A Conversation With Dar Williams
Mike Ragogna: Dar, hi. Let's get into "I Am The One Who Will Remember" from your new album In The Time Of Gods.
Dar Williams: Sure!
MR: It's very powerful, and it's so true that many kids in the Middle East will continue to have a negative view of the world unless things change.
DW: Well, it's looking at a cycle, which is something that gives me a lot of priorities to look at. When I heard, after 9/11, that the Taliban was mostly comprised of the orphans from the war between Russia and Afghanistan, my response was, "So how do we get in right now to places like refugee camps? How do we avoid conflicts so that you don't have these incredibly marginalized kids who grow up with no parents to sort of temper all of the terrible things of the world and nurture you through it? How do we avoid the kinds of situations that create generations of grown up orphans with no parents, who have no compassion, who know war, who create war, who do things out of fear and a sense of need? How do you break the cycle?" Geopolitically, I'm sure the answer is that you can't avoid a war. If a war has to happen, a war has to happen. But there's got to be a time when you say, "We're creating cycles of war," because you're creating cycles of violence. It makes me want to, when I retire, go overseas to refugee camps and just be a full time grandmother to as many children as possible. Something that breaks the cycle.
Listen to Dar Williams' "I Am The One Who Will Remember Everything":
MR: Of course, in the United States, my feeling is that we have something similar in that there are generations of kids that are brought up in ignorance. They're brought up to not participate in the government, or if they do, do so uninformed beyond how their religious organizations or extreme groups want them to vote. I mean, Timothy McVeigh didn't happen out of nowhere is my point.
DR: Exactly. That was why I put in the line that said, "Scour the earth and find the orphans of forgetting," because that was broad. And it's true that the location of the song is, in my mind, a refugee camp in some of these really bleak border areas that were never meant to be for habitation, so there's just not enough water and there's not enough food and it's very dusty. There are a lot of them, and they're all over the world, and most of them are from war. The orphans of forgetting are any kid who's in that shadow of negligence and who is therefore more susceptible to being raised by words and ideologies than by humans who have words and ideologies. There's just a big difference between zealotry and even having parents who are really extreme in some way. They're still parents. A lot of times, kids will take the words and the nurturing and they'll make their own decisions, and they'll still have guidance. I really value people besides parents who nurture kids. I have a friend who had a horrific upbringing, and she's like, "But there was Mrs. So-And-So, my third grade teacher," and she just made that one teacher her talisman or good luck charm and her model and her goal. Then she found other people that she could also kind of look to, but it really started with this one teacher. For one of my friends, and this is an ideology, I'm sure you'd say she'd listen to All Things Considered. That actually speaks to the idea of a text that's raising a child more than a parent. But for a kid to hook into things that feel civilizing to them and not extreme can also be okay. We have to look for them. We have to look for the kids who are being neglected by their parents or the system, and it's at our own peril if we don't. That's really what I was saying. But you're right, the orphans of forgetting can be anywhere. It can be in your backyard.
MR: There you go. By the way, how's mommyhood been treating you?
DW: I love it! (laughs) But there's a chance that my kids do need some extra supervision because I do go away. They've got some great grandmas on the case and a great dad, so I'm not going to feel that sorry for them. Yeah, they don't have as conventional a mom in me as some other kids, although when I'm home, I'm way home, so I'm kind of a combination of a stay at home mom and nomad.
MR: Ok, back to In the Time Of Gods. Where does that title come from?
DW: The themes of the songs are based on Greek mythology, and that was kind of an interesting theme. Mike, you used to work at Razor & Tie, and my joke is that I've been with Razor & Tie for 17 years, so it's really important to mess with them! (laughs) If I wanted to pursue this Greek mythology thing, why not? It actually turned out that each of the themes I looked at sprung open and seemed very modern -- the god of forges and volcanoes. The more you look at that story, which seems pretty obscure and ancient, the more you see. He's married to the goddess of beauty, but she's messing around with the god of war. He just likes to tinker in his workshop. He just likes to be left alone for hours and hours and create beautiful things, but he's extremely clumsy socially and shy and gentle, and he has a limp. He's a god, but he has a limp. So he has limited mobility and is constantly reminded of his limitations, yet he creates irresistibly beautiful things. And then in my mind, as a modern character, he then just likes to watch Mythbusters and likes to experiment with TNT, and his backyard is filled with little holes where he detonated stuff, and that's kind of his anger management. I just thought that to me is how that ancient architect comes alive in the present without any work, on my part, without my forcing and retrofitting this character in. We know that guy who makes beautiful things, who loves his solitude, who loves his life, but doesn't understand it and hardly comes above ground to be above the subterranean world.
MR: (laughs) I've always been fascinated with those myths, and I think that most people who grew up reading them still are. Maybe it's because they're such archetypes, like the basis of everything.
DW: It's so powerful.
