Joe Boyd – Getting the Brooms Out

 

On Joe Boyd’s business card it probably says “Record/Film Producer,” but that’s a bloody simple way of putting it. In truth, Joe is a producer like the Vatican is a church. He started out touring artists like Muddy Waters, Coleman Hawkins and Stan Getz and, on the cusp of folk’s emergence into the rock arena, supervised Bob Dylan’s electric debut. He opened London’s “psychedelic ballroom,” UFO, in 1966 and, in the same era, produced Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention. A multitude more artists followed and then films: scores for Deliverance and A Clockwork Orange, then EP duties on Profumo affair movie Scandal. All of his recollections of the ’60s are published in White Bicycles – which Brian Eno says is the best music book he’s read in years – and Boyd is busy now with tours, talks and tributes to alumni like Drake and Syd Barrett.

In his 2010 lecture at Red Bull Music Academy lecture, Boyd discusses the craft of producing, finding ABBA, Dylan’s electric debut and much more.

Hosted by Torsten Schmidt

Transcript:

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

I hope everyone is interested in the art of recorded music onto whatever medium, and we figured it might make sense to round all these series of talks off, with someone…

JOE BOYD

What, I am the last? The last word?

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

I guess, first of all, please make him feel very welcome. [applause] Now, in this book that we see down there [gestures to a copy of Joe Boyd’s memoir White Bicycles], there is a really cool sentence that centers around listening. Why do you reckon is it important to listen for human beings?

JOE BOYD

I mean, obvious practical reasons. But I think that one of the most important things is to practice different ways of listening. To start to listen when you’re not on automatic pilot. To be able to be conscious of not just different sounds, but different languages, different sonic atmospheres. My girlfriend is a radio producer who lives in San Francisco, and so we talk on the telephone a lot, we’re constantly saying, “Oh, you’re not in the room where I thought you would be, you’re in a different room,” because you can hear the sonic atmosphere of the different rooms. Sometimes it will be a really strange atmosphere, “Where the hell are you? Are you at some other guy’s house? What’s going on?” Because the sonic atmosphere is different. Can I just sail into any direction I like from this?

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

You’re totally free.

JOE BOYD

Fine. Pointing out this book, it’s nice but in a way I’m resisting the idea that what I’ve got to talk about is the past. The past is a land where they did things differently. There is a lot of really interesting things about the past, and one of the things that is interesting about the ’60s, and all the records that people love from the ’60s, is the fact that studios were so different. They were so eccentric, so many different rooms, and you recorded the room as much as you recorded the music in the room. I’ll never forget hearing the first Country Joe and the Fish LP, and just going, “What?! Where was this recorded? What kind of room is this?” Because it sounded like it was made in an ice skating rink, only a good ice skating rink. It wasn’t a bad thing, it was a good thing. John Wood, the engineer I recorded with, we both got obsessed with this record and we both were determined to go and make a record in this room. Being conscious of these different spaces was one of the things that I think is a hallmark of a lot of records from that time. The sound of those rooms is just part of the sound of the music. But I had this experience a couple of years ago when I was on the book tour. I was doing a reading in Memphis, and this woman who is a writer for the local paper, she did an interview with me and she took me to eat some ribs, and then she said, “OK, now let’s go see Sun Studio,” and I said, “I don’t know, do I really want to? It’s kind of a museum now. It is not a studio, it is a museum.” “Oh, well, do you want to go and see Stax?” “No, that got torn down and rebuilt, it’s not the original Stax.” And she could see, I was feeling a bit sick, I was in a bad mood, and she was really disappointed and then she thought, “What could I do to get this guy smiling?” She said, “I wonder if Willie is around today.” She called Willie Mitchell’s sonn and said, “Are you guys going to be at the studio?” His son said, “Yeah, we’re going to be over there in about an hour.” “Can we come by?” “Yeah, yeah, fine.” So about an hour later we went and visited Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records studio, where all the Al Green records were made, and so many other great Memphis soul records were made there. And that was exciting because it is still the same and it is still a studio for me. “OK, now we’re talking.” We went over there and we went into this room and everything is still set up the way it was set up. The drum booth is a permanent installation and the horn mics are all in the place they were when they did those sessions with Al Green. Al Green’s vocal position is located under a certain spot in the ceiling, it’s different heights, and everything is based on what’s the right sweet spot in the room for that instrument. You go in the control room and for me it was like a church because everything was untouched since 1973 or something. They had a board with no automation, they had a 24-track tape machine, there was no ProTools to be seen and they’re still doing sessions all the time. And then we were walking out and I noticed to one side there was a stairway going halfway up the wall. They had painted over where there used to be a door. Or maybe there still was, but it was completely unused, there was dust on all the steps. I said, “What is up there?” He said, “Oh, well, you know, when my dad had all those hits he got a little carried away and he built a quadraphonic mixing room up there. But we haven’t been up there in 20 years.” I loved that because there is a thought occasionally that occurs to me that some of today’s technology may end up like that room that’s painted over and a lot of dust on the steps leading up to it.

I want to just talk a little bit about some of the things that are part of my experience making records. But I don’t want to do it like nostalgia, or that was so nice back then, old-fashioned, because I think there’s a possibility, just a possibility, that certain things might be relevant in ways that you haven’t thought about. And so we are going to take a supposition. A supposition is like, you imagine that something might be true. Even if it isn’t, you just pretend that it’s true just to play with the idea, to imagine what it would be like if it was true.

So I’m going to say some things, which are a bit radical. And I don’t necessarily think they are absolutely true, but I think they are kind of fun to think about as maybe true. All you guys are starting out in the business and you’re looking at the business, and how am I going to make money? What shape is the business in? There are certain things, which everybody writes about. The sales of recorded music are on this slow, maybe not-so-slow decline. And another thing, which is true, is that live music is on this rise. Festivals, every year, every summer there is more and more festivals, every different kind of music. Clubs, concert series, concert halls being built, governments putting money. Some governments putting money, some governments not. Sponsors, Red Bull. People putting money into sponsoring music. Live music. Sometimes I wonder if there’s a connection between these two phenomena. Because for me, when I listen to a record, which has been made perfectly — where the bass hits exactly with the foot on every beat, where there is clearly no error in making this record, it’s so clean and so perfect and done with such precision — I find that even if I like the song and I like the singer, I don’t listen to it so many times. Whereas if I have a record which feels alive and feels like it breathes, like the music shifts, the rhythm shifts a little bit, and you get the feeling that all the musicians didn’t exactly know what was going to happen from each minute to the next, each second to the next, each beat to the next, I play that record more often because it puts me in that position of not being sure exactly what is coming next, which makes the listening experience more exciting for me. A lot of marketing people, psychologists, have written about the fact that people don’t feel as attached to the possession of the object the way they used to feel about possessing LPs and people even felt about possessing CDs. Friends of mine talk about their kids, oh, they don’t care, they buy a CD and burn it for their friends, they throw it away, they download it, and a couple months later it’s off their iPod and they don’t attach to it. I just think it’s possible — this is the supposition — that the perfection that we have today, which is perfectly natural, if you do a session and you are an artist and you have a song you want to do in a certain way, and you record it, and you sing a little flat on one note, why not drop that note in? Why not make it right? If the guitar player misses a chord, why not go back or take that chord from another take or from another verse, copy it and drop it perfectly in on your ProTools so everything is just right? It’s perfectly natural. It makes absolute sense. But it can also mean that the music ends up being a little sterile and maybe it’s that fact, which is part of the propulsion of so many people out to hear live music. And I noticed the effect on live music in the ’90s when we first started having such perfect records. You’d go to so many live shows and they were perfect, too. They were so well-rehearsed and everything was absolutely so perfect. And now I go to a lot of shows and they’re not so perfect anymore. There is a lot of people doing one-off projects, and tributes to so and so, a brief short tour, jamming, two people playing together at a festival, something like that. Some kind of collision that creates surprise, something a little unexpected.

I’m going to play just a little bit of music from the old days. Because it’s kind of interesting, if we follow on with the supposition that maybe one way to look at how you make music even today is to try and avoid perfection. To try and throw into the process of making records uncertainty and error and surprise. And putting yourself in the position where perfection is not actually possible, or change, tweaking something, altering something after the recording, is not actually possible anymore. One of the artists that I produced, who I guess most of you probably would be the most familiar with, is Nick Drake. One of the things people ask me a lot is, “Oh, how did you get that string sound? That is such a great string sound.” Let’s just listen to one little track.

