A Conversation with Rufus Wainwright
Mike Ragogna: Rufus, I’m honored. Your opera Prima Donna‘s had a September revival in Athens. How satisfied were you with the performance?
Rufus Wainwright: It was incredible. The fact that we pulled it off in Athens at such a very, very trying time that they’re experiencing now with their economy. But we did this fabulous concert, we did the opera, five thousand people came to the show. We basically sold the Herodes Atticus amphitheater at the Acropolis. It was amazing. I must admit that singing in that space was probably the most incredible part of the evening. There’s something about being on stage and just being in that cosmic environment and singing, so that blew it out of the water for me. I think a lot of that was very set up, because Prima Donna has to do with Maria Callas and we performed it on the fifteenth of September but the show went past midnight into the sixteenth, the anniversary of her death. She’s Greek–she was born in America but she’s Greek–Athens is very possessive of her, and just having her there in spirit and so present really made me able to perform with that kind of intensity when I got up to sing. It was very heavy.
MR: What do you identify with her most?
RW: The thing that I enjoy about this process is that much like my opera Prima Donna which started with a Callas interview that I heard but I quickly realized that I didn’t want to write an opera about Callas, it’s not a biographical piece, it’s about a whole other person that I ended up creating, the visual concert is a similar concept. It starts out with some interviews of Callas but then morphs into Cindy Sherman, who begins by wearing an actual dress that Callas wore and then later goes into other outfits from other productions and other opera singers. So I think in a way it’s about extracting the spirit of the diva, that nobody ever mastered as well as she did in the history of opera–or that we know of–and then taking that and really just making it our own. Just striving for that type of drama, for that type of excellence, for that type of fiery brilliance. And also that same sadness that she kind of bestows upon us. I think that’s what the evening becomes about, is everybody trying to be their own Callas. Everybody being Callas, as opposed to “callous.”
MR: [laughs] Wasn’t there a connection between Prima Donna and your approach to Judy at Carnegie Hall, at least in the exploration of a character?
RW: Yeah. I have always been an artist who has chosen to do projects that I am instinctually driven to create. Nothing I have ever done has been strategically placed. I’ve never been able to aim and fire what should be cool at the moment. I think with Judy something called me from the other side and said, “You have to do this concert,” and I just kind of went with it, and it started this chain reaction of events. Next thing you know I’m on stage at Carnegie Hall singing the trolley song. You kind of black out and wake up there. In a lot of ways the opera is similar. It’s very strange, what this opera has created, whether it’s productions of the opera or the concert or doing the recording. I tend to be able to really black out and be somewhat possessed by these phantoms and go with it. I think it’s very related in a lot of ways.
MR: With a typical album you would ask an artist what their favorite part of the recording process was, but I know this must have been different from a typical album. When you recorded this beautiful double disc, what was the most passionate moment?
RW: When you’re recording an opera it’s pretty fraught, because on the one hand you have these incredible moments, but because of time constraints and the fact that you want to get it down right, you can’t really sit back and enjoy the process. It has to be done in chunks and you have to focus on the score and make sure that all the notes are right, so it’s very demanding and exhilarating, but I wouldn’t say it’s satisfying, necessarily, at that moment. But then later on, when we mixed the opera and got everything in line I do distinctly remember, I mixed the opera in Wales, of all places, in a beautiful little village. We were there for a week and we all worked together and we got to the end and we were listening to the final mix of the last aria and it was really an incredible wave of emotion and relief and sadness and glory and everything that swept over the whole room. Like any great opera it’s the last scene that gets you.
MR: Most people know you as a very creative singer-songwriter, but it seems like opera has put you on a trajectory of, “How much more passion can I bring out?” That’s it, right?
RW: [laughs] Opera has always been there for me, in the background. I became a huge opera fanatic when I was thirteen years old. I knew when I was going to become a singer-songwriter that I could use that sensibility and that depth and those amazing chords and that drama and put them in my songs and I would stand apart from everybody because no one else knew that material as well as I did. That’s exactly what happened. Opera has served me very, very well, and now it’s time for me to serve that format. Opera is in crisis. There are incredible opera houses and singers and orchestras that are really sweating it right now. I don’t know if I’m going to save them necessarily myself but I do feel indebted to what that music has given me and I want to give back to that world. So it’s partially that, and also that there’s nothing funner than opera when it really works.
MR: You’ve stepped into a reality–opera–that you knew from a more two dimensional way previously, but now you’re drenched in it. What are the discoveries you’ve made about opera?