MR: What was the reaction on Cliff (Chenfeld) and Craig (Balsam)'s faces when you delivered an album titled In The Time Of Gods?
DW: Well, they have a new guy on the floor who's kind of in charge of the whole project, and I remember meeting them for coffee -- the product manager and the head of the floor. One of them is a real fan and supporter, and then there was this new person. And the new person, he's very handsome. He has sort of ice blue eyes, and he just looked straight ahead at me. (laughs) The room just fell a few degrees. Nothing happened. His face was just immobile, and this manager is saying, "I think what she's saying..." So he was trying to kind of warm things up, but this little café just got a little cold. This guy just said, "I'd like to hear some of this material." (laughs) And it turned out fine. I think that they were afraid that I was going to say, "I am Athena, I am the goddess of justice! I beat my breastplate! I have an owl named Nike! I wear a toga!" There are a lot of places where I kind of go off the path of Greek mythology, like "Storm King," who, in Greek mythology, is Zeus, who arbitrarily, when he gets angry, throws thunderbolts at people. He very much represents randomness and the moods of the universe. I changed that over to "Storm King," which has to do with Pete Seeger and how he is very much like this mountain in our river valley, the Hudson River Valley, that vigilantly and lovingly watches over the boats and bikes and cars of the Hudson Valley. I changed it, and I was hoping that Razor & Tie could trust me where, if it was archaic and weird, I could change it to a modern archetype that we all recognize and are valuable to point out. We don't value the guy who hurls thunderbolts around arbitrarily. Those are the black sheep of Wall Street. We do value the decent, vigilant, peace keeping, peace loving father figures. So, I would switch it and change it. But also, a lot of the ancient stuff does still fit. They took it in stride. (laughs)
MR: Nice, they are good sports. I want to also touch on "Summer Child." You were talking about motherhood before. Is "Summer Child" a culmination of your kids?
DW: Yes, absolutely. I have to say, it was instructive to me. They recommend in art school and art classes to take as close a look as you can until you stop feeling inspired by something. Looking at the myth of Persephone, if you really look at the fullness of that, which is that she was kidnapped by Death and became Death's bride -- what a bummer! (laughs)
MR: One of the more cheery stories in greek mythology.
DW: Yeah, and she was brought back to Earth to be with her mother, who was the goddess of the harvest. There was celebration, but there was a decision that Persephone would have to go back down to Death for six months a year, hence the seasons. When I was reading that, I was thinking about how vindictive Persephone's mother must have felt to sort of say, "I got her back, but go to hell!" (laughs) And then I thought, "Well Summer and Spring are beautiful times. They are pure in celebration. They're purely beautiful in so many ways." There's nothing vindictive about it, and I thought, "Maybe this is my thing about feeling triumphant, that because my kids are still young and they're still running around and everything is so exciting and they still hold my hand on the walk to school." I've beaten time. I've beaten mortality and the inevitable changes. That's not what the seasons are about. Time is about appreciating having all this ability to sort of capture the eternity of a moment, but then knowing that you're going to have to let it go at some point. Winter will come. So I was watching my kids running around and watching my son and his friends and all these arms and legs. (laughs) It's all chaos! And I felt that moment of eternity, and I thought that that's the gift of Summer. You can see your kids trapped in that humid air. It's like time stops just a little bit so that you can stop and appreciate it. But that's in the context of knowing that there will be a freeze and that time will go on.
MR: Beautiful, Dar. With "I Have Been Around The World," I would say you're feeling more at home or in the skin of a citizen of the planet.
DW: Yes, yes. Specifically, I was taken in by my husband, who's a big foodie, and we have dinner parties and have friends over. We are pretty connected at this point. It really is a life that I would wish for anybody in terms of the number of people I can call on for any number of problems or exciting conversation. I have a friend for everything! (laughs) People that I really trust and people that I don't really like that much but I kind of love anyway because they're such great people in the community. You're absolutely right that the song is very much about that world that I've found, and there just happened to be a Greek god who doesn't have a throne. It's a goddess, Vesta, who sits at the hearth and stokes the hearth of everything, and it's great that there's a god assigned for that... one of the major gods. It's just the one that really keeps the fire burning. I understand why that is so important now, and I think I was ready to forgo that as a traveler and just say, "Oh, my life is on the go, and I'll just collect these little adventures, and sometimes, I'll visit my cold, creaky home and boil an egg, and then I'll get back out on the road." That song is definitely a Dar song, but because it's something that the soul really gravitates too, I think that's why it was present, even in ancient times.
MR: Wow. Speaking of stoking the fires, you also feature a song that's kind of a call to action, "Write this Number Down."