 
 (music: Nick Drake – “Way To Blue”)

The answer, of course, to how we got the sound is we did it all in one space, including the voice. And even a track like “River Man,” which have a guitar and more, it was like the conductor here, Nick Drake there on a stool with a vocal microphone and a guitar microphone and all the strings like you guys in the front row in one room. There was no chance to correct anything. So if it wasn’t right, you just did it again. I am sure I am telling you things you probably all have been taught this week anyway. The effect of doing things that way is not just on the performance, on the feeling of liveness in the performance, but to create a feeling of three dimensions in the sound. Because the only way you’re going to get a three-dimensional effect in the sound is by having spill between microphones. Having the lead violin coming down Nick’s microphone and the neighbouring microphone and the next microphone and the guitar microphone in different degrees. It is only by putting everybody in that same space and having a lot of microphones open. Of course, that can be a disaster. You can have a room that is not conducive, or put people in the wrong place in a room, and it can sound like shit. But once you find the right spot in a room, and you have an engineer and you learn the right microphones and the right position of the microphones, and you have all those microphones open, you get some wonderful sounds.

But the other aspect of recording like that is, of course, on performance and on getting things in a performance. Even something that isn’t jazz – I mean, jazz obviously needs to be recorded that way – but something that isn’t jazz, there are things you get in performance by doing it live that you will never get by doing it any other way. There is a track I would like to play… and this isn’t going to be quite so familiar to a lot of you, a group that was very popular back in the ’60s but is no longer that popular, the Incredible String Band, which was basically just two guys from Scotland. And there is a track, which is an interesting track to think about now talking about the ‘60s because they recorded this in 1967 as if they were speaking from now.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

Before we go in there, what role does preparation play in this?

JOE BOYD

Preparation. Well, obviously on the Nick Drake thing, our arrangements had to be written. But, to be honest, I didn’t know what was in that arrangement before we were in the studio with booked session musicians, because there was no way to hear it in those days. Nick had gone over it with the arranger and he was confident it was going to be something he liked and I just had to trust them. I had a funny moment. I have been on a couple of panels, once at South by Southwest and once at some other music event with producers, and all these producers were speaking before me about preparation, preproduction, rehearsing, restructuring the song, the producer coming in saying, “It’s a great song but we need a middle eight, we need this, we need something…” And then they get to me one time at South by Southwest, the moderator of the panel was a lawyer who represents record producers, you know, getting $10 thousand a track by so-and-so to do work with different artists. And they were all talking about all these pre-production techniques they had and how they changed the song and it got to be a hit et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And he got to me and I said, “Well, actually, I don’t think I’ve ever done any preproduction in my life.” To me, the more eccentric a song structure, the more I like it, the more surprising the result. I like to hear somebody’s song live before I work with them in the studio, and I like to hear the song maybe a few times. But to me, I get nervous if the song is too familiar to the artist or the other musicians. I like first takes. I like people doing things for the first time and trying to record it that way, because sometimes you get something you will never get when people get too good at it. Preproduction is not something I have really ever done. The guy, the moderator, couldn’t shut me up fast enough. He moved on to the next producer and never called on me again. Then I had another panel, I was sitting next to Jim Dickinson, the great producer from Memphis, and the same kind of subject came up. All these Nashville producers were talking about their pre-production techniques and everything and Dickinson said, “Oh man, if anybody asks me to produce a group, I say, ‘Sure man, as long as I don’t have to hear them play before we go in the studio.’”

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

I guess we understand that to a degree. When you talk about all these producers, if I make an educated guess here, there is 40-plus producers in this room alone, how did you define yourself as a producer? Can you recall the moment when you thought, “Oh, I am a producer now”?

JOE BOYD

It didn’t work like that, it was much, much more presumptuous. At age 17, this is in the ’50s, this is before there was a lot of books written. I have on my shelf tons of books about blues and rhythm and blues and the history of Chess Records…

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

Are any of them good?

JOE BOYD

Oh, yeah. Lots of them are good. Peter whatshisname’s book on Elvis is an unbelievable book, an incredible book. There is so much written about the history of this music now. But the ‘50s, nothing. There was no books, or almost no books. To me, I had a divided life musically. In a way, it was in three divisions because my grandmother was a classical pianist and I had studied piano with her, but I kind of dropped out and stopped playing the piano, but I loved listening to classical music. But what I really loved listening to was old 1920s and ’30s jazz and blues. My brother and I and another friend, we had big collections of like Bessie Smith, and Robert Johnson and Louis Armstrong and all this stuff. Then we loved rock & roll. We would go to dances and dance to Little Richard and the Del-Vikings and the Drifters, all these doo- wop groups and rock & roll. And all those things were completely separate. And I read this book, which was this life-changing book, called The Country Blues, which was about the 1920s and the recordings of Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Bill Broonzy and all this, and there was this guy in the book called Ralph Peer, who you may have seen on labels on Latin music and even country music. Peer Southern Music, a big music publisher. That’s Ralph Peer’s company that he started, and he was a producer for Bluebird Records, which was a country music and race music, as they called it then, division of RCA Victor. He would go throughout the South and rent a ballroom in a hotel and set up his equipment and bring in musicians off the streets and from the towns around. And I just thought that’s the coolest thing I ever heard, that’s what I want to do. But that was then and that was over, and that was the ’20s and that was years ago, 50 years before. That was some dream of the past. Some nostalgia for the past, didn’t have any reality.

The other dream I had was to play baseball, and I really loved playing baseball but I was never as good as I imagined I was. There was my senior year in school and I was still on the second string and I would get into games occasionally, but I wasn’t a starter and it was really heartbreaking and I was so jealous of all the guys in the first team. I was standing there in the outfield catching flyballs at age 17 for the first team. They were getting ready and doing practice for the next day’s game, and somebody turned on the radio in a building just near right field and played the new Fats Domino record “Walking to New Orleans.” In that moment I went, “Oh, my god! It is the same stuff. It is just like that stuff from the ’20s, only it’s now. It’s all connected. Fats Domino is from New Orleans. I remember reading that. Oh, my god! So he is like a continuity with Jelly Roll Morton.” And I never really realized that because nobody wrote about that or said that. Now, it is like obvious. In those days it was not obvious until that moment when I got it and all these things collided in my mind at one time, which was, “The world has not changed since the ‘20s. I can still be Ralph Peer.” The music today is connected to that music and being a record producer is a much cooler thing than being on the first team in baseball. And I’ll make all the guys on the first baseball team jealous when I am a record producer. So that was the moment I decided at age 17, I am a record producer. And so everything for the next five years was all aimed at fulfilling that idea that I had, so I never really doubted that it it what I was going to do from that point.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

And what was the actual trade or the craft you did not doubt, what did that craft entail at the time?

JOE BOYD

It was different to how it is now. It was listening, deciding, being responsible for the final product. But people sometimes ask me today, “Before you were a record producer, were you a musician or were you an engineer?” And I say, “Neither.” “Huh? Well, what did you do?” You listened and you tried to be an audience for the musicians and then you made sure the engineer had the same vision you had you tried to make sure the thing went down on tape in a way that was going to make it sound… I suppose, the fact that I had such a sense of history was one reason I wasn’t very successful as a record producer in a commercial way. I was always thinking about history more than I was thinking about today because I was always conscious of wanting to be able to listen to this in 50 years time. Because I listen to music from the ‘20s now in the ‘60s, and I want the same relationship to exist for records that I am making. So it’s nice that people do listen to records I made in the ’60s today probably more so than people did in the ‘60s. I wasn’t always thinking with the same commercial instincts of the other producers. But most of the producers were like me in those days, people weren’t engineers or musicians turned into producers, there were people who love music. They were like entrepreneurs, they were promoters. They were people who just said, “OK, I hear this guy, I think that should be on a record. I’m going to find a studio, find a label, find the money, go in and make the record. Tell the engineer what to do on the mix, and if necessary, start my own label or my own production company or whatever.” It was that kind of a thing.

The business shifted in the late ’70s because the business got so successful in the mid-’70s, the changes between the mid ’60s and ‘70s were unbelievable. I think when Sgt. Pepper came out and the whole world was listening to Sgt. Pepper, you had the feeling there was no niches. Everybody heard this record. And yet the sales of that record in the first 12 months of its release, I believe, was like a million units. Eight years later, Carole King, Tapestry and Neil Young, After the Gold Rush, records like that were selling eight million copies and so with the growth of the industry, the money that was flooding into these record companies in the mid-’70s was just unbelievable. People were so competitive they would give artists more and more and more control. The whole job of being a producer changed in that period because the deals, instead of going to producers, who would then sign an artist, or the label would sign the artist and hire a producer, it all changed. The artist got the deal and the artist then hired a producer as an employee. And that is why I started the label, really, in the ‘80s because I didn’t really like the idea of being an employee of artists, I liked the idea better of them being my employees. Not that I was a dictator, but it didn’t feel right, it wasn’t my idea of what a producer was. But that is pretty much what a producer is these days, he is hired by the artist, the contract is structured that way so that the artist is responsible for paying the producer. It’s a whole different job and that’s why the artist wants a producer who can facilitate them having their idea down and recorded. It’s not the producer’s vision, it’s the artist’s vision and who can help them get that. It depends what area of the music business, there are plenty of areas where the producer is more powerful, but it’s much more like that than it used to be.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

When you differentiate to that degree between a producer and an artist, how much of an art do you consider producing to be?