RW: I’ve made some pretty wild discoveries. Let me just say, there is a huge debate and battle occurring in opera where the critics are so far away from what the performers and musicians are going through emotionally, the chasm is so wide. And I’m not saying all critics, there are some really fantastic critics who are into saving the form, but there is another group who are just completely out there with machetes and have no sense of good behavior.
MR: Do they maybe not know the tradition?
RW: It’s not tradition, it’s how to be constructive. Let’s be constructive about this. There’s just a resentment and a kind of bitterness, especially when I step into the room, someone they see as an outsider, as someone who hasn’t graduated from a conservatory, someone who hasn’t practiced for twenty hours a day for twenty years, I become a target. But that’s okay, I can handle it. I’m here from rock ‘n’ roll, that’s fine.
MR: And isn’t there a value from having fresh blood and having new perspectives come into the mix?
RW: Yes. I think opera at a certain point became very monolithic. There was a time where it was a tree that had many branches. You had comic opera and Wagner and cabaret; there was a place for a lot of different people. There were options, and it was like the hit parade. Now it’s all about, “Who’s the most serious?” “Who’s the most intellectual?” “Who’s the most educated?” “Who’s the hardest to play?” I don’t think that that’s healthy for any art form. Yes, I love complicated music, and there’s a place for it, but for all music to be that way is basically hell.
MR: I also want to ask you because of your history, with opera, why did you go back?
RW: I’ve been back once before. The original production of Prima Donna was about five years ago, so I did that and then I went off and I worked with Mark Ronson and we did Out Of The Game, which was like a total pop record, and that was a fabulous experience because essentially I was very disillusioned with the opera world because I didn’t get the warm welcome that I thought I would receive from the establishment. So I was ready to go back to pop and do that, so I made a pop record and had a great time but then I got so sick of touring and so sick of the commercial bullshit and the thin plot lines that one runs into in the mainstream and then I had the hankering for opera again. Now I’m here and I’ll get sick of it again and I’ll ping pong back and forth. It works well for me at the moment, but we’ll see. I think my next pop record will be very, very interesting because there’s a lot under my belt waiting to get out.
MR: What differences did you see between the two presentations of Prima Donna?
RW: The presentations are two separate issues. There’s the stage version and the concert version, which are really two different animals. It’s hard for me to compare, but what I will say is that the recording is a huge deal for me. Frankly–and I hate to be this way–I can’t say that I had the best orchestras in the world to play my music, and my music is quite demanding. I don’t think that the orchestras I worked with initially expected that, I think they said, “Oh, here comes a pop guy, we’re kind of just going to wing this a little bit,” and then they got the music and were like, “Holy s**t, this is really hard.” Working with the BBC Orchestra, when you think about it the BBC’s fantastic because yes, they do classical music, but they do a whole bunch of stuff for the radio, so they really respected me and worked very hard and played it absolutely well and Jayce Ogren did a fantastic job conducting the piece. That, to me, has been the greatest revelation, that in fact the opera is very well written and considering it’s my first attempt in that genre and that most great composers’ first operas are fairly low grade, I’m doing very well. [laughs]
MR: It’s obviously with your lineage where you got the singer-songwriter influence, but where did you get opera?
RW: Well I didn’t get it from Loudon. Loudon hates opera, he’s never liked it very much. My mother knew somewhat about opera, mostly knew about great tenors like Pavarotti and Domingo and earlier tenors, like Jussi Björling, too, but there weren’t any recordings around the house, we never listened to sopranos or Callas or anything like that, but when I was thirteen I listened to a recording of Verdi’s Requiem, which is actually not an opera, but certainly an operatic piece, and I listened from top to bottom and by the end I was completely hooked by this form, and I really ended up leading the charge into that risky realm, and I brought my mother with me. My mother and I embarked on this journey and we ended up having this long standing love affair with opera. She sadly passed away about five years ago. In the last few years of her life opera became such a symbolic gesture, it was like going to mass or something, because it seemed like every opera we went to had something to do with her life and the fact that it was ending, whether it was Traviata or Orpheus And The Underworld, it was just eerily telling the story that we were going through in real life, which I’ve often found is the case with that form of music, it is a religion of sorts.
MR: How does that affect your creativity in terms of having this much of a knowledge of music? You inferred earlier that you don’t set out to do a specific thing that fits into a cookie cutter, but you have to differentiate somehow, right?