DW: Yeah, that song I wrote for my daughter. We adopted a girl from Ethiopia, and she's just the light of the house, and she's very strong in every sense. She's strong willed, she's strongly charming and funny, and a bit of a wise child. She runs really fast. She's very physically strong. Ethiopia is quite an incredible country, but it's just been through so much, and it's hard to find stability even amidst the incredible beauty and progress that that country has made. This is not to knock Ethiopa, but I kind of feel like in the United States, even if you're feeling shafted by the legal system -- and I make some reference to that -- there are networks of people who will work with you to try to get your day in court or to try to get you justice. Realizing that just gave me such a sense of pride and faith in this country. It's true that terrible things happen in the courts still, I wouldn't say that we're completely in line with complete justice. As I said in the song, we're still overcoming forms of slavery. But there's Lambda. It's legal assistance really geared towards gay rights. And the ACLU, and there's the state CLUs and there are all these places, and we get very upset about them, but sometimes, people feel unhappiness. But everybody is working towards justice around the periphery of the system itself to make sure that the system doesn't inadvertently sort of shaft us. I feel like that's in place. There are secondary things. But it's great to say to a daughter, "If something happens to you, God forbid, you're going to have gazillions of strong women to draw on no matter what your income is, no matter what your situation is. We're totally there. We're not going anywhere."
MR: Dar, "lambda" is a Greek symbol for balance, which certainly applies here.
DW: Ah! Exactly. And the Human Rights Campaign is really quite awesome. It's hard for people to know that they have access to them and that those people are there for them and that's where we have to do our work. We have to reassure people that they have access. I met someone the other day who said, "I'm a constitutional conservative. I just want my Constitution back." And I just thought, "What part of the Constitution are you being kept from exercising?" I think he just purely meant taxes. But I benefit from the taxes I pay because I know how to access the benefits of the taxes. I wish we could get that wheel moving forward for more people. I do understand how people can feel completely left out of the process. There's a lot of smugness and silence that, in my lifetime, I want to be a part of reversing.
MR: With all the rhetoric that heats up with a presidential race, one of the funniest things I've heard so far was Stephen Colbert saying something like, "I can't wait to see what country Obama was born in this time." I think that really sums up the usual garbage thrown about.
DW: Humor is good, but making this album and also traveling a lot, I'm really feeling this country right now. I'm loving these towns that I visit. I'm actually working on this project that I call the Positive Proximity Project. Positive Proximity is sort of this state of being in a town or a city where there's enough communication and collective resources that you can move forward with turning a gross, unused parking lot into a community garden, where you have enough momentum to create a concert series. A friend of mine, his wife wanted chickens in Buffalo, and there was a law against it. She got a decibel meter and she got testimonials and she reversed the law so that she could have chickens. That's sort of positive proximity in the neighborhood so that people can say, "We want this. It's hygienic. Everything's cool." There's this moment that happens in communities where you can kind of move forward instead of getting stymied in your differences. I'm seeing a lot of towns getting over this stumbling block. Red states, blue states, mixes. Our town is a very big mix of people, and we are moving forward with all sorts of things that we agree on about bike paths and parks and school lunches and everything. It's extremely bipartisan because we already know each other. We would embarrass ourselves to create conflicts because the jig's up. We have a common ground and we know it. We know that we like each other. I'm seeing that all over the country. Where it involves taxes, it gets kind of heated, but where you have this positive proximity, a lot of this happens outside of your checkbook. It's called social capital. I love what I'm seeing. Every single place that I'm playing is doing something that's even more and more interesting and more connected than the year before.
MR: Dar, I was a California delegate for about five minutes. What about you? Might politics might be in your future, feel like maybe running for office?
DW: Never. I love that you're interested, but never, ever, ever for me. I can't do it! I love to be supportive. I'm your wingman, but I'll never run for office. I have a sordid past. There's still that nomadic piece of me that is now in my blood, and I think my kids would say, "If you have extra attention to give, give it to us!"
MR: (laughs) Dar, I ask you this every time, let's do it again. What advice do you have for new artists?
DW: Well, it's very linked to this positive proximity thing. Find yourself a place where people are making music together. If you believe that you are someone who can go off in a room by yourself and kind of morph the world into a whole new kind of music or you just need to be in a room by yourself and practice and practice and practice and kind of arrive in the world fully hatched, there is precedent for that. But for me, I was part of a scene, and it was great. We dated each other, we fought with each other, we bickered, we talked behind each other's backs, we were petty! (laughs) It was great because we were also slowly imparting that this works or this doesn't work in songwriting. And because performance is an element of things, I was told in certain terms to get rid of my yard sale guitar and that I needed to work on my diction, and then it got really specific, and feelings were hurt, and then I grew. It was a wonderful thing, and it was less lonely, and I got to go to a lot of open mics and find myself.
MR: You realize that your yard sale guitar is probably worth a decent penny right now?