JOE BOYD

I don’t think producing is an art. There are some producers who write the song, do the arrangement, it is a craft to me. Rather than art.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

And how would you differentiate the craft between the art? I mean, that’s like an endless philosophical debate, but what’s your stance on it?

JOE BOYD

Craft is a knowledge of how to accomplish something in a reliable way. You go to the marketplace in Marrakesh and you watch somebody beating out these plates — these incredible, beautiful plates — and they are hammering and doing these things. Their father did it and their father before them did it and they can do it in their sleep. They make something that is absolutely beautiful, that you might hang on your wall in London, and so that is a beautiful piece of art. But he is not sitting there looking at this piece of copper thinking, “What am I inspired to do today? I want to express myself on a piece of copper.” No, he is doing something he knows very well how to do and there is a huge pleasure in that confidence and that knowledge and having that experience and doing it, but you don’t think of yourself as like, “I am an artist.” You can define these things any way you like, but I think most people would think about art as being something an individual does from an inspiration in the moment that is generated from within their spirit and their ideas and I was never that.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

Which sounds like it is almost important to take a back seat now and then and realize who might have more inspiration in that room and let them do their thing.

JOE BOYD

That’s always what I did as a producer. I always saw my role as a producer as a facilitator. To find somebody I believed in, I thought they have something, put them in a studio and ask, “What do you need?” And if they need a little bit of nudging in one direction or another, I would do that. But never say, “Oh, no, no. You can’t do that, you have to do my vision.” There are producers who make great records by doing that, but that was never my approach. I have always thought that to me the producer, in my vision — and this is the right image for this time of year, because some of you are probably too busy to be watching the Winter Olympics now — but if you’ve ever seen curling, you know that thing where they slide the stone along the ice. And there are these people that are really important in the team with brooms that go ahead of the stone, they sweep the ice to one side or the other and it helps the stone drift a little bit because it is going to a certain place and they think, “Oh no, it is going to be just a little outside the circle or not close enough to gain a point.” So you start sweeping in front of it and you change it by one or two percent, and that one or two percent can make the difference between winning that round or that point or not. I see the producer as the guy with the broom. You’re sweeping. You are steering it just a little bit that maybe makes all the difference. But you can’t actually… The stone is being propelled by the artist. They’re the ones who are sliding the stone and you are just making sure it gets right into that niche where it should be.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

Obviously, we are dealing with someone who has got a little bit more life experience than we have. Is an approach like that probably key to have a career that lasts longer than three years?

JOE BOYD

Who knows? These days the music business is so different to how it was in my day. There is very few producers today coming into the business from my point of view or from my amount of experience. Most producers are people who do know how to program a drum machine, or who know how to be an engineer, or have been an engineer, or who are a musician. That is just a fact of life, so it’s very difficult for me to say. But I do think that if I was giving advice to somebody who wanted to be a producer, and not to everybody, but certain people might respond to this idea… I’m very envious of you guys because you had Gabe Roth here, who is a kind of hero of mine who I’ve never met, but I admire what he does so much. I interviewed his former roommate because I am writing a book on world music. I can’t remember the guy’s name right off the bat, the two of them started playing together in Brooklyn and they started two bands. One was the Dap-Kings and one was Antibalas, and Antibalas is the group that plays Nigerian Afrobeat á la Fela Kuti. These two guys became obsessed with the real rhythm of American R&B and the real rhythm of Nigerian Afrobeat. This was their passion. I think to have a passion about a rhythm and to sign up to serve that rhythm is a pretty good choice of a way to go in this business. Today, Antibalas, all those guys, eventually they had the same pool of musicians, the Dap-Kings and Antibalas, and finally they got so busy they had to divide up and choose teams, and someone is going one way and some went with Antibalas. The guys who went with Antibalas, who didn’t have the Dap-Kings’ success immediately, who weren’t on Amy Winehouse records, they were struggling, they are all now the pit band on Broadway for the musical Fela, which is a huge hit on Broadway now. So they are all totally sorted. And those two guys somehow just followed that devotion to a rhythm and I think anywhere you go in the world, you will find in the culture that there is a more interesting rhythm than you’re going to find in a machine. There is a more interesting rhythm somewhere in that culture that’s actually still played by drummers and by people on the street or in the neighborhood or in a particular culture in that city. And those rhythms are the fertile ground from which so many good things can spring. Finding a great artist or great singer or a great songwriter is always great as a producer. But as a general thing, as an interesting way to look at it, is to try and find a rhythm and a rhythmic culture and somehow look for something interesting and something rich and that would be something I would say would be an interesting thing to do.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

When you say how they devoted themselves to one specific rhythm, how important do you think it is, especially at a time when absolutely almost all information is readily available, to specify and specialize?

JOE BOYD

I think generalizations or a generalist, somebody who knows a lot about a lot of different things, things can get a little bit too diluted. I think that some of the greatest advances, the really groundbreaking records, or the groundbreaking things in any field, are done by obsessives. People who are narrow-minded, people who are not open to everything, who have particular, narrow obsessions are the people who come up with the most interesting new things.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

When you look through the catalog of your favorite records, do you think there is a majority for the people where that holds true?

JOE BOYD

Sure. Oh yeah, oh yeah, I would say so. To me, even though I am frustrated by the fact I haven’t made a lot of records which are well-known for their rhythm particularly, but that was always in a way the most important thing for me. Not everybody here is so interested in world music, but one of the things that I talk about a lot in that context, WOMEX conferences and things like that, a lot of people are viewing fusions as a way of – you take a machine beat and you put something exotic over it, an instrument, a voice, a melody, something from a foreign culture, two cultures, and put them together over a beat, which is a kind of beat that comes somewhere in this mid-Atlantic world between America and England, then you put the exotic stuff over the top of it. But in fact, the most successful things, the most successful records in world music, have all been the opposite. They’ve all been pure beats from one particular culture. Buena Vista Social Club, the Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Cesária Évora or Fela. Although I deeply admire Damon Albarn and what he’s doing with Africa Express and bringing Franz Ferdinand or whoever into jam sessions with African musicians, and doing it in Liverpool and doing it in London. Taking a bunch of white rock & rollers to Bamako and sitting around jamming, in Kinshasa and things like this, getting these cross-cultural connections. I still love the story about what happened when they went to Lagos for Fela’s birthday and they went to The Shrine, which is where Fela Kuti played, and they had Baaba Maal or somebody singing with a white rock & roll drummer playing European beats with an African song over it and the crowd in the Shrine started throwing rocks. They said, “This is The Shrine, you play Afrobeat here.” And Tony Allen luckily was with the group and with the team. He was Fela’s drummer and he immediately kicked the white guy off the drum kit and said, “I better take over here.” Whatever happened for the rest of the evening was all Tony Allen on drums and all Afrobeat and the crowd loved it. But beats are important. Anyway.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

I was just lingering with the thought of whether someone should have done that in certain Damon Albarn situations in other cases maybe. Do you think it’s a lot harder to obsess that specifically now? When you think of how you started, obviously it was out of the obsession of being a fan and really just because you were not killed with the over-availability of new stimuli.