RW: Yeah. Let’s just say that it’s a bottomless pit, and there’s no way to know everything. Certainly I love the knowledge that I have and I continue to learn more. My mother and my dad are part of another tradition that I’m kind of envious of, but they were more in the folk tradition, where they knew about field recordings and the lineage of certain folk ballads and stuff like that, and they could play a bunch of instruments, there was the banjo and the fiddle and the guitar. I admire that a lot. My mother could play anything on the piano for anyone. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side for a reason. I don’t think an artist ever feels completely adept at what they do. There’s always a lacking quality, but that makes you keep on trying.
MR: Nice. And I always ask every artist what advice do you have for new artists?
RW: The most important thing is to work on what you’re doing as much as you can and as much as you need to. I haven’t read Patti Smith’s new book, but I did hear her on the radio the other day talking about her life. There was just one moment, and I totally agree with her, young artists just have to work. Worry about the work. That’s it. Don’t think about where you’ll be in twenty years, don’t think about what people think of you, don’t even think about what you’re doing, in a sense. It’s the labor that counts, and that will be the payoff. Not that you have to work yourself to death, even, but focus on that.
MR: What advice would you have given yourself?
RW: In terms of the art stuff I have no qualms, I actually think I did it pretty brilliantly, but in terms of physical attributes I wish I had spent a little more time doing some sports. I wish I had studied dance or something because my posture–especially from sitting at the piano for twenty years–is starting to look like Quasimodo a little bit. So yes, I wish I had ballet lessons.
MR: [laughs] You may not be picking up ballet dancing, but do you think maybe you’d score a ballet?
RW: Oh yeah! I’m writing another opera about the emperor Hadrian from Rome and there are lots of ballets and choruses, it’s a big, huge romantic opera for the Canadian opera company, so I’m in the middle of that, and I’m talking a lot to Benjamin Millepied, who’s the head of the Paris ballet. He’s married to Natalie Portman and he wants to do something, so there’s interest, that’s for sure. Something is happening.
MR: Don’t the story of Mario Lanza or Enrico Caruso beg to be told?
RW: I’ve done my fair share of singing stars. I need to focus on some political intrigue now, that’s what’s in vogue for sure.
MR: Ah, speaking of political intrigue, what’s going on in your mind as you look at the news these days?
RW: I was in Paris, actually, for the attack, I had a show there. I came back to the United States quickly, and I don’t in any way pretend to be as deeply moved as the French people are right now. I think we’re all very sad, but they’re the ones really going through it. What’s really hurting me right now is the reaction of the right wing in America and this thing of, “We have to stop refugees from coming into the country.” That, to me, is the most ridiculous, nonsensical, off-subject reaction. It reminds me a little of when 9/11 happened and we decided to attack Iraq, this knee-jerk bad answer from the right wing of America is so shocking and so distressing, that’s what’s getting me down right now.
MR: And we’re in an environment right now where “the pyramids were grain elevators for Joseph” and “Latinos are rapists and murderers” became campaign highlights for the highest office of the country.
RW: And then you think of the fact that Jesus Christ was a refugee. He had to leave his country and seek asylum.
MR: Truly depressing. I’m sorry Rufus, is there anything we haven’t covered? What does the immediate future bring?
RW: I’m working on this other Opera, Hadrian for the Canadian opera company, that’s going to be fantastic. I’m doing this concert in Lisbon next week and then I’m going to Buenos Aires, we’ll be going to Paris, soon, I’m hoping it comes to New York soon. I think I would want to end, though, with telling you guys out there that I am still a top performer, I still write songs and I’m very excited to get back on that rock ‘n’ roll train and see what the kids are up to, because I’m not out of the game yet. [laughs]
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Marty Balin
Mike Ragogna: Marty, it seems yours was the voice that gave a depth or passion to much of the Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship bodies of work. My theory has been you were the counterbalance to the harder rock and psychedelic aspects of the groups. What do you think about that?
Marty Balin: Probably, if you look at it like that. But you know, we came from the folk tradition, so we had a girl in the group and everybody sang. We passed it around a lot.
MR: Look at the songs you led, though. It seemed like when there needed to be a deeper approach to the lyrics, there was your voice explaining it all.
MB: Well, that’s just my way of doing things. That’s just what I like to do, romantic love songs and things like that.
MR: So your new album Good Memories is a revisit of your days with Jefferson Starship and Jefferson Airplane. How did you pick this track list?
MB: My guitar player started bringing these old songs around to rehearsals and asking me, “What is this song? What is that song?” I didn’t even remember some of them. We started playing them in rehearsals and then at live shows I started bringing them out and people were getting off on it so we started doing some of these old songs in our live show. These are just some of the songs I’ve been doing live. We had worked them up already and we all knew them pretty well, and then along comes this fiftieth anniversary and it seemed kind of appropriate to put it on record for the fans. And it’s a good beginning for my new album which is coming out soon.