DW: Oh, that's so sweet! If only we knew where it was! (laughs) My mom bought it for $30, and she gave it to me as a gift, and then I sold it, and all these people sneered at it. This wonderful guy named Sandy of Sandy's Music in Cambridge sold it for $200. He said, "Fine guitar!" He sold it to an eleven-year-old or something. It was very sweet. He found a home for it.
MR: Nice. All right, well I guess we should wrap things up. Dar, thanks as usual, and all the best with the new album In The Time of Gods.
DW: Thank you so much, Mike!
1. I Am The One Who Will Remember Everything
2. This Earth
3. I Have Been Around The World
4. The Light And The Sea
5. You Will Ride With Me Tonight
6. Crystal Creek
7. Summer Child
8. I Will Free Myself
9. Write This Number Down
10. Storm King
Transcribed by Kyle Pongan
A Conversation With The Sweet's Andy Scott
Mike Ragogna: Andy, old hero of mine with a new album, New York Connection. How the heck are you?
Andy Scott: I'm absolutely fine, how's the weather?
MR: Well, today it's a little rainy.
AS: What you think of rain, we've had here...real rain, you know?
MR: Oh, then you're calling from Britain?
AS: Yes, definitely.
MR: You're always on tour with The Sweet, aren't you.
AS: Yeah, we tend to have hit into a sea of work that basically spans Thursdays through Sundays, the odd Wednesday too. Not much happens on a Monday or Tuesday, and it's very easy now with the amount of air traffic to lob into Europe for three or four shows and then come back for two or three days, then go back over again, rather than constantly be on the back of a bus, in and out of a hotel, like the old days of touring. It has changed somewhat and equipment is easily sourced in most European countries now.
MR: Talking about the old days and the new days, has The Sweet participated in or tried to ramp up any kind of social networking, like with Facebook, Twitter, etc.?
AS: I've always maintained if you see me on Facebook it isn't me, only because I come from an era where I'll pick the telephone up if I want to talk to somebody. I've even heard and seen it happen at my local pub where kids are texting each other from one side of the bar to the other.
MR: It's a bizarre etiquette, and everyone think's it's cool. And personally, I dislike it when someone is texting someone else if I'm talking or spending time with them.
AS: It's ridiculous. I'm afraid I'm a slightly different network. I go to the pub for a nice little social chat, a couple of pints, and then I come home. However, The Sweet is definitely on Facebook and have what I think is a fantastic web site. We do tweet a few things sometimes, if I like it. My son and others who are in the background tell me, "Oh something's happened, you have to tell me something," so I tell him something, and next thing you know, he's Tweeted it.
MR: Earlier, off-mic, we were talking about touring, especially within Iowa. You remembered coming through Des Moines because you were a regular opener for Bob Seger's band.
AS: Yeah, it's a funny story, this one. We came over in '75, '76, and one of our opening acts in Florida and Texas was Bob Seger. A year later, we're up in the north of the country, coming down the West Coast and cutting through the Midwest. We're now the opening act for Bob Seger. It's amazing, it's such a huge country. I guess Bob was such a huge star in Detroit and areas like that long before he took over the whole of the States. Coming down to somewhere like Florida to be one of the bands on the bill with The Sweet was, I suppose from my point of view, quite exhilarating.
MR: Andy, you have many hits such as "Fox On The Run," "Ballroom Blitz," "Little Willy," "Love Is Like Oxygen"... What do you think of The Sweet's place in pop history?
AS: It's a strange one. We seem a little bit out of kilter in our own land here in the UK, even though we are and will always be a British band. We sound British, we are British. Our mainstay is places like mainland Europe, and the new eastern territories like Russia. We're going back to Japan this year. Australia and New Zealand are good territories. But in the UK there are still seems to be a cloaking of nostalgia. They seem to push forward far too much. You only have to look at any TV show.
MR: What do you think about shows like American Idol, The Voice, and what is you take on promoting talent and elevating talent in that way?
AS: I'm not sure it does the right thing for the audience and the artists themselves, I'm just not convinced. I come from an era where there were probably less... although having said that in the '60s there were a lot of bands brought through, especially in America. You come from a network where you have to have a little bit of talent in order to have the balls to get up on stage when you're fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen... when you're first kicking off in front of an audience and you find a fan following. Now, you've got the internet, which has its good and its bad points, which automatically springboards you into some kind of limelight which is why we're in the era of the fifteen-minute celebrity. Anything can happen within a matter of hours, never mind a week or days. So I find it really, really difficult when you have a lot of good singers and bands out there all touring. I know everybody wants their moments but we now seem to be actively seeking more and it's forced. We have a saying that it's like trying to put a quart into a pint pot. There is always an overflow and spillage, and I think that's where we are, mate.
MR: It is interesting, the whole 15 minutes of fame for everybody, and I agree. But I think it's more like three minutes of fame.
AS: I suppose if you make a sex tape, it's three minutes of fame.