JOE BOYD

It’s certainly true, the over-availability of stuff changes the game a lot. One of my favorite stories from the early days of rock music, and I don’t know whether it’s true or not, I don’t have the clipping any more, but I remember this quote, and at the time I said I will never forget this quote. It was an interview with Keith Richards and he was talking about when he first met Mick. The two of them were these young kids, they loved blues and they shared this passio. But in those days there were very few records. It was hard to hear. At one point, they spent some time hanging out every afternoon for a month or something like that and playing and listening. They had this one EP between them, which was on the Stateside label, which was an English label that licensed R&B records from America and put them out. They had a 7” EP, which was a very English or European thing from the late ‘50s, early 60s. It was the same shape as a single but it had four tracks. On this record were two tracks by Lazy Lester on one side and two tracks by Slim Harpo on the other, and they were licensed from this label in Nashville called Excello, which was a blues label out of Nashville. They had a particular sound that was very laid back. It wasn’t aggressive blues. It wasn’t like Chicago blues. It wasn’t like Mississippi blues. It was this particular kind of way holding back on the back beat and a lot of harmonica and a lot of drawling kind of vocals. There is a certain sound that is that Excello sound. And that’s what they had to listen to. They didn’t have an iPod with 700 blues tracks; they had four. And they listened to these tracks for a long time. If you analyze the Stones’ sound, it really is a kind of South London take on Excello. They played that thing until it was so worn they couldn’t even listen to it anymore. And I think the narrowness of what was available to them helped give them a very distinctive sound. The Rolling Stones’ sound is very derivative of Excello and those four tracks, and I think if they hadn’t had that experience of being locked in a room with four tracks to listen to, the Stones may not have sounded as distinctive and as particular as they did. They might not have had the huge success. So I think it is more difficult. People have so much information today and too much information can be diluting of the intensity of peoples’ musical experience and musical taste. But an obsessive is an obsessive, and an obsessive will find a particular niche and follow it. And god bless them.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

Now, this intensity is something that probably struck me most is when I first found out about people like yourself or Ralph Peer, or generations before that, are you familiar with a phenomena called beat digging? People that go out, almost like history now, people that went to record fairs and made sure they found records that have been forgotten. Like, for example, the Incredible String Band I stumbled upon because, like, oh, it looks great. There could be some great string sounds on it. In a bargain bin, take it home and, oh, surprise. People that would just go and try and find something that has been forgotten and unearth these hidden gems. In the same way you guys, even with another two or three decades apart, had a very similar obsession of finding and unearthing things that are almost history, but still reek of an intensity that is very meaningful to someone at the height of their life now.

JOE BOYD

I guess we were obsessed with old 78s and ‘20s and ‘30s music but we always felt it was connected. At first I didn’t, and once I had that revelation that it was connected, and the connections were clear. And the best expression of this, the best explanation of this, is in Bob Dylan’s book, Chronicles. He talks about the way he fell in love with ancient songs, songs from 50 years ago, from 20, 30 years ago. This way of speaking, this way of singing, this kind of delivery that people had, and that was what formed him. There was a whole generation of people like that, Jerry Garcia, Mick Jagger, all those people who were obsessed with older recordings and then brought that energy into what they did with all their hormones at age 19. It’s a phenomenon that I’m sure keeps repeating. Vampire Weekend, they are starting to go out and look at soukous and African beats and African music and be influenced by that and I think that’s an inevitable process. Everybody’s going to keep searching for cool things and I would say some of the most successful things are the things that don’t get diluted too much.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

Where do you draw the line? When does history as a musician or as a producer become a burden and when is it something that elevates you?

JOE BOYD

I don’t know how to answer that question.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

Why should we care about music that’s been done before us?

JOE BOYD

I think the richest things always have a sense of history. I think one of the things that is interesting I think today is that people are beginning to rediscover a little sense of history. When I was young and hanging out in Greenwich Village or London or wherever with young musicians, everybody felt deeply connected to the past. “Did you hear this record by Woody Guthrie? Did you hear this record by Lead Belly? Did you hear this record by Jeannie Robertson, the Scottish folk singer? Did you hear this record by Louis Jordan? Did you hear that record by this jazz group, Charlie Mingus?” Whatever, whether it was ten years ago or five years ago or 50 years ago, everybody was conscious all the time of the past. But I think also it gets to be a very big subject, this relationships to the past. But I think there are moments in cultures where everybody wants to reject the past, where the past is kind of backward and shameful, and the thing you want is to have the most shiny new thing possible. That is a perfectly reasonable feeling to have as well, but I think eventually, the cycle comes around and people say, “Wait a minute. We need something with more depth, something with more culture or history, more rooted in something.” Because those beats and those traditions are there for a reason and to me, the cities that inspire me – I have had the fortune to travel around the lot and be in places like Salvador in Brazil and New Orleans and Havana – and those places, you have guys who are so modern. They have machines, they program beats, they make hip-hop tracks, they are totally on the edge and conscious of everything that is happening yesterday, the day before yesterday, in LA, New York, London, and they go out on the weekends with their drum and they play in a rumba in Havana, or they play in a second line. I was following a second line band parade in New Orleans, this ancient street tradition in New Orleans of people with brass bands and people dancing behind them, marching through the poor neighborhoods of New Orleans. And I was so angry. There was this SUV pulled up on the side street right past where the band was and it was this thump, thump, thump. You could hear the bass speakers pumping out this machine rhythm. It was so loud, it was almost drowning out the band and I was like, “Oh fuck!” And they turned the key off and the bass stopped and these two guys with bandanas, overalls, and a lot of gold jewelery, got out and they went around to the back of the SUV, they opened it up, they got out the trombone and the saxophone and they joined in with the band. That, to me, is a city of culture. The guys who are totally into today’s music actually know how to play street band music. You see the same thing in Salvador and you see the same thing in Havana and you see the same thing in a lot of places, but you also have a lot of cultures where that door is closed. I don’t know these places very well, but I know that in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and Accra in Ghana, there is a real hostility among young people towards tradition. Real resentment of tradition because it represents something that didn’t deliver. There is a lot of hostility between generations and between new types of music and the old type of music and they feel there has to be a divide. To me, I vote for the Brazilian model, the Cuban model, the Louisiana model where that divide doesn’t exist.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

Now, not everyone is so lucky and is in a band in Louisiana, where I heard one of the most fantastic versions of an R. Kelly song ever, because they would play traditionals right next to a modern R&B song, but all with the same band, go on marching and it just becomes one and the continuity is very obvious. Especially amongst white middle-class Europeans, the second they start being interested in other cultures, everything that they might have done before that was all right, but now it gets really difficult. Or rather boring most of the time, because they would be falling into the same traps that generations before them have been falling into as well of just having basically a Fela moment, the Shrine moment you described earlier. I mean, there is only one Tony Allen.

JOE BOYD

There is only one Tony Allen. But I think the drummer, I can’t remember his name, but the drummer from Antibalas learned a lot from Tony Allen and plays Afrobeat. Maybe he is not going to be the same as Tony Allen’s Afrobeat, but they built up a huge following among the jam band crowd in America and now they are on Broadway. Somebody is playing Afrobeat. And yeah, it has to evolve. But I think it’s more interesting if it evolves gradually. If somebody learns from Tony Allen and suddenly starts playing, and finds a new way to do something that is maybe influenced by electronic beats, or influenced by rock & roll or influenced by jazz or whatever, and takes it in a slightly different direction, but keeps that feeling there, keeps that tradition at the heart of it, again, that is an idealistic vision of how things evolve.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

We went off on a little tangent here but is there still a reason to play the Incredible String Band?

JOE BOYD

Just for fun, I think a lot of you guys probably think, “Oh god, the Incredible String Band. Who the hell are they? Are we really going to be forced to listen to The Incredible String Band?” Yes, is the answer. Because I love this track. It’s called “Back in the 1960’s” and it is written as if they were writing in 2010 about the 1960s, but it was recorded in 1967. It is a classic example of – there’s no way this record could have been made any other way than live. There’s no way it could be made with a click. And if it had been, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as interesting. Some of you may hate it, but I think you’ll like it. Here we go, this is “Way Back in the 1960’s.”

 
The Incredible String Band – “Way Back in the 1960’s”

 

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

There is a rather nice little video of the Incredible String Band that is available on DVD with loads of interludes and stuff, I could show you later maybe. You might know a lot of the footage and it gets more interesting the more mundane it gets. When you see everyday life and they go and buy a guitar, that kind of stuff, and when he talks about “young people talk slower,” it’s really interesting how refined everyone speaks. There is rarely a “you know what I am saying?” and all these kind of things, it is just proper speech. Obviously, speaking has a lot to do with listening again, because that’s how we pick it up and so on. Do you feel a different command of the language has its effects on the way we do music?

JOE BOYD

Sure. But I also think, listen, there are so many varieties of experiences with language, with music, and I think that one of the most interesting things is when somebody from outside a culture comes in. I was just reading in the paper the other day, there was a biography of Joseph Conrad, the writer, who was Polish and he grew up speaking Polish and Russian, and then he learned English and then he decided, I want to be a writer. But there is a lot more English readers than there are Polish readers, so I’m going to write in English. So he learned how to write in English and there’s no Polish accent in his writing, but yet there is a freshness, there’s a difference about his choice of words and the way he writes that is not really like other English writers at that time. It may sound silly but you could make a comparison to ABBA…

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

You have an ABBA story as well, we believe?