MR: To me, it seemed like “Miracles” had a tongue-in-cheek message, as in “You know, it’s a miracle if this thing we’ve got works out!” That’s what I always felt was also being implied.
MB: Huh, that’s different, I never heard that one before. But that’s an interesting viewpoint. To me, it was a love song based around the way the Persian poets I was reading at the time were talking about making love to a woman and they were talking about God. That was my inspiration at the time. I had a girlfriend I was involved with and I was very involved with an avatar in India named Sathya Sai Baba, they call him the man of miracles, so I kind of put those two together.
MR: Sure, that too. [laughs] But I did know there was a spiritual undercurrent through the works of Airplane and Starship. For instance, the classic Starship albums covered all the elements. Was that intentional?
MB: I don’t know if it was intentional, but it was the different moods and ideas that people had at the time and what they were interested in. It just came together that way.
MR: Jefferson Starship had a nice string of hits that seemed to have been triggered by “Caroline.” The mood of “Caroline” and what that added to the Dragon Fly album was rejuvenating to the group’s sound, though you were only a “guest” on that project. So how did your involvement expand to regular status?
MB: Well, I was reading about how they were playing and doing some recording and people were writing, “Oh, I wish for the old days when Paul and Marty would write together and Grace and Marty would sing together” and all that jazz. So I got a feeling that they were going to come around and ask me to do something with them and they did. Paul brought me this piece of music and said, “Can you write this for me?” So I wrote “Caroline” and boom, put it back on the charts. They said, “We want you to join up because we can’t do this song live without you and everybody wants to hear it,” so I said, “Well, I’ll join up if you let me do my kind of songs,” which was like “Miracles,” which they didn’t really care for, but fortunately the people did.
MR: Yeah, and I’m pretty sure Red Octopus was the breakthrough album it was because “Miracles” was such a huge hit.
MB: Yeah, probably.
MR: What was the reaction within the band and even personally when the single and album blew up like that? I mean, you can have a hit, but that was a HIT.
MB: Oh, they were all pretty happy, I guess. We were back on the charts and working a lot, back on tour a lot. But it was the same-old, same-old, that’s why I didn’t stick around too long.
MR: You do agree that what you added to the band did rejuvenate and change the identity from the Airplane days, right?
MB: Right. And then immediately record people came down on us and didn’t want us to do our lone songs, they wanted us to do Diane Warren songs and all this top forty stuff. I’m not into that, but Mickey [Thomas] was around and he’s a great top forty singer. So he took over and gave them a bunch of hits.
MR: Right, that’s when you split, before “Jane.”
MR: By the way, even though it’s a compilation, I think Gold comes off as a really wonderful, succinct Jefferson Starship album.
MB: Yeah, some work like that, if you’re fortunate and lucky.
MR: And from the Jefferson Airplane days, are there particularly magic moments you can remember? Like, to you, what was the thing that was most special about that configuration of talent?
MB: It was all new and fresh and everybody was working together in the beginning. It was a lot of fun because everybody was spearheading a movement in San Francisco. All these other bands and us were playing, we had like five major dance halls in town, we were bringing in all the best talent from around the world and playing with them and meeting everybody. It was a thrill. Everybody was quite excited by it all.
MR: Were you surprised by how popular the band became?
MB: Not really, no. I always wanted that and it happened. Be careful what you dream for; you may just get it.
MR: [laughs] And your solo career includes “Hearts,” which was another huge hit.
MB: Yeah, that was a big hit in all the countries around the world, too. Every country had their own version of that song, it was really interesting.
MR: You mean as far as the mix or the edits?
MB: No, their own people. They did it in their own languages, but they all used my arrangement, which was interesting. But I got on their charts before anybody else covered it in their own language, so I had a worldwide hit with it.
MR: And Jesse Barish was the writer, right?
MB: Yes sir.
MR: He also wrote “Atlanta Lady,” your other hit from that album.
MB: Yeah, Jesse’s one of my favorite writers, he’s a good friend of mine. I’ve got a hundred of his songs that I’d love to record some day, they’re all great.
MR: When you look at all the solo albums you’ve recorded, it’s interesting because with the exception of the hit “Hearts,” your recordings aren’t relative to Jefferson Airplane or Jefferson Starship. It must have been initially difficult to define who you were as a solo artist because of all the time you spent in the spotlight with other acts.