MR: (laughs) Okay, The Sweet was considered glam-pop or something like that when you first started out. Wait, let's first catch everybody up. How did The Sweet get together?
AS: The two guys who are no longer with us, by the way -- Brian Connolly and Mick Tucker -- were the guys who were in a band together. Brian found out that they were going to try and replace Mick as a drummer because Brian had just taken the place of Ian Gillan who was leaving the band that they were in. He eventually joined Deep Purple, but went to another band first. So Brian took his place and within less than a year, he found out something, that they were looking at putting another drummer in place of Mick who had only just joined the band when Brian joined. As it happened, Brian and Mick got on really well and Brian said to Mick, "Let's form a band." Mick knew nothing about the fact that he might be replaced, so he and Brian left the band and set out to find other musicians. They recruited Steve Priest locally and they had a couple of guitar players before me. One was the school friend of Mick's, and the other one was a guy who was on the scene, he'd been in several bands. I think he also knew Brian or Mick and he was only in the band for about six months. The band had basically been signed to EMI records but only being used mainly for their vocals on records and things like this. They hadn't been doing a lot of live work, and the next thing you know, they bumped into the original record producer that they knew, a new set of songwriters -- Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. They needed a guitar player pronto and from one little advert, I showed up and realized that I'd met these guys before. I'd met The Sweet on some BBC Radio 1 shows where my other band, The Elastic Band, had been performing. When we saw each other and I plugged the guitar in, it was almost as if it was meant to be. Within six months of me joining the band, we were off and running, had our hit record, and we didn't look back after that.
MR: "Funny Funny" was your first hit?
AS: Yeah, it's a real leftover late-'60s piece. It could have been recorded by somebody like the 1910 Fruitgum Company, I think. That kind of an instant pop hit.
MR: Yeah, Nicky Chin and Mike Chapman were responsible for presenting Suzi Quatro to the world. Did you guys ever team up with them as far as writing, or would they just send you the songs? What was the procedure?
AS: We used to get together fairly regularly because Mike would do they these rather primitive home demos on a Revox tape machine, which usually had a lot of echo on them, and bang it into the mic to give a drum effect, which, quite frankly, captured the moment. The energy from within his demos gave us the vibe. It was almost that if you want something on here, we'd listen to songs like "Hell Raiser" and "Ballroom Blitz" and "Teenage Rampage," things like that. It was cult before its time, and his demos were very much edgy on a punk rock edge. What we did was slightly commercialize them.
MR: And later on, Mike Chapman was associated with Blondie and The Knack.
AS: I was actually with Mike in LA when he was asked to go look at The Knack, and he dragged me down to Santa Monica where they used to play in one of the clubs there. I thought it sounded really, really good until I heard "My Sharona" and then I said, "This band is fabulous." Up until that point, they were a very good band. But then I heard why he was going to be producing them, that was the song. Brilliant.
MR: As I mentioned earlier, you had many hits, but it was "Little Willy" that broke you in the States, right?
AS: When "Little Willy" was being successful in America, it was more than a year later than it had been in England. We had slightly moved on, we'd recorded "Blockbuster" and had a hit with it and we knew that tracks like "Hell Raiser" and "Ballroom Blitz" were in the pipeline. It was a very conscious and very difficult effort not to get on a plane and come over there and then. Our record company at the time wanted us to come over, but we held our resolve, stepped back and said, "Wait until we release 'Blockbuster' at least, please." As we now know, "Blockbuster" barely made the top fifty, and we thought that our chance had gone, until, of course, "Ballroom Blitz" got released and we got a second chance.
MR: You had a comeback when The Sweet changed its sound up a bit, and you had "Love Is Like Oxygen," another huge hit in the States.
AS: The weird thing is, by the time we hit America and started to come over in '75 we were no longer attached to Nicky Chinn or Mike Chapman or the record producer Phil Wainman. We were now the songwriters and the producers and things changed dramatically in that two-year period since "Little Willy" through to "Fox On The Run." "Fox On The Run" was actually our first production and A-side single that we had written and done the production on. So now we were definitely flying by the seat of our pants. By the time "Love Is Like Oxygen" came around in '78, we were "old hands" at it now.
MR: With "Love is Like Oxygen," did you guys consciously move into album-oriented rock?
AS: In the early years, we desperately wanted to make an album, but the kind that we would have made was not the kind that Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman saw at that time. The only album that got released in those years was a greatest hits package that involved a few of our songs and a hell of a lot of Nicky and Mike's extra, periphery songs, which eventually got covered. In other words, most of that album got covered by other people, so we basically acted as a demo-ing facility. By the time we got to "Little Willy" and "Wig Wam Bam," at least the sound of the record was changing to sound more like the band. Instead of having help from session men here and there, we were allowed to show that we could actually play on our singles. You can hear the definitive sound difference when you start to hear later records. Of course, with it came much more success, so I think them holding us back a little by basically saying, "I'm sorry it's the way records are made," to basically letting us have our moments, everybody won in the end. The thing went from a medium-sized tennis ball to a damn big basketball. It was a dramatic change and from that, it also showed that the bubble gum side of the career turned into the glam rock side of the career. By the time "Love Is Like Oxygen" came along, we were more of a progressive rock type of band. There's already been three cycles and it didn't exactly stop there. The only way I can ever describe The Sweet to people now is to just listen to the records, because I couldn't tell you one genre that is definitive of what The Sweet is about.