JOE BOYD

I have an ABBA story, but it’s too sad. I’ll see how fast I can tell this whole story. You’ve heard of the Lovin’ Spoonful? Which was a group back in the ‘60s that had a bunch of hits, “Summer in the City,” “What a Day for a Daydream.” The lead singer, John Sebastian, his wife is a woman called Laurie Sebastian and they separated at some point. She was always a very smart, interesting woman who had big ears for a lot of things and she settled in England at one point. I went over to visit her and I had just recorded Nick Drake and I brought a tape of some rough mixes of the first Nick Drake record. We had some dinner and had some wine and then I played this Nick Drake tape and she went, “Wow! I love that, that’s great.” She said it reminds her of somebody. She told the story of how she had gone on a tour of Scandinavia with the Lovin’ Spoonful and when they were in Sweden, somebody played them this record by a group called the Hep Stars called “Sunny Girl” that was a total rip-off of “Daydream.” It was just like a kind of copy of Daydream and the singer was trying to sound like John Sebastian, at least that was the way this reporter or journalist was presenting it to them. So they heard the record and she said, “I like that record, that’s nice. It is kind of similar to ‘Daydream’ but it’s cool.” He said, “Well, they are playing tonight in Stockholm.” It was a night off so she said, “Let’s go, let’s go to the gig.” They went to the gig, they went to see the Hep Stars, and the lead singer of the Hep Stars had had a skiing accident and he was on crutches with his leg in a cast. He had to hobble up to the microphone and he sang “Sunny Girl,” which he had written and she thought he was dreamy. He was beautiful, he was cute. She loved him. And she got a whole bunch of records of the Hep Stars and went and talked to him and had this whole thing about how cool this guy was. So she gave me a copy, she had an extra copy of “Sunny Girl” by the Hep Stars and she played it for me and then she gave it to me, I still have this copy. A year later, I was somehow involved in an agency at the time, I was booking Frank Zappa on a Scandinavian tour. I was in Stockholm in the town hall and there was a sound check going on for Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention. I go to a record store below there and I’m looking through the Swedish records and there I see this record and I say that’s the guy from the Hep Stars. And it was a duo record, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and Benny Andersson was the lead singer of the Hep Stars. I said that’s cool. And it was all in Swedish, but “Sunny Girl” was in English. Anyway, so I buy the record and take it home to London and listen to the record and it’s good. Really good songs, all in Swedish, kind of folky. So then another six months goes by. By this time Nick Drake is out, Fairport Convention has become the most successful thing I was involved with, and the Fairport Convention records were getting released all over Europe. And I had the publishing rights, so I was trying to do sub-publishing deals in all the European territories. They had a bit of success in Scandinavia, so I thought I need a sub-publisher in Scandinavia. And I could never get out of my head that “Sunny Girl” by Benny Andersson and I thought, “These guys can really write and they can write in English,” so I looked up the publisher and I called him up and said, “I’m coming to Stockholm. Would you be interested in sub-publishing Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, etc.?” “Maybe, I’ve heard of them, I don’t know too much.” I went to see him in Stockholm, this beautiful autumn day, and we talked and I said, “Let’s do a deal. You publish Fairport Convention in Scandinavia and I’ll publish Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus in England. They should start writing songs in English because they’re really good and I will try and get covers.” They said, “Oh, that’s kind of a nice idea. I tell you what, I’m meeting them for a drink in an hour, do you want to come with me?” So we go to this bar in the middle of Stockholm, there’s Benny and Björn, we sit around and talk and we’re getting along well. They said, “Our girlfriends are in this music hall show here, we’re going to stay and see them.” Stig Anderson, who was the publisher says, “I’m off home, my wife has dinner waiting.” So I stay with them and there was this old-fashioned Swedish music hall show with girls in top hats doing like this and highkicking with fishnet stockings and high heels. Benny, Björn and I sat and we watched the two girls, those very same girls, in this show and afterwards went over to somebody’s house, a friend of theirs. We were there till three o’clock in the morning playing American rhythm and blues records. They just loved R&B and we were talking about R&B and playing R&B and I kept saying to them, “You guys must write in English, write in English.” I got hom back to London and there were two pieces of paper are on my desk. One was a fax – or a letter, this is pre-fax. It was a letter from Stig Anderson because I had to go to Germany and a couple of other places. They were saying, “Let’s do that deal, you publish Benny and Björn and I’ll publish Sandy Denny and Richard Thomson, Nick Drake in Scandinavia.” And there was another message on my desk from Mo Ostin from Warner Brothers saying he was at the Dorchester Hotel and could he met me. So I went to a meeting with him and he offered me a job working for Warner Brothers and I ended up selling my company to Chris Blackwell at Island and never doing the deal with Stig Anderson for the publishing rights to Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. [laughter] So there you go. That’s my ABBA story.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

A little deviation on that one. You were saying about Swedish language, that is where we took the turning.

JOE BOYD

I think coming in from outside a language sometimes you have a different take. Some of those lyrics from ABBA records, if you analyse them, they are kind of silly but they work in this weird way, in a different way. Somebody who grew up in South London would never write those lyrics. Somebody who grew up in Chicago would never write those lyrics. There’s a freshness and the kind of surprise of some of those combinations of words that helps make them. The other interesting thing, talking about roots and people with tradition, it is not just people playing drums in Salvador in Brazil and Havana. Benny Andersson is an accomplished Swedish folk accordionist. He produces Swedish folk records and plays at Swedish folk festivals with polska bands, like six violins all playing polska. And he loves that stuff. And you can hear it if you listen to Swedish traditional music, you hear those melodies in ABBA. ABBA’s melodies are very rooted in Swedish culture. It is not obvious, it is not like they are overtly folky, of course. But there is something about those chords changes, about the way the melodies move. You listen to a bunch of Swedish folk music and you’ll hear echoes of all those types of melodies in ABBA. So it goes back to the question of roots. You can’t escape roots. They are always there and if you make peace with them, and you get enthusiastic about them, good things can often happen.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

I guess, this “make peace with them” can’t be overstressed at all. Obviously, we now have the possibility to, for example, to listen to the master tapes of, let’s say, Brian Wilson’s sessions and, all of a sudden, you realize, “My gosh! There is a heck of a lot klezmer in there,” which you would not realize when you heard your parents play it on the radio. Not necessarily at least, but at the same time as making peace with your roots, if you were, say, a German writer there is all this tradition and you always think, like, “My gosh, if the next sentence is not as good as a Thomas Mann novel, it is not going to be worth it. I need to burn the paper and hang myself.” When you were talking about wanting this record to be there for the next four or five decades at least, and people should be able to give it a certain timeless quality. That can be a lot of a burden as well, right?

JOE BOYD

I don’t know, I never saw it as a burden. I just saw it as a challenge. Generally, I never argued much with artists. If they wanted something, I said, “OK, let’s figure out the best way of getting that.” And I might try and talk them out of it or steer them one way or the other. The only time I put my foot down was when a guitar player would say, “Let’s put it out of phase and pan it right across from right to left.” I would say, “No, we’re not going to do that. We’re just not going to do that. Two years from now that is going to sound really lame.” I was very conscious, you couldn’t be just in the moment. You had to have a little bit of perspective where, is this going to sound really silly two years from now or five years from now or ten years from now?

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

Now, talking of moments and speaking of challenges, I don’t want to bore you with having to go over the same stories that you might have told eight million times before. But you were in the lucky position to be in certain spots at a very specific point in time. Rather than probably retelling the anecdotes, because they are really well documented, and people are strongly encouraged to go and look them up later, in the book, for example. But obviously, we hear a lot about live music, recorded music and a lot of people here would feel like, oh yeah, that is the kind of times they had with electronic versus non-electronic music. Now, you were on the fence at a different argument of electronic and non-electronic, especially after a certain Newport incident. Is there any chance you could have the Cliff Notes version of that, and probably even more importantly, the outcome and what we can learn from that?