MB: Yeah, but before that I was a solo, and I grew up as a solo kid, playing in other bands and things like that. You go through different configurations in music and work with different people, that’s the fun of it. You don’t want to get stuck with the same people all of your life. You’re lucky if you can, but most people just do it because it’s a money making machine, not because they like each other, you know?
MR: Proof of that is with many of these reunions, you can tell from the vibe on stage that nobody likes each other anymore. Still, you know, on with the show!
MB: Yeah, really.
MR: Let’s get to your next album, The Greatest Love.
MB: Yeah, that’s coming out. If you like my kind of music or my kind of songs you’re going to like this album. It’s all me, it’s all written by me, and it’s pretty cool.
MR: How did you approach the writing on this?
MB: I just try to get out of my own way and let whatever comes through come through. I really don’t write them, I just kind of translate them from the aethers, really. I have nothing to do except to be a scribe for the forces.
MR: This album is a bigger picture, though. Do you relate to any of these songs a little more personally than the others?
MB: Oh, yeah. I would think I relate to most of these songs personally, these were all written about my new wife, who I’ve been married to for three years now. I’m real happy and she gives me a lot of inspiration. I think most of these things are about my new wife and my new life. Happy wife, happy life, you know?
MR: Nice. Are there any on here that are autobiographical?
MB: Ah, no, they’re all just about love and pretty much my love.
MR: And it’s the fifty year anniversary of Jefferson Airplane is this year.
MB: That’s what they say. That’s why I did Good Memories.
MR: Most artists never get the kind of career where they put out a new album after their fiftieth anniversary. What have you learned from having that long a career?
MB: Oh God, I’d have to write you a whole book, are you kidding? I’ve learned good things and bad things and all kinds of things about myself, how to sing even. It’s taken me this long to really learn and I’m learning every time I do it actually.
MR: Do you still have a relationship with the spiritual?
MB: Yeah, very much.
MR: Do you follow particular philosophies, or is it more your own belief system?
MB: It’s pretty much my own, but I learned a lot from Vedanta, it’s an Indian form of philosophy. It’s just the golden rule basically.
MR: Do you feel that’s been a guide for you through this whole shebang?
MB: Yeah, I do. I’ve always had a spiritual grounding in my life and a belief in things. I found a lot of answers to all that and it’s held me true.
MR: It seems we’re not living in the most spiritual times right now. Does it get frustrating or challenging sometimes when you have to live in an environment that isn’t exactly satvic?
MB: Yeah, the world can break your heart, that’s for sure, and people can break your heart, but you’ve got to just keep putting out the positives, otherwise why bother? Why be alive? You were put on this earth to bring some good to it I think, and that’s what I try to do.
MR: And your wife has brought that into the mix.
MB: Yeah, definitely.
MR: Has your marriage been not only a creative energizer but maybe a spiritual energizer?
MB: Oh yeah, very much so. That’s why I was so happy to meet this lady. We’re on the same beam.
MR: A lot of people say they don’t have a favorite song because they say it’s like naming a favorite child, but do you have a couple of favorites from your career?
MB: I’ve got many favorites. Let’s say I’ve got a lot of kids and I love them all. [laughs]
MR: Are there a couple that really pop out like, “Wow, yeah, that was a moment?”
MB: Some of them become bigger than you imagine when you write them, those are kind of fun, they take off. “Volunteers” became an anthem but I wrote it because these guys were banging garbage cans outside my window and woke me up, this “Volunteers Of America” truck. I was living in the mansion and I leaned over and just wrote, “Hey, look what’s happening on the street.” I took it down to the rehearsal hall in the mansion that day and gave it to Paul and said, “Hey, let’s do this,” and we did it and immediately it becomes this anthem for people, and now it’s gigantic, people think of it as a real revolutionary kind of song, which was kind of interesting from where it came from. Things like that are funny.
MR: Did you appreciate it at the time when it was first embraced?
MB: Oh yeah, we always use it for our closer because it was such a powerful song and people loved it so much and got into it so much. It became a real closer.
MR: Fifty years of making music is amazing. Do you miss certain periods for the success, achievement level, or the music that was created in that time?
MB: Well, I miss some of the people who were there of course, but time just keeps on slipping, slipping into the future as Steve Miller said. There’s nothing you can do about it.
MR: Marty, what is your advice for new artists?
MB: Get somebody who knows something about business to work with you, because I’ll tell you, there’s a lot of ripoffs out there, that’s one thing I’d say.