Listen to The Sweet's "Love Is Like Oxygen":
MR: When Brian Connolly passed away in 1997 obviously that affected everything. That had to have been very hard on the group.
AS: It was. Things had changed in the later part of the '70s as well. Brian effectively had left the band in '79, and we limped along for another two or three years before Steve Priest moved to the States. He now lives in LA. And Mick had a very tragic accident where his wife was found dead over the bath during the Christmas period. I didn't think that the band would ever work again. I was doing lots of record production at that time and it came to a point where I was getting up on stage all in sundry in London whenever bands came through, a little bit of guest spot from The Sweet. I'd get up and play with all kinds of bands because I missed it. It wasn't until the mid '80s when I met someone who said, "You should get back on the road, this is madness." By '85, Mick Tucker and I reformed the band and we were off and running again. It's a crazy business.
MR: Then Mick passed away in 2002 from leukemia.
AS: In the early '90s he had a dramatic incident on a tour. I had to get a drummer to complete the tour. He wasn't exactly overly happy about that, but his wife immediately saw that he was in no state to be continuing. Within a year of that, he'd been diagnosed with pancreatitis and epilepsy. Within another couple of years of that, the leukemia was diagnosed. I just remember thinking to myself, "I wonder whether all of this is related to the incident in the early '90s." I guess it was. Having had all the treatments, he and I started to spend a little bit more time together. I said to him, "Now we know what it is, maybe we can start something again." But he said to me once, "I'm never ever going to be strong enough to drum behind a band like The Sweet ever again."
MR: I'm sorry, Andy. Let's take it to these days. You have a new project you're working on a cover of the classic "New York Groove." Can you go into what this latest project is?
AS: We released The Who's "Join Together" last year. It came about with my son playing a couple of drum loops and filtering some things on the top of it. He played me and separated some lyrics that I'd joined together and floated it on the top of this drum loop with some kind of bass line. I thought, "That's really got something!" So we set about recording it in our own way. We got our drummer to play lots of different rhythms, and then cut them about to create lots of interesting drum patterns as if it was a loop of some description. We then laid all the other stuff on top and it was received very well in Europe, so we thought we might as well now continue. Let's not let the flow finish. We set out to find a whole pile of cover versions to see which one would fit. All of a sudden, we realized we had an album's worth, and there were certain things, a connection to New York, whether with the artist, or with the song. Eighty percent of the songs have some kind of connection, so to finish the album, we then went, "Let's put a Lou Reed song on there. Let's do Patti Smith. Let's do a Ramones track, 'Blitzkrieg Bop.'" That's how the album got completed. It was the most fun and the quickest album that I've made in my whole life.
MR: I always loved "New York Groove." I grew up in New York and remember the Ace Freely version...
AS: Ace Freely did a really good version, but the original version was by Russ Ballard who was in the band Argent. It was then covered by another band, which was basically a one-hit wonder band called Hello. Their version? Not bad, but pretty weak. The real version that you need to listen to is the Russ Ballard version because at least that way, you get the picture of the backing vocals that we picked up on and elaborated a lot more. Having said that, I do realize from New York, Ace Freely would mean more than any of the other versions.
MR: Yeah, that was my first exposure to it. What guitar are you playing these days?
AS: At the moment, stage-wise, it's usually a Stratocaster, because they don't break so easily. I tend not to take any of my vintage stuff anywhere anymore. I just think that the world has become a very strange place and flying some vintage guitars around the world, you just never know what's going to happen. I've got a whole pile of Fenders that are really good Fenders -- some Squires from the early '90s when they were started to be made in Japan. But they're all doctored up with my tremolo systems and Seymour Duncan pickups and things like that. But they're basically Fender guitars with modifications.
MR: Nice, it's almost like we just had a Guitar Magazine moment. Andy, what advice might you have for new artists?
AS: I've been asked this so many times. Right at the moment, I guess we're definitely in the era of "do not take as read the first thing that people say to you." If you do believe in yourself, you stand as good a chance as anybody of getting somewhere in this day and age. I would also say don't get yourself a lawyer and a manger before you learn how to play and sing. It's that extra mile that you go with, your development within yourself, that will hold you in good stead to maybe sort out the good and the bad before you get there, because I can see it so much happening now that people start to talk dollars before they have the hit record. I find that very strange.
