, and I'm a big fan of a New York based band called The Books. I like some of the Lana Del Ray album very much and I'm a big DJ Shadow fan and think his new album has some brilliant moments, a bit of a return to form.
I've been listening to Robert Wyatt a lot recently -- I've been analyzing "Sea Song" with my students in his version and in a version by The Unthanks. I saw them just before Christmas doing a gig where they played a set of music by Anthony and The Johnsons and then a second set of Robert's songs -- fabulous music making.
I listen to jazz -- Miles Davis -- all periods, but especially 1967 - 75, Coltrane, Monk, Mingus, Ornette and all the classic late '40s to mid '70s music. Modern musicians: I like Brad Mehldau -- Largo was a very important record for me -- The Bad Plus, Polar Bear, Wynton Marsalis' small group projects. Evan Parker lives near me and we meet at gigs and parties occasionally -- I'm in awe of him so I never say much...I'm not a fan of Metheny (although I quite like some of his '80s album with Ornette) and Keith Jarrett and what I consider to be soft jazz. I don't like the emotional space that it exists in, too sentimental for me, much as I concede that these guys are phenomenal players.
And I listen a lot to Classical music. I love Mozart more than Bach...if that gives you a pointer. There is a new recording of the Berg Violin Concero by Isabelle Faust and Claudio Abbaddo and I'm listening to that a lot. I've loved the piece since I heard it at University, but it is such a deep, dark piece that I periodically go back to it -- I've been studying the score and playing it very slowly at the piano. I love J. S. Bach (and C. P. E.), Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner, Debussy, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovitch. The Viennese guys like Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, Schreker and Zemlinsky, Johannes Strauss and his team, moderns like Boulez, Stockhausen and especially Lucian Berio. Getting into Wolfgang Rihm, I love Steve Reich, struggle with Philip Glass but like some of it. And, these days, I love Italian opera -- Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti -- less keen on Puccini.
KE: What groups influenced you as you were developing when you were a teenager?
JH: The Beatles above all, but The Kinks, Small Faces, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys when I was very young: then Cream, Hendrix, Pink Floyd and onto prog bands like Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Led Zep -- I consider them a prog band. Little Feat were very important as were Todd Rundgren's '70s solo albums, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Neil Young; Steve Stills solo, and Joni Mitchell -- Bob Dylan is very important to me now but it wasn't until I got into jazz that I really appreciated Dylan -- and that is to do with the spontaneity in his recordings, rather than any stylistic considerations. David Bowie was very important in my late teens and went onto be the link to art-rock bands like Television, Talking Heads, XTC and punks like The Ramones, Sex Pistols and Clash (who I saw as art-school bands rather than social revolutionaries).
KE: How important do you think it is for young musicians coming up to have a grasp of music theory and music history?
I think it is very important. The old Rock 'n' Roll adage that says "I don't know what I'm doing and, if I did, I wouldn't be able to do it anymore," is rubbish and frankly disguises a lot of complacency and explains why so many rock musicians fall back into mediocre recycling of things they did much better years ago. Once the froth and spark of one's initial engagement with music has cooled, once it is no longer all new for you, it is your intellect that carries you forward into new territory, new questions, new points of view and I think engaging with music in all its manifestations -- the different genres, theory, history, biographies, etc. are absolutely essential.
Live at Audley End House, UK, 2012.
Photo by Melanie Ryder.
KE: Are there any classical composers or theorists that have influenced your writing?
Absolutely. All those composers on the list of what I listen to have influenced me, but I would single out Schubert for his ability to turn on a dime with modulations, Stravinsky for harmonic "sharpness" is the adjective I would use and a fresh, witty approach to the music of the past.
It's hard to be sure that it is a bone fide "influence," but I think listening to a Beethoven or Mozart piano sonata, or symphony, or string quartet from beginning to end helps develop a sense of long-term harmonic center. You start to feel that sense of proportion and tension/resolution over the long term. So in a song you can feel the sense of home key, even if you have left it behind. You get this in Brian Wilson songs -- "God Only Knows," and Beatles songs-endless examples, but "A Day in the Life" is a dramatic one. But I think Classical composers really think in 3D about harmonic journeys and, once you get over the stylistic barriers and start to hear it as just "Music," well then you are off on a lifetime's quest to experience it all. I say experience, rather than understand, because I don't know if I will ever understand it, but I want to experience it all.
KE: The music business has changed immensely with the advent of a wide variety of technologies-internet, MP3s, inexpensive recording technologies, file-sharing, etc. From your perspective, how has the industry changed?
Computers and the internet have changed the music industry as they have changed society. In a way everything is as entrenched as it has always been, but there is more information masquerading as knowledge, more chatter pretending to be conversation, more noise generally, so that it is hard to see a cutting edge. The consumer consumes, the audience takes the stage...
Music was/is always technology-led, whether it be the invention of the violin, or piano, or radio, magnetic tape, electric guitars or MTV. Composers and performers are also defined by their economic relationships with those who pay for their work. The rise of the PC revolutionized the technology of recording, but the internet has taken the means of music production and distribution out of the closed world of record companies and placed it in the hands of anyone who fancies having a go. Making a recording is now like taking a photograph -- anybody can do it, which is simultaneously great and...not great. However, writing a song is still a challenge of imagination and writing a great song is something miraculous, however internet savvy you may or may not be. As always, there are plenty of people who exploit the medium without much concern for the message, but there are still those who create great work.
KE: How do you advise young musicians who are just now entering the field?
There are all sorts of ways to make a career in music from the extreme discipline of the classical virtuoso to the creative "chancers" who luck out with a one-hit-wonder. In my experience they are both passionate about music, love what they do and can feel when it's right. If you have that, then go out and play to people, listen (or don't listen) to what they say and build a following for yourself. Study your instrument, listen to great artists, be obsessive about what you believe to be great and work towards writing your own music and songs. The creative independence that writing your own music brings allows you to define the progress of your career on your own terms. Also writing music is how you can make money, unless, of course, you are a phenomenal performer and/or re-creative musician. Be shrewd about how you interface with the music business. Ideally, get a business-oriented person that you trust to represent you but, don't do things only for money -- especially to begin with. Later on there are certain chances that present themselves that may necessitate compromise...believe me I've been there! If you earn money from being a musician then that's great, but, if that is your main reason for getting into music, then you will be very unhappy.
A few years ago, I was sitting with David Massey who used to manage Wang Chung back in the day. David is a very successful record company executive and we were in his lovely New York apartment and he said, "You just keep showing up. That's what I do, every day I go to the office, I do what I can, I don't give up, I just keep showing up." And that's what I do. Don't give up, just keep showing up.
Photo by Scott Roeben.