JOE BOYD

He is talking about the night Bob Dylan went electric in Newport 1965 and I was a production manager of the Newport Folk Festival. It’s been written about a lot. I’ve got a whole chapter about it in the book. Everybody agrees that it had a big effect, that there was something about that moment that changed things. And I think that it’s definitely true that one thing to keep in mind is the word “rock” as a description of a kind of music didn’t exist then. There was pop music, there was rock & roll. “Rock” wasn’t a term. Maybe a few people used it but it wasn’t widely acknowledged as a term. And I would say that that night was the beginning of what we now call rock. Because before that, the English groups were playing what they considered pop or blues, rhythm and blues. And there was a kind of assumption behind even a group as rebellious as the Stones that they went on Top of the Pops. They sang about love, they sang about sex and girls and they pranced around the stage in a sexy way and they dressed up in a way that was designed to maybe subvert the pop music conventions. But they were always referring to pop music and they were playing pop music game. Even although Andrew Oldham would be very proud to say he was undermining the pop music game, he was making fun of it and he was exploiting it, but he was in that game, even if it was a kind of reverse image of the game. When Dylan goes out on stage wearing blue jeans and playing a kind of rhythm and blues mixed with folk, very loud, and the songs have nothing to do with the subject matter of pop music. “Maggie’s Farm,” “It Takes A Lot To Laugh It Takes A Train To Cry,” these are not pop songs, no matter how you look at them. The Beatles have talked a lot about how liberating hearing those records that Dylan made starting in 1965 was for them. And even more liberating when he came to London and gave them a joint and then gave them some acid and whatever. A lot of things changed starting from that point in terms of the subject matter, in terms of the whole stance of an artist, what is the group, what is he doing up there? Before that, it was the folk world singing about politics and about personal epiphanies, singing about something very private, singing about something very philosophical. That was the folk world. The pop world was singing “boy meets girl” in whatever form that took. And they were dressing in a certain way and presenting themselves in a certain way and playing a certain game. That night, Dylan took over in a way. He kind of captured the energy of pop and rock & roll with this aesthetic that he had been developing along with a lot of other people out in this wilderness of folk music, in which you constantly are listening to old blues and country records, you’re listening to Woody Guthrie. You’re listening to this kind of thing, and you have a whole different idea of what music is for. Music is for something else. Music is about changing society and changing your consciousness or changing the way that people relate to each other. In a way, it’s much more revolutionary even than what the Stones were doing or what the Who was doing. I think that night, it shocked the folk establishment because for them, Dylan was the new Woody Guthrie, he is the guy who was making politics popular. And all of a sudden he is writing these songs, what the hell are they about? “Mr. Tambourine Man,” what is that about? That’s not about revolution, that’s not politics, that’s not protesting the war, it’s not protesting racism. Who knows what the hell it’s about. They were shocked and they were terrified that they were losing this great momentum that he had given them in the early ’60s. It was one of those nights where you didn’t have to look back at it to know. You knew then. The generations were at war with each other. Backstage there was two sides, all the older singers on one side and the younger singers on another and there are glaring at each other and not speaking. It represented something hugely divisive, and therefore it had a fantastic energy. I was very much on the side of the young guys and loved it, loved what he was doing. But I also loved what the folk festival represented. The night before, the Saturday night concert, one of the highlights was a group of convicts from Texas, had come up to the festival to do work songs while chopping down a tree and we realized we couldn’t have a tree on stage. We were trying to figure out what are they going to chop? Because you can’t just have a log this way because four guys doing crosscutting, four positions around a circle. Pete Seeger went with their guard and the ethnomusicologist from Texas who brought them and they got a flat bed truck. They went out in the swamps in southern Rhode Island and they dug out a huge tree stump and they brought it back and put it on stage at Newport. Seeger was a hero, he was a hero of mine. And they did this incredible chopping song, just fantastic, the deepest roots of R&B and everything else contained in that moment chopping axes around a tree on stage. And Pete Seeger was the one who had organised all of that, and it’s that spirit that had fueled Dylan. He had been listening to field recordings that Alan Lomax made and his inspirations came from that. And then the next night he and Seeger are on opposite sides of a generation war. It was very dramatic anyway. Does that explain enough?

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

I guess the drama cannot be under-stressed in a way. When you look enough at footage of that festival it’s shocking to us. You mentioned the blue jeans and there is an electric guitar, which obviously are icons of our parental generation and more or less what we rebelled against. And all of a sudden you see the sheer hate, actually. We are not talking about hip-hop hating and, “Ooh, I hate you. I am hating on you.” There was serious outrage there and you thought it was going to get properly out of hand there.

JOE BOYD

Well, there was never any fear about violence but there is one film, Festival, by Murray Lerner. And then a couple of years ago a film called The Other Side of the Mirror came out. It’s the outtakes of that film about the Newport Festival, just Dylan, his performances from 1963, from 1964 and 1965. And to watch it like that, it’s fantastic. The first one he is singing a song about a miner in Minnesota and he is sitting quietly at the microphone, sitting down. Behind him are all these dignified Appalachian guys, Pete Seeger and Jean Ritchie and people and it is beautiful. Then you see the scene, I think it’s ’64, Pete Seeger comes out and introduces him as the voice of a generation. Then Pete Seeger sits down on the stage and Dylan comes out and he has got a whole different look now. He is much more confident, much more of an attitude, and he sings “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The first time he had ever sung it, I think. The camera is close-up on Dylan’s face, guitar, microphone, etc., and at the first chorus or after the first chorus or the second verse, the camera pulls back and now you see off to one side Pete Seeger sitting on stage behind him going [mimes head in hands]. What the fuck is this about? He just introduced him as the voice of a generation and he’s singing about “your boot heels wandering at midnight…” That’s not what I thought I was introducing. Then you see the ‘65 footage of Dylan with the electric guitar and all that. Anyway, yeah.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

Let’s quickly reprogram the time machine a little bit. Last night we were at the space where a historic misjudgement took place, the Roundhouse up near Chalk Farm. And we do believe you know a little bit about the venue as well.

JOE BOYD

Yeah. OK, after that summer of ‘65 working at Newport I got myself a job. I don’t know how, really, but somehow I got a job for Elektra Records opening their London office. I came to London and that lasted about a year and then I got fired. I wanted to stay in England because England was pretty great. This is 1966. It was a pretty cool time here. I had a friend called John Hopkins, who was kind of the king of the underground scene. He was the editor of the International Times and he was involved in all of these kind of revolutionary things that were going on and the concerts to raise money for an underground institution called the London Free School. The concerts to raise money for that were where Pink Floyd first started playing in London and where they first started to have light shows. So Hoppy was broke, I was broke, we needed something. So we decided to start a club. Let’s start a place that isn’t actually to raise money for the underground but to raise money for our rent.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

So you basically sold out?

JOE BOYD

Yeah. We rented an Irish dance hall in Tottenham Court Road and opened it every Friday and called it the UFO Club. Pink Floyd was the resident group for the first month or two and then Soft Machine played, Arthur Brown and all these different bands. Then, eventually, it got too big and the police got too interested and started to bust people who were in the queue waiting to come in and we started getting harassed by the News of the World. They had a big exposé about “hippie vice den” and a picture of a girl with bare breasts and they said she was 15 and this was taken at our club, etc., etc. So the Irish manager was great. He was so behind us and his attitude was, “Don’t worry about the police. I give them a case of whiskey every Christmas, it will be fine.” But after the News of the World it was like “Uh, oh.” The nickname of this paper is the “News of the Screws” because every policeman has it for his Sunday paper. The local police would be ashamed with their colleagues to be allowing this kind of thing to go on just beside them. Because we were only about half a block from the police station. So he called me up on the Sunday and he said, “I can’t let you have the club again on Friday.” We had Eric Burdon booked. This is when Eric Burdon had decided… he’d gone to San Francisco and taken acid and everything had changed. He wasn’t singing “House of the Rising Sun” anymore, he was singing all kinds of different things and wanted to play at a psychedelic venue. His agent called us up and said, “Can he play UFO?” I said, “Sure, Eric Burdon, great!” We had him booked and we didn’t have any place to play. So that week I went and negotiated with the Roundhouse, which was at the time being developed as a cultural center to bring culture to the working classes. Like theatre, that was the idea. But they never really got enough money, so it was just a big empty space. So by Friday night we had people standing outside the Irish club with a little leaflets and a map saying it’s moved, it’s not here, it’s up in Camden Town. It was a fantastic space but it was weird. That was the end of UFO, really. We only lasted two months at The Roundhouse because the overheads were bigger, we needed more staff, and the atmosphere was hostile because Camden Town was full of Irish pubs, and when they let out it was around the time our crowd was just coming. We opened at 10:30 and went until dawn, so all the skinheads in Camden Town decided this was the entertainment after the pub, was to go and beat up hippies. It got kind of out of hand. The police loved it, they wouldn’t do anything to help us. They loved watching skinheads beat up hippies. So we had to have security and I hired guys from the Black Panther movement to be our security. It all got a bit crazy. I mean, it was never as good at the Roundhouse, I have to say. The Roundhouse is a great space and I feel sorry that we didn’t use it better and I wasn’t able to make it pay. This is a lesson in what happens in the music industry. We were doing things that spring of ‘67 nobody else was doing. But then “Arnold Layne” was a hit. Pink Floyd got famous, everybody wanted to put on light shows. The commercial producers, promoters were putting on shows at Earl’s Court or whatever with psychedelic things. So if we wanted to book the same groups, we had to compete. I had the arrogance to think, “I’m not going to let these guys steal the scene away from me,” and I went to compete with them and, of course, it was crazy. But the one great moment we had at the Roundhouse, there is a balcony around the top. Already Arthur Brown, have you ever heard the Crazy World of Arthur Brown? He had one huge hit in 1967 called “Fire,” “I am the God of hellfire.” It was like an R&B kind of thing but organ, bass, drums, and he used to come on stage with a headdress that was on fire with a kind of big cloak and he was like a crazed Norse god. And he had this big voice, a big powerful bluesy voice. I just took one look at that balcony and Arthur Brown was on the week after Eric Burdon. Because Peter Pan, the play, had just been in the West End, and when Peter Pan comes on he flies. I said to somebody, my assistant or something, “Find out who flew Peter Pan because we’re going to fly Arthur Brown.” We had the first radio microphone and Arthur Brown, his band was on stage playing and everybody’s looking around, where is Arthur Brown? He usually made a big entrance with his head on fire. And he did, with his head on fire, he came swooping down from the balcony, singing, “I am the God of hellfire.” And that was our best Roundhouse moment. It was all downhill from there.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