MR: What about on a creative level?
MB: Well, you wouldn’t be in the business if you weren’t on a creative level in the first place.
MR: Have there been any rumblings about an Airplane or Starship reunion of any kind?
MB: Oh, people talk about that all the time. Even Jack and Jorma were talking about it this year. They tried to do something, but I don’t think they’ll ever get together and do anything. I know Grace never wants to get up and sing again. She feels she doesn’t look good on stage or something like that, and she’s an artist now, so she doesn’t really pursue music like she did. I don’t think there is an interest, and they’ve offered us millions to do it, so I don’t think it’s going to happen.
MR: But you’re going on the road with Good Memories, regardless.
MB: Yeah, I’ve been on the road for the last few years playing and doing my thing. I think Paul is on the road, and Jorma and Jack are on the road, they’re still playing all the time.
MR: Can you picture yet another configuration that you’d be part of? You were also part of KBC.
MB: No, I tried to work with everybody and everybody is just in their own little worlds. I’m happy just doing my thing, I get to do a two and a half, three hour show, I don’t have to let anybody else sing, I don’t have to wait for people to change into guitars and get their music ready or light their cigarettes or have a drink or complain to the sound guy. I get up there and bam, bam, bam. I do like thirty eight, forty songs in a night for people. I move, I have fun, people call out songs and I go, “Okay, let’s do that one, yeah, let’s go.” I don’t have to worry about a set list or other people’s egos. I do what I want to do and I’m happy, and people love it. I’m putting on some of the best shows they ever saw. Why would I want to go backwards?
MR: Do you pair material from the new album with the classics as you tour?
MB: Yeah, that’s why I do such a long set. It’s about an hour of me giving them all these new songs and everything and getting them off and once in a while people start calling out songs, “Okay, let’s do that one. Oh, you like these old songs? How about this one? How about that one? How about this one? Hey, that reminds me of a new song I just did? How about this? Hey, that reminds me of an old song I did, how about this?” I just move it like that for the whole evening.
MR: Do you think you’re playing any of these old songs better because you’ve learned something about how to improve them?
MB: Oh, yeah. I think I’m doing them much better. And also I’m limiting all of these long instrumentals. I’m so tired of having all these long instrumental and guitar breaks in every song. I don’t deal with all that crap, I just get to the meat of the matter. “Here’s a song, here’s a song, here’s a song.” How many times do you have to listen to a guitar player play his licks?”
MR: One more thing, I wanted to bring up “St. Charles.” That’s one of my favorite songs you’ve ever recorded. I’ve looked at the lyrics many times and tried to figure out what was going on. What is the story behind “St. Charles?”
MB: I used to work with the American Indians, I was working with the Oglala Sioux and one of the Indians was a poet. He gave me a poem one time as a gift for putting him up, letting him sleep in my yard. The first line of that poem was “Oh, Saint Charles, he sings. He sings about love.” I took that and I gave it to Paul and he wrote this whole thing from that first line and then gave it back to me and said, “Okay, now let’s write something that applies to us.” Then me and my buddy Jesse Barish got into it and we started writing it and it became this story of a lady who’s kind of like a storm or something. That’s kind of the way it came out. It’s a long story of how it came together, but it’s fun to do live, I must say.
MR: A lot of times, it gets ignored on collections but I feel like it’s one of your best moments.
MB: Yeah, I like doing it, so that’s why I put it on there. It goes over great live.
MR: What is the future beyond the tour and the new albums. What are you looking at long-range?
MB: Oh, just to keep making music and going out to play it for people. I like doing that. That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing my whole life and I enjoy that a lot.
MR: In your opinion, could there ever be another Jefferson Airplane or Jefferson Starship?
MB: Yeah, we could bring everybody together and call it the Jefferson Wheelchair.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Band Of Merrymakers’ Sam Hollander and Kevin Griffin
Mike Ragogna: Sam! Kevin! And a cast of thousands! How did this Cecil B. DeMille Welcome To Our Christmas Party get started? Who spilled the first drink and when did the cops arrive to break it up?
Sam Hollander: It started at the office Christmas party last year. We were all gathered around the egg nog bowl discussing our disdain for TPS reports when someone suggested we start a band. It was either a band or begin embezzling funds. We chose the former.
Kevin Griffin: Once we came to our senses, we really realized there was a need to re boot the ’80s heyday of holiday philanthropic supergroups a la Band Aid. This whole album is our attempt to reach the lofty heights set by “Do They Know it’s Christmas,” Duran Duran hair and all.