MR: You'll be touring in the states for the album NYC?
AS: It would be lovely. We're certainly talking to a couple of people, but I have nothing in my date sheet that says that unless you know better.
MR: (laughs) Any words of wisdom?
AS: No, not really. It's just that when I heard that this interview might end up in something like The Huffington Post, I had a certain reservation thinking I remember that that paper as being something almost like the entertainment world's National Inquirer. I thought we need to find out a bit more about this. But as this happens, it's been one of the most intelligent and rather nice interviews that I've done in a while, so I thank you for that. Let's hope that something comes of this.
MR: Of course, and Andy, I appreciate your time, kind words, and your having such good stories. Thank you.
AS: Thank you!
1. New York Groove
2. Gold On The Ceilings
3. It's All Moving Faster
4. New York Connection
5. Shapes Of Things
6. You Spin Me Right Round (Like A Record)
7. Because The Night
8. Sweet Jane
9. Blitzkrieg Bop
10. On Broadway
11. Join Together
Transcribed by Narayana Windenberger
A Conversation With Steve Barton
Mike Ragogna: Steve Barton, lead singer of Translator, you have a new solo album called Projector, and let's dig right into the track "Please." Can you give us a little background on it?
Steve Barton: Yeah, it's a song that changed quite a bit when we made the Projector album, which is a group of songs that I wrote after my dad passed away a couple years ago. I had written all these songs really quickly, in about a period of a month after he died. It was like every time I'd pick up my guitar, a song would come out, which is kind of unusual for me. I played them all for my friend Marvin Etzioni, who was in Lone Justice and is a producer in his own right and a recording artist with a wonderful new album out himself. He said, "You know, this seems like an album." I hadn't played these songs for anybody, and I had about eighteen of them, and it was his idea to have me play all the instruments on it instead of using my band The Oblivion Click. So "Please" originally had a different title and a different sort of vibe to it. It was called "Inside Joke," and I think I've said this before, it was sort of like "I'm Only Sleeping" from Revolver, that sort of vibe. It was sung lower in a different key, and we listened back to it and thought, "What happens if we just raise the key up and kind of belt it out a little more?" So we did, and it just really felt good, so that's the version that ended up being on the record. We changed the title to "Please" as well. Yeah, that song is probably the most changed of any of them on the record.
MR: These were created in a period after your dad passed away?
MR: They're not really all subjects about your dad passing away. What is the overall theme of Projector?
SB: All the songs were written kind of under that umbrella of him being sick and then him passing away. As you said, they're not all sort of "about" that event, but they were all written during that time, so for me, they all kind of resonate with that period of time. There's a song on there called "Here Come I," which was a line in his diary that I found when we were going through the house from when he was fifteen. He was talking about the new year coming up, and he said "A new year. Here come I," a couple of times through the diary, and I thought, "What a cool turn of phrase!" So that became this little finger picked love song, which is not about my dad, but the title wouldn't have come without that. It all sort of dovetails together in a way.
MR: Yeah. And there's "Bowie Girl." What's the story behind that one?
SB: There are a couple of songs that kind of deal with growing up in the house that I grew up in, which my parents lived in for fifty years at least. It sort of talks about growing up in that house and, for me, how David Bowie was such a life raft as a teenager. In the second verse, it says, "Teac 3340, threaded tape and plugged-in long ago." That's about me sitting in my bedroom making these recordings on my Teac Four Track when I was a teenager listening to David Bowie Records. So that's a little tip of the hat to David Bowie, and that song is actually credited to me and Marvin because it was a little different when I brought it in. He actually suggested taking it back. We had recorded a different version of it. It had a different title too, but I forget what it was called, and he said, "You know, I think it needs a different chorus," which to me was like, "Oh, I thought we were done...okay." I went back, and one night, I wrote the chorus to the song. He helped me tweak it and we shaped the song, so we're calling that a Barton-Etzioni composition. It's one of my favorites on the record too. I really like it.
MR: Now Steve, what are some thoughts about the Translator years?
SB: Translator started as a trio in Los Angeles, and then we got Bob Darlington from another band. He was the guitar player, songwriter, and singer. That became the band. We moved as a band from L.A. to San Francisco. This was in 1980, and that's where it all happened for us, when we got to San Francisco. In San Francisco, I remember sleeping on a friend's floor for months. It was very sort of punk rock. We were very committed to the band. It was just a blast. It was fantastic, and frankly, we're still together. We have a new record -- actually our first record in twenty-six years -- that's called Big Green Lawn, and it's available online at this point. We're really proud of it, and hopefully, we're going to do some live shows maybe in the Fall. We definitely want to do some touring behind it.
MR: After that, you have another body of work, solo projects...