The very same song, which got sampled in ’91, ‘92, if I’m not mistaken, by the Prodigy, who obviously took a little more than a note of Arthur Brown’s appearance and they more or less styled their hair accordingly. When that whole movement came around did you see sort of connections there?

JOE BOYD

Unfortunately, I’m going to embarrass myself here by saying I never knew that the Prodigy did that.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

Sorry, Keith [Flint]. Sorry, Liam [Howlett, members of the Prodigy]. But I’m sure it got cleared.

JOE BOYD

I never had any rights to it so it is no skin off my nose.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

Earlier I saw a few light bulbs appearing over people’s heads when you said, “Oh yeah, we had light shows.” Are you trying to say beforehand there was no light shows at events?

JOE BOYD

No. I mean, they had spotlights. But in a way the thing that happened, I think there were two things that coincided in the summer of ‘66. There was an artist who was making a film using light through refracted glass. I think he had actually made the film, sort of using this colored glass to shine onto the film. An abstract piece of film. He asked Pink Floyd, somebody recommended them to him, would you guys do the score for this film? It was like a 15-minute film or something, and they said sure, they need the money. And after some discussion, I think Syd Barrett had the idea, “Well, let’s just improvise it. You show the film, we will set up the microphones, project the film onto us and it’ll inspire us and we’ll improvise.” And it worked. So they liked the feeling of playing with all these colored lights. So then they started doing it at gigs and found somebody who had been working independently on an art project that involved heating up oil-based colors. You put between two pieces of glass and the heat of the glass will move things around. The colors move around and they would be projected by one of those projectors where you have a flat surface here and it gets projected there. So they started doing that and Soft Machine started getting together with – I’m getting senile, I can’t remember – but a very well-known artist who was playing with light and everything. So they started having him. I think actually at the same time in San Francisco I think it was… Actually, this was the one thing that I did think of in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when people started going to Ibiza and LSD came back as a kind of phenomena. I kept expecting to see the purple and green and pink paisley patterns and all this kind of thing and it never happened in the late ‘80s, and I said, “Wait a minute. I thought if you took acid that that’s what would happen. You mean it was just our bad taste? It wasn’t the LSD?”

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

It is not like late ’80s rave launched much more distinguished fashion.

JOE BOYD

Anyway, the answer is things were happening simultaneously in San Francisco and London about lights. But before ‘66, no. That was too weird. Underground artists did things with light projected on walls as a kind of installation thing, but combining it with pop music never happened until the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

There you are one second, you are getting either harassed by the police, or by people that are somehow associated with them, and the next thing you know you turn around and it’s a couple of decades later and all the most official buildings of the city – like the Barbican and God knows what festival fall – are handed to you on a silver platter.

JOE BOYD

You know, I rented the Festival Hall one year after that to put on Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention, there was no problem there. There was a lot of controversy because the Pink Floyd did a show in the Queen Elizabeth Hall and that was the first time loud rock music had ever been in that Festival Hall complex, because it was really for classical music. But there had been folk music concerts and things like that, and I never had any problem hiring the Festival Hall. If I wanted to put on a show, that was never a problem.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

It was a lot more pragmatic than, say, the ideologists in especially France and Germany at that time.

JOE BOYD

Britain has always been pretty proud of its pop music. The only real rupture between the venue and the music scene happened with a gig that I actually did book, it is true. When I had an agency. I somehow persuaded the manager of Frank Zappa to let us book his European tours and we booked him into the Albert Hall. Don Preston, his keyboard player, climbed up and started to play the Albert Hall organ.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

Which is a pretty phenomenal thing.

JOE BOYD

And as a result of that there was no rock & roll in the Albert Hall for 15 or 20 years after. They were so freaked out.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

Before we open this to the floor, because I guess there are zillions of questions, I want to take it back to the studio once more and ask about the human dynamics there and how you get the best out of people. One of the people that you worked with, Vashti Bunyan, she did a concert two, three, maybe four years ago and we traveled to see her. When we went there, it was in the middle of nowhere somewhere in England. I had a hot dog and put way too much mustard on there and dribbled the mustard on someone’s shoes. I looked up and I was just ultimately embarrassed, even though I had not seen her since that record, but you could instantly tell it is the same person and she has this very special aura about her. I thought at that second, apart from the embarrassment, “How on earth do you work that sort of aura in a recording situation?”

JOE BOYD

You just have to be as good an audience as possible. You have to give them the energy as a listener that they would get from a hall full of people, to know that you are really listening. Some people that I have worked with would joke, that I do the opposite and they would look up and see me doing the crossword puzzle and know that they had to do better to get my attention. I don’t know which one is more true, but I know that I do try to make people feel supported and let them know they are here because I love their music and they are in safe hands, it’s a safe place and a free place. And at the same time the clock is running, so let’s get going and let’s do it. It is the balance between kind of relaxed support and the intensity of the moment. One of the things that I actually think is a very interesting thing about technology, you know I’ve talked about live, these two recordings we played have been live. Obviously, I didn’t do all of my records live. There have been plenty of overdubs, plenty of vocal tracks put down after the track is down, plenty of guitar solos put down after the track is down. But I think in that fact there is a really interesting problem for ProTools and for the modern technology, because when the vocals that I have done, and some of the best vocals which have been overdubbed have been overdubbed on 8- or 16-track equipment where seven or 15 tracks were already full. So you’re putting a vocal overdub on one track. If you think about that for a minute, you realise that causes some problems, it causes some issues. You do a great take, or pretty good. You do a pretty good take, that’s the trickiest one. What do you do now? Do you erase it and do another one? Or do you settle for that? That is a really interesting moment in recording. And to me, having the option of ProTools, limitless, “That was really nice, let’s try it again and in that second verse just try to do a little more of this. That was good. We’ll use that second verse and then we can do another one.” You end up with 15 or 20 vocal takes and then you spend a day piecing them together, a word here, a phrase there, a verse there. And I’ve done that with 24-track recording, five vocal tracks or something like that. And it’s fun. But I would suggest that, in fact, it’s a slippery slope. You lose the intensity. You lose the necessity to get it right. When you only have one track, and you know you’ve gotta get it, and the singer knows it and you know it, it adds something that gives that edge to the vocal. You wouldn’t get it if you had all these tracks. No matter how great your conversation is with the singer before the take, no matter how terrific you are as a personality to make them feel loved and to make them feel in the moment or whatever, the knowledge that if they don’t get it just perfect this time, that you can do it again and again and again and again and never lose any of them. I just love thinking back about those moments where we were on that edge of like, “Ooh, that was really good,” and as a producer that was the most important thing. That was in a way the most important moment for a producer in the session. “Yeah, that’s it, we’ll keep that.” Or, “No, I know you can do it better. Go for it, we will erase this and do a better one.” And they are singing knowing that every line that goes by they are erasing that great one they just did.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

We opened Pandora’s box. We have these limitless possibilities now. So what do you suggest, make everyone feel welcome and have a bunch of big guys knocking on the door every ten minutes?

JOE BOYD

I have no experience, I don’t know. Pandora’s box is not necessarily open, The White Stripes did their records up the street at Toerag and Toerag doesn’t have ProTools, I don’t believe. They just have a 16-track. There are people who still contrive to do things that way. I don’t know much about what you do in these situations because I had never done it. I have never used ProTools. I’ve never used a drum machine. I am kind of innocent in the modern world.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

Are there any questions to an experienced, innocent person?