MR: So, I wonder, wasn’t the true reason you recorded a holiday project “a lack in the marketplace of good new xmas music”? It’s on your press release, so yeah, that’s the reason. Oh, really. Isn’t this just a war on Christmas classics, attacking the well-worn(out) recordings of Bing Crosby, Gene Autry and Bobby Helms for pity’s sake? Are you determined to break the poor, late Burl Ives’ heart?
KG: Actually, Burl Ive’s brain is on ice…er, snow…in Sam’s studio and informs our every creative decision. I have no idea where Burl’s heart is at this point. That said, if you know, hit Sam and I at http://bandofmerrymakers.com.
SH: Somewhere along the road, I do believe that artists stopped caring about the craft of Holiday music. A record of age old covers has always been the path of least resistance. Kevin and I always choose the path of most resistance because we’re idiots. I mean, we make records with guitars. We’re doomed from the jump.
MR: And rumor has it a portion of the profits goes to MusiCares. Well, at least there’s that; at least there’s that.
KG: MusiCares is near and dear to our hearts. I’ve seen the work the Grammy’s charitable wing does up close and personal, post-Hurricane Katrina. They spent over $5.8 million in the gulf coast relocating displaced musicians, buying new instruments, etc. Musicares is there for musicians time and time again. It’s a safety net for musicians that we’re honored to support. It’s for musicians only…so there!
SH: So now, we’re officially a feel good movie!
MR: Okay, to prove this isn’t a war against Christmas–you know, since “Christmas” wasn’t in the title 2-3 times–what are some of your favorite Christmas memories and I think we’re all in agreement that we need to be teary-eyed by your responses.
SH: I remember one Christmas more than the others. I beat up a bully who tried to jump me and my brother after school. My folks took me to the department store to make a wish with Santa and he kicked me in the head and pushed me down an ugly slide. Oh and I got a BB gun rifle from the same Santa…I think…and I shot my eye out. We ate Chinese food. It was heaven.
KG: The Xmas memory that comes to mind is when I was 10. Nothing Santa brought me worked. Not my battery powered metal detector, not my TCR [total control racing] slot car track..nothing! I contained my emotions until Christmas dinner when my grandmother, Earline Russell, God rest her soul, kindly asked if Santa was good to me. I burst into tears and shouted “No, nothing works! Santa hates me!” And stormed off to sulk on my bunk bed.
MR: How did the musical bed come together considering you’re both songwriters and producers? How did the creative and collaborative processes function? Who was the first to suggest you turn the project into a Justin Bieber tribute album? Yeah, “What Do You Mean?” haha. Don’t.
KG: Truth is we got ahold of all the unused tracks from Miley’s latest magnum opus “Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz” and laid our melodies on top. Whole thing took about 45 minutes.
SH: Well, truthfully, it was 45 minutes for our factory of elves. We were at a Dodger game.
MR: When working with the artist personally or with the digital files, which of your guests’ contributions tilted the recording they were featured on towards Judd Apatow and which to the Coen Brothers? Got a story or two about the performances or your thoughts about them? The artists, not the directors, duh.
SH: Apatow? Coen brothers? I’m not familiar with those names? We’re more of a Tim Allen Santa Clause 7 bunch.
KG: I think if anything most of the artist’s performance give more of a nod to early Russ Meyer films…”Vixen!” especially. On Donner, on Blitzen, on Cupid, on Vixen!
MR: Kevin, to you, which of the final recordings sounds like it could have been a Better Than Ezra track? Sam…how ’bout them Bears? No, in your opinion, which of the final recordings sounds like it could have been a Better Than Ezra track?
SH: Better than who?
KG: Sam, Mike speaks of the seminal ’90s art rock band, Better Than Ezra, of which I was a David Byrne-like creative force. I think “Jingle Bells” could have been a BTE track. Same chords as “Good.”
MR: Collectively, you were behind monster hits by Train, Taylor Swift, Sugarland, One Direction, and everyone who’s held a microphone over the last few years. But isn’t success an illusion and what’s the timetable for the inevitable self-destruct cycle to begin?
SH: The sleigh will never crash! We still have many sacks of gifts that need delivery.
KG: I should be out of rehab by Christmas and can address your question face to face then.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists. No, really, what advice do you have for new artists?
SH: Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals.
KG: Don’t quit, re-invent.
MR: Most important question. How awesome was Andrew McMahon’s contribution? Wait, better question. How awesome was Andrew McMahon? And both of you wish you’d written “Cecilia And The Satellite,” don’t you. DON’T YOU!