SB: Right, yeah. And one called The Boy Who Rode His Bike Around the World is also produced by Marvin. It actually has the Translator rhythm section. It has Dave and Larry on bass and drums on most of it. And then there's an album called Charm Offensive, which is the first one with my band The Oblivion Click, which is Robbie Rist and Derrick Anderson. Robbie, of course, was cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch and the voice of Michaelangelo in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a record producer and songwriter and all around talented guy.
MR: You forgot Dr. Zee from Galactica 1980.
SB: How could I forget that? Absolutely. And Derrick plays bass in The Bangles. So when we come together, it's just a wonderful band for my post-Translator stuff, and it's a trio so it's different than Translator, which I like. So we did Charm Offensive and then an album called Flicker of Time and then an album called Gallery, which is sort of a compilation of the first three albums plus some new material. And I've already written what I think will be half of the new songs for the next record. Once I've done a tour for Projector, I want to go and make a rock 'n' roll record with the band.
MR: Right. I also want to throw out there that one of my favorite songs on this project is the opener, "Elegy in D Barton." Can you go into what that is, since it's so different and an instrumental?
SB: Yeah. On this record, like I said earlier, I played all the instruments except for that one. The "Elegy in D Barton" is an instrumental that I wrote to be played under a video presentation at my dad's memorial. Not to bring down the room, but that's why I wrote it. It was me on piano, and I had recorded a version with kind of a tremolo guitar in the background. It's kind of a cool version. And a friend of mine, who's an arranger named Johnny Usry, had done arrangements for some cool Philly Soul records and worked with The O'Jays and stuff like that. He heard it and he said, "Do you mind if I do an arrangement of that?" I said, "No, that'd be great!" So he sent me what ended up on the record, and I was just blown away by it. So that's how that came about.
MR: When you look at what's happening in music right now, what are some thoughts?
SB: You know, so many things are different than when Translator was making records originally. First of all, the record companies don't play the same sort of role. I'm not sure that they don't play any role, but they don't play the same sort of role. There was no internet, so it's a different landscape. That said, I always felt that my job, in a way, is to write songs and make records. I'm not a technology guy, so it's going to come out however it comes out. If I had been born in the 1920s, it would be on a 78. It's all the same thing to me. It still comes down to writing the songs and making the records and having the goods live. That part hasn't changed. The distribution stuff has, and I think it's great that music gets out there immediately. I think that's really cool. I remember when John Lennon put out "Instant Karma" and it made big news because he recorded it on a weekend and it was released on a Monday. Now, that's just normal. (laughs)
MR: Steve, what is your advice for new artists?
SB: If I had any advice for a new artist -- this is going to sound clichéd -- it would be that you've got to be true to the vision that you have for your music because there are going to be plenty of people telling you, "No, it should be like this." I remember when Translator was on our first tour, this would have been in '81 or '82, and we were in New York doing an interview with some New York kind of fanzine paper or magazine and for those of you listening, a magazine is a piece of paper that had words on it that you'd pick up and thumb through... not just the internet. There was a song on our first Translator album called "Dark Reach," which is a very dissonant song. The guy who was interviewing us said, "You know, if Lou Reed had done that song, he would have done this and this. How come you didn't do this? You did it like this, and Lou Reed would have done this." And we finally said, "You know what? Lou Reed didn't do this song. We did." For a young artist, I would say you've got to just be true to what you want to do because there can be enough people telling you how someone else would have done it or, "Gee, why didn't you do this?" or "I think you should have done this!" You just have to really be true to what your vision of it is. Sometimes it's easier said than done, but that's the goal, I think.
MR: Yeah, easier said than done because you also have to sort of compensate for a little of this and a little of that all the time.
SB: And there's temptation to go, "Oh the snare drum has to sound like this." I remember, I think on one of Elvis Costello's Spectacle shows, he was talking and he said, "I came to a time when the snare drum had to sound a certain way that I hated, but that's how Duran Duran wanted it. Nothing wrong with their records, but that's not how I wanted to sound." It's true. Sometimes that trap can be there like, "No, no. That has to sound like this." You just have to make the records you want to make. That's the ultimate, I think.
MR: All right. So? Any more on Projector?
SB: I think everybody should go buy it!
MR: (laughs) I bet you do!
SB: No, I'm really proud of the record. For more info on it--although we've gone pretty in depth--you can go to http://stevebartonmusic.com
MR: Okay, nice plug. (laughs) I really wish you a lot of luck with it. Definitely, let's do this again.
SB: Absolutely, I'd love to!
1. Elegy In D Barton
2. These 4 Walls
3. Here Come I
5. Bowie Girl
6. This Is Where Tomorrow Ends
7. Mojave Phone Booth
8. The Little Death
9. Pie In the Face
11. Little Heart Attack
12. Super Fantastic Guy
13. Cut the Rope
14. Bowie Girl - radio edit
Transcribed by Kyle Pongan