AUDIENCE MEMBER

Some of us here are comfortable in a live music situation and are trained that way, but the vast majority of us, I think I’m correct, do everything ourselves as far as making music goes. In that situation, and bearing in mind what you said about the way it is now, you could always keep doing it and doing it until you get it right, there is no pressure to be at your best. Obviously, a lot of us can’t afford to get a room and hire Tony Allen. We have to do it ourselves. How do we preserve that authenticity, if that is the word?

JOE BOYD

It’s a really hard question, I don’t really know the answer. I said at the very beginning this is a supposition. We’re going to talk about this as if it is the truth, but it isn’t. The truth is there’s a million different ways of doing things and if you are a one-person music operation – producing, engineering, playing guitar, singing, programming the drums yourself – there have been some great records made that way. I just like opening up the possibility in people’s minds. I don’t have to do that, you know that, plenty of people have done that, there’s a million different ways of doing things. I think it’s sometimes interesting to think about the qualities that can be given to a recording by doing it in a slightly different way, and I know that a lot of it is to do with money. The technology is very democratic. It opens up possibilities for people. And of course my favorite quote about technology, in the early days of technology, 1980 I think it was, ’80, ’81, Trevor Horn, he really was a pioneer of using modern technology in popular recording. He had the big hit with Buggles, “Video Killed The Radio Star.” And he had a big hit as a producer, maybe it was Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and the reporter from either Melody Maker or NME interviewed him and said, “Don’t you worry about the possible effect on music of all these gadgets? What’s going to happen?” And Trevor Horn said – I love this quote – he said, “Quite the contrary. I’m not worried at all. It’s going to liberate music from the tyranny of technique.” Which is either wonderful or awful depending on how you look at it.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

Everyone who ever tried to cable something, or had a hard-drive failure, might probably disagree, but that’s a different story. When you talk about these one-man musical operations, some of your best-known work actually, might be Nick Drake. And, I guess, a part of the romantic notion is that you hear one man there and one man’s vision of what he sounds like. The people in this room would go, “Hang on! There was an engineer a producer or loads of other people involved.” How do you mold it in a way that in the end you have got this one person heading this?

JOE BOYD

A lot of people don’t think that way. a lot of people disagree violently. I regularly get e-mails from people saying, “When are you going to put out the version of Five Leaves Left or Bryter Layter with just Nick and guitar?” There are people who feel that Pink Moon is the very essence of Nick Drake and that is just voice and guitar. And that the rest was me as a producer overdoing it and putting on too much arrangement, too much production, too much this or that. The truth is that Nick was the one, when he first played, the only times he was really comfortable when he played in Cambridge were when he played with a string quartet, with Robert Kirby doing the arrangements. He loved playing with strings. He loved playing with other musicians. But I think he did have a reaction against Bryter LayterJohn Cale was I think a little bit more than he was bargaining for, John Cale was such as personality. And he couldn’t deny that John did a great job on “Northern Sky” and “Fly.” But I think for Nick, he listened to Bryter Layter and he thought maybe there wasn’t enough of him, so Pink Moon was his reaction against that. But it was a reaction against his own choices, all the arrangements that he put on. So I think THAT a lot of people perceive those first two albums as not being just one man, of being too many personalities, too many textures, too much, and that Pink Moon is the only real record that actually achieves what you’re talking about. I love all three records. I think they’re all great records and the songs are great, but I wouldn’t have said that I was trying to make sure that the arrangements we did on the first two were things that Nick was happy with. But in a way, the reason we were working together was because we had talked at the very beginning and I said this is the way I hear it and he said, I agree.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

How do you come to, I guess, it has increased a lot with internet technology as well. How do you deal with people that are trying to tell you what your real intention was when you did something?

JOE BOYD

I am delighted that people care so much to argue with me. I get insults in chat rooms and things like that. We are re-issuing a bunch of Incredible String Band records and there is some Incredible String Band chat room that is just violent because I’m not putting in outtakes and alternative versions of everything. Because I like the CD, it was conceived in a certain way, and me and the group together created it and we all mixed it together. Outtakes, demos, alternative versions, that’s all stuff we deliberately left off at the time. The CD plays through. Maybe we could put it on a separate disk, but then that’s expensive. This is no longer the time for bonus discs and multi-foldout packages. The business has shrunk and there’s not enough sales to justify that kind of thing. I just argue with people, it’s OK. I don’t mind. I’m happy that they are so angry. It means that they care a lot about the Incredible String Band.

AUDIENCE MEMBER

Hi. So earlier you were talking about you never used a drum machine and about the importance of finding a beat played in a certain traditional way. In certain types of electronic music there is also this kind of feeling that the analog electronic instruments have a certain feeling that is better than digital MIDI stuff.

JOE BOYD

You mean old-fashioned drum machines with little samples on tape loops and things like that?

AUDIENCE MEMBER

Yeah. My question is, are we constantly losing something?

JOE BOYD

For me, I’m almost hesitant to say it in this company but it is true. I listen a lot to music. I listen to music all day long. And when I hear a machine rhythm, part of my brain disengages a little bit. I don’t connect to it in quite the same way. But one of my favorite percussionists in the world is a guy called Domenico, who is a Brazilian guy who plays with Moreno Veloso and Alexandre Kassin, this trio which each backs each other on their own solo records. And Domenico is a percussionist and he has one of those old-fashioned drum machines with like nine or 12 buttons, and each one he can change the program, the samples and I think it is an analog sampler. He plays it like a bongo. There is no sequencing. He just plays that live and he can do one-drop reggae, he can do samba, he can do anything. It moves and it breathes. And to me a rhythm, you don’t want the drummer to be all over the place but of the whole group. The drummer, or the percussionist is moving with the feeling of the music or anticipates a little bit. And I know there are programs that can do that, but it is not the same as doing it with musicians looking at each other in a studio. The intensity picks up because the vocalist did something surprising and the drummer is a little bit faster ahead of the beat suddenly and then falls back a little bit. It was interesting, I was driving and listening to an oldies station, driving around California in a rental car. They played one of the tracks from Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees track, which is such, that’s the fountain head of disco, those recordings. It’s Bernard Purdie on drums and I don’t think there was a click, but it’s metronomic. He is playing exactly the same part every measure, one measure after another, exactly the same. But you listen to the foot and you listen to the snare and every time it’s just a little bit different. And there is something about that fact that makes it exciting to me. That’s just my feeling about it. I’m sure the people that have grown up listening to music in a different way probably have different feelings about it. It’s just the way I listen.

AUDIENCE MEMBER

So probably, when everything can go wrong and it doesn’t, makes it more exciting?

JOE BOYD

Yeah, and also just the feeling that the rhythm is breathing a little bit. But I also have a confession – there was one time, I guess it was in the ‘80s, there was an event somewhere where Charlie Gillett and Andy Kershaw were the DJs. Both these guys are very well-known on British radio playing a lot of world music, a lot of reggae, a lot of Latin stuff. I took this girl to this dance and we danced, but every track was like a soca track, then a reggae track and a soukous track and an R&B track and everything. Eventually, she said, “Hey, I’m exhausted. Let’s go to Woodies.” Woodies was a great dance club in West London and she dragged me over there and from the minute we walked in the door, for the next hour-and-a-half we were in 118 BPM. Never shifted. And at first I was kind of [makes an unhappy face], you know. But in fact it was much easier to dance to. It was kind of nice and I said, “OK, I get it,” and it was enjoyable. But for me as a listener, to just listen, it’s more interesting to me when you feel that human aspect of rhythm. That’s all.

TORSTEN SCHMIDT

I guess there will be a couple of announcements after we have maybe a third and final piece of music. But first of all, please stay in here for the announcements because they will change the rest of your day. And maybe you want to pick a track?

JOE BOYD

Do I? There’s a nice track you guys might like. You all know “Arnold Layne”? Let’s play something you don’t know. This is a track, which I think if I remember correctly, this is a good example. This is on 8-track where we had, I think, the guitar solo is part overdubbed and part live and the vocal, I believe, is all one overdub but we only had one track to do it. The rest of the track is all live and the room, by the way, all of the three records played today, the room is the same room, a place called Sound Techniques, which is no longer there. It is housing now, flats, but it was a fantastic room and the room had three different heights. In the middle, you had a very high part and on that side the ceiling was sort of half that height and over there was a much lower place, so you could move things around and try and get different microphones, different positions. The engineer really knew the room, so he pretty much knew when you started, “OK, that goes over there under that level of ceiling.” But you can feel, I think, even on this track – which is electric guitars, bass drums – you can feel a room, I think. Maybe. Maybe I’m just imagining it. But anyway, it’s called “Autopsy.”

 
 

On a different note


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