SH: Well, we co-wrote “Canyon Moon” with Andrew on the very same record. Shouldn’t we get a stocking stuffer for proximity to a hit?
KG: Andrew is a sweetheart once you get past the publicity people and the personal assistants. Known him since the Something Corporate days…great guy.
MR: How much fun was it to put together a project like this and are you predicting another Christmas party in the near future, like, say, next December?
SH: Everyone’s got an inner elf on a shelf. We just manifested ours. And honestly, its the most fun either of us has had. Working with a cast of close friends, everyday had that perfect snow globe glow. I don’t even know what that means. It just sounded spirited when i said it.
KG: What Sam said.
MR: With this album, do you truly believe you’ve saved the Christmas from the horrible damage perpetrated by the Starbucks cup debacle?
SH: The Starbucks debacle stands far behind the Russell Wilson super bowl interception as far as Seattle failings. This is just a hiccup in the land of mocha frappuccino.
KG: The original idea I gave ‘Bucks for the cup was brilliant. Unfortunately, once it went through the grist mill of “hit by committee,” it changed to what the world would later see. Sad, really.
MAGGIE McCLURE & SHANE HENRY’S “FIRST THING ON MY CHRISTMAS LIST” EXCLUSIVE
photo credit: Chris Jensen
Exclusive Premiere of the song “First Thing On My Christmas List” from the five-track EP Happiest of Holidays by husband and wife duo Maggie McClure and Shane Henry.
According to Maggie McClure…
“Shane and I have always loved Christmas and the traditional songs of the season. Two years ago, we were fortunate to write some new music with Jeff Silbar, the composer of ‘Wind Beneath My Wings,’ among many other legendary songs. One of the songs to emerge from the 2013 writing sessions was ‘First Thing on My Christmas List,’ which we composed in less than two hours. When it was finished, we all sat back and just smiled at each other. Sometimes the process of jointly composing a song just “works” and this was one of those times. The creation of that song sparked an interest in releasing some new contemporary Christmas music for the 2015 season and the result is this five track EP consisting of four new songs, including “First Thing” and a cover of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside,’ one of our favorites. We look forward to sharing our new Christmas music and wish everyone the best in this festive season.”
For more info: http://www.maggiemcclure.com
ALPHANAUT’S “HAPPY XMAS (WAR IS OVER)” EXCLUSIVE
Mark Alan, aka Alphanaut, aka has just recorded his own distinctive version of the John Lennon classic “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” as a single only release for the holidays.
According to Mark Alan…
“Very excited to share my first ever holiday recording! I’ve always been a big fan of of John Lennon’s ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’, so when I was tasked to cover a Christmas song, this was my top choice hands down! I wanted to do my best to pay honor to the original arrangement and vocals, but still try to make it a little bit my own.
“This was by far the fastest song I’ve ever produced, clocking in at just under four weeks start to finish! For being recorded, mixed and mastered in two bedrooms, I think it came out sounding pretty big! This is all courtesy of everyone involved including my very talented nephew Austyn James who laid down bass, guitars and mandolin to get things rolling. My production partner Fox Scarlett took it from there programming drums, dropping in some piano and electric guitar. For backing vocals Austyn once again lent his talents, and the incredible Angie Whitney, who sings on ‘Electricity’ and ‘Unnecessary Soldier’, knocked it out of the park with her multiple harmonies!
“Hope you enjoy the track and Happy Xmas to all!”
STEVEN DAVIS’ THIS IS CHRISTMAS EXCLUSIVE
photo credit: Tashi Palmer
According to the Steven Davis gang…
This Is Christmas is the first holiday record from LA-based singer, Steven Davis and is in stores today. The 12-track album features eleven brand new holiday songs and a cover of the Christmas classic, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” When asked about doing a holiday album now, Davis said “These songs embody the spirit of the classic holiday songs we’ve come to grow and love.” He goes on, “I’ve always dreamed of making a Christmas album, but I never thought I’d be doing all original songs that will hopefully become new holiday classics for the next generation.” Steven co-wrote all songs with his producer and songwriting partner, Josh Charles along with sone of Nashville’s finest including the legendary John Oates contributing to “Santa Be Good To Me.” The album was recorded, engineered and mixed in Los Angeles and features a who’s who of musicians. Originally hailing from Kansas City, Davis’ work has taken him to venues across the world including Rainbow and Stars in NY and LA’s Rainbow Room where he was also the bandleader, host, and singer. Davis is already planning his next release to hit in early 2016.